Thursday, 19 November 2009

Degrees of Science Communication

A few years back the University of Otago started a Master's course in Science Communication, and the fruits of that are starting to come to bear. This weekend six films by Science and Natural History Filmmaking students will be shown at Dunedin's Regent Theatre. According to the Centre's website the films will constitute a part of the student's thesis.

I think that this is a great idea, and you can specialize in the above film-making, creative non-fiction writing or a general popularizing of science. I think that more people should be taking an interest in that... but then again I am a science blogger and now part of the Science Media Centre's set up so maybe I am biased.

That is not to say that I can't have concerns about some of the outputs of this venture, an article online at the Otago Daily Times highlights one of the videos being screen about the 1080 poison debate, and I think it illustrates just how easy it can be to miss the point of communicating the science.

Sure it is good to get subjects such as this out in to the public (not that this one is not already out there) but the goal must be first and foremost to tell the science's story. So below is a rant that I left as a comment on the article that I think deserves wider audience and discussion.

I find the paragraph about balance interesting coming from students of a science communication course.

Mr Holmes said while many films had been made on 1080, they were mostly one-sided, so their aim was to make a "balanced" account of the issue by presenting both sides of the argument alongside the science.

As they say they present both sides of the debate along side the science. But the key point is not the politicization of the issue or the various points of view but the facts, which are the science.

And while the students do mention this, It's a very emotive subject and some facts get lost in the argument, it does not seem from the article as if this is what they have achieved.

Sure giving the balance adds to the drama and emotion but it detracts from the aim of what they are trying to achieve. The point of their course is to teach them to communicate the science.

I appreciate the need to have a "hook" upon which to attach the science and to have a narrative that brings the viewer along. But science is not about balance, it is a one sided process that involves the facts.

Personally I do not have all the information to make a decision on this situation, although I do have my opinions, and if the intent of this film is to communicate the science and to hence give the information that is needed to make a decision then give the rhetoric of either side (or both sides for that matter) is not going to help that process along.

The goal of science communication should not be to start debates but to provide the public access to the information that settles the debate. The communication is not, as Mr Ting seems to think, about getting the two sides of the debate to talk together but to get the correct information out to where it can be accessed by all, removing the need for a debate.

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Thursday, 5 November 2009

Ares Boldly Goes

Ethan at Starts With a Bang has a great post up about just how spectacular NASA's first new rocket in over 30 years is. Videos of the test launch, which took place on 28 October 2009, has been circulating on Youtube:

But why spend all this money on sending humans into space, it is dangerous, and relatively pointless, and robots can do so well without us there. Well firstly there is at present a limit to what robots can do either on there own or with our help, problems such as they are generally designed with a specific purpose, where as a human in the same situation is much more versatile.

But the most important reason is that on this pale blue dot of ours there is a limited amount of resources and indeed time. At some point or another in the next 4 or so billion years that it has remaining, the Earth will no longer be able to support us and we will need to be somewhere else if our species is to survive. To that end we need to now begin the efforts of seeding the stars with populations of Humans (and for that matter cattle and grains etc. you know things that we will need to survive).

So by all means use the robots to find out where we can go and how we can get there and what we will find when we get there, but remember that the Earth is the cradle of humanity and one cannot stay in the cradle forever.

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Thursday, 22 October 2009

Local skeptics meetups

One of the trends in modern skepticism groups that has been developing across the world is to get together and have a few drinks of choice. The Skeptics in the Pub concept has recently made it to New Zealand and groups have been meeting up in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and now Dunedin.

I for one think that these are a great idea, a great way to keep in touch with old friends and meet new ones, as well as learning something new (which we should all do every day)

My local Dunedin chapter is only a few days old and is light on people so if you are keen click the link and sign up. Of course if you are far away from New Zealand's premier centre of learning go to the main national page (or the links above) where you can find the groups in the bigger cities or even start your own in your town.

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Saturday, 10 October 2009


With spring coming to the southern hemisphere, the blossom and the daffodils are out and the weather is definitely warmer (OK some of the time). But there is a also something bad that also happens, as the sun rises over the polar horizon, and the polar vortex (winds that rotate about the pole) begins to shut down for the summer there is a large patch of stratosphere which has been enclosed in the polar vortex that has an appreciably lower Ozone content. This Ozone "hole" breaks up with the shut down of the polar vortex and regions of lower Ozone content spread out over parts of the southern hemisphere as the two regions diffuse into one an other.

What this means for us that live closer to the South Pole than the equator is that around the time of the southern vernal equinox we tend to get a period of very low ozone over head. So in honour of this and the dangers it can present, I have a series of posts on Ozone.

Firstly, some basics. The Ozone hole is not a region of no Ozone (which is the reason for the scare quotes in the above paragraph) but merely a region of lesser density of Ozone. The hole is defined as a region of Ozone less than 220 Dobson units (DU). This level was chosen as the reference since ozone levels had never been seen lower than this before 1979.

Ozone itself is a relatively unstable allotrope of oxygen (O3). It forms when UV radiation from the Sun breaks the bond between the atoms in the O2 molecule, some of the liberated oxygen atoms then bond with other O2 molecules making O3. This same interaction with UV radiation also breaks down the O3 and it is these two together that are responsible for the UV protection we get from the Ozone layer. Ozone is unstable and quite reactive, especially with molecules containing nitrogen, hydrogen, chlorine, or bromine.

That is enough for today, next in this series we will look at how the Ozone hole has formed and what we have done about it.

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Friday, 2 October 2009

The Advertorial

This has to be what I would call one of the worst in terms of despicable advertising practices. Literally it is designing your advert such that it resembles an article in the newspaper/magazine, and usually the only way to tell is there is the word advertisement in very small text at the top. This is making it seem like the newspaper condones and supports the issues the author is raising, giving his/her position more authority than an opinion piece would.

And strangely enough those that practice this deceptive form of advertising seem to be those that are already attempting to deceive people (or themselves) in other ways about the quality of their product or service, such as alternative medicine (alt med) providers.

