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Explosions + Kids = Science!

I just finished doing 3 experiments from the book, How to fossilize your hamster. All of the experiments we did are from the book. We made a bomb with baking soda and vinegar, by the way, use a small ziplock bag, the large ones are too big. We did the Diet Coke and Mentos experiments. We also made slime from corn starch and water.

These were very easy to do and very fun as well. The book is worth the read even if you don’t do any of the experiments in the book. The author, Mick O’Hare from the New Scientist magazine, does an excellent job of laying out the experiment and the science behind what you are seeing. The book is sprinkled with just the right amount of humor to keep you chuckling to yourself.

 

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Quirkology, A Review

I just finished reading Richard Wiseman’s book Quirkology. Richard Wiseman is an experimental psychologist who conducts research into areas that you wouldn’t normally think psychologists necessarily spend their time. Among the many topics that the author covers in the book are

  • What is the world’s funniest joke.
  • In what month are the luckiest people born.
  • How can you tell a fake smile from a real smile.
  • What simple little tricks can waiters/waitresses do to increase their tips.
  • Why the letter K really is the funniest letter.
  • How do ultra-low frequencies contribute to religious experience (my personal favorite)

 One of the quick little experiments was to have you trace the letter Q on your forehead. Depending on which way you “crossed” the Q indicated whether you were a good or bad liar. Now I know this experiment shows an interesting correlation but it’s not 100%. I happen to be an excellent liar however my Q indicated that I was not.

I have read a number of other reviews online and perhaps the biggest criticism is that the book is a bit shallow. Many of the topics in the book never go into any real depth but that’s OK with me. Personally I’ve taken psychology classes, snooze-o-rama. I don’t think I would have nearly enjoyed the book so much if it had gone into detail.

I highly recommend the book and you can even get a little taste of the kinds of research being performed and even join in the research right now if you go to Quirkology.com.

Filed under: Reviews, Skeptic,

I Am Legend Alternate Ending

I’ve been hearing rumors of an alternate ending to I Am Legend for about a week or so now. A recent post over at BadAstronomy just reminded me to go see if anything has been posted. Sure enough there are tons of YouTube postings of the video but of course they were all pulled for copyright infringement (which goes to show how little the movie studios understand but whatever).

I’ve found this link, http://www.gametrailers.com/player/usermovies/184699.html, on a gamer site. I have no idea how long that link will work but as alwasy for anything like this your best bet is just google I Am Legend Alternate Ending and BitTorrent and you should be able to pull it off of your bittorrent client.

Anyway, having just finished watching the alt. ending, it is infinitely better than the released ending. In fact, the alternate ending sticks closer to the deeper meaning of the book it’s based on. Unfortunately there were so many things that were wrong with the movie that even this alternate ending still makes the movie a shadow of what it could have been.

I have an extensive spoiler-filled post here, in case you want a breakdown of differences between the book and the movie.

Filed under: Internet, Reviews, ,

Collapse, A Review

Cross-posted at Freethought Fort Wayne.

I have finally completed Jared Diamond‘s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Once again Jared Diamond has created a compelling and epic work detailing the reasons civilizations, modern and ancient, have chosen to collapse. Chosen being the operative word. The author details compelling reasons why societies have made choices that have direct and long-term negative impacts to the health of their societies.

I could blog endlessly about the stories and lessons that could be mined from this book. To spare everyone that grief I’ll simply highlight some of the… uh… highlights.

  • Montana, what are the lessons that can be drawn from the mining industry that has been the source of environmental problems practically in our backyard? And why are the executives of Pegasus Gold bastards.
  • Easter Island, What really happened to the original inhabitants of Easter Islands. Hint: It doesn’t involve alien astronauts (I’m looking at you von Daniken).
  • Vikings in Greenland, why were the Vikings able to last for centuries in Greenland and then “suddenly” disappeared. And perhaps more importantly why have the Inuit been so much more successful, sort of.
  • The Genocide in Rwanda, what were the underlying causes of the Rwandan genocide, primarily perpetrated by the Hutu on the Tutsi. What would explain the Hutu on Hutu killings?
  • Hispaniola, Why do the Dominican’s owe much of their stability, environmental good fortune and higher economic status to a brutal dictator? Why do the poverty-stricken and environmentally devastated Haitians owe their misfortune to French democracy?
  • “Mining” Australia, what are the consequences of British values on Australian soil. And what’s up with all those damn rabbits.

In addition to the previous stories are others that include, China, Japan, Indonesia, the Mayans and the Anasazi. Surprisingly the common threads that the author seems to tease from the history books and the clarity of hindsight are issues that modern man faces today. Climate change, intervention from outside societies and, perhaps most importantly, environmental mismanagement.

