Extreme pumpkins!

I always like to see what people do when carving pumpkins as folk art. Check out the 2009 contest winners at Extreme Pumpkins.

This giant squid is from 2007.

Who’s talking nonsense about Halowe’en?

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

Certain so-called Christians of the “make up any old crap as long as it’s sensational” school are publishing nonsense about Halowe’en and witches cursing your candy. Well, it’s true that the gods of an old religion tend to become the devils of the next religion, as Baal became “Beelzebub” and the Virgin of Baal became “Jezebel”. But, really, that doesn’t mean that the old Celtic festival of late harvest, time to slaughter pigs, smoke bacon, and store turnips, time to pray the souls of the recent dead across to Summerland, must be a time for witches to curse Hallowe’en candy. The church re-purposed this time of the thinning of the barriers between now and the hereafter as All Soul’s Day and All Hallows’ Eve. But to pagan priests and priestesses, Christianity would have been just an upstart newcomer and largely irrelevant to their agricultural calendar cycle. On the contrary, it was Christians who borrowed the pagan calendar, from Hallowe’en to the winter solstice and the rebirth of the Sun–for Christmas–to Easter, the time of ferment and fertility–for the rising of their reincarnated avatar of the traditional hero-myth.

Both geeky and cute

I want one!

periodic table.jpg

The Periodic Table from today’s BuzzFeed.

TV Ontario covers Quantum to Cosmos festival in Waterloo

Quantum to Cosmos festival, sponsored by the Perimeter Institute

Quantum to Cosmos festival, sponsored by the Perimeter Institute

If you get TV Ontario you can tune in to the Quantum to Cosmos Ideas for the Future festival (Q2C) at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo… the discussions are being televised. I caught Cory Doctorow & others on the future of robotics tonight (show: The Agenda with Steve Paiken). During the show, the Agenda was taking chat comments and questions.

Sean B. Carroll (Molecular Biology & Genetics, U of Wisconsin) was on last night to discuss “Whose DNA is it?” The entire show is on the web.

Neal Stephenson (Snow Crash, etc.) was on Tuesday night.

Natalie Angier (science writer) and Stewart Brand (The Long Now Foundation, The Whole Earth Catalog), among others, will be on tomorrow night.

People around the world are welcomed to follow Q2C events online at tvo.org/agenda and q2cfestival.com.As presenting media partner for Q2C, TVO will not only have extensive coverage of the festival for broadcast, but will also provide its web production capacity for live streaming of Q2C events. Some of the highlights include:

  • Exclusive access to all the special lectures and panels taking place throughout the festival in the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas. These discussions will be available for live streaming and on demand.
  • Special web chats: from October 19 to 23, TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin will broadcast live from Perimeter Institute and feature guests attending the festival to talk about the big issues in science. Producer Mike Miner will moderate a web chat each night discussing everything from space exploration to the importance of science.
  • A daily blog featuring some of the guests from The Agenda with Steve Paikin at Q2C.
  • A comprehensive timeline of the major milestones in space exploration.
  • Video kiosks: anyone attending Q2C can leave a comment or ask a science-related question at one of two TVO video kiosks at Perimeter Institute and at the Physica Phantastica exhibit. Comments or questions and answers will be posted at tvo.org.

Neuroskeptic: “fMRI gets slap in the face with a dead fish”

Neuroskeptic blog logo Neuroskeptic blog (“because brains are stupid”) has a nice commentary on the dead salmon brain-scan story.

Whale evolution classic paper

Dorudon atrox, a proto-whale from about 35 million years ago

Dorudon atrox, a proto-whale from about 35 million years ago

In 2001, J.G.M. Thewissen and Sunil Baptai summarized the various whale fossils that during the 1990s took whale evolution from a mystery to a well understood evolutionary process. See “Whale Origins as a poster child for macroevolution” (PDF). Especially exciting was when they pointed out, “Some hundreds of individuals are known” and when they explained how isotopes of oxygen can tell us whether bones were formed by marine or fresh-water organisms.

fMRI of dead salmon: how not to do science

Uncorrected randomness leads to false positives

Uncorrected randomness leads to false positives

Craig Bennett at Prefontal blog had highlighted the problem of cherry-picking data to collect false positives. He did this in a memorable way by presenting a poster of fMRI scans of a dead fish: “Dead salmon responds to pictures of people.”

A dead salmon has become a scientific celebrity after its brain supposedly lit up when shown pictures of humans during a brain scan.

…the study was done to show that data from an fMRI brain scan can lead to false positives — misleading results — if not carefully analyzed.

Yes, the salmon was dead — bought in a lifeless state at a fish market and scanned an hour later. No, the results are not shocking or miraculous. Like many scientific studies, the study and its results, presented earlier this year in a poster at a conference, are technical and rather bland:

“The goal of the salmon poster was to encourage the minority of researchers who report uncorrected statistics to move forward and begin using basic multiple comparisons correction in their research,” says study leader Craig Bennett, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

In a nutshell, the data reported by Bennett and colleagues in no way suggests the salmon’s brain was functioning, but rather reveal anomalies that can be misleading if you’re not careful.

That, of course, is the statistical problem that plagues studies of everything from drug efficacy to ESP: it skews your data to keep positive results and throw away negative ones. Whatever corrections, processing, or reporting standards you use must be decided on in advance and applied to all results.

Follow-up: read “The story behind the Atlantic salmon.”

Anthrax and anthrax vaccination

Anthrax is a soil bacterium that produces a disease deadly to animals. A herd of cattle exposed to anthrax is usually slaughtered to keep it from spreading. Anthrax spores can live in the soil for up to fifty years.

The most common form in humans is cutaneous anthrax, where the bacterium enters through a break in the skin.

Cutaneous (skin) anthrax

Cutaneous (skin) anthrax

NIH says:

During an infection, an initial skin lesion forms then blisters. The blister breaks down into a black ulcer and nearby lymph nodes may become infected and painful. A scar is often formed which then dries and falls off within two weeks. In 20% of untreated individuals, the infection may spread to the bloodstream and become fatal.

Antibiotics are a big help in controlling and curing anthrax.

It has been said that no controlled, double-blind studies have been done of various vaccines. But there are still results. Here’s the entry for anthrax vaccine, from the UK Department of Health’s ‘s Green Book:

The vaccine is made from antigens found in the sterile filtrate from cultures of the Sterne strain of B. anthracis. These antigens are adsorbed onto an aluminium adjuvant to improve their immunogenicity and are preserved with thiomersal. The vaccine is inactivated, does not contain live organisms and cannot cause the disease against which it protects.

There have been no formal efficacy trials with the UK vaccine. In 1958, the introduction of vaccine successfully controlled cutaneous anthrax at a government wool-disinfecting station in Liverpool (Hambleton et al., 1984). A controlled clinical trial was carried out in the 1950s among workers in goat-hair mills in New Hampshire, USA, using a vaccine similar to that currently licensed in the USA and the UK (Brachman et al., 1962). Although the study did not have sufficient power to accurately measure protection against pulmonary anthrax, no cases occurred in the vaccinated group compared with five in the unvaccinated.

There have been no recorded cases of anthrax infection in individuals vaccinated in the UK.

(Anthrax, PDF file)

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