06/26/14

The Death of Handwriting?


I almost cried in pleasure when I watched this video; the handwriting is so beautiful. Apparently some viewers have, as Jesus Diaz writes. On Gizmodo he says that it’s:

…a video that caused many to discover autonomous sensory meridian response, a perceptual phenomenon that gives a pleasing tingling sensation. Some said they got it watching people writing. Well, put your headphones on, because this is the mother of all calligraphy ASMR videos.

Okay, maybe it is for me because I was raised with handwriting and still delight in it. Penmanship was taught in school at least for a few years when I was there. In fact, I was in Grade 9 penmanship class when the news of President Kennedy’s assassination was broadcast over the school’s PA system. It’s one reason I can still recall taking penmanship, although I think it was the last year of it for me.

Penmanship taught more than just basic cursive: it skirted the boundaries of calligraphy, trying to teach resistant and recalcitrant students how to craft beauty out of our splotchy letters scratched from ink with clumsy fingers. Control, frugality, grace; things adolescents seldom have in quantity. But somehow, some of it stuck, and even though I lack the grace of the calligrapher in the video, I can still thrill in making those swoops, the lines, to hear the scrape of the nib on the paper.

True, I fail in great part because my gel-point and ballpoint pens haven’t the aesthetic pleasantry of a real ink-and-nib pen.

Diaz also informs us:

It’s a demonstration of a fountain pen—a Namiki Falcon customized by nibmeister John Mottishaw—with crystal clear video and sound, writing with various inks (if you’re curious: Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo, Iroshizuku Yama Budo, Noodler’s Black, Noodler’s Apache Sunset) on Bristol board and Leuchtturm1917 dot grid notebook paper.

I don’t know about you, but even the sight of a well-crafted fountain pen makes my heart beat a little faster. And paper? I’ve been known to loiter in art and stationary shops, fondling the sheets in notebooks, searching for that perfect feel, the ultimate sensation of paper on fingertips that through some osmotic process will encourage me to pick up a pen and dip it in the inkwell.*

Details aside, I find the act of writing itself fulfilling – and watching a master calligrapher at his art even more so, like watching a ballet or listening to a symphony being performed live. And it reminds me that in handwriting there is an enormous cultural heritage we should never lose – can never lose without losing something of ourselves.

But if some muddle-headed educators and some dizzy-wth-digital trustees have their way, our whole culture may suffer from enforced dysgraphia – which Wikipedia tell us is a

…deficiency in the ability to write, primarily in terms of handwriting, but also in terms of coherence.

Call me old-fashioned, but I think that the death of handwriting would be to culture what the death of bees will be to agriculture.
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06/19/14

The Food Babe and other nonsense


Food BabeShe’s been called the “Jenny McCarthy of food.” That’s not a compliment and should warn anyone with half a brain to beware of her. She’s a New Age wingnut helping turn the public from science to superstition.

She’s also been described as the “latest quack making a name for herself on the Internet by peddling pseudoscience” and a “meme terrorist.”

Meet “Food babe” Vani Hari. The latest darling of an increasingly lame and ill-educated national media that focuses on spectacle and controversy. She’s an attention-seeker who knows how to work the media and get coverage and ratchet herself to celebrity status through cunningly techniques.

Forbes magazine writer, Trevor Butterworth noted that her methods never get the headlines, only her allegations, and rebuttals and corrections often get ignored:

Unfortunately, this kind of clarification, where a blogger takes something commonplace and gives it a nefarious social media friendly twist to advance an agenda, did not make the Financial Times, Business Insider, USA Today, NBC News, and undoubtedly many more news stories that uncritically reported the Food Babe’s victory.

Cancer surgeon David Gorski wrote,

…her strategy is very transparent, but unfortunately it’s also very effective: Name a bunch of chemicals and count on the chemical illiteracy of your audience to result in fear at hearing their very names. However, if you have any background in chemistry, much of what Hari is doing is almost painfully transparent, a veritable insult to one’s intelligence and training.

The Independent Women’s Forum says of Hari:

The Food Babe has one clear mission: to scare moms so bad that they stop buying all that convenient and reasonably priced food they’ve grown to love and which makes their lives a little easier. Because progress is your enemy, ladies!
She’s not asking much…just that you do your best to act more like her: eat only food produced by raw, whole ingredients that you cook yourself. Oh, but wait, it can’t be just any whole ingredients; they have to be organic and non-GMO. The evidence she provides to her readers that this strategy will lead to a healthier life? Exactly nothing.

The Neurologica Blog says:

The Foodbabe… wants to replace careful analysis and evidence with, “Yuk, that sounds weird.” She feels this is a superior process to that used by world organizations that go through the bother of having experts review scientific evidence.

