Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Evil Science Entertainment

By the title, I mean the depiction of science in the movies and on television. Not the news, mind you (although they’re clearly affected), but in popular entertainment.

Science gets a bad rap.

For starters, movies and TV usually portray the scientific establishment as villains. Yes, there’s often a scientist hero, but he (or she) is usually a loner who’s resisting mainstream science. The big villain is probably a scientist with a lot more financial and political clout than the hero.

Scientists are great villains. They’re involved in some of the most dangerous activities known to man, like the development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. They seek knowledge man wasn’t meant to know; they meddle with forces they don’t understand; they try to play God. Examples:

  • The Fly: A scientist tries to transport objects through wires, messes up the experiment, and merges himself with a fly.

  • Jurassic Park: A group of scientists – hired by a businessman – clone dinosaurs that get out of control and start killing people.

  • Frankenstein: A scientists tries to create life and ends up creating a monster.

  • Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: A scientists accidentally unleashes an evil version of himself.

  • The Island: A scientist clones people for use as organ donors.
Hallmarks of Hollywood scientists are reckless disregard for prudent safety precautions and indifference to the moral questions of their research. Is there a chance the scientists new power supply could get out of control and destroy a city? Who cares? The mad scientist will forge ahead regardless of the risks. Is it ethical to replace a parent’s dead child with a clone? As long as the mad scientist makes a buck, who cares? This is the mainstream Hollywood scientist; only mavericks operating around the edges and fighting the establishment get to be good guys.

Which is where the quacks of the real world jump in to sell their dubious services. They paint themselves as the maverick scientists operating at the edge, trying to save people from the predatory mad scientist establishment. They’ll sell you anything you want to buy, making outrageous claims for how it works. They’ll tell you that the scientific establishment doesn’t want you to know about their discoveries, so the establishment covers up the evidence.

I’d like to think that if more people got a real education in science, they wouldn’t fall for the claims of the “edgy science” charlatans. Real scientists are usually careful people who demand a lot of evidence to support extraordinary claims. That’s why they come down hard on the “fringe scientists” and charlatans who boast of great discoveries without any evidence to back them up. When some “fringe scientists” claimed to have discovered cold fusion, the media ate up the claim while other scientists expressed skepticism, especially when they couldn’t duplicate the experiment themselves.

The scientific professions certainly have their bad apples, and the media is quick to report on their misdeeds. Unfortunately, the media doesn’t emphasize that it’s the scientific establishment, with its demands for repeatable tests and peer-reviewed publication of results, that inevitably catches the bad apples. Quite frankly, the comfortable lives that most Americans lead are utterly dependent upon the work of scientists over the years, so it would be nice to see the media show them more respect.

Monday, January 30, 2006

A Spiritual Trip to Italy

I’m not talking metaphysics here; I’m talking wine. Specifically, I’m talking about the Valpolicella wine region of northern Italy. Valpolicella is named for the region, not the grapes, which are of the corvina, molinara, and rondinella varieties.

Yes, we started a new batch of wine, and it better turn out good for the amount we spent on the kit. We got a kit because it supposedly contains juice from grapes grown and harvested properly for producing an Amarone-style wine. The growers hand pick only ripe grapes from clusters, then they allow them to dry in a nice cool barn loft to concentrate the juice. The result should be a particularly flavorful wine.

I wasn’t able to find a commercial Amarone to try myself, so I’ll have to wait the 6-8 weeks that the instructions say it will take for this wine to be ready. I did, however, find a ripasso wine from Valpolicella. A ripasso is made from grapes that aren’t so carefully selected as those going into Amarone, but it gets a bit of a lift from the Amarone process. After the wine gets pressed and goes through primary fermentation, it gets to “rest” on the pressed skins of grapes used to make Amarone.

I expect that someone got the ripasso idea from the technique of “second pressing”, which is adding water and possibly sugar to pressed grapes skins and pressing out a second batch of juice to make “second wine”. Someone must have figured that if you can make decent wine out of water by pressing it out of grape skins, you should be able to turn decent wine into exceptional wine. Whoever thought of it was a genius; the ripasso we had was really good, easily good enough to justify what I paid for it (more than twice what I usually pay for wine). The ripasso has raised my expectations for the Amarone.

