Reimagined and Revamped. Fighting the spread of nonsense often feels like a Sisyphean task. However, the joy is in making the information available, not the hope of conversion.

Skeptic's circle 106

The latest circle is up at Disillusioned Words. Get your latest skeptical goodness there.

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Discovery News Follows the New Scientists Act

The latest on the war against "Toxins" from discovery news.

Good news:

...the levels in people in the United States are lower than they were two years ago," said Donald Patterson, formerly of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and now president of a company called EnviroSolutions Consulting
Bad News:
...we can still measure them," added Linda Birnbaum, director of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in Research Triangle Park
Then they go on to list all the bad actors they were able to measure.
The chemicals in question include dioxins, PCBs, DDT, and a variety of other pesticides, insecticides, and fungicides, many of which are banned. All belong to a group of chemicals known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs).
They measured levels of 68 of these bad actors (and most of these are, in fact, in high enough doses, certainly bad actors) in 1800 people. Good work. Not once in the entire article did they mention either of two relevant things:
  1. What were the concentrations?
  2. What were the negative health effects that arose from these concentrations?

Why would they leave out that information? Here is why: Its because we can measure concentrations that are far, far lower than is relevant with respect to health. We measure toxicity levels for many, many chemicals, including all the of the ones mentioned above (and you can find the answer in MSDS sheets - material safety data sheets). If there was something shockingly high with respect to the concentration of one of these bad actors, you know that is what the article would have been written about. Instead we get this:
It's not yet clear what the new study means for human health.
The sorts of studies are very useful. They are used to find and catalog hot spots and to baseline for future comparison. I'm glad they do them (I hope this is not on the list of topics that republicans hate and want removed). But to write an article about "toxins" just feeds into the hysteria and de-tox cults.

I stopped reading New scientist because they insist on printing crap like that. This is appearing to be no better.

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Tech's Last post on Vaccines and Autism...Ever

I'm not writing about this anymore. I will simply refer people to this post. This fake controversy is over. Instead I will refer people to these two posts from now on.

Read why we immunize. Read it all. Read all the links. See all the pictures.

Read why vaccines are good and why all the arguments against them are weak. Read it all. Read all the links.

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TechBit: A loss


The Orbiting Carbon Observatory Was a satellite that was going to let us create a dynamic detailed map of carbon emissions and carbon sinks. We do have some ability to do this now, but nothing like what this would have helped us to do. Now we will be looking to Japan Gosat satellite to perform this function. Too bad.

Update: Bad Astronomy has more and will have update. Clearly its better to read about it there..... But I still beat him to the punch!

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Not Necessarily Measurable

I don’t know many religious people. Of those, I know fewer who are willing to challenge their religious point of view. Of those, none are close enough to me to be able to carry on a friendly discussion on the matter. So what happens?

I have conversations about religion in my head while I walk the dog, drive, wait at the train station. Do you do this? Man, I hope I’m not the only one. Its kind of funny, because atheist tech doesn’t always ‘win’. Sometimes I come up with something that I don’t know how to defend to explain.

I’m not writing this post to give ammo to one side or another, I just write what I am thinking about at the time. So here is my conversation as I had it (I had a stenographer present at all times).


Atheist TS: You can’t know that there is a god, because there is no evidence, nothing that can’t be explained, and as time goes on, the things we can’t explain at some point, through the scientific method, eventually gets explained. the Gaps continue to shrink.

Religious TS: There isn’t a God-O-Meter that you can wave around to find god. He lives outside of our universe.

ATS: How convenient, if he lives outside of our universe, that's the same thing as not being there.

RTS: No, it isn’t. He may live outside of the universe, but he certainly has strong influence on our universe and humans as a whole.

ATS: If he had physical influence on our universe then we would be able to measure him.

RTS: Yeah I hear that assumption a lot. Let me give you an example. Do you think I am real?

ATS (sniggers a little, since this is in his head): no, but for the purposes of this conversation, I’ll bite. Yes you are real.

RTS: OK, lemme use someone else. Do you think Alex Rodriguez, the baseball player is real?

ATS: Yes.

RTS: So presumably he has a father right?

ATS: Yes

RTS: So we definitely know this person I am talking about is real, but he is also someone that most people do not know.

ATS: OK (with a look of “where the hell are you going with this?”)

RTS: OK, lets say A-Rods father, Daddy-Rod, goes to Mumbai and kills someone without being caught on video. Do you think that is possible, leaving aside his morals?

ATS: Yes.

RTS: Then Daddy-Rod does to Rhode Island and drops 1000 dollars in a mailbox in a suburb of Providence. Is that Possible?

ATS: I guess

RTS: Then he does 100 other acts of kindness, creation, destruction, and pain, all over the world in a completely random fashion. All while not being detected. Do you think that is possible?

ATS: Well I guess.

RTS: Is it possible that this string of actions looks random to you and everyone else, but in actuality there is a method to his madness?

ATS: I guess.

RTS: Is Daddy-Rod no longer real? Hasn’t he performed significant acts that affect people in a significant way? But still, presuming that all the acts appear to be random, he would not be detected. Further, it may appear completely random to you, but he may have his own formula about who gets good things and who gets bad, and you would never know it.

OK, I’ve let this drama go on long enough. Yeah, I knew where RTS was going in a second when I really had this conversation. Some of the folks I have brought this to, have asked “If you can’t detect Daddy-Rod, how is that different than him not being there?”. But clearly he is there. Clearly for many people there is a difference because he is there. Further, if we knew his reasoning, we would be in a better position to avoid pain and be granted something good.

The best I can think of is that, we have been trying to find concrete evidence of Daddy-Rod for millennia, surely he would have slipped up by now. Been caught on camera, or done something that would not have been able to be done without his presence. But presuming omnipotence, that may not apply to a god.

I’m not going all Raving Atheist. There are many reasons to ignore the god hypothesis. And tons of unconvincing arguments for God. But I was just thinking about this. If someone brought this to me, I am not sure of how I would respond. So, I am bringing it to you.

