• How to turn a PR nightmare into a dream

    Ever since the Keystone XL Pipeline (originally slated to transport Tar Sand bitumen from Alberta to Nebraska) was stalled, the attention on finding a new delivery route for this tar sand oil has focused around my own neck of the woods, British Columbia. And it seems like every time I open the paper, there's some new story about big oil PR shenanigans [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6]. All of this, of course, makes you wonder what a big oil PR session actually entails, and whether a memo like the fictitious one below (a.k.a. me having a little fun), is not so far from the truth… (more…)

  • The Six Degrees of Bacon

    David Ng is a geneticist, writer, and creator of The Candy Hierarchy. Read more by him at McSweeneys and right here.

    Lately, I've been writing about the philosophy of science and thereby finding myself pondering the plight of Bacon. Not the food, but rather Sir Francis Bacon, the renowned writer and gentlemen of the 16th and 17th centuries—famous for being a member of Parliament, friend to the British Monarchy, and (most important to me) often referred to as the "Father of the Scientific Method."

    Such thinking then naturally led to Kevin Bacon, who in turn, reminded me of the "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon." Inevitably, I landed at entertaining the specifics of the "Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon." (more…)

  • The Candy Hierarchy (2011)

    Once again with Halloween upon us, it's time to revisit candy culture, or more specifically, a system that aims to rank it. Like before, the mechanism to do this would be according to, well, let's just call it "joy induction."

    This hierarchy actually began in 2006 as the work of a friend and colleague, Ben Cohen. Ben is an environmental historian over at Lafayette College, but in a previous life, he and I use to blog together. This partnership happened because of our backgrounds publishing science humor, and so in some respects, this "Candy Hierarchy" is just another creative juncture. However, since publishing the 2010 version at Boing Boing, we received such amazing feedback from the community, I thought it would be great to continue this tradition and allow even more kickass "peer review" into guide the rankings.

    As always, I'm aware that: (1) some people will still be deeply offended by the rankings; (2) because the new rankings tried very hard to incorporate the feedback, you now know that we were serious about the potential for readers to shift the hierarchy year to year; and (3) above it all, we can all hopefully agree that the process of peer review is just kickass anyway. Anyway, do play in the comments, but without further ado, read on… (more…)

  • A game of 20 Questions between a hungry Somalian child and an affluent North American, where it's clear the North American isn't very good at the game and, frankly, clueless.

    Photo: Feisal Omar / Reuters

    NORTH AMERICAN: Is it an animal, mineral or vegetable?

    SOMALIAN: Yes sir, I believe it is all three, sir.

    NORTH AMERICAN: Hmm… Can I get it online?

    SOMALIAN: I'm sorry, sir. I do not understand your meaning, sir. On where, sir?

    NORTH AMERICAN: Online… You know, like at eBay or Amazon?

    SOMALIAN: I do not think so, sir. You do not need to go all the way to the Amazon, sir.

  • Time lapse video of woman with HIV/AIDS

    Just noticed this powerful advertisement from the Topsy Foundation. It was one of the winners at TED's "Ad's Worth Spreading" contest, which is generally worth checking out.

    This particular video does a great job (with a lovely twist at the end) at showing the effectiveness of HIV antiretroviral drugs (ARVs). There's also a followup video you can view that checks in on the woman (Selinah) as well as chatting with the folks behind the video.

    Although I realize that the ARVs have been made possible by the work done in the pharmaceutical industry, and that there is a chance that Topsy's programs are facilitated by kind donations from the same industry, it's still a pity that there isn't a more sustainable system for the provision of such drugs to developing countries. Pity that these sorts of medicines are usually priced way too high for individuals like Selinah, which is why so many go untreated and so many die. Pity also that laws like Bill C-393 (which aim to explore different ways to create that sustainable market and lower that price) are being deliberately stalled in government so as to guarantee not being passed.

    That kind of unfortunate reality deserves a megafacepalm.

  • Killing Bill C-393 equals killing period. A visual aid for Canadian politicians.


    For the interest of discussion, I've made the above visual aid for members of Canada's Senate, since this is the week that they have a chance to pass a Bill that "aims to make it easier for Canada to export affordable, life-saving, generic medicines to developing countries."

    I wrote about this Bill C-393 earlier, stating how the right choice (passing the bill and not killing the bill) is obvious. But then it occurred to me that if the decision was so obvious, then why is there so much "push back" from the pharmaceutical industry (as well as the Harper government).

    It turns out the reason appears to be about Bill C-393 representing a trend that "could potentially" lead to a loss of control over the status quo. This being the status quo that provides the pharmaceutical industry with an inordinate amount of lobbying power to set prices; a business model that values huge profits above innovation; and something that they are so focused on protecting that even the smallest of losses must be avoided no matter the consequences.

    Which is simply reprehensible – because with this Bill, the consequences are not just about patent control: it's about the livelihood of millions of people, where the decision to "kill" or "not kill" the Bill could literally be a matter of life or death.

