Saturday, August 30, 2008

Heavy Metal Medicine

A bit of extra traffic recently, a few new visitors, so a few random words about Rana. I like Nature. I like heavy metal. I like food. Naturally, I don't like heavy metal in food.

The words were not so random really, the Journal of the American Medical Association tested 230 Ayurvedic products - I hesitate to call them "medicines" because to use that word would surely have required controlled testing. Anyway about 20 per cent of the products had significant levels of lead, arsenic or mercury.

I have some sympathy with the local predicament. According to the LA Times: "the researchers and other experts surmised that the contamination had less to do with the manufacturing process than with the soils in which the herbs were grown." And around Bhopal at least, US corporations have contributed to toxification of a wide area.

But I have no sympathy for those who knowingly import and distribute poisons. Defending his products in the same paper: "Based on WHO standards, our products are perfect. They have not exceeded any limits." So said Kush Khanna (there's a Hindi joke in that name) who runs Bazaar of India in California.

The trouble is that WHO limits are 500 times greater than California limits.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Skeptic Games

With due credit to the Lay Scientist for setting up the games a month ago, the closing ceremony for the Skeptic Olympics brings together the finest performances of the last two weeks. Like a temporary traffic restriction, usual rules have been suspended for the event.

First up, winner of gold medal in the 100 meters, and unofficially declared the fastest human alive is the awesome Greta Christina. Out of the starting blocks and into my InBox in record time we have "The Problem of Unfishiness: Religion, Science, and Unanswered Questions"

Then we have another big hitter. Winner of a gold medal in baseball is Holfordwatch with a must-read showing how even those nice chiropractors are joining the legal intimidation party instead of answering criticism. Then, like a modern day Jim Thorpe, Holfordwatch switches sports and wins another gold in the softball with thoughts on The Elmhurst Epidemic: classic example of the cultural and scientific clash between CAM and medicine.

Just behind Greta in speed of submission, the second fastest human alive and also picking up a gold in the relay, we have the Evolving Mind reminding us that "You Aren’t What You Eat" lucky that, or else I'd be a banana.

The two hundred meters is another pure event with a long established world record that held an almost mystical spell upon other competitors. But smashing through that ignorance we have a splendid tale of "pareidolia and anthropomorphism" so a well-deserved gold medal to Breaking Spells

Then we move on to the big hairy spinning beast. Gold medal in the hammer throw goes to Hyphoid Logic with the tale of the Bigfoot that wasn't. Not everyone can see it (something about Internet Explorer versions) but Hyphoid Logic also got a gold medal in the rifle event. An easy target but a fine shot with a heady mix of prayer, blasphemy and gas prices.

The high jump is one of the original olympic sports and a very pure event, it is amusing to see who can drop from highest onto those jokers at Answers in Genesis. Winner of the gold medal is the legendary Bing McGhandi at Happy Jihad House of Pancakes who easily cleared the immense white cliffs of Dover.

Next up we have the javelin. As with dismissing the arguments of the anti-vaccination brigade, this is an ancient and honorable sport. Gold medal winner goes to Elvis Sightings with a Queasy Comparison.

For the ultimate all-round athlete we need to look to the decathlon. Winner of the gold medal is the mighty Skeptico with Negative Energy Research showing that we all have supernatural powers. Even you. Yes the professional skeptic is as psychic as the professional psychic.

Fastest across the water, winner of the 50m freestyle swim was Daylight Atheism who simply drove across the pool with Run Your Car on Water. Coming last was this odd chap who thought he could walk across but he sadly drowned in the attempt to prove it.

Gold medal winner of the high dive competition is the unsinkable rubber duck, a fairly obvious dive winner really. Collecting the award is Skelliot who uses his podium position to plug Australian Science Week.

Admittedly based on the judge's subjective opinion, but I'm the subjective judge here, winner of the gymnastic floor event is HumbugOnline looking at the obvious techniques of the self-help-merchants with SHAM Fallacies.

Now a difficult sport, attempted only by the brave few. Taking on Michael Shermer and the Drake Equation in Greco-Roman Wrestling, a sport that is as old as civilisation itself, we have aardvachaelogy, and Martin wins gold with a knockout blow … even skeptic heroes sometimes need to be corrected.

Over at the showjumping arena, men and women compete on a level playing field, as level as the horses allow anyway. Podblack Cat wins easily with a Winter Of Research And Retention, Gender, Sex And Science - a big subject but a big performance.

Cycling is a sport that has a long history of accusations of drug use, so it's appropriate that a doctor should win gold here. PalMD explains why Doctors Aren't Preachers.