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Tech's Comments Guidelines

Its sad that I even have to write a post like this. But I guess all blogs are prone to trolls, even mine.

For the most part of the last three years, I have been pretty free of dorks who just write useless blather. I have been pretty free of spam too. It was nice. But those days are over I guess.

I'll probably find a better comment system than the one blogger provides, but until I do and can specifically ban a trolls IP, I have to put on moderation, which is more work for me, and annoying for you. Let's all repeat after me, "Thank you, stupid trolls"

OK, for the future however, I'd like to get some foundation here for commenting. This blog is increasing in its readership, but its still not anywhere near any of the more popular blogs like PZ or Skeptico. I probably won't have to institute strict rules, but here are the basics:

Short notes:
If you are just going to write a short note, without debatable claims, then I don't really see any limitations to impose. If you want to tell me you liked a post, or hated a post, I'm all for it. I would encourage you to do this so I can have some feedback as to what I am doing right to entertain and inform, and what I am doing wrong.

Disputing Claims
If you disagree with me, or think I left out something glaringly stupid, or something like that, please tell me! I blog, read blogs, and write comments to learn. No where in this entire blog will you find me saying that I am 100% certainly right. I'm happy to change my mind about something, but I am not willing to do it based on fallacious arguments.

Avoid logical Fallacies.
I dislike responding by saying "Strawman, argument from ignorance, poisoning the well, ad hominem..." It boring and a waste of everyone's time. However, I do recognize that it actually takes some time to realize that you are making them, or even detecting them in other people. I ask that you put in your best effort. Here is a list of common ones, and why they are fallacies.

Name Calling
Also boring. I don't care if you think I'm an asshole. I care if you think I am wrong, and more importantly, why you think I am wrong.

Support your claims
If you think I am wrong, guess what, I don't believe you. I would not have written the post if I thought I was wrong. If you want to show me how I am wrong, you need to be using reasoned arguments and provide links to information that backs up what you said. I will change my mind on a subject with referenced data and logical reasoning. If you blather on this blog without supporting your claims, I'm simply going to ignore or delete you.

None of this is to say that if you type a single, short unsupported statement that I'm gonna go all medeival on your ass. But if you actually want to make your point, spend the extra time to back up what you say. Further, I encourage you to coment and truly enjoy calm reasoned debate, its one of the reasons I do this. So don't feel shy, don't feel like any innaccuracy is going to release the fllodgates of hell.

Other folks have pretty good commenting guidelines. Instead of duplicating all that here, I encourage you to read them to get a feel for what I find important.

Update: I have installed IntenseDebate. Mostly because I am lazy and didn't want to spend a lot of time looking for a tool that gives me better power over my comments and VJack recommended it.

Please sign up and use it. I may go threaded if the chatter gets confusing, but for now, i'm leaving threaded comments off.

Update II: OK, looks like I got IntenseDebate to work. Hope you like it. Took me a while becuase of the way I post (using Livewriter) and my custom template. But after I got that worked out it looks like it is working ok.

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More Creationist Bingo

Wesley, over at has made another creationist bingo game with direct links to Talk Origins. The one I did, is so that you can print out random cards, with the supporting information and take em with you. This is a good one to use if you happen to be near a computer.

I think his ultimate plan is to let you make bingo T-shirts. Keep an eye out.

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TechBit: Stimulus Bill

If you want to see the actual act that Obama signed, it is here.


For an additional amount for ‘‘Fossil Energy Research and
Development’’, $3,400,000,000.

really? Do we really think that we have not hammered out most of the problems with finding, getting and using fossil fuels? Now if it were more specific (it isn't), and said this money was for improving efficiency and sequestering carbon, I'd be all for it. Gristmill seems to think its going that way simply becuase of the people who are in charge of that money.

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TechAnalysis: H2Pump

h2pump  If you have read this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I do not hold a very favorable view of fuel cells. I think they suck in general and good ones provide marginal benefit over other solutions.

For example, batteries are better than fuel cells in cell phones. They keep promising cell phone fuel cells, but the stuff required to make the fuel cell work makes it too bulky to be inside of a cell phone, no matter what companies are showing in their PR. At best we will see some box-on-cord systems that will still be bigger and more expensive to run, than keeping an external battery charged up.

I recently mentioned fuel cell cars in another post. So far, they are all requiring hydrogen infrastructure to work. And where do we get most of our hydrogen? Natural gas. That means that even if we use hydrogen for these things, we are still creating just as much CO2 (although there might be an efficiency play to be had, but we aren’t talking about a dramatic reduction in greenhouse gases).

I only mention fuel cells for this article, because the company I’m talking about uses fuel cell materials but doesn’t make fuel cells. H2Pump LLC uses fuel cell materials to pump hydrogen with no moving parts. In pumping hydrogen, they also pressurize it and purify it. They are specifically not a fuel cell company.


Before looking into it deeply, lets take a minute to try to understand why that is significant. The most common way to move gas and pressurize it is to use a compressor. We are all probably familiar with air compressors and may even have one in your garage. The issue with hydrogen is that the molecule is so small, that a normal compressor can really pump it. Further, the gas itself can embrittle steel. There are a host of problems with pumping pure hydrogen. But to date, the only way to do it is with a mechanical hydrogen compressor.

There are also hydrogen purification systems available. These are generally done with a PSA (pressure swing adsorption) system. Basically, gas is fed into a tank with these pellets in it. The pellets, when under pressure, adsorb everything except hydrogen which passes through the tank. Then when the pellets are full of the contaminants, the inlet gas is routed to another PSA tank, and the first tank is depressurized, releasing the contaminant into a waste stream and making it ready to start again. There are also low pressure Temperature Swing Adsorption units which do the same thing, but release contaminants upon heating. These systems can be used to purify a variety of other gases, not just hydrogen.