Now this might seem a tad harsh on alt med people, but then if the alt med had been shown to work, then it would not be alternative medicine but rather simply medicine.

One recurring example of this practice is seen in a local free weekly (one of many my locale seems to have) I get in my mailbox The Star (digital online version can be found here). Almost every week without fail either on page 3 or 5 (usually at the bottom right) there is an advertorial by a local chiropractor - laying down how we should manipulate our spines to prevent swine flu or some such (perhaps I will scan some in point you to the online version find them on the chiropractor's website and deconstruct them at some point in the near future - it seems just to richer source of fodder to ignore).

Taking the example of this particular chiropractor, on his website under "health news", which is where he says to look for the archive of his ad, he clearly states (emphasis mine):

Here are some of the latest developments in the world of healthcare, with chiropractic commentary from Dr Tat Loo. Tat also contributes occasional feature articles and commentary for the weekly Dunedin based paper The Star which we will be included on this page.
This is exactly the sort of deception which is being practiced in these advertorials trying to pass off ads and opinion as "feature articles".

Any way enough for now... enjoy your weekend, I think I will spend some time looking at the relevant acts and laws regarding false advertising.

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Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Don't Panic

The advice given on the outside of the book that gave Douglas Adam's "trilogy" its title (I mean of course the "Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy") is always a useful thing to keep in mind, especially in the days of media sensationalism.

Today's worrying threat is a Tsunami, and like I said above I don't want you to panic, and that is for a couple of reasons, the first one is - you may have missed it already (The Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii's updated timings for the arrival of a tsunami in New Zealand are: East Cape at 9.44am, Gisborne 10am, North Cape 10.12am, Napier 10.40am, Wellington 10.50am, Auckland (east coast) 11.12am, Auckland (west) 11.39am, Lyttelton 11.55am New Plymouth 12.17pm, Nelson 12.23 pm and Dunedin 12.31pm) and the second being as is clearly highlighted in the NZPA bulletin that the ODT website is carrying the wave is very unlikely to cause much damage - being mostly less than 1m in height when it comes ashore. That said - DON'T GO TO THE BEACH TO WATCH IT.

"It is very important that the public should keep away from beaches and shorelines."

Mr Swinney said that people who live in coastal areas should continue listening to More FM, Classic Hits or Newstalk ZB radio stations for further instructions.

So often we scientists and skeptics find a lot of fault in journalism for pushing sensationalism or not getting the facts even remotely correct. But it is nice to see that in a serious situation all hands are on deck and working together. So keep a weather ear out for any further warnings and follow any civil defense instructions especially if asked to head to higher ground.

The earthquake that caused the tsunami was an 8.3 on the Richter Scale and was centred 205 km south of Apia in Samoa at around 6.50 am this morning (NZDT). It sounds like parts of Samoa were very badly shaken and that there has been some loss of life, so our thoughts go out to those who have lost loved ones, and to those who have lost homes and lively hoods.

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Saturday, 26 September 2009

Something wicked this way comes

And I mean wicked in the colloquial sense with positive connotations (although I admit that is probably just showing my age) rather than the sense in which Shakespeare intended.

Coming very soon (next week) to some internets near you is a venture put out by New Zealand's Science Media Centre, they have collected some of New Zealand's leading established science bloggers, as well as other scientists who will be starting up some new blogs and created All up there are about 26 blogs to be found there.

The Science Media Centre was set in 2008 up by the Royal Society of New Zealand, at the behest of the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology, to facilitate links between the media and science so that the media has easy access to relevant scientific information. It is based on similar centres in the UK and Australia.

Yes is designed to be similar to the already famous science blog community Seed Magazines's Scienceblogs, but if there is an idea out there that works why reinvent the wheel.

The blog community site goes live next week (I think the September 30) and amongst the great content that will be there is going to be yours truly. My blog along with those of several other established bloggers will be syndicated to the site so you will be still be able to find all my intellectual ramblings here or you can go there and see what else is on offer in addition to me.

You should be able to find my content at

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Friday, 21 August 2009

If only...

From the Center for American Progress, via Climate Progress, The Island of Doubt and the ScienceBlogs weekly update email:

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Friday, 7 August 2009

Relatively Science Humour week: Day 5

Well it is Friday already, the weeks are just zipping by which is not good for my deadlines and stress levels, but good laugh while waiting for the computer to run its programs is always useful and for today we have a couple of clips from the British comedy duo Mitchell and Webb - first up a classic take on the religious seeing messages/images in food, followed by a homeopathic A&E.

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Thursday, 6 August 2009

Relatively Science Humour week: Day 4

For today we have comedian Dara O'Briain setting the record straight about the public understanding of science, with a good knock on some alternate medicine too

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Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Relatively Science Humour week: Day 3

For some totally irreverant and skeptic humour, there is this aussie bloke who is quite funny and well worth a listen to. Tim Minchin is his name and his shows usually involve his scruffy haired, bare foot appearance and a grand piano. The juxtaposition of these and what he has to say only adds to humour. So it is well worth a poke around on youtube or his site, but for now I have two of my favourites.

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Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Relatively Science Humour week: Day 2

For you today I have found a very funny man Brian Marlow who markets himself as a science comedian, there are some great samples on his home page and mostly they include a good honest laugh at the funnier side of science - I especially love the twister clip (it is about mid way down the page with several other embedded audio clips). Below the fold for you today we have him on the subject of Alfred Nobel, Thomas Edison, and the speed of light.

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Monday, 3 August 2009

Laughter is the best medicine

While the title of this post is not necessarily true, a little laughter does go a long way towards reducing stress and making life a bit more enjoyable. And since I have been reading Richard Wiseman's Quirkology and thoroughly enjoying it especially the section on his search for the world's funniest joke, I thought that I would share some humor with you the readers.

If you would prefer something a little more intellectual go check out the latest skeptic's circle at Beyond the Short Coat either before or after enjoying a little laugh

My plan is over the next week to include a post a day with humour in it - it will be a sort of Relatively Science humor week. And as that title sounds most of the humour will be relatively science related - but first up below the fold is comic genius Bill Cosby talking about kids and brain damage

Come back tomorrow and all week for more.