He goes on to detail in the last 100 pages or so the Practical Lessons that can be learned and immediately applied to this modern world. Mr. Diamond does an awesome job of applying the practical lessons directly to the stories he’s woven throughout the book. I could list out some of the reasons he comes up with but they lose their impact if they are not delivered to the reader within their proper historical context.

It’s easy to view this book (especially after this review) in a pessimistic light. And quite frankly there are a number of reasons why you should have a pessimistic outlook when you see some of the same disastrous choices being made today (ah-Bush-choo!). But Jared Diamond remains optimistic. He sees shafts of light, not only from “bottom-up” NGOs such as the World Wildlife Fund and the Forest Stewardship Council but also from “top-down” initiatives being instituted by governments who recognize the value of their environmental (and renewable) assets, such as the Dutch polders and off the top of my head the quotas imposed on crab fishing in the Bering Sea (most famous as the location of the Discovery Channel’s Deadliest Catch series).

If you pick up this book you will read about Chevron’s Kutubu oil fields in Papua New Guinea and their absolutely amazing and minimal environmental impact. It’s even more starkly contrasted with the environmental devastation of the Indonesian government’s Salawati Island oil fields off the coast of New Guinea. What you will hopefully learn from this book is that Chevron (the big evil oil company with an impeccable environmental record) is very much aware that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. It took Exxon years to recover their former standing with consumers after the Exxon Valdez oil spill. When you have a choice to purchase gas from Texaco or Exxon people still to this day will pick Texaco because Exxon “was that company that killed all those poor birds and poisoned those penguins”.  In fact, Exxon was recently in the news again because of that accident from literally 2 decades ago, the PR (and 2.5 Billion dollars in punitive damages, yes billion) from that one oil spill is still being felt today.

The question is who do you boycott when a lumber company clear cuts hundreds of acres of lumber from old growth forests? Whose products do you avoid when a mine in Montana declares bankruptcy to avoid the exorbitant environmental remediation necessary to prevent the abandoned mine from poisoning an entire watershed? I don’t know either. Those are commodities that are in everyday products. You don’t boycott your cellphone because it has copper in it. Do you not buy a book shelf at Home Depot because it might be from one of these lumber companies. These are obviously rhetorical questions because we all know we don’t because we don’t have that direct connection between those companies and your choices as consumers.

I want to leave those who read my review with the biggest take-away lesson for myself. There are things you and I can do to begin to apply social and economic pressures to industries. When you purchase lumber look for wood marked with the Forest Stewardship Council’s seal, for example. Find products that have some assurance that they are being harvested, cut, fished, bred and grown in a sustainable way. This will protect our fisheries, forests and future.

Filed under: Environment, Reviews, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Six Seconds

I have just finished the book entitled Conjuring Science: Scientific Symbols and Cultural Meanings in American Life by Christopher P. Toumey. This is a nice break after my religion binge of late. If you are wondering I’m debating whether I move on to the Jared Diamond books on my list (see Brain Food) or I do have Carl Hiaasen’s book Basket Case (which is probably completely unrelated to either science or skepticism). I may read Basket Case before some more weighty material, actually I just decided that’s what I am going to do.

Anyway, I haven’t quite finished yet but I figured I would start blogging some of the points that I found very interesting now. Just as a brief synapsis, I’ll quote from the back of the book,

What are the implications for Americans when actors who play doctors on television endorse medical products, or when an entire town in the Midwest prepares for an earthquake based on the specious advice of a zoologist?

Toumey argues that instead of comprehending scientific knowledge, methods, or standards, most Americans know science only in terms of symbols that stand for science and that stand between people and scientific understanding. He breaks this paradox down into three questions. First, what are the historical conditions that have caused the culture of science to be so estranged from other parts of American culture? Second, how does science fit into American democratic culture today? And third, if the symbols of science are being used to endorse or legitimize certain values and meanings, but not the value and meanings of science, then to what do they refer?

Throughout the book the author takes the media to task for the sensationalist and shallow science journalism whose effects “…break up the public’s understanding of science into a fragmented miscellaney of trivia, mystery and trinkets…”.

