Is a homeopathic laugh really funny?

Or is it just a watered down joke?

I found a small package of “medicine” recently in the desk drawer of a former employee and was about to toss it aside as I cleaned out the desk for a new employee. Then I noticed the small word “homeopathic” on it and couldn’t resist looking it over a little more closely.

At first glance, you see this very medicine-like name: Oscillococcinum. Then the “Flu-Like Symptoms” listed at the top, followed by those symptoms: body aches, headache, fever, chills, fatigue.Boiron2

 

It lists the benefits: non-drowsy, no side effects, no drug interactions, and works naturally with your body. The words “homeopathic medicine” is subdued, but in all caps. But the fascinating thing here is the claim the package makes: “reduces duration and severity of flu symptoms.”

That has to be worth trying. What can a medicine that “reduces duration and severity of flu symptoms” be worth? Walgreens sells this very package for $15.00.

So why is that bad? If it truly relieves the symptoms, can you put a price tag on it?

Well… it’s pure pseudoscience. Essentially, you’re buying confectioner’s sugar for for $2.50 per gram. That should really have been the title of this post: “Walgreen’s sells confectioner’s sugar for $2.50 per gram.” Except it isn’t just Walgreens. CVS sells it. Walmart sells it.

So what’s in it? Let’s look at the back of the package.

 

“Active ingredient” is listed as “Anas barbariae hepatis […] to reduce the duration and severity of flu-like symptoms.”Boiron1

The amount of this “active ingredient” is listed as 200CK HPUS. That translates to 1 part in 100^200 -that is a 1 followed by 400 zeroes.

Let me be clear: that’s 1 part in a solution that is larger than our solar system. In fact, for one single molecule of “Anas barbariae hepatis” to be present, the solution would need to be much larger than the known universe! And that’s a good thing if you can read Latin. “Anas barbariae hepatis” is essentially a Barbary duck heart that has rotted in a jar mixed with pancreatic juice and glucose.

But if ever taken this “medicine” I promise you ingested no Barbary duck heart -so if you vomited a little in the back of your throat reading this, you needn’t worry about swallowing it twice!

The tell-tale sign that it’s all good is the “inactive ingredients” and the “Other information” sections. Listed are lactose and sucrose and a note that “each 0.04 oz does (1 g) contains 1 g of sugar.”

It’s just sugar. Nothing else.

And it costs $15.00 at your local chain pharmacy.

 

You Can Now Find the Source of Obsidian Artifacts in the Field in Under 10 Seconds

Archaeologists using the portable XRF to obtain chemical data of pigments in Texas rock art.
Archaeologists using the portable XRF to obtain chemical data of pigments in Texas rock art.

Frahm et al (2013) have recently demonstrated the ability to source obsidian artifacts in the field in just under 10-seconds. A portable XRF is a device that uses x-ray flourescence to determine the chemical composition of rocks. It’s a handy device for archaeologists because it can tell us a bit about pigments such as that used on rock art, but it was used by the authors of this paper in the Journal of Archaeological Science to rapidly determine the sources of obsidian artifacts in Armenia, one of the richest landscapes for obsidian in the world.

Obsidian is a volcanic glass that forms during the rapid cooling of lava without crystallization and the physical make up of obsidian is dependent upon the volcano it originates from. Each volcano leaves its own “fingerprint” -or unique chemical signature in the obsidian which remains for millions of years. Obsidian was a highly prized (and still is) resource for tool use since it can be flaked to create some of the sharpest cutting edges known. As you can imagine, obsidian was traded far and wide.

Once one knows the chemical make up of each source of obsidian (thank you geologists!), one need only compare the pXRF data to that database of known sources.

According to Frahm:
“Obsidian sourcing has, for the last 50 years, involved chemical analysis in a distant laboratory, often taking five minutes per artefact, completely separate from the process of archaeological excavation. We sought to bring new tools for chemical analysis with us into the field, so we can do obsidian sourcing as we excavate or survey an archaeological site, not wait until months or years later to learn the results. We can now analyse an obsidian artefact in the field, and just 10 seconds later, we have an answer for its origin.”We carried out the research in Armenia because it has one of the most obsidian-rich natural and cultural landscapes in the world, and the lithic assemblages of numerous Palaeolithic sites are predominantly, if not entirely, composed of obsidian.”

In their words, they’ve switched the role of sourcing obsidian artifacts “from the context of ‘white lab coats’ to that of ‘muddy boots.”

Frahm, Ellery; et al (2013) Ten Seconds in the Field: Rapid Armenian Obsidian Sourcing with Portable XRF to Inform Excavations and Surveys. Journal of Archaeological Science, In Press.

