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5 Cool Tech Stories From This Week

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014 - by Bryan Preston

1. J.K. Rowling almost broke the Internet. She published a Harry Potter short story and civilization nearly ended.

2. A Turkish student has come up with a 3D printed cast that supposedly heals bones as much as 80% faster than conventional casts.

It’s pretty cool-looking.

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14 Fascinating Inventors and Innovators from the South

Sunday, July 6th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

Made in the South Pocket Tee  White Large

After my post a few weeks ago debunking myths about the South, the idea came to me to look into different inventors from Dixie.

I found that, as with many regions of the country, most Southern inventors came up with products we don’t use anymore or don’t really think about. But some really fascinating inventions and innovations originated in the minds of Southern men and women.

From agricultural advances to technological breakthroughs to revolutionary beverages, the South can claim quite a few innovations. Here are fourteen of them…

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Do Medical Experiments on Animals Really Yield Meaningful Results?

Monday, June 9th, 2014 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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As long as men have experimented upon animals to gain knowledge of physiology or pathology there have been others who have decried the practice. Among them was Doctor Johnson, who said of vivisection that “if the knowledge of physiology has been somewhat increased [by it], he surely buys knowledge dear, who learns the use of lacteals at the expense of his humanity.”

Doctor Johnson argued that the cure of not a single medical condition had been discovered by the use of animal experimentation, and even if that is no longer the case there are nevertheless those who maintain that the benefits of animal research are small by comparison with their cost in the suffering of sentient beings that such research entails.

Two authors in a recent edition of the British Medical Journal, one of them an eminent epidemiologist and the other a sociologist, attempt to answer the question of whether or not animal research is a boon to medicine. Their conclusion is that it is much less so than is commonly supposed, and in some cases it is actually harmful. Since the only possible moral defense of vivisection is that it promotes medical advance, it should be stopped if it does not.

The authors point out that, according to a survey of medical scientists who perform animal experimentation, more are motivated by a desire to advance knowledge or careers than by a desire to help suffering humanity, and are actually rather indifferent to the practical use or otherwise of their work.

This is perhaps just as well, at least for their own peace of mind, because the practical value to patients of most animal experimentation is nil. This is for more than one reason.

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Senior Yearbook Quote Nearly Gets Girl Banned From Graduation

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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The senior quote. You only get one chance to encapsulate your high school career in a few words. Do you go with something profound? Or funny? Do you make the Oscar speech you’ll never otherwise get to make? Do you quote a famous movie character or historical figure? Do you go with something clever and awesome, or do you just express your desire to party?

The biggest problem with the senior quote is that it’s forever. If you say something dumb, it’s right there in the yearbook for the school to remember forever. (For some reason, the yearbook staff inadvertently left mine out. I had gone all literary with a quote from Laurel Lee’s Godspeed*.)

Then there’s Paris Gray. The senior at Mundy’s Mill High School in Clayton County, just south of Atlanta, went with a little “nerd humor” for her quote, which wound up getting her in trouble.

Her quote? “When the going gets tough, just remember to Barium Carbon Potassium Thorium Astatine Arsenic Sulfur Uranium Phosphorus.” For those of you who aren’t up on your periodic table, the symbol for those elements translate to:

ywcgGBX

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Paul McCartney’s New Video Aims at #GenerationHashtag

Saturday, May 17th, 2014 - by Susan L.M. Goldberg

You don’t normally think “cultural commentary” when you watch a Paul McCartney video. But, with his latest video release for the song Appreciate, the septuagenarian King of Rock continues to pull new tricks from up his sleeve. This time, a catchy song and dance number transcends the usual McCartney fantasyland, providing some smart commentary on human culture in an increasingly technological environment. In McCartney’s museum, the humans doing everyday things are the displays to be studied by a robot known as “Newman”. An artistic interpretation of left and right brain segments is displayed as McCartney walks this New Man (get it?)  through the exhibit, counselling him on human behavior and how to groove. By the end of the video, even the humans are getting into the act, dropping their technological fancies in favor of dancing to the beat.

