Thursday, February 28, 2008

Natural Male Imprisonment

Steve Warshak, owner of the company that produces Enzyte has been found "guilty of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, bank fraud and money laundering," according to the AP.

On this day, I urge everyone to remember the reason anyone knows about Enzyte at all: their commercials. A discussion of the epistemological status of Enzyte and other "natural enhancement" pills commences below, but first let us watch some funny videos.

According to the manufacturer's website, Enzyte "includes Korean red ginseng, ginkgo biloba, zinc, and octacosanol." According to Enzyte's Wikipedia entry, no clinical effect has been proved.

I'm feeling a lot of guilt right now for putting off my homework, so rather than take the time to thoroughly go through the ingredients and claims and so forth, I'll refer you to sage advice given by the Federal Trade Commission in 1998.

  • If the product is advertised as effective for treating impotence-and no physician's prescription is necessary-forget it. It won't cure the condition.

  • If the product is advertised as a "breakthrough" in treating impotence, check with your doctor to see if it is legitimate.

  • If the product is promoted by a "medical organization," call your physician to check the credentials. Phony "clinics" and sham "institutes" are touting bogus cures for impotence.

  • # If the product says "scientifically proven" to reverse impotence in a high percentage of patients, check it out with your doctor. Some claims that "clinical studies" prove a product works are false; generally, high success rates should raise suspicions.

  • If the product being pitched to cure impotence is "herbal" or "all natural," dismiss it. To date, no "herbal" or "all natural" substance has been shown to be an effective treatment for impotence.

Thanks to Ed Brayton.

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New Skeptics' Circle is up.

Go read it at the Conspiracy Factory.

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Sunday, February 24, 2008

Road Trip!

The Amazing James Randi will be lecturing at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign on Sunday Monday, March 10. It is about 2 1/2 hours from St. Louis. I think we should go if it is open to the public. Who's with me? Perhaps we'll see one of the Action Skeptics there.

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Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Further Proof Science is Sexy

Dr. T. Stuart Meloy has developed spinal implant to treat bladder and pain problems that has the sexy side effect of causing orgasms in most women. According to an LA Times article:

Women who have used the device say they feel as if their clitoris and vagina are actually being stimulated, to quite realistic effect. ("One woman asked me, 'Would it be considered adultery if I gave the remote control to someone other than my husband?' " Meloy says.)

Some volunteers also report fleeting episodes of clenched foot muscles, Meloy says, probably a result of electrical pulses leaving the spine and stimulating nearby motor nerves. (He wonders if the phenomenon might somehow be related to a common orgasm description: "My toes curled.")

And when the device's pulse intensity is cranked up to maximum, Meloy says, some women find their vaginal and rectal muscles squeezing rhythmically in time with the pulses, even before the orgasmic finale.
Dr. Meloy is now looking for FDA approval to use the device to treat female orgasm dysfunction.

But that's not all!

Meloy says he has also implanted two impotent men with the device. Both volunteers were able to achieve an erection, he says, and reportedly had powerful ejaculations.

As soon as the good Doctor finds a way to bring the price down from a steep $12,000, perhaps we'll see a slightly less frustrated America. And some say science is boring...

Read more here and over at Skepchick. Here is the LA Times article.

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Graduate Students are Good for Something

Put this in your "Cool Gadgets" notebook. I know you all keep one. Clay Moulton, a student from Virginia Tech, has invented a gravity lamp, as in a lamp powered by gravity. You can read the full article here. The lamp is powered by a slowly falling weight which spins a rotor to light an LED, and as a result, a weight must be lifted to the top of the lamp every four hours. The lamp puts out 600-800 lumens (enough to light the den), and the machinery of the lamp is estimated to last upwards of 200 years. Way to go Clay.

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Pentagon + Lasers = Scary

"A recently unclassified report from the Pentagon from 1998 has revealed an investigation into using laser beams for a few intriguing potential methods of non-lethal torture. Some of the applications the report investigated include putting voices in people's heads, using lasers to trigger uncontrolled neuron firing, and slowly heating the human body to a point of feverish confusion - all from hundreds of meters away."

Read the full article here.

On a lighter note, I think that transmitting music directly to your head would be pretty cool. Imagine an ipod without those damned headphones. I wonder how good the bass is.