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GMO Hating Squirrels?

There’s a popular Facebook meme making it’s rounds –I’ve seen it at least three times now– about GMO foods and how it’s supposed to be bad for you compared with organic. The meme is a picture of two ears of corn -one is the organic and completely eaten; the other is the GMO and barely touched. The meme creator implies that squirrels can tell the difference between a GMO ear of corn and an organic ear of corn.

The meme is the image below, and it turns out there are some problems with the photo, the alleged experiment, and the assumptions.
GMO-Organic
First, the photo shows two clearly different ears of corn. One is larger than the other. One is labeled “GMO” the other “organic.” But beyond that, they are quite identical. Sure, the casual observer (myself included) will see the immediate differences above, but this is just as likely to be some slight of hand as anything else. Indeed, if I had to wager, I’d bet a paycheck that these are two ears from the same crop. The kernels are roughly the same size and shape -many have an indentation on the distal end. The color values of the two ears are completely identical.

And one can imagine that the probable hoaxer favors so-called “organic” corn over the so-called GMO. And if, as I suspect, they are from the same crop, he or she picked the larger ear to represent the “organic” corn.

One last problem with the photo is the precise nature of the alleged squirrel’s bite. I’ve seen things that squirrels and other rodents eat. They aren’t quite that neat. The removal of these kernels is more consistent with bare handed shucking than rodent chewing.

Second, the alleged “experiment” is flawed to a fault. There’s no way to know which ear is GMO or organic (if we are to assume one of each is actually represented). We have no way of knowing if the squirrel (assuming one existed) chose on a random basis then stuck with the one it began with until full. We have a sample size of 1 for all variables: 1 squirrel (curiously not present); 1 GMO ear; 1 “organic” ear. The statistical significance is zero in this sort of experiment.

Third, the assumptions are that GMO are dangerous and organic somehow good for you. These assumptions might be correct, but they mostly appeal to intuitive design by the organic farming industry (it truly is an industry) and anti-GMO fear mongers.

No evidence supports that GMO crops like corn are unsafe for human or animal consumption -quite the opposite is true. Crops are genetically modified for a variety of intended outcomes such as ways to make them resistant to pests like insects or microorganisms or to improve their output in volume, nutrition, etc.

Another assumption is that rodents can discern the difference somehow between the two types of corn and that they’d care.

But the meme also assumes that a rodent resistant grain would be a bad thing! If a genetic modification could make rats lose their taste for corn (squirrels are very much related to rats), then this would be a good thing. Alas, if rats were that discriminating, they probably wouldn’t eat rat poison. Interesting how they can’t tell the difference between arsenic and food.

Don’t get me wrong, I have some problems with GMO foods but so far none of them are about “safeness” or their potential to be unhealthy. I’m concerned with the very nature of GMO being controlled by intellectual property rights and look forward to the day that the Open Source movement emerges within GMO.

Perhaps I’ll post more on GMO in the future, but I couldn’t let this meme escape a third time without destroying it.

Still, it’s a good example of how people are easily duped by fear-mongering and pseudoscience.

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Archaeologists Add Drones to Their Survey and Remote Sensing Toolbox

Peruvian archaeologist Luis Jaime Castillo flies a drone over Cerro Chepén, one of thousands of ancient ruins across Peru. Photograph: Mariana Bazo/Reuters

Originally developed with a military purpose in mind, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) –also called “drones”– offer archaeologists an efficient advantage when it comes to archaeological survey in the field.

Most governments have provisions in place to protect their cultural resources as their countries grow and progress: laws to protect sites from looting, laws that ensure sites are explored before development, etc. Looters –those that would profit from the sale of unprovenanced antiquities ripped haphazardly from the ground– are clear enemies of archaeologists, who depend on the carefully documented contexts of artifacts and features, which provide priceless value in the story that can be told about a long-dead culture.

In Peru, where the economy has grown at an average of 6.5% each year over the last decade, progress is fast becoming a more dangerous threat than looters. Near Lima, a 5,000 year-old (est.) pyramid was destroyed by construction firms and pre-Incan ruins of Yanamarca were damaged by quartz miners. Progress happened before archaeologists could get there. The new enemy to archaeologists is time. Effective survey takes time. That’s where the drones come in.

Two primary uses for drones so far seem to be monitoring and mapping. With a UAV, an archaeologist can set and monitor boundaries to sites as well as conduct mapping. Jaime Castillo, an archaeologist at the Lima Catholic University, said about mapping and survey, “with this technology, I was able to do in a few days what had taken me years to do.”

