Saturday, September 6, 2008

Arthropod of the Moment

Although it looks like something H. R. Giger thought up, this little beast is merely the product of millions of years of evolution, just like the rest of us.  It's known as a wheel bug, Arilus cristatus.  It's a member of a group known as assassin bugs because of their predatory skill.  By the way, that's not my hand that he's on.  I have people who do that for me--I just shoot the pictures.

The original Assassins were a violent Persian sect which started around the year 1040.  As with Thugs and Goths, they lent their name to other people in modern times.  Jocks and nerds are of more modern origin, but the Band Weenies were originally a well-known tribe in medieval Europe.

Friday, September 5, 2008

The Jokes Practically Write Themselves

My favorite inexpensive Asian restaurant features the unusually-named condiment pictured below:
Feel free to make up your own slogans.  (The picture's blurry because I shot it surreptitiously with my phone while I was having lunch.)  It's a good reminder that, if you're thinking of expanding your business into international markets, you may not want to go with the low bidder where translation work is concerned.

This brings up another point about the fallibility of memory.  This sauce seems to be available only intermittently.  One time I went to the restaurant and there was Cock Brand Special Fish Sauce on the counter.  Then I went back several times and it wasn't there.  For a while, I absolutely did not know if I had really seen it, or if I had dreamed or imagined it. Finally I snapped a picture, just to be sure.

As is often mentioned in places like the Brain Science Podcast, memory isn't an infallible tape recorder.  It's more like a story that gets repeated again and again, and changes a little each time.  It's entirely possible to delude yourself into thinking you saw something you didn't see.  Or, as in my case, to try so hard not to let that happen that you question what you did see.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Arthropod of the Moment

My references say this is an example of Apheloria virginiensis, which would make sense since I found him in West Virginia last month.  I coaxed him onto my sleeping bag pad for a little better contrast.  I wasn't a bit afraid of him, as long as I had a camera between me and him.

If you don't know, he's a millipede, not a centipede or a caterpillar.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Treatment or Talisman?

This is about a month late, but a recent blurb in the New York Times piqued my interest in the Olympics and Kinesio Taping.

During the women's beach volleyball I strained my ears for a clue from the announcers about what that big black thing on Kerri Walsh's shoulder was. I heard something about it being a bandage, so I shrugged and went back to wondering why this sport and no other had go-go dancers on the sidelines between games.

But then a few days ago a short piece in the style section of the Times revealed that it's a very special wrap that Walsh and other athletes were using.  And then yesterday I saw somebody in a restaurant with one of these wraps on her wrist.  It's a national craze!  So I started looking at the claims made on the maker's website:

Kinesio Taping® alleviates pain and facilitates lymphatic drainage by microscopically lifting the skin. The taped portion forms convolutions in the skin, thus increasing interstitial space. The result is that pressure and irritation are taken off the neural and sensory receptors, alleviating pain. Pressure is gradually taken off the lymphatic system, allowing it to channel more freely.

So, uh, this tape wrinkles your skin which helps your body do...something.

After a while I got lost in the complex terminology:

You can apply the tape with little to no stretch, which is described as UNSTRETCHED, or you can apply the tape while it is stretched, which is known as STRETCHED.

Hard to argue with that logic.

It looks like a couple of small studies have been done, and they show that Kinesio may be more effective than ordinary tape at relieving pain.  But since you're relying on people to tell you how much pain they're in, it's really hard to measure the effectiveness of a treatment like this.  And you have to make sure that your test is really blind, so that the subjects don't know if they're receiving the real treatment or the placebo.  A rigorous, carefully controlled study could prove me wrong in the future, but this thing sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me.

If this does turn out to be nothing more than superstition, of course, it will have to take its place alongside many other unfounded beliefs held by even highly skilled athletes.  There's little or no solid evidence that acupuncture is of any use, but the Olympic coverage mentioned that plenty of the participants are into that.  And of course there have been players with lucky socks, lucky meals, and on and on.  At that level of competition, where milliseconds can separate winners from participants, it's not surprising that people will try just about anything.

I have to hand it to these folks from a marketing standpoint, though.  If you have a product to sell, whenever possible plaster it on the tallest, blondest, least-clothed, gold-medal-winningest athlete you can find!

Monday, August 25, 2008

Your Brain on Magic

Here's a link to an article that pushes my scientific and my entertainment buttons:


The authors, who include the magicians Teller and James Randi, argue that neuroscientists can learn a lot by studying what happens in our brains when we're fooled by magic tricks.

It has nothing to do with this article, but both of those fellows were kind enough to let me be photographed with them last year at The Amazing Meeting.

In addition to being a brilliant entertainer, Teller is somewhat taller than me. He only looks small when he's standing next to Penn!

On the other hand, it's easy to tell Randi from me because he's the one with the magnificent beard. Of course he's also a guy who has done more than anybody I can think of to promote science and reason. If you're not familiar with James Randi, you can see what he does at

Saturday, August 23, 2008

About This Blog

The purpose of this blog is to discuss science, reason, and the ways art and other creative endeavors may be able to contribute something to human understanding of the natural world. While we live in a time of unprecedented technological and scientific achievement, many of us understand little about the workings of the universe. Plenty of people all around the world hold onto beliefs that have no basis in fact. Sometimes this is harmless, but in other cases, it's disastrous. With the explosive growth of new media such as blogs and podcasting, there are lots of ways for people who are interested in science-and-society topics to exchange ideas.

I'm interested in science, and I'm also interested in mass media, so I've always looked for ways in which those two topics might fit together. At times in this blog I'll share some stories about my attempts to pursue these diverse interests. Not every one of these attempts has been successful, which of course makes for much better anecdotes.

I make my living shooting and directing TV commercials and other videos, and I enjoy the creativity this involves. Naturally, I'm also working on a documentary which I'll describe in future posts. thanks for reading.