Saturday, September 26, 2009

Get your sundays supplement

Just thought I'd give a shout-out to the brilliant podcast Sundays Supplement which I am currently working my way through. I listen to one episode each morning, while taking the train to work (I am currently working on a project in Malmö, Sweden).

You can find the podcasts here

It's hosted by comedians Simon Dunn and Iszi Lawrence.

If you like British humor, and want to find out what British newspaper you should have bought last Sunday, it's definitely worth checking out this podcast.

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Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The 120th Skeptics' Circle

Welcome to the 120th edition of the Skeptics' Circle, a blog carnival of the best (apolitical) skeptical writing in the blogsphere.

The Skeptics' Circle was first started by St. Nate back in February 2005, and is currently run by Orac, of Respectful Insolence. As you might have figured out, I am the host of this edition, where we have, as always, a quite good crop of skeptical related posts.

Before starting on those though, I thought I'd dwell a little on the first edition of the carnival. When preparing for this edition, I couldn't help wonder how much the skeptic blogsphere had changed since February 2005, which in internet time must be close to a century ago. So, I went back to the original carnival and looked at the contributors then. Apart from St. Nate, who was the host, there were 11 blogs involved in the first edition. Of these, 4 has moved to ScienceBlogs, 2 has closed, 1 has closed and reopened in a different location, 3 are inactive, while one is still going strong in the original location.

In other words, half of the original blogs are either closed or inactive.

This shows to me, the importance of getting new, strong, skeptical voices involved in the blogsphere all the time, be it people involved in fighting creationism/intelligent design, global warming denial, anti-vaccinationists, or some other type of pseudo- or anti-science. We need them all. So, if you come across new skeptical bloggers (or even ancient unknown ones), make sure to support their work, either by leaving comments, or by linking to their posts, and encourage them to participate in the Skeptics' Circle, either as contributors, or as hosts.

Now, enough preaching for the choir, let's get on to the contributions.

There are two types of contributions this time. One is skeptical posts, as we've known them from the first edition, the second is contributions that are reflecting on the skeptic movement in one way or another. The first two contributions are definitely of the latter type.

Greta Christina has written two posts about sex and race in the atheist/skeptical movements, or as she says "why these movements are so predominantly white and
male, what we can do about it... and why we should care."

The first of these two is Getting It Right Early: Why Atheists Need to Act Now on Gender and Race, and the second is Race, Gender, and Atheism, Part 2: What We Need To Do -- And Why

If you are a regular reader of my blog, I think you can guess that I stand in agreement with Greta Christina, and think this is very important for skepticism to look into these issues. Only by confronting our biases can we address them, and become more inclusive.

The second contributor is Greg Fish, who writes about a deadly serious subject - the scientific basis of evidence used in court: if it’s good in enough in court…. Recently, it was shown that it's possible to fake DNA evidence, so this subject is as important as ever.

Ever since the first edition, creationists have been the target of many contributions, and Runolfr takes them on in this edition: Creationist Cut-and-Paste

Another favorite target are homeopaths, one of which Michael Meadon takes on in Fun with a local homeopath.

Given the court setbacks that the creationists have encountered, I'd have to say that homeopaths are probably a greater danger to society than creationists, but I certainly enjoyed both take-downs.

Rogue Medic also addresses alternative "medicine", in this case in the form of acupuncture, taking offset in a comment left by an altie in an earlier blogpost of his. Eureka - Conventional Treatment Plus Placebo Beats Conventional Treatment Alone - comment from RavenBlack

Over at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes, HJ tells the story of the way a family feels they were treated by the Ghost Hunters: "We're TAPS. We're here to help."

Another reflective post on skepticism, this time by Akusai over at Action Skeptics - he describes it as "Skepticism 101", and it is indeed a good introduction to skepticism. A Deeper Level of Criticism

cubiksrube explains Cargo cults

Bronze Dog has two, unrelated, submissions to this circle - the first one, What Makes Me Angry and Why, explains the anger that many of us skeptics feel when confronted with pseudo-/anti-science, while the other, Creationists and The Boy Who Cried 'Wolf!' is aimed at creationists who wants to be honest (do they exist?).