On a related note, we racked the mead into a clean carboy over the weekend, getting it off of the lees (yeast sediment at the bottom) and adding some sassafrass tea (which my lovely lady considers a particularly good mead additive). The mead still has a bit of kerosene flavor, but it’s already drinkable and I expect that nasty character to age out pretty quickly.

On another related note, it seems that I will be teaching a class on wine-making at Winter Collegium in addition to the dance interpretation class that I announced previously.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Breaking the Silence

Has it really been a week? I’m such a slacker. I suppose at least a small post is in order.

For those who might be interested, I will be attending both Winter Collegium and Midwinter Arts & Sciences in February.

At Winter Collegium, I’ll be teaching a class on dance interpretation. I have different music arrangements for some dances commonly done in Meridies, and we’ll be discussing how the arrangement of the music affects your performance of the dance. The big example will be Petite Riens, which is commonly danced to a fast-paced musical arrangement that often turns the dance into a giant game of chicken. We’ll see how dancers respond when I hit them with a really slow musical arrangement.

At Midwinter A&S, Fjorleif and I will be entering Contrapasso in the performing arts category. And as I’m typing this, I’m reminded that I need to send in my documentation so the judges have time to review it in advance.

Gulf Wars approaches, and we will be attending. As far as I know, I’m not in charge of anything this year, and we’re not playing camp organizers, so we will get to relax and play all week.

In unrelated (WoW) news, Grimbor reached level 30 during another plunge into Gnomeregan, and he learned the Feign Death skill. I'm looking forward to trying it out. Gullveig also got some play time in the last week and reached level 24.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Wine Jip Revisited

The makers of the Wine Clip have changed their description of how the device operates on their website. They used to say…

“When wine passes through a magnetic field, a physical change occurs. The magnetic field has an effect on tannins which are suspended in the wine. The tannins are broken down into smaller tannins. We believe that the taste of many small tannin molecules is smoother than the taste of fewer large tannin molecules.”

“There is absolutely no chemical change and nothing is introduced or taken away from the wine. It's the physical change which accounts for the enhanced flavor and bouquet.”
I pointed out when I wrote before on this subject that a chemical change in the tannins is actually required. The benefit of aging is the result of chemical reactions that occur in the wine over time. To have the same effect, the Wine Clip would have to accelerate those chemical changes, and accelerated chemical reactions in the wine would most certainly be detectable with modern technology.

Needless to say, the Wine Clip’s manufacturers have never produced any evidence that their magnets cause rapid chemical reactions in wine as it’s poured. Apparently they got so much negative email about their claims since James Randi first publicized them back in August 2004 that they decided a rewrite was necessary.

Now they say…

“Using magnets to treat fluids – water, fuel, wine, etc. - is not a new idea, and the technology has been applied successfully in many industries. What causes the effect has been the subject of some debate, but it is generally thought that passing a conductive fluid through a properly designed magnetic field has an effect on the polar molecules in the fluid.

In wine, it is believed that the large, polymerized tannins in wine that normally result in a high degree of astringency are broken up or otherwise affected, resulting in a less astringent, ‘softer’ flavor.”

When in doubt, just make your claim more vague and remove any testable statements. The new explanation is no less bogus than the old. Tannins are large, organic molecules held together by covalent bonds, meaning that adjacent atoms share some electrons. This differentiates them from ionicly bonded compounds like salt, in which one atom essentially steals an electron from the other and the atoms stick together by electromagnetic attraction.

Big organic molecules like tannins aren’t usually “polar”, meaning that shared electrons tend to spend more time in one part of the molecule, so it tends to be positively charged at one end and negative at the other. Even if they were, they’re immersed in a solution of other polar molecules: specifically water molecules. Immersion in other polar molecules would prevent any “clumping” of tannins even if they are polar. Consequently, a magnetic field wouldn’t have any “large, polymerized tannins” to break up.

The Wine Jip’s new description is just an effort to back-pedal from an obvious falsehood to a vague, unsupported claim. An example-free reference to industrial use of magnets to treat fluids and an “it is believed” statement that doesn’t identify who makes the claim round out the new, worthless explanation of the Wine Clip’s operating principles.

