Friday, January 28, 2011

Decline Call? Accept Call?

I hate getting unsolicited SMS messages from my service provider too...

Getting blown up by your own improvised explosive device is a well known occupational hazard for illegal bomb makers.  Getting blown up by your wireless service provider wishing you a Happy New Year is a threat only the 21st century could deliver.  New entry in the Transnational Terror for Dummies manual: "When setting up a burn phone be sure to opt out of 'seasonal greetings from your prepaid wireless provider.'"

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

When Your Day Gets a Little Too Serious

When STRATFOR is depressing and Schneier is talking crypto, visit The Oatmeal...

If you love Wondermark but want a strip in color for a change, visit this wickedly funny online comic.  Zombies, coffee, unicorns, the internet, pterodactyls, TSA, cats, customer service, dolphins, Apple products, and polar bears, The Oatmeal has it all!

WARNING: Do not drink coffee over a keyboard while viewing The Oatmeal.  If laughing uncontrollably causes you sputter chunks at your monitor do not eat food while viewing The Oatmeal.  The language and imagery at The Oatmeal may not be suitable for all work environments, but everyone tested enjoyed it more than a sugar pill.  If you experience mirth that lasts more than four hours while viewing The Oatmeal consider closing your browser and getting back to work.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Zeta Ophiuchi With A Bullet

Zeta Ophiuchi is a blue supergiant star 20 times the mass of our sun...

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA

It's located in the constellation Ophiuchus (yeah, the "new" 13th sign of the zodiac...Peh!) but an explosive supernova of its former companion star sent it zipping through the galaxy at 24 kilometers per second.  On Earth a pretty snappy rifle bullet travels a little over one kilometer per second, and only for a couple seconds.  As Zeta Ophiuchi plows through the interstellar medium its solar wind compresses gas and dust into a bow shock.  Other than the blue-white light from "Zeta Oph" none of this adventure can be seen as light to the human eye.  But NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE) examines the cosmos in the infrared so the shock wave can now be seen plain as day.  The linked articles describe all the science better than I can ever hope to but this stuff is great fun to ponder.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Cassandra Skiing in Minneapolis

Cassie skied in the Mayor's Cross Country Challenge in Minneapolis this weekend...

In addition to watching the races on Saturday (Cassie was 3rd for her team and 33rd overall) and Sunday, we ate venison, played Scrabble, entertained the cats, and we watched movies of course.

The Town was much better than I expected.  Director Ben Affleck has a confidence with his material.  He balanced the crime caper action elements with some very interesting character development. 

Coincidentally, Gone Baby Gone, another Affleck film which starred his younger brother Casey, was also in our NetFlix queue.  I'd seen it before but Cassie hadn't.  It's very strong, unflinching stuff, but it's cleverly plotted and has an interesting pace.

We needed something a little lighter so we picked Penelope, a 2006 comedy starring Cristina Ricci, from the Watch Instantly queue.  It was whimsical and visually striking but the story was a little shy of being completely engaging.

That's Astronomy, Not Astrology!

Yes, there is a difference...

image from NASA APOD

Another excellent series of astronomy podcasts are actually recordings of two classes taught by Professor Richard Pogge at Ohio State University. Why these aren't on iTunes U instead of iTunes, I don't know, but these undergrad courses are excellent primers on astronomy. Astronomy 161 explains the local neighborhood - our solar system. Astronomy 162 deals with the big picture, deep time perspective - from the big bang to the heat death of the universe. Professor Pogge supplies copious supporting materials for 161 and 162 at the Ohio State website, but he does such a nice job explaining his topics you can get by without least until you get home.

Astronomy Cast: Watch The Skies!

Fraser Cain and Dr. Pamela Gay entertain and inform...

image from NASA APOD

Fraser Cain is the publisher of the Universe Today website.  Dr. Pamela Gay lectures at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.  Each week they come together to deliver the Astronomy Cast.  I found them on iTunes or you can visit their website where they have an episode archive 243 shows deep.  The average show is around 30 minutes in length and deals with a single topic (except for their fun "listener questions" episodes).  Each 'cast is supplemented by helpful show notes at the website.  Both hosts have voices that are easy enough to listen to at 2x on your iProduct (do MP3 players have variable playback speeds too?) so it will only take you a little over 60 hours to catch up...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Books and Ideas

Ginger Campbell's other podcast...

