Pick of the Day: Science Pub

Each month at Bushwakker, a faculty member from the University of Regina presents a talk on some aspect of science. The talks start at 7 p.m., although people generally congregate earlier for food, drink and conversation.

Tonight’s presentation is by biology prof Chris Somers. The title is Sperm is Cheap: Mating Systems in Animals and Parallels in Humans.

I wouldn’t want to speculate too much on what Somers will be discussing, but it presumably has something to do with the different biological constraints that males and females operate under. It’s not that these constraints predetermine every aspect of our behaviour, but they certainly do influence it.

As part of their biological make-up, males produce millions of sperm a day — each one capable of impregnating an egg from a female and producing off-spring. Females, conversely, have much more limited reproductive capacity. In human terms, they ovulate once a month, and if they become pregnant they’re rendered infertile until they give birth, and even for some time afterwards if they’re breast-feeding. So the stakes for females are typically higher than for males.

We live in the year 2012. But all these biological drivers were set in motion millions of years ago. And I imagine Somers will be discussing how they continue impact on our behaviour.

And now for a slightly more humourous take on the whole situation here’s a link to a classic scene from Woody Allen’s 1972 comedy Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).

Ixnay on the Fishnay

If you were planning on heading down to Wascana Lake today with your ol’ fishing pole in the hope of catching a delectable piscine creature of some sort to fillet and fry up for supper, be advised that effective yesterday Wascana Centre Authority has implemented a bylaw change that prohibits fishing in Wascana Centre.

Prior to yesterday, the WCA noted in a press release, fishing was permitted except in areas where it was expressly prohibited through the posting of a sign. While the WCA hasn’t ruled out the possibility of fishing being allowed down the road, at this point it is not deemed safe due to the sketchy quality of the lake water.

According to University of Regina researcher Peter Leavitt, monitoring of the lake over the last 16 years reveals that, in the summer, “dissolved oxygen levels have routinely fallen below the lowest acceptable values as defined by Canadian water quality guidelines for the protection of aquatic life. Oxygen values that low make it difficult to sustain a healthy summer sportfish population.”

Following the Big Dig in 2004, WCA introduced an underwater aeration system to pump oxygen into the lake. To ensure a healthy aquatic ecosystem, though, further steps will need to be taken to reduce the amount of pollution that goes into the water through the rural river system (ie. fertilizer, farm chemicals and other pollutants) and city street runoff drains.

Until then, local anglers will have to go elsewhere for their fishing fix.

Nevada Licenses Driverless Car

After passing legislation last year permitting Google to test-drive self-driving cars, Nevada earlier this week issued Google the first license to operate a driverless vehicle. If you check out this Time article, you’ll see that the vehicle (pictured at left) uses intelligent driving software, proximity sensors and GPS technology to navigate.

To see the car in action, here’s a link to a video produced last year at Google headquarters in San Francisco.

Once the technology’s been thoroughly tested, I can see plenty of benefits in enhanced public safety and economic efficiency.  Most accidents today are caused by driver distraction/incompetence/intoxication. All those would be eliminated as risk factors with driverless cars. Road rage would hopefully disappear, fuel consumption could be optimized, and as the video notes, the increased precision possible with driverless cars would lessen the need for expanded road networks to accommodate increased traffic volumes.

Currently, for instance, there’s a push on to twin a 240 km stretch of highway to Fort McMurray which has recorded 46 fatalities through crashes since 2006. Twinning the road is estimated to cost $1 billion. If driver error and recklessness could be eliminated as risk factors through driverless cars, then expanding the highway wouldn’t be necessary.

One final possible benefit: the billions of dollars we spend now on health care for accident victims could be dramatically reduced if collisions (including those involving cyclists and pedestrians) were similarly reduced.

Rosie Has Another Top Six. Don’t Get Up To Thank Him

1 IT ONLY MAKES SENSE, SOMEWHERE Minnesota senator: Birth control pills and RU-486 are evil because they promote sexual promiscuity in women. But Viagra? Nectar of the gods!

2 THE FIACCO FIASCO Monday’s report to Regina city council pretty much says that the last five years of planning for a multi-purpose facility on the old rail yards was a waste of time.

