One of my favorite exhibits at the Denver Zoo would have to be the Komodo Dragons.  These huge reptiles grow to almost ten feet long and weigh up to 150 pounds.  They are known to eat humans.

 

Komodo Dragons Enjoy A Meal

Komodo Dragons Enjoy A Meal

 

 

I have enjoyed the Komodo exhibit at the Zoo on many occasions.  I always found it especially interesting that the dragon had more than teeth in its bite–it had bacteria.  You see, the exhibit and everything I had ever read about the Dragons told me that they had evolved to grow a particularly lethal brew of bacteria in their mouths and that victims would die of nasty infections if the initial bite did not do the deed.

From the Wikipedia article:

Komodo dragons also possess virulent bacteria in their saliva, of which more than 28 Gram-negative and 29 Gram-positive strains have been isolated.[25] These bacteria cause septicemia in their victim; if an initial bite does not kill the prey animal and it escapes, it will commonly succumb within a week to the resulting infection. The most harmful bacterium in Komodo dragon saliva appears to be a deadly strain of Pasteurella multocida, from studies performed with laboratory mice.[26] There is no specific antidote to the bite of a Komodo dragon, but it can usually be treated by sterilizing the wounded area and giving the patient large doses of antibiotics. If not treated promptly, gangrene can quickly develop around the bite, which may require amputation of the affected area. Because the Komodo dragon appears immune to its own microbes, much research has been done searching for the antibacterial molecule(s) in the hopes of human medicinal usage.

Fascinating, isn’t it?  A creature evolving a mutualistic relationship with bacteria as an alternative to evolving venom glands is really interseting and cool.

A couple of years ago some scientists suggested that the Dragons might have a  weak venom production ability to supplement the bacteria cocktail.

Further scientific research (discussed in today’s New Scientist) has now shown that the Dragons are, in fact, extremly venomnous.  So venomnous that the actual bite inflicted does little–it is the venom that does the job.  Indeed, the Komodo’s bite, previously thoguht fiersome, is not all that strong at all.  From the New Scientist:

The team’s computer modelling of the Komodo biteMovie Camera suggests a relatively weak bite – a maximum bite force of 39 newtons, compared to 252 N for an Australian saltwater crocodile of the same size – but the powerful neck and razor-sharp teeth are ideal for a slashing attack.

“They slash and pull back, but it’s the venom that nails it. It lowers blood pressure, and stops blood clotting. Prey goes into shock and can’t even struggle,” says Fry. The venom could lead to the development of novel pharmaceuticals, he adds.

 

You have got to love the scientific method.  Never content to sit and consider learned opinion the truth, science always strives to find out that accepted truths are false, and finds potential new pharmcudicals, to boot!

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Tsar Bomba is currently wondering about the physics of beer carbonation.  You can listen to him on the Dogma Free America Podcast.

 

 


I have a twitter account.  I’m not very prolific with it, although I do use it occasionally and have an automated new blog post feed set up.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Twitter is that many companies are using it to generate business and advocacy groups are using it to advance their ideas.  Because of this, I have followers I don’t know from Adam.  I just assumed some keyword flagged me for them, and they added me automatically.  Since I don’t feel obligated to follow those who follow me, I didn’t think about it much until recently.

A friend of mine was having trouble with the Comcast services at her home, and she tweeted about it.  Within 15 minutes, a Comcast technician had responded to her tweet with an offer to assist, and she’s now on her way to a resolution of her problem.

Interesting business model, and my friend was impressed with her experience, and blogged about it. I’d call that a win, for both her and Comcast.

But I’ve also realized this can go both ways.  I recently retweeted a pro-vaccine link provided by the Bad Astronomer, along with a comment of my own about how the correlation between autism and vaccines = none.  I received an immediate response from anti-vax activists, providing links to their pseudo-scientific web-sites, anecdotal “evidence” of the link between vaccines and autism, and the usual ad hominem attacks on Skeptics who “don’t get it.”  My own response was both short and civil, indicating that Twitter was hardly the medium for resolving such complex issues, and then I blocked the activists.

No harm, no foul in my case – I’m going to do my own research and make up my own mind regardless of the information provided by some nameless, faceless stranger with an axe to grind on Twitter.  But I don’t know about the rest of the Twitterverse.  Since it was so easy for Jenny McCarthy, Poster Child for the Stoopid, to convince people of the non-existent causation between vaccines and autism, how much harm is Twitter activism doing?