The robot itself shouldn’t come as a surprise to hardcore McCartney fans. Back in October, when he graced the cover of Rolling Stone McCartney commented on visions of a robot, possibly influenced by one of his favorite stories shared with his 10 year old daughter, Beatrice, is The Iron Giant. In press for the video’s release, McCartney commented:

“I woke up one morning with an image in my head of me standing with a large robot. I thought it might be something that could be used for the cover of my album ‘NEW,’ but instead the idea turned out to be for my music video for ‘Appreciate’. Together with the people who had done the puppetry for the worldwide hit ‘War Horse,’ we developed the robot who became Newman.”

Having developed a keen interest in filmmaking when he was still one of the Beatles, McCartney has come a long way with his films from his first directorial foray, 1967′s Magical Mystery Tour. Far from the acid-induced country bus tour, Appreciate provides an up-tempo perspective on the 21st century from the guy who, not long ago, was singing about his Ever Present Past.

Yet it isn’t Microsoft that’s keeping Macca relevant among Generation Hashtag; cultural commentary aside, McCartney still knows how to rock a beat. Dubbed a “remarkable album” by POPMatters, NEW was ranked the 4th best album of 2013 by Rolling Stone. Transcending the pop fluff that perpetuated so many of his hits in the 70′s and 80′s, McCartney has entered a new era as much motivated by experimentation as reflection.

McCartney is set to tour with Newman in Japan. Perhaps a Godzilla mashup is already in the works.

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4 Amazing Facts Suggesting the Mind Can Exist Independent of the Brain

Sunday, May 11th, 2014 - by P. David Hornik

Are you just a physical entity, ultimately reducible to the physical entity known as your brain? Is that organ—a bundle of neurons weighing about three pounds—the source of all your thoughts, feelings, and any illusion you may have of a “soul” or a “spirit”?

I recently finished reading a 600-plus-page book by a group of academic psychiatrists, psychologists, and philosophers, called Irreducible Mind, that argues exactly the opposite. The book presents a huge body of evidence from scientific studies of psychokinesis, split personalities, psychic healing, near-death experiences, and other phenomena that seems to constitute powerful proof that, while the mind and the brain obviously interact, the former is not reducible to the latter and there are circumstances where consciousness clearly exists and functions independently of the brain.

Irreducible Mind is a subversive endeavor, swimming against the tide of about a century of scientific reductionism (though not, it should be stressed, in quantum physics) that says all phenomena, including your most delicate or exalted sentiments, are ultimately physical. The book has definitely had some impact; googling the title gets almost two million results, and though published back in 2007 it keeps selling well on Amazon.

One of the coauthors is Bruce Greyson, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Virginia and leading researcher of near-death experiences. A few months ago a video surfaced of a lecture Greyson gave in India in 2011. It’s about an hour long, fascinating, and seems to point to even more dramatic findings since Irreducible Mind was published seven years ago.

Greyson presents four lines of evidence for the mind as an independent entity, which I’ve taken the trouble to summarize, and they could be an eye-opener. First he gives this caveat:

The evidence that I’m going to discuss…is derived entirely from scientific research. But I do not want to give you the impression that this evidence is…accepted by Western scientists. In fact, most Western scientists are completely unaware that this evidence even exists.

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The New Charlotte’s Web Medicine

Friday, April 18th, 2014 - by Bonnie Ramthun

My home state of Colorado is a guinea pig for the pros and cons of marijuana legalization. Other states are observing closely to see if they should move down the path towards legalization.

There’s plenty of bad news to go around. Police in other states are pulling over Colorado drivers with no justification other than the green license plate. (We’re all stoners now, I guess.) A college student named Levy Thamba fell to his death from a high balcony during spring break after eating a marijuana cookie. And last week a Denver man who ate pot-infused candy became incoherent and paranoid and shot his wife to death.

Is there good news? Turns out there is. Colorado Springs is the source of the Charlotte’s Web strain of medical marijuana that has sent parents with gravely ill children flocking to the city for treatment.

