The 10 Worst?

Tin foil hat
Skeptoid just published its top-ten worst anti-science websites and I’m sure you won’t be surprised at the awardees, especially not the regulars like Mercola, Dr. Oz, Deepak Chopra and Food Babe (aka the Worst Assault on Science on the Internet). Predatory quacks, crackpots and fakirs you will easily recognize. Surprisingly, the uber-wingnut David Wolfe was absent this year.

Some of these sites sugar-coat their nonsense with pseudo-spirituality, usually some mashup of New Age codswallop and ancient mumbo-jumbo. Many ascribe their claptrap to traditional – non-medical, unproven and anti-science – practices like ayurveda or Chinese folk medicine, both of which can not only be harmful but often are damaging to other species and lifeforms. Others use rhetorical bafflegab to confuse people (Wolfe is a master at this tactic).

Having a top ten for pseudoscience and conspiracy claptrap is fun, but it’s identifying the point-oh-oh-one percent of that junk. There’s so much of it that no list – the top 100, the top 1,000 – could even scratch its infected surface. It’s hard to pick which of these hysterical charlatans and con artists should be rated among the top, they are all so despicable, foolish and greedy. Yes, greedy: they are all about the money: they have never been about your wellbeing, health or safety. Everyone of them is selling some snake oil.

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Neanderthals: a love story

Squat, hairy, broad shoulders, a big nose, beetle-browed with a low forehead. As Blind Willie McTell wrote in his classic song, Statesboro Blues, “I know ain’t good lookin’, but I swear I’m some sweet woman’s angel child.” That line might have been written for early Neanderthal cousins. First described as dim-witted and brutish, our more recent assessment of them is far less critical, especially of their tool-making and culture.

But even the most complimentary of modern descriptions still make them out to be rather lumpish, heavyset characters. Barrel-chested. Robust, we call them today. Big brains, though, and better eyesight than we have. Nice personalities, too, I bet.

And it seems some of our own ancestors loved them for it. You never know what makes the heart strings sing, after all.

Humans and Neanderthals had sex. But was it for love? That’s the title of a recent article on Vox by Brian Resnick. It addresses the complexities behind human-Neanderthal coupling.

And couple they did. The results of which are bound within us, wrapped into our DNA even now: between one and four percent of our genetic strands are from Neanderthal sources.* And they had about 97% of their DNA in common with ours. Who’s your daddy now?

(That Neanderthal DNA is most likely responsible for our plucky immune system, by the way…)

Resnick asks, And asks, “Could a human and a Neanderthal fall in love?” And I reply, “Why not?”
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Flat earthers? Must be a spoof…

Flat earth and the BibleAt first, I thought a story on Tech.mic titled “Meet the People Who Believe the Earth Is Flat” was satire. You know, a parody of those zany conspiracy theorists who believe in such nonsense as chemtrails, gluten-free, the government staged the 9/11 attacks, homeopathy, vaccines cause autism, Trump is a good presidential candidate, astrology, creationism, climate change is a hoax, Collingwood Council has ethics, and the rest of the rampant silliness and stupidity that haunts the Net.

And it would be easy to write: wingnuts are almost too easy to lampoon. But no one can really believe the earth is flat, can they? I mean, come on: how stupid do you have to be? It’s gotta be a spoof.

Flat earth belief – or more properly, platygeism – goes beyond mere gullibility into the realm of a self-induced ignorance coma. As Rational Wiki succinctly puts it:

It is probably impossible for any single example to fully disprove flat-earthism, simply because there is always an ad hoc explanation for any given, apparently-contradictory phenomenon. However, it’s quite difficult for a flat-earthist to explain away all of the problems with flat-earthism and maintain a consistent theory, mostly because the “evidence” they provide is circumstantial, and generally pulled out of their asses.

But the article referenced a Facebook group, sites and some YouTube videos. A lot of them. If it’s a spoof, it’s a convoluted one with lots of seemingly disparate players. As conspiracies go, this one is easily debunked.

And they weren’t the sort of economic “flat earth” believers Thomas Friedman referenced in his book. Nor are they the metaphorical “flat earther” that Trump supporters are often described as. These are the mythical Dark Ages* sort of flat-earther dressed in New Age clothes. You know, the no-science, no-logic, no-education, superstitious piffle sort of believer with access to the internet. The kind that increasingly populate the dark corners of the web to grow conspiracies and wingnut ideas in the dark.