I first learned about Hari from Facebook posts warning about “dangerous” and “secret” ingredients in beer. Like fish bladders and antifreeze.

Woah, I said to myself. This ain’t right. These aren’t dangerous chemicals.

I was a homebrew beer maker for a decade, and still make my own wine. Isinglass – made from fish bladders – has been used to clarify both for almost three centuries. Isinglass is a colourless, tasteless collagen – like gelatine – made from fish swim bladders. It is a flocculate, or fining agent, used at the end of the fermentation process to cause solids like yeast in the beer to settle on the bottle where they can be more easily removed removed, and allow the clear beer to be bottled. It’s approved for this use in dozens of countries. I used it myself many times over the last three decades.

It’s not harmful – centuries of use have shown that – and it’s no less a “natural” animal product than gelatin, since they are both made from collagen, or animal connecting tissue. Very little isinglass remains in the beer after its use. Vegans may object (I object to gelatin in yogurt since I don’t eat meat), but anyone who eats fish or meat won’t. Isinglass is also used to help wounds heal.

As the Smithsonian describes the process:

Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.

However, it is predominantly used by small and craft breweries making cask beers, not by the big companies which filter and pasteurize their high-volume beers (leading to the ubiquitous “fermented cardboard” flavour of most commercial beers). As Wikipedia tells us:

Non-cask beers that are destined for kegs, cans or bottles are often pasteurized and filtered. The yeast in these beers tends to settle to the bottom of the storage tank naturally, so the sediment from these beers can often be filtered without using isinglass. However, some breweries still use isinglass finings for non-cask beers, especially when attempting to repair bad batches.

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06/6/14

Talking to water, yelling at rice


Hidden MessagesDr. Masaru Emoto thinks you can hurt water’s feelings by shouting at it. No, really. Stop laughing. He’s written a bestselling book about it – The Hidden Messages in Water – and he’s convinced a whole lot of people that he’s right. But of course, the sheer numbers of believers doesn’t mean he is.

Dr. Emoto has a degree in “alternative medicine”* from the Open University of Mumbai. According to CSICOP, “the only requirement for this degree are one year of study and completion of one research project.” Other sites call it a “diploma mill.” Well, that’s at least a year’s more education than most of the people selling “alternative medicine” appear to have. But it’s not comparable to a degree in science or medicine.

Dr. Emoto believes water has feelings and you can affect it by using positive and negative words, and even music. You can make it happy or sad.

Really: stop laughing. You won’t get this piece finished if you don’t.

Some folks gush over Emoto’s work and babble on about it in distinctly New Agey-pseudoscience manner, with hot-button words like Chi, Reiki, crystals and angels tossed higgledy-piggledy into the text to make the New Agers’ eyes glaze over in delight:

Could water respond directly to people’s consciousness? Apparently yes. Crystals reflected the panic during an earthquake and also the recovery period three months later. Tap water of Tokyo, which was formless, responded to the transmission of “Chi, Soul and Spirit” of 500 people to give a distinctive crystal. And, certain specially gifted individuals could make the most polluted, formless water respond to the “Chi of love” or to prayer, to give remarkable symmetries of perfection. The Reverend Kato Hoki, chief priest of Jyuhouin Temple, Omiya city, was able to change the six-fold symmetry of the ice crystal to a previously unknown, seven-fold symmetry. “Water is the mirror of the mind”.

He’s the darling of the spa set, too, awarded a “Special Prize” as an “outstanding example of a professional who lives the Spa philosophy, or a person who has made an extraordinary contribution to cultivating and promoting the Spa philosophy.”

(Until today, I didn’t even know there was a Spa Philosophy. I must have had my nose too deep into the writings of the Epicureans and missed this major philosophical movement. It is described on the award site as, “Holistic Spa concepts translate our age-old bond with water into applications that, in the best case, leave us with a sense of purity and authenticity. This absolute harmony between body, mind and soul is the purest experience.” Sadly, Dr. Emoto lost first prize to 3 LAB Perfect Cleansing Scrub. Must have been quite a stiff competition…)

And taking from Emoto’s beliefs, some folks are selling “emotionally charged” water – magically transformed from ordinary water by “positive emotional intentions.”  Others are selling “blessings” to turn your water into “liquid prayers.” Who thinks this stuff up?

The codswallop meter is in the red zone on this one. Water woo, it’s called. Woo hoo, I say.

New Age Retailler magazine called his work “pioneering” in a lengthy interview with Emoto, who in turn was described as a “New Age rock star.”