Chris Hallquist has submitted a book review on a food book which reveals the anti-science slant of the book: In Defense of Food Isn’t About Nutrition (a review)

And now for something I believe is a first. The next contributor is Dr. Flegg who has written about homeopathic practitioners who are moving into Africa in False profits over at ABC's unleashed. As far as I am aware, this is the first time a blogpost connected to the site of a major news channel has been part of the circle.

The next contributor submitted no less than three posts for this edition. Andrew Bernardin has submitted Another Myth on Aging Busted, The Questionable Human Propensity for Mental Illness, and Shameful Research on Shame. They are all fairly short and to the point, and while they are definitely worth reading, I must admit that I'd have loved if especially the last one had been longer and fleshed out a bit.

Over at Blue Genes, guest blogger Ben Vincent has written on AIDS denialism: When Pseudoscience Kills – Trust, Denialism, and Peter Duesberg.

I know that I shouldn't be surprised about where woo turns up, and I have heard about pet woo in the past, but even so, I can't help get surprised when I read about CAM in veterinarian medicine, which is exactly what SkeptVet wrote about in Woo U. — CAVM as Continuing Education for Veterinarians

The Skeptical Teacher has A Challenge to Skeptics: Pithy, Non-Offensive Sound Bytes in Response to Creationism?. He also informs us that Edmund (Pseudo)Scientific Sells “Ghost Detectors” & Other Woo and gives us Three Reasons Why the Large Hadron Collider Will NOT Destroy the Earth.

On Brow submitted a post which discuss the attempts by a philosopher to use scientific jargon and results to support a particular argument for the existence of God (Aquinas' Fifth Way). Scientific jargon does not support the Fifth Way.

If you've reached this far in the post, I guess Elyse was wrong when she wrote The End is Here!. No, not really - it's a post on the latest "end of the world" claim, which said that the world would end (or rather, the rapture would happen) on September 21st. The observant reader would note that this deadline has passed, with no notable rapture-related events occurring.

The final submissions are by Podblack Cat who not only wrote about Dragon*Con 2009 in Memorable Dragon*Con 2009, but which also posted three videos about the Skeptic track there - day one, day two, and day three.

The next edition of the Skeptics' Circle will be hosted at the Mad Skeptic on October 8th. Submissions can be sent to - if you have something you think will fit the circle, or if you come across something which you think might fit, please make sure to send them in.

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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bad pun, but interesting article

Normally, there is nothing that turns me away from an article faster than a pun in the headline, but for once, curiosity got the better of me when I came across this Wired article.

Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings

Neuroscientist Craig Bennett purchased a whole Atlantic salmon, took it to a lab at Dartmouth, and put it into an fMRI machine used to study the brain. The beautiful fish was to be the lab’s test object as they worked out some new methods.

So, as the fish sat in the scanner, they showed it “a series of photographs depicting human individuals in social situations.” To maintain the rigor of the protocol (and perhaps because it was hilarious), the salmon, just like a human test subject, “was asked to determine what emotion the individual in the photo must have been experiencing.”

The salmon, as Bennett’s poster on the test dryly notes, “was not alive at the time of scanning.”

If that were all that had occurred, the salmon scanning would simply live on in Dartmouth lore as a “crowning achievement in terms of ridiculous objects to scan.” But the fish had a surprise in store. When they got around to analyzing the voxel (think: 3-D or “volumetric” pixel) data, the voxels representing the area where the salmon’s tiny brain sat showed evidence of activity. In the fMRI scan, it looked like the dead salmon was actually thinking about the pictures it had been shown.

The article is about the perils of false positives when using fMRI machines, and raises the question whether we can trust the results from such scanning. This question is hard to answer, but the answer is probably "it depends". The trustworthiness of such results depends on the rigorousness of the statistical methods used.

One things this experiment also highlights, which I believe strongly in, is that one should not just test for whether things works when you expect it to work, but also that it fails to work when it's expected to not work. This is something I preach when making IT systems, and it is something which everyone who do any type of tests or measurements should keep in mind.

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Sunday, September 20, 2009

Call for submissions

On Thursday, this blog is hosting the 120th edition of the Skeptics' Circle. While I have received some entries for the carnival, I'd love to get a lot more.

