The media’s not thinking fourth dimensionally!

October 28, 2010

Many people have been taking over the past few days about the time traveler…or rather the alleged time traveler. If you haven’t heard the story, someone noticed something unusual in a 1928 Charlie Chaplin movie, The Circus. Take a look at the clip:

And here’s the finder of the clip giving his take:

I love this story! I gotta admit, it really does look like the woman is holding a modern cell phone to her ear.

And while I’ve heard many more reasonable explanations than time travel, an obvious flaw in the time traveler theory that I thought of immediately was the fact that even if we were to accept the time traveler theory and assume the they’re talking to another time traveler, how are they getting reception. I just got an iPhone last month and so I had to switch to AT&T. And even in 2010, I’m having occasional reception problems from one of the biggest phone companies in the world. So how exactly does someone get any reception in 1928 without any cell phone towers? Obviously some people just aren’t thinking fourth dimensionally! Think McFly! Think!


Western Electric 34A carbon hearing aid from 1925

Of course as to what is really going on here, here’s one possible explanation. Someone pointed me to the Western Electric 34A carbon hearing aid, which was manufactured by the Western Electric Company in 1925. The timing is right and it certainly looks like it could be what we’re seeing. And of course it would be held up to the ear. Another good explanation is that whatever is in the hand, if anything, is just some random object and what’s really going on is this individual is trying to shield their eyes from the sun or bright lights from the production.

In any event, this does make for a fun little mystery.

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Paul the Psychic Octopus is dead

October 26, 2010

Paul: January 2008 – October 26, 2010

Paul the Psychic Octopus died today. I’m told he went quietly in his sleep. I have to say, unlike the conflicted PZ Myers, I rather liked Paul. He was in fact my favorite “psychic” out there.

To his credit, he did one thing most sham psychics fail at, predictive accuracy. He correctly “predicted” the outcome of 8 out of 8 games in the 2010 World Cup. I mean, not bad for a little cephalopod. Sure it was just a string of 50/50 chance occurrences, but hey, John Edwards didn’t predict all 8 games. Nor did Sylvia Browne or Alison Dubois. Let’s face it. Paul smoked ’em all.

But of course the main reason I liked Paul was that he demonstrated quite well how idiotic all this psychic nonsense really is.

Here’s to you, Paul, the greatest psychic fraud of all time.

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Boyscouts tell gay dad it doesn’t get better

October 25, 2010

This image never gets old

Over the last week or two, we’ve seen an unprecedented show of support for the gay community via the “It Gets Better” campaign. But unfortunately, the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) doesn’t seem to have gotten the message:

The father of a 9-year-old Cub Scout said Tuesday he has been forced out of a leadership role with the organization and ordered not to wear its uniform because of his sexual orientation.

The BSA is still holding strong to their anti-gay and anti-atheist bigotry. Click the link above to see CNN’s video report on the controversy.

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Chupacabra just coyote with scabies?

October 25, 2010

According to University of Michigan biologist Barry OConnor, Skepacabra’s less skeptical cousin, the chupacabra is just a coyote with sarcoptic mange (a.k.a. scabies). He bases this conclusion on photos of the corpes of alleged chupacabras, which he says tend show them to be shriveled, hairless, and canine-looking.

Well sure, if you look at the evidence, that might make sense. But isn’t it more fun to just imagine chupacabras are real? I mean with evidence you can disprove anything: leprechauns, unicorns, dragons, space aliens, Big Foot, Man Bear Pig…

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Jake Crosby is a big pharma shill

October 25, 2010


Big Pharma shill?

If you’ve spent any time debating vaccine deniers, you know that you must be a big pharma shill…because you’ve definitely been accused of such if you’ve ever debated vaccine deniers. It is by far the most popular argument the anti-vaccine movement use because they rarely know anything about the science and so must attempt to discredit their opponents. Cause when you’ve got nothing of any substance to argue, why not just try to poison the well?

And there are no shortage of examples of this gambit being used by anti-vaxxers:

The “pharma shill” gambit by David Gorski

LA Times – “Childhood vaccines, autism and the dangers of group think”  By JAMES RAINEY

Barack Obama: A pro-vaccine pharma shill who doesn’t care about autistic children?” by Orac

The Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour has begun” by David Gorski

Paul Offit on Dateline NBC: The $29 Million Vaccine Man?

Brian Deer Interviewed by Matt Lauer on Dateline NBC Dr. Wakefield Program

When critics disagree with me, I’m a Pharma Shill. When critics disagree with a woman, it gets sexual.” By Abel Pharmboy

Demonizing “Big Pharma” by Steven Novella

Conspiracy Mongering at Age of Autism” by Steven Novella

I could go on but you get the idea.

But I can think of no anti-vaxxer who uses this tactic more than young Jake Crosby, who seems to never even try to make any other argument but to accuse absolutely everyone of being a big pharma shill (see:  here, here, here, here, here, and here).

Crosby and his ilk seem to go out of their way to find any loose association between their critics and any pharmaceutical organization and then apply a classic McCarthyist guilt by association accusation against those critics. And of course when most of your critics are actual medical professionals, it’s not hard to find some loose connection to the industry that literally manufactures the products they use.