As I read, I started to get worried. This didn’t look spoofish at all. It looked frighteningly real. As if these people actually believed against all reason, all science, all geography, all physics and all astronomy that, yes indeed, we do live on a flat surface. As if these people were actually the most stupid on the planet and proud of it.

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TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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The Postmortal

Grim reaperMortality. We all get it. It’s the one one incurable ailment all humans succumb to without a chance of succor. Mortality is always 100% fatal. No medicine, no therapy, no diet cure or magic pill. But as you read this, scientists are researching, seeking clues to unlock the mystery and, potentially, cure us of aging,of death by mortality. And they might achieve it.

Having officially reached the two-thirds mark in my life this past weekend (based on my family history, my health and my lifestyle…), mortality is more often in my own thoughts these days. Not morbidly so, but certainly more common than when I was half my age. So when I picked up Drew Magary’s novel, The Postmortal (Penguin Books, London, 2011), I was intrigued by the subject: immortality.

What if a simple, easily administered genetic treatment could stop you from aging from this day forward? Would you take it? I suspect the answer for most folk would be an immediate yes, especially if you’re under 50.

It wouldn’t reverse anything, wouldn’t protect you from disease, cancer, liver damage or falling down the stairs. It wouldn’t protect you from the increasing number of gun nuts who can easily get automatic weapons and spray night clubs, movie theatres, hospitals, clinics, schools and churches with bullets (well, in the USA, they do it, if not always in other nations where the NRA doesn’t own the politicians…). But, barring those things, it would freeze you in time at your ‘cure age.’ You would be 39, 35, 42… or 60, 75 and even 89 for the rest of time.

Assuming that civilization doesn’t fall apart and eat itself alive as a result of this new treatment. Which, Magary suggests, it’s likely to do. Very likely. But he makes the journey to that end a compelling, entertaining and very thought-provoking read. It’s not so much a fall, but a slow stumble into the dark.

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Not quite seven signs of the apocalypse

Wacky newsA 2014 story on Salon, titled 7 things Americans think are more plausible than man-made global warming made its way around Facebook again, recently. It lists seven statistics about things Americans believe in more than they believe that human activity has caused climate change. It got a lot of shares and likes.

Climate change is, of course, fact, and as Peter Schickele once said, “Fact is fact. You can’t argue with fact…”

If you accept those facts, it seems a scary read: seven signs of the apocalypse… But before you start calling for a wall across our border to keep the crazies from migrating north, read on.

First, these figures were selectively pulled together to weigh against the American belief in human-caused climate change, not to present a coherent overview of American thought or education. They may be true, but they are not unbiased. And there is little to no correlation between these issues. As Darrell Huff wrote in his 1954 book, How to Lie With Statistics:

Even if you can’t find a source of demonstrable bias, allow yourself some degree of skepticism about the results as long as there is a possibility of bias somewhere. There always is.

Climate change is a hot topic during the presidential primary nomination campaign because Americans are split along party lines: Republicans are non-believers and Democrats are believers (see here). It is not so much a matter of belief in or understanding of the science than it is an issue of ideology. But we never get to know the what party the respondents support.

We will never know if people don’t believe in climate change because that’s what their party tells them to believe.

There are other similar partisan lines: immigration, taxes, medicare, gun control, for example, that are ideologically-based beliefs, rather than based on any research, data, or sometimes even common sense. However, the Slate piece draws in several disparate items – none of them election issues – in its article. Do they relate to belief in climate change? Not really.

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432 vs 440Hz: Science or Codswallop?

A432 vs A440Canadian band Walk Off the Earth posted excitedly on Facebook that they had just recorded a new song. Great. I like WOTE and look forward to their new song.

What was really different about that notice was that they also said they had changed their instruments from the standard A440 to A432 tuning, and it made a huge difference to them:

For all the music nerds out there, you might want to look into this. This has not been 100% proven but the evidence is building. When we were in the studio recording our latest album “Sing It All Away”, we decided to experiment with recording our songs in A=423Hz and also Standard A=440Hz. When we compared the 2 different tunings we unanimously chose the 432 tuning as the one that made us feel better. Hence, our album was performed and recorded in this obscure tuning.
Anyway, this is a cool read and if you’re feeling fancy, try tuning your guitar to 432 and give it a jam. You might feel the vibrations of Mother Nature in your soul!

Do you smell woo hoo in that? What difference would a mere 8Hz make? After all, it’s barely audible; a mere 1/6th of a tone.

