Friday, June 30, 2006

Ants use an internal pedometer

Ants, apparently, count the number of strides it takes them to get to places. Investigators established this by altering the length of the ants' legs (see picture). See link.


I rather liked this Dilbert cartoon

Wally: Our CEO got a $400,000,000 bonus this year, Can I get that too?
Boss: Wally, he got that much because he's a million times more important than you.
Wally: Fair enough. Can I have the $400 that you say I'm worth?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The eyes have it

Apparently, a poster showing eyes watching you makes people act more honestly (see link).

People using a canteen "honesty box", when buying a drink, put nearly three times as much in, when a poster of a pair of eyes was put above the box, as when the poster showed flowers.

an eye, yesterday

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

less cat

I gave the cat the last of his antibiotics today; a little bit later his collar fell off, which I presume is because he'd lost weight when he was ill and it was loose enough for him pull it off with his paw. Since we came back from China, he's been very keen to sit on us and purr, which is nice, and dig his claws repeatedly into our legs, which is less nice.

Smoking in 1957

A report issued in the UK, 49 years ago today, linked smoking to lung cancer; some choice quotes from the BBC news item about this are:

Tobacco Industry:
"tobacco firms have rejected the findings saying they are merely a 'matter of opinion'. "

"Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health said: "The government feels that it is right to ensure that this latest authoritative opinion is brought effectively to public notice, so that everyone may know the risks involved." But he made it clear that people, armed with the facts, would be able to make up their own minds and smoking would not be banned. The prohibition of smoking in theatres, cinemas and public transport is not on the agenda, he added. "

Man in the Street:
"Another man said he was "not frightened at all" by the findings and may even consider increasing the number of cigarettes he smokes each day. "

and my favourite:
"It is estimated that between £600m and £620m in revenue is generated by the sale of cigarettes. The Conservatives have questioned what alternative taxes the government would introduce to cover that figure should cigarette smoking now be eliminated. "

Monday, June 26, 2006

smoking fine

I just stumbled upon this story on the BBC news from March about a smoker at a railway station 'fined' by someone pretending to be a policeman.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

more cat

Our cat is back and a bit better but still slightly sneezy.

Monday, June 19, 2006


Alas, our cat couldn't breathe properly on Sunday due to the copious amounts of snot filling up its nose. The emergency vet said that it probably had something stuck up there, like a bit of grass. I've dropped it off again today to have an endoscope shoved up its hooter, so they can have a look and possibly dislodge it.

Thursday, June 15, 2006


I watched a telly programme last night, 'Riddle of the Chinese Miracle Mummy', about the 2000 year old mummy of Chinese noblewoman, Xin Zhui, from the Han Dynasty. She had a fused disc in her back and was, perhaps as a consequence, very fat, with constricted arteries.

The very well preserved body was discovered during the Cultural Revolution in Changsha. It had been wrapped in 20 layers of silk and then sealed in multiple coffins, buried at the bottom of a very cold pit surrounded with charcoal and clay and then covered by a big mound of earth. It was assumed that decay was halted by a combination of the coldness and the fact that no air could get to the body (so the micro-organisms responsible for decomposition couldn't breathe); there was a whole bit about water getting into the coffin by osmosis and what effect this had, but I didn't really follow it.

The internal organs were intact, she had undigested melon seeds in her stomach and she had gallstones; they speculated that towards the end of her final meal a gallstone had obstructed the entrance to the bowel and her already weak heart gave up. They made a big fuss about this as heart-disease has been seen as very much a disease of fat modern western folk.

They also showed them dissecting body of a man from the same period and pulling out all the tapeworms from his intestines.

Whilst looking on the internet for more information I found this
site dedicated to mummies, which is mildly diverting but didn't have anything about the Chinese mummy. There is a China Daily article which appears to be about a different film on the same subject but which has a nice picture; they refer to her as Lady Dai.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006


I've just been rereading an item in the Skeptic's Dictionary about Infrasound and how it produces some of the effects that people traditionally associate with haunted houses; it has an interesting example from a 'haunted' laboratory, where we have the effect:
Several years earlier, Tandy was working late in the "haunted" Warwick laboratory when he saw a gray thing coming for him. "I felt the hairs rise on the back of my neck," he said. "It seemed to be between me and the door, so the only thing I could do was turn and face it."
the cause:
The explanation, he discovered, was that infrasound was coming from an extractor fan.
and the reason:
When he measured the infrasound in the laboratory, the showing was 18.98 hertz--the exact frequency at which a human eyeball starts resonating. The sound waves made his eyeballs resonate and produced an optical illusion: He saw a figure that didn't exist.