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Thursday, 23 July 2009

Is swine flu really all that bad?

Now I am not denying the fact that there is a nasty novel variant of type A H1N1 influenza out there. And that it has an interesting and rather nasty set of symptoms to it. But a good comparison to be looking at is how it compares to the seasonal flu statistics from previous years.

And this is exactly what happens in part of this article in the Otago Daily Times (ODT - my local paper). Mostly the article was about how with the University semester starting last week and many students coming back into town there has been a surge in the number of cases suspected, especially at the University's student health centre. It reports that there are (have been?) 2443 confirmed cases nationwide (as of Tuesday), which was up 80 from the day before, with 26 in intensive care and 11 deaths.

The comparison comes at the end of the article, where it states that the total number of influenza-related deaths (for all subtypes) so far this season (April - end of June) was 109, and this compares to 479 deaths for the last year for which the Ministry of Health had released figures, 2006. So with seasonal flu being a winter months phenomenon then we expect that most of the cases occur between April and maybe October (the winter months for us in the southern hemisphere - ok here I have included most of autumn and the start of spring).

What this suggests, at least at first glance is that this has been a quiet year so far for seasonal flu although this years numbers do not include the coldest month of July. And further more that swine flu has not been a major factor in influenza deaths so far.

So while there may be lots of cases (especially suspected cases - if the anecdotes I hear from friends and family are to be believed), this flu certainly here in NZ does not seem to be much to worry about. Especially in comparison to previous flu pandemics such as 1918. This of course could be some what due to the reaction of bodies like WHO and the local health authorities and their publicity/education campaigns about how to prevent the spread of the disease.

Though it is interesting to note that the North American region is having a lot of cases out of flu season. I guess we will all have to wait and see what happens.

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Monday, 20 July 2009

A funny thing happened on the way back from the Moon

40 years ago tomorrow Micheal Collins in the Command Module Columbia snapped this pic of the ascent stage of the Lunar Module Eagle as they returned from the surface of the moon.

And in the couple of years following this 10 more men walked on the surface of our planet's orbital buddy, following in the historic footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin (40 years ago today- so I will wish Tranquility Base happy 40th birthday).

Unfortunately to this day some people do not believe, for various reasons, that we never set foot on the moon (for example see here).

But one of the results of this walking/driving on our natural satelite is that we left an awful mess behind us. Descent stages of the lunar landers, flags, rovers, scientific equipment, footprints, the list goes on. One of the denier arguments goes along the lines of well if this stuff is there why can't we see it. The answer to which is that it is too small.

That is until now. Recent photos taken by the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which entered orbit around the moon in the last few weeks has a camera with enough resolution to quite clearly see that which we left behind. Many more details can be found here on the NASA site. These photos are awesome, I mean just look at this:
You can even make out the path the astronauts took to set up the scientific experiments that they left behind. And the good news is that these photos were not taken at the final mapping orbit of the satellite and hence are not at the fullest resolution that the onboard camera will be able to see. So keep a look out there will be more and better photos of these sites as the LRO mission continues.

Thanks to Starts With A Bang and Astronomy Picture of the Day for the links

Update: oops got my dates wrong again - for some reason the 19th always sticks in my head but the lunar landing happened on the 20th.

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Friday, 3 July 2009

Cosmic Rays, Clouds and Climate

For some reason I am still not sure of I ended up this afternoon on the wordpress homepage and one of the featured blogs was last year's weblog award winner for best science blog What's Up With That (WUWT).

If you have never come across this blog before, and I have only ever heard about it in passing, they are of some what of a climate change denialist point of view (which as Phil mentions in that last link just shows that all the webbies are is a popularity contest rather than an evidence based award). The post that was front and centre on the blog was this one about the relationship between cosmic rays and cloud formation. What really caught my attention was the juxtaposition between the "headline": Message in the CLOUD for Warmists: The end is near?, and the graph that followed the first paragraph.

Now the paragraph (and actually the graph) talk about the correlation between cosmic rays (using various isotopes as a proxy) and temperature. Much of the rest of the post is a quite interesting description of the CERN experiments and hypothesis that links the galactic cosmic rays (GCR) and cloud formation, and while that is all interesting it is irrelevant to what I wanted to say, even if this turns out to be correct.

Now if you look closely at the graph you can see that it covers the last almost 800 years and the proxies for the GCR (10Be and 14C which are the blue and black lines) correlate very well with the red line (Siberian Temperature). They track each other quite well through the dark ages and into the medieval warm period and even through the maunder minimum (little ice age) right up until the middle of the 19th century. Now once we get to the late 19th century we see that the temperature continues to rise and the other lines level off a bit - you can still see that there is a slight influence with the dip in temperature around early to mid 20th century but the lines in general are no longer closely correlated.

Oops! Maybe if you are going to make an argument you should make sure that your strongest piece of evidence does not plainly and in clear sight contradict your argument.

What does that all mean, firstly well it looks remarkably like the temperature and sunspot cycle length plot I showed previously and as I stated in that post what we can see is an excellent correlation spoiled since the industrial revolution. I left a comment on the WUWT blog that outlined the above lack of modern correlation and stated that what has happened since the industrial revolution that we know may have caused this warming, well we have been putting out a lot of CO2.

Other commenters on the WUWT blog mention that CO2 is a very minor atmospheric constituent and that H2O is a better green house gas and much more prevalent. Well this is also true, however H2O has some rather interesting behaviors it saturates quite easily in the atmosphere and everyone that does not live in desert (or at least a drought) gets to experience this - RAIN! Also if you have ever been to the tropics, you may have noticed that the rain can be quite heavy when it is warm this is because increasing the temperature allows the atmosphere to hold more water.