So, in order to pump and purify hydrogen, you would need a hydrogen capable compressor and a PSA system. There are companies that make the system I just described.

Why would you have a system like this? Where is hydrogen recovery useful? Fuel cells consume hydrogen, so there is nothing to recycle. Well it turns out there are a variety of industries that use hydrogen, but do not consume it. Instead it is simply released, either by flaming it at a stack, or just releasing it into the air! Industries that do this are:

  • Heat treating industry

  • Metallurgical processing

  • Steel production

  • Semiconductor manufacturing

  • Float glass production

  • Fats and oils (hydrogenation)

  • Any chemical process which generates by-product hydrogen such as biogas production

Its amazing to think that these companies are getting hydrogen, in huge quantities, flowing it into their process and then dumping it out the vent. Can this possibly be true? At worst it seems like they could burn it and use it as heat. However the heating value of H2 is only 2 or 3 times higher than that of natural gas but pure H2 is over an order of magnitude higher than natural gas in cost. So who knows? As mentioned before, companies make systems to recapture this hydrogen, but they are generally sized for the huge quantities of hydrogen and have very short times before failure (multiple failures per year), usually due to the compressor (there is little to go wrong in the PSA part).


OK, we know why we might recycle hydrogen, we know how we might recycle hydrogen, and we know a couple of companies who make equipment to recycle hydrogen. Now we can focus on H2Pump.

H2 pump has a different technology. They use fuel cell materials, but unlike fuel cells which consume hydrogen to generate power, these pumps consume electricity to pump hydrogen.

Hydrogen is fed to one side of the membrane with a catalyst on it (the anode electrode). The hydrogen molecules are split and pass through the membrane as  protons. On the other side of the membrane is another electrode, the cathode, where the two proton recombine to produce H2. This action doesn’t happen to any other molecule. So if there is hydrogen and carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide (common ingredients in a process), only the pure hydrogen appears on the cathode, the other things get passed through the anode.

The flow rate of hydrogen coming off the cathode is directly dependant on the current. The more current supplied the higher the flow rate. If a restriction is placed on the outlet, the pressure will rise. The molar flow rate coming off the cathode will remain constant, however the volumetric flow rate will be completely dependant on the pressure differential between the anode and whatever is after the flow restriction. Some of these membrane are very strong because they are fluouropolymers, like Teflon. Therefore large pressures, even in the hundreds of PSI, could be generated.

Costs and value proposition

Hydrogen is expensive. These guestimates don’t take into account the purity required for most of these processes (1 gallon of gas equivalent is about 1kg of H2). (I gotta write a post on the farce that is the difference between projections of hydrogen costs and what pure hydrogen actually costs right now). I’ll get hard data later, but  depending on purity and volume, hydrogen costs between 4 dollars/kilogram (high volume, lower purity) and 100 dollars per kg (high purity, low volumes) according the H2Pumps website. They claim to be able to recover 90% of the hydrogen in the waste stream for what is essentially just the cost of the electricity to move the protons from one side to the other.

So how much does it cost to reclaim the hydrogen? Well, get ready for some arithmetic.

On their technology page, they explain how to calculate hydrogen flow based on current (actually they say how to calculate current based on flow), and they say that a typical voltage of a cell may be 50mV. If we do an example, of say, 100 kg/day of H2 (=1.157 grams/sec =1.148 mol/sec) , you would need 220,000 amps. In order to make that reasonable (to have a decent power supply), you would break that up into multiple cells, lets say 220 cells (just to make math easier). Each cell runs at 50mW, so you would consume,  0.050V x 220 x 1000 amps = 11kW.

So for each hour you run the machine you use up 11kWhs of energy. Its easy to find out the cost of energy where you live. For industrial use, the average cost of energy is 7 cents per kWh. So, for each day you pump 100kG of H2, you would pay $18.50, we are talking about 19 cents per kg of hydrogen if it is reclaimed instead of being thrown out the window! And this is for pure, pressurized hydrogen from a system with no moving parts (I can imagine valves being required). I gotta say, these numbers seem a bit too good to be true, but even if their numbers are off by an order of magnitude, it is still cheap hydrogen.

Now I am quite sure I have left out some stuff that they have not included on their page. For example, how much power does the system use to make the stack work? Are there things I have to replace every year? Are there other consumables? Then there is the cost of the system, they say a one or two year payback, but what are they assuming about my gas and electricity use?

So there are tons of questions to ask. However, they do not have many of the problems of fuel cells, namely oxygen screwing up a lot of things up and the fact that there is no flooding on the cathode (because hydrogen evolves there and no water is made). Further they do not have the big issue of PSA systems, namely a failure prone compressor. It seems like this may work.

Maybe all those companies making fuel cell materials may find a market after all.

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An Evolutionary Prediction

One of the really cool things about having a robust scientific model of various parts of the universe is that we can use it to tell the future. This is not something you can do with any form of pseudoscience or religion. In this case, its the theory of evolution that provides us with a new prediction.

Recently we have heard about something really strange occurring. Now, if you are a theist, this would not be strange at all. It is only odd because evolution is such a well supported theory.

Here is what is weird: the picture to the right there is of an Antarctic sea anemone. This lil’ creature has a home that is remarkably large. These guys and 235 others are found at both the north and south pole, but not in the middle (as far as we know).

Many of these creatures that have obvious reasons to be at both poles, like whales and birds, like the Arctic Tern that migrates every single year from the arctic to the Antarctic and back. But it turns out that there are still many, many species, like the one above, that are anchored to the sea floor and have no known mode of transport. And yet, despite huge geographical separation, appear to be the exact same species at both poles. If this only happened rarely or once, with strong odds against it, we would have expected to see some speciation happen by now.

So this is a strange observation because we know evolutionary processes exist. So how can we explain this?

