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A blog about science, medicine, media and the ramblings of Irish hack....

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Getting wasted 101 - some amazing alcohol anecdotes and fantastic facts

 This post is all about alcohol, how it affects us and some interesting facts you may not have heard. I've tried to hyperlink any references in the main text where required. It's written for an Irish audience but is applicable throughout the western world. For those of you who have been so supportive regarding my previous post on the Kate Fitzgerald / Irish Times fiasco, thank you so much for your support during this difficult time. Kate is no longer with us but many of your comments touched me deeply, and indeed I think Kate's family too. Merry X-mas, Dave

The festive season is upon us, and for the Irish in particular that means copious consumption of various alcoholic beverage, or as we call it "business as usual". It is also the season of "Drink aware" adverts which try to be helpful by reminding us of such useful things as our consumption levels and drink driving limits, in terms of the 'Standard drink'.

Scrooge-like as it seems, this bugs me - not because the sentiment isn't appreciated, nor because I have some subconscious urge to play Dionysus but rather due to the fact that the standard drink is largely a myth; a misconception based on the idea that biology can be standardized when in fact personal variations matter hugely. So in the X-mas spirit, allow me to present "Getting wasted 101" and come delve haphazardly into psychopharmacology with me.If that sounds eerily reminiscent of that time some mischief maker slipped you a tab of LSD instead of an after dinner mint, worry not, this is entirely educational.

Like, Gee Scoob! This after dinner mint is making me feel CRAZY!


Monday, December 5, 2011

Famous Last Words - Media Transparency, Kate Fitzgerald and the Irish Times


I wanted to do a piece on media transparency for some time, but I never imagined that the death of someone I love very much could be the catalyst for this, nor did I foresee quite how disappointed I would be with publications I had previously thought were illustrious; publications I thought valued integrity and accuracy over all else. It turns out I was sorely mistaken. In August just gone, my beautiful and dear friend Kate took her own life; she was 25. The night before she died, she took the time to compose this poignant and erudite plea for better understanding of mental health. It was sent to my national paper of record, the Irish Times. It was printed under the condition of anonymity, and the piece you see below is how it appeared. I beseech you to read it, her words are far more important than anything I'm ever likely to write.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

"Contagion" - A win for science in movies...

 Just a quick review of "Contagion" and movie science in general; still in Australia but will write a few more in depth pieces when I'm back home next month. In the interim, enjoy and avoid 2012...

Given that I'm sufficiently nerdy to write a science and medicine blog, it may be considered surprising that I tend to despair at movies which play the science card, mainly because of what I call the Deepak effect - taking concepts in science and applying them haphazardly / willfully misconstrued / utterly nonsensical to areas which they do not describe, nor often even apply to. I name this ignominiously after that bastion of new-age quackery Mr Chopra himself, who makes a fortune linking quantum mechanic concepts to human happiness despite the fact the principles simply don't apply*. My personal favourite example of this is an absolute howler from 2012 when the'scientists' work out why the weather is changing so quickly..

"The neutrinos have mutated!"

This is perhaps the most ridiculous line in the history of cinema. I admit I let out a rather loud "Seriously, what the fuck?!" when I saw this, attracting curious stares in the cinema and reducing my date to tears laughing. Joke was on her however, as I spent the next 45 minutes babbling about fundamental particles. Women love fundamental particles. Here's Physicist / Comedian Dara O'Brien explain why my derision was so heartfelt...


Thursday, July 28, 2011

20 nifty tricks to argue like a charlatan

For scientists, skeptics, debaters, or indeed anyone who values useful information over shrill soundbites, there is little more infuriating then crass manipulation of the facts to mislead an audience. Purveyors of woo and snake oil are particularly skilled at this cynical sideshow, but they are by no means alone in the practice which all too frequently raises its ugly head in politics too. And when constructive debate breaks down along ideological barriers, you can be sure the quality of discussion suffers.  When discussions arise, those with a vested interest are adept at sidetracking the debate with enough petty logical fallacies to fool an audience into thinking their claims have some merit. “What beastly intellectual cowardice!” I hear you mutter. And I concur.

But just for a moment, let me play advocatus diaboli. Perhaps we should look at their techniques and admire the smoke and mirrors approach to discussion that can leave the most well informed earnest orator flummoxed and flustered. Let's give these rogues their due, and identify some of their little tricks, in the hopes we can catch them out at their own game.

