Tyson Adams

Putting the 'ill' back in thriller

Archive for the category “Mythtaken”

The continued war on e-books

Stupid meme is stupid.

Stupid meme is stupid.

Do you love the smell of books?
Do you prefer the feel of paper?
Do you feel slightly superior to others because you paid for the hardcover?
Do you grasp at any excuse to deride e-books and the people who read them?
Well, I have found the article for you!

Recently on Mental Floss an article entitled “5 Reasons Physical Books Might Be Better Than E-Books” sought to comfort snooty readers who wanted ammunition to fling at e-book readers. In the proud tradition of deriding any new technology as bad (see e-books, e-cars, driverless cars, etc), this article introduces us to some research that is wonderfully out of context for the intent of the article’s argument. Let’s dig in.

Though e-book readers have become a more common sight around town, traditional books still have their evangelists. According to The New York Times, e-book sales have been falling in 2015. Print definitely isn’t dead. In fact, according to some research, it may actually be a better choice for some readers. While scientists are still trying to tease out exactly how digital reading affects us differently, here are five ways e-books might be inferior to their dead-tree cousins.

When deriding things it is always best to reference another article that derides the same thing. In this case the article references the wonderfully misleading NYT piece on e-book sales slipping. Pity that the sales didn’t slip… That’s right, the NYT misrepresented a slowing in e-book sales growth as a drop in sales. And did they mention why readers were stating a preference for paper? Yes. Hidden in the article is a little quote about how publishers had been protecting their paper sales by inflating e-book prices. Now, my economics is a tad rusty, but I’m pretty sure making something more expensive when there are direct substitutes on offer results in a decrease in sales of that item and an increase in the sales of the substitution item. At least, that’s what I’ve heard…

In a study of middle schoolers, West Chester University researchers found that students who read on iPads had lower reading comprehension than when they read traditional printed books. They discovered that the kids sometimes skipped text in favor of interactive features in the e-books, suggesting that certain multimedia in children’s e-books can be detrimental to the practice of reading itself. However, the researchers noted that some interactive features in e-books are designed to enhance comprehension, and that those might be more helpful than game-type interactive graphics.

This is a fantastic study in how multitasking is terrible for concentration and thus impacts reading comprehension. iPads have all sorts of cool stuff on them, including little notifications telling you that your friend just liked your latest picture of your meal. And building those distractions into the book being read: sounds like a great idea! What this study doesn’t do is support the idea that e-books reduce reading comprehension.

Similar results were found by a small study by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center that consisted of 32 kids reading e-books and print books with their parents. It found that “enhanced” e-books might be distracting. Kids who read enhanced e-books—ones with interactive, multimedia experiences—were more engaged with them physically, but in the end they remembered fewer narrative details than those who read print books or basic e-books [PDF].

Don’t read the link. Don’t read the link. You read the link: didn’t you. Leaving aside the tiny study size for a moment (a point the study authors acknowledge), the study itself supports the points I made above about being distracted whilst reading. And if you look through the study you see a great little chart that showed the comparison of reading comprehension – expressed as story details recalled – was actually superior in basic e-books than in print books or enhanced e-books.

Screen Shot 2015-10-04 at 10.13.19 am

The findings of the study were literally stated as:

The enhanced e-book was less effective than the print and basic e-book in supporting the benefits of co-reading because it prompted more non-content related interactions.

Odd that the “e-books are bad” article failed to highlight this finding…

Another study of adults also found that e-books can be hard to absorb. The researchers asked 25 people read a 28-page story on a Kindle and 25 to read the story in paperback, then asked the readers to put 14 events from the story in chronological order. Those who read the story on a Kindle performed worse on the chronology test than the book readers, though they performed about the same as print readers in other tests. Earlier research by the same scholars, from Stavanger University in Norway, found that Norwegian 10th graders also remembered more about texts if they read them in print rather than on a computer screen [PDF].

Finally we come to a study on actual e-books on an actual e-reader versus their dead tree counterparts. Of course I’m again blown away by the sample size of the study, a massive 50 people. That should easily extrapolate to the rest of humankind. The linked article doesn’t give us much information, but I found a better one, and it has this summary:

In most respects, there was no significant difference between the Kindle readers and the paper readers: the emotional measures were roughly the same, and both groups of readers responded almost equally to questions dealing with the setting of the story, the characters and other plot details. But, the Kindle readers scored significantly lower on questions about when events in the story occurred. They also performed almost twice as poorly when asked to arrange 14 plot points in the correct sequence.