1 The most probable idea is that there are strong continuous currents that regularly take spore or larvae from one pole to another. We know about ocean surface currents, but these mostly are in loops, called gyres, not generally from pole to pole. So the observation of “bipolar” species is that there are other currents that regularly take fauna from one pole to the other. So check this out, if true, then there are likely mechanics about the ocean that affect our climate, that we learned about from knowing evolution.

2 Another idea is that this happened recently. Some recent event could have happened that took some species from one pole to the other. for example, some one could have actually taken some species from one pole and set them free at the other. This is a very unlikely scenario, mostly because these creatures are far down in the water, and there are a number of bipolar species, not just one or two.

3 Another possibility is that something, like a whale is eating the spores and larvae at one pole and pooping (a recurring theme at this blog) them out at the other. We know that some seeds can stay in some birds for thousands of miles. However, in general, passage through the digestive tract is far faster than a trip from one pole to the other.


There is the possibility that the bipolar species were once ubiquitous throughout the ocean and got geographically isolated as the earth warmed. For them to have remained unchanged after isolation however, they would have to have remain unchanged not only through mutation and natural selection but also through all the evolutionary mechanisms that push evolution like genetic drift. A possible, but unlikely situation.

5 God liked these species as they are and decided to place them at both ends.

Of these, ignoring the utter uselessness of the last one, the first is most probable and exciting. This observation may lead to some new information about our oceans and our planet. It would be yet another way evolution has helped us.

Sadly there are more observations that are needed before we can start truly verifying this hypothesis. Genetic testing must happen to be sure that these bipolar species are, in fact, the same species. But then, it would truly be great to know the mechanism by which these bipolar species can pull off these marathon expeditions! Not only would we have yet even more evidence of evolution by verification of a prediction, but we would have new information about our oceans that oculd lead to more information about our climate.

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TechBit: another prediction

The republicans are virtually monolithic on their newly found opposition to government spending. So here is the prediction, no matter what happens with the economy between now and 4 years from now, they will say "I told you so!"

They may say this, rightly, if the economy goes even further into the shitter (i'm patient for 2 years, before we need to start looking at course corrections which may in fact be dramatic cuts to spending). However, even if the economy improves, and no matter how fast or how much it improves, they will then produce the logistical somersault required to say "If you had listened to us, the economy would have improved more and faster".

Perhaps an obvious prediction.

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TechBit: Testing of natural remedies

I have had stomach problems my whole life. Two or three times a year my stomach has a revolution after eating dinner or lunch. Since I was a kid I have been taking Donnatal for it when I get one of these flare ups. This drug is a mixture of belladonna and Phenobarbital. Its a tiny little pill with very little barbiturate in it.  But it seems to help. Of course what really helps is going to the bathroom (there I go again, another post about poop).

My sister, who suffers from the same stomach problems, but she tell me it is much worse than mine, has tried all brands of woo before settling on her current one. She’s seen an ancient chinese medicine doctor, acupuncturist and other things for years. Her most recent foray into curing the problem (known medically as IBS, which to be honest, I think it more like a catch all for a number of problems, but it does feel good to know that there is a name for it, meaning other people have this) has been eating Aloe juice.

I think the Mayo clinic has adequately explained the reason there are so many “alternative” methods to treat IBS:

No one knows exactly what causes irritable bowel syndrome.

The thing to remember, just because doctors don’t know what causes IBS doesn't mean that witch doctors do. It also doesnt mean that there hasn’t been loads of studies and tests done to try to wean out the causes and beneficial treatments. There are over 5200  papers studying IBS listed at PubMed. Its not like its a disorder that is being ignored.

Anyway, I told my sister that my drug had natural stuff in it too. Donnatal has an extract of Belladonna (Deadly Nightshade) in it. Funny thing is though, I went to go look up the efficacy of belladonna for IBS, no good evidence. But then I looked at a list of the actual studies:

  1. Balzarini A, Felisi E, Martini A, et al. Efficacy of homeopathic treatment of skin reactions during radiotherapy for breast cancer: a randomised, double-blind clinical trial. Br Homeopath J 2000;89(1):8-12.
  2. Walach H, Koster H, Hennig T, et al. The effects of homeopathic belladonna 30CH in healthy volunteers -- a randomized, double-blind experiment. J Psychosom Res 2001;50(3):155-160.
  3. Whitmarsh TE, Coleston-Shields DM, Steiner TJ. Double-blind randomized placebo-controlled study of homoeopathic prophylaxis of migraine. Cephalalgia 1997;17(5):600-604.


Ummm… if you are testing the efficacy of an herb with a homeopathic preparation….have you tested the herb at all? To be fair, I pulled out only the ones that were tested in a homeopathic fashion. Other references used Donnatol preparations.

So I wanted to see if there are studies with Donnatol in the way that I expect them to be, placebo controlled and double blind. There are studies, I found 4 at pub med, but I can not read them nor their conclusions. That is quite annoying. Can someone give me a hand?

  • Anisotropine methylbromide for relief of gastrointestinal spasm: double-blind crossover comparison study with belladonna alkaloids and phenobarbital. JC King
  • The treatment of functional and emotional symptoms in patients with gastrointestinal disorders. JW Fisher
  • The GI Cocktail is no more effective than plain liquid antacid: a randomized, double blind clinical trial.Berman DA, Porter RS, Graber M. (actually there is a summary for this one, donnatal as an emergency elixer is not any more useful than anti-acids)
  • Clinical and x-ray evaluation of donnatal and donnatal extentabs in functional disturbances of the gastrointestinal tract. L marks
  • The evaluation of Bellergal Tablets compared to librium and placebo in the treatment of symptoms of anxiety tension states associated with functional gastrointestinal disorders.Samet CM.


I hate to sound cranky and all, but the results of drug testing of any drug, should be made freely available to everyone.

Anyway, I may have found my woo. I’ve been relying on Donnatal for years. It may be pure placebo. What will I do about it? Probably nothing. I’ll stop taking them if they no longer work, I don’t need extra barbituates  in my blood.