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Sunday, February 17, 2008

Kotaku on JT's NIU Claims

School shootings are horrible tragedies. I want to be clear right from the start that no one should be made to endure a loved one's murder or suicide, particularly in such a painful and public manner.

In the aftermath of such an event, we all want to know why it happened. But speculating about motives before we have concrete information is foolish in the least and can be harmfully misleading. Mere speculation, though, can be forgiven. Using a tragedy to advance a wholly unrelated agenda cannot.

It is with this in mind that we watch a video of one infamous Florida attorney, whom we followers of video game culture sometimes call He Who Must Not Be Named. Inexplicably, this man is allowed on Fox News to throw out his claims that major tragedies are caused by video games. The shooting at NIU on the 14th was no exception.

An analysis of the claims in this clip has been made by Brian Crecente of Kotaku, which I will reproduce for you here.

  1. We find from brain scan studies out of Harvard that if you get started playing, for example, violent video games you can more likely copy-cat the behaviors in the games.
    Verdict: False
    Evidence: While the study of adolescents by Harvard and Indiana university researchers found that video games can spur "emotional arousal" and lower self-control it never made that final leap. In fact David S. Bickham, a research scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health at the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston, told the Washington Post that the study, while interesting, wasn't conclusive.

  2. The disturbing thing that keeps popping up in many of these as in Va Tech, Columbine, Paducah, where I represented the six parents of the three girls shot and killed, is that you can rehearse these types of massacres on simulators which are called video games. And you can therefore made more proficient in doing this.
    Verdict: False
    Evidence: Va Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho only had a passing interest in gaming years before the shoot[ing]. A lawyer tried to draw a connection between the game Doom and Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, but that was tossed out by a federal judge. Paducah shooter Michael Carneal also played Doom, but that was found to not be connected to the shooting. Video game as murder simulator and training tool just doesn't hold any water.

  3. The worst school shooting in history until Va Tech, was by Robert Steinhauser in Erfurt, Germany who trained on Counter-Strike Half Life. That's the game that Cho at Va Tech trained on in High School.
    Verdict: Not exactly true
    Evidence: While it is true that Steinhauser and Cho both played Counter-Strike at some point in their lives, with more than a million copies sold, that could probably be said of a lot of college students. Saying that Cho "trained on" the game is a bit of a stretch.

  4. And um the effect, the affects the psychological affect of the shooter, plus his attire is suggestive of a couple of the games in which the "hero" wears this type of attire.
    Verdict: Likely false
    Evidence: The description by those present don't make it sound like he had a flat affect. One person said "It looked like a theatrical thing the way he walked onto the stage." Others described his behavior leading up to the shooting as erratic. Not surprising of a man who had recently been dumped by his girlfriend and had stopped taking his medication, possibly anti-depressants. Simply wearing black doesn't mean he was dressing up like the "hero" from Counter-Strike.

  5. I lost my train of thought. I wrote a book...
    Verdict: True
    Evidence: Jack did indeed write a book, and I think he lost his train of thought about two decades ago.
Wonderful skeptical analysis of an opportunist. Kudos to Crecente, and I wish I had wrote it myself.

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Friday, February 15, 2008

Python v. Alligator: Draw

Those of you stuck in our lovely office know that there has been talk about which animals would defeat others in a fair fight. I think you wold all agree that this result is a little surprising...

In Florida, a 13-ft Burmese python took on a 6-ft alligator. The results were disastrous. It looks like the python was able to swallow the entirety of the alligator but then burst. Perhaps the alligator decided to claw its way out. Both animals died in the process. The picture above shows the alligator's tail bursting through the side of the python. The head of the python is missing. In retrospect, I think it might be fair to give the python a point for effort.

Now if only nature will provide us with a gorilla v. bear war. Until then, we'll just have to go with what we have on film.

Tip of the hat to PZ for pointing out something that I should have learned about 3 years ago when it happened.

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Thursday, February 14, 2008

We're #1! We're #1!