So for your viewing pleasure, I present..


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Your Dogma is chasing my Karma - a suggestion to skeptics

One of the reasons I love science is its utter objectivity. Science doesn't care about your petty prejudices, political persuasions or reckless religiosity - it remains steadfast and unconcerned. Creationists can scream 'til they're blue in the face that the earth is less than 10,000 years old but it won't magically shave off an odd 4 billion years from the age of the Earth. Homeopaths can claim all they like about their elixirs but it won't change the fact that their concoctions are just water. Science is an objective tool - we can run the same experiments, and verify the same result is found. Skepticism, defined by Wikipedia as a "...questioning attitude of knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts,or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere"  is an integral part of science for evaluating evidence. Critically this means remaining objective - an active skeptic in the scientific sense attempts to falsify their own ideas by testing it or looking for counter examples. They must examine all plausible interpretations and test them. Crucially,  it is a terrible mistake to only look to evidence that supports your position and disregard evidence at odds with it.
I'd like to think it is promising that many people are identifying themselves as skeptics. But are we honestly applying that label with all the intellectual honesty and rigour it entails ?


If creationists want the Earth to be <10,000 years old, they'd best invent time travel.....


Sunday, July 3, 2011

Abortion - Misconceptions and outright fabrications

Let's be frank - Abortion is an emotive issue. There are a myriad of different views between the two extremes constituting an entire spectrum of beliefs. Nor is there anything wrong with this; people have the right to their own opinions. But people do not have a right to their own facts - any position justified with bold faced fabrication and truth bending is not only intellectually dishonest, it merely spreads disinformation and muddies the water, obscuring informed debate. And yet the cynic in me thinks that this may be precisely the goal.

I personally am pro-choice. I have come to this decision after many years of researching the topic, and separating the facts from the fictions. I also think it's shameful Ireland buries its head in the sand regarding the issue and in true hibernian fashion ignores the elephant in the room. So yesterday I attended a pro-choice counter rally to the well funded "Rally for life" and as we lined the streets to peacefully protest for the rights of Irish women to make their own choices, we were met by some real friendly people from the anti-choice brigade. Like this lady ...


Apparently that's the Virgin Mary and Jesus. I initially thought she was holding up an ad for Johnson's baby lotion.


Friday, June 17, 2011

Happiness is..... measured in units of 1/K apparently...

 Good news everyone! A formula by the evident polymath Cliff Arnall PROVES today is the happiest day of the year. The story has been published in several publications which ostensibly purport to be newspapers, so it must be true right? Arnall's modesty is endearing - “Whether it’s a sunny day, a childhood memory, or something as effortless as eating a delicious ice cream, I wanted my formula to prove the key to happiness can really be that simple.”  This is incredible, and opens up all sorts of new avenues for research. In much the same way as Max Planck didn't realise the paradigm shifting implications of his quantisation of energy levels, Arnall does not yet see the true importance of his work. So let's get to work immediately!

A formula for happiness so important it by-passed peer review!


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

I'm actually a lesbian [Citation Needed]

I hope that got your attention. And if you haven't been following the story here's a brief summation - Syrian gay activist Amina Arraf, author of a popular blog "A gay girl in Damascus" has transpired to be in reality a 40 something American called Tom MacMaster. This upset a lot of Arraf's followers, including owner of LezGetReal.com Paula Brooks who helped supply information that led to MacMaster's online outing. In a deliciously stupid turn of events that one simply couldn't make up because it's just too daft, it has been revealed that Paula Brooks is actually retired construction worker Bill Garber. One couldn't make this up, and as to the motivations behind it ? The mind boggles



The lesbian blogger is..Old man Whitters? "And I wudda got away with it too, if it wasn't for you meddling kids!"


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Oh the bitter Herbs......

 My 2c on the EU directive for herbal medicine. Thanks to Prof. William Reville of the Irish Times / UCC for casting his expert eye over this...


The European Directive on Traditional Herbal Medicinal Products has of late provoked the ire of advocates and practitioners of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). From the impassioned furore, one might be forgiven for thinking that the directive is a sudden new and draconian imposition. But the directive has in fact been in force for 7 years, brought in after a number of deaths and accidents involving herbal medications. It is hardly draconian either - instead of demanding proof of efficacy through independent clinical trials as with any other medical product, the legislation simply asks those wishing to supply a herbal product to provide anecdotal documentation it doesn't harm and has a track record of at least 15 years usage. The deadline for registration of existing products has just past, and this is being presented as an attack on herbal practitioners. A vocal number of herbal advocates have claimed this legislation is a ploy by big pharmacy to drive them out of business but this entirely predictable claim is a straw man argument - the issue here is regulation, pure and simple.