Plenty, according to some. It’s become one of those internet true believers’ issues. But is it real or just hogwash? Objective reality or merely subjective? Let’s start with a little history and some science (and not the woo hoo Mother Nature stuff…).

A440 means that the middle A (A above middle C, or A4) is tuned to produce a note at the frequency 440Hz. One Hertz or 1Hz is one cycle per second. Your typical North American electrical current is 60Hz. The range of human hearing is roughly 20Hz to 20KHz (20,000Hz), but we are most sensitive in the range between 1K and 4KHz (some reports say 2-5KHz) – much higher than either A432 or A440.

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Architeuthis dux redux

Imagine swimming beside a giant squid. That’s what happened recently to some Japanese divers, on Xmas eve, who happened to have the presence of mind to film this extraordinary event. The video, above, shows the animal in its glory. Stunningly beautiful.*

Giant squid are rarely seen, and generally inhabit much deeper waters than humans can reach. Having one close enough to touch is bother exhilarating and – I suspect – terrifying. They are, after all, large, efficient carnivores. This one, however, was a baby at 3.7m.

Surprisingly, the divers believed the animal was lost and gently pushed it in the direction of the deeper water. Frankly, given the Japanese predilection for slaughtering whales, I hadn’t expected this kind of humane behaviour towards another large sea dweller.

These squid have been seen by sailors for centuries. Marks have been found on sperm whales, as well as squid parts found in their stomachs. A few dead squid bodies have washed ashore, but seldom have we come close enough to one in the water to make a positive identification.

Then in 2006, a Japanese vessel videotaped a 3.5m female which had grabbed some bait and been hauled to the surface. That’s small for an animal that can reach 13m. The first time this elusive creature was caught live on camera in its natural, deep-water habitat, was in 2012.

Now we have this remarkable and clear video. It’s simply stunning footage.


* Architeuthis is, of course,  an invertebrate and moves through the water with great grace, as you can see by the video. They are quite different from the sessile invertebrates who write local blogs and newspaper columns, and lack any semblance of grace.

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What KIC 8462852 Says About Us

Dyson sphereKIC 8462852. Hardly a household name. But it may be, one day soon, or at least when it garners a more prosaic name. It’s a star and it sits rather forlornly in space in the rightmost edge of the constellation Cygnus, almost 1,500 light years away. And although it’s too dim to be seen by the naked eye, it has caught the attention of astronomers and conspiracy theorists alike, worldwide.

KIC 8462852 is a mature F3-class sun, more massive than the Sun and both brighter, hotter. It’s the kind of sun we usually search for habitable planets around, at least within the range of potential candidates. But it’s been watched for the past six years with growing fascination and wonder. As Science Alert tells us:

It was first discovered by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope in 2009, and scientists have been tracking the light it emits ever since, along with the light of another 150,000 or so newly discovered stars. They do this because it’s the best way to locate distant planets – slight, periodic dips in a star’s brightness signal the fact that it might have one or more large objects orbiting it in a regular fashion.
These brightness dips are usually very slight, with the stars dimming by less than 1 percent every few days, weeks, or months, depending on the size of the planet’s orbit.

That dimming is usually regular and explicable, and small. Not so with KIC 8462852. Its brightness has dipped inexplicably in large amounts with unnerving regularity, every 750 days, reaching levels of 15% and even 22% reduction of light for between five and 80 days.

Scientists scratch their head and wonder what could be large enough to diminish the light from a bright star by that amount. No planet could ever be that big. And it would have to be an enormous cloud of space junk – an improbable amount in a very tight formation – to do it.

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Fortuna: Why Plans Fail

Niccolo Machiavelli used two words in his book, The Prince, to describe the factors that influenced events. In English these are virtue or character (virtu), fortune or chance (fortuna). Only virtue is internal – our nature – and although it manifests as voluntary action, it can only be somewhat, but not entirely controlled.*

The other – chance or fortune – can make the best-laid plans of mice and men go aft agley, as Robert Browning wrote, regardless of our efforts to the contrary.

In Chapter 25 of The Prince (What Fortune Can Effect In Human Affairs And How To Withstand Her), Machiavelli tried to explain why a leader with free will, with all the means, the desire and resources at his disposal would not always succeed in his endeavours. Virtue alone cannot always win. Luck – chance, fortune, randomness – often simply threw a monkey wrench into the gears.

