Wednesday, August 30, 2006

The Great Animal Planet Disappointment

I used to watch Animal Planet quite a bit when visiting my parents or in-laws or any other acquaintances who happen to have cable. I find that now that we have cable ourselves, I’m not particularly drawn to AP, though. I’m really interested in the natural world, what animals can do, how they live, and how they evolved. That’s why the intrusion of pseudoscience into AP has cost the channel its charm.

What prompted this rant was an episode of Animal Planet’s “The Most Extreme” that I happened to catch recently. This show runs down a list of ten animals that excel in some particular feature like strength, speed, toxicity, intelligence, or such. The particular episode was a “best of the best” show, listing the examples from the top ten highest rated shows, and “most extreme senses” was apparently one of those shows. Sharks, with their electromagnetic sense, were the winner of that category on their show, I suppose.

If you’re not familiar with the format, “The Most Extreme” always tries to give you come kind of human comparison for the extreme animal’s characteristic. For example, the rhino beetle is their strength champion, and they say that to have comparable strength for their size, a human would have to be able to lift a tank. (Side note: In reality, muscle strength doesn’t scale directly with size, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.) Then they’ll go on to give examples of actual human extremes in the same field; showing record-setting Olympic weightlifters as actual examples of strength, for instance.

Getting back to the extreme senses of sharks, they mentioned that you’d need to be able to smell a hot dog stand from across town to have a comparable sense of smell, and you need to be able to detect a nine-volt battery from some ridiculous distance to have comparable sensitivity to electromagnetic fields. Then they made the grand mistake of calling the shark’s electromagnetic sense a “sixth sense” and brought out their human example: Sonya Fitzpatrick, the Pet Psychic.

For me, all of the show’s credibility abruptly dropped through the floor at that point. I watched as she went to visit an alligator farm, where the owner had supposedly called her because one of his favorite alligators wasn’t behaving normally: less socially, whatever that means for alligators. I watched as Sonya cold read the guy, saying the alligator was telling her that the man seemed unhappy (Duh! Why else would Mr. Credulous call in a psychic?); naturally he immediately volunteered that he’d recently gone through a divorce (and in a "post-reading" statement, gushed at how surprised he was that she knew about it).

As for the alligator’s less social behavior, she asked what the man had changed about the way he treated the alligator, and he helpfully informed her that he’d changed its diet to something less expensive. Acting as though it takes psychic ability to realize that a dietary change will often result in a behavioral change, she told him to change its diet back, and we got a glowing follow up of how her advice had brought the gator back to its old self and improved the man’s life.

I, on the other hand, felt a little ill after watching her shamelessly manipulate the guy. I know AP has a whole show dedicated to this woman’s supposed psychic abilities, but I hadn’t been confronted with it before. I realize that they’re a for-profit venture and that psychic shows bring in the bucks, but I don’t think it’s worth the sacrifice of their scientific integrity. I don’t watch AP anymore; they've gone from a serious science channel to a circus act..

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

More on His Royal Majesty, Godwine

In case you heard a rumor -- yes, it's true. His Royal Majesty Godwine is now an authorized fencer in the Kingdom of Meridies. I'm not sure how much of a change in attitude this actually reflects, of course. He may never have had the intense dislike for fencing that some people claimed he had. He may have just not liked it until he tried it, and someone persuaded him to give it a go. For all I know, he may still dislike it, but he became authorized so that he would at least have an informed opinion. Whatever the case may be, I am very glad to have learned of this development.

I am informed that His Majesty will be present on the fencing field at the coronation of his successor, His Royal Highness Gunther. I am looking forward to the opportunity to go a few rounds with him at the event, and I hope a lot of other Meridien fencers will be there, as well.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Another Free Energy Claim

This one came up in a forum that I frequent, but the original article was in Yahoo news. An Irish company called Steorn claims to have developed a free energy technology. Now, they’re challenging the world to prove they didn’t.

DUBLIN (AFP) - An Irish company has thrown down the gauntlet to the worldwide scientific community to test a technology it has developed that it claims produces free energy.

The company, Steorn, says its discovery is based on the interaction of magnetic fields and allows the production of clean, free and constant energy -- a concept that challenges one of the basic rules of physics.

The rule in question, of course, is the thermodynamic principle of conservation of energy: no process produces more energy than it consumes. Steorn claims to have broken that rule, and such a big claim should come with equally big evidence. What evidence is Steorn providing?
Steorn issued its challenge through an advertisement in the Economist magazine this week quoting Ireland's Nobel prize-winning author George Bernard Shaw who said that "all great truths begin as blasphemies".

Sean McCarthy, Steorn's chief executive officer, said they had issued the challenge for 12 physicists to rigorously test the technology so it can be developed.

"What we have developed is a way to construct magnetic fields so that when you travel round the magnetic fields, starting and stopping at the same position, you have gained energy," McCarthy said.