For instance, recently David Gorski reported on the hit piece young Jake Crosby was writing against him. First, Crosby emailed Gorski about an alleged “conflict of interest” that he claimed Gorski did not disclose on his blog. The claim was that Wayne State University stands to benefit from Sanofi-Aventis money, and since Gorski works for Washington State University, that creates a conflict. But even before Crosby published his “article,” Gorski emailed him back and specifically stated that he does not receive any money from Sanofi-Aventis or any other pharmaceutical company, nor was he likely to any time in the foreseeable future. Then Crosby went ahead and ignored Gorski’s words and wrote:

Dr. Gorski has been funded over the last decade by institutional funds, the Department of Defense, the National Cancer Institute, the ASCO Foundation, and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. He currently receives no funding from pharmaceutical companies, although he did once receive a modest payment for an invention from such a company back in the mid-1990s. Indeed, so bereft of pharmaceutical funding is Dr. Gorski that before his talks, when he is required to make his disclosures of conflicts of interest, he often jokes that no pharmaceutical company is interested enough in his research to want to give him any money. Maybe one day that will change, but for now, like most biomedical scientists in academia, he must beg the NIH and other granting agencies for the money to keep his lab going.

This is the kind of tenuous connections vaccine deniers exploit to invent their nonexistent conspiracies.

But then I noticed a new article on the vaccine denialist propaganda site Age of Autism that was being reposted from a piece Crosby had written for his student publication, Brandeis University Magazine.

So I thought it’d be fun to play investigative reporter Jake Crosby-style. Let’s see. Crosby is a student at Brandeis University, which is hosting a Biotech, Healthcare & Science Summit in November that includes pharmaceutical industry professionals on the panel. And other participating employers who are involved include Merck, Acceleron Pharma, Adnexus Pharmaceuticals (Bristol-Myers Squibb), Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, Cubist Pharmaceuticals, Merrimack Pharmaceuticals, and Novartis. And Novartis signed an license agreement with another company that obtained an exclusive worldwide license with sublicensing rights to the technology from Brandeis University.

And if I keep digging, is there any doubt I couldn’t find more ties between Brandeis University and pharmaceutical companies? Yet Mr. Crosby never mentioned this possible conflict of interest on Age of Autism. What’s he trying to hide?

Of course I’m being silly but this is precisely how anti-vaxxers justify dismissing their critics out of hand without addressing the actual science.

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Italian Catholics against the human body

October 24, 2010

Over the weekend, I came across two news stories that seem to share a theme. The first is the story of Ileana Tacconelli, 28-year-old Italian model turned teacher who may now lose her job because she is “too sexy to teach.


So despite Tacconelli’s being completely qualified to do her job, the administrators at St Carl Catholic School in Milan are under pressure to fire the former Miss Abruzzo after a single clearly crazy mother withdrew her 12-year-old daughter on account of Tacconelli’s former life as a model.

One mum said: ‘She is not fit to teach young children. She is too sexy and it is too distracting.’ 

Too sexy? Fortunately, men like sexy women, so Tacconelli has gained the support of dads at the school who have formed a pressure group to save her from their wives.

Suffice it to say, if this were an American school, this school would be facing a 6 or 7-figure lawsuit they’d almost certainly lose unless the jury were entirely made up of sexist men.But it’s a Catholic school in Italy, so it can get away with anything…especially since young boys are around.

The other story I came across also involved Italy and also involved prudishness where the female body is concerned. An Italian seaside town is planning to pass a ban on miniskirts and “other revealing clothing” :

“Nothing too revealing” is the new policy Mayor Bobbio wants to enforce, says the BBC’s Duncan Kennedy in Rome.

That means a tough new dress code which would effectively outlaw everything from miniskirts to low-cut jeans when people walk around Castellammare di Stabia, our correspondent adds.

Mr Bobbio, from the centre-right People of Freedom party, says he wants to target people who are “rowdy, unruly or simply badly behaved”.

"I really think Musictown is torn on the revealing garment issue. "

So he wants to crack down on girls he personally considers to be naughty.

Oh, and there’s more:

There will also be a ban on sunbathing, playing football in public places, and blasphemy, if the proposals are approved at a council meeting on Monday.

In other places they have banned sandcastles, kissing in cars, feeding stray cats, wooden clogs and the use of lawn mowers at weekends.

And I suspect they’ll also soon try to pass bans on stepping on cracks, wearing pockadots, and putting squirrels down your pants for the purposes of gambling.

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Richard Dawkins Foundation charity victim of alleged embezzlement

October 23, 2010
Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science
Image via Wikipedia

In 2006, Richard Dawkins hired Josh Timonen to run the website for his organization, the Richard Dawkins Foundation and produce videos for him. And since 2007, Timonen has been doing that.

However, over three years, Timonen reported the website’s online store, the proceeds of which were to go to the foundation, only made $30,000 and “was just squeaking by.” But upon further inspection, Dawkins reported that in actuality, the online store made $375,000 while Timonen made off with 92% of the proceeds.