There is a link to a story in the Guardian about a haunted cellar where the source of the infrasound seems to be a newly built corridor to the cellar, where something is resonating at the right frequency to spook tourists going into the cellar. Wouldn't that be a great thing to add into a haunted house 'ride' in a theme park or fun fair?

Also, right at the bottom it says:
Elephants have the ability to emit infrasound that can be detected at a distance of 2 km.

Sentence Inflation

A big news story in the UK today is about whether a sentence handed down for the abduction and sexual assault of a three year old was too lenient. My fear in cases like this is that, through outrage and indignation, we end up inflating the sentences for serious crimes up to the point where all serious crimes are treated the same. I think it would be a terrible thing if someone who has abducted a child feels that they might as well kill that child because it will make no difference to the sentence they receive.

I've always found it unlikely that people who commit serious crimes really think beforehand about the downside of being caught, especially if they are psychopathic; but once they have committed the crime and the police are after them, they must start thinking about it then, which is when the marginal cost to them of committing further crimes becomes important.

It surprises me when the police express support for the death penalty, if you've killed someone and the penalty is death then you have nothing to lose by killing loads of other people - which would mean the police coming after you and any innocent people who get in your way.

Monday, June 12, 2006


What was that, Skippy? The international terrorists have buried packages of ricin poison by the old billabong!

Here's a strange picture that I found on this site, where they make fun of it by saying:
"Looks like a poison or gas leak, pity this Australian didn't have any protective gear"

On closer examination you can see that there's a kangaroo in the picture. Hey! Isn't that Skippy the Bush Kangaroo? Did he find the buried packages of ricin and then run off to tell the park ranger?

Friday, June 09, 2006


Whilst watching Dr Who with daughter #2, there was a scene where they couldn't understand some alien speech because the Tardis wasn't working or Dr Who was asleep or something. That started me thinking about all the incompatibilities that would exist between aliens and humans but which are usually overlooked in Sci Fi, apart from the obvious one that they are fairly unlikely to speak English.

We can assume that, if we ever make contact with
intelligent aliens, they may well be similar to us in many ways - such as needing oxygen, being constructed from carbon-based molecules, drinking water and being land animals - as there are probably sound physical and chemical reasons for life working like that e.g. oxygen combines so readily with other elements; there are so many carbon-based molecules; the anomalous contraction of water favours life; animals in the sea evolve stream-lined bodies so don't develop limbs with which to manipulate their environment.

But physical things are bound to be different: gravity, air pressure, humidity, temperature, and the combination of gases in their atmosphere; we could imagine an alien struggling to stand up in our gravity or having its head ballooning because atmospheric pressure is too low. Rather than looking suspiciously like a man in a costume, it would probably be of completely different proportions, taller, wider, shorter, thinner - in the same way that other animals on Earth look very different to people - so you're unlikely to be able to look them in the eye without peering up or stooping down (their eyes, if they have them, would be picking up a different range of the electromagnetic spectrum - would it even overlap?).

It seems unlikely that the sounds uttered by aliens would be anything like the sounds we make in speech, anymore than dogs and cats sound the same; the sounds they utter may not even be within our hearing range. So it's unlikely that we would hear them say 'ET' in however croaky a voice.

If an alien turned up on Earth, walking around, shaking hands, hanging out in bars, etc. the scariest risk to both humans and aliens would be their lack of immunity to terrestrial bacteria or viruses and our lack of immunity to alien germs; as H G Wells realised in
War of the Worlds over a hundred years ago. New diseases have caused devestation in human population e.g. the Black Death in Europe or smallpox for native societies in the Americas, Pacific and Australasia.

Forgetting about aliens; if humans ever colonised planets around distant stars, however close to the speed of light we could travel to get there, centuries would still elapse for the people back home, essentially making these colonies isolated communities with their own patterns of disease and immunity. A visitor from mother Earth to such a colony could well wreak as much havoc as European explorers did after Columbus.

If you bothered to read on to this bit then well-done; I stopped reading it myself after the second paragraph.

Da Vinci Code

I see that the authorities in China have stopped the Da Vinci Code from being shown anymore. I think the quote in this BBC news item says it all:
"I don't know the reason. We just do what we are told to do."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Beast

They renamed Highway 666 in America a few years ago - see here.

I hadn't realised that people were making a fuss about yesterday being 6th of the 6th of the 6th (has this all been whipped up by the release of the new Omen film) but it's just occurred to me that the current two-part Doctor Who story (The Impossible Planet last Saturday, The Satan Pit this Saturday) is full of references to the Beast.

I can remember looking up Revelations in the Bible when the first Omen films were shown on TV; and being concerned that the scar under my hair could just possibly be the number 666 - although, oddly enough, on closer examination it looks just like a small line.

Of course, is there be any significance in the following?
crounching + tiger + ambling + sheep = 666

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Whilst we're on the subject of texts from the dawn of history, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a story that is older than the bible about a real king who lived in what is now Iraq (so he presumably looked a bit like Saddam Hussein), he goes on various adventures including meeting the man who built an ark and saved all the animals from a terrible flood sent by the gods (hang on there, haven't we heard that tale somewhere before!)

There's a slightly odd cartoon-strip about it, which includes this strange
section about how a chap at the British Museum got so excited about it he took off all his clothes (is that why it's a cartoon strip?); rather bizarrely the cartoonist occasionally puts words into (brackets) as if he were guessing at the damaged text on an old clay tablet rather than just being annoying.

There is a theory that the tales of the Flood are actually based on the flooding of the area that became the Black Sea, as waters rose around the world at the end of the last ice age; archaeological sites have been discovered under the water located at what would have been the side of an ancient lake. The final breakthrough by the waters of the Mediterranean would possibly have been triggered by heavy rainfall as in the story. Clearly, anyone who managed to get his family and a few farm animals on to a make shift boat and get away is likely to have handed down a few tales about it, which you can imagine being embroidered with tales of godly judgement and the saving of ALL the animals.

Saturday, June 03, 2006

More Bible

I was surprised to find this list of arguments for creationists NOT to use.

They state:

'Evolutionists continually revise their theories because of new data, so it should not be surprising or distressing that some creationist scientific theories need to be revised too.'

In other words: creationists root around for things that seem to call into question 'real' scientific theories, pop them into their specious arguments and then drop them if they are exposed as patently untrue. You can see why the US courts blocked the attempt to get 'Intelligent Design' taught in US public schools.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Barnum Effect

James Randi has another applicant for his million dollar 'paranormal challenge' prize (see SHARE MY BURDEN in his latest newsletter); although dressed up as astrology, the scam that this particular chap is using is based on the 'Barnum Effect' for which there is a very good definition (and example) in the Skeptic's Dictionary

Derren Brown did this on one of his shows; he had three groups of people (in Spain, USA and UK, I think), none of whom he knew anything about (although they were all fairly young); he gave each person a 'personal' description of themselves running to several pages; they all marked their personal descriptions as being highly accurate; he then asked them to randomly pass their description around the group, if they ended up with the same one back they should pass it on - of course, they just kept passing them round because they were all identical.

Randi's problem (apart from having what we Brits would think of as a bit of an 'ooh er, missus!' surname) is defining an appropriate protocol for testing the applicant's claim. The outcome should be random provided he doesn't meet the victims beforehand (or their wives) but just gets their astrological details (so he can't embroider the horoscope with observed information) and the victims look at all the descriptions (and in random order) before choosing which one is the best fit.

I suspect this guy knows exactly what kind of scam he's running and will run a mile as soon as he sees any kind of real test, but if he really believes in what he does then the problem will be preventing him from arguing the toss after he's failed e.g. by suddenly claiming that you need to know the exact time of birth as well as the date or by claiming that the test merely shows that more than one horoscope was a good fit rather than that he was wrong (and all his descriptions will be good fits as per the Barnum Effect).

I'm going on a bit now, perhaps I should stop.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bible Fun

Argie Bhaji has some interesting pictures of snacks for god-botherers but I rather liked the Brick Testament that picks out and illustrates important biblical quotations and there are lots of links to that from the Skeptic's Bible including the bit about 'How to shit in the woods so that God doesn't step in it.'