"The energy isn't being converted from any other source such as the energy within the magnet. It's literally created. Once the technology operates it provides a constant stream of clean energy," he told Ireland's RTE radio.
So far I’m unimpressed. For starters, a magnet doesn’t contain energy (other than the inherent “heat” energy that all matter contains if its temperature is higher than absolute zero). A magnetic field is much like a gravitational field; an object moving through it can exchange energy with the magnet, just as an object moving through Earth’s gravitational field can exchange energy with the Earth. Spinning a coil around a magnet is a standard method of generating electricity, but you have to have some other kind of energy to spin the coil. You’re just changing one kind of energy into another, and losing some in the process due to inefficiency. McCarthy’s description doesn’t sound any different, in principle.

I doubt if physicists will rush to Steorn to test the technology based on this “challenge”. It’s up to Steorn to publish their research in some reputable scientific journals if they want scientific credibility. If they just want to make money, they should keep their discovery to themselves until it’s marketable. Instead of either of the sensible approaches, they’ve come out with a publicity stunt, which never bodes well.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Chocolate Mary

Color me slack: I didn’t get an article together in time for this week’s Skeptics’ Circle. Something turned up this morning, though, so here’s my late entry.

Yet another example of pareidolia in the news this week, this time a lump of waste chocolate that triggered someones religious sensibilities.

FOUNTAIN VALLEY, Calif. - As a chocolatier to the rich and famous, Martucci Angiano has posed with many celebrities — but on Thursday she held in her hand a figure that dazzles her more than any Hollywood star.

Workers at Angiano's gourmet chocolate company, Bodega Chocolates, discovered under a vat a 2-inch-tall column of chocolate drippings that they believe bears a striking resemblance to the Virgin Mary.
-- Article

Actually, it looks like a perched hawk to me. Naturally, religious employees at the chocolate company are idolizing the little lump of hardened goo. At least it looks like the Angianos plan to keep this blob instead of selling it on Ebay like most of the folks who “discover” such things do.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Scenes from Beggar's Rebellion

Rhys was good enough to bring his video camera to Beggar's Rebellion to get some shots of the activities. We had grand plans for taping drills and tourneys and a great variety of fencing action, but unfortunately their battery wasn't up to the task. It faded before we even finished warming up. Thus, we are left with just this video of Hawk and I warming up with swords and canes.

I don't think it quite lives up to the music Rhys chose. We need to do dramatic death scenes if we're going to go all Hollywood with the soundtrack.

Sunday, August 13, 2006


Fjorleif and I went to Beggar's Rebellion this weekend, and there were a couple of fencing tournaments during the day. My good lady wife and I walked away with both of the prizes. I can claim to have had a combination of skill and luck that enabled me to win the bright, shiny new buckler with which I shall be blinding my foes and blocking their attacks, but Fjorleif freely admits that her victory was pure guile.

The tournament that she won was a "battle for the pig". Feodor placed a large plastic pig in the field, and the object of the tournament was to make off with it, either by eliminating the competition or by running fifteen feet with it without being intercepted. Fjorleif got hold of the pig and ran with it in the second round, not bothering to engage anyone in actual combat.

The other winners of the initial three rounds were Hawk and Mattheus, and the three of them squared (or, rather, triangled) off for a final free-for-all deathmatch. Both of the guys took two swords, while Fjorleif took my sword and dagger. My good lady wife again avoided combat until Hawk was good enough to kill Mattheus for her. She then played a retreating game until Hawk got impatient and rushed her. She was able to tangle up both his swords during the charge and jab him with the dagger, winning the tournament.

Let that be a lesson to you. Cleverness and treachery can easily outperform skill and talent.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Distillations of Defense

Distillations of Defense is the title I put on my first effort to extract the most useful information from an abridged version of Joseph Swetnam's 1617 book, The Schoole of the Noble and Worthy Science of Defence. I've since obtained scanned versions of the whole thing, and I'm working on transcribing it before I actually go back to pulling out the good stuff. I've gotten through much of the introductory material, where I came upon this comment from Swetnam...

"I have made this of brick and stones, as Augustus said of Rome at the first, but now Rome is built with marble: even so I would wish that some expert and learned person or other would pull down this rude begin work of mine and build it up with marble."

Well, maybe I -- a professional technical writer -- am the expert he sought. I have only a fraction of the fencing experience of Swetnam, but from grinding through his prose I can say that I know a hell of a lot more about writing than he did. In my transcribing effort so far, he has tried and failed something like five times to conclude his "Epistle to the common Reader"; he just can't seem to stop diving off into tangents. His spelling is inconsistent; his grammar is horrendous; and he has absolutely no concept of how to use punctuation. In his defense, I doubt these are unusual failings of Jacobean writers.

But I shall persevere, and hopefully I'll have a concise, coherent manual of Swetnam's fencing style by the time I finish. Excerpts will likely show up here from time-to-time as I progress.