If water vapor itself was enough to trigger the sort of greenhouse effect that we are seeing then we would have long ago passed the point of now return, but fortunately the saturation of water in the atmosphere (what we call 100% relative humidity) seems to prevent this from happening - although this is not to say that when the temperature does get warm that there will be more water in the atmosphere which will probably on lead to worse storms etc rather than any large feedback effect (which means I had to write a retraction since I claimed that there may have been an H2O feedback in my original comment on WUWT - ooops gotta think the consequences through more).

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Bad experiment design

Here in New Zealand we tend to import big important current affairs shows such as 20/20 and 60 Minutes, of course we put our own host upfront and show a couple of local stories as well as the interesting ones, mostly from the US, that seem to come with the program.

Well on Monday, during 60 Minutes they had a discussion (and this was one of the local stories) about food coloring and children's behaviour (the video clip of the story at the link). They talked with the experts and afflicted parents about how food coloring is bad and is being phased out in places and why are we not doing it etc. This in and of itself is reasonable and studies have shown that coloring can lead to hyperactivity in (some) children

But the really bad part of this was when they set up an experiment to show just what effect that the colorings have. They got some parents to lend their children (the kids all looked to be around 6-10 maybe) to the demonstration and put them in two groups. One group would have a healthy color free afternoon tea and the other group would have an afternoon tea full of colorings. They tested the children by getting them to do a drawing and some writing both before and after the food, and the children with the color free food had very little change in their drawing/writing while those in the color group there was a marked decrease in competency. However the best illustration (as far as the producers and the anti-color people were concerned) was that the kids in the color group were just bouncing off the walls and in one case bouncing balls of the presenter and interviewee (a child psychologist I think).

On the face of it this sounds like a great demonstration that showed up exactly the concerns that exist about the colorings. The problem was in the controlling of the coloring/non-coloring foods. The coloring group got all the foods that you can give to kids with heaps of the bad colorings in them, things like candy, cordial drinks and coke and that sort of thing. The non-colorings group had lots of fresh fruit and water.

If you have not spotted why this does not show colorings in a bad light then maybe go back and compare those snacks again. The colorings group not only got colorings that the non-colorings group did not get but they also got lots of high sugar food (especially refined sugars) and caffeine that the control group did not get, for those of you at home these are known as confounding factors.

So what did the demonstration show, that a combination of lots of sugar, caffeine and coloring leads to kids bouncing off the walls. Last time I checked with my two little boys (and their friends) that amount of sugar alone will set kids off, as I witnessed at my elder boy's 4th birthday party last weekend.

How could they have done this better, well clearly the control group should have had the same amount and type of sugars, that way you would have been able to see the effect of the colorings, rather than what I suspect was mainly the effect of the sugar that these kids got to stuff themselves with. An example of a way that this could have been done was to use cordial drinks alone as the difference between the groups as many brands put out a color-free variety as well as the usual colored ones.

Unfortunately, my wife tells me that some of the other mothers at the playcentre my children go to, did not manage to see this fault in the demonstration and my wife was not able to convince them of why it did not show what they said it showed.

That all said, there does appear to be something to this hypothesis that food colorings can be bad for children's behavior - now if only we could get the TV people to realise how to design a demonstration to illustrate a point. Oh well I had better send them a copy of this.

Update: added link to clip from show.

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Friday, 26 June 2009

The Power of Probability

I wanted to take a quick detour into probability today, for various reason which I don't really want to divulge.

But in particular I wanted to look at the cumulative probability of multiple independent events. Such as always rolling a 6, or always drawing a red card from a full deck.

It is fairly simple to see that if you want to roll a 6 there is a 1 in 6 or 0.16666... probability of this happening. The same goes for always drawing a red card where the probability is 1 in 2 or 0.5 (or 50%).

But once you start to choose multiple times then you see the the probabilities start to get smaller quite quickly. So the probability of rolling 2 6s, or drawing 2 red cards

  • P(2 6s) = 0.1666 x 0.1666 = 0.16662 = 0.0278 = 1/36 = 2.78%
  • P(2 red) = 0.5 x 0.5 = 0.52 = 0.25 = 25%
And then the probability of three
  • P(3 6s) = 0.16663 = 1/216 = 0.46%
  • P(3 red) = 0.53 = 0.125 = 12.5%
You can see that the dice roll is now quite unlikely less than half a percent and even the high probability drawing a red card from a full deck (which is the same as flipping a coin and getting a head - not sure why I didn't use this as my example) is down to 1/8.

What about if we say drawing 10 cards that are all red, from a full deck
  • P(10 red) = 0.510 = 0.0977%
Which as you can see is really unlikely. So over 99.9% of the time you will not get 10 red cards drawn in a row (or 10 heads on a coin toss).

Of course our examples here uses the same event happening over and over again, but the same math applies when considering events with different probabilities as long as they are independent (which means that one event does not influence any others). As long as the probabilities of the events happening is less than 1 (which would mean that that particular event always happened) then the chances of a series of events happening is more and more unlikely as more and more events are in the series.

One place where this knowledge can be quite useful is in a court case. If for example there are several pieces of evidence that show that the accused could have done the crime. What the defense will try to do is cast doubt on those pieces of evidence, such as by saying that this bloody handprint could have gotten there in a total innocent way. Of course the whole idea of the defense is to cast reasonable doubt as to the accused's guilt. But the more pieces of evidence that there are against the accused then the lesser the probability of them all being circumstantial and the greater the likely hood of the accused being guilty. Even if there is some doubt about each piece of evidence taken together they point to the accused as being guilty, even if the doubt is large such as 50% like we showed above.

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Friday, 5 June 2009

Ayuveda in my paper

The online version of my local paper carried a story today under the guise of its Lifestyle and Health section about a reporters experiences trying out some Ayurvedic "medicine". It seems at least to my equal parts horror or pleasure (horror that they paid to have this and pleasure that it was not a local reporter) that this story has been imported from the LA Times and/or Washington Post. Skimming over it immediately prompted me to leave a lengthy comment on the site which I will post below for your reading pleasure.

The article mentions that few "western" doctors espouse these types of healing methods due to lack of (or inability to conduct) scientific studies.