    Please send an email to the Harper government by using this Avaaz link.

  • Does the pharmaceutical industry exaggerate their R&D costs?

    One of the principle claims for allowing pharmaceutical companies to continue their hold on current patent practices, is that research and development (or R&D) is very expensive. It just keeps coming up, and seems to be all the rage when arguing against things like the passing of Bill C-393 (which you can learn more about in this recent Boingboing post). Although the fact that there are high costs is obviously true, a recent paper published in Biosocieties would suggest that the oft cited statistics, the ones always used to support this assertion for lobbying or public relations purposes, may in fact be over inflated.

    Here, the authors, Donald W. Light and Rebecca Warburton look closely at where these numbers come from:

    "The most widely cited figures (by government officials and the industry's trade association for its global news network) for the cost to discover and bring a new drug (defined as a 'new chemical entity' or 'new molecular entity'; not a reformulation or recombination of existing drugs) to market are US$802 million in 2000. This has been updated by 64 per cent to $1.32 billion in 2006."

    From this paper, we basically learn that the primary source of these figures come from one particular study published in 2003 and done by Joseph DiMasi, Ronald Hansen, and Henry Grabowski at the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development in Boston, Massachusetts. In general, there are issues of bias in how such figures were calculated, and the Light and Warburton paper systematically looks at a number of variables that would suggest that the $802 million number, as well as subsequent numbers which extrapolate from this figure, are a gross over-estimate.

    The paper is definitely worth a read, having a number of points that would suggest strong mistrust for these industry figures. Examples include:

  • Will the Harper government receive a #MEGAFACEPALM for C-393?


    A few weeks ago, I was lecturing during a global issues course (ASIC200), when it became immediately clear that on some occasions, a solitary single facepalm is simply not enough. In fact, there seemed to be many things and events in this world that would merit many many simultaneous facepalms, or as we've been calling it in class, a MEGAFACEPALM!

    Anyway, when I looked it up on the internet, there didn't seem to be any pictures of large groups of people doing the facepalm, and so I thought, why not make our own? And so after a few clicks on my camera, and a handy "Make your own motivational poster" website, here is how it turned out:


    Of course, then the big question was for what occasion should we bestow this honour – this first unaltered photographic MEGAFACEPALM image? Well, I had a chat with the class the other day, and it seemed that the issue of Bill C-393 seemed like a worthy cause.

    Now, if you're late to the game and need a primer on this Bill C-393, then read this boingboing post and then come back here for the MEGAFACEPALM lowdown.


  • Killing Bill C-393 would be a facepalm of the highest possible order.


    Access to life-saving medicines is not a luxury, but a human right.
    ~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

    To me, the above statement is one of those things that sound like a no-brainer. Put another way, if I were to ask you whether you thought a person's income should determine whether they live or die from something like HIV/AIDS, then I think you would see that the answer is nothing but obvious. But here I am, in Canada, writing this post, because there is a very real danger that members of my government think that this isn't such an easy decision after all – that maybe wealth and business interests do matter when dealing with such ethical choices, and that there is a hierarchy where certain lives are worth more than others.

    Let me backtrack a bit, and provide a little context. I'd rather not write a rant, emotional and heart wrenching as this discussion can be – I'd prefer to rely on reason, and not on rhetoric. I want everybody to understand why this is an important issue, one that deserves coverage, and one that deserves our involvement. More importantly, I want everybody to understand why the right thing to do is obvious.

    To start, let me mention the letters and numbers that make up the label, "Bill C-393." Keep them in your head – at least for a moment. If you're the sort that prefers hearing at least a quick definition, then this one might work:

    Bill C-393 aims to reform CAMR and make it easier for Canada to export affordable, life-saving, generic medicines to developing countries.
    ~Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network

    If you're thinking that this is a Canadian thing, then think again. Other rich countries are watching how Canada will behave. There's a few in Europe, and apparently even China is curious. In the U.S., the topic appears to be quenched, but the behaviour of the Canadian government could catalyze dialogue. And if you're not from a rich country? Well, you might actually have lives that will be affected by it, millions of lives even.

  • Pitch perfect comic parable about sustainability


    Just wanted to showcase this marvelous comic by Stuart McMillen (the cover of which you see above and is a nice nod to Hergé). It's called "St. Matthew Island" and asks: "What happens when you introduce 29 reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?"

    As a parable (humans being humans, and reindeer being reindeer), it does a great job of gently and effectively illustrating the issue of over consumption .

    St Matthew Island by Stuart McMillen

  • Dear Oprah: Some thoughts on your credibility.

    shutterstock_40765456.jpg (Image: Shutterstock) Now that we're half way through the university semester, I'm finding myself inundated with a lot of marking. Sometimes, I try to tackle this work at home, but being the skilled procrastinator that I am, this will inadvertently lead me into the land of daytime television. It was here the other day that I caught a few minutes of Oprah, and noted that in that short timeframe, I found my reaction changing from a sort of admiration to a feeling best described as a prolonged wince.