“It’s like having a scalpel instead of a club. You can control it to a very fine degree,” said Jeffrey Quilter, an archaeologist with Harvard University who has worked at San José de Moro and other sites in Peru. “You can go up three metres and photograph a room, 300 metres and photograph a site, or you can go up 3,000 metres and photograph the entire valley.”

Drone use in the U.S. has become something of a hot-button issue in the last few years, with some seeing them as a cause for alarm when it comes to safe-guarding privacy. Some states have even drafted legislation that prevents or restricts use and there is much talk of “shooting down” drones by private citizens. A town in Colorado has made laws and policy to protect anyone that shoots them down.

In Texas, my current home-state, the Texas Privacy Act (HB 912), sponsored by Republican Rep. Lance Gooden, would make it illegal to take photographs or possess photographs taken from UAVs. On the cuff, this looks like it might be good legislation to protect the average person from nosy UAV owners that want to post embarrassing photos or videos on YouTube, but when you look closely it severely favors businesses or government entities that wish to operate illegally.

In the Dallas-Fort Worth area, a hobbyist piloting a small UAV took aerial photos of the Columbia Packing Company’s illegal dumping of pig blood into the Trinity River. This was a gross violation of law in 2011 that was reported by a hobbyist. And officials acted within minutes.

Aerial reconnaissance is not a new idea to archaeologists. We’ve been using kites, scaffolds, planes, helicopters, gigapan, and even satellites. But drones, or UAVs, will offer a flexibility and control that none of these can provide, allowing the gap of time between archaeological survey and progress to be closed significantly.

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Google to Encrypt Cloud Data by Default

This is good news I suppose. I actually thought the data might already be encrypted by default, but an IT spokesman from Google said that all new data is automatically encrypted using a 128-bit encryption key standard and all existing data will be encrypted “in the coming months”[1].

Still… it seems a bit… gratuitous. What does this encryption really mean? Both the key pairs (the encryption and the decryption keys) are managed by Google. Once you log into your Google Drive (or once anyone logs into your Google Drive) the data is seamlessly decrypted or encrypted (if you’re changing or adding new data).  If you have Google Drive set to not require login at your computer desktop, laptop, tablet, phone, etc., then the encryption is only as good as your device’s security.

And what about the government? Presumably, Google is responding to public interest in Cloud Security as of late –with the recent Snowden stuff making the news. Can the NSA still read your data? You bet.

Data collection programs revealed by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden have raised questions about U.S. government data requests made to Internet companies such as Google for national security investigations.

A Google spokeswoman said via email the company does not provide encryption keys to any government and provides user data only in accordance with the law.

“Our legal team reviews each and every request, and we frequently push back when the requests appear to be fishing expeditions or don’t follow the correct process,” she wrote. “When we are required to comply with these requests, we deliver it to the authorities. No government has the ability to pull data directly from our servers or network.”

If you truly want your data encrypted on the cloud, encrypt it first using something like PGP, then upload it. If Google wants to impress me on this, they should make key management by the user an option, taking the automated management at Google’s server side out of the equation.

It’s important to note that data encryption is not something that only terrorists and drug dealers need to worry about. Keeping personal and corporate data safe from casual or even deliberately invasive intrusion is an important consideration. It is very easy for things like credit card data, personal addresses or phone numbers, names of loved ones, etc. to become public without even realizing it. Your banking information is at risk. Your personal correspondence between trusted family and friends is at risk.

 

References and Notes:
  1. http://www.itworld.com/cloud-computing/369304/google-encrypt-cloud-storage-data-default []

5,000 year old tokens are game pieces?

The title of a news article at io9 is Archaeologists Unearth Pieces from a 5,000 Year-Old Board Game.

A Turkish archaeologist, of Haluk Sa?lamtimur of Ege University in ?zmir, Turkey, discovered the variously shaped tokens while excavating Bronze Age graves at Ba?ur Höyük near Siirt in southeast Turkey.

From io9.com
From io9.com

Sa?lamtimur, according to the online article at io9, thinks this is evidence of tokens being used as gaming pieces, apparently since they were found in one cache rather than as single, scattered pieces from multiple excavation units.

It’s an interesting hypothesis, but I’d like to see more information, particularly regarding the context(s) surrounding the pieces. Denise Schmandt-Besserat has long held a competing hypothesis about such tokens, which are found throughout the Near East around this time and even earlier. Indeed, some of her finds have been found in contexts which lend her hypotheses much credibility. Schmandt-Besserat sees these as early counting tokens -in short, an accountant’s spreadsheet or ledger. This idea is supported by the discovery of these sorts of tokens in bullae, small hollow balls of clay in which tokens were stored.