I’d link to the original paper, but it is behind a paywall. Suffice to say that the error margins were pretty big (even the paper readers got 34% of the plot points in the wrong order). And this was a short story, something that shouldn’t be that difficult for any reader. So this probably says as much about the story as anything. They’d need far more stories and participants to get a good idea of what is going on. But I will concede that reading on paper vs e-reader vs screen is definitely a different experience and has an influence. What that influence is, positive, negative, or just different, needs more research.

Interestingly the study of reading PDF texts on a screen vs paper texts in high school students showed why scrolling is a terrible way to read anything. Scroll down to read more about PDFs sucking.

While e-book textbooks are often cheaper (and easier to carry) than traditional door-stop textbooks, college students often don’t prefer them. In some surveys of college kids, the majority of students have reported preferring print books. However, a 2012 study from the UK’s National Literacy Trust of kids ages 8 to 16 found that more than 50 percent of children reported preferring screen reading [PDF].

It is odd to start a point and then go on to disprove it. E-book textbooks being cheaper, easier to carry, and in some surveys preferred by the majority of respondents, seems to me to be the opposite of “not great”. The preference for paper textbooks claim comes from a survey of 527 students, yet is immediately refuted by the UK survey of 34,910 students. I wonder which one is more representative of how students feel about textbooks?

In the comments of the Mental Floss article, someone made a good point in regard to the format of textbooks. Oftentimes the textbooks are PDFs, which brings us back to the point about scrolling, and adds the problem with taking notes. Clearly the format of the e-book plays a big part in how people feel about them.

Staring at a lit screen can be tiring for the eyes and the brain. A 2005 study from Sweden found that reading digitally required a higher cognitive workload than reading on paper. Furthermore, staring at LED screens at night can disrupt sleep patterns. A 2014 Harvard study found that people who used e-readers with LED screens at night slept worse and were more tired the next day. So, if you’re going to go for an e-book, go for one without the backlight.

Now let us talk about how bad e-books are for your brain…. Sorry, did I say e-books when I meant LED screens like your iPad and computer? Silly me. Having bright light, especially from white background screens, shining in your eyes at night isn’t a good thing. But that is about as related to e-books as X-Factor is to talented singers. So the message about changing your screen setup for night viewing only really applies to readers if they utilise a backlit screen for reading.

And now that we are at the end of the article, let’s throw in some information for the pretence of balance in the hopes you will ignore the headline and main article points:

However, all this may not mean that reading on a Kindle is really going to melt your brain. For instance, reading an e-book on a computer is a much different experience than reading on a Kindle, which is specifically designed for consuming books. So, too, is playing with an interactive e-book on an iPad, compared to using a simpler e-book device that only presents the text, with no opportunities to click away into digital distractions.

This really does appear to be information that would have been better presented in the context of the “e-books are evil” points above; doesn’t it. Throwing in this sort of context at the end rather than in the discussion of the study findings is a cheap tactic, a ploy that sees important information left until after you have already formed your opinion on a subject, or just plain stopped reading the article. This information has far less chance of being retained than the others points made earlier in the article, thus the article has created the bias they were after (deliberately or otherwise).

And some studies have found that part of the difference between the way people absorb information from e-books versus paper might be due to approaching e-books differently—in one test, participants didn’t regulate their study time with digital books like they did with paper texts, leading to worse performances. It’s possible that our expectations of e-book reading—as well as the different designs of the digital reading experience on a computer or iPad or Kindle—might affect how we approach the text and how much effort we put into studying them. As generations of e-book readers evolve, and people become more accustomed to the idea of sitting down with a digital textbook, these factors could change—for better or for worse.

These are all good points, again made at the end of the article rather than at least being hinted at throughout. And unlike the main points in the article, these are unreferenced. Are these points from the studies already referenced (some are) or some other studies that aren’t worth mentioning? In the former, you would expect these points to have been raised earlier in the article in the proper context, in the latter, this feels like an attempt to downplay the statements as less important than the referenced points above. Either way we are left with the sentiment “change is scary” rather than “change is change”.

Hopefully this breakdown of the Mental Floss article shows just how disingenuous many of these anti-technology articles are, especially the “e-books are evil” articles. I’m not trying to say that e-books are what everyone should be reading, or that our forests are now saved from Dan Brown. There is clear evidence that our changing technology is changing the way we read and absorb information, and this transition period is still a learning phase as to how and if we will change our reading preferences. But negative preconceived ideas about e-books (or technology) don’t help in communicating about the change that is happening.