Not originally part of the games, but quite possibly my favourite event, we have beach volleyball (sorry, gratuitous link). It's bright and colourful and entertaining, and the Primordial Blog wins gold for due skepticism about the end of the world.

And of course the epitome of the olympics, the big showpiece event, the ultimate test of endurance, that has to be the marathon. The gold medal goes to the expected winner, Orac shows a clean pair of heels to those who claim his writing is funded by "big pharma" with a detailed exposition of when clinical trials are designed by marketing.

That only leaves the closing ceremony. No graphics on this site, so see Cectic for great skeptic entertainment and a few fireworks.

So now, at the end, the torch passes on to the Skeptic Dictionary. He sums up what these games are really about, the common sense in skepticism. This is Ancient Wisdom, where magic meets science. To take part send your next skeptical submission to SC95 at SKEPDIC.COM before 9/11, you know it makes sense.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Holiday Coast

No recent posts. Went on holiday to the coast for the English long weekend. Well, when I say "the coast" it's fairly loose terminology.

Imagine we live in mid New Jersey and rarely travel north. And I suggest to the holiday rep to book a place in Long Island, that's the place we want to be. But it's peak season, so unsurprisingly I get called back with the message that there were no vacancies at the obvious places there. So I say "ok then, at least get somewhere in New York".

We got a place in Albany.

Of course counties in England tend to be a lot smaller than states in America so the distances involved weren't quite so bad, but the basic relational geography stands. Sometimes we need to be clearer with our directions.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Faster Higher Stronger

The Olympic motto is "Citius, Altius, Fortius" - Latin for "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

Note that it does not say "Faster, Higher, Stronger, X"

where X is "scored higher by judges for those they think looked most elegant while prancing around the arena"

Also, it's not "who has the most money". The UK has invested heavily in cycling, bikes that cost thousands and velodromes that cost millions. And it has reaped many rewards. But in addition to Pursuit and Sprint and Madison and Keirin, if there was an olympic cycling competition to determine who could carry the most family members on a single iron bike while navigating heavy traffic on potholed roads, I think the developing world would stand more of a chance.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Six and Out in Melbourne and London

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms.

That's today's quote from Google. One thing about George Orwell, he certainly had courage.

It's not only the likes of Sherry Jones and Taslima Nasreen who have shown courage. Scott Adams gets it too. But it would be too easy to just relate tales of Jon Swift and Lenny Bruce and Monty Python and a long history of comic subversion. Let's turn to cricket instead. There are many lessons for life in The Art of Captaincy and Opening Up, but most autobiographies are dross. And in CricInfo yesterday we are back to Orwell:

Upon hearing of the bugs squashed on the wallpaper of the hotel opposite his, young kitchen hand George Orwell did not beseech the bugs to write his book for him. Down and Out in Paris and London is no less grisly or educational a read for the lack of bugs' insights. Yet in cricket we see the bugs everywhere, furnishing us with their bug's-eye perspectives, and not just any old bugs but former top-level bugs.

But those "bugs" that Christian Ryan refers to are some serious big names in the world of cricket. So there goes his chance of getting any exclusive interviews with them. That was brave too.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Buying Gold

Why does India win so few Olympic medals? So asked Marginal Revolution and a billion Indians.

Firstly, congratulations to Abhinav Bindra for winning India's first ever individual gold. But looked at in the national medal tables , we are slightly behind Mongolia and Kazakhstan. In fact, on a per capita count, scaled to population, we would do even worse.

Not everyone dares to suggest genetic factors. I do. But these factors primarily apply to average performance in particular pure athletic disciplines. There surely must be some events where focus and investment and dedication can bring results, even with a largely fixed genetic pool. The enormous strides made by China, and even by the UK, since the last games prove this.

The usual glib answer is "get cricket into the games". That's only partially true, even if India's most popular sport were to be included, presumably in one-day format, there's still a good chance we'd be beaten by Australia (or Sri Lanka, like today).

There are better candidates, more guaranteed to get us a medal. Billiards. Chess. Kabaddi. And with enough "pressure" any sport can be included in the games. And by "pressure" perhaps we just mean money. According to a BBC investigation: if you are careful enough and clever enough and you really want the golden Olympic ticket for your sport, there is every reason to believe that you can get your event onto the podium.

Yet I still ask, given a developing nation's other priorities, is it worth it?

Friday, August 15, 2008

Restaurant Tips

I wrote a few weeks ago about the difficulty of finding a restaurant that does not have prices on the menu. Yet though I perhaps came from a more extreme angle, taking a famine-based twist to asking for more, I nevertheless believed that many others would share my opinion there, surely it is simply better to go for a meal if you know the complete price up front. Yet sadly not a single suggestion.