The idea is that you put small tokens representing trade items (goats, grain, hides, etc.) in a hollow ball of clay that is fired to harden. Perhaps you’ve pressed the tokens into the soft exterior of the clay before enclosing and firing. The recipient can then receive goods from you through a middleman who knows that the goods are represented by the tokens inside the clay ball. Keeping a little for himself becomes a risky proposition.

Still, it is somewhat fun to think that there were Bronze Age gamer-nerds around 5,000 years ago.

It’s also possible that both hypotheses are correct. Tokens could have been multi-use.

 

Thinking about Neolithic Figurines: Making them

My master’s thesis is a study of anthropomorphic figurines from the Neolithic of Southeastern Europe and Southwest Asia. So I thought I’d try my hand at making a couple. Disclaimer: I’ve never worked with clay before today. And I’ve made exactly two anthropomorphic figurines ever.

These two:

SONY DSC SONY DSCYou’re probably dying to know what my inspiration was so here they are:gm10 GimBirthGiv

The first is a Cucuteni figurine of probably 4500 BCE in Romania. The second is a Sesklo figurine of around 6500 BCE found in Thessaly, Greece.

The originals are both at around 6 cm in height and my attempts are about double that. So, as small as mine are (they fit in the palm of my hand), the originals are much smaller.

What I’ve learned is that making a figurine that is obviously female is tough. Sculpting the genitalia on the Sesklo figurine and getting the hips just right on the Cucuteni was time consuming. A sexless figurine would have been much easier. Hell, a male figurine might have been easy if I simply made a sexless one and resorted to a bit of plastic applique (three bits of clay in the crotch).

One of the things my thesis research has shown is that while there are a significant number of female figurines compared to male, there are nearly as many that are sexless. Of the figurines I included in my study (n=403), 45% were female, 7% were male, and 1% were androgynous or a twin with one of each. The other 47% were of unknown sex.

What does this tell us about gender and identity in prehistoric times? Were figurine makers simply lazy and found it easier to make figurines without regard to sex? If so, then depicting the female gender was important given the number of figurines, but what of the sexless ones? Did they simply serve different functions? Were their genders defined by their non-durable attachments (textile clothings, jewelry, painting, etc.).

 

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Walmart Endangers Cultural Site? Gets Building Permit Through Bribery?

Walmart exteriorcropped
Walmart exteriorcropped (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
English: View of the Avenue of the Dead and th...
English: View of the Avenue of the Dead and the Pyramid of the Sun, from Pyramid of the Moon (Pyramide de la Luna) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
From the I’m-shocked-to-find-bribery-and-deceit-in-Walmart’s-plans department.

The New York Times is reporting through an expose a laundry list of wrongdoing on the behalf of Walmart that resulted in the building of a supercenter very, very near the grounds of a major cultural resource in Mexico. Perhaps you’ve heard of it: Teotihuacán[1].

The Times article is extensive and pretty damning, but the gist is that Walmart offered up bribes and “donations” to manipulate local and federal governments in Mexico City to look the other way as they built their store.

Wal-Mart could not build by the pyramids without a permit from the agency that protects Mexico’s cultural landmarks. Wal-Mart de Mexico offered a “donation” of up to $45,000 and a “personal gift” of up to $36,000 in exchange for the permit, records and interviews show.

And that’s the tip of the conspiratorial iceberg.

If you ever wanted a reason to avoid shopping at Walmart and accusations of near-slave-labor to get cheap prices wasn’t it (or the fact that a Walmart puts mom and pop businesses that are locally owned and operated out of business), then this is it. Walmart as a corporation cares not about the people they service and their cultures. It’s concerned instead with the money of those people.

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References and Notes:
  1. The largest city in pre-Columbian America, 25 miles (40 km) northeast of Mexico City. Built c.300 bc, it reached its zenith c. ad 300–600, when it was the center of an influential culture that spread throughout Meso-America. It was sacked by the invading Toltecs c.900 []

Richard III Remains Confirmed!

Richard III SkullI’m a little late with this, but I’ve been busy all day. The remains found at a carpark in Leicester, England have been confirmed to be that of King Richard III by Richard Buckley, lead archaeologist of the University of Leicester: “It is the academic conclusion of the University of Leicester that beyond reasonable doubt, the individual exhumed at Greyfriars in September 2012 is indeed Richard III, the last Plantagenet king of England.”

