• 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…)

  • Using the Force. Messing with kids' heads can be fun!

    My friend Anne recently passed on the above Volkswagen video, created by Craig Melchiano and David Povill, which involves a kid dressed up as Darth Vader trying to use the force. It's pretty funny and it reminded me of this game we did two years ago at my son's 5th birthday party.

    Specifically, it was a Star Wars themed birthday party, which we foolishly held in our house (also, if you can believe it, Kate made a Jedi robe for every kid!). What we did was modify the game, "pass the parcel." We had saw online that there were Star Wars versions of this, which primarily involved wrapping something up like a ball, and calling it a Death Star.

    However, we thought that it would be way more fun if we could convince the kids that if they used the "force" they could get the stereo to stop the music (and therefore entitling them to the act of unwrapping). This, of course, is easy to do since pretty much every stereo these days comes with a remote. Note that, obviously, the Star Wars theme was the music being played during the game.

    I tell you: it was one of the funniest things I've ever seen – here you have a group of 5 year olds "concentrating" so hard, and doing the classic Jedi hand gesture at the stereo trying to make the music stop. For a Star Wars fan like myself, it was a brilliant sight to see. And just so that everyone had a chance to do it, we would also consistently get them to use the "force" all together to start the music up again ("On the count of 3: one… two… three!!).

    I should note that if you plan on doing this, be prepared to get a few phone calls from parents. After our party, we had quite a few of them calling, saying that their children were now trying to make their stereos, televisions, and other assorted appliances turn on by sheer will of thought. Anyway, it might be just me, but I thought this was both charming and hilarious.

  • The classroom blog: This is how you do it, science style!


    Last fall, whilst I was in London at the Natural History Museum, I was lucky enough to spend some time with a group of high school students who had travel all the way from the northeastern United States. They were totally engaging, and completely enthralled with the prospect of taking in the museum exhibits and learning some biodiversity science. They were, in a word, awesome!

    Why the enthusiasm? Well, I suspect a lot of it had to do with the fact that they had to write pieces for their classroom blog. This (as in using blogs in a classroom setting) seems like a brilliant idea. And the science blog run by these students with their teacher, Miss Stacy Baker, is definitely one of the best out there. In many ways, the blog format offers students and teachers a great platform where they can broach topics, share ideas, practice their writing, and even interact with experts in the field. In particular, I love how there is this degree of "relevancy" in assignments structured this way. In other words, no longer is the student's homework something to be discarded and forgotten once graded – now the work is actually a piece of writing that exists in the public realm. In fact, the work that these students produce has lead to some pretty amazing opportunities (a good example being some of the students being selected to blog for Nature)

    Best of all, as you can see from the video below, even the students think it's cool:

    So how do you do this in your own classroom? Well, Stacy has gone to the effort of sharing her experiences, so that some of the logistics of starting a classroom blog are less daunting to the newbie. This includes outlines of how she structures the assignments, mechanisms for student evaluation, and information on the issue of permissions and public access.

    Anyway, check out their blog (some of them are even reporting right now from the Science Online 2011 conference). If you're a science-y type, leave a comment or two. Better yet, if you're a blogger and you have a teacher friend, maybe you can offer your help in setting one up (you know how easy this actually is). Based on these students' experience alone, it looks like it would be well worth the effort.

    The Extreme Biology Blog

  • Scientists pick apart list of nonsense

    RealClimate.org has a great piece by Michael Tobis and Scott Mandia which is going to be incredibly useful for one of the classes I teach (Global Issues in the Arts and Sciences), and to be honest, I totally think it's also worth a look by anyone interested in climate change affairs. By focusing on a recent opinion piece published by Larry Bell at Forbes, it nicely broaches two areas: 1) it illustrates a few of the tactics that climate denialists use when they debate their case, and (2) it picks apart many of the most recent and most common "scientific" arguments used against the case for immediate policy action to mitigate climate change.

    Bell uses the key technique that denialists use in debates, dubbed by Eugenie Scott the "Gish gallop", named after a master of the style, anti-evolutionist Duane Gish. The Gish gallop raises a barrage of obscure and marginal facts and fabrications that appear at first glance to cast doubt on the entire edifice under attack, but which on closer examination do no such thing. In real-time debates the number of particularities raised is sure to catch the opponent off guard; this is why challenges to such debates are often raised by enemies of science. Little or no knowledge of a holistic view of any given science is needed to construct such scattershot attacks.

    To me, the picking apart of the various assertions that Bell presents is the best part. Not only does it show how easy it is to form such careless arguments, but it also provides a highly readable science primer on some of the more recent research in climatology, all in an effort to inform on the current trends in cyclonic activity, ocean cooling, sea levels, polar snow fall, ice melting, etc. The net effect is that it becomes clear that the Forbes article is largely nonsense from a scientific point of view (since Tobis and Mandia do point out the one assertion where Bell may have a valid argument), full of polemic where language is spun accordingly, and really a disheartening example of poor press.

    Anyway, great fodder for a class where discussing these sorts of things (including an opportunity to also critique Tobis and Mandia's piece) is key. Now, all I need is to find an article with an opposing view that is both responsibly written and uses the same lens of robust research data – something tells me that might be a little trickier…

    Forbes' rich list of nonsense

  • The Rap Guide to Evolution: Helping out with the music videos.

    Now that classes have started, and I'm in the "teaching" zone again, it's always cool to check out folks who have come up with unconventional, and dare I say, innovative ways of talking science. One such example is Baba Brinkman, who does a great job of communicating the principles and various nuances of evolution using rap and hip-hop. In fact, there's a whole album's worth of material called "The Rap Guide to Evolution," which you can listen to for free or download/purchase if you so choose.

    As well, the artist recently received an educational grant to create a series of videos for the songs, but has been seeking out some additional funding to really open up post-production possibilities (i.e. animations, access to footage, etc).

    Quite a few biology and psychology teachers already use the rap songs in their classes to introduce evolutionary concepts to their students, and these videos will make an even more potent vehicle for communicating science in an entertaining manner.

    The initial funding from the Wellcome Trust allows us to shoot live footage for each video with a professional film crew, edit it, and set up a website to distribute the videos.  This phase of the project will be completed by mid-December.  The additional funding from Crowdfunder will allow us to produce original animation and digital effects and license high-quality nature footage from the BBC, to make the vision of each video really come to life.

    In any event, check out the songs, the video above and also the link below if you want to help out.

    The Rap Guide to Evolution DVD Project