Oh, for crying out loud.

August 28, 2008

Well, it looks as though the anti-vaxxers have struck again, and their idiocy has taken hold in Canada:  the mumps is back in B.C.!

From the CBC:

An outbreak of the mumps in the Fraser Valley has prompted health officials to warn people to make sure they are immunized against the disease.

As thousands of children prepare to head back to school, the outbreak, which began in a religious community, has already spread westward into Metro Vancouver — as far as Burnaby.

There have been 116 confirmed cases of mumps and another 74 suspected cases since February, according to the Fraser Health Authority. On average, the region has only 10 cases a year.

Two people from Alberta carried the mumps to a religious community near Agassiz that has a low rate of vaccinations, said Dr. Elizabeth Brodkin of the Fraser Health Authority.

“My understanding is their interpretation of scripture is that to immunize would be to show a lack of faith in God’s ability to protect them, and therefore they choose not to do that,” said Brodkin.

Orac at Respectful Insolence and Sandra Porter at Discovering Biology in a Digital World both have comments on this subject, and Orac especially has already said most of what I would have said.  All I can do at this point is shake my head in disgust.


A few things I hate about science in Hollywood…

August 22, 2008

I don’t watch a lot of TV anymore;  when I moved to Montréal, I never hooked up the cable and my television doesn’t even have an antenna, so I haven’t seen anything I didn’t download (legally) or buy on DVD for quite some time.  But I do tend to watch seasons of television on DVD, especially when I’m snuggled in with my wife, and recently we began watching Bones together.  Watching the depictions of science and scientsts in this and other series got me thinking about the rage-inducing depictions of same on television and in movies, and here’s a few of my howl-inducing favourites:

  1. Scientists aren’t usually so socially retarded. Many of the scientists depicted on television (including the main character in Bones, as well as most of her team) are depicted as being social morons who can barely manage to wipe their own behinds when left to their own devices.  Having an interest in science apparently turns you into a basement-dwelling dweeb (men) or a retiring wallflower (women), as though you can only like science if you’re suffering from Asperger’s.  Don’t get me wrong:  I’ve known some scientists with social skills that best resemble those of a paranoid schizophrenic with anger issues, but on the whole scientists are just as human as the rest of us.
  2. On the other hand, scientists are not that pretty (at least, on average). Again, I’ve known some attractive scientists – both male and female – but come on.  I know that Hollywood is responding to what the viewers want, which is usually “attractive flesh”, but scientist are usually shown as jaw-dropping gorgeous (or, to really shake things up, hideously unattractive – see point #1).  CSI is particularly bad for this one, Grissom notwithstanding.
  3. Scientists don’t know everything about everything. The Stargate series, both SG-1 and Atlantis, are great examples of this.  The scientific members of the team, Samantha Carter and Rodney McKay respectively, know just about everything it is possible to know.  They’re both physicists by training, but in the field they magically acquire deep and broad knowledge about not only all of physics, but also chemistry, engineering, biology, etc., etc.  Their range of knowledge is, frankly, ludicrous.  If you know anything about modern science, you know that the amount of knowledge has exploded in the last few decades.  These days, it’s increasingly hard for people to keep up with their particular corner of their own subfield of their chosen major field.  There’s a reason that most of the polymaths that you hear about were active in the early 20th century or earlier…
  4. Not all scientists are l337 hack3rs. This one really bugs me.  Being a scientist does not mean that you can find yourself plunked in front of some random computer with “encrypted data”, pound a few keys furiously, and declare “we’re in!”.  Frankly, even most people who work with computers for a living can’t do this.  I’ve been programming for 20 years, on and off, but I’ve never cared about security and I know that I wouldn’t be able to decrypt that terrorist hard drive just because you had to save the world.
  5. While we’re on the subject, computers (and technology) aren’t magic. It turns out that the mere introduction of some computers and a little lab equipment can make absolutely anything happen.  I love CSI (or, really, just about any other show ever made) for this:  apparently, they can blow up grainy, low-res surveillance photos to arbitrary sizes, pull details out of pixels that don’t exist, and then compare the subject’s toenails to a massive database of toenail clippings in less than half a second before generating a match.
  6. And another thing:  where the hell do they get all that money? Just about every lab I’ve ever seen on TV or in a movie that wasn’t located in someone’s basement (and honestly, a few that were!) is dripping with beautiful, gleaming equipment that would cost millions of dollars in the real world.  I wish that they could send a bit of that money our way.
  7. Science is all about failure and uncertainty. This is a more subtle issue, because I’m not using the words in a pejorative fashion:  publish or perish aside, the driving force of science is failure and uncertainty.  You try an experiment and don’t get the results you expect, so you find out why.  When it turns out that you did the experiment correctly the first time and the results are still inexplicible, you get excited – something new, something you can’t explain!  Your model doesn’t match realistic outcomes, so you have an excuse to build a better model.  You see nature doing something that nobody expected or that nobody can explain, and it makes your year because now you have something to work on.  This is the process of science, in which we chip away at the limits of our own ignorance and push back the darkness.  If everything came up roses every time anyone asked a question, science as an enterprise would have been largely wrapped up in or around the 17th or 18th centuries.  Yet when you look hard at scientists on TV, most of them do nothing but succeed, and when they don’t immediately have an answer, it’s cast in a negative light.  Entire scientific careers can be made out of consistently asking questions to which there as (as yet) no answers, but this fact is lost on television and in the movies.  Actually, it’s lost on undergrads as well, but that’s the subject of another post…
  8. Science is a cooperative, community effort.  This is somewhat related to the issue in point number 3, where scientists are depicted as gods of knowledge, standing alone amongst the ignorant plebs.  But in reality, scientists are part of a larger community working together on problems of interest.  Sure, there are superstars in every field, but even they don’t stand alone:  they build on the work of others, who in turn build on their work in a web of knowledgge.  There’s a reason that scientists look forward to academic conferences so much;  aside from the social element (which is pretty important when most of your closest intellectual colleagues are scattered across the globe), it’s a chance to connect with and immerse yourself in the cutting edge of the work being done in your field.  Science isn’t advanced by the loner working in his or her basement anymore, despite what the comic books would have you believe.  It’s done by a whole bunch of people, who are greater collectively than they are individually.

Those are just a few of the more egregious problems I see in the depiction of science in popular media these days.  I can forgive a lot of them for the mere fact of dramatic necessity, but I worry some times that the images of science put forth are driving the public away from understanding that scientists are people doing a job, as opposed to these semi-magical beings who do things that no normal human could contemplate.  The CSI effect is bad enough, but the more that we turn science into an inaccessible, mythical pursuit, the more difficult it is to recruit otherwise talented people to join us.

I’m still alive! Mostly…

August 20, 2008

Sorry that posting has been light;  I’ve been fighting a low-grade yet utterly vicious head-cold that started the night I got back from ISBE (which I think may have been given to me by someone I know, and I’m going to have a few sharp words with them later!).

In the meantime, I thought that I might brighten the place up with Humanity:  We Suck, Pt III.  Turns out that someone has been going around on Facebook and pretending to be the sister of the dead Tim McLean, victim of the Greyhound stabbing on July 30 in Manitoba.  Posing as Tim’s sister Amanda, the con artist set up a Paypal account and has been soliciting donations to help with the family’s supposed financial difficulties.

On the upside, it turns out that while I was gone the funeral happened with the Westboro bigots failing to make an appearance thanks to the presence of community members and the Winnipeg police, who had threatened to arrest anyone causing a disturbance at the funeral.  I can only say, “Bravo”.

I’m back!

August 16, 2008

I’ve arrived back from ISBE, and while I’m exhausted – and perhaps coming donw with a child – I thought that I might throw up a couple of things before I trundle off to bed:

Well, that should do it for tonight – I’ll post my thoughts on the ISBE congress as soon as I can do it without fading away.