However, those in learned circles, or at least with a working knowledge of anatomy, physiology, biochemistry and physics as well as a rational brain can clearly see that methods that have no basis in any scientific understanding of the body, such as the "doshas" (which cannot be shown to exist) have no point in being studied in clinical trials until there is a viable method for their mechanisms of action.

This is all very similar to the ideas (the four bodily humours) that science correctly discarded at the end of the middle ages as utter nonsense. Many feature of the Ayurveda and indeed traditional Chinese medicine are based on disproven ideas of how the body works.

And while more and more this sort of non-reality medicine creeps into the western (especial post-modern) philosophies, you find that in their native countries (in this case India - but it also applies to China) the locals are abandoning these methods for ones that actually work by methods other than relaxation and the placebo effects.

The statements about nutrition and the need to balance what you eat are not restricted to Ayurveda, and can be found just as readily in science-based medicine.

And as for food having energies - Yep it does... you might have heard of them they usually go by the name Calories.

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Sunday, 3 May 2009

Carnival of the Godless

Hello and welcome to this latest edition of the Carnival of the Godless, for those new to carnivals this one is a fortnightly chance to submit your post on Godlessness (and all that entails) to a potentially wider audience, good for promoting your blog and engendering discussion.

We have had a very good turnout here for this edition and I will endeavour to bring it to you in a succinct fashion after all you are not here for me (at least not entirely) - although if you want to have a look around feel free to check out some of the post on basic physics, skepticism, atheism/religion or any of the myriad other topics I have discussed here.

Now on with the show...

To start with Paul Sunstone of Café Philos shares with us a parody:Helping Those With Mormon Interests.

Some of you may remember the smut for smut campaign were people could exchange their bible for porn, well Jennifurret of Blag Hag tells us of her campus groups better taste effort Fiction for Fiction.  She then goes on to ask Is "New Atheism" White Supremacist? and discuss sexuality in nature with Natural Sexuality

First time submitter Bryan W/a 'y' from Science. Why not? deconstructs at time magazine article about faith healing in Spirituality is about as good for your health as sugar pills.

lukeprog writing at Common Sense Atheism  presents a possible futuristic look back at the end of a religion The Last of the Christians.

At Right To Think yunshui compares cheeses and churches, In Cheeses' Name, Amen before looking at some of the hypocrisy of the conquistadors in Is that a beam in your eye, Mr Cortes?.

Brent Fisher gives one of his earlier musings on now that he is not religious what is he, in Humanism, a possible model for moral humans 

In a post at his bog Pleiotropy Bjørn Østman tells how he is both atheist and agnostic, which is something that I completely agree with as it is the truly skeptical point of view on religion.

Greta Christina serves us a helping of religion and the difference between possible and plausible with  Why You Shouldn't Jump Out of Windows , and follows by decrying the patronizing attitude that treats atheists, and especially queer atheists, as sad lost sheep in Why Do Queers Leave Religion?

Dr. Jim has a low down on some of his exchanges in the letters to the editor of his local paper Lethbridge's 'Militant' Atheist in Chief 'Heralded' again..

Postman delivers this letter direct from the almighty, himselfDear Union of Amalgamated Cherubim & Seraphim Local 151... posted at "Gone Fishin': Postcards From God".

Living With Mormonsgive some insight in to what goes in inside What do Mormons believe? A look at Fast and Testimony Meetings.

Beth Terry at Fake Plastic Fish (Living Life with Less Plastic) tells us her thoughts on  the purpose of life.

Metamagician and the Hellfire Club's Russell Blackford speaks aboutJerry Coyne on science organisations and accommodationism,  before going on to Harvard's Islamic chaplain: "great wisdom" in death penalty for apostates and then why we should be worried about Hate speech and the ICCPR.

Lying for Jesus seems to be a common occurrence these days and The Atheist Blogger Adrian Hayter gives us Telegraph Caught Lying For Jesus about the misrepresentation of the National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS).

larryniven of Rust Belt Philosophy presents Walking the walk about following Ontological arguments to their natural conclusions.

Michael of a Nadder! has some Optimism About Deborah 13 a BBC documentary about an "uber-Christian family with no contact with the outside world".

Andrew Bernardin discusses The Spirit World's Interest in Sex at The evolving mind

The Invisible Pink Unicorn's Ron Gold shares the story of How I Became An Atheist.

Gregory Lawrence of skin hunger brings up and knocks down some common stereotypes about the happiness of atheist in The thing that pisses them off.

vjack leading the Atheist Revolution brings up Bigotry and Religious Freedom.

PhillyChief tells of How rational people indulge in the irrational on his blog You Made Me Say It...

and in our final entry for this episode Mauzzie the Ponderer vents about those zealots.

Hope you all enjoyed the reading on offer and the next edition will be in a fortnight at State of Protest

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Coming Soon

Ok those here for the latest carnival of the godless, which is due on Sunday 3 May, I apologise for the delay (that should only effect those in timezones much ahead of UT).  The carnival will be up in the next couple of hours - family sickness and deadlines at work have meant that I am behind schedule on this

Thanks for you patience and check back in a couple of hours.


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Monday, 20 April 2009


I am very excited as I have just received a brand spanking new copy of Phil Plait's Death From The Skies! very kindly purchased for me by my library - OK not purchased for me but at least at my request and as such I get to be the first to borrow and read it. Of course I now have to decide whether or not to interrupt my current read (Science of Discworld III - also from the library but renewed over the weekend so there is plenty of time yet) or to finish that first. And of course now some friends are loaning me one of their books to read - and that always puts you under a bit of pressure to read and return.

Oh well the anticipation builds, might have to wait and in the mean time just read more of Phil's excellent blog. Oh and I will do a little review here or provide some comments on the book at least when I am done.

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Sunday, 12 April 2009

Today in history

There is an interesting conjunction of events in history today.  Three of the most important events have all happened today.