Common Myths


Found at From Quarks To Quasars.
Original and larger version.

One (of the many) problems of arguing with science deniers

In a recent post I discussed some points about how to spot anti-science nonsense. Pick a subject, any subject, and there will be someone – probably Alex Jones – making an outrageous claim about it. But don’t worry, they’ll solve the problem with items available from their reasonably priced store: $1440 per litre is a bargain price for something you don’t need and doesn’t do as claimed.

Credit: Jason Hymes

Credit: Jared Hyames

Obviously scammers are gonna scam, and anti-scientists are going to not-science. The thing is once you understand that something is wrong you have some responsibility to make sure the misinformation doesn’t spread like a leaky diaper. With great power knowledge comes great responsibility. Which means you have to start discussing science with science deniers. Don’t forget to place a cushion on your desk and wear padded gloves.

Despite having the advantage of science/facts in the argument against science deniers, you have the decided disadvantage that you can’t just make stuff up (despite how tempting and financially rewarding it is). In fact you have to be better informed about not only your side of the argument but also about the science denier’s arguments.

Sounds odd, doesn’t it? You have to learn nonsense to talk about science. That makes as much sense as being pro-life and pro-death penalty. Bear with me here. Take this example of climate change denier Bret Stephens arguing against Bill Maher on Real Time:

Bret sounds convincing, doesn’t he? Bret sure thinks so. He makes some vague references to headlines from the 1930s and 1970s as dismissals of current concerns about oceans. Then he references an economic study on environmental policy priorities, all whilst looking very smug and sure of himself. These statements leave Bill at a stumbling point because he has to admit he doesn’t know what the hell Bret is talking about. The video edited out the pant-less victory lap Bret did of the studio, complete with crotch gyrations in Bill’s face, as he screamed “Take that liberal media!”

Now it isn’t a bad thing to admit you don’t know stuff. Nobody knows everything, it is arrogant to act like you do. Arrogance is of course the result of being surrounded by Knowitalls, an invisible mythical creature that looks like a cross between a unicorn and Bill O’Reilly. Anyway, I’m glad Bill Maher admitted he didn’t know about the study; if only he would do the same with his position on vaccination and GM/GMOs. But the admission did make him appear less convincing as he couldn’t directly rebut the points made.

And here is why you need to know what the anti-science people “know”. Take the first points Bret makes about the oceans dying. His two dates mentioned are actually making reference to points unrelated to the issue of climate change causing ocean acidification. The first date was reference to the Overfishing Conference in 1936 about whaling and fishery management (as far as I can ascertain), issues that were addressed by introducing catch sizes, fishing licenses, and the phasing out of whaling. So Bret is trying to justify inaction on climate change to save ocean damage by referencing an environmental concern that was acted upon. What a great argument!

His second date was the 1975 Newsweek and New York Times (and others) article about global cooling. This is a well worn climate change denier talking point/myth that has been thoroughly debunked yet has evolved beyond a PRATT point and become a zombie point. Some myths just won’t die and are constantly in search of brains to infect/affect.

We then hear Bret reference a Bjorn Lomborg study on best use of resources and where climate change ranked. Very convincing, aside from the fact that it was complete and utter nonsense. See, Bjorn doesn’t accept the actual risks and actual current changes that have occurred due to climate change. So his entire analysis and argument started off from a completely flawed position and was thus doomed to fail to draw any worthwhile conclusions. Actual experts have torn apart his work, particularly his “conference”, here, here and here. But Bill didn’t know this, thus the points made stand unchallenged and as a sort of “valid” evidence.

And this is why it is important to know your enemy. If you know the arguments they are likely to raise, then you can have rebuttals ready. In the case of citing Lomborg’s work you can point out the failings before people have a chance to take it seriously. In the case of old magazine articles, you can point out you only read them for the pictures. But it means you don’t just have to know the science, you have to know the anti-science.

It is also worth noting that Bret reeled off a string of statements that were essentially nonsense dressed up as facts. That is a tried and trusted debating tactic known as the Gish Gallop, and it is very hard to argue against. It takes a lot more energy to redress the nonsense than they take stating it, not to mention time wasted not making your own points. Also helps that science has to have facts on its side, anti-science can make it all up on the spot.