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The strain was developed by Joel Stanley and his brothers in their Colorado Springs medical marijuana facility. They’d read that marijuana strains that are high in a chemical called CBD can help to shrink tumors and prevent seizures. The chemical in marijuana that gets users high is called THC, and since it has an adverse affect on seizures the Stanley’s bred it out of the plant.

Their first patient, 5 year old Charlotte Figis, was so affected by a genetic seizure condition called Dravet’s Syndrome that she was not expected to live much longer. Today, she’s almost seizure free. The Stanley brothers named the strain after their first little patient, and it’s showing the world what medical uses marijuana can offer.

Today there are nearly a hundred families with gravely ill children who have relocated to Colorado Springs, purchasing a treatment for their children that would have landed them in prison just a few years ago. Medical marijuana is well known to help in the treatment of nausea in cancer and AIDs patients, but the strains now being investigated may uncover new lifesaving medicines such as Charlotte’s Web.

The recreational use of marijuana is proving to be the problem it was predicted to be, but while the stoners fill the headlines the researchers in medical marijuana are quietly making amazing advances in the treatment of illnesses. That’s some very good news indeed.

****

Image via CNN Health.

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10 Things You Need to Know About the Blood Moons That Begin on Monday

Sunday, April 13th, 2014 - by Paula Bolyard

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Megachurch pastor, televangelist and author John Hagee has warned of a “world-shaking event that will happen between April 2014 and October 2015.” He believes that the series of lunar eclipses that will occur between now and then are predictive of major catastrophic historical events. The first “blood moon” will make its appearance on April 15. “There’s a sense in the world that things are changing and God is trying to communicate with us in a supernatural way,” Hagee told CBN earlier this year. “I believe that in these next two years we’re going to see something dramatic happen in the Middle East involving Israel that will change the course of history in the Middle East and impact the whole world,” he predicted.

That’s a rather unsettling prediction, one that is causing a lot of buzz among Christians and non-Christians alike.

What is a blood moon and should you be worried? Here are some facts:

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A Little Typographical Rant

Sunday, March 30th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

I’ve got cataracts, and thanks to a combination of bureaucratic CF at the doctor, at my new insurance company, and sure enough thanks to Obamacare, I still haven’t been able to get them fixed. (May. Maybe.)

For those of you who’ve never had them, the effect is more or less like having really dirty glasses all the time. Small print is hard. (Small print in Chinese is really hard, I have to resort of a magnifying glass.) You lose contrast, and glare washes out everything.

Now, here I am, reading web pages. I’m not going to mention who I’m using as an example, because it’s not Pejman Yousefzadeh’s fault, it’s some damn hipster web designer, who probably wears plaid pajamas and drinks hot chocolate while talking to his mommy and daddy about healthcare. But here’s a fragment of text:

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 17.50.10

Notice anything about it? Like it’s a little washed out looking?

So I apply my mad web skillz, and discover the background is, yes, white, but the text color is (102,102,102), or in hex #666.

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 17.50.48

This is called, technically “40 percent gray.” In other words, it’s 60 percent white. The text color is more white than not.

666666

This is 40 percent gray. Does this look black to you?

I mean, WTF? Are we supposed to read this?

It seems to be a trend too. A little googling and I find that #666 is a very popular text color. It’s supposed to be “easier on the eyes.”

Dear web designers: Go buy a book. You know, those paper things? I realize they’re old fashioned, but buy one. Or borrow one for crying out loud.

Open the book. What color is the text? That’s right, it’s black. Or damn near black. A 90 percent gray maybe. If it’s a recent book, and a textbook, it might even be some color like a dark Williamsburg blue. It’s not 40 percent gray.

Oh, and using like 10 point font is silly too, but that’s a rant for another time.

For those of you who find this nonsense hard to read, there’s actually a handy web site called readability.com.  What they do is take a web page, strip it of the hipster cutenesses, and present it in a reasonably-large font, using black text. (Or nearly black — it’s actually a slightly yellow-green close to 90 percent gray.  But it’s close to black.)  Then it looks like this:

Screen Shot 2014-03-29 at 18.21.20

Now, isn’t that better?

 

As if it were actually meant to be read.

And now get the hell offa my lawn.

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OMG We’re All Gonna Die, Part 4632

Saturday, March 29th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

Despair is a sin. It’s bhavatrishna. But sometimes …

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Here a story that’s being pushed as a Facebook thing now. It apparently started as a story in Edmonton, Alberta. Here’s the money quote:

“Some of the kelp that I found was higher than what the International Atomic Energy Agency sets as radioactive contamination, which is 1,450 counts over a 10-minute period,” she said. “Some of my samples came up as 1,700 or 1,800.”

Can’t blame the poor little girl, who is probably having glow-in-the-dark nightmares now. But one would hope someone, like say her science teacher, would do a little research. (If you want to do a little research, you can do worse than my piece “Understanding Radation” about 3 years ago. But here’s the tl;dr version.)

So, 1700 counts in 10 minutes. Here is the part in which we divide. 1700 counts in 10 minutes is about 170 counts a minute, which is a little less than 3 counts a second.

The Potassium-40 in a 150g banana? Around 20 counts a second.

Good thing this kid didn’t go to the produce section.

More from PJ Lifestyle: 7 Ways Noah Turns the Bible Upside Down

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Bwwaaaak for Super Chicken!

Wednesday, March 26th, 2014 - by Stephen Green

CHICKEN FROM HELL

Tey’re calling it “the chicken from hell” — in the Dakotas:

The 11-foot-long (3-meter-long), 500-pound (225-kilogram) Anzu wyliei is an oviraptorosaur—a family of two-legged, birdlike dinosaurs found in Central Asia and North America. These dinosaurs ranged in size from a few pounds to over a metric ton, according to a study published March 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.

With its toothless beak, long legs, huge feet, and claw-tipped arms, A. wyliei looked like a devilish version of the modern cassowary, a large ground bird found in Australia.

It was “as close as you can get to a bird without being a bird,” said study leader Matt Lamanna, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.

This is why I never order the chicken.

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Schrödinger’s ♡bamaCare

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 - by Stephen Green

HEP CAT

Let’s get metaphysical with Jay Sekulow:

Does “ObamaCare” truly exist? Are we actually living with the law that was passed with so much fanfare four years ago?

Gallup says the number of uninsured dropped very slightly from 17.1% of Americans to 15.9% — a result so insignificant that it’s close to the poll’s 1% margin of error and still 1.5% higher than the number of uninsured when President Obama took office.

Did you catch that? Almost four years after ObamaCare was signed into law – rammed through Congress via procedural trickery and against the will of the majority of Americans – a higher percentage of Americans are uninsured than before the law was passed.

How could this happen?

♡bamaCare!!! neither exists nor doesn’t exist. The law is neither known nor settled, as its strictures blip in and out of reality by the exigencies of the moment. Mandates are taxes, penalties are fees, mandates are suggestions, deadlines contain no discernible dates.

It is Schrödinger’s Law, existing in a permanent state of undeterminable impermanence.

****
Cross-posted from Vodkapundit

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Firing Back At The Global Warming Radicals

Monday, February 24th, 2014 - by Chris Queen

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Two winter storms in a three week period blanketed the South in snow and ice. Naturally, the Left couldn’t resist the chance to link these winter storms to “climate change.” Qualified scientists like Bette Midler and Politico‘s Roger Simon - not to be confused with PJ Media’s Roger L. Simon - have tried to tie this winter’s weather to an assault on Mother Earth at the hands of capitalism. (News flash: the only climate change causing these storms was the change from fall to winter.) One climate scientist with his fingers on the pulse of reality is fighting back against the climate change madness, and he’s stepping up his game.

Dr. Roy Spencer is one of the most renowned climatologists in the United States. His work for NASA and the University of Alabama at Huntsville over the past three decades has proven valuable to the scientific community. Most importantly, Spencer has become a leading voice against the fallacy of manmade global warming.

Spencer can barely contain his anger against the vitriolic language of the environmental movement – particularly the use of the word “deniers” to describe those of us who do not subscribe to the dangerous, radical, and altogether false premise that civilization and capitalism cause global warming. And he has declared that it’s time to fight back, using their own metaphor against them:

They indirectly equate (1) the skeptics’ view that global warming is not necessarily all manmade nor a serious problem, with (2) the denial that the Nazi’s extermination of millions of Jews ever happened.

Too many of us for too long have ignored the repulsive, extremist nature of the comparison. It’s time to push back.

I’m now going to start calling these people “global warming Nazis”.

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Debunked: U.S. Speedskating’s ‘Suit-gate’

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014 - by Becky Graebner

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The U.S.A. (the well-established, dominant power in speedskating) has had an abysmal performance at the Olympics this year.  Big names like Shani Davis and Heather Richardson haven’t held fists full of medals as predicted. So far, they haven’t even been close. A piece in The New York Times (as well as several other news sources) are reporting that the equipment was possibly to blame.  The victim?  The U.S. speedskating team’s racing suits.  (Of course, it must be the equipment’s fault…)

SUIT-GATE.

At the games, the U.S. team debuted state-of-the-art skin suits made by Under Armour and Lockheed Martin.  The suit was called the Mach 39 and was crafted in a wind tunnel.  It was cutting edge.

Athletes and coaches decided not to unveil the suits prior to the Olympics because they didn’t want anyone to steal the technology. Ah, ze secret veapon!

Plan foiled.

Suits worn but no medals.

It is whispered that the suits must have been defective…

Nope. Stop blaming the suits–and here’s why…

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Al Gore vs. Wallace Stevens

Wednesday, February 5th, 2014 - by Roger Kimball

This morning, I walked out our front door and across the street to take a picture:

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It reminded me of something Al Gore said a few years back: “the world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming.”

Then I thought of something Wallace Stevens said:

The Snow Man

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

I think I’ll stick with Stevens.

*****

Cross-posted from Roger’s Rules

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Taking Yogi Berra’s Advice

Friday, January 24th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

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Let’s take a road trip. We’re going to visit all the capitals of all the 48 contiguous states, starting from Denver.

Now, since we’re taking vacation days to do this, we don’t want to visit any capital more than once, and we want to do this in the least time, or in the shortest distance traveled, which is pretty much the same thing.

Starting from Denver, if we only want to visit one other state capital, planning the trip is easy. Denver to Cheyenne. Boom. Two capitals is easy — you can either go Denver to Cheyenne to Topeka, or Denver to Topeka to Cheyenne. Add in Santa Fe, well, there are several routes. Ignoring, for the sake of keeping my readers awake, some details, basically as we expand the number of cities, we have to explore every possible ordering of the cities. So if we stay in Denver, visiting exactly one capital, we have exactly one route. Visit one other city, we have two choices of trip plan — Denver Cheyenne Denver, or Cheyenne Denver Cheyenne. Visit two other cities — so three cities total — and there are six choices. (Remember this includes trips where someone wants to start and end in Santa Fe or, Gods forbid, Topeka.) So, no other cities, you have 1 choice. One other city, you still only have 2 choices. Two other cities, you have six route choices.

Three other cities? Well, you can use all the routes for two other cities, and go to the new city from each of them. So you multiply the number of routes you’ve already got by the total number of cities. In other words, if we have n cities, we want n × n-1×n-2 … 1.

Many of you already recognize this as n! — “n factorial” — which is an important idea in a lot of different areas of math.

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Should You Vaccinate Your Children?

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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There is no subject that provokes conspiracy theories quite like the immunization of children. That innocent, healthy creatures should have alien substances forcibly introduced into their bodies seems unnatural and almost cruel. As one internet blogger put it:

Don’t take your baby to get a shot, how do you know if they tell the truth when giving the baby the shot, I wouldn’t know because all vaccines are clear and who knows what crap is in that needle.

The most common conspiracy theory at the moment is that children are being poisoned with vaccines to boost the profits of the pharmaceutical companies that make the vaccines. No doubt such companies sometimes get up to no good, as do all organizations staffed by human beings, but that is not also to assert that they never get up to any good.