Early in the book during a discussion of what makes good and bad television and how the shallow nature of television’s visual media contributes to the phenomenon that viewers treat all images on the television as equally real. In one paragraph he makes the following statement,

Close-ups of peoples’ faces are good television, whether in soap operas, sitcoms, sports events, talk shows, news reports, or science programs. So, too, “hate, fear, jealousy, winning, wanting, and violence” are the essense of “good television” because these kinds of content required fewer details, starker backgrounds, and more obvious forms than do other kinds of content. Furthermore, competition between stations or between networks requires a large amount of visual razzle-dazzle to hold the viewer’s attention and thus dissuade him or her from switching channels or, God forbid, turning off the television. Technical events such as cuts, pans, zooms, dissolves, and split screens occcur about every six seconds during ordinary network television and much more during commercials. Again, this characteristic is not the intentional preference of those who own the medium but rather an artifact of television technology; this is the only successful way to organize visual images in a competitive market, for it holds the viewer’s attention, almost to the point of hypnosis, but says Mander, this visual razzle-dazzle is “technique as replacement of content” because the frantic pace of switching visual images makes it impossible for the viewer to follow any one thought for very long.

Six seconds. Try it, watch any show this evening on any network and start counting as soon as a new scene switches. Six seconds. Don’t even bother with a commercial, you’ll barely make it to one. I thought to myself that this applies to shows like Desperate Housewives (it does) but won’t for something from the National Geographic channel or some other science-based show (wrong!). Six seconds. I don’t really know what this means in the grand scheme of things and what the impact of that kind thing has on someone but it blows me away. I even popped in one of my favorite kung fu movies Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. There is one scene in which the two main characters, who clearly have the hots for each other but deny themselves to each other, are having tea. The director pans the shot out and you see both of them sitting there sipping tea, very still, total silence, in that one shot Ang Lee was able to convey the essence of the two characters relationship. Six seconds.

This book covers a number of topics related to the use of the Symbols of Science as substitutes for explaining or conveying the actual heart of the scientific method but I will save those for another time.

Filed under: Reviews, Science, , , , ,

Lamb, The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal

Ok, I swear I will stop with all of the religious posts. I get on a kick sometimes and can’t stop. I swear this this the last one.

Instead of reading something weighty like Dawkins or Hitchens, I decided to take something a little more light-hearted. I chose to finish by religion-binge with Christopher Moore’s hilarious book Lamb: The gospel according to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal.

Surprisingly my first impression of this book is that it is not nearly as sacreligious as it could have been. In fact, unless you consider someone telling a fictional tale of Jesus’ missing years (from birth to about 30) as sacreligious in and of itself, then I would dare say that Christopher keeps the Jesus of Christianity intact.

Let me start by giving a brief synapsis of the book. Levi bar Alpheas (aka Biff) is risen from the dead by an angel into modern times and ordered to write a new Gospel of Jesus (Joshua’s) life. Biff has a unique perspective since he was Joshua’s best friend and was by Joshua’s side from 5 years old until his death on the cross. Biff tells his story filling in a number of the “blanks” left in the Gospels since most of the disciples/apostles that wrote the Gospels and beyond only knew Jesus from the time he started his ministry at age 30.

This book is absolutely hilarious, these are just 2 examples that had me laughing out loud (I think I might have scared the guy next to me on the plane).

 This excerpt takes place when Joshua and Biff are traveling to the East in search of the three wise men so that Joshua can learn how to be the Messiah, they are about 15 years old and are just about to meet the first wise man, Balthasar,

“I’m Joshua of Nazareth, ” Joshua said, trying to be casual, but his voice broke on Nazareth. “And this is Biff, also of Nazareth. We’re looking  for Balthasar. …

“Balthasar is no more of this world.” The dark figure reached into his robe and pulled out a glowing dagger, which he held high, then plunged into his own chest. There was an explosion, a flash, and an anguished roar as if someone had killed a lion. Joshua and I turned and frantically scratched at the iron door, looking for a latch. We were both making an incoherent terrorized sound that I can only describe as the verbal version of running, sort of an extended rhythmic howl that paused only when the last of each lungful of air squeaked out of us.”

and then again, after leaving Balthasar they have just been accepted into the Buddhist monastery of Gaspar where they have been given a list of all the rules they must follow, stripped of their identity and been assigned numbers, Joshua is Monk Number 22 and Biff is Monk Number 21, they are being given their first assignments lessons,

“Monk Number Twenty-two,” Gaspar said to Joshua, “you shall begin by learning how to sit.”
“I can sit,” [Biff] said.
“And you, Number Twenty-one, will shave the yak.”
“That’s an expression, right?”
It wasnt

I don’t know how funny these passages translate when taken out of the book but I’m laughing just thinking about Biff shaving that yak. Ouch.