In the meantime, please try not to write like Joseph Swetnam.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Cure for Allergies?

I heard an interesting folk remedy while listening to talk radio recently. Callers to the show claimed that consuming raw local honey would reduce or eliminate allergy symptoms. The reasoning behind the claim is that honey contains a lot of pollen from local flowers that might be causing allergy symptoms, and exposure to this pollen through the honey allows the allergy sufferer to develop resistance to the pollen.

This sounded dubious to me. I figured that exposing someone to allergens in honey would just cause them to have symptoms. Allergy symptoms are just an out-of-control immune reaction; I know of no way to reduce allergic reactions through greater exposure to the allergens.

Nonetheless a quick search the internet found this claim being promoted on a lot of sites. wasn't enthusiastic, but didn’t rule out the possibility either.
My husband and I decided to give the local honey a try. My husband after just a few days noticed a significant difference in the way he felt. After one day of taking a teaspoon of local honey, my allergy symptoms got worse. I even tried a second day, but I continued to feel rotten so I discontiued using the honey.
On the other hand is a big promoter of the idea:
An Oklahoma allergist told a meeting of 150 beekeepers that raw honey is an effective treatment for 90 per cent of all allergies. Dr. William G. Peterson, an allergist from Ada in the 1950's, said he now has 22,000 patients across the nation who are using raw honey along with more customary medications to relieve allergy symptoms.

"It must be raw honey because raw honey contains all the pollen, dust and molds that cause 90 per cent of all allergies," he told a meeting of the Oklahoma Beekeepers Association. "What happens is that the patient builds up an immunity to pollen, dust or mold that is causing his trouble in the first place. The raw honey must "not be strained, not even through a cloth." he added. "I know the customer wants good, clear strained honey, and that's fine, but for health reasons, raw honey is what we need."
If only Dr. Peterson’s statements constituted real evidence. Unfortunately, he has only provided a wealth of anecdotes. He has lots of patients using raw honey, but they’re also taking conventional allergy medications. What’s really needed is a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study to determine whether honey actually reduces allergy symptoms. Conveniently, a summary of such a study is available from PubMed.

Department of Pathology, UConn Health Center, Farmington 06030-3105, USA.

BACKGROUND: Allergic rhinoconjunctivitis is a common disorder, affecting >20% of people of all socioeconomic strata. Despite this high prevalence, relatively few sufferers seek professional medical help, presumably because of a widespread reliance on complementary remedies.

OBJECTIVE: We investigated the widely held belief among allergy-sufferers that regular ingestion of honey ameliorates the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

METHODS: The study was conducted at the University of Connecticut Health Center's Lowell P. Weicker General Clinical Research Center. Thirty-six participants who complained of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis were recruited. All recruits were scratch-tested at entry for common aeroallergens. The cohort was randomly assigned to one of three groups, with one receiving locally collected, unpasteurized, unfiltered honey, the second nationally collected, filtered, and pasteurized honey, and the third, corn syrup with synthetic honey flavoring. They were asked to consume one tablespoonful a day of the honey or substitute and to follow their usual standard care for the management of their symptoms. All participants were instructed to maintain a diary tracking 10 subjective allergy symptoms, and noting the days on which their symptoms were severe enough to require their usual antiallergy medication.

RESULTS: Neither honey group experienced relief from their symptoms in excess of that seen in the placebo group.

CONCLUSIONS: This study does not confirm the widely held belief that honey relieves the symptoms of allergic rhinoconjunctivitis.

Emphasis mine.

This was a pretty small study, of course, having only 36 participants, so it’s just a preliminary result. Nonetheless, it’s a preliminary result that seems to refute claims that eating raw honey will reduce allergy symptoms. Furthermore, a number of the websites discussing the subject noted that some people actually had worse symptoms after taking raw honey (which is what I would expect if the honey actually contains something to which the person might react).

Pending further study, I’d say its reasonable to assume that eating lots of raw honey does not reduce allergy symptoms, and eating honey containing your specific allergens might actually cause an attack. Be smart: take your medication and get your honey filtered.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Free Plug: Ask the Vet

One of my high school classmates became a veterinarian, and she now has a radio talk show called Ask the Vet in Knoxville, TN, on WNOX on Sunday mornings starting at 10am Eastern time. The funny thing is that she told me she was tired of the veterinary practice because she'd grown weary of having to explain for the millionth time why pet owners needed to get heartworm medication. So now she answers questions for two hours straight every week, and I know from listening to talk radio that they won't all be really smart questions. Well, maybe if you get the answer to enough people at a time, the question doesn't have to be asked as often.

Anyway, if you happen to dwell in the Knoxville area or expect to be passing through on a Sunday morning, tune to 100.3 FM to pick up Tracy's show. You can also download previous shows from the archived show page.