3 CLOTHES MAKE THE FOOTBALL TEAM (RICHER) The Saskatchewan Roughriders have had eight different uniforms since 2005 –- the regular home and away, the green retro third jerseys, the white retros, the black jerseys, the 1966 throwbacks (home and away) and the centennial red and blacks. But keep shelling out, Rider fans: the new golf shirts jerseys are now available.

4 MORE ABOUT GWYNETH PALTROW’S SEX LIFE THAN YOU MAY WANT TO KNOW As well as Zoe Saldana’s and Jane Fonda’s. Sarah Silverman? Well, that’s different.

5 PEOPLE WHO DON’T WANT THIS TO HAPPEN IN CANADA ARE TERRORISTS IN THE OPINION OF THE HARPER GOVERNMENT When Peter Kent gets his head out of his ass, he should be reading what has happened to Louisiana and Alabama fisheries in the wake of that oil well blowout two years ago.

6 SO MUCH FOR HARPER GOVERNMENT BEING TOUGH ON CRIME And so much for Conrad Black’s pledge to turn his back on Canada.

YOUR MUSICAL MOMENT OF ZEN First song on my iPod this morning: Joan Armatrading, “Drop The Pilot”.

Webcomics What’s What: Piled Higher And Deeper

I’m not a regular reader of Jorge Cham’s PHD Comics (which, as the title of this post indicates, stands for Piled Higher and Deeper Comics). It’s a weekly strip about life in grad school. And even though I spent more years than I like count in university and even though my wife is a prof and thus well entrenched in that life, reading tales about academia has long ago lost its allure for me.

Someone needs to write a comic strip about a stay-at-home dad who does a little freelance work on the side.

Oh wait, it’s called Adam@Home and it’s been in newspapers since 1984. Yeah, I’m not going to read that. Too few zombies and octopus attacks. I want something true to my life.

Anyway, I bring up PHD Comics — which is a great and venerable webcomic, with archives dating back to 1997 — because James Brotheridge tipped me to a comic Cham, along with Dwayne Godwin, did for Scientific American on the subject of vaccination. They cover in one page of pictures what it took me 1,500 words to say in our December vaccination article. If I’d known this comic existed, we could have reprinted that and it would have saved me a lot of time.

Click on the image below to see the full comic.


More Cannabis News

Here’s a link to a CBC story about a competition called the Harvest Cup that’s going to be held in Saskatchewan this fall where farmers who are licensed by Health Canada to grow cannabis will compete to see who is producing the best crop.

It ties in nicely with the story I did in our April 19 issue about 4-20 and the growing calls from respected medical experts like Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer Moira McKinnon that cannabis should be decriminalized and regulated in our society.

Some items of note. When I interviewed Head2Head’s Tim Selenski he said that with our generally sunny skies and reasonably warm summers, Saskatchewan had virtually unlimited potential to grow cannabis.

Also, the benefits of the plant aren’t just limited to medical and recreational use. There’s literally hundreds of different industrial applications for the plant and its fibres.

Finally, as the CBC story notes, when a person is licensed by Health Canada to grow cannabis, they are limited to growing enough for themselves and two other licensed users. As Lundstrom notes, he could be growing for 500 people, providing a safe, affordable and quality product for people who are in medical distress. But he currently is legally prohibited from doing so, which pushes people to the black market and helps fuel criminal/gang activity.

Rosie’s Six In The A.M.: Motorhead Is More Fun To Be Around Than Ted Nugent But You Knew That Already

1 YOU KNEW THIS WAS COMING What’s the difference between Lady Gaga and a Wild Rose Party of Alberta candidate? Lady Gaga is the one who has the courage of her convictions. And probably knows more about science, too. And if Lady Gaga were Alberta’s premier, the mayors of the province’s two largest cities would probably be a lot prouder of being Albertans than they would if the Wild Rose Alliance wins.

2 SOME FATHER’S DAY If you’re a guy wearing a red mohawk, black pentagram gauges, and viper piercings, who attended a Motorhead concert in Chicago recently, and you had incredible sex in the bathroom with a woman wearing blue hair, silver tube top, fishnets, and knee-high black biker boots … congratulations, you’re a daddy.

3 CAT SCRATCH FEVER? Mitt Romney wanted this guy’s endorsement that badly? Buzzfeed has 10 reasons why everybody should just stay away from the man whose most intelligent song was titled ‘Wang Dang Sweet Poontang.”