Anyway, I hope you get a chance to read the book, it delves into a lot of Eastern philosophies, like Buddhism and Yoga that you can find evidence of in the New Testament. This book actually makes Jesus seem a lot more human than many in Christianity ever get a sense of. He fears, he laughs, he get angry, he cusses (ok that one might bug people), he is curious about sex, he loves, he feels guilt, he’s human and in this book unlike in the real Gospels, you get the feeling that Jesus actually understands what it is like to be human, not some holier-than-thou God/Man that no one ever has the hope of ever of even coming close to. 

Filed under: Religion, Reviews, , , , , , ,

Atheism: The Case Against God

I have FINALLY finished reading George Smith’s seminal work Atheism: The Case Against God. I say finally because this book is a very substantial work and I don’t recommend you read it while you are sleepy because I could barely get 3 pages into it before nodding off.

When you read this you will clearly see that a lot of the ideas captured in this book have found there way into the books of the “New Atheists”. What isn’t touched on in this book is fundamentalist Islam (I think that might be redundant). Clearly this book is a product of it’s time 1978 I believe. Christianity is clearly the default theistic religion that George Smith atheistic beliefs attempt to counter.

I have spent several weeks chewing through this book which is unusual for anyone who knows me since I am a very fast reader. It took so long becuase I had to reread several sections to really understand what he was trying to say or how he was attempting to connect several different concepts together. The book is clearly written by a philosopher and I think he does a good job of writing this to the lay person but there’s only so much you can do with the subject matter.

If you are looking for the philosophical underpinnings of Sam Harris’ book End of Faith or a more in-depth treatise on atheism that Dawkins or Hitchens’ books don’t go then this is your book.

Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Reviews, , , , , , ,

End of Faith & it’s little cousin

I completed reading Sam Harris’ Letter to a Christian Nation several weeks ago but found that it was very short (only about 100 pages) and that if I wanted to better understand Harris’ position I should read his longer and more in-depth book End of Faith.

End of Faith definitely has more meat than it’s little cousin. I especially enjoyed his discussions regarding the ethics of torture. Often when I read articles or interviews with Sam Harris he mentions yoga or meditation. He clearly finds value in this and mentions it regularly and End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation are no exception.

Both of these books have been on my list for quite some time and I have finally taken the time to read them. They are well worth a read if you enjoy Dawkins and Hitchens, his books have the same tone and essentially the same kind of content.

If you are looking for a Reader’s Digest version of End of Faith read Letter to a Christian Nation.

Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Reviews, , ,

I may be a legend but the movie wasn’t

First and foremost this blog post will contain MAJOR SPOILERS, if you don’t want to know how the movie or book ends click away now… go on, git.

Let me prefix the following post by saying that the book I Am Legend is perhaps one of my top 5 books of all time, if I were to ever compile such a list. Yes, I will be accused of being a purist, so be it. But please take this away from my post, my critique is not with the detailed, discreet changes to the movie (like the book had a white guy in LA vs. the movie having a black guy in NYC) those are an irrelevance because how you tell the underlying story should not be affected by these changes. In fact, the change of location from LA to NYC was probably a great choice because a deserted NYC is far more visually engaging than Californian suburbia. I actually applaud that change.

Let me start by saying that I think Will Smith did an awesome job acting in this film, he totally conveyed the feeling of loss, despair and isolation that one would feel in his similar circumstance. The director of the film did an excellent job showing the solitude, deafening silence and intensity of the situation. There were many times in theater when you could hear a pin drop, no sound from the movie and no sound from the audience (it’s hard to make a sound when you are holding your breath, or feeling totally depressed at this guy’s circumstance).

There were a couple of times in the movie that Will Smith’s acting had my wife sobbing and I suddenly had something in my eye, it might have been an eyelash… yea… an eyelash. For example, when his dog died and in the movie rental store when he finally had the courage to talk to the “girl in the back”, (that will make more sense if you’ve seen the movie). The phrase, “Please talk to me” has such emotional power for me right now.

There are a number of things I could pick apart in the movie like the CG was meh especially when you see the Infected. But honestly the movie shouldn’t have been about the Infected ala Resident Evil anyway, well not at least for this reason. There was also this random religious “God has a plan for you” thing that kind of came out of nowhere that I think was added to give the movie some depth before it turned into a standard zombie movie. They could have used that subplot even with the original story, I think it would be unnecessary but I’m an evil atheist so what do I know.

Let me get to my minor problems with the story:

Number one the main character in the book was a regular Joe schmoe named Robert Neville and I’m not even sure the book tells for sure how the virus was let loose, it’s honestly unimportant. The movie makes the main character Robert Neville the Number One Guy in the World in charge of stopping the outbreak of the infection and there is a whole subplot about how the K-virus (it now has a name because the virus has somehow itself become important) was even spread.