    The reason for this abrupt change of heart was essentially the appearance of Jenny McCarthy in what looked like a correspondence role – she of the celebrity ilk, noteworthy for being a very powerful advocate of some very shaky medical advice. I won't go into too much detail here about her travails, since they've been covered extensively here at Boingboing and elsewhere in the media, but suffice to say, both the medical and scientific communities overwhelmingly take issue with her claims regarding linkage between the MMR vaccine and Autism. Indeed, her opinion has not changed, despite recent studies that showed that much of the data in the Wakefield paper (the scientific article that laid the media groundwork for this linkage) was actually fraudulent in nature.


  • Giant knitted squid made from plastic grocery bags.

    Deadly Knitshade has put up some amazing photos of "Plarchie," a freakishly awesome 8 metre giant knitted squid, made out of orange (Sainsbury) plastic grocery bags.


    The squid is cool enough (is it weird that I want to buy it?), but the setting is also pretty much perfect since the photos were all taken at London's Natural History Museum, where Plarchie's original source of inspiration lives.

    Plus, I've got to say that I love the one where Plarchie is cozying up with Charles Darwin. Looks like they're made for each other.

    Deadly Knitshade has a book, too!

    Meet Plarchie: the giant plastic knitted squid

  • Neil Finn takes song request from fan holding up an iPad

    Neil Finn, whom you may know better as the lead singer of Crowded House, is hands down one of my favourite song writers. He's also very good live, and is a natural talent when it comes to interacting with the audience.

    Anyway, here is a funny little video of a recent show at the Seymour Theatre in Sydney, where someone in the audience requested a song by holding up their iPad. I'm not sure if this is a common thing to happen at concerts these days, but Neil, always the entertainer, took it in stride by making a few humorous comments before performing the song.

    FYI: some of the banter is about "Elias" who was a fan in the audience who tried his best (i.e. not a professional musician) with the piano accompaniment in the previous song.

  • Bake a cake for Darwin

    In case you didn't know, February 12th is Darwin's 202nd birthday, and that means you've got a perfect opportunity to practice your culinary baking skills. That's right: it's time for us all to "Bake a Cake for Darwin."

    There's already a few such culinary odes here and there on the internet, but the Beaty Biodiversity Research Center and Museum in Vancouver has been doing this in full on celebratory style since Darwin's 200th birthday in 2009. Over the last few years, they've seen some pretty cool entries and you can see many of them here. In fact, here's a close-up of a cupcake from a dessert entitled, "A Phylogenetic Tree of Darwin's Books."


    Anyway, you too can participate! If you're game, all you need to do is bake an evolution-themed cake and then show it off for all to see by uploading a photo onto Flickr, and tagging it "darwincake." Even better, you can tag it and also enter it into this Flickr pool. Note that the cake doesn't have to be fancy, as illustratedd by one of my favourite past entries, "The Primordial Ooze."

    Plus, if you're in Vancouver, you can even bring along your dessert to Vancouver's Beaty Biodiversity Museum. The fine folks there will be hosting their 3rd annual local bake-off in their gorgeous atrium on Friday, February 11th. It starts at 4pm and note that everyone and anyone is welcome to check it out.

  • More geeky science badges please!

    Last Friday night I attended a Jamboree, and yes it was a "jamboree." We weren't all dressed in the same uniform, but there was talk about badges and the occasional hushed mention of sashes. Except that this wasn't your usual jamboree – no, this was a Science Scout Jamboree.

    Hold on – in case, you're scratching your head and wondering what I'm going on about, let me explain. The Science Scouts is this somewhat silly thing that is probably best described as a mix of science geekery, badges, and the occasional beer. It's been mentioned a few times here and there, but really, at the end of the day, it's just an excuse for folks with a vested and/or peripheral interest in science to hang out. It's interesting because that description is general enough that a really interesting and diverse mix of people come out.

    But back to the badges – yes, there are badges! In fact, there are over a hundred of them right now and you can check them all out on the website, as well as read the many hundreds of comments left by people who have taken the effort to tell us why they deserve specific badges.

    For instance, some of my favourite include the four below:


    The one on the far left is the "I can be a prick when it comes to science" badge. This one is interesting, because there are lots of folks who argue against woo, creationism, and climate change denialism, and feel that this badge was made for them. The next badge is the "call me a visionary, because I do a pretty convincing science dystopia" badge. I love this one, because it was created with the help of someone who obviously knows what she's talking about, and is just an example of how funny little web things can lead to interesting connections. Moving along, the "I've named a child or pet for science" badge) is just cool, because so many folks have left comments telling us what they've named their child or pet and why. Finally, there is the "I've set fire to stuff (LEVEL IV)" badge, because there are different levels when it comes to combustion. (more…)