Machiavelli describes fortune in two metaphors. First as a river that can overflow its banks, treacherously destroying the countryside. That river can be carefully managed by planning for the inevitable flood. Today we would call them worst-case scenarios:

I compare her to one of those raging rivers, which when in flood overflows the plains, sweeping away trees and buildings, bearing away the soil from place to place; everything flies before it, all yield to its violence, without being able in any way to withstand it; and yet, though its nature be such, it does not follow therefore that men, when the weather becomes fair, shall not make provision, both with defences and barriers, in such a manner that, rising again, the waters may pass away by canal, and their force be neither so unrestrained nor so dangerous. So it happens with fortune, who shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her, and thither she turns her forces where she knows that barriers and defences have not been raised to constrain her.

Machiavelli is saying rather simply: plan for disaster. Prepare for the downturn, the recession, the changing politics, the loss of funding, the changing market. Have alternatives and contingencies ready. Don’t put all your eggs in one basket – for example, don’t base your budget or economic forecasts on the price of oil alone.

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Books versus E-readers

Books vs ereaderBack in February, Naomi Baron wrote a piece calledReading on-screen versus on paper,” in which she compared the two reading experiences: printed books and e-readers in five areas:

  • Cost
  • Container vs content
  • Environmental impact
  • Quality of screens
  • Concentration

Baron actually looks at these as true-or-false questions, not really comparisons. She doesn’t address issues like aesthetics, tactile sense or emotional response, or the relative value of hypertext to content, nor does she tread into the science and ergonomics of reading. For that, you have to look elsewhere. Which, of course, I did.

First let me state that it is not really an us-vs-them situation: e-readers vs printed books. Both technologies co-exist quite comfortably and each has its own merits. Neither will displace the other, and our civilization cannot survive with only digital content.*

Several Pew Research studies have shown that the number of Americans owning e-readers is still modest (24 percent by the end of 2013 but 32 percent by Jan. 2014; compared with tablet ownership which was at 42 percent by 2014) and the number of adults who had read an e-book within the previous year was a mere 28 percent with only 4 percent reading e-books exclusively (up to 5 percent by 2014). That, however, is a slowly growing figure.**

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The Worm Turns

EarthwormThis morning when I was doing my regular news search online, I came across two stories that stopped me cold: we’re being invaded. By worms.

Yep. Worms. Not the slimy invertebrates who write scurrilous, defamatory self-aggrandizing blogs and whine about free speech when they are taken to court over their lies, but actual earthworms. Nightcrawlers.

The little invertebrates we have in our gardens and at the end of fishhooks. They’re invading Canada. And they’re doing it rather quickly. For worms, that is. They’re actually being aided and abetted by us. Humans are the reason they’re here, and the main reason they are spreading at something slower than even a snail’s languid pace:

D. octaedra populations currently expand about 16 meters (around 52 feet) per year. At that rate, a single worm and its descendants—they reproduce asexually, so one worm reproduces on its own—could expand to cover the length of an American football field in six to seven years.

They spread thanks to hitching rides with humans, on cars, tires, shoes – and of course in fishing tackle boxes. Worm eggs and cocoons also travel as hitchhikers. Anglers who release their unused earthworms after a day’s fishing have helped the spread even more, so much so that PR campaigns are in full swing to stop anglers releasing them in the woods.

Non-native earthworms have been identified as a major threat to our forests:

…the impact of earthworms on forest vegetation was listed in 2011 as one of the top 15 emerging global conservation issues by the scholarly journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

The common everyday garden earthworm isn’t a native to North America. It’s a European invader, brought by settlers. Asian species have also been brought ashore more recently, and may even be destructive in your garden.

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Pompeii: Swords-and-Sandals Flop

PompeiiAs a film setting, the town of Pompeii in the first century CE is a lot like the deck of the Titanic in 1912: no amount of special effects or clever script writing is going to save it from the disaster awaiting. As a film, Pompeii has a lot of the former, but precious little of the latter to rescue it. That’s probably why it’s in the $7 section at the DVD store.

Let’s start with the history. Pompeii was a Roman town on the west side of Italy close to the slopes of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius. The recipe for disaster starts with the question: why would anyone build on the slopes of an active volcano? You might ask that of the many towns and villages that currently encircle its slopes, including the city of Naples, a mere 9 km away.

Vesuvius has been active for most of recorded history. The biggest eruption took place about 1800 BCE and the last one in 1944, with many, many in-between. None of the post-Pompeii eruptions have been as violent as the one on August 20, 79 CE, however. None, however, were as great as the eruption of Thera in 1570 CE, which destroyed the Minoan civilization and radically changed the face of civilization in the Eastern Mediterranean, but I digress.