Skeptic's Circle número ochenta is up at Bug Girl's Blog. Our very own Flavin was crowned with first mention.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Valentine's Day Special: Scientific Lovers

Those of you in the Boston/Providence area can avail yourselves of a service that will match you with a partner based on your own DNA! It's science! Yes, on you can find a mate who is genetically compatible with you. Based on what criteria, you ask? What genes are examined? These questions and more will be answered in this Gateway Skepticism Valentine's Day Special: Scientific Lovers.

The site is actually very forthcoming with information. They've got a long page detailing their claims and the evidence for them. The first question they tackle is about the genes. What kind of analysis can they perform on genes to match you with a potential relationship?

Physical chemistry is based on the immune system. When we analyze your DNA, we look exclusively at your immune system genes. So, quite literally, when we say that two people have “chemistry”, we’re saying that their immune system genes are perfectly matched with each other.

By perfectly matched, we mean different.

After we analyze your DNA, we match you with other people who have different immune system genes from yourself.

The theory is that nature wants us to breed with other people who have different immune systems because it creates babies with a wider variety of immune system genes, and therefore, more robust immune systems—in other words, healthier babies.
That's what they do: look at genes in the major histocompatibility complex, MHC, and see how many you share with a potential mate. The fewer you have in common, the better matched you are with each other. It seems a rather simple metric considering the... well, rather sexy claims being made for the service.
When you share chemistry with someone, you significantly increase your chances of realizing these amazing benefits:
  1. You'll love their natural body fragrance--they'll smell “sexier” than other people.

  2. You'll have a more satisfying sex life.

  3. If you’re a woman, you'll have a higher rate of orgasms.

  4. There will be less cheating in your exclusive relationship.

  5. As a couple, you'll be more fertile.

  6. Your children will be healthier.

To me, these claims appear outlandish. However, my opinion counts for naught when references are provided for each claim. Yes, you read that correctly: it's a dating site that relies on published scientific research. Some of you might be pulling your credit cards out already, but let's examine in more detail first.
1. Chances are, you’ll love the natural body fragrance of your partner--they’ll smell sexier than other people
To back up this assertion, they cite an experiment in which women were asked to smell sweaty t-shirts worn by men. The relative rating by the women of pleasure of the smells was correlated with the difference in MHC genes between smeller and smelly smellee. A handy overview is given at the Wikipedia article for the author, Claus Wedekind.

This claim is actually pretty well established. It's a little weird, but could be true. If someone is matched to you by this service, you might like the smell of their sweat better than someone more similar to you in MHC genes—unless you're on the pill, in which case it's opposite. I wouldn't say it's enough to base a relationship on, so what about the other claims?
2. You’ll probably have a more satisfying sex life

3. If you’re a woman, chances are you’ll have a higher rate of orgasms

4. There’s a lower chance of cheating in your exclusive relationships when your DNA is matched properly
You may have noticed I presented three claims together—and what amazing claims they are!—and were wondering why. Well, as their primary support, these three wonderful sexy claims cite one and the same paper. That's right, on the same page that cites over 40 primary research papers and books, fully half of the amazing benefits of this DNA-matching service are resting on one published report. Let's read, shall we?

The paper (full reference below) can be found here. It approaches this question from a psychology perspective, administering a questionnaire about sexual satisfaction, cheating, etc. Honestly, I don't know enough about psychology research or statistics to know if there are any weaknesses in the study, save a few things.

First, the study involved only 48 couples. For such broad results, I would like to see something larger. Second, the participants were taken from a college campus and had mean ages 20.5 and 21.3 years for men and women, respectively. Hardly a representative group, especially for satisfaction in relationships and sexual behavior. Are 20-year-olds likely to be using a dating website? Third, I haven't seen any replication. Only three papers have cited this one (it is from 2006, after all) and none have checked the results.

None of these perceived-by-me weaknesses are deal-breakers for the accuracy of the study. It could be true that all three benefits of MHC-matching based on this paper and advertised by will come to you with a properly matched partner. But I wouldn't start a business around it, myself.
5. As a couple, you're probably more fertile
This is based on a few studies demonstrating that couples with dissimilar MHC genes have a lower rate of "spontaneous, unprovoked abortion." The studies appear pretty legit, but is having a lower rate of "spontaneous, unprovoked abortion" really the same thing as being "more fertile" as was claimed? The site is a little shifty about this point.
To be clear, they don’t show a correlation between chemistry and the ability to get pregnant. That wasn’t investigated in these studies, so they don’t disprove the correlation, either.
Riiiight. They don't say it'll happen, but they don't say it won't happen, do they?
6. Your children have a better chance of being healthy
This claim is extensively documented in humans and in other species. It seems obvious to me as a non-biologist who has scanned these papers that having many different haplotypes of the MHC genes will help prevent against some diseases and will possibly make the immune system better in general. This hypothesis has been tested and seems to be correct, again from a non-biologist's perspective.

