Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Brain basics

There's a fun little interactive tutorial on the brain over at National Geographic:
If you don't know much about the brain and want to learn a bit (or like interactive pictures of the brain) I recommend it.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Sunday Comics

And I thought it was just my birthday...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

I have been saying that someone should do this for a long time...

Wired science has a story about how a simple contraption is using dog poop (yes, that's the technical scientific term) to power the lights at a local park in Cambridge, Mass.  Most people don't think about the carbon footprint that their pets can have, but it is pretty substantial.  In fact, it has been estimated that owning a medium sized dog is twice as bad for the environment as owning a gas guzzling SUV.  The main reason for this is that dogs (in fact all animals, including us) take in carbon in the form of food (think CARBOhydrates and fats, which are made of long carbon strains) and expel carbon dioxide and methane when we breathe, fart, and poop (yup, again, all accepted scientific terms).  Of course the carbon dioxide that we breathe out is not so bad, but the methane that we produce, is pretty bad.  In fact, the EPA estimates that methane is 21 times more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide.  So what can we do about the methane released by dog poop?  We can burn it.  That's right, burn it.  When methane is burned, it not only produces energy, but water and carbon dioxide, thus, reducing the environmental impact.  Put all this together in a dog-friendly park and here's what you get:

"Dog owners collect their dog waste in a special biodegradable bag and throw it into the digester –- an air-tight cylindrical container, where the dog feces are broken down by anaerobic bacteria. A byproduct from that process is methane, which can then be released through a valve and burnt as fuel. In this case it is being used to power an old-fashioned gas-burning lamppost in a park."
Read More

Monday, September 20, 2010

I'm just sayin'

This summer was the 4th hottest summer on record for North America.  And this year is on pace to be the 2nd HOTTEST YEAR EVER (and by ever, I mean in recorded history, perhaps before life existed on earth and we were still a molten ball of magma it was hotter)...

Anyway, remember all those people who were saying global warming isn't real because there was a blizzard in February in Washington D.C.?  Ummm... where are they now?  Oh, wait, they're still stubbornly denying global warming despite the still ever mounting evidence.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Thursday, September 16, 2010


Just when I think that I cannot be any further surprised at the things that people will believe...

Yeah, you read that right.  A whole conference devoted to the notion that the Earth is the center of the universe... I would write a rousing article about why this is so wrong, but apparently Phil Plait over at the Bad Astronomy blog has it covered...

Of course, I suppose I should be happy that these people at least think the earth is round.
Unlike some other people:

If you want to read an article on this particular group, may I recommend the following article over at the BBC (you should read the comments as well, they are quite good):

My favorite part of the story:
What about all the photos from space that show, beyond a shadow of doubt, that the Earth is round? "The space agencies of the world are involved in an international conspiracy to dupe the public for vast profit," says Mr McIntyre.

Because when I think NASA, I think "vast profit".

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Bug Brains and Antibiotics

So, the paper for this isn't out yet, but there is a story over at ScienceDaily about how researchers have found several new antibiotics lurking in, of all places, the brains of cockroaches:
A big problem in hospitals (and in general) is the resistance of certain strains of bacteria to traditional antibiotics.  One of the biggest offenders is a strain called MRSA (pronounced Mur-suh), which stands for Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus aureus.  As the name implies, MRSA is particularly resilient to treatment with narrow spectrum antibiotics like Methicillin (an antibiotic not too different from Penicillin).  In this report, researchers from the University of Nottingham have discovered that tissue from the cockroach nervous system is particularly good at killing MRSA, offering hope that potential antibiotic drugs may be developed from these tissues.
Of course, this isn't the first time that scientists have discovered antibacterial properties in the tissues of an unusual animal.  For example, several years ago, researchers reported on the remarkable ability of Komodo dragon saliva to keep the more than 50 strains of toxic bacteria that live in its mouth from killing it.  But the really good news in the case of the cockroach brain is that the researchers have already characterized several compounds that that have antibiotic properties.  Unlike in the case of the komodo dragon, from which no specific antibiotic compounds were ever isolated, these compounds may eventually be developed into usable antibiotic drugs that can help to fight the spread of bacterial infections in hospitals, particularly MRSA, which can kill thousands of patients each year.    

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Penn and Teller's take on the Anti-vax movement

Warning: this is definitely not safe for work...

Saturday, September 11, 2010

You kids and your hippity hop...

This is actually pretty good.  And I'm not just saying that because I am a huge nerd and this is a rap song about the brain.  But then I guess you can just judge for yourself.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Sunday Comics

I need to keep better track of these, I can't remember if I posted this one before or not... oh well, another good one from SMBC

Thursday, September 2, 2010

More reason to be cautious when choosing to use supplements

There is no doubt that dietary supplements are one of the most popular forms of modern "snake oil".  They are available almost everywhere (from grocery store shelves to online outlets), they are poorly regulated (loosely by the FDA, not the DEA as some argue they should be), and they generate more than 150 Billion dollars each year (that's right, Billion, with a B).  One of the more amazing things about all of this is that there is little to no evidence to suggest that most of these supplements do any good at all (here and here and here and here), and, in some cases, taking supplements can do more harm than good, or be downright dangerous (see table 1).  But perhaps the most striking problem with the supplement industry as a whole is the fact that it is so loosely regulated.  Unlike the pharmaceutical industry which is heavily regulated by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), the supplement industry is only loosely "regulated" by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration), which is prevented from taking a stronger regulatory stance by the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (of 1994), that requires manufacturers to be self-policing and the FDA to  "regulate dietary supplements under a different set of regulations than those covering "conventional" foods and drug products (both prescription and Over-the-Counter)."  While these regulations technically require that supplements be safe, and that product labels and other marketing materials be "truthful and not misleading", a recent report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that these requirements often go unmet.  While almost all supplements skate around the requirement of truthful product labels by simply adding the disclaimer: "These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA", the GAO's investigation found that many popular supplements contained trace amounts of heavy metals and other toxins, and, perhaps even more disturbing, that marketing materials and sales representatives commonly made unsubstantiated claims that certain supplements could cure or reverse certain diseases, or worse that they could replace doctor prescribed medications, or worse yet, be used safely with other medications for which they are contraindicated.  The GAO obtained this information by sending elderly volunteers to retail outlets to purchase popular supplements, obtain marketing materials, and ask questions of the retail sales associates.   They also sent 1600 samples (40 different popular supplements from 40 different manufacturers) to an independent lab for analysis.  Here's what they found (parentheses added):

"We found trace amounts of at least one potentially hazardous contaminant in 37 of the 40 herbal dietary supplement products we tested, though none of the contaminants were found in amounts considered to pose an acute toxicity hazard to humans (the long term effects of these are unknown). Specifically, all 37 supplements tested positive for trace amounts of lead. Thirty-two also contained mercury, 28 contained cadmium, 21 contained arsenic, and 18 contained residues from at least one pesticide...
The levels of contaminants found do not exceed any FDA or EPA regulations governing dietary supplements... because EPA has not set pesticide tolerance limits for the main ingredients of the herbal dietary supplements we tested, (however,) the pesticide contaminants exceed FDA advisory levels. FDA agreed that 16 of the 40 supplements we tested would be considered in violation of U.S. pesticide tolerances if FDA, using prescribed testing procedures, confirmed our results."
Additionally, they found many misleading marketing practices and statements, like when sales staff informed an individual that Ginkgo biloba supplements pose no threat if you are also taking aspirin, even though, taking Ginkgo with aspirin (or with other blood thinners) may increase the risk of internal bleeding or other bleeding disorders (1, 2).
Other misleading statements on labels and from interviews of sales staff are summarized in the following table: