Month: August 2013

The Climate Change ‘debate’

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There are two sides to every ‘debate’, and here they are.

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Just sayin’…

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Star Trek continues… no, really!

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If you’re not a nerd, look away now – I’m going to talk about Star Trek, and in particular a new offering for Trekkers (and Trekkies).

For the uninitiated, the ST media universe is now very extensive.

We started with the original and best, Star Trek in the late 60s. This was followed up by ST Next Generation, which was also outstanding.

We then had a bunch of movies, featuring the original cast – which were mostly forgettable (the movies, not the cast), except for #2 of 5, which re-visited the Khan story.

Then we saw ST Deep Space Nine (passable) and ST Voyager (ok), set in the post-Next Generation era.

In an interesting twist, this was all followed by Enterprise – which was a sort of prequel to the original series, starring Scott Bakula. In this one we saw the technology and uniforms wound backwards, and saw the actual development of things like the transporter. Interesting.

And now? Why am I telling you this?

Now, we have Star Trek.. Continues.

Someone has decided to re-make the original series. When I say someone, I mean a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs, who have recreated the whole look and feel of the show. It seems to the brain-child of a guy call Vic Mignogna, who stars as Kirk, and does a great job of it. He also wrote the story, directed, edited, wrote some additional original music, and even has a carpentry credit! Very keen.

But the result is fantastic. And they’ve made episode 1 available freely on the internet. The story is quite good – a continuation of one of the really good episodes ‘Who Mourns for Adonis’. They even got the same actor who played Apollo on the original episode to reprise his role.

You can watch the whole episode below, but here are some of my highlights:

  • There are the usual cheesy matte effects as the Enterprise moves around planets
  • They unveil a proto-type holodeck, which really didn’t feature until Next Generation
  • All the original sounds effect, music and sets are there.
  • Vic Mignogna does a great Kirk – see mannerisms at 10:18
  • Grant Imahara from Mythbusters plays Sulu, but unfortunately he’s a crap actor – see his scene at 9:00
  • The voice of the computer was provided by Marina Sirtis, who starred as Deanna Troi in Next Generation. Incidentally, the voice in the original (and Next Generation) was provided by Majel Barret, wife of creator Gene Roddenberry.
  • At 11:20 we have an eye-popping introduction to the character Dr Elise McKennah, reminiscent of similar scenes in the original.
  • We have fake ad-breaks, providing the opportunity for those dramatic stings of music to build suspense.
  • A red-shirt dies (wouldn’t be ST TOS without this, would it?) and, last but not least,
  • Kirk gets his shirt off – see 27:45, ladies.

Anyway, enjoy!

Intelligent Falling – a perfectly reasonable explanation for gravity

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I must have missed this.

It seems religious scholars (cue guffaw as per robot from Lost in Space), have been beavering away on answering some of the pressing questions in the universe, and came up with this most elegant theory of Intelligent Falling.

I know this article is parody, but it could well have come straight out of the mouths of those who brought you that other pathetic piece of bullshit,  Intelligent Design.

The same principles behind Intelligent Falling would I guess also explain this phenomenon…

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Dara O’Briain tells it like it is

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Dara O’Briain is a comedian and well-known skeptic.  I recently caught up with a stage show he recorded, and thought I would share the 6 or so minute spray in the middle which he gave to all things pseudo-science and religion. Very clever, and very entertaining.

Enjoy…

Brain Training – Here’s a better way

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Long-time correspondent Dan Rea recently put in a request for a look at the new industry of Brain Training, citing the example of the Luminosity program.

Before Dan’s email, I hadn’t really thought about it much, although I have heard quite a bit of discussion about it. The first things that brain training conjures up for me are those hokey ads featuring Delta Goodrem and Olivia Newton John with their little gadgets, playing games and claiming it improves their brain.

The second, and more annoying thing is that one of these crowds have appropriated another of science’s words! Luminosity. You know how much I hate it when that happens, so I’m not feeling very charitable towards them, regardless of the merits of the program.

The bottom line, however, is fairly simple to summarise. Brain training by repeating various tasks improves your brain… at doing those tasks. But nothing else. In addition, while a computer may make it more fun, or less arduous, it’s not better than good old pencil and paper.

Yes, brain training, is what we old folks call ‘learning’!

Want to train your brain at chess? Play more chess. Cricket? Play more cricket. Solve little puzzles? Do more puzzles. Golf? Play more golf.(although that last one doesn’t seem to work for me).

And, wow, even the normally credulous Fox News has a reasonably balanced article on this.

But by far the best summary is by Steve Novella on Science Based Medicine. In his no-nonsense article, he reviews the latest studies for us, and summarises the findings far better than I could.

This article is written from the point of view of a journalist who tries it out for themselves – an interesting first-person perspective, but basically the same findings.

So instead of shelling out for these programs, I suggest you pick whatever you want to improve, and just, well, practice.

And here’s an idea – instead of trying to improve your brain, improve your mind by practicing clear thinking – which is what this blog has been on about.  So here’s a good place to start: one of my early posts on sorting fact from fiction. Enjoy.