In The True Power of Water, Emoto explores the power of the lessons of the first book as they apply to healing. In particular, Emoto describes working with hado, the subtle energy or vibration inherent in all things, drawing upon his experiences as a practicing doctor of alternative medicine. He also emphasizes humankind’s stewardship role in protecting pure water sources — and making pure water available to all.
“If you speak negative words, that leads to destructive matters, and if you speak positive words, then some positive and beautiful thing will occur.” — Dr. Masaru Emoto
Emoto’s first two books both reached The New York Times’ extended bestseller list. The Secret Life of Water, a fall 2005 release, emphasizes the power of prayer and facilitating the flow of hado.

Hado? Sounds suspiciously like Obi Wan Kenobi talking about The Force. Emoto himself describes it:

Hado is a vibration that cannot be seen, because it is so small. It is so subtle that it cannot even be measured. I believe that we should move toward vibrational medicine. The starting point of that is people’s hearts. When you have a stressed or damaged heart, then your body becomes damaged, as well. I believe that how the God, or something great, created this world is with love and gratitude. Love is an active energy, and gratitude is a passive energy. I believe when you deviate from this law, this balance of love and gratitude, a person is destined to have illness.

Just use The Force, Luke…  I wouldn’t want anyone who believes this to be my doctor, but then I’m a skeptic about this sort of balderdash, so my hado’s probably pretty mixed up anyway.

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06/3/14

Is silver safe as a medicine?


Effects of colloidal silverThe short answer to that headline question – based on everything I’ve read of late – is no. It’s not that silver has no medical uses – one form has been used in dressings and bandages as an antiseptic (not, as is sometimes claimed, an antibiotic). Silver nitrate is sometimes used to treat warts and corns.

However, the benefits and long-term risks of silver in any form – especially an ingested form – have been not been fully researched.

It’s not that colloidal silver – an entirely different product from topical silver – may not have health-related benefits. It’s just that we don’t really know because there is no solid, peer-reviewed research to back up any of the claims. And those claims make it nothing short of miraculous. Quackwatch lists AIDS, chronic fatigue, herpes, TB, syphilis, lupus, malaria, plague, acne, impetigo, and Lyme disease among the diseases sellers claim their colloidal silver will cure. Others include “Common cold, stomach ulcers, acne, burns, shingles, arthritis, strep, tuberculosis,” fungus, bacteria, polio and cancer.

A 2013 study found colloidal silver (silver ions) improved the efficiency of antibiotics. But the study’s authors warned that this was just a preliminary effort:

Before adding silver to antibiotics, “we’ll have to address the toxicity very carefully”, says Fowler. Ingesting too much silver can also cause argyria, a condition in which the skin turns a blue-grey colour — and the effect is permanent.

Collins says that he and his colleagues saw good results in mice using non-toxic amounts of silver. But, he adds, there are ways to reduce the risk even further. “We’re also encouraging people to look at what features of silver caused the helpful effects, so they can look for non-toxic versions,” he says,

Silver is used in water purification: “The World Health Organization includes silver in a colloidal state produced by electrolysis of silver electrodes in water, and colloidal silver in water filters as two of a number of water disinfection methods specified to provide safe drinking water in developing countries.” That doesn’t mean that it’s safe to drink the stuff from a bottle.

Rosemary JacobsArgyria is an irreversible effect that comes from ingesting too much silver. It turns your skin cyanotic: blue-ish; from the bright blue face at the top of this post to the slate-grey face of Rosemary Jacobs shown here. Jacobs was given colloidal silver by her doctors and ended up with her discoloured skin. her story is tragic but illustrative – and a lot more real than the anonymous “testimonials” on many of the sellers’ sites.

My caution is mostly because of the charlatans in the alternative-health industry and how they promote their products.

Without considerable effort and research on the part of the consumer, it’s difficult – if not impossible – to determine which product is actually what it claims and is safe. My spidey-sense warns me that if it’s so hard to be sure, it’s best to avoid the product entirely.

Far, far too many of the sites that claim research or proof of colloidal silver’s efficacy as a cure point back to one another site that promotes colloidal silver – usually companies or individuals selling related products. Talk about a conflict of interest! Their “testimonials” are often unsubstantiated and anonymous. As Science-Based Medicine notes;

What perpetuates the use of colloidal silver are testimonials, like the nurse who suggested silver to prevent H1N1. The interwebs are filled with unsubstantiated testimonials, for common infections and unusual infections, with one gentleman crediting colloidal silver, rather than the vancomycin and gentamyin, for the cure of his subdural empyema (pus between the brain and skull).

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05/11/14

Confused Science


Confused In his book, The World in Six Songs, Daniel Levitin posutlates the ability to make or participate in music may have conferred an evolutionary advantage to early humans. It’s a reasonable hypothesis based on both archeological and anthropological evidence. And some paleontological finds, too.