Saturday, May 7, 2011

Somehow I don't think...

...that this product can live up to the lofty claims it makes on the advertising front.


CURSE YOU MICKEY MOUSE ! I'm BLIND!

25 years of Chernobyl - A retrospective

This was a little piece I wrote on the anniversary of Chernobyl this year. It was lined up to be an op-ed piece in an Irish weekend newspaper but news of Royal weddings got in the way. So I present it here for your reading pleasure after the fact...


25 years ago in the sleepy Soviet controlled village of Pripyat, Ukraine, an event occurred that branded a word onto the world's collective conscience. In the early hours of the morning, the plant was rocked by an explosion, resulting in nuclear waste products being strewn over a wide area. Since then, Chernobyl has become a word that conjures up fear, loathing and invokes a wide range of impassioned reactions. Discussion on the issue is overrun with fearful rhetoric, and the very name tends to galvanise people. Any time the subject of nuclear power comes up, opponents tend to cite Chernobyl as some kind of proof that it is inherently flawed and more dangerous than other forms of power generation. Whispers about detrimental health and environmental effects terrify people to the point that rational discussion about the events and aftermath of Chernobyl and indeed nuclear power are difficult and emotive. This was entirely understandable; an event like Chernobyl had never occurred before so assuming the worst was understandable - there was simply a shortage of information on how things would transpire. But now, a quarter of a century later, with the benefit of hindsight and over two decades of intense scientific research, it is time to reexamine the disaster and its consequences in light of what we now know.


Monday, April 25, 2011

Feeling Randi ?

I apologise for the terrible , terrible pun. I also extend my regret for the massive delay in post new material. Sorry about all that, real life got in the way.. if you count teaching and playing guitar for musicals as real life. Anyway, in the gaping interim of time since my last post, the legendary James Randi and his stellar organisation honoured me greatly by commissioning a little piece on churnalism and bad science from me. You'll find it here, all feedback welcome!

Randi suggests you head over to his awesome site......

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Figuring Fukushima - On radiobiology and nuclear power

This post won't be as flippant as my usual outpourings given I'm not quite up to the Gilbert Gottfried singularity on offending people. Just a little discourse on radiation...

Unless you've been living in a bizarre time warp or have encased your head in concrete / attempted a home lobotomy, you can't have failed to notice that Japan is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis after a magnitude 8.9 earthquake and the resultant tsunami. The sheer scale of the damage done is unreal, and the human displacement staggering. Sadly, the death toll continues to rise. In the midst of all this chaos, the spectre of a nuclear accident has almost overshadowed the frankly immense natural disaster. A few people have asked me to explain the biological impact of Fukushima and radiation in general - I'll try to avoid a technical digression onto the design and just stick to the medical physics, given that's my limited sphere of knowledge. So here is the idiot's guide to radiation. I have included a few on my own humble thoughts on nuclear power at the end and links to how you can donate to Japan at the end of the post.

What exactly is radiation ?
Radiation refers to any energetic particle or waves which travel through a medium / space. Generally 'radiation' refers to what is called ionizing radiation - particles or waves with enough energy to knock electrons out of atoms / molecules. Ionizing forms include X-ray, Gamma rays, and Alpha articles. Radiation can also refer to non-ionizing forms of radiation, like radio waves, microwaves and visible light. The concept that visible light is a form of radiation strikes some people as strange given the often times negative associations of the word radiation but it is utterly true to say. Radiation is all around us all the time and has been since the dawn of humanity.


Good God! Radiation EVERYWHERE!!


Sunday, February 27, 2011

Detox This!

--A short rant about what a detox is and why detox products do not work--

There used to be a show on Channel 4 in the UK called 'Extreme Celebrity Detox'. What was particularly impressive about this evidently divinely inspired piece of dross was that every word in the title was misleading. For starters, doing Tai Chi and yoga removes bugger all bodily toxins so detox it was not. Then the celebrities were hardly celebrated; the highest profile guests were Jack Osbourne (famous for being the son of the 3rd best vocalist in Black Sabbath) and Rebecca Loos (famous for letting David Beckham play offside on her pitch and injecting herself with more silicon than a PC World) so there's another misnomer. But the word 'extreme' was a super overstatement. You've probably never heard of Harold McCluskey, but he would be crown champion of any extreme detox competition ever held. So who exactly was he ?