So at this point I’m thinking that Twitter is kind of a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, it allows customers to be served by their vendors in a more specific and time-sensitive way.  On the other, it invites “drive-by rhetoric” on issues that are far more complex than a 140 character message.

I’m not one of those curmudgeons who shakes her fist and tells tweeters to get off her lawn, but I also don’t think it’s an appropriate avenue for advocacy.  As a skeptic, I want more information than a 140 character tweet can give me.  And yet, getting a tweet directing me to additional information on a topic I’m interested in is usually welcome.

On the whole, is Twitter and good or bad thing for critical thought?  For political activism?  I don’t know yet.  But it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out.

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Janiece Murphy is, in no particular order, a Navy veteran, a systems engineer, an amateur skeptic, a fan-girl of science, a student, a dirty, dirty liberal, and a blogger. This entry has been cross-posted at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men.

skepticamp_co_logo32

It’s that time of year again, Colorado skeptics. Time for the 3rd Annual Colorado SkeptiCamp, to be held Saturday May 9th, from 9:00 am to 7:00 pm at Tivoli Student Union in Denver.

I attended last year’s event, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The talks were interesting, the speakers engaging, and folks were just plain friendly. Talks this year promise to be just as interesting – the preliminary schedule includes topics such as “Mindfulness, Meditation, and Skepticism,” “Exposing PseudoAstronomy: Top Creationist Claims Examined,” “Financial Skepticism- How They Madoff with Your Money” and “Quantum Nonsense, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Mom.”

Additionally, Dr. Phil Plait, President of the JREF and proprietor of Bad Astronomy will be in attendance giving a JREF update.

Denver benefits by its proximity to Boulder, in this case.

There are still 54 seats available at this event, so sign up quickly to reserve your spot.

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Janiece Murphy is, in no particular order, a Navy veteran, a systems engineer, an amateur skeptic, a fan-girl of science, a student, a dirty, dirty liberal, and a blogger. This entry has been cross-posted at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men.

Like many of you, I was appalled to learn that the first Blu-Ray release of the Lord Of  The Rings Trilogy will contain the theatrical releases only.  Sauron and his money-grubbing hoardes Peter Jackson & Co are counting on legions of LOTR fans to purchase the Theatrical Releases on Blu-Ray this year, and then purchase the Extended Editions when they come out on Blu-Ray next year, or whenever they get around to doing it.  I fell in to that trap last time around with the DVD releases, but not this time.  (If you want to have Amazon notify you when the Blu-Ray Extended Editions are released–click here ).

I know that some skeptics hate LOTR for its dramatic use of magic and the paranormal, for instance Penn Jillette: “LOTR was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen.”  For any skeptic that feels that way, I have this suggestion–shuffle LOTR from the literary genre of fantasy to that of science fiction.

“But Tsar,” you are surely thinking, “the Lord Of The Rings is classic fantasy.  It has magic, it has elves, goblins (so-called in The Hobbit, called Orcs in the rest of the books), wizards, dragons, trolls and other strange magical creatures.”  I understand why you might think that way–I really do.  But as Fantasy, LOTR makes no sense.  As Science Fiction, it is transformed into a cautionary tale of the societal impacts of genetic manipulation of organisms (and manipulation of the human genome in particular), genetically modified crops in agriculture, information technology, and nanotechnology.  When you think of LOTR as Science Fiction, it is much more enjoyable and interesting to read or watch–give it a try next time.

Not convinced?  Fine.  The Tsar shall explain.  All of the events in LOTR and The Hobbit took place in the Third Age.  Traditionalists, and Tolkien himself, would consider the the  Third Age to be in our distant past (Tolkein placed the events of LOTR around 4000 BC), and that we would be living in the time beyond the Fourth Age, possibly even the Sixth or Seventh Age.  This is, of course, absurd.  There were no elves, wizards, trolls, orcs, ents, trolls and the like around 6000 years ago.  The entire Tolkien universe makes much more sense if you place our present time at the start, or even before the start of, the First Age.  You won’t see much about the First Age in the LOTR books–for that you have to read The Silmarillion.  The First Age starts with the awakening of the elves, so let’s talk about that.