  1. It is Cosmonauts Day (none of this lame Yuri's night stuff).  1961 saw the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, a Russian cosmonaut orbited the Earth once, propelling himself into history and ratcheting up the Cold War's space race.
  2. 1981 the Shuttle Columbia made its maiden flight, the first reusable space craft.  And this lovely little truck, and its cohorts, have  served space flight quite well in the intervening 28 years (although not with out mishaps).
  3. AND most importantly, with out a doubt the biggest event to happen today in history.  I was born, (lol what else would I have been talking about) 29 years ago today, yep that is right and yes I do feel old but perhaps not as old as I will feel next year.
Hope that everyone has a fantastic weekend, and enjoys the chocolate.

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Friday, 13 March 2009

Skeptical Listening

Well to kick off this post, we have the latest Skeptic's circle being published and in a different format to usual, a podcast, don't worry all you traditionalists out there, don't worry all the usual links to the fantastic posts are there too.

And it is the subject of podcasts that brings me on to much more about idea of the listening side of web2.0. While blogs are a fantastic media to bet across you point of view or just rant about what pisses you off at a given moment, we are a multi-sensorial species (if that phrase is not in the lexicon then maybe it should be) and as such we have many different ways to get you knowledge fix. Podcasts are too much work for me to take on, I can barely post weekly here at the blog, but that certainly doesn't stop me from listening to many and enjoying them greatly.

Now my tastes are quite eclectic, and so the podcasts I listen to range from


American politics and culture:
In fact if I had more listening time (listening during work is not good for productivity) I would probably listen to a much wider range of subjects.

Of course there are many others out there that you can choose from, and you can even get into the realm of video with vlogs and vodcasting, and while this is not something I have spent much time investigating, I will suggest that you check out the JREF on youtube.

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Monday, 9 March 2009

Too many cooks?

In this modern technical age this series of tubes can make keeping up with the field (which ever one it is) much easier than waiting weeks for the paper copy to be mailed to the library (it takes forever for the journals to come to New Zealand for some reason). I keep track of the latest studies by a weekly email roundup of the relevant journals (at least the ones through the American Geophysical Union).

So I get to spend some of my time on Monday perusing titles and abstracts for relevance, but every now and then is something that really catches one's eyes. This morning it was the first article in the list for the last 7 days in the Atmospheric Science section of the Geophysical Research Letters whose author list was exceedingly tedious:

Osprey, S., J. Barnett, J. Smith, P. Adamson, C. Andreopoulos, K. E. Arms, R. Armstrong, D. J. Auty, D. S. Ayres, B. Baller, P. D. Barnes, G. D. Barr, W. L. Barrett, B. R. Becker, A. Belias, R. H. Bernstein, D. Bhattacharya, M. Bishai, A. Blake, G. J. Bock, J. Boehm, D. J. Boehnlein, D. Bogert, C. Bower, E. Buckley-Geer, S. Cavanaugh, J. D. Chapman, D. Cherdack, S. Childress, B. C. Choudhary, J. H. Cobb, S. J. Coleman, A. J. Culling, J. K. de Jong, M. Dierckxsens, M. V. Diwan, M. Dorman, S. A. Dytman, C. O. Escobar, J. J. Evans, E. Falk, G. J. Feldman, M. V. Frohne, H. R. Gallagher, A. Godley, M. C. Goodman, P. Gouffon, R. Gran, E. W. Grashorn, N. Grossman, K. Grzelak, A. Habig, D. Harris, P. G. Harris, J. Hartnell, R. Hatcher, A. Himmel, A. Holin, J. Hylen, G. M. Irwin, M. Ishitsuka, D. E. Jaffe, C. James, D. Jensen, T. Kafka, S. M. S. Kasahara, J. J. Kim, G. Koizumi, S. Kopp, M. Kordosky, D. J. Koskinen, A. Kreymer, S. Kumaratunga, K. Lang, J. Ling, P. J. Litchfield, R. P! . Litchfield, L. Loiacono, P. Lucas, J. Ma, W. A. Mann, M. L. Marshak, J. S. Marshall, N. Mayer, A. M. McGowan, J. R. Meier, M. D. Messier, C. J. Metelko, D. G. Michael, L. Miller, W. H. Miller, S. R. Mishra, C. D. Moore, J. G. Morfin, L. Mualem, S. Mufson, J. Musser, D. Naples, J. K. Nelson, H. B. Newman, R. J. Nichol, T. C. Nicholls, J. P. Ochoa-Ricoux, W. P. Oliver, R. Ospanov, J. Paley, V. Paolone, Z. Pavlovic, G. Pawloski, G. F. Pearce, C. W. Peck, D. A. Petyt, R. Pittam, R. K. Plunkett, A. Rahaman, R. A. Rameika, T. M. Raufer, B. Rebel, J. Reichenbacher, P. A. Rodrigues, C. Rosenfeld, H. A. Rubin, K. Ruddick, M. C. Sanchez, N. Saoulidou, J. Schneps, P. Schreiner, S. M. Seun, P. Shanahan, W. Smart, C. Smith, R. Smith, A. Sousa, B. Speakman, P. Stamoulis, M. Strait, P. Symes, N. Tagg, R. L. Talaga, M. A. Tavera, J. Thomas, J. Thompson, M. A. Thomson, J. L. Thron, G. Tinti, G. Tzanakos, J. Urheim, P. Vahle, B. Viren, M. Watabe, A. Weber, R. C. Webb, A. Wehmann, N. West, C. White, S. G. Wojcicki, D. M. Wright, T. Yang, K. Zhang, and R. Zwaska

The paper was titled: Sudden stratospheric warmings seen in MINOS deep underground muon data and while such large experiments do warrant many people being involved, especially when using what sounds like a rather novel technique, I am not really sure that around 150 people need to be authors on the paper (No I did not count each individual name, I estimated from the 17 lines it took in the email that each had about 9 names, which is of course ~153).

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Thursday, 5 March 2009

Global warming and what we can do: Part 2

Here is the promised part 2 where I discuss some possible things we can do to deal with the global warming.