A relatively new vaccine is that against rotavirus, the virus that is the largest single cause of diarrhea in children. In poor countries this is a cause of death; in richer countries it is a leading cause of visits to the hospital but the cause of relatively few deaths.

Since rotavirus immunization of infants was introduced in the United States, hospital visits and admissions have declined by four fifths among the immunized. However, evidence of benefit is not the same as evidence of harmlessness, and one has the distinct impression that opponents of immunization on general, quasi-philosophical grounds, almost hope that proof of harmfulness will emerge.

A study published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine examined the question of one possible harmful side-effect of immunization against rotavirus, namely intestinal intussusception, a condition in which a part of the intestine telescopes into an adjacent part, and which can lead to fatal bowel necrosis if untreated.

The authors compared the rate of intussusception among infants immunized with two types of vaccine between 2008 and 2013 with that among infants from 2001 to 2005, before the vaccine was used. There is always the possibility that rates of intussusception might have changed spontaneously, with or without the vaccine, but the authors think that this is slight: certainly there is no reason to think it.

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New Photos of Challenger Disaster Emerge

Tuesday, January 21st, 2014 - by Chris Queen

Challenger

Twenty-eight years ago next week, the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded a little more than a minute after launch. I’ll never forget that day. I was in 7th grade, and we were out of school because of an extreme cold snap. The Teacher in Space program which put Christa McAuliffe made this launch special. As the day unfolded, we recorded news reports and tributes on the VCR, and my parents still have the tape even though they threw their VCR out years ago. For my generation, the Challenger disaster held the same sort of legendary status as the Kennedy assassination did for my parents – at least until 9/11.

As we get ready to mark another anniversary, new photos of the disaster have emerged from an unlikely source.

Last week, Michael Hindes of West Springfield, Mass., made a timely discovery:  Twenty-six previously misplaced photos of the disaster. To his knowledge, the photos had never been published before this past Tuesday.

While searching through the belongings of his grandmother, who had recently passed away, Hindes was looking for photos to display during the memorial service. Lo and behold, an amazing find. “I just happened to get the box with the Challenger pictures at the bottom, which was kind of special for me because I am the biggest NASA fan in the family,” Hindes wrote in the Reddit post where he first displayed the photos.

“As I [went] through them, I’m watching the shuttle go up and up and up,” he told KTAR. “Then I see that iconic cloud.” Hindes said his heart sank when he realized what the photos depicted.

Hindes’ asked his grandfather, who had worked as NASA electrician, about the photos. His grandfather explained that another electrician, one of his coworkers, had taken them and given him a set. Unfortunately, in the three decades that have past, the photographer’s name is, sadly, lost to history.

Honestly, the photos don’t reveal anything more that the hundreds we’ve seen since the day of the explosion, but the sequence shows the explosion unfolding in real time. Hindes has reached out to NASA offering to donate the photos, but he has not heard back from them. You can see the gallery in a slideshow on weather.com.

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13 Weeks: Diets and Black Swans

Saturday, January 11th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan introduced an old term and then, annoyingly, redefined it. For Sir Karl Popper, the black swan was an observation about logical quantification: if you assert “all swans are white” then the observation of a single black swan falsifies the assertion.

Taleb’s observation is different, although related: he’s observing that really unexpected events are unexpected: we have a model of the world that says “The US mainland is secure from attack” that seems perfectly plausible on 10 September 2001; we believe “Islamist terrorism is on the run” and then a bomb blows up in Boston.

(There’s a more sophisticated way to deal with all of these called Bayesian inference. We’ll leave the details for a science column, but in a few words, a Bayesian starts with an assumed a priori estimate of the probability of an event. After observation, they have a new a postieriori estimate that incorporates new experience.)

But there’s yet a third way to think about these that shows us how mathematics and probability can show us surprising things.

(Yes, this is a diet and exercise column, just a little further down.)

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Is Phone Sex a Sign of Conscious Thought?

Thursday, January 9th, 2014 - by Charlie Martin

The new movie Her is just one of many in which a mechanical or electronic construct becomes a character in a human’s story. HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Commander Data, HARLIE, the robots of Lost in Space and Forbidden Planet, Asimov’s robots, and a hundred less-memorable movies and TV shows.