I don't know about you, but I wasn't too convinced. The evidence for the good, fun stuff was a little shaky. Sure, having a slightly higher chance of healthy babies is great, but I'd really like to know more about the "more orgasm" thing. Can we get another study on that?

For those of you who have used or do use dating websites, maybe this one tickles your fancy. It certainly can't be any less scientific than some popular dating sites out there. I don't think it could hurt to give it a shot.

There's my Valentine's Day special skeptical gift: scientific analysis, tentative conclusions, and weak recommendations. It isn't romantic, it isn't a cure-all for your love problems, and it probably doesn't make blood flow to your naughty bits.

But it is the best thing I can give you: reality.

Full reference: Garver-Apgar, Christine E, Steven W Gangestad, Randy Thornhill, Robert D Miller, & Jon J Olp (2006) “Major Histocompatibility Complex Alleles, Sexual Responsivity, and Unfaithfulness in Romantic Couples,” Psychological Science, vol 17, no 10, pp 830-835.

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What's the harm?

Here is a site keeping track of those harmed by pseudoscience and dangerous beliefs. Categories include Scientology, exorcisms, homeopathy, vaccine denial, acupuncture, UFOs and many others. I recommend taking a look.

Thanks to the Bad Astronomer for sharing.

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Monday, February 11, 2008


I love to see scientists, particularly physicists, interacting with the broader culture. And vice versa, of course. That's why I was tickled to flip on Conan last Friday and see MIT physics professor Peter Fisher entertaining the crowd with science and wit.

No, I'm not joking; he was actually funny. See for yourself.

[EDIT: See bottom]

From this we can conclude:

  1. Physics is hilarious. And useful for everyday things. Seriously, I hope people have their curiosity aroused by this kind of demonstration and think, "Hey, these random questions I ask and then immediately forget about, I can actually find answers to them by using science!"

  2. The writer's strike is wreaking havok on the regular flow of programing. For the better.

Oh, and nutating is a cool word.

UPDATE: Well, NBC has asserted its right to not have its videos hosted on YouTube. That's fine: they do hold the copyright to these recordings and if they decide their property should not be hosted on a popular website then the videos should be removed. I just wish they would do a little better about allowing an approved legal way to embed videos.

If you're so inclined, you can go the the Conan video site, choose Friday, February 8, and watch the second chapter of the episode. I know it's cumbersome, but for now that's the way it has to be. I knew these videos would be removed eventually (and verification that I predicted this is borne in this page's url), but I didn't think it would happen within a few hours of me posting them. Perhaps if someone hadn't put them on his wildly more popular site, they'd still be enjoyable by us all (but probably not).

Thanks to commenter PJ.

UPDATE 2: Thanks, Blake, for pointing the way to new videos. Those didn't exist when I looked, but the shifting sands of the interweb have tricked and confused many men before me so it's no shame I missed them. That's what I'll keep telling myself.

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Sunday, February 10, 2008

Scientology Protest Update

I have scavenged the internet for more information on the protests. Here is news of protests in Australia (a video, and more); Los Angeles (more); Boston; Clearwater, Florida (Scientology Headquarters: more); Detroit; and Hollywood. I will keep my eyes peeled for more. Feel free to either e-mail me (slss.ben at gmail dot com) more news stories from other areas if you come across them or leave links in the comments. I am finding this way too interesting.

Update: Chris Hoofnagle of the Denialism Blog protested in San Francisco.

Here is some info on London's protests (more); Buffalo, NY; Arizona; the CNN building (LA again, with video), ST. LOUIS; Canada; more on Clearwater, Florida; and Pittsburgh.

More Updates:
USA Today article; Washington D.C.; Austin; Seattle; Portland, OR; Dallas, Houston; Scotland ( quite a great article); Chicago; Dublin (video); here is another good summary.