I've been listening Ginger Campbell's Brain Science Podcast on iTunes since I got my first iPod.  Dr. Campbell practices Emergency Medicine and still finds time to blog and podcast.  Neurology is her interest, not her specialty, but she has made it her business to popularize the ever-expanding discipline.  She has also organized a group called Science Podcasters where like-minded promoters of science can hang their hats.  Dr. Campbell also has a presence on LinkedIn, Facebook, YouTube, a Twitter feed, and an iPhone app.  I'm always impressed when a fellow boomer dives headfirst into Web 2.0.

I don't know why I never tried any of her work at Books and Ideas but I'm glad I finally did.  She 'casts from this site topics that don't precisely fit the charter at Brain Science.  Not everything that interest Dr. Campbell interest me, but as I've caught up with her podcasts several struck my fancy...

#27 Jennifer Michael Hecht  Hecht, author of Doubt: A Hisory, was a skeptic of revealed truth a couple years before the four horsemen of the angry "new atheism" mounted their steeds. Listening to this interview reminded me to add her book to my 2011 reading list.

#25 Vaccines DO NOT cause Autism This one was 'cast on both feeds so I've heard this excellent interview before.  

#14-Dr. Pamela Gay of Astronomy Cast  Dr. Gay gives a surprisingly candid interview in which she and Dr. Campbell discuss the challenges of being women in the male-dominated fields of science and medicine.

#12 Does Free Will Exist?  So, what does it mean to us if there is no "contra-causal" free will?

#5 How are Science and Philosophy Related?

Dr. Campbell is so genuine and committed it's easy to overlook the few glitches in some episodes as she negotiated her podcasting learning curve.  I recommend you give Brain Science and Books and Ideas a listen.

Friday, January 14, 2011

"Injustice Anywhere is a Threat to Justice Everywhere"

"We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was 'legal' and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was 'illegal.'" - Letter from Birmingham Jail

Martin Luther King Jr's Letter From Birmingham Jail is a powerful piece of writing.  It is a time capsule and a source of ageless wisdom.  You do not have to be black to appreciate it.  You need not be Christian to be moved by it.  But you will be more fully an American if you do read it.  It is a long letter, for which Dr. King apologized, "but what else can one do when he is alone in a narrow jail cell, other than write long letters, think long thoughts and pray long prayers?"  Read it today, if only once.  Me, I propose to reread it the 3rd Monday of every January until it no longer resonates.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Cassandra's 2010-2011 Nordic Ski Season Continues

Cassie took third at her meet at the Saints Invitational at St John's in Collegeville on Saturday.  Way to go, Boo!

The Gustavus Women took first in their race, a 12k classic mass start.  The Gustavus Men took second in their race.  Go, Gusties!

Even though we had to leave before noon Erik came along.  On the way up we stopped at Nelson Bros. in Clearwater for giant pastries.  On the way home we visited Cabela's in Rogers to peruse the used guns racks and the gun library, as is our tradition.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Welcome to "The Year of Fear!"

"Welcome to 2011, the "Year of Fear," the Official 10th Anniversary of 9/11™!"

"Tuesday the 11th of January 2011 marks the beginning of the nine month countdown to what will almost certainly become a 24/7 drum-beaten media-driven blitzkrieg extravaganza extraordinaire of the decade - yes, the Mother of all Retrospectives - reminding us all how terrorized we were, have been, and should remain."

"A non-stop stream of politicians and pundits, experts and exegetes, hawks and doves, apologists and apoplectics will hash, rehash, and make hash of comparisons to Pearl Harbor, the Cuban Missile Crisis, all the assassinations from JFK to John Lennon, Madrid, 7/7, and Mumbai."

"Be afraid, be very afraid [again]."

"The media will ask all the usual questions:

"Where were you?"  "What did you see?"  "What were you told?"  "How did it make you feel?"  "How has 9/11 changed your life?"  "What do you tell your children?"

"All that's left is to decide is what color to make the commemorative 'Remembering How Afraid We Were 9/11 2001-2011™' silicone bracelet."