How does Timonen explain this discrepancy?

According to Timonen’s own records, Dawkins and the Foundation paid Timonen a total of $278,750 in 3½ years – an amount Dawkins calls “exceedingly generous and well above-market for someone of Timonen’s age and experience, particularly for someone providing the bulk of his efforts to a charitable organization.”
Dawkins says Timonen was “24 or 25 years old” when he hired him.

Dawkins says he found out about the scam this year, when the Foundation decided to wrest control of the store from Timonen.
Timonen handed over financial books that detailed his embezzlement, Dawkins says, including $500 meals, trips to Timberline Lodge in Oregon and the Malibu Beach Inn, and $314,000 in “salaries” paid to Timonen and his girlfriend -though Timonen and the Foundation agreed that the $278,000 it was aware of paying him would be his combined salary for running the store and performing his other duties.
Timonen’s “significantly older” girlfriend, defendant Maureen Norton, allegedly used at least $100,000 of the charity’s money to upgrade her Sherman Oaks home before she put it on the market.
A recent real estate listing describes improvements such as a “custom backyard pool and spa area with a wonderful waterfall and glass block fire pit plus custom seating for the ultimate outdoor living and entertaining experience,” according to the complaint.

When Dawkins discovered the embezzlement, he says, Timonen suddenly claimed he owned the intellectual rights to the store’s website, the Foundation logo and the DVDs that he sold through the store.
But Dawkins says anything Timonen created for the Foundation was “a work for hire, commissioned and paid for by plaintiffs.” Dawkins says he and the Foundation own the rights to everything Timonen created for them.

Wow. This kid’s got some balls.

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Robot News 10.18.10

October 19, 2010

I found two interesting robot-related news stories.

1. First, Australian computer scientist Graham Mann is working on developing algorithms to simulate day-dreaming. Believing that an intelligent system requires built-in emotions to function, he set out to translate the “feel” of Aesop’s Fables for machines. In other words, his goal was to achieve more flexible processing of storylines, which were deemed “simple and short enough to represent as conceptual graph data structures”.

His algorithm was based on Plutchick’s Wheel of Emotions, which illustrated emotions as a colour wheel and disallowed mutually exclusive states – like joy and sadness – from being experienced simultaneously.

The machine freely associated three stories: The Thirsty Pigeon; The Cat and the Cock; and The Wolf and the Crane.

When queried on the association, the machine responded: “I felt sad for the bird.”

No, the machine’s not really feeling sad, but it seems to be able to recognize that that’s an appropriate human-like reaction to the story.  And that in itself might be a major accomplishment in the continued pursuit of AI.

2. The other story isn’t so much news as already available footage that was new to me of the rat-brain-controlled robot. If you hadn’t heard about this before, researchers had previously used the brain cells of rats, cultured them, and then in true Robocop fashion, used them as the guidance control circuit for simple wheeled robots. The cells are able to form new connections that turn the machine into a true learning robot. If this isn’t a huge step forward on the path to AI I don’t know what is.

Take a look at this robot that is literally being controlled by biological cells:

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The Simpsons are not Catholics!

October 19, 2010

It seems the Vatican has done something they’ve never ever done before, made a mistake. [snicker]

But seriously though, the Catholic Church has for the second time given praise to the TV show The Simpsons, a show that at one time was pretty universally despised by religious groups. And for good reason. The show’s creator, Matt Groening, is an atheist and the writers have never shied away from mocking the absurdity of just about every religion (except the cult of $cientology, the “church” that the woman who voices Bart Simpson is part of).

The weird part of this news is that the Vatican has declared the Simpson family Catholics even though their church has already been well established as “Presbylutheran,” an amusingly fictitious Christian sect.

But executive producer Al Jean told Entertainment Weekly on Monday he was in “shock and awe” at the latest assertion, adding that the Simpsons attend the “Presbylutheran” First Church of Springfield.

“We’ve pretty clearly shown that Homer is not Catholic,” Jean said. “I really don’t think he could go without eating meat on Fridays — for even an hour.”

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Vaccine denialists declare first week of November Vaccine Awareness Week

October 18, 2010

I've been infected! OH NOES!!

I just got my flu vaccination today, so that may mean the zombie apocalypse has begun. But it seems quite appropriate that the day I got my vaccine, anti-vaxxers Barbara Loe Fisher and Joe Mercola declared November 1-6 “Vaccine Awareness Week” (VAW). Of course their real agenda is to use this time as a vaccine misinformation week. But the defenders of science-based medicine are more than happy to embrace this week themselves and, thanks to Orac, are now planning to organize to take vaccine awareness back from the ideologues.

Steven Novella is also game as is PalMD. And they’re inviting other science bloggers to join in writing articles debunking anti-vaxxer bullshit.

Now they’re collecting their own army of expert bloggers but even though I’m not a medical professional or even a scientist, I’ve certainly got an intermediate understanding of many of the facts that anti-vaxxers ignore and so am more than happy to help at least drown out some of the anti-vaxxer noise that week with some good information. So stay tuned. If they want a vaccine awareness week, we’ll give ’em one.

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