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Glucosamine is a dud – you heard it here first(ish)

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Well, far be it from me to say ‘I told you’, but, I told you so!

Let’s re-wind the clock. Back in the early days of rationalbrain, I put the spotlight on this popular supplement, given my own personal interest in keeping my knees in good order after a lifetime of pounding roads, basketball courts, football grounds, and aths tracks. (My knees are actually quite close to my heart – no, I’m not crouching, nor am I mis-shapen; I’m just quite fond of them).

At the time, this fledgling skeptic concluded that:

Basically, the high quality studies show no improvement over placebo, while the lower quality ones show a 2 point improvement in pain on a scale of 68! Talk about marginal effects. That’s certainly not enough for me to be sucking these things down, even if they are harmless.

Smarties would be cheaper, tastier, and about as effective.

The thing I found most remarkable at the time was that even those who should know better were sucked into the Glucosamine fad: my local GP (who specialises in sports medicine), and, the surgeon who did my knee arthroscopy ops. When I asked the former what the supporting research was, he coyly admitted he didn’t know, and pointed me to the Cochrane Reviews, on which I’ve been relying ever since, and from which the above conclusion came.

There have been other studies which concluded similar things, most of which have been reviewed by Harriet Hall over at the excellent Science Based Medicine blog.

And now, almost 3 years later, there’s a new study to talk about, which also concludes the same thing, but which is also remarkable for another reason.

The study was conducted by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS). I’ll leave the remarkable bit for now. But this was a huge review of the literature for all treatments for osteoarthritis of the knee (which is the ‘wear and tear’ variety that we all suffer in the later years, especially us super-athletes, right?).

They managed to condense the 1200 page report (no, I haven’t read it all), into a handy 13 page summary, which you can read for yourself here.

The work basically rates the various treatments for efficacy. Harriet Hall has summarised the conclusions further as follows, with those items showing strong evidence one way or the other highlighted:

  1. Exercise – strong evidence for effectiveness
  2. Weight loss – moderate evidence for
  3. Acupuncture – strong evidence against
  4. Physical agents (TENS, ultrasound, etc.) – inconclusive
  5. Manual therapy (chiropractic, massage) – inconclusive
  6. Valgus-directing force brace – inconclusive
  7. Lateral wedge insoles – moderate evidence against
  8. Glucosamine and chondroitin – strong evidence against
  9. NSAIDs – strong evidence for
  10. Acetaminophen, opioids, pain patches – inconclusive (this is particularly interesting since acetaminophen is the standard first-choice drug)
  11. Intraarticular corticosteroid injections – inconclusive
  12. Hyaluronic acid injections – strong evidence against (and if injections are ineffective, those oral diet supplements certainly don’t have a chance)
  13. Growth factor injections and/or platelet-rich plasma – inconclusive
  14. Needle lavage – moderate evidence against
  15. Arthroscopy with lavage and debridement – strong evidence against
  16. Partial meniscectomy in osteoarthritis patients with torn meniscus – inconclusive
  17. Valgus-producing proximal tibial osteotomy – limited evidence
  18. Free-floating interpositional device – no evidence; consensus against

There’s a number of really interesting things here.

  • Firstly, the no-brainer: acupuncture is useless. Quelle surprise!
  • Secondly, glucosamine and chondroitin – now it’s strong evidence against (hence my ‘I told you so’)
  • Thirdly, NSAIDS (i.e. non-steroidal anti-inflammatories) like neurofen etc – strong evidence for.
  • Fourthly, exercise is good for you. Who knew? I’ll have more to say on this in a sec.
  • And finally, the shock for me: arthroscopy (the other bit is the trim and vacuum of the bits of cartilage), which I’ve had done a couple of times – seems to be strong evidence against.

While it’s comforting to have my earlier conclusions about glucosamine supported so strongly, I do have to acknowledge that I was/am a great believer in arthroscopy, because of the success I’ve had with it. But I’m prepared to reconsider that belief, not only because of this study, but because of my own more recent experience.

I did have a couple of arthroscopy sessions, separated by about 10 years, to get rid of those niggling knee pains. And they worked fine – back to running and basketball within 2-3 weeks. But a few years back, after feeling more knee pains now and then, I concluded I needed another knee ‘tune up’. The only problem was that my doctor disagreed. He didn’t think the wear and tear was bad enough to warrant it, and eventually talked me out of it, suggesting instead that I should do more knee exercises. That didn’t appeal too much – I’d prefer a quick fix to ongoing physio anytime.

However, I embarked on daily leg exercises – mostly straight leg with weights. Lo and behold, it worked.

So, while I was quite convinced that arthroscopy was the bees-knees (sorry, couldn’t resist), it turns out that perhaps there was another way – which is in fact what this study found.

And what was the remarkable thing I mentioned at the top of this post? That the AAOS has found AGAINST one of the biggest money-earners of their entire profession – knee arthroscopy, which at least in Australia is a huge industry. So congrats to the AAOS for being frank and fearless in their research, and letting the facts speak, instead of yielding to self-interest.

It’s also a good example to set for those alternative therapy hypocrites who constantly accuse the medical establishment of being in it for the money.