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Cut to the Source

One of the responsibilities of a skeptical thinker is to get to the source of information as best you can.  When someone makes a statement or claim, its you job to query them about sources and how the data was obtained. A friend of mine, with a diametrically opposing world view to me told me this recently:

I just refinanced my house to protect myself from what seems to be the inevitable hyper inflation that is coming. It was interesting talking to the guy. The bank is XXX and I asked him if they took any bailout money. He went on to tell me that they didn’t need or want it but were forced to take the minimum of about $55M. They were/are in good shape and hold their own loans. So should this bank now be beholden to King Obama?

Sounded weird to hear that they were forced to take a loan. Other banks that are still in existence didn't have to take part in that bailout, why should his bank? Then I realized that this was just some dude at the bank, prone to every logical fallacy and bit of gossip that everyone else is prone to. So I asked if my friend actually pressed him on where this information came from… He responded with:

Ok he lied to me you know everything. All bankers are evil.

Which is of course not what I was implying or even said. It’s just that whether people mean to or not, information gets screwed up.

By now you have probably read many reviews of the Obama Stimulus plan. Conservatives have certainly printed their opinions about it. Here is a skeptic that has also. But its not easy to find the source, much less the most recent one: All of those opinions are based on old versions of the stimulus package, a bill that was in constant flux since it was first introduced in the House. So, here, read the latest full summary for yourself. Where did I get this summary? I know someone that knows someone.

Check out the end, do you see something wrong? LOL.

Debt Limit Increase. The bill increases the statutory limit on the public debt by $789 billion, from $11.315 billion to $12.104 billion.

I think they need a T.

Can someone link me to the actual bill itself? I tried to get the link at the senate, but as of today, its jammed up.

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A dinner on Darwin Day

So a friend of mine hosted a Darwin celebration at a local restaurant. We all wore our Darwin T-shirts, we had a Darwin cake, and we started out discussing evolution and our latest stories of our encounters with creationists. But I soon observed something weird.

Given a group of 20 “Darwinists” (I hate that term, its so stupid) all of who understand the evidence for evolution, or if not, understand why they should believe evolution even if they do not know the evidence specifically, you will find:

  • A Global Warming Denier
  • An Anti-Vaccinationist (and in this case someone who is under the impression that formula “kills the baby’s immune system”)
  • A 9/11 conspiracy theorist
  • A person who goes to psychics
  • A CAM practitioner or apologist
  • Someone who has been visited by aliens

Not to mention a couple of libertarians. This makes me think: What’s my woo? What is it that I say when I go to a party that makes people think “What an gullible twit!” when they leave my company. Certainly we can’t be impervious to all pseudoscience and myth. I am always willing to change my mind if some good evidence shows up that is contrary to my current beliefs, we should all be.

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Skeptic’s Circle

The latest Skeptic’s Circle is up at Its the Thought That Counts. Some fine goodies there! Go check it out, read, learn, comment, criticize.

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TechBit: Reason in the Courts




A special court ruled Thursday that parents of autistic children are not entitled to compensation in their contention that certain vaccines caused autism in their children.

Some of the autism-vaccine debate has made it through the courts. Now perhaps we can spend some time and money on the actual causes and treatments for autism.

Score one for reason. A big one.

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This is how sad the CAM industry has become

How low does the so-called “alternative" medicine” have to go before we finally put a stop to that nonsense. This is perhaps not even low enough. They are putting real drugs into the pills for them to work, but they still want to keep the “natural” label, which as you may know, is completely meaningless.

This act is, of course, completely illegal. Why is this bad? Drug interactions. People die from drug interactions every day. So what is happening?

“I used to think weight-loss pills were just fancy placebos,” said Dr. Pieter Cohen, a general internist at the Cambridge Health Alliance public hospital system in the Boston area. Over the last few years, he said he had treated many patients who took tainted weight-loss pills and came in complaining of chest pains and heart palpitations.

After a spot check (because regulation of “natural” supplements is completely different than that of drugs, and they are, by law, not allowed to regulate them the same way)and what did they find?

Laboratory tests revealed the presence of sibutramine, rimonabant, phenytoin, and phenolphthalein.

The part that cracks me up is that sibutramine is a prescription drug to treat…wait for it…obesity!

The other “contaminants” found are also strongly regulated drugs from anti-seizure medication to laxatives. There are 69 products in which these drugs were found, go to the FDA website for a complete list.

Now to be fair, no where on the entire FDA site do I see a single mention of how much was detected. We have developed some pretty sensitive equipment, we can detect many substances down to parts per billion or even parts per trillion depending on the substance. If they found 1 PPB (0.00001%) of these chemicals in the pill, we really shouldn’t have to worry (unless homeopathy works!).

I really like how the FDA describes how to avoid these products:

  • Promises of an "easy" fix for problems like excess weight, hair loss, or impotency.
  • Claims such as "scientific breakthrough," "miraculous cure," "secret ingredient," and "ancient remedy."
  • Impressive-sounding terms, such as "hunger stimulation point" and "thermogenesis" for a weight loss product.
  • Claims that the product is safe because it is "natural."
  • Undocumented case histories or personal testimonials by consumers or doctors claiming amazing results.
  • Promises of no-risk, money-back guarantees.

I’ll do a post later on weight loss, but for the most part weight loss works in a very simple way. As an analogy consider a bucket with a hole in it, the water level will rise if the water entering the bucket is faster than the water leaking out of the hole. Water coming into the bucket represents your caloric intake, the water level represents your fatness, the water leaving the bucket represents your caloric expenditure. Unless you have some hormonal issues (no, you probably don’t), or retain extra water (no, you probably don’t), most weight loss works with this model. All weight loss programs provide mental mechanisms that deal with changing the rate of water coming into the bucket (eating), or water leaving the bucket (metabolism, usually through exercise) or both. Stop buying “miracle” pills, or hopping from one fad diet to another. Find a mental mechanism by which to control your caloric intake and find a way to exercise. Remember, it took you years to get as fat as you are, you probably don't have to change your lifestyle that much to change the equation enough for it to take a couple of years to lose that weight. Don’t want it to take years? Eat less, exercise more. Lots of programs can shed multiple tens of pounds in mere months, but those programs are harder to stay on for the long run. There is no short cut.