Or we can refuse to be terrorized...again...or ever again.  We can take stock of what we've learned about the world and ourselves these past ten years.  We can move forward with hope rather than looking back fearfully to celebrate the day we got sucker punched.  We can strive to meet this generation's challenges with some semblance of the style, grace, and resolve shown by our elders and betters during the Great Depression, the Londoners during the Blitz, the Russians at Leningrad, and those Americans who risked their lives to assert their rights.  We can endeavor to emulate those who suffered but did not whine.

It's up to us.  It's our choice.  We will determine what history says of us, and this is the year we will do it.

"Keep Calm and Carry On" indeed.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Youth Without Youth

"I know very well that I am dreaming, and soon I will wake up..."

A meditation on the meaning of life; the nature of time; the reality of dreams; the illusion we call reality; longing, love, regret, and second chances; and a man's search for the origin of language and human consciousness.  What's not to like?  Written, produced, directed, and lovingly crafted by Francis Ford Coppola (how can he be 71 years old?), based on a novella by scholar of religion, Mircea Eliade, this 2007 film was not a commercial success.  Even my favorite movie critic, Roger Ebert, did not care for it.  Well, he can't be right all the time.  Oh, yeah, it may take a couple viewings for it all to sink in.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Placebo Band: It's The Real Deal!

Why pay Power Balance $29.95 for the privilege of wearing their $0.05 rubber bracelet when you can pay $2.00 for an accurately labeled Skepticbros Placebo Band and see the modest profit donated to charity?

Thanks to grassroots skeptical activism in Australia the discredited distributors of the Power Balance line of woo were ordered in December 2010 by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) to:

  • not make any claims about its products that are not supported by a written report from an independent testing body that meets certain standards;
  • offer a refund to consumers who feel they have been misled;
  • publish corrective advertising to prevent consumers from being misled in the future;
  • amend the Australian website to remove any misleading representations;
  • remove the words 'performance technology' from the brand itself; and
  • implement a compliance program.
So if Power Balance has admitted in Australia "that there is no credible scientific basis for the claims and therefore no reasonable grounds for making representations about the benefits of the product" why haven't they changed their promotions here in the States?  Do they think the American public is so poorly educated in basic science, so lacking in critical thinking skills, and so fooled by paid celebrity endorsements, that no one but a few skeptical buzzkills will notice?  Well, they did sell $35 million worth of the silicone trinkets in 2010...

At least the Power Balance effort has no body count, unlike the antivaxers.

UPDATED TO ADD: I sent the following question to Power Balance USA on 1 February 2011.

"Power Balance Australia Pty Ltd has admitted 'that there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims [that Power Balance wristbands improved your strength, balance and flexibility] and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct.'

I presume you are selling precisely the same product they used to so why haven't you changed your promotional materials here in the States?"

I'll let you know the moment I receive a reply...


Today, 9 February 2011, I received not one but two replies from Power Balance USA. The first was in response to my inquiry submitted on the of January. The second was responding to yesterday's message. Both replies were precisely the same form email, each containing a juicy mix of fallacies, lies, and obfuscation. I especially relished their complaint that the ACCC insisted on the "narrow criteria of randomized, double-blind scientific studies." I'm pretty sure complaining to them or ranting about them accomplishes little, but their business model is based on fraud even more than woo and watching them drain the wallets of the gullible really grates on my nerves. Anyway, here's what they had to say...

"Hello Michael,

Thank you for writing us.

We understand your concerns regarding the ruling in Australia, and the articles circulating the different medias.

Here is our statement regarding the situation:

Power Balance products work. The existing reports out there are fundamentally incorrect. Power Balance did not make any claims that our product does not perform.

We are committed to bringing our performance technologies to every athlete in the world from professional to amateur to recreational. Our community of believers continues to grow each week. While our previous claims in marketing ads are not up to Australia’s ACCC standards – we stand behind our products. The belief of thousands of consumers and athletes who wear our products are not wrong.

A preliminary study recently conducted on the product’s performance variables was commissioned and the findings have determined that the product does in fact provide a “statistically significant” result on the wearer’s performance. We are committed to further evaluating the product’s performance parameters so that we can continue to provide products that enhance the wearer’s lifestyle.

Numerous actual consumer testimonies supporting the wristbands’ performance were provided to the ACCC by Power Balance. Despite that, they requested Power Balance remove marketing claims until it could provide them with their narrow criteria of randomized, double-blind scientific studies that supports the use of those marketing phrases.