Okay, maybe Julie Newmar was memorable, but for other reasons.

Her carries it on a little further, when the main character falls in love with the personality that serves as the front end for a new operating system. They eventually consummate their love in what is supposed to be a rather steamy, and apparently mutually satisfying, episode of what’s a whole new meaning of “phone sex.” (I say “supposed to be” because I haven’t seen the movie yet; in any case, this isn’t a review of the movie.)

So here’s a question for you: when Samantha, the operating system’s personality, has an orgasm, is it real or is she faking it?

Expressed a little more generally, Alan Turing started asking the same questions in 1950 in his famous paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” which begins with:

I propose to consider the question, “Can machines think?”

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NYT Columnist Charles Blow Embarrassed and Sad about the 33% Who Reject Evolution

Sunday, January 5th, 2014 - by Paula Bolyard

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Charles Blow over at the New York Times editorial page has his knickers all in a twist over a new survey from the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project that found many Americans still reject the atheistic view of evolution. Blow called the results of the survey “sad” and said “it’s embarrassing.” The December 30th survey found that  ”six-in-ten Americans (60%) say that “humans and other living things have evolved over time,” while a third (33%) reject the idea of evolution, saying that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Rejecting out of hand the notion that 33% of Americans might actually be able to think for themselves, Blow resurrects the vast right-wing conspiracy to account for the fact that Americans still reject evolution, despite the fact that virtually every public school child and every student attending college is taught as fact that they evolved from a common ancestor and that life on earth came about as a result of some sort of “highly energetic chemistry” that produced a self-replicating molecule rather than by the design of an intelligent Creator. Blow says,

But I believe that something else is also at play here, something more cynical. I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.

So it’s those scheming Republicans who are to blame for this embarrassing display of ignorance, as Blow sees it. Probably Karl Rove, too. And the Koch brothers along with George Bush.

Charles Blow calls the views of a third of Americans — the 33% —  ”extreme religiosity” and “a form of dysfunction” and then turns around and mocks those who claim there is hostility toward religion in this country. He writes,  ”This is a tactic to keep the Republican rank-and-file riled up.”

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Can Scientists Create a Cure for Pain From Scorpions, Spiders, and Centipedes?

Tuesday, December 31st, 2013 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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Scientists are often portrayed as archetypally rational men, mere calculating machines in human form who propose correct new theories by infallible deduction from what is already known. Science cannot possibly advance in this way, however, and the philosopher Karl Popper pointed out long ago that leaps of the imagination are as necessary to science as they were to art

I have never been able to make such leaps myself, which is why I admire them in others. I remember meeting a researcher into malaria who was trying to produce a vaccine, not against the malarial parasite itself, but against the stomach lining of the mosquitoes that carried the parasite. He hoped that such a vaccine would kill the mosquitoes – causing them to explode in mid-flight, perhaps – and thus prevent the spread of the disease. The idea did not work, but I was impressed by the boldness of the conception.

For the scientist no information is too obscure to be of potential use. And what information could be more obscure than that the desert-dwelling grasshopper mouse that likes eating the bark scorpion, whose sting causes severe pain in all other possible predators and makes them avoid it? Most of us, I think, would say, “All very interesting, professor, but so what?” The scientist, however, asks why the grasshopper mouse is immune to the painful effects of the scorpion venom, and whether, on discovering the reason, it might not help in the development of new analgesics. Mankind has long believed that remedies for its afflictions are to be found in Nature, but only scientists can go about systematically investigating the possibilities. Imagination is a necessary but not sufficient quality for scientific research.

A recent article in the New England Journal of Medicine, in a long-running series that tries to connect basic scientific research with clinical progress, draws attention to research on the grasshopper mouse. The article is provocatively entitled Darwin 1, Pharma 0, thereby drawing our attention to the fact that millions of years of natural selection have done for the grasshopper mouse what a century of research by pharmaceutical companies has not been able to do for Man. The comparison seems neither apt nor fair, but any stick these days is good enough to beat Big Pharma with.