Buy a Wine Clip if you want one, but you’ll be getting a $40 refrigerator magnet; it won’t have any real effect on the taste of wine.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Saltare Has Passed

Another Saltare has come and gone. I can’t say that I was thrilled with the level of planning; everything was handled in about as last-minute a fashion as I think would be humanly possible. That being said, I think the Shire of Tal Mere handled their part of the proceedings quite well; it’s not easy to arrange a site classrooms and a ballroom on short notice, and they did a pretty good job of providing both.

I didn’t have the opportunity to learn much new this year. I taught Contrapasso, Ballo del Fiore, and Laccio d’Amore, and I was pretty pleased with the turnout for all three classes. I was able to attend Lady Rachael’s class on Villanella and part of Lady Tsire’s class on Buffens… Bouffons… oh, heck, it’s not like spelling was clearly defined in the sixteenth century, so who cares?

It was nice to see a scheduled court at Saltare. I felt pressured not to schedule it when I hosted, but either the pressure went away or the autocrat ignored it. Lady Francesca got to be in the Queen’s entourage this time, and I think she found that quite amusing.

The ball started in reasonable time after court and had a good selection of dances. Lady Rachael had them culturally grouped within sets, which is an approach I probably wouldn’t have taken; I think it limits how many people will be able to participate in any given set. We had a good mix of simple and complex dances in each set, though, so it worked out fine.

Two of my favorite people did get into something of a spat during the ball, unfortunately. The less said the better, and hopefully it can all be forgiven and let lie by the next event.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Another Fencing Drill

Since the opening of Youth Fencing in the Kingdom, I’ve had a couple of younger students join our fencing group. I find new students always help me work on my technique, since I can actually slow down a bit and concentrate on executing attacks and parries properly instead of having to defend with all the speed I can muster against an experienced opponent. New students just haven’t developed the reflexes yet, and I want them to be able to see my attack coming so they can try to do the right thing to counter it.

That in mind, I developed a new drill last weekend for doing hand parries. Not that I’m the first to come up with it, mind you; I just happened to catch the drift at our last practice. The basic idea is that you have to keep a rapier-equipped opponent from stabbing you using nothing but your gloved hands. Needless to say, you’re going to need to wear full protective gear.

I teach Jeet Kune Do parries that I learned a couple of years ago for empty-hand parries in fencing. I’m sure that instructors who come from a different martial arts background will have their own favorites, but I find that the JKD parries are particularly well suited to fencing (possibly because Bruce Lee was inspired by fencing early in the development of JKD). Someday I’ll have to take some pictures of the actual moves, since using their Chinese names wouldn’t mean a thing to most people, even if I remembered them right.

UPDATE: These are now available in video form.

For the basic drill, the attacker throws three attacks in succession. The first is a high attack to the head or throat thrown from the secund guard, in which the sword his held at arms length to the side… a sort of “outside” attack. The second attack is another high shot, this time thrown from the quarta guard, in which the sword arm crosses in front of the body to throw an “inside” shot. The final attack goes toward the belly, and it’s thrown from the terza or low guard. The attacker should make these thrusts at a measured pace, making the parries easy for the defender… at first. We’ll spice up the drill later.

The defender should parry all of the attacks with the same hand. Parry the first attack to the outside (that’s the left side if you’re parrying with your left hand) using the back of the hand closest to the approaching blade. Parry the second attack by bringing your palm across to push it to the opposite side. Parry the final attack by swinging your arm straight down to push the attack to the outside. Ideally, your elbow should stay pretty still while your forearm rotates around to parry attacks.

Get good at this defense with both hands. You’ll want to get particularly good with your off hand, since it will be the one that’s empty when you’re fighting with a single rapier, and it will be your only defense if your sword is busy attacking or otherwise locked up.

When that’s starting to get too easy, advance to stage two: vary the pace of the attacks. Shorten or lengthen the delay between attacks so the defender can’t predict exactly when to parry. The defender can also start trying to grip the blade briefly during the parries.

Finally, continue the drill on the move. Both the attacker and defender should feel free to move about (using good footwork, of course). The attacker will be trying to maintain an ideal attack distance, while the defender will be trying to stay either outside of the attacker’s range or slip in close enough during a parry to score a finger-touch on the attacker.