The Skeptics' Circle is an apolitical blog carnival aims at presenting the best posts of skeptical blogging. For more on this, see the carnival guidelines.

If you have a post which you think would suit the carnival, please send an email to containing the link, and a brief description. Please include the words "skeptics' circle" in the subject line. Please note that I need these emails by Wednesday.
I'll acknowledge all emails with submissions, so if you have sent me a link, and I haven't acknowledged it within 24 hours, please send it again.

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Saturday, September 19, 2009

Help grrlscientist get to the Antarctic

As most of my readers are probably aware of, science blogger Grrlscientist has entered in a competition to get sent to the Antarctic. She is currently in third place, with less than two days left, and she really needs your votes. Even if you have already voted on someone else, you're allowed to switch vote to her instead.

Grrlscientist has written a little more details here. Read it, follow the links to the voting, register, and vote.


Sunday, September 13, 2009

R.I.P. Norman Borlaug

I just saw the news that Norman Borlaug has died, 95 years old. Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on making better crops, allowing countries such as Mexico, Pakistan and India to become self-supplying in corn.

LA Times has an obit which describes his work, and the effect it had.

In the early 1960s, India and Pakistan were confronting famine and CIMMYT sent Borlaug to intervene. He planted demonstration plots of the new dwarf variety, but was unable to convince the state-owned seed companies to adopt them.

By 1965, however, famine in the region was so bad that the governments acquiesced. Borlaug organized a shipment of 35 truckloads of dwarf wheat seeds. Because of customs problems, the seeds couldn't be shipped from Mexico in time for planting, so he sent them to a port in Los Angeles.

U.S. customs officials held them up at the border before finally permitting them to cross. Then National Guard troops detoured them from Los Angeles because of the Watts riots. Finally, the $100,000 check drawn on the Pakistani ministry bounced because of three misspelled words on its face.

Ultimately, the cargo ship set sail for Karachi and Bombay and Borlaug went to bed relieved, only to wake the next morning to word that India and Pakistan had gone to war.

Because of the delays, the team had no time for germination studies and planting was started immediately, often in sight of artillery flashes. "We did a lot of praying," he later recalled.

Despite the problems, the new crop was 98% bigger than the previous year's and the Asian subcontinent was placed on a new path. India ordered 18,000 tons of seed from Mexico and the harvest was so big that there was a shortage of labor to harvest it, too few bullock carts to haul it to the threshing floor, and an insufficiency of jute bags, trucks, rail cars and storage facilities.

By 1968, Pakistan was self-sufficient in food production. India joined it in 1974.

It is probably impossible to overstate his importance to the world - it's estimated that his work has saved over a billion people from starvation. He was a great man, whose work still has an impact on the lives of most of us today.

NY Times also has an obit of him which is well worth reading.

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Saturday, September 12, 2009

Bad science and the death row

I know that this article is nine days old, but I thought it worth blogging about nevertheless.

Two Texans sent to death row by bad science

Two Texans convicted of committing murder by setting fires were convicted because of faulty investigations. This conclusion was reached by a study conducted by the Texas Forensic Science Commission. They retained Dr. Craig L. Beyler of Maryland to conduct the study, and reported their findings on August 25. The results corroborated those of another study conducted in 2006, by the Innocence Project.

In 1987, Ernest Willis was convicted of setting a fire which killed two women, and sent to death row. In 2004, a new district attorney suspected problems with the original investigation and ordered a new one, which resulted in Willis being freed.

In 1992, Cameron Todd Willingham was convicted of setting a fire which killed his 2 year old daughter and 1 year twins. He was executed in 2004. Willingham's prosecutor, John Henry Jackson, admits that some bad science was used in his case, but believes he was guilty, because of his jail house confession and because his feet weren't burned.

I am against the death penalty because I have the fundamental stance that it's not the role of society to kill, except in self-defense (and I don't believe that murdering someone who is locked away can in any way be considered self-defense). Even if I didn't have this viewpoint, I'd still be against the death penalty for the reason demonstrated here.