The grasshopper mouse, it seems, has a mutant gene that prevents a component in the scorpion venom from activating the peripheral nerve cells involved in the transmission of pain. Could human pain be alleviated or even abolished if a compound were found that acts on the mechanism that the normal version of the gene, present in all other mammal genomes, controls?

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Why Is It So Difficult to Translate Genetic Breakthroughs into Clinical Benefits?

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013 - by Theodore Dalrymple

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The enormous, even exponential, advance in the understanding of human genetics over the past three decades has so far yielded much less improvement in clinical results than was once hoped. It has proved more difficult than anticipated to translate biological knowledge into clinical benefit.

This is not, of course, to say that there have been no benefits at all from the advances in genetic understanding, particularly in such fields as prenatal counselling. Another superficially promising field is that of pharmacogenetics, that is to say the prediction of responses to medicaments according to the patients’ genetic type. This is very important, for hitherto it has proved difficult to predict whether a patient will respond positively or negatively to a given treatment, and whether he or she needs a higher or a lower dose to produce a desired effect.

The latter is particularly important in the case of treatment with anticoagulants (blood-thinners) because a therapeutic dose is usually so close to a dangerous dose. If we could predict who needs what dose rather than, as at present, proceed essentially by trial and error, it would be of great advantage to patients who need anticoagulation.  They would receive the benefit of anticoagulation – fewer heart attacks and strokes – without the risks of complications such as cerebral and other bleeds.

Three trials of attempts to tailor doses of anticoagulants according to the patients’ genetic type have been published in a recent edition of the New England Journal of Medicine. The authors compared prescription of anticoagulants by the normal methods with determination by genetic type. The results of the three trials were contradictory.

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Is the Universe Spinning?

Thursday, December 19th, 2013 - by Ronald R. Cherry

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Dark matter and the so-called dark energy of our universe can be accounted for by an alternative cosmological theory. We normally think of the Big Bang as a violently expanding universe where all the mass was flung out centrifugally in a bomb-like explosion leaving essentially nothing at the center. The presence of dark energy has been proposed in this now standard cosmology since observations indicate that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. An alternative theory is that the Big Bang was a violent rotational expansion of matter flung off from a rotating ultra-massive black hole at its center, with the universe in an expanding (but eventually stable) rotation around the remaining dark matter (the remaining ultra-massive black hole) at the center of the universe. Under this cosmology the universe would still be expanding from the center, but decelerating centrifugally (via centripetally opposing gravitational force) into a final average orbital radius, while maintaining fixed radial acceleration (average angular velocity squared divided by average radius) and fixed angular momentum (average angular velocity times average radius times mass). Physicists in India have proposed such a theory for the Big Bang.

“One possible explanation as to how all objects acquired the property of spin could be cosmological models which also contain a term involving the primordial spin of the universe. In homogenous and isotropic models, universe with matter may not only expand but also rotate… Recent work on the study of thousands of spiral galaxies imaged by Sloan Digital Sky Survey does in fact indicate that the universe could be spinning… Here we have cosmological model involving the primordial rotation of the universe, invoked to understand the origin of the rotation or spin of objects over a wide range of masses from stars to galaxies… a cosmological model with a large scale primordial rotation term of this order can give an accelerating universe mimicking [via radial acceleration] a dark energy term [for the commonly accepted centrifugally  accelerating universe].”  C Sivaram and Kenath Arun

Dark energy remains a theory since no one has observed it, or an effect from it, which cannot be accounted for by a better explanation. Dark energy need not be invoked in the case of rotational cosmology since the initial energy required for rotational expansion would be all that is necessary to explain a presently expanding universe in radial (orbital) acceleration around an ultra-massive black hole at its center. In addition to solving the problem of dark matter and dark energy, rotational cosmology also provides us with a picture of the universe which matches the observable rotation of planets in our own solar system, and the rotation of observable spiral galaxies, some or all of which may orbit super-massive black holes at their center.

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image courtesy shutterstock /  jupeart

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