4 BUT THE RATINGS … Someday we should have a quiz: was this done in the Hunger Games arena or during a game in the Stanley Cup playoffs?

5 THE THINGS PEOPLE IN VEGAS WOULD HAVE DONE TO GET WHITWORTH TO VISIT How close did Las Vegas get to having a full-scale replica of the U.S.S. Enterprise starship built on the Strip? Closer than you think.

6 SAD TIME AT THE TORONTO STAR One of Canada’s finest sports journalists, Randy Starkman, has passed away.

YOUR MUSICAL MOMENT OF ZEN Levon Helm’s cancer has reached a point where all they can do is keep him comfortable. (By the time this posted, I fully expect to hear that he has passed away at the age of 71.) I don’t know when this was recorded, but here’s Helm and a group of musicians, including Steve Earle, at a live performance at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. There’s more people on stage than live in some Saskatchewan RMs…

Snake-oil Peddler Gets Called Out On Reality Show

I take it this Dragon’s Den clip is pretty old but I just saw it today.

I’m not a fan of reality shows. But this segment I think counts as a public service. Be nice if we saw more of this aggressive confrontation of alt-health quackery coming from newsrooms. Still, I’ll take this.

I found this clip on skepchick.org in a piece about a guy trying to get money out of the investors on Shark Tank, the U.S. version of Dragon’s Den. The guy was promoting these plastic watches that are supposed to give you good health through the power of negative ions or some shit.

A scam, basically.

And he rightly gets booted from the show.

Incidentally, the most notorious incarnation of these magic-health bracelets are produced by a company called Power Balance. They claim theirs employ high tech holograms that resonate with your natural electromagnetic field.

So, more nonsensical bullshit.

And there was actually a company peddling Power Balance knock-off bracelets out of one of those little kiosks in the Cornwall Centre. They were selling for around $30 apiece, if I remember correctly. But that kiosk seems to have disappeared recently.

If you’d still like to get yourself one of these magic bands because, I don’t know, you think they look stylish, then you can learn all you need to know about how they work at the SkepticBros website and then buy one of their Placebo Bands for a mere $4.

Checkmate, Science! The Earth Is Not Spinning!

Lost in the media circus surrounding the leaked documents detailing sketchiness at a climate-denial think tank, is this video released by internet science-wizard, fernieboy100 [no relation], in which he proves — PROVES! — that the Earth is not rotating.

Word is, top-notch research like this could get you hired on with the Heartland Institute. Or even a job as a science advisor for Rick Santorum.

No, you will not be getting those 30 minutes back. Consider them sacrificed on the Altar of Truth.

[Via Skepchick.]

Pick of the Day: Darwin’s Nose

Curated by Dunlop Gallery director Curtis Collins, this show of drawings and sculpture by Trevor Gould is inspired by the taxonomic process  scientists use to class animals and plants into different families, genera and species.

The exhibition title is derived from an anecdote  Charles Darwin related once about how he almost didn’t get to travel on his famous voyage aboard the HMS Beagle during which he gathered data that led him to  formulate his theory of natural selection.

Anxious to avoid loneliness during a long sea voyage, the Beagle’s captain Robert FitzRoy had asked his military superiors for permission to have an unpaid naturalist tag along with whom he could share companionship. The candidate that was recommended to him was Darwin.

Although Darwin and FitzRoy apparently got along well, the former learned later that he almost didn’t make the grade. Here’s how Darwin put it in a book of selected letters published in 1902.

“Afterwards on becoming very intimate with FitzRoy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected [as the Beagle’s naturalist], on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent desciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely.”

The moral of that story is that while scientific classification is a necessary part of understanding the natural world, we should always be wary about making unfounded assumptions about people (both individually and collectively) and other lifeforms based on superficial characteristics because the complexity of our (and their) behaviour generally defies easy categorization.

In addition to taxonomy, another subject Gould explores is the allegorical convention of 19th century Western painters placing animals in human contexts. Which brings us to the origins of the dogs playing poker image that I posed in the 14 Days Top Six in our Feb. 23 print edition. It was the creation of New York artist/illustrator C.M. Coolidge, who was commissioned by a Minnesota ad agency in 1903 to do 16 paintings of dogs doing typical human activities for a campaign advertising cigars. Aside from nine poker paintings, Coolidge also depicted dogs ballroom dancing, opening mail and participating in a Masonic initiation. Fun stuff.