That's all for now. I'm leaving for Saltare tomorrow.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

WoW: Into the Depths

I found some extended opportunities to play World of Warcraft over the weekend, and I used them to venture into a couple of instance dungeons: Gnomeregan and Blackfathom Deeps.

I found a group to venture into Gnomeregan with Grimbor on Saturday morning. Gnomeregan is the former capital of the Gnome civilization (hence the name), but it has been overrun by troggs and insane “Leper Gnomes”; the circumstances of the invasion are somewhat vague. Gnomes are the most prolific engineers of the WoW civilizations, and Gnomeregan is filled with whirring and spinning machinery. In fact, robotic adversaries are a significant portion of the enemies that you'll face in the dungeon. This dungeon is located in the Dun Morogh region, west of the entrance to the Dwarf capital of Ironforge.

  • After decending the elevator into Gnomeregan, turn left when you reach a balcony to head toward the entrance to the Instance.
  • Some monsters in Gnomeregan – mostly troggs near the entrance – respawn. If you get wiped in the instance, you'll probably have to fight shortly after resurrecting yourself.
  • If you see Dark Iron Dwarves, be wary of traps. They lay mines in the path, and the detonation of the mine will be followed by a brutal rush of monsters (yes, the photo below is my entire party turning all dead in just such an event).
  • Also be wary of Alarm Bots. They announce you're presence to nearby monsters, potentially creating another unsurvivable rush.
The group that went with me into Gnomeregan was not an especially good one. Apart from Healemall, who's a member of my guild, they were fairly scatterbrained. We got wiped out with annoying frequency. I did manage to complete a few quests for the dungeon, though.

Saturday evening I played Gullveig and joined a group headed into Blackfathom Deeps. The Deeps are located on northern portion of the west coast of the region of Ashenvale. I only had one Blackfathom Deeps quest, and I didn't even complete it, but I still had a better time working the deeps because the group was much better organized. In fact, we only got wiped once, and that by an encounter that was deliberately set up to be pretty brutal.

Be prepared to do a bit of swimming. The Deeps are home to an array of aquatic monsters, including Murlocks, Nagas, crab-like Snapclaws, something resembling a giant snapping turtle, and Threshadons. It's also home to the Twilight Cult, which has members of a variety of races and classes. The Aquamancers may be the most annoying: they're like Warlocks that summon water elementals. An encounter with four Aquamancers turned into the big wipe for my party. All in all, though, it was a pretty good run, and Gullveig gained a level in the process. I played Primary Healer for the group, a role that I seem to be able to hold down pretty well.

On a final note, the latest patch (1.9) to World of Warcraft made at least one very cool update. Now all of the major capital cities have auction houses. You no longer have to journey to Orgrimmar or Ironforge to get to one. I think that's a long-overdue update.

Less than a week left to Saltare!

Thursday, January 05, 2006

The Skeptic Thing

Even though it was winter in the north, where the Sun would not rise for many days and snow and ice held the land in a ferocious grip, the great Lords of skeptical thought would not rest. They had searched their realms for the claims of the foolish and credulous, and now they journeyed to the hall of Ulfsheim, where Runolfr, son of Ulf, called the Word Chooser, would host their discussion of matters unproven.

As they entered the hall, servants took their great fur coats and hung them on pegs along the walls. They seated themselves on benches around the great central fire, and more servants brought out drinking horns brimming with mead. They muttered among themselves and sipped from their horns until the last of had arrived, then Lord Runolfr rose from his seat at the head of the hall and raised his arms for silence.

“Great Lords and Ladies of the Realms of Clear Thought. Let our business begin!” he shouted. “The Skeptic Thing has begun! Rise and share your wisdom!”

Lord John McKay rose to stand upon his bench, tossed his empty drinking horn aside, and addressed the Thing. “Some people can look at a water stain and see the Virgin Mary playing canasta with Elvis. This dentist looks at a rock and sees a woolly mammoth battling a dinosaur,” he said. “The tooth-inspector in question, one Jack Cuozzo, would have us believe that scientists have been conspiring for decades to cover up the Biblical truth of our ancestry. Let his duplicity be made plain to all.”