Power Balance voluntarily agreed to stop using those phrases. Power Balance believes and wants users to believe that we will do whatever it takes to appropriately, and with honor and integrity make our products available to every consumer in every market in the world.

In summary, we absolutely stand behind our products. There is no doubt in our minds, as well as thousands of consumers (be they professional athletes, trainers, weekend warriors, etc.), that our products work. To be clear, we did not make any statements referencing that we were a fraudulent company; a “scam”; the product is ineffective; or anything else similar to such statements in the media.

If you are not a US customer, please let us know the country from which you are inquiring, so we may direct you to the appropriate parties.

In regards to your request for a refund (US customers), we are happy to address your request in a timely manner. In order to complete this request we will need a receipt dated within 6 months from the date of purchase, from an authorized dealer, along with the product in order to process your refund.

If you would like to proceed with your request, please visit. After filling out the form located there, please use the click to print button in order to print out the form correctly. Along with the form you will need to send the product back to Power Balance for which you are requesting the refund for, as well as a copy of your proof of purchase dated within 6 months. These items are required to process the refund. Please send the requested items to:

Attn: Returns
20512 Crescent Bay
Suite 108
Lake Forest, CA 92630

We will process your request as quickly as possible on a first come, first serve basis.

Warmest regards."

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Spirit Remains Silent at Troy, Opportunity Explores Santa Maria

It's been seven years since the twin Martian rovers began their 90 day missions of exploration...

image courtesy of

Rover Opportunity will spend a couple months examining Santa Maria crater, some four miles from its next destination, Endeavor crater, where NASA hopes to find even more evidence of water in Mars' distant past.  As of New Year's Eve 2010 Opportunity's mission clock read 2466 Sols (Martian days, which are 24 hours, 39 minutes, and 35 seconds in duration).

The rover Spirit got stuck in soft Martian sand in May of 2009 and hasn't been heard from since March of 2010.  Spirit made it 4.8 miles before loosing traction. 

As neat as all this is the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (yes, the MRO) is sensitive enough to see the rovers from orbit.

To put this all in perspective, a mere 109 years after Marconi demonstrated the commercial utility of radio, and 107 years since the Wright Brothers first flight, we humans are using remotely controlled robots to explore other worlds and are watching other robots sailing out of the solar system at 10 miles a second. 

Monday, January 3, 2011

A Pleasant New Year's Weekend

Cassie skied in the Twin Cities Championship...

It was a Classic 8.5k on Saturday and a 15k Skate Pursuit on Sunday.  It was in the single digits both mornings.  The Classic course Green Acres in Lake Elmo had a wicked uphill climb and resulted in many falls and several broken poles.  The course at Wirth was aggressive - twists and turns, climbs and descents. At least is wasn't raining this year.

Erik came along Sunday.  Very nice to see him out of bed before noon on a weekend.

Sport - cross country, nordic skiing, and track - has been a important part of Cassie and Erik's high school and college years.  Cassie hopes to help coach high school athletics after she settles in to her teaching career.  We're proud of their efforts.

Oh yeah, Cassie took a ski pole tip smack in the right eye during Saturday's race.  But for her sports glasses, which she wears religiously (Thanks, Boo!), we'd have spent the weekend at the hospital.  Polycarbonate eyewear is the must have accessory when chasing people who are waving pointed sticks behind them!

The rest of the weekend we spent playing Scrabble, going to movies (The Fighter, 2010), watching NetFlix (Night of the Demon and its inferior American cut Curse of the Demon, directed by Jacques Tourneur in 1957), working our way through the boxed set of NCIS season seven, sampling a delicious chocolate torte prepared by Erik, and cleaning the house.

Love having the brood home for the holidays.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Books to Read in 2011

Some of the books I aspire to read this year, listed in no particular order, just like my bookshelf...


The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan [Can't believe I didn't read this ages ago!]

The Idea of the Holy by Rudolph Otto [Otto was a very deep well]


There will be others, of course...and a Master's paper to complete.  Stay tuned!

UPDATE: 21 April 2011: I'm getting tired of heavy reading so I'm going to cut The Feeling of Risk and replace it with The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Black Swan comes highly recommended by several of my peers.  I picked up a copy last night with some birthday money.  I'll keep you posted...

Update the Nth: But wait, there's more...