There’s an opening reception for Darwin’s Nose tonight at 7 p.m., and the show runs until April 15.

Crisis Looming

Under existing guidelines of the College of Physicians & Surgeons, before a Saskatchewan doctor can prescribe cannabis to a patient to help control pain or treat symptoms like nausea, insomnia and lack of appetite associated with a number of different diseases they must have tried three other types of treatment using conventional prescription drugs.

This drives advocates of using cannabis for medicinal purposes crazy because often these drugs are highly addictive and generally exact a pretty heavy toll on a patient’s physical and mental well-being. One of the worst of these drugs is OxyContin (pictured above). It’s an opioid that’s twice as strong as morphine. Not only are people who are being prescribed the drug for short-term pain becoming addicted to it, the drug is also trafficked on the street. When the pills are crushed and then inhaled or injected they’re said to produce a heroin-like high.

Now, Purdue Pharma Canada, the company that manufactures OxyContin, is planning to replace the drug with a new formulation called OxyNEO that is more difficult to abuse. The changeover will occur at the end of February, and according to this CBC article, First Nations leaders are warning that with thousands of people in their communities addicted to OxyContin, the switch will cause a health crisis as people suffer withdrawal.

Pick of the Day: Woodrow Lloyd Lecture

When we discuss health care in Canada, we typically focus on nuts and bolts issues tied to funding and provision of services. That’s certainly relevant to what Margaret Somerville (pictured), the founding director of the McGill Centre for Medicine, Ethics & the Law, will be discussing tonight, but her talk falls into more of a philosophical area.

Taking and Making Human Life: Has Healthcare Replaced Religion? is the title. Here’s a brief synopsis from the University of Regina website:

Humans used to form shared values largely through a shared religion. No longer possible in secular and multicultural Western democracies, healthcare has become a major values formation forum, as our dominant concerns shift from the health and longevity of our souls to the health and longevity of our bodies. We now seek ‘medical miracles’ and ‘immortality’, or at least greatly extended life spans, and we seek control, through the use of new technoscience, over the two great events in human life: birth and death. Through an examination of the legal and ethical implications of assisted human reproductive technologies (birth) and euthanasia (death), Somerville will explore the conflict between what individuals want and society requires.

The Woodrow Lloyd Lecture goes tonight at RIC 119 (the Lab Building Addition) at 7:30 p.m. For more info call 585-4226.

Pick of the Day: Nash Memorial Lecture

Hosted by Campion College at the University of Regina, this annual lecture is being delivered by Brother Guy Consolmagno (pictured). American born, Consolmagno joined the Jesuit order in 1989, and now works as an astronomer for the Vatican and manages its meteorite collection.

The title of Consolmagno’s talk is The New Physics & the Old Metaphysics. Religion is usually a pretty touchy subject on Dog Blog, so to avoid inflaming anyone’s passions I’ll simply lift the synopsis for the talk that Campion has on its website:

The Grand Design, co‑authored in 2010 by the physicists Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, argues that God is not necessary for the origin of the Big Bang. This argument follows a theme quite popular with a group of scholars sometimes labeled “The New Atheists” who insist that science can replace a need for God. Of course, there’s nothing new about this sort of atheism, nor is Stephen Hawking the first scientist or philosopher to declare God obsolete. But his latest book about the origins of the universe provoke some interesting questions about our understanding of the nature of God and the relationship between science and theology. It is easy to mock the theological naivety of The New Atheists; what is more important, however, is to recognize where theologically they are actually correct.

The talk goes at Campion Auditorium at 7:30 p.m. Then tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. Consolmagno will conduct a seminar at the same location on the topic Faith and the Cosmos. For more info on either event call 359-1244.

Pick of the Day: Project Nim

Directed by James Marsh, who also did the Oscar Award-winning film Man On Wire about a French daredevil’s illegal high-wire walk at the World Trade Center in 1974, this documentary tackles another controversial event from the 1970s.