Lord Gadfly jumped up onto a table, and all eyes turned to him. “Hear me, wise ones,” he said, “For my tongue is struck with inspiration!” Whereupon he launched into a poetic tale of his youth, and how the events of that day set him upon the path of critical thought. The assembly listened in rapt silence, then erupted with cheers at the conclusion, and the points of many drinking horns turned toward the rafters. “That is not all!” the Lord exclaimed, bringing quiet to the hall again. “In long thought, I have determined how evil undermines omnipotence.”

Now Lord Parker stood upon his bench to address the gathering. “I bring grave news of the state of medicine in the land,” he said. “The land is thronged with sickened folk who fear that tested medicines and procedures may do them more harm than the disease, and there are all to many physicians of dubious integrity willing to treat them with alternative methods” He went on to relate the latest news of just such a practitioner.

The Autism Valkyrie sprang lightly to a table top, and her voice rang across the hall. “We must all be more wary than ever, “ she said, “for I have seen that even documents that have supposedly been reviewed by qualified peers may in fact make contradictory claims.” She then elaborated in great detail about quicksilver measurements in the hair of children, and how the measurements were often higher in “normal” children than in those affected by autism.

Lord Orac now took his turn to stand and address the Thing. “As I often I do”, he began in an oddly mechanical tone, “I bring word of those who pontificate upon matters of which they know nothing. Indeed, I suspect they prefer their state of ignorance.” He continued at some length about celebrities who think they can speak with authority about the origins of life and others who simply enjoy being contrary by ranting against tried-and-true developments like vaccines before settling back onto his bench.

Lord Skeptico then stepped onto his seat. “Those who speak from ignorance or ideology are bad enough, but those who falsely claim to critically assess a subject are perhaps worse.” He then related the tale of a questioner who missed an opportunity to demand evidence from charlatans. He was not yet finished, though, and after a quick draught from his horn, he continued, “The tricks of the credulous are easy enough to spot”, he began, going on to relate the trick of using the incompleteness of science as an indictment of it.

Having heard Lord Skeptico's first story, Ryan the Skald could wait no longer and rose to sing, for he could not resist a bawdy tale about the same hypocritical effort to be skeptical of psychics. The assembly applauded and raised their horns as he returned to his seat.

Lord Max stood up as the applause subsided. “I bring a story of local woes,” he said. Evidently a cabal of tinkers had arisen in his domain who made irrational claims about how to provide energy. He ranted on for some time about this intrusion before returning to his seat to nurse his horn of mead.

Lord Max seated himself, and Lord Thursday stood. “If I were just a little bit more dishonest, I might be a very wealthy man by now,” he began. He then related not one but two thoughts on how easy it would be to become wealthy with pseudoscientific deceptions aimed at his subjects. Having spoken, he took a deep draught from his horn, as if in despair, before seating himself again.

Lord O'Donnel rose next, saying “First, the future looks grim for emerging medicinal knowledge”, he said, referring to the woes of the field of stem cell research. He then turned and raised his horn to toast Lord Orac, for as he told next, he dealt with more anti-vaccination foolishness in his own realm.

Lord EoR then stood upon his bench. “I invite the entire assembly to laugh at this deception,” he said. His tale was, indeed, mirthful, for he spun a marvelous yarn of a homeopath who claimed to have evidence too grand to be believed. “He even claims to have discovered life force,” he said in conclusion.

Lord Phil the Astronomer stood upon his bench. “Let me be the one to relate the good news!” he shouted. For the new education stewards of Dover had reversed the foolish decision of their forbears.

Lady Ditz then arose. “I have discovered yet another worthless healing claim”, she said. She expounded upon a baseless claim that hypnosis could be used to cure dyslexia.

Skald Xiphias then stood to relate a new theory that he had been working out with his family. “It all makes perfect sense, when you think about it”, he said in conclusion, although it was certainly a twisted sort of sense.

Lord Runolfr now stood a final time at he head of the hall. “It is good to hear that there are those in our lands who do not accept an extraordinary claim without sound evidence. You have all brought wise words and ways to share among us and with all the people of the land. I now charge you all to continue in your good works and teach others how to sift the claims they hear with the fine mesh of skepticism. The Skeptic Thing is ended, but we shall look forward to hearing from you again in two weeks at the Skeptic Rant.”

With that, servants came out to escort the guests to their bowers, and the hall fell silent, attended only by a few servants who brought more wood to keep the great fire burning.