Archive for the 'General' Category

Dec 16 2011

Christopher Hitchens 1949-2011

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News of the death of Christopher Hitchens has by now worked its way around the internet and around the world. I first heard of it from a fellow skeptic in Australia. Hitchens was a great intellectual light in this world and it is always sad to see such a light go out.

I have been reading his column for years. Every Monday I eagerly read his take on world news or modern culture. He was an exceptional investigative journalist. You did not have to agree with his point of view to gain insight into the issues he covered. In fact he was one of those rare writers who was more useful and provocative when you did disagree with him – because he challenged your views with overlooked facts and interesting analysis. I am really not aware of anyone writing today who will fill the niche he occupied in my weekly reading.

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30 responses so far

May 20 2011

Preparing for a Zombie Apocalypse

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Get A Kit,    Make A Plan, Be Prepared. emergency.cdc.govThe Centers for Disease Control (CDC) want you to be prepared for the possibility of a zombie apocalypse. Really.

They have started a campaign to educate the public how to prepare for the eventuality of a mindless brain-eating horde slowly but inexorably laying siege to your home.  It’s a clever campaign – preparing for a zombie-induced disaster is much like preparing for any natural or man-made disaster. The basic needs for survival are the same, as is understanding how to access the government resources that will likely be available. You probably don’t have to spend as much time fortifying your home or preparing your weapons, however.

The CDC is not the first to key in on the popularity of zombies to promote their work. In 2009 Munz et al wrote an epidemiological paper called, When Zombies Attack! to demonstrate their mathematical model for predicting the spread of a highly infectious disease. They could have chosen any disease, but by choosing zombie infection they turned their otherwise obscure medical paper into a media sensation.

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13 responses so far

May 02 2011

Hunting the Elusive…

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The existence of this creature remains at best controversial, with the bulk of the scientific community skeptical. The evidence so far put forward consists of photos and video that are either out-of-focus or at such a distance that definitive identification is not possible. Proponents focus on questionable analysis of minute details of their blurry videos in order to make their case, and excuse the lack of better evidence by that fact that their quarry is rare, wary, and lives only in the deep wilderness.

I am talking, of course, about the ivory-billed woodpecker.

The ivory-billed woodpecker is a larger cousin to the extant pileated woodpecker, but it was believed to have gone extinct in the 1940s. However, recent putative sightings have raised the possibility that a small population still persists in the deep swamps where they roam. In most of the videos and photographs shown so far the subject does appear to be a large woodpecker – but the question remains if the birds seen in these images are a pileated woodpecker or an ivory-billed. There are differences in markings and flying characteristics, but the fleeting and distant images do not allow for a clean distinction.

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15 responses so far

Mar 18 2011

Biases in Science Fiction

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I woke up with a strange idea in my head that I wanted to get off my chest. This has to do with how we project our biases onto fiction, in this case specifically science fiction. My thought involves ship design – how would you design a ship for deep space travel?

First let’s take some common examples from science fiction, such as the Starship Enterprise. The decks of the Enterprise are oriented parallel to the direction of acceleration, which means that people standing on the decks are perpendicular and the force of acceleration would “push” them horizontal to the deck. The same is true of ships of all sizes in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and many other popular science fiction shows.

I know there are exceptions. The ship in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey had an interesting design, using a rotating doughnut to generate artificial gravity. This ship was designed, however, for relatively short interplanetary travel  and for coasting (rather than accelerating) most of the time. There are sure to be other exceptions – but my point is, they are exceptions, not what we commonly see in science fiction.

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76 responses so far

Dec 31 2010

Four Years

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Today marks the end of my fourth year of blogging. It is estimated that 60-80% of new blogs go dead within a month, so I’m happy to have survived for four years. NeuroLogica has fulfilled what I intended for it  – to keep me writing on a regular basis, to provide a useful outlet for engaging in the online skeptical conversation, and to attract attention from journalists looking for information or story ideas.

The world of blogging has evolved a bit over the past four years. Technorati tracks blogging trends, and their “state of blogging” report for 2010 notes several trends. They note that bloggers are using more social media to spread their blogs. And blogs have been having an increasing effect on mainstream media. I have definitely noticed this myself. In many cases the science news cycle has expanded to increased a phase of analysis by bloggers, followed by mainstream reporting of that analysis. In the past the media might give a completely bogus report on some science news item, and that would be the end of it, until a month or two later when the popular science journals covered the story in more depth. Now it takes a day or two for science bloggers to dissect and, if necessary, correct the story. This is often followed by the mainstream media then readdressing the story – “Hey, remember that story we told you a few days ago? Well, it turns out it’s BS.”