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor. I’m a realist and do a lot of reading on various subjects constantly. None of anything I write should be considered medical advice. Go look up the data yourself. Find controlled studies that show effectivity for any of those over the counter weight loss supplement. You’ll be looking a long time. If you do find one, be critical.

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More denialism from the right


Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell compared the plan to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal" public works program -- which he said did not help the nation out of the Great Depression.

"We're talking about an extraordinarily large amount of money, and a crushing debt for our grandchildren," said McConnell, of Kentucky. "Now, if most Republicans were convinced that this would work, there might be a greater willingness to support it. But all the historical evidence suggests that it's highly unlikely to work."

So the stimulus package got debated and trimmed a little. Its probably enough to pass. Its a Keynesian approach to fixing this problem, something republicans hate. I am unsure why, its completely hypocritical of them to say anything about deficit spending when they have doubled the debt in their short 12 years of rule. Even Keynes made it clear that large deficit spending is a last resort (the fed lowered interest rates to 0% last year, look like we are at last resort status), but when you do it, do it big.

Think of the Powell Doctrine, if you are going to invade a country, do it big, but make sure you have assessed all other possibilities. 

The quote i started with just makes me laugh. What hypocrisy!  Never have I seen a republican present evidence that providing tax cuts actually improves the economy, all we get is things like “it just makes sense”. Seems to me that what makes sense if that if I am the owner of a business, and I get a 100K tax break, then I can be 30K richer while the rest of my 500 person staff can each have an extra 140 dollars, Woohoo! they can feel really comfortable with that! I bet that will make them feel good about buying a new boat!

I was unhappy with the bank bailouts. I wasnt sure if they were needed, but after learning about it and seeing the both candidates supported it, I was able to understand the need. But I can’t believe oversight was not provided, and was not surprised about the huge tax payer paid bonuses handed out (disappointed, but not surprised). Most of this money from the Obama stimulus package, on the other hand, is going to projects that require people to work to get done (although I do have to agree with many republicans that there are some projects – some not most of the ones they were complaining about-  that are not related to stimulus and should have been voted on separately). If people are working then they are more willing to spend. That makes economy better and that seems more logical to me. Want evidence? Lets just look at the GDP.


When did Roosevelt implement the New Deal? 1933-1938.  Looking at this graph, when would you say that the economy started to turn around?  Shall we zoom in?

The new deal was an implementation of Keyensian ideas. Funnily enough, Keynes blasted Roosevelt for not going far enough in his spending!

The funny part is that you will hear many conservatives say it was not the New deal, it was WWII that did it. Guess what? The deficit spending increased to make the extra weapons, food and so forth to be able to be a strong force in the war. The war actually allowed the US to implement Keynesian economics in a more true fashion.

So it completely cracks me up when I hear a fiscal conservative asking for evidence that this will work. I’m not saying that it is guaranteed, I’m saying that there is evidence that it works. Where is the evidence that conservative, greed based ideals work? Because all I see is debt increase during republican rule.

Now its true that I could be getting into a causation-correlation fallacy here. But I have never heard of any other forces that are theorized to have improved the economy at that time, but perhaps they are there.

Circling Back to Mitch McConnells quote I started with, its coming quickly obvious to me that listening to them is like listening to evolution or holocaust deniers. No matter how much evidence is available they will continue to blather on about there being no evidence at all. Transitional fossils anyone?


Note: I am well aware that I am not an economist and this is not an overly complex analysis. What I was getting at is about evidence. There IS good historical evidence that this approach will work and get us into a positive feedback loop rather than the negative one we are in now. The key is to get people working so they feel more comfortable spending, the opposite is happening now.

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TechBit: Dear Fundies

Dear Fundamental Religious person,

Do you think the U.S. constitution is currently interpreted exactly as the founding fathers intended? Or do you think that over a short 232 years, our current interpretation is different, to any degree, than the founding fathers originally wanted?

What in the world makes you think that didn't happen with your personal or sect's interpretation of a book written thousands of years ago?

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Argumentum per Calumnia

Challenge:to arouse or stimulate especially by presenting with difficulties

A challenge has been a very common and successful way to prove a point. Its pretty much a fundamental precept in science, "prove to me that you can do this, I'll give you a reward if you can do it". Inf act this model has recently been incorporated by the various X-prize competitions that have arisen, which have fostered intense competition for private space exploration, and more recently automotive fuel efficiency, Lunar Lander, genetic based personalize medicine, and they have even left space for future X-Prizes.

Even the Department of Defense has taken on the challenge model. They have done the $2 million autonomous car grand challenge. And more recently, the $1 million Wearable Power Pack challenge. Its a good model for engineering, I think we can expect to see more.

Does the challenge paradigm work for everything?

Challenge:to dispute especially as being unjust, invalid, or outmoded

  1. Junk Science Global Warming Challenge (and they do promote a lot of junk science!)
  2. Kent Hovind Evolution Challenge
  3. James Randi's Million dollar Paranormal Challenge
  4. Ernst-Singh £10,000 Homeopathic Challenge
  5. Jock Doubleday's Vaccine challenge [or here]
These challenges are clearly different. These aren't designed to stimulate by providing some difficulty, they are in fact set up the dispute claims. Are all challenges equal? As we will see, even in simply disputing claims, these challenges are not all built the same. Can we just presume that if no one has fulfilled the qualifications of the challenge that the premise of the challenge is true?