This leads us to the situation we are now in, the world is warming and our CO2 emissions are the most likely cause of it.

  • Will cutting back on our CO2 emissions have any effect?
Probably not a big effect unless we can get China and India to sign on as well.
  • Does this mean we should not try to cut back?
Certainly we should try to limit our CO2 production, any reduction is better than no reduction at all.
  • What about the technological ideas that might save us?
We have very little idea what any "geo-engineering" attempt to sequester atmospheric carbon will be able to achieve and how bad the side-effects will be, such as ocean acidification.
  • What happens if we don't cut back on the levels of atmospheric CO2?
Well the warming will probably continue to increase, we will continue to lose ice caps (this will happen even if levels do not increase, we have now lost about 10 ice sheets and new studies are showing that ALL of Antarctica is indeed warming) and begin to experience sea level rises. This will put a strain on our food production, if not through direct loss of arable land then by migrations of people from coastal areas.

As we live on a finite planet and have shown only finite growth in technological advances in the past, one should really plan to use the resources we have in a responsible manner.

We need to encourage investment in cleaner and renewable technologies that we have, as well as fund research into more such technologies. Particularly the government and the power generation industry needs to get into this as does much of the rest of industry.

Unless there is incentive to invest in new technologies and a disincentive to continue as is then things will not change. We cannot leave this up to the free market to adjust our behaviours.

Whether we cap and trade with a steadily reducing cap, or we carbon tax depends on how the proceeds are distributed, and how the incentives for new technologies are to be handled. For example IF the best way to induce investment in new technologies was by government funding incentives then this would probably be best to be funded by a carbon tax (where all of the proceeds of the tax go back into the new technologies).

Though I would like to point out that if businesses simply pass on all there new costs associated with either the cap and trade or the carbon tax straight to the consumers then the system will not work. In the case of petrol the costs should probably be passed on (as much as it pains my very limited budget to admit).

But for power generation, which is something that is very integral to our modern civilization, this is where the costs should be born almost solely by the corporations involved in the generation. If the costs are simply passed on to the consumer then there will be very little incentive for investment in new tech on the part of the power companies.

As for what we should do for China and India and the like, well clearly if they keep burning coal as they are particularly in China, we may all be completely f'ed. So the first world nations will need to help out, with incentives to use clean sources for energy, nuclear power being probably the first cab off the rank. Followed by the sharing of all the renewable technologies we have.

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Global warming and what we can do: Part 1

Oops having just gone a whole month without posting for the first time I hang my head in shame, however, I recently posted this to the NZ Skeptics group as the first part of a response to recent discussion about global warming and our response to it, a lot to the discussion was whether we should do anything at all, which partly came from the idea that since China and India weren't going to do any thing then what was the point ruining the economy. But some of it seemed a bit too much like AGW denial, so I started with the following discussion, which I will reprint below just in case there are those out there that don't know the arguments for anthropogenic global warming. The second part discussing what we can do will follow.

  • Is the globe warming?
  • Is there an increase in CO2 levels that began about the time of the industrial revolution?
  • Is this a similar pattern to what happened in most other warming periods?
NO, mostly the CO2 increase lagged behind the temperature. So this is something different than we have seen.
  • Do we know what was responsible for much of the previous warmings?
Mostly, we have a fairly good idea that much of the warming/cooling cycle is related to the Milankovich cycles of the ellipticity of the Earth's orbit.
  • Is that what we are going through now?
NO, calculations in the 70s thought that the next Milankovich cycle was going to happen soon leading to an ice age, but this was in error and now is not expected to happen for a few thousand years. NB: the next part of the Milankovich cycle is due to cause an ice age not warming.
  • What about the influence of the sun? It caused the Little Ice age in the late middle ages did it not?
Yes the Maunder minimum of solar activity did cause a little Ice age in Europe, and yes the sun spot activity has been correlated to temperature fluctuations in the past. However, the recent temperature increases have not followed the fluctuation of solar cycle length (see an ealier post here). So NO the Sun is NOT responsible for this warming! I have heard from my colleagues that there maybe some fluctuations that correlate to other space weather phenomena, but not solar driven ones. I will have to wait for that paper to come out to let you know more.

So we can easily establish that the neither the Sun nor the eccentricity of the Earth's orbit is to blame for this warming. So having ruled out the two leading causes for historic climate change we turn to other hypotheses.
  • The obvious one is that we know CO2 is a greenhouse gas, can this leading trend of increasing CO2 be responsible?
This is where the controversy comes in (everything above is pretty incontrovertible). Most climate models using CO2 as the driver for the warming, regardless of how they predict the future, are very good at reproducing the data from the past. If they could not reproduce the data from the last few centuries then they would not be used to try to predict the future.

Let me just restate that clearly, CO2 driven climate models can reproduce the recent warming that we have experienced.
  • Is this a smoking gun?
In the absence of any other credible hypothesis that can explain the data, probably, perhaps it is best to say that it is not the murder weapon but our finger prints are all over the crime scene.

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Friday, 30 January 2009

End of Faith

Having recently finished reading Sam Harris's The End of Faith, I thought that I would make a few remarks on some of what I found interesting. Now this is not going to be a review or in any way a comprehensive look at the book or its subject - well accept to say a lot of it especially the earlier chapters make a whole lot of sense. I do agree that the idea of faith itself (and hence most religious beliefs) do by there very nature promote the sorts of actions of terror we have seen unfortunately all too often.

Religion does not however have a monopoly on terrorism, it seems to arise any where that one group oppresses another, or struggles to have its voice heard (hence all the fuss about President Obama's links to terrorist, stemming from the violent side of the anti-Vietnam war movement.) Though that is not to say that Harris's thesis is incorrect, as any where religion is involved you do find the in-group/out-group behaviors emerging usually along with an easy rationale for hatred of, and justification of violence towards members of out-groups (To be fair to Harris he probably does mention this and I just don't remember it). And I certainly can't think of any in-group/out-group situation religion has made better.