This is interesting on many levels, not the least of which is the efficiency and accuracy a team of archaeologists and historians pinpointed first the location of the Greyfriars friary where Richard was alleged to be buried as well as the methods the team used to methodically excavate and locate the grave itself. Still, there was an element of chance woven into this story. The carpark was apparently the last open space, so if the friary’s garden wasn’t located within it, chances were good the grave would have not been located.

Then there’s the matter of confirming the remains. Researchers did so by sampling the DNA of the remains and then matching them to the last known survivor of Richard III’s maternal-ancestral line. Canadian born Michael Ibsen is a direct descendant of Anne of York, Richard’s elder sister. Michael, himself, has no sister, so the mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is only passed along the maternal line ends with him. Had Anne of York’s maternal line ended a generation earlier, or had the discovery of the remains come a generation later, the identification probably wouldn’t have been made.

In addition to the mtDNA, there are some other identifying features of the skeletal remains, including scoliosis, which deformed Richard’s spine. King Richard III has been historically described as being physically deformed and with “one shoulder higher than the right.” The spine found in the grave seems to confirm this. In addition, the skull shows signs of mortal injury, perhaps with a haldberd as indicated by Jean Molinet, the Burgundian chronicler that accounted such a death after King Richard’s horse became stuck in the marsh. Overall, the skeleton had 10 wounds, 8 of them on the skull.

There is much, much more to the story of Richard III. I’ll let you google it… I’ll note one interesting point then leave you with a question: the excavation revealed that the hands were crossed in front, as if they were tied together. This is apparently an unusual pose for a burial of this time. The nature of the wound, if it occurred while he was on horseback (as history has told) would have been severe enough that he would likely have died before his body hit the ground.

So why tie the wrists?

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Pseudoarchaeology Meets Archaeology… in court?

Ossuary. Cast
Ossuary. Cast (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Simcha Jacobovici -an apparent purveyor of pseudoscientific “discovery” related to biblical mythology is suing Joe Zias for “libel.”

This is a tactic skeptics have seen of those peddling in woo lately, particularly in Europe where libel laws are a bit more lax than they are in the U.S. Simon Singh was recently involved in a legal battle with chiropractors for saying out loud (and quite publicly) that their claims are untrue. He won, but the ordeal still cost him some money. The hope for the chiropractors is, of course, that fear of litigation would cause the opponent to back down. I even came under attack by a “scientific conference” that I publicly criticized (elsewhere, not on this blog). An attorney sent a cease and desit/takedown demand to my dean and the president of my university. I told the attorney to stick it if the plantiff wasn’t willing to be specific with what he found disagreeable. Never heard from them again.

I suspect Joe Zias might not be so lucky, but I think he’s got a good case. Simcha Jacobovici is a hack. He’s produced several questionable “films” of demonstrable pseudoarchaeology and Zias has called him on it -as a scientist should. Zias has long had little patience for those that begin with a conclusion and then start looking for data that are agreeable.

Points of contention have been Jacobovici’s films and written works. In 2002 he created the film James, Brother of Jesus, which featured an ossuary (a bone box) alleged to have belonged to the person of the films title. This was later discovered to be a colossal forgery. Although the defendents charged with the forgery were ultimately acquitted, a fair amount of legitimate scholarly examination of the artifact revealed it to be a fake. One of the defendents had the materials to “age” the box in his flat when he was busted with the ossuary itself being stored on his toilet tank.

More recently, Jacobovici had a documentary film about the so-called Talpiot Tomb where 10 limestone ossuaries were found that in which he claimed were the remains of Jesus and his family. The names Jacobovici claimed were on the ossuaries were Yeshua bar Yehosef, Maria, Yose, Yehuda bar Yeshua, Maramene e Mara, and Matya. Very little else was known and Jacobovici and his tiny group were about the only ones that thought they were as claimed. In fact, nearly every scholar thought they were largely insignficant.

Still, that didn’t stop Jacobovici with getting a scholar to put together some statistics, which have been called into serious question.

Zias has been on Jacobovici like glue through it all. And, it would seem, rightfully so. And it’s had some effect: National Geographic pulled out of one of Jacobovici’s projects. Zias has cost Jacobovici money and he’s pissed that Zias has accused him of “forging archaeology,” but that’s what it appears Jacobovici has done to date. He begins with a conclusion then finds data that are in agreement.

This isn’t a case of two scholars duking it out. It’s a case of a hack /

pseudoarchaeologist getting called out by a genuine archaeologist.

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Archaeology, anthropology, science, and skepticism

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