But though I expected to share common opinion on food prices, I think my opinion might be more individual on waiter tips. I mention it now because both Marginal Revolution and Freakonomics have raised the subject just in the few days since my note. One obvious idea is that the price of the meal should explicitly include service and the waiting staff should earn decent wages without relying on the whims of fickle customers. The same as shop sales staff. That's a common suggestion anyway. Many restaurants routinely add 15% to the bill as standard. But that is not the best way to relate how much value was added by the waiter.

As a slightly more original idea, I suggest that you could tip a standard hourly figure, for example minimum wage rate, or some fraction of it per customer. If the waiter is supplying x tables, then she will get at least x times minimum wage. Plus any basic salary. It reflects the time that she actually spent "working for you", the current practice of food bill plus 15 percent means that she is compensated less for delivering many bargain courses than for delivering a single overpriced bottle. Perhaps more importantly, the new suggestion means that a waiter in a cheap-food restaurant does not get paid less than a waiter in an expensive-food restaurant for exactly the same level of service.

I'm not saying that's what I do, I'm only suggesting that's what we could do.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Skeptic, Moi?

There is no explicit religious or political branding on this site, but for a taste of my views on those areas, the links to the left might give you a taste. But my self-imposed post word limit precludes detailed analysis here. So I don't usually suggest skepticism about the claims of astrologers or religious leaders or faith healers. Sorry. I usually suggest ridicule and derision.

However there does need to be a place for more considered reasoning of those claims, and one place is the skeptics' circle. I've mentioned it before here. Guidelines for posting are here. And if you want a place in the next edition, due August 28th, write to me here.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Ministry of Silly Games

The Olympics continue to ask plenty of questions for our brave athletes. As always, Monty Python continues to provide answers.

I understand the point of a competition to determine who can run the fastest or jump the highest or swim the fastest - but the ministry of silly games has decided that just seeing who is quickest across water from one bank to the other does not give enough scope for lanky Americans to pile up the medals. So we have backstroke and breaststroke and butterflystroke and sidestroke and sunstroke and heatstroke.

But this is unfair on athletics, the original olympic sport. We have various distances but only two basic kinds of track race, "freestyle" and "silly walk". There needs to be another race where you run backwards. Another race where you run with your legs splayed out to the side. Another race where you run, in honour of John Cleese, in full "goose-step" style and you are disqualified unless your leg stays perfecty straight reaching up at least to shoulder height on each step.

That's what they do in the pool. Alternatively, ditch the silly walks and return to olympic ideals.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Top Five Spreadsheet Rules

Remember this quote from Hal Varian: So what’s getting ubiquitous and cheap? Data. And what is complementary to data? Analysis.

And some of my earliest words on this site: It is true. I like collecting data. I have epic spreadsheets full of data.

Then much more recently I said my guiding principles of spreadsheet design to follow shortly, so as you'd expect, here's a top five:

  1. No bitmaps. No logos. No extra graphics whatsoever. The spreadsheet should look nice, of course, but it should look nice because of the clarity and elegance of the information presented within it.

  2. No extra colours, lines, shades, formats. Less strictly observed than the rule above, but a rule nonetheless. Of course there should be colours, lines, shades - plenty of them, as many as needed - but it should all be there only to segment and highlight the areas that need it. There should not be "extra" formatting.

  3. No macros. Obviously, because they could harbour viruses. Less obviously, because they are hidden, because they need to be applied separately. Everything in the spreadsheet should be open and clear. I have all sorts of complicated functions and formulas in my spreadsheets, but they are explicitly within visible cells, not within macros.

  4. No hidden sheets, no hidden columns, no hidden formulas. Clearly I am not trying to protect something sold as a commercial application, I am talking about those spreadsheets that we all develop and distribute on a daily basis. By allowing "anyone" to pick up and enhance and improve your work, everyone benefits. Like open source principles on a closed source product.

  5. Everything above suggests that it is the data that is critical, not the fluff around it. So get the numbers right. That's the most important rule of all.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

I am rich

I don't have an iPhone. But I do appreciate its features. And I do like the idea of this iPhone application.

It was "developed" by someone called Armin Heinrich and it costs a thousand dollars and it does nothing. Or to be more precise, it does nothing except display a little red ruby icon that "reminds you (and others when you show it to them) that you were able to afford this"

Classic. The application is called "I am rich" although some would call it "I am something else"

Unfortunately Marginal Revolution reports that "it has since been removed from the App Store".

I agree with Kottke that this removal is odd. Anyway, before you laugh at the people who bought it, take a look at the designer label that is so prominent on your shirt or handbag ...