Edit:  My wife informs me that coming “donw with a child” is unlikely, from a biological perspective.  I’ve left the mistake as is, for humour’s sake.

I’m off to ISBE!

August 9, 2008

By the time you read this, I’ll be headed to the 12th Congress of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology in Ithaca, New York for five days of science and beer (or so I’m told – I’m not a drinker, so I’ll just have to take my labmates’ hangovers as evidence).  I may post from the conference, but I wouldn’t count on it.  In any case, I’ll be back!

Humanity: still sucking.

August 9, 2008

As a follow-up to yesterday’s rant, humanity continues to surprise me with the depths that it can sink to.  First, PETA has published a lame defence of their ad on their blog in response to the angry e-mails that they got (I noticed that they’ve disabled comments and removed the comments on the post about the ad that I originally saw there).  I don’t have time to deconstruct their asinine arguments right now, but perhaps I can get to it when I get back from the conference which I should be packing for.

And in further news from the “bottom of the barrel” file, the godhatesfags.com morons are slithering their way north to picket the funeral of Tim McLean, the man who was killed on the Greyhound bus.  They claim that they are coming here to protest because of Canada’s enabling policies on abortion, gay marriage, and – get this – divorce and re-marriage.  I’m not sure what any of these have to do with Tim McLean, but at this point I cannot feel more sympathy for the McLean family.  First PETA uses them in the most despicable manner possible, and then the Westboro hatemongers threaten to show up and ruin the funeral.  On the upside, the CBC story reports that a counter-protest is brewing on Facebook, wherein the counter-protesters may form a human wall to keep the Westboro idiots away from the funeral.  If I was in Winnipeg (and not going to be in New York starting tomorrow), I would have to get off my butt and go help out there.

Anyways, that’s enough depressing news for now.  I have to go pack, or I’m going to be going to Ithaca naked (which I can’t imagine being great for my career).

Sometimes humanity really sucks.

August 7, 2008

[ Note:  I got really angry about this, and my language below is less than civil.  If swearing offends you, I would stop reading now. ]

If you haven’t already heard, last week there was a killing on a Canadian Greyhound bus travelling through Manitoba;  the attacker brutally killed and then decapitated his victim for no apparent reason.  From the CBC story:

A 40-year-old man is in custody in Manitoba after a young man was stabbed — and, witnesses said, decapitated — aboard a Greyhound bus travelling through the province overnight.

The RCMP would not confirm the reports of beheading, saying only that a stabbing took place around 8:30 p.m. CT on an eastbound Greyhound bus on the Trans-Canada Highway about 20 kilometres west of Portage la Prairie.

The suspect, believed to be from outside Manitoba, was arrested early Thursday morning after a standoff lasting several hours and remains in RCMP custody .

The witnesses described a horrific scene on the bus:

Garnet Caton, who was sitting in the seat in front of the victim, said he saw the attacker stab his seatmate, a young man sleeping with his headphones on.

Caton said he heard a “blood-curdling scream” and turned around to see the attacker holding a large “Rambo” hunting knife above the victim, “continually stabbing him in the chest area.”

“He must have stabbed him 50 times or 60 times,” said Caton.

“Like, just everywhere, arms, legs, neck, chest, guts, wherever he could swing it, he got it,” said Olmstead.

This was a terrible crime committed by an obviously deranged individual.  So, one might ask, what is the appropriate response to such a tragedy?  Well, if you’re one of the mentally deficient members of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals), it’s time to launch an ad making political hay out of someone’s death!  The CBC alerted me to this, and I went to PETA’s site to see it for myself.  I’m not going to repost the ad here, because I absolutely refuse to give those fuckwits the free publicity, but suffice it to say that that they compare the slaughter of animals for food to the brutal and random murder of an innocent victim on a bus.