Project Nim involves an experiment an American psychology professor, with the assistance of some comely grad students, conducted involving a baby chimpanzee, which they raised in New York, and strove to teach sign language and other human behaviors in an effort to explore the divide between nature and nuture in animal and human behavior.

Project Nim screens at the RPL Theatre tonight at 9 p.m. Here’s the trailer.

P.S. Got word of this event too late to include it in the listings in our Jan. 12 magazine, but tonight and tomorrow night fourth-year arts education students at the University of Regina are hosting a gala fundraiser called And Now For Something Completely Different at Darke Hall. Tickets are $12 advance, $15 at the door, with children under 10 admitted free. Money raised from the performance will go toward a trip the students have planned to San Francisco to attend a conference called Professional Learning As Community Experience. For more information email to Erika.Folnovic@gmail.com

Another Big Win For Vaccination

A major anniversary passed without much fanfare Friday. As of January 13, India has gone 12 months without a single reported case of polio. It’s an impressive accomplishment considering just two years ago it reported the highest number of cases in the world.

With this news, the WHO now considers polio no longer endemic in the country and if India goes another two years without any reported cases, the disease will be considered eradicated there.

It means we’re nearing the end of a long program to exterminate the disease worldwide, one that started in 1988. Back then, polio cases were still being report in most of the nations of the world including all of Africa and Asia, much of South and Central America, Spain, Finland and France.

As of Friday, polio continues to ravage only three nations: Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So, from most of the world to three countries in 24 years. Pretty spectacular bit of public health work that.

Gee. I wonder made a feat like that possible? (Hint: The answer is in the video embedded below!)

Kid Lit

On CBC Radio this morning, Day Six host Brent Bambury had an interview with noted science writer Richard Dawkins about a new book he’s written called The Magic of Reality.

In the book, Dawkins relates different myths from different cultures that have sprung up over the millennia to try to explain various facets of our existence. Being myths, they are unconstrained by reality, and thus are full of vivid imagery, stirring heroes and magical occurrences that make for very captivating reading.

Dawkins then proceeds to provide the scientific explanation for the event or circumstance in question, arguing in the process that it too is something that should inspire wonder and awe in us.

As Tim Radford of The Guardian observes in his review of the book, Dawkins has covered similar ground in previous books like The God Delusion (2006) and Unweaving the Rainbow (1998). But this time his intended audience is children, so the book is written in non-scientific language and contains plenty of gorgeous illustrations.

Here’s hoping The Magic of Reality makes it into the libraries and classrooms of all the public (and private) schools in Saskatchewan. And if you know a child/family that might benefit from a bit of “enlightenment” as far as science goes, it would make a great gift.

Canadian Scientists Refute Pepsi’s Horrifying “Mouse Jelly” Defence

Usually, when a consumer finds a human finger in their burger or whatever, the company just says, “We have no idea how that happened!” And then they settle out of court for a zillion dollars and nobody thinks of it outside of people who own Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader.

That’s not good enough for the brave thought leaders at PepsiCo. In a fantastic response to an Illinois man’s claim that he found a whole dead mouse in a can of Mountain Dew, the soft drink manufacturer declared that Mountain Dew would have stone-cold turned the mouse into jelly. (The Atlantic) Completely not disgusting at all! “Obviously if this was accurate,” the Pepsi people are saying in a meeting in my mind, “this guy would have just drank his mouse and not even realized he’d done it. THIS CLAIM IS FALSE!”

This set off a lot of bullshit alarms everywhere, iron-stomached CBC reporter Andre Mayer’s among them. Mayer spoke to a University of Guelph prof who told him not only why Pepsi’s claim to the rodent-blobbening effects of a can of Mountain Dew is dubious but also the conditions under which Mountain Dew could actually turn a mouse into a hideous creature from your most awful nightmares ever, in a piece gut-churningly titled “No easy way to dissolve a mouse in Mountain Dew”:

The only way it would be feasible, Marcone speculates, is if the offending rodent had been submerged in a larger tub of the liquid for an extended period.

“I could see it if the mouse was in a gigantic vat and had been there for a significant amount of time — with the amount of acids that are in there, over a longer amount of time, and because of course they would be flushing the tanks all the time with new acids, there is the possibility of [disintegration],” he says.

[incoherent noises of disgust]