Tolkien’s elves were tall, slender, physically attractive, intelligent, physically strong, with enhanced visual acuity and hearing, and an extremely long life span.  They also had the ability to use magic to interact with the world around them.  At least some of them had the ability to have instant communications across great distances.  In short, they make much more sense as genetically enhanced human beings, rather than magical creatures.  For everything except the magic stuff, Tolkiens’s elves have virtually all of the attributes you would expect a parent to select if given the choices of advanced genetic engineering.  For the magical attributes, remember what Arthur C. Clarke said: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  Thus Lady Galadriel’s ability to communicate with Elrond over great distances can be seen as embedding some means of remote communication inside the body.  You can see similar advanced technology in the perfectly accurate arrows fired by the elves–they are guided arrows, perhaps guided by a remote link between the arrow and the brain of the elf firing it.  

Perhaps creatures like the Trolls are the result of mistakes in genetic engineering.  After all, they are ugly, and die if exposed to sunlight (at least Bilbo’s Trolls did, in the movies they seem to have some trolls that can survive in the daylight).

Other magical creatures that appear in the books or films should be seen as the products of genetic manipulation, for instance the Ents, a race of moving, intelligent plants, or the Orcs, or the giant eagles, or even Hobbits.

Wizards like Gandalf and Saruman, like the elves, possess and know how to use extremely sophisticated magic, controlled by their staffs, which are obvioulsy disguised technological devices.

The One Ring makes much more sense as an extremely advanced technological device, one that obviously uses some form of advanced nanotechnology.  How else could a ring like that make people invisible, or allow instantaneous communication over great distances merely by putting it on?

One of the more fascinating technological innovations in LOTR is Lembas, the elvish waybread.  In the movies, Legolas said that one bite could sustain a grown man for an entire day, although in the books Tolkein said that it was one cake of Lembas that could do it.  Either way, Lembas is an extremely energy-rich food that can stay fresh for months.  In other words, it is an advanced food product that is the obvious result of advanced farming techniques using genetically modified crops.

I could go on, and on, and on, and on.  There is very little, if anything, in LOTR that cannot be better understood if seen through the prism of futuristic science fiction.  I know that Tolkein did not intend it as SciFi, but it just makes so much more sense that way.  All I ask is that the next time you watch the movies, or read the books, you think of what I have said here, imagine the events taking place in a far-flung future, and then let old Tsar Bomba know what you think.

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Tsar Bomba is currently forming a support group for the eternally bewilederd, of which he plans to be the charter member.  You can hear more of what he says on the Dogma Free America Podcast

 


Colorado House Bill 1157 is currently pending before the Colorado Senate.  This bill is an effort to regulate Naturopathic Doctors in Colorado.  The bill is being championed by David and Laura Flanagan, who had a negative experience with a naturopathic doctor in 2003.

Please read the bill, and contact your Colorado State Senator to express your support if you agree that such regulation is a good idea.

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Janiece Murphy is, in no particular order, a Navy veteran, a systems engineer, an amateur skeptic, a fan-girl of science, a student, a dirty, dirty liberal, and a blogger. This entry has been cross-posted at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men.

The following is a post by Reed Esau, Mile High Skeptic and creator of the increasingly popular speaker driven Skepticamp events:

In my October 2008 essay “Raising Our Game” I lamented the near-absence of good opportunities for skeptics,skeptibucks particularly those new to our community, to get involved. Their enthusiasm, I asserted, is being squandered. Without good opportunities to engage, these new skeptics eventually lose interest and move on.

Even for those of us who have decided to stick around, getting involved and contributing is the exception to the rule. Roughly 95% of skeptics aren’t active beyond small-scale efforts like subscribing to a skeptic magazine, interacting in an online forum or attending a local meetup. In contrast, the remaining 5% represent such people as podcasters and the full-time professionals like Michael Shermer who are producing the bulk of the content and moving skepticism forward.

This unbalanced level of contribution is actually quite common in many domains and shouldn’t be too surprising. However, what should catch the interest of our community is the potential that lies within this majority of skeptics, who I term the ‘Long Tail’ of organized skepticism.

Business empires have been built by those who have figured out how to tap into the long tail. For instance, Amazon lists millions of book titles in its inventory, far more than any brick-and-mortar bookseller could match. They are able to meet the most obscure needs of book buyers, where each purchase can contribute to their bottom line.