I don't know if Willingham was guilty or not, but at least part of the evidence used to convict him was based on bad science. This means that he didn't have due process when found guilty. Unlike Willis he won't have a chance to be freed though, as he has already been murdered by the State of Texas. It can be debated whether locking people up for years can be undone, but at least something can be done to undo the injustice - the same cannot be said about someone executed.

Hopefully this story will lead the State of Texas (the US state with the most executions, currently run by the governor with the most executions under his watch) to re-consider the death penalty, or at the very least, to go through the evidence used to convict people currently sitting on death row (or even better, commission the Innocence Project to do so).

Edit: The New Yorker also has an article on this story: Trial by Fire

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Friday, September 11, 2009

119th Skeptics' Circle is up

The 119th Skeptics' Circle is up over at Cubik's Rube - it's way more creative than next edition of it will be. How am I amble to say that? Easy, I am the host of the next edition, which will be up on September the 24th.

Please send any submissions you have to me - - with the words "skeptics' circle" somewhere in the title. I should have them by the 23rd for them to be included in the carnival.

Note: last time I hosted the Skeptics' Circle there were a couple of emails that didn't reach me. I will acknowledge mails, by sending a reply, when I see them, so if you haven't gotten a reply from me within a couple of days, please send the mail to me again.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

Nobel Prize winner Aage Bohr has died

The Danish press report that the Danish Nobel Prize winner Aage Bohr died two days ago, 87 years old. He was born in 1922 as the son of Niels Bohr, one of the greatest physicists ever to exist, and even though this obviously to some degree put him in the shadow of his father, he did significant contributions to the field as well.

Associated Press story: Denmark's Nobel prize winner Aage Bohr dies at 87

The Nobel Prize presentation of Aage Bohr's work

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Saturday, September 05, 2009

How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?

This is a question that many people, economists included, have been asking themselves. Now, they can get the answer by reading Paul Krugman's long article on the very subject in the NY Times Magazine

>How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?

Readers of this blog are probably aware that I am a big fan of Paul Krugman, who I have found to not only be right more often than not, but to also be able to explain complex economical ideas in an accessible way - this article is no exception.

This article is well worth the read, even if you have little interest in the subject of economics (though given the times, I find it hard to believe that someone could be uninterested in that subject)

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Friday, September 04, 2009

Ancient axes found in Europe

Nature News has an article on an interesting discovery: Europe's oldest axes discovered

Hand axes from southern Spain have been dated to nearly a million years old, suggesting that advanced Stone Age tools were present in Europe far earlier than was previously believed.

Acheulian axes, which date to at least 1.5 million years ago, have been found in Africa, and similar tools at least 700,000 years old have been found in Israel and China. But in Europe, sophisticated tool-making was thought to stretch back only around 500,000 years.

As the article goes on to explain, the axes found in two sites in Europe have been dated to be between at least 760,000 and 900,000 years old. Quite a bit older than previous dated axes in Europe.

This is obviously very interesting news, since it demonstrates that the history of hominid migration is a lot more complicated than was assumed just a few years ago.

The Nature News article is based upon on a Nature article which is unfortunately behind a paywall here

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Four books per week and other goals

When I was younger, I used to be an avid reader, in periods reading on average a book per day (or even more). Yet after I started spending time on the internet, and especially since I got broadband, the number of books I've read have gone down drastically.

This has annoyed me for a while, and I've decided that I would try to do something about it.

Instead of just trying to read more, I've decided to make some reading goals for the rest of the year. They are:

1) Read four books a week. Given the fact that I might be more busy some weeks than others, I've decided that this number should be a four week average, by which I mean that at any time, I should be able to count the number of books read in the last four weeks, and find at least 16 titles.

2) Read at least one work-related book per fortnight. They tend to take me longer than other books, so I give myself 14 days for reading them. The general principle is though, that I should be reading a work-related book at all times (I tend to read several books in parallel)

3) Read at least one non-fiction book per week (including the work-related book). Not a hard goal, when combined with goal 2.

4) No more than one re-read is allowed per week. Like many other avid readers, I have a tendency to return to books. While this is enjoyable, I consider it cheating in this context.

I won't be making posts on how well I am managing every week, but I will certainly write something about it in the future.

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