One of the more stand out quotes from the book must actually go to Christopher Hitchens, and it is a quote of his that I hadn't heard before (and will have to put on my notable quotes over on the side bar) but sums up a lot of my positions, not only on religion but about skepticism in general:

What Can Be Asserted Without Evidence Can Be Dismissed Without Evidence.

Much of the second half of the book is about morals and ethics. One of the main factors of this section was a counter to what I have seen as a large claim by theists against atheist, that with out a god to direct us, carrot (heaven) and stick (hell), we are left to create our own morals and therefore everything is relative. Unlike the genetic advantage of altruism approach favoured by Richard Dawkins, Harris has decided instead to just blow relativism out of the water.

Essentially he makes the argument that relativism, or the idea that all worldviews are equally valid, means then that a worldview that some positions are true and others false must be valid, of course the consequence of that is that all worldviews cannot be valid.

Ok I am paraphrasing a bit but the idea behind it is that relativism is self contradictory, and as I stated above if all possible worldviews are equally valid then the worldview that there is an object reality which can confirm or falsify any position must also be valid, since it is by definition a subset of all the possible worldviews. However an objective reality which can falsify a worldview means that all worldviews cannot be equally valid and therefore relativism contradicts itself and cannot be correct. This all means that indeed there must be some method we can use to confirm or falsify our worldviews, which essentially means that there is an objective reality and when it comes to morals/ethics there must exist definite rights and wrongs.

The book finishes with a discussion about the need for spirituality, and I have heard many comments about how Harris sees this in a sense that is too religious and that it is a bit of a "sacred cow" for him. Harris does approach spirituality from an "eastern mystic" viewpoint and I think that is what leads to the issues that some people have. My view on this is one that spirituality, and a sense of awe that seems to go with it, is something that as humans we seem to be programmed for, and there is no reason one cannot find that internally as Harris suggests although I have my doubts that anything that comes from introspection and meditation must automatically relate to the world around us.

I find that nature and the universe itself is a great source of the sense of wonder and awe that many people turn to religion to find and perhaps if some of Hubble's (the Hubble space telescope) images were put into the mainstream media others may get a chance to see just how amazing the universe really is.

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Monday, 26 January 2009

Government Funded Woo

Here in New Zealand the ACC (Accident Compensation Corporation), which is the government funded accident compensation scheme providing 24-hour no-fault personal injury insurance cover (and yes I lifted that description off their webpage), has for a while now been funding certain "complimentary and alternative" treatments such as chiropractic, acupuncture and osteopathy.

However in The Press on Friday, we hear that the new Minister for ACC (who has been on the job for almost 6 weeks now despite our election happening after that of the US) will be reviewing this policy:

Spiralling public spending on complementary medicine will be reviewed amid concerns about the treatments, ACC Minister Nick Smith says.

The ACC spent $37 million on complementary and alternative medicine (Cam) in the 2007-2008 year up from $18.4 million in 2003-2004.

Smith said Cam expenditure had been growing significantly faster than other parts of accident compensation.

There were "legitimate questions" about the effectiveness of some alternative treatments, and the issue would be looked at as part of a broader ACC review, he said.

This was brought to my attention over the weekend via the NZ Skeptics group, along with the suggestion that we email the minister and show our support for this (and I suggest that any NZ readers here do the same, my email will be reprinted below the fold). I think this is certainly a cause for hope that reality may be setting in here, and at least some in the new government will be on our side, for example Dr Smith who is the ACC minister is also the Minister for Climate Change.

Dear Dr Smith

I wanted to thank you for initiating an investigation into the ACC funding of "CAM" treatments, many of which have been shown to have no medical validity.

I think that you should follow the position of the MoH, in that only those treatments which are shown to be effective should be funded.

Any treatment modality which can be shown to be effective under the standards used to judge modern medicine, is neither complimentary or alternative, it would simply be medicine, and as such your funding model should reflect this.

I feel that this investigation is a good thing for the country and I wish you all the best for it. A good resource to help sift the wheat from the chaff would be the excellent website

Thank you for your time

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Friday, 16 January 2009

The Compassionate Thing To Do

I have recently (Monday) had to deal with the loss of my parents dog (a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel). She has been getting progressively worse over the last month or so, and it looked like her kidneys were failing, so my parents faced the hard choice of what to do. As she was fairly old they in the end did the compassionate thing and had her put down.

It is really hard to have to let someone (and yes I consider a dog a someone) go, especially someone who was close to you and special, it leaves a hole inside you, and this is the second time in a few months that I have had to deal with this, with my father-in-law passing away from cancer in November. At the very least I can say that neither of them are suffering anymore. The long drawn out stages where the illness is taking over and body is on the decline is so hard to watch and must be hard to endure too.

What I find interesting is that although both were clearly suffering, the right thing to do for the dog is to have her put down, where as if one was to euthanize a person you would essentially be facing murder charges. Do we humans not get to die with dignity, where is the compassion in letting a terminally ill person suffer through the debilitating last stages of cancer (or any other disease)?

I will however point out that my father-in-law fought to stay alive for a long time after he was no longer able to be fed, in fact this in itself made things worse for the family (especially my wife who is the only girl among 4 brothers).

What I want to finish on is that if I was in that situation (which I hope to hold off for as long as I can, after all I am still planning on doing a lot of living), my body failing and the end near, I would like to go the way of the dog, with dignity and not suffering to the bitter end. I would like some one to show me the same compassion as my parents did to their dog. Not only that I would like someone to be allowed to show me that compassion.

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Welcome to the year

Well everyone welcome (belatedly) to 2009. I have been busy over the last couple of weeks, helping with our Summer School Astronomy course, it is quite fun to teach and we get a real mix of students (it is maths-lite and we have tried to market it arts students and the such). It does keep me very busy and while I am trying to be more active on the blog at the moment it may have to wait until after next weeks optics lab (the only real experimental science lab that we get them to do).

Still I will direct you to the first skeptics circle of the year for some good reading and if that is not enough you can check out the Carnival of the Godless from late last year that featured my Good for Goodness Sake post.

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