Consensus is true, until verified evidence to the contrary comes along This doesnt mean that something is true because its the consensus, it just means that prior evidence has lead to a consensus. One of the fundamental precepts of science is that nothing is proven right. Nothing. We have laws of gravity, laws of conservation of energy, laws of this and laws of that. Not one of these is immune to the entry of new conflicting data. For example, I can prove that Newtons Laws of motion are just plain wrong, simply by providing an example where they don't work right? Behold, Mercury. So what happens? Newtons laws of motion, which still, to this day, are vitally important and useful, is superseded by relativity which is more accurate at large speeds and large masses.

Specific positive claims are not true, unless evidence is provided
Things can be proven wrong, in fact, we assume positive claims are wrong until evidence is made available to change that thinking. This is the goal of using the Null hypothesis. If we make a claim, the goal in showing the veracity of that claim is to try to reject the null hypothesis, and we only accept the original claim if we can not. So for example if I my claim is that I can lift 10 tons of steel with my bare hands, we assume that I can not, and it is up to me to prove that I can. If, miraculously, I really can lift the weight, then we must reject the presumption that I can not, as this evidence contradicts the null hypothesis. There is a statistical meaning of null hypothesis which we will not use here, for the purposes of this discussion we simply mean that we presume that the positive claim is false, and it requires evidence that it is true. This is the heart and soul of skeptical thinking. Falsifiability for any theory is required.

One more misconception of science should be met here. It is a very rare occurrence that a previous scientific theory is proved wrong. More often, the old way is still correct for a given set of boundary conditions, like mass or speed. Usually what happens is that as you poke and prod near the boundaries themselves the older theory becomes less and less accurate, and the new theory fills this new space. The new theory will generally reduce to the old theory when you return back to the original boundary conditions. For an example, we once again return to Einstein and Newton. When to return to macroscopic masses, or slower speeds, relativity simply reduces to Newtonian physics.

Similarly, contrary to what New Scientist says, Darwin was not wrong, he was inaccurate. And the newer theorized mechanisms of evolution take in his observations, but also encompass new ones.

So what about these challenges? Are they valid in light of the way science is done? Lets look at these 5 challenges:

The Global Warming Challenge
The winning entry will specifically reject both of the following two hypotheses

UGWC Hypothesis 1

Manmade emissions of greenhouse gases do not discernibly, significantly and predictably cause increases in global surface and tropospheric temperatures along with associated stratospheric cooling.

UGWC Hypothesis 2

The benefits equal or exceed the costs of any increases in global temperature caused by manmade greenhouse gas emissions between the present time and the year 2100, when all global social, economic and environmental effects are considered.

Whats wrong with Hypothesis 1? Its a negative claim. If you know how to prove a negative claim then you can prove to me that you didn't steal 5000 dollars from me (note: this is why Saddam was doomed when he was told to prove he didn't have WMD). To do this , you would have to presume a positive claim (the greenhouse gasses cause global surface temperature rise). This gets in the way of how we generate theories in the first place. Further it flies in the face of how we understand the world around us. Anthropogenic Global warming is a result of interpretation of an incredible amount of evidence, and it is falsiable, i.e. more GHGs leading to lower temperatures despite natural phenomenon, the problem is that the timespan for that sort of change takes a long time.

Whats wrong with hypothesis #2? Its impossible to do. Literally. Economy itself is largely non-linear and chaotic. Any sort of prediction past a few months is inaccurate at best. That is because small events can have huge impacts. Then combine that with social effects (how would you even quantify that financially?) and environmental effects, and you have as much garbage as you have using the same data to prove the converse. The number of assumptions you would have to make invalidate any sort of proof you would come up with.

Evolution Challenge
I'm not the first to point out the flaws in this challenge. You can find it all over the net. Basically, Hovind has spread the net of evolution so wide that it include cosmology, and chemistry. He has built a strawman of what evolution is and then challenged people to tear down the strawman for him. That's like me challenging you to prove that humans actually exist when I define humans to be anything that moves on the planet.

Evolution is falsifiable, meaning there are a number of ways to disprove evolution, none have been evidenced. There is not a single scientist on the planet who will say the theory of evolution (as opposed to the observation, the fact, of evolution) is 100% fact. There is no 100% certain in science. There is always the possibility of new observations adjusting the theories and the predictions of theories, but these adjustments are made to make the science more accurate.

So any challenge on a general scientific subject is suspect, regardless of who is promoting the challenge, how much money is involved, or any other aspect of the challenge itself. Because science is self reflecting, always adjusting for accuracy and accepting new data, because science is self correcting, there is never a way to prove 100% that a theory is true.

Instead of wasting time and posturing, these folks should be spending time digging up the falsifiable evidence for the theory that they hate so much. To, Kent Hovind, I say, go find the rabbit in the cambrian, or find us a real crocoduck, or show a creature being spontaneously generated. Any of these things would throw evolution out the window. That is how science is done.

To Steve Milljoy, purveyor of junk science, I say instead of bloviating about how you think global warming is a myth because you said so, falsify it! Show in a lab set up that increasing the CO2 in a tank with a dark floor and some incident light actually cools the air in the tank. Show where forests are continually growing towards the equator, show arctic ice expanding.

In science we don't ask for proof of something, we ask for evidence and predictions we can test. If we want to show that an idea or something is wrong, we disprove it.

Specific Claim Challenges:
But what about the other challenges? They don't ask to prove a scientific concept. They are far more like the the Ansari Prize, they ask someone to prove something they are already claiming that they can do.

