Friday, December 29, 2006

Chocolate Chicanery

By way of the Skepchicks, I learned of how a food writer in Dallas applied a little skepticism and investigative skill to an incredibly audacious marketing scheme perpetrated upon the chocolate lovers of the world. Read about it at Dallas Food.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Ear Stapling

Once again I find myself muscling in on Orac’s territory. I passed through Foley, Alabama, a few times over the holidays, and on one trip I noticed a shop advertising “ear stapling” for smoking cessation and weight loss.

According to the Ear Stapling Association, the procedure is derived from ancient Chinese acupuncture.

An interesting claim from the site…

“Ear stapling has been around for decades. It has been scientifically proven that different points in the ear demonstrate high electricity that is related to different points of the body. When the body is stressed, unbalanced, or even diseased, an increase of energy is put out. In theory, energy flow is enhanced to this area of the body. This is how the staple works, by tapping into the energy flow called Chi.”

Naturally the claim that “It has been scientifically proven that different points in the ear demonstrate high electricity that is related to different points of the body” doesn’t include a reference. Don’t they know that when you make a claim of scientific support, you’re supposed to identify the source? Ads for pharmaceuticals are covered with fine print referring to the studies conducted to prove that their products are both safe and effective. Unfortunately, purveyors of woo are held to a much lower standard.

Here’s another good give-away quote…

“It is believed that one ear is more effective than the other.”

When people start telling you about something that “is believed” without specifying who believes it and why they believe it, you know you’re dealing with a claim that has no legitimate supporting evidence.

“Ear Stapling is perfectly safe and there are no side effects regarding any medical condition.”

The safety claim is quite valid; useless treatments are quite often harmless treatments. Ear stapling is certainly no more dangerous than a cosmetic ear piercing, and millions of people have gotten those without harm. It’s also a no-brainer that ear stapling should have no medical side effects, since there’s no evidence that it has any medical effects at all, good or bad.

“Within the first seven days 90% of our participants report an average weight loss of 4-5 pounds. Our participants that wish to stop smoking have reported to us that within the first 24 hours their craving for cigarettes is cut almost in half.”

I daresay the results are probably the same for any other placebo; people tend to be motivated immediately after they’ve undergone a painful and costly procedure to help them with a specific behavioral problem. Of course, Dr. Martinez doesn’t provide any long-term success statistics for his patients. Information like that would probably be damning, if it were collected and examined properly.

Ear stapling is a good way to lose some money and take a small risk of infection to accomplish nothing of consequence.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Skepticality and Silliness

The 50th Skeptics' Circle is up over at Humbug Online. If you're reading this, you probably already read my entry, but there's plenty of other good skepticism to take in at this week's circle.

Also, Reiblue introduced me to the following bit if internet silliness. The result I got amuses me so much that I feel compelled to share.

My Peculiar Aristocratic Title is:
His Highness Runolfr the Apocalyptic of Lesser Wobbleton
Get your Peculiar Aristocratic Title

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Creationism in Video Game Form

In case you didn't know, the authors of the Left Behind book series have authorized a computer game called Left Behind: Eternal Forces. This is a "real time simulation" game, similar to games like Warcraft (not World of Warcraft, which is a "massively multiplayer online role-playing game"), Starcraft, Command & Conquer, and an assortment of other games that require a balance of tactical skill, strategic resource management, and mouse-clicking dexterity.

If you're not familiar with the premise, the game begins after the Biblical Rapture has occurred, and millions of people have abruptly disappeared. Those "Left Behind" have to choose sides in the final struggle on Earth between God and the Devil. It's fundamentalism all the way as you wage war against the forces of the other side (I understand that in at least some modes, you can play "the Devil's advocate") to gain the most converts and eliminate the most enemies. If you guessed that this game was a fundamentalist proselytization tool aimed at the the young video-gaming crowd, you'd be right. You can read a review at Ars Technica.

Of particular interest is a capture of an "informational" screen in the game...

I suppose it shouldn't surprise me that a fundie video game peddles the same anti-science cliches that fill all Creationist websites and literature, but it's still annoying.

In their "Evolution for Fundies" definition, they use the oft-repeated claim that genetic variation and adaptation within a species (what they call "micro-evolution") is no reason to think that new species can diverge from such populations (what they call "macro-evolution"). Apparently they think that some magical barrier exists that keeps the adaptations from continuing and populations from becoming so dissimilar that they can no longer be considered the same species. They ask "Is it scientifically credible to use the genetic changes within a species to argue that these same mechanisms can progressively transform one species into a more successful and adapted new species?"

The question is phrased poorly, but the nutshell answer is "Yes." It is scientifically credible to argue that in a varied population, the individuals that are best adapted to the environment will have the most reproductive success, and their genes will become more common in future generations. It is scientifically credible to argue that the same mechanisms that create variation within a species can also cause populations to become non-interbreeding and progressively less similar (in both form and genetic makeup) as they adapt to different environments and ways of life. It is scientifically credible to argue that the same mechanism that drives "micro-evolution" would naturally lead to "macro-evolution". The creationists may think it's a rhetorical question, and maybe it is, but they certainly have the answer backwards.

Naturally they escalate from the question of biological evolution to universal cosmology as if the topics were the same. Why should we expect anything new from creationists? They even throw in an out-of-context quote to seal the deal.

Edit: Researching it further, the quote from Sir Arthur Keith -- "Evolution is unproved and unprovable. We believe it because the only alternative is special creation, and that is unthinkable." -- appears to be a creationist fabrication. There is no credible evidence that he said any such thing.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

The Abbatoir

If you're a vegetarian, or you otherwise think deer are so cute and cuddly that nothing bad should ever happen to them, click away to another site right now. This is going to be a fairly gruesome combination of pictures and descriptions.