We know from remains of bone flutes and other instruments, that humans made music at least 40,000 years ago. What that music was like, what role it played in primitive culture and society, what ceremonial or bonding purposes it had, will always be speculation (although we do know they likely used the pentatonic scale). We can only infer music’s roles from its uses in historic – i.e. since the invention of writing – civilizations, but we can never be sure what happened – and why – before the historical record.

When humans started singing, drumming, or making instruments to accompany themselves is simply something we will never know. Anything to suggest when is mere speculation. And even suggesting why is, too. We’re using post hoc analysis to infer purpose and reason.

We do know that group singing and dancing involves the release of certain neurochemicals like oxytocin, that can have powerful social-bonding effects on individuals, but we don’t know whether the particular chemistry is recent, ancient or even had the same effect on earlier cultures. However, given the relatively common and similar effects observed today, it’s another reasonable speculation that they occurred earlier within our evolution and helped humans bond, cooperate and accomplish group tasks.

And we do know that non-literate or non-technological societies – what few remain, such as those rare Amazonian tribes – use music and singing in social and cultural activities and rituals. Music and singing are as powerful in their cultures, in their daily lives, as sex and magic.*

(The co-development of music and civilization is fascinating, but apparently fragile. Music was mostly a communal activity, much more participatory, before the post-WWI development of communication technology. Today, thanks to the internet, digitalization and newer technologies, music is less a shared, bonding activity than it is a passive experience. Musicians – the people who create the experience – still create and shape public opinion and taste, but like alchemists and shamans, they are on the fringe of society.

There is a glimmer of hope that music may be returning to its communal, social roots with the recent growth in popularity of the ukulele and the resurgence of communal ukulele groups…)

Levitin – as brilliant as he is about neuroscience and music – seems confused about evolution and natural selection. And a few other sciences, as I’ll explain below.

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05/9/14

Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter


Crazy notionsThe headline for this piece comes from a recent article in Time Magazine: “Dear CNN: Sometimes Our Opinions Just Don’t Matter.” The article isn’t – as you might have thought – about local bloggers. It’s about critical thinking. Or rather, the lack of it, on CNN’s part.The lack of it on the part of local bloggers I’ll save for another day.

CNN has been running almost non-stop coverage of the plane’s disappearance, repeating in endless loops the same, paltry information they have, then trying to spin that into yet another story. It’s obsessed with the disappearance, to the point where CNN has been mocked by other media for its coverage.

CNN ran a poll about the missing Malaysian airliner. Most of which, as the Time article points out, is moot. And one of the questions was whether or not aliens or time travellers hijacked the plane.

So CNN issued the results of a poll today about the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. Should the search continue? Are the searchers looking in the right area? Oh, and could the plane’s vanishing have been caused by “space aliens, time travelers or beings from another dimension“? (At least “somewhat likely,” said 9%.)

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04/28/14

Seeing evolution in action


Peter and Rosemary GrantThe pop-science notion is that evolution takes a long time. Millennia, many millennia; even millions of years. But is that always true? Can one actually see and measure evolution in action? Can it happen in such a short time as to be recorded?

Peter and Rosemary Grant say they have. And it’s the subject of a new book they co-authored based on their research.

Their story was reported in the April 23 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly. It’s a terrific read if for nothing more than their 40-year tale of dedication, science and adventure on the isolated Daphne Major Island, one of the smaller islands of the Galapagos chain.

Forty years studying finches together, away from human company, away from the comforts of civilization. The small birds that first gave Charles Darwin insight into the mechanics of natural selection were their focus. And the Grants report they have seen that mechanism in action on the island.

Scientists previously had reported seeing the processes of natural selection among bacteria, honeycreepers, cichlid fish, and fruit flies. As Peter Grant puts it, “Until we began, it was well understood that agricultural pests and bacteria could evolve rapidly, but I doubt that many people thought that about big, vertebrate animals.”

The Grants believe that hybridization is an important force in the rise of new species, and think this applies, too, to human evolution. For a long time, for example, paleontologists believed that Neanderthals and “modern homo sapiens” did not interbreed when they came into contact in prehistoric times, but recent research indicates that about 20 percent of Neanderthal genes have been preserved in our species. “It’s almost been a hobbyhorse of ours,” Peter says. “We were saying, ‘I bet there has been gene exchange between the lineages of homo sapiens throughout their evolution.’”

The Grants’ new book is targeted at both lay readers and scientists familiar with their work, and broadly discusses their findings about natural selection, hybridization, population variation (why do some populations of birds vary more dramatically in beak size?), the potential vanishing of a species through interbreeding, and, of course, the potential origin of a new species — the Big Bird lineage. They also touch on global warming and its possible effect on Darwin’s finches. Most of all, the book is an affirmation of the importance of long-term fieldwork as a way of capturing the true dynamism of evolution.

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