There was even this kind of ridiculous flashback sequence about how Robert Neville tried to get his wife and daughter airlifted out of NYC before they blew the bridges.  In the book, Robert Neville is a nobody and his wife and daughter eventually get the virus and die and he has to drive them to a large burning pit to dispose of their bodies before they “rise up” again. Actually now that I think about it I think he let them rise again hoping for the best but eventually had to “put them down”, very emotional stuff.

The movie begins to weave this virus subplot into the beginning of the movie and I knew once they elevated the K-Virus and Robert Neville’s status that the ending was going to be fundamentally altered (and it was).

Now let me get to the MAJOR problem I have with the movie and I think the best way to do that is tell you how the book ends, please remember that I haven’t read it in a number of years but the gist is intact.

Robert Neville does tinker in his basement trying to understand the nature of the infection like, “Does garlic work and why?, “What about silver?”, “Do crucifixes work?”, all of the standard vampire lore that anyone is familiar with. Finding a cure like in the movie that’s just ridiculous he’s just some schmoe how is he going to find a cure to some virus of unknown origin. He’s trying to figure out what hurts them not how to cure them.

Eventually, after many years, I think it’s like 20 years (not 3 like in the movie but I could be wrong), Robert Neville finds a woman in the daylight who is clearly frightened and out of her mind trying to survive like him. Up until this time his only interactions with anything is with the Infected and they usually just taunt him and try to break into his house (his neighbor is particularly funny), they aren’t undead supersoldiers and if memory serves me in the book he never leaves his house except during the day and he usually drinks himself to passing out every night so he doesn’t have to hear their taunts and their screams.

The woman (no child like in the movie) comes to live with him for awhile. Eventually and I’m a little fuzzy on how ( I think she healed unnaturally fast) but the woman is revealed to actually be one of the Infected who was sent as a spy to infiltrate his “compound”. They have developed a sunblock that they can wear to allow them out into the sunlight. The Infected have actually begun to build their own society and civilization and Robert Neville in the minds of the infected humanity has actually become the monster. He is the boogieman that infected kids tell other infected kids. Instead of Robert Neville being the human and the infected being the monsters, the infected have become humanity and Robert Neville has become the monster. Humanity has changed, it has evolved, the definition of what it is to be human has changed and Robert Neville has become something other than human.

The end of the book has Robert Neville being caught by the infected who don’t prey on humans anymore, they get their blood from cattle that they farm (that may be wrong but regardless they have progressed to point of not needing any humans and have begun there own civilization) and he is brought before crowds of the infected who are afraid of him and women weep and children cower behind their mothers. As Robert Neville thinks to himself in the closing paragraphs of the book about how he has become the monster, he drinks poison (or something) and his last words are “I am legend” as he slips away knowing how humanity has changed and that he is no longer “human”.

For those of you have seen the movie that is not only not the way the movie ends in the details it is not even the way the story ends in “spirit”. The movie ends with a woman that Robert Neville finds (who is completely human) is on her way to a survivor colony. Robert Neville has found a cure at the last minute in his super high tech lab in the basement of his brownstone. He does die by sacrificing himself while taking out as many of the mindless, animalistic Infected as he can so that the woman (and boy) can get away and make it to the survivor’s colony in Vermont where is “legend” is established by finding a cure for the virus.

I was so hoping that the movie would end with Will Smith standing in front a crowd of the infected (who look and act like pretty much like us) and the woman narrates while there are cut scenes showing a “new humanity” rebuilding itself and finally he drinks the poison and says “I am Legend”. The End. Silence. Gives me chills thinking about my own ending, hey why didn’t anybody call me to ask my opinion, I could have made that movie rock. Oh well.

I would encourage you to read the book even if you have seen the movie because the movie (and Will Smith) do an excellent job portraying his circumstances but when you get to the part of the book when he discovers this woman forget everything you think you know from the movie because the book is completely different in story (not just details).

Filed under: Reviews, Skeptic, ,

Help The Skepchick get on NPR

If you are not aware Rebecca Watson of Skepchick and Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe podcast fame entered an NPR contest and won her own pilot NPR show called Curiosity, Aroused. The pilot is currently being shopped around. Why don’t you help her out and send the following link to get your local NPR station to begin carrying the series. Read more about in on skepchick.org.

 http://www.prx.org/pieces/22589

Filed under: Internet, Psychics, Reviews, Skeptic, , , ,

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