Doubleday is asking someone to inject themselves as follows:

...offers $20,000.00(U.S.) to the first medical doctor or pharmaceutical company CEO who publicly drinks a mixture of standard vaccine additive ingredients in the same amount as a six-year-old child is recommended to receive under the year 2000 guidelines of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The mixture will not contain viruses or bacteria dead or alive, but will contain standard vaccine additive ingredients in their usual forms and proportions. The mixture will include, but will not be limited to: thimerosal (a mercury derivative), ethylene glycol (antifreeze), phenol (a disinfectant dye), benzethonium chloride(a disinfectant), formaldehyde(a preservative and disinfectant), and aluminum

Sounds good to me! Too bad I am not a doctor or CEO of a Pharma Co. I can't understand a single reason why credentials matter if its really a poison. does it only poison CEOs and doctors? I'm not actually sure why he has not been taken up on this offer.....until now. Well, go to that link, you can see what happened, its pretty funny, also with other people who tried to take the challenge, knowingly or not. So, a number of people have applied, none have been able to get through an administrative process to actually get to a point where the prize money is actually a possibility.

This is the big complaint people have about other challenges, no one gets through the initial filter. Doubleday doesn't accept people because they don't have the correct credentials, and even if they do, then he fumbles around with paperwork and asks for 5000 dollars in order to get in. Its true, no one has taken the challenge because Doubleday won't give anyone the chance to take his challenge.

Homepathy Challenge
The homeopathy challenge is done in a similar vein. Homeopathy is simple to test in a double blind, controlled and statistically significant way. And it has, often in fact, it is tested in the exact same way you would test any medicinal treatment, be it homeopathy or Viagra. The result is almost always the same, homepathy is placebo. Of course there is a huge industry around homeopathy, and it is embedded into your taxes here in the form of NCCAM (in America, other countries have their own battles ridding themselves of this).

So, Ernst and Singh have created the homeopathy challenge. to me, they need to be putting some more money where their mouth is, 10 grand (even if it is in british pounds) is hardly enough for anyone to put their career on the line). Further there is no reason to have a deadline on it, do they believe their contention that homeopathy is bunk or not? If I had a million dollars I would hold my own challenge and be safe.

Further, their challenge smacks of a long of the same non-distinct, and subject to interpretation results that all the previous challenges have suffered from. Take a look:
We challenge homeopaths to demonstrate that homeopathy is effective by showing that the Cochrane Collaboration has published a review that is strongly and conclusively positive about high dilution homeopathic remedies for any human condition.
Strongly. Conclusively. High. All of these terms make success in this challenge completely amorphous. Even if Doubleday doesn't let you take his challenge, at least his description of what success would be was pretty good. Ernst and Singh should describing how much better than placebo the homeopathic treatment should work. The word they should be using is significantly. For example, we have treatments for skin infections and erectile dysfunction. We know these things work because when we test them against placebo, we can say that at least 95% of the time the treatment works better than placebo, and we can even say how much better it works.

I would suggest that they should be allowing the challenger to define what "works" means and then define the test based on that claim. It is basic statistics that will discern if the treatment is working. For example, if the homeopath proclaims that their treatment works 10% better than placebo, then you would work with them to decide what "better" means and then explain to them how the statistics will work. For such a small improvement you will be needed a lot of participants!

Randi's Challenge
What I am proposing here, is very similar to how the James Randi Challenge works. That challenge simple: Prove you can do what you say you can do. Sadly, because people do not understand statistics, and it sure isn't a natural comprehension for humans, when many people realize what it means to prove their claim, they back out. That is because it doesn't mean "claim a success when you are successful and ignore failure". It means, do better than randomness. Further it means that the test must be made so you can not use trickery or scientifically explainable methods to pull the stunt.

Unlike Doubleday, when Randi says that no one has made it past preliminary testing, that doesn't mean they were not tested. Hundreds of people have gotten through the administrative part and have actually been tested. Better yet, the skeptics and the applicant work together to develop the preliminary test. Immediately you can see the different between this test and Doubleday's.

I have read of a few times the Randi got cranky at people for proposing stupid things, like not having to eat, ever. Its a dumb test, one in which only death will prove Randi right. I don't think it is unreasonable for some claims to be rejected if debunking the claim requires death.

Wrap Up:
If you are going to hold a challenge there are good ways to do it, and good topics to do it on. Holding a challenge on a whole subject of science is idiotic, especially when using unprovable negative claims. The way to work with science is to provide evidence to falsify the hypothesis. The reasons evolution and global warming are good science is because both are falsifiable, there is lots and lots of evidence for their existence, and both make testable predictions (which have been predicted and tested).

If you are going to hold and honest challenge: follow these rules:
  1. Make sure the claim is positive, quantifiable and falsifiable. Asking someone to prove something isnt true is how we went to war. Proving a whole scientific theory with one test is a waste of time. Science is an endeavor of following where the evidence leads you, not making stuff up and asking everyone else to prove you wrong.
  2. Make judgment of entry and success be unbiased. If you are holding the challenge you should not be the one who disqualifies people due to their application. Accepting everyone is the other simply way to get around this. If you are setting the bar in a challenge, be sure that the challenge you are setting up is specific and quantifiable in a way that other people, besides you can judge success. Be sure that success is defined before people enter the challenge.
  3. Make sure nothing in the administrative process disqualifies people. If someone is making a claim they can do something, it should not matter how much money they have, what educational level they have achieved, or where they live.
  4. Make the prize money worth it. This is one of the problems with the ansari prize, it cost more than 10 million to develop the winning entry. Psychics and homeopaths make plenty of money scamming their customers, why should they stop doing that?
  5. Make the challenge as public as possible. All paperwork, discussions and test procedures should be available in advance of the challenge. The DoD wearable powerpack was a model in this respect. James Randi has a message board doing this.

With these 5 rules in mind, I think only the Randi challenge and the Military competitions are viable.

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TechBit: A Place to Stay.

I recently stayed here for vacation. Its really not sciency or technical, but I thought I'd give the owner a shout out for a nice place to stay. She is pretty hands off, the house is large and roomy, with a spectacular view. The garden is nice and lots of birds come and visit.

The road to get there is pretty hard and you definitely need a car to live in this house. But if you don;t want to drive a jeep you dont have to, but it helps.

I found the place through a vacation home web site. The owner only does month long rentals, but on a per week basis, for a nice house on St. John, you can't beat this price.

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