The great drama happened in 79 CE when Vesuvius exploded spectacularly, and in doing so wiped out the town of Pompeii, killing an estimated 16,000 people. Good setting then for a disaster film, right? But it wasn’t quite like in the movie – well, nothing ever is.

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Canadian Ambivalence Towards Religion

A new Angus Reid poll underscores the changing, ambivalent nature of Canadian attitudes towards religion, but there are many things about the poll that concern me and make me question its methodology and whether an inherent bias influenced the results.

First of all, what is “religion”? That may seem obvious, but there are conflicting definitions, and often religion is used interchangeably with the terms faith and belief,  although that is incorrect usage and they are, in fact, different.

I think it’s important to be clear when asking people about religion exactly what you mean by the word ‘religion’ – and I cannot find anywhere in the questionnaire that this was defined. It is, however defined on the analysis webpage. But was it explained to respondents?

For me, religion is generally the organizational structure and hierarchy – political, social, cultural – that creates the framework in which faith and belief operate. People sometimes reject religion – the controlling organization – without rejecting faith itself.

Wikipedia defines religion with a broad brush but it ignores the political, controlling structure:

…an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and world views that relate humanity to an order of existence. adds this, but again missing the hierarchical nature of religion:

…a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, especially when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Google’s search produced this definition, which is far too narrow, since it excludes Buddhism and other non-theistic practices:

…the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.

Search online for the definition of religion and you will quickly discover how wide-ranging the definitions are, and that many of them do not agree on basics. For example, many definitions include belief in supernatural beings, rituals, a distinction between sacred and profane objects and acts, and prayer. But these are traits of some religions, not a definition of religion itself.

Nor was the word “spiritual” defined (again it is on the analysis webpage), although question four asks people to define whether they are spiritual or religious. Yet the term spiritual is even more vague and fraught with complexities than religion, in that it can mean “…almost any kind of meaningful activity or blissful experience… a process of transformation, but in a context separate from organized religious institutions… a blend of humanistic psychology, mystical and esoteric traditions and eastern religions.”

Here’s what Angus Reid has chosen for its definitions as per its web page, both of which strike me as very narrow and restrictive. Their definition of religion would exclude Buddhism and Taoism, for example, since neither include supreme beings. And the soul is a contentious definition because (aside from not being defined here), it assumes a belief in one. And is spirit the same as, say, team spirit, so baseball is a spiritual activity on the same plane as meditation? To me, this is both sloppy and vague.

It remains unclear whether these definitions were presented to participants:

Spiritual: of, relating to, or affecting the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.

Religious: relating to or believing in a religion…forming part of someone’s thought about or worship of a divine being

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Lucy and the 10% Brain Myth

LucyWe watched the film Lucy on iTunes last night and, while reasonably entertaining, its plot is founded on a persistent bit of pseudoscience: that people only use 10% of their brain capacity. It’s so widespread a myth that Wikipedia has a page on it that opens:

The 10 percent of the brain myth is the widely perpetuated urban myth that most or all humans only make use of 10 percent (or some other small percentage) of their brains. It has been misattributed to many people, including Albert Einstein. By extrapolation, it is suggested that a person may harness this unused potential and increase intelligence.

Sure, we all know people who don’t appear to use much of their brain’s potential power, but the simple truth is that we all use all of our brain’s capacity. We evolved a big brain to handle the growing demands of increased consciousness, speech and sophisticated motor control, and that’s what it’s for.

Sure, not all of it is used in a conscious manner. Much of the brain’s function is taken up in processing, storing and interpreting the huge bandwidth of information that is fed to it every second of every day. Even acts we do daily and take for granted – like walking upstairs with a cup of tea in one hand while talking – take a huge amount of processing power. Sight, balance, motor control, memory, logic, vocalization, muscles control… the brain takes care of it all without spilling a drop.

Your consciousness – the ego – doesn’t see all this work going on and never will because you would quickly be overwhelmed by the huge amount of data being managed by your unconscious. Yes, yes, a lot of people don’t appear to even use the whole capacity of their conscious brains – anti-vaxxers, chemtrail wingnuts, creationists and some local bloggers come to mind – but that’s just a portion of what the brain does. Critical thinking is a skill one has to acquire and practice, not an inherent brain function.

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