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Scientology Protest in St. Louis

I don't have much information on the specifics, but I drove by the Scientology center today to see approximately 50 protesters across the street holding signs that said things like "Cult of Scientology". There were police on the Scientology center's side of the street, but it seemed a fairly innocuous protest. The protesters seemed to be in good spirits and waved as I drove by. It was quite a wonderful sight. Kudos to those braving to cold to tell it like it is!

This protest is part of the recent announcement by the hacker group Anonymous of their intention to bring down Scientology. Here are some more links. (1, 2). Here, I found the itinerary of today's protest. The overall organization of the protests seems non-violent and quite amazing. I hope the protests around the globe go well today.

Hail Xenu!

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Thursday, February 7, 2008

New University in Saudi Arabia

I have been meaning to write about this for several days, but with classes settling into a clipping pace and with research/TA duties, posts may be a little more spaced out than usual. Anyway, King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has donated $10 billion (that's right, billion with a b) of his own pocket change to create the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology or KAUST for short. (I won't make the obvious pun about the kaust of the university. Oops, I just did.) This endowment is one of the 10 largest ever. It's funding will be similar to that of top schools like Harvard and MIT.

What is amazing about this university is exactly how much effort is being put into making it a great center of learning. Instead of being divided into departments in the traditional way (Chemistry, Math, Biology, English, Drama, etc.), KAUST is divided into interdisciplinary institutes which focus on working with industry and solving important global problems. So far, there are four institutes listed: Resources, Energy and Environment; Biosciences and Bioengineering; Materials Science and Engineering; and Applied Mathematics and Computational Science.

To increase the amount and efficiency of research at the new university, the science faculty will be provided with grants totaling $1 billion over ten years (that's total, not per scientist). This will help the scientists focus on their research instead of continuously digging up money to support their projects.

There is a similar incentive for students. Besides the several scholarships available to undergraduate students, all juniors, seniors, and graduate students will be provided free tuition for the next ten years.

You can seen the layout of the new university here. Hopefully the real campus will be as amazing as the 3D models.

This is an exciting time to be a student in Saudi Arabia. Education is the solution to so many of the world's social problems. Here's hoping it turns out as amazing as it sounds on paper.

You can read some more about his through Scientific American or from Bob Novella at The Rogues Gallery.

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Monday, February 4, 2008

More on Plastic Bags

Ireland has joined China and others on the banning of the free distribution of plastic bags. You can read a short article here. You can also read my and Adam's previous thoughts on the banning of plastic bags from last month. Check out the comments for most of the discussion.

Update: There is a much better article about the situation in Ireland here. Turns out, it is more socially unacceptable than banned.

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Sunday, February 3, 2008

Noise and Fluctuation

Remember The Inner Life of a Cell? I've mentioned it before. Every time I see it, I think that the molecules seem a bit too anthropomorphic for my taste; they're all running around very purposefully and directly. Does anything about that strike you as being strange? It does me.

It strikes PZ Myers as being strange, too. He recently wrote a criticism of this video that captures very well the essence of its nonphysicality.

The feature that's missing from the video is noise. Every molecule in this video should be moving randomly at each moment, but with an average motion in some particular direction. I think PZ gets it right when he says,

For purposes of drama and minimizing complexity and confusion, though, the animators of that video have stripped out one of the most essential properties of systems at that scale: noise, variability, and the stochastic nature of chemical interactions.
Not only can thermal or chemical fluctuations not be ignored, there is evidence that for some systems noise can be important (PDF) to their functions.

The reason I wanted to link this was to put up a cool animation of single-molecule-imaging of a protein binding to DNA and exhibiting stochastic motion. Sadly, I couldn't find it online—here's the reference, though. Instead I'll show an also-cool animation of a simulated actin fiber pushing an obstacle. Actin generates cellular motion, basically by converting thermal fluctuations into mechanical work. Each monomer is small and can sneak in under the fluctuating obstacle to make the actin fiber longer. Slowly, eventually, gradually things move in more or less the needed direction. It's awesome but overlooked by the Inner Life video. So enjoy this low-tech animation, pilfered from Anders Carlsson.

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