I'm not a vegetarian. I also think that people who are going to eat meat should be willing to get their hands dirty. Too many people think meat comes from the grocery store. My grandfather took me hunting a couple of times when I was younger. I didn't kill anything on those trips, but I did pull the trigger with intent to kill a couple of times, so I'm comfortable with my place at the top of the food chain. I also helped clean and cut up the kills that other hunters made; I got over my squeamishness pretty quickly. I prefer to let others do the dirty work these days, but I will get in there when the need arises. I must admit that my good lady wife did most of the work on this occasion, but I did lend a hand as needed.

So, my father-in-law shot a deer for us a few weeks ago. It spent some time in the freezer, then a few days hanging in the cool wintery air, and today it came into the house to be dismembered. The loft design of our house, with exposed rafters, makes this process much easier, but lugging around over a hundred pounds of dead weight (yeah, pun intended) is still no easy task. Still, we managed to get the deer from its hanging place in the barn to a new hanging place in the house without too much trouble.

The hanging, by the way, reported takes away some of the "gamey" taste that turns some people off venison and tenderizes the meat by stretching out the tissue. The "aging" process needs to occur in temperatures of around 40 degrees Fahrenheit and low humidity. It will take three to ten days, depending on temperatures. This is a bit creepy, but if you find a bit of mold growing inside the rib cage, that's actually a good sign. Where you have mold, you don't have nasty bacteria. Basically, if it's gotten slimy and stinky, it may no longer be safe. I suppose you could wash any visible mold from parts you plan to eat, but we're actually making jerky treats for our dogs from those.

I didn't think to immortalize the earliest stages of the process in pictures, so you don't have to witness the beheading and skinning of the beast. Basically, the decapitation involves cutting a ring around the neck all the way to the spine, then popping the vertebrae apart. Skinning requires cutting the skin away starting at the legs (from which the deer is suspended) and then pulling with all your weight while using a skinning knife to help the skin separate from the underlying muscle.

With the hide off, the true dismemberment began. This basically involves separating large tracts of muscle from the bone, starting with my lady's favorite cut: the backstrap. Once the assorted cuts are removed, they get washed (my job!) and refrigerated until they can be further cut down into individual servings.

The hide went into a plastic bag and then into the freezer, hopefully to eventually go into someone's leatherworking project. Assorted bones and other unpalatable bits of the animal went to a compost pile, except for a few bones that went to some extremely happy dogs.

If you're one of my local readers, and you want a deer hide for tanning, let me know.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Think Before You Bleed

As I donated blood today, an incident happened on one of the other couches. The donor became light-headed and nauseous shortly after starting to donate. The following conversation ensued…

NURSE: Did you eat breakfast this morning?
NURSE: What did you have for supper last night?
DONOR: (head shake with mumbled negative)
NURSE: What were you thinking donating blood when you didn’t eat dinner last night or breakfast this morning?

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Am I Obsessed?

My lady wife and I went to the Level 88 Jazz Bistro in downtown Nashville last night. They have a decent menu, a pretty good bar, and they had a really good band (which I expect is the norm for them). Plenty of customers get up and dance, as well.

Which lead to my obsessive-compulsive problem. Listening to all the jazz music and watching the dancers, I couldn't help but notice that all the songs were in 4/4 time, which means it would be easy to match them to English Country or Renaissance Italian dances. Now I need to get myself a jazz album.

How weird is that?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

How Do You Know So Much About Swallows?

If you ever wanted to really know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, there's now a website to answer the question.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Pewter Casting with Two-Part Molds

After many delays – not all avoidable – I have revisited my pewter casting work. I’ll start off by thanking my good lady wife Jolief, who assisted with every step of the process in this second effort at pewter casting.

I’ll also say upfront that this particular effort serves as an excellent proof of concept for casting items in two-part molds, but my skills as a sculptor have a long way to go.

Our first step in this new casting project was to prepare the mold. In our case, we carved our “negative” into just one block of soapstone. I’m not ready to attempt two-sided objects just yet, so the back of the medallion we produced is flat. This isn’t a particularly complicated design. It’s really just an image of a shoe, intended for use as an “Order of the Argent Slipper” medallion.

We completed this mold in one day by taking turns at the carving and using modern technological assistance. This isn’t intended to be an A&S competition piece, so I’m not concerned about taking such shortcuts.

With the design complete, the next step was to carve a path to let metal into the mold and additional paths to let air escape. After doing that, all I needed to do was clamp a flat, blank piece of soapstone onto the carved mold, heat some pewter, and pour it down the funnel.

I was surprised at how easily this part of the process worked after the difficulties I had with my attempt at an open-faced mold. The mold filled completely (and often overflowed) on every single try, producing consistent finished pieces that showcased every imperfection in my carving technique with exquisite detail.

Realizing that the initial effort to make the sole of the shoe separate from the rest of it resulted in an image that looked more like an ice skate, we attempted some correction work on the mold. It’s rather convenient to be able to do touch-up work on the mold this way, then make a new run of castings. Alas, the second round of medallions weren’t that much of an improvement.

Nonetheless, we have now established that two-part pewter castings of this type work very well with the pewter alloy that I have available. For my next effort, I will probably attempt this same work again from scratch, trying to remember that the finished product will be a mirror image of the original (so the shoe points the way I intended) and hand-carving the design to hopefully reduce the number of tool marks in the finished pieces.

EDIT: See my even-more-embarrassing first attempt.