Let me be clear on this. I don’t have a problem with PETA taking the stance they do on eating meat.  I don’t agree with it, but I don’t have a problem with the stance itself.  However, to use the tragic slaying of this man as a prop for an ad is something that I find disgusting and inexcusable. I call my blog ‘Mild Opinions’ because I prefer to engage in reflection and quiet debate (well, with a few exceptions), but I’m going to put that on hold for the moment to give voice to my rage about this:  PETA, fuck you.  It is times like this that make me wish that karma was real, because you absolutely deserve to have the giant bird of karma crap all over you, you bunch of drooling ass-clowns.

On the upside, at least someone is thinking clearly:

In its statement, PETA said it intended to run the notice in the Portage Daily Graphic, the local newspaper in Portage la Prairie, Man. PETA also sent out a news release to major media outlets across Canada announcing its plan to run the ad in the Manitoba paper, according to a story on the newspaper’s website Wednesday.

The paper’s publisher Barry Clayton, however, said the advertisement is in bad taste and will not be allowed to run.

Bravo, Mr. Clayton.  PETA says that it may try and run the ad elsewhere, and I invite anyone reading this to join me in writing letters to any newspaper that they try to pull this stunt in to condemn their actions.

*sigh*.  Between this and the firebombing animal rights activists, I’m about ready to give up on humanity today.

[ Note:  for a dash of nearly comedic parallelism, you can read about the ‘bus rage’ ads that Greyhound itself pulled in response to the events on its bus. Edit:  Greyhound isn’t to blame for this one – it was just really bad timing and even worse luck. ]

Wikipedia and the Hitchhiker’s Guide

August 6, 2008

I often to listen to Douglas Adams audiobooks when I’m going to sleep.  It’s a habit that my wife got me in to, because she’s been doing it since she was a little girl, and now I find that it’s much easier to sleep if I put it on.  Last night, I was listening to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, when it suddenly struck me that the actual Guide is a brilliant foreshadowing of Wikipedia.  It’s more or less user-generated, contains a lot of errors, and is outcompeting its rival, the Encylopedia Galactica.

Feeling like I’d stumbled onto something cool, I was going to do a full post on this today, but my “uh-oh” detectors went off before I got too far into it, and I did a quick google search.  Sure enough, Paul Boutin at Slate covered this ground three years ago:

It’s too bad Douglas Adams wasn’t able to see his vision brought to life. I don’t mean the so-so movie version of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I’m talking about Wikipedia, the Web’s own don’t-panic guide to everything.

The parallels between The Hitchhiker’s Guide (as found in Adams’ original BBC radio series and novels) and Wikipedia are so striking, it’s a wonder that the author’s rabid fans don’t think he invented time travel. Since its editor was perennially out to lunch, the Guide was amended “by any passing stranger who happened to wander into the empty offices on an afternoon and saw something worth doing.” This anonymous group effort ends up outselling Encyclopedia Galactica even though “it has many omissions and contains much that is apocryphal, or at least wildly inaccurate.”

The article is a tiny bit dated already, but it’s still a good read for those of us who are hard-core Douglas Adams fans.

And while we’re on the subject of my favourite British fiction authors, you may have heard that Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s a while ago;  he donated half a million pounds (about $1 million US dollars) to Alzheimer’s research, and there’s a grass-roots movement called “Match it for Pratchett” that seeks to match those funds.  You can donate there, or go to Pratchett’s website for more information.

This is just disgusting…

August 5, 2008

I’m a little late to the party, but apparently there have been attacks on animal researchers in California (including people who do Drosophila research.  Seriously!?).  Besides the appalling evil of firebombing someone’s home, the attackers are also apparently quite stupid, since they’ve been threatening a chemist who does no work with animals at all.  Dynamics of Cats has one of the better round-ups on this that I’ve seen, so go take a look.

Updating the blog roll..

August 2, 2008

If you look at the right hand side, I’ve updated my blog roll to be … well, an actual blog roll (instead of just a single ScienceBlogs link).  These are some of the blogs that I really like, and I recommend that you go check some of them out!  I’ll be continuing to update this as I come across more good stuff on the inter-tubes…