This is Harold McCluskey. That probably doesn't really answer the question - bear with me...



Wednesday, February 2, 2011

20 Science and Medical Myths

Assuming you're not a sociopathic hermit with all the social skills of lobotomised hamster, there's a good chance you've been to some form of social engagement in your life. And one great thing about a good gathering is good conversations - sometimes though, you hear something that triggers a distant alarm bell. Is that true ? I must check that. Of course, half the time we forget. And then maybe we hear it again. And again. Then after a while, we tactitly assume it is true and repeat it. But if it is wrong, are we just perpetuating falsehoods? The following is a list in no particular order of things I have either heard at parties, or at some stage, in some form, implictedly assumed to have some merit.  Each of them a juicy tidbit on science, technology or medicine that gets repeated so much it is ingrained in our collective consciousness. They share one thing in common - they are all, without exception, falsehoods. Here's a list of 20 such claims that I have heard at least once in the year. So in no particular order and with no real rhyme or reason....

1. You should never wake a sleepwaker - Sure, waking a sleep walker may result in them being disorientated and confused. But waking anybody can render them a little confused, whether they're idly lying in on a weekend or ambling around in a walking coma. Sleepwalking is a REM sleep disorder and as a parasomnia is damn interesting; there have been cases of sleep walkers writing semi-coherent emails, having sex with strangers and even murdering people (not all at the same time .. yet) so on balance , the disorientation they may feel is somewhat less dangerous than other sleepy stunts they may pull. Even though observing may be much more hilarious as a spectator sport, walking them gently is probably more humane

2. You only use 10% of your brain - Somewhere right now there is a neurologist hearing this and cringing. This little piece of lore is so oft-repeated that it is almost accepted as fact but it does a massive disservice to our brains to accuse them of being so lazy. We use practically all of our brains, but usually not all at once. This can be observed looking at a PET scan or fMRI image. So why has this myth endured so long ? One of the big reasons is that it is constantly trotted out by psychics and those with a vested interest in obscuring rational thought. "The hidden 90%" rubbish serves as a convenient Deus ex machina for those trying to peddle nonsense and they have succeeded admirably.Despite this, one could be forgiven for suspecting that people who part with their hard earned cash for psychics may be using less than their whole mental capacity.


Amazingly, even this man uses most of his brain. Notice how I avoided the juvenile 'bender' joke; it's all class here...

Sunday, January 16, 2011

And the world's greatest threat to scientific understanding is... Oprah?!

On paper, I should be an Oprah fan; she's intelligent, liberal and very outspoken. She has, to her credit, raised issues which other shows did not at the time, though albeit on a tabloid talk show - But exposure is after all exposure, even if it is aimed at the daytime TV demograph; housewives, bored students, household pets who have figured out how to use the remote and if certain Disney movies are to be believed, toys that have gained sentience and come to life when their owners are out. But despite all this, I feel my blood boil each time Oprah appears on the little box in my living room. I've even been known to yell at the little box when she says certain things in a seemingly irrational manner that would convince any passing anthropologist I was from one of those remote tribes who had never seen a TV before and believed that someone was trapped inside it. Yes, I do come off that crazy at times. For those of you lucky enough to not know me personally, I'll clarify that blood boiling sensation is not motivated by an irrational fear response to differing levels of melanin. Nor is it because I am intimidated by her having one X chromosome up on me. The truth of the matter is I dislike Oprah because of her repeated scientific and medical garbage.

Tom always asked for Oprah's medical advice when he needed a laugh...


Thursday, January 13, 2011

A hard pill to swallow - Irish youth & date rape drugs

Drink spiking is a terrifying concept every young person will be familiar with; the importance of watching your drink and guarding it closely has been rammed home, lest some ill intentioned individual adds their drugs to our drugs for nefarious purpose. This in itself is a deeply uncomfortable thought, and quite understandably drives people to panic. Everyone knows someone with a drink spiking story, a cautionary tale of some creepy individual lacing an innocent drink with some illicit substance, rendering the victim helpless. From the sheer amount of anecdotal warnings and horror stories, it seems like the threat of spiking is real, high and ever increasing. The message seems clear; if you want to protect yourself from date rape, you'll watch your drink.


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