I also see a trend where journalist are increasingly going to popular science bloggers for information while writing the original report, rather than waiting to get smacked down after they publish. This is a good trend, and I think in order for journalists to survive they will have to take advantage of those scientists and experts who blog.

All things considered, I think blogging has had a positive impact on the flow and quality of information, and it is still not fully mature. I am glad to be a part of it.

Thanks to all my readers, especially those who take the time to regularly comment or who have sent me blogging ideas. Have a great 2011.

12 responses so far

Feb 17 2010

Rom Houben Case on NPR

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Just a heads up – I was interviewed today for NPR’s All Things Considered about the Rom Houben case. They were also able to interview Dr. Steven Laureys. For those interested in this case it should be a good listen. They tell it will be on tonight, but you can also listen to the podcast post broadcast.

I was also interviewed about this same story by Trine Tsouderos, an  excellent journalist for the Chicago Tribune (she wrote the outstanding articles exposing dubious “alternative” treatments for autism). This story will run tomorrow.

Also – for those who like to keep up with my exploits, I do keep track of all these media appearance, with links when able, on my bio page.

8 responses so far

Feb 10 2010

GM Crop Hubbub in India

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Much like global warming, recycling, and organic farming – genetically modified or GM foods is a scientific controversy where there is significant disagreement within the skeptical movement. People who are generally science and reason-based find it difficult to completely wrap their heads around the complex information and come to a confident conclusion. Or they find it challenging to find objective sources of information that are not filtered through political bias. Or they find it difficult to figure out what the scientific consensus is, because the experts seems to be divided.

As a result ask a room full of skeptics (all of whom agree on UFOs, bigfoot, homeopathy, and free energy) what they think about any of these topics and they are likely to give an opinion that is in line with their political ideology. Where confusion reigns, opinion is king.

This is where critical thinking skills are really put to the test – put aside ideological bias, dig through the misinformation and spin, identify the relevant issues, and try to come to a balanced assessment. And sometimes you just have to say – “I don’t know.”

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25 responses so far

Feb 09 2010

NeuroLogica Is Back

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Many readers noticed that we were down for a few days. What happened was that I was given a very kind mention in an article in the LA Times (along with some of my fellow skeptical bloggers). This had the very nice effect of sending a pulse of traffic to my blog.

However, this traffic exceeded the limits of my host, HostPapa, for simultaneous users. HostPapa responded by (without warning) permanently suspending my account, and putting up a friendly notice for all to see, making it seem like I haven’t been paying my bills. Now that’s customer service.

I noticed right away and contacted HostPapa, but this was over the weekend and they were less than responsive. Eventually they simply refused to turn my account back on, even temporarily, and simply said that I was permanently banished. That was their way of punishing me for increasing my blog traffic. It certainly seems as if they did their best to turn what is ordinarily a boon to a blog into a disaster – thanks HostPapa.

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20 responses so far

Dec 29 2009

Skeptical Musings about 2009

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This is the time of year for looking back at the big news stories of the previous year. I’m not going to give any numbered top-ten list – but will simply reflect, in no particular order, on those science news items that made an impression on me this year.

Ardipithecus ramidus

Ardi, as he is known, was certainly the coolest fossil of the year. The remains of 17 individuals were actually found in 1993 and first described in 1994, but this year the first full analysis of these fossils was published, along with the new genus designation of Ardipithecus. Ardi is the oldest hominid species now known, displacing Lucy – an Australopithecus afarensis.

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10 responses so far

Dec 28 2009

A Review of Sherlock Holmes

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Sherlock Holmes has always been a favorite fictional character of mine. He is a deeply flawed character, and that is likely part of his appeal and popularity. But mostly, at his core, he is a profoundly rational character, combining impeccable logic, keen observation and attention to detail, and an astounding fund of knowledge.

I doubt there is a fictional character more famous than Holmes for his towering intellect.

Like any fan, I approach a new imagining of a favorite hero with some trepidation – and that is how I approached the new Sherlock Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law.

There is simply no way for me to discuss this movie without massive spoilers. So do not read on if you have not seen the movie and are planning to. I do recommend the movie – so go see it, and then come back and read the rest of this post.

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13 responses so far

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