This suggests a strategy to tap into the long tail of organized skepticism: we must develop granular ways for each of us to contribute, where each of those ways can build upon our enthusiasm and fit within the constraints of our busy lives. Furthermore, those contributions must not only provide great value to the individual, but also to skepticism at large.

whatdoidonextcoverFast forward from last October to now. Last week Junior Skeptic editor Daniel Loxton published a detailed collection of 105 opportunities for skeptics to get involved, annotated with the comments of a dozen notable activist skeptics. This panel project is titled What Do I Do Next? and follows on Loxton’s popular 2007 essay Where Do We Go From Here? that ignited a discussion on the future of organized skepticism.

Can this recent project help us to tap into our long tail? The answer is a qualified ‘yes.’

Most of the 105 are ill-suited to the long-tail skeptic and instead require the time and expertise of a dedicated activist. To be a podcaster (#85) for example, not only depends on the rare convergence of time, talent and energy to develop content and produce the podcast, but also the discipline to keep it going week after week without burning out. For those of us who have an active family life or a demanding job, this form of activism is200px-long_tailsvg largely out of reach, at least as a solitary effort.

Nevertheless, Loxton’s project mentions several entry-level or granular opportunities that we long-tailers might find compelling. In some cases it can be a solitary effort, such as to “Contribute Responsible Edits to Wikipedia” (#96) where one can take deep satisfaction in helping to add value to this great resource. Group efforts also exist, such as my beloved “Participate in a ‘Skepticamp’ event” (#29) where one can present on a skeptic or science-related topic to her peers.

Tapping into the long tail of skepticism is no easy task, as there must exist compelling opportunities that can fit within our busy lives. To succeed in this effort can not only open up new avenues for growth but can add value to skepticism as well. “What Do I Do Next?” gets us a couple steps further down that path.

(Full incestuous disclosure: I was one of the proofers of Loxton’s piece, and he provided feedback on a draft of ‘Raising Our Game.’)

I’m fairly new to the skeptical movement. While I’ve long been a fan of critical thinking and the scientific method, it’s only been in the last year or two that I’ve been actively seeking out the skeptical community through online forums, SkeptiCamp, and podcasts. I’m enjoying being a member of this community, and the longer I hang around, the more I learn, and the more I sharpen my critical thinking skills.

However, there’s one thing that bothers me about our community, and that’s the inherent assumption that someone who self-identifies as a skeptic is automatically assumed to also be an atheist. This first came to my attention during last year’s Colorado SkeptiCamp 2, where many of the speakers made the assumption that the audience was predominantly atheist.

Subsequent research revealed a perception of the skeptical movement where atheism always equaled skepticism, and vice versa. This bothers me.

I think making this association, and allowing it to go unchallenged in mainstream media, hurts the skeptical movement. While there are clearly a large number of skeptics who also consider themselves atheists, the designations are not necessarily mutually inclusive. By insinuating they are, the skeptical movement essentially excludes the majority of humanity from even joining the conversation.

I know many people who would be considered critical thinkers by any reasonable standard and would be a fine addition to the ranks of the skeptics. But to a greater or lesser degree, they’re people of faith, and feel their personal beliefs preclude them from engaging with us. This assumption that being a person of faith and being a skeptic are mutually exclusive roles keeps them from adding their voice to the discussion, and we’re the poorer for it. Since they believe their faith will be mocked and ridiculed, they choose not to address areas of mutual concern, such as Intelligent Design in public schools, alternative medicine, the anti-vaccination movement and many more.

I’m not talking about inviting Young Earth Creationists or the Westboro Baptist Church to the table to discuss separation of church and state, but including liberal, progressive people of faith to join us in discussing areas of mutual interest.  To do so is to everyone’s benefit. Promoting critical thought, science-based medicine, and the protection of the innocent from the purveyors of woo is an agenda where atheists, agnostics and people of faith can all agree on the common good.

Let’s not inadvertently exclude potential allies by being unnecessarily exclusive.

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Janiece Murphy is, in no particular order, a Navy veteran, a systems engineer, an amateur skeptic, a fan-girl of science, a student, a dirty, dirty liberal, and a blogger. This entry has been cross-posted at Hot Chicks Dig Smart Men

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