Of course the obvious thing to say here is that the anti-science movement often don’t see themselves as anti-science and will use similar tactics. They will familiarise themselves with the science in order to dismiss it. This is possibly the most annoying part of science communication, those imbedded in anti-science positions aren’t ignorant of the facts, they are wilfully ignorant of their fact-ness.

Beware the meme!

Memes fly around the internet like quantum accelerated particles. Some are fun, some are informative, others are utterly ridiculously wrong. Unfortunately people get caught up in pretty pictures with inspiring – or is that insipid – quotes printed on them, so they start following someone on social media, someone who spreads as much nonsense as inspirational quotes.

Take for example this quote from Mark Twain:
Mark Twain on nonsense background
At face value there is a great message from Twain about not storing up emotional baggage. Let’s just ignore the scientific inaccuracy of how acids work and how the materials of the respective containers and the Ka (acid dissociation constant) of the acid are going to be the deciding factors in how much damage the acid does. But once you move past the quote and pretty picture you start to notice certain things about the picture, namely that there is some weird design stuff going on it. There’s some spacey looking stuff in the background, there’s a person with no skin, and some sort of lattice work design: what the hell is this stuff? That’s called the Flower of Life, something that has been incorporated into Sacred Geometry, a load of nonsense that would have Mark Twain penning scathing insults toward; Twain loved science.

Let’s take a look at another meme:

Chakra nonsenseAgain we have a bit of text that implies that good relationships are much deeper than the shallow, fleeting, physical attraction. This one is, however, more obvious in its ridiculousness. In amongst the rainbows and pretty city the two outlines of people are hovering above, there are glowing lights in the bodies of the people. Take a guess at what they are meant to be. Chakras. That’s right, we’ve gone all new-agey nonsense right out in the open. So once you spot the new-age nonsense you realise the word “soul” isn’t being used in the allegorical sense but in the “I believe all sorts of rubbish” sense.

And now we descend into health nuttery:
Milk nonsense

This is a typical health meme that these sorts of social media pages post: half truths, misconceptions, lies and nonsense.

Let’s start at the top: there are no pus cells in milk. The meme seems to be referring to the somatic cell count of milk, which is not the same thing, and just part of the biology fail on display here. The 135 million figure is from the detection levels for mastitis in cows, which says that uninfected cows will have less than 150,000 cells/mL (they’ve clearly scaled up to a litre of milk in that glass, which doesn’t look like a litre glass to me).

Growth hormones: misleading at best. Food has hormones in it, produced by the food, be that plants or animals. Remember how soy is meant to be good for menopausal women? Yep: plant hormones. So milk will have naturally occurring hormones in it. Some countries have limited/banned the use of growth hormones in animal production, others have allowed it. And this brings us to one of the many reasons pasteurisation is used in milk production, as it breaks down most of the hormones.

Antibiotics: nope, they test every truck of milk as it leaves the farm gate to make sure there is no antibiotic contamination.

Feces: again this is misleading, and also one of the main reasons for pasteurisation. You aren’t so much going to end up with feces in the milk as the bacteria associated. So it is important to kill the nasties and why raw milk is considered dangerous.

Cholesterol: I’m not sure where they got the figures from but they seem to be assuming 200 mL of full fat milk. Odd considering they were assuming 1,000 mL for the pus/somatic cells. Yes, milk has 24 mg of cholesterol per 100 mL. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Calories: I’m not sure why food having calories in it is bad…… Figures are roughly correct for 200 mL of full fat cows milk though.

Fat: Again, I’m not sure why food having fat in it is bad.

Acidic protein: This one is quite funny because there are a lot of acidic proteins. And obviously these acidic proteins leaching calcium from bones is one of those things that “mainstream medicine is ignoring” – aka the rallying cry made by purveyors of nonsense. Pity that dietary protein (which can include dairy) has actually been shown to be good for bones. The issue here is actually a couple of health myths. The first is the acid/alkaline diet that is utter nonsense. The second is the overstating of health benefits of milk, specifically as they relate to bone health and osteoporosis development.

Now I’m not saying that milk is bad for you, but it also isn’t the most awesome drink ever made – that would be whiskey. Milk should be like whiskey: consumed in moderation.

The point about memes is that they are only as good as their creator. The intention of the above memes is clearly to help people, inspire them to lead better lives, even if it is by showing them some pretty pictures with brain droppings written on them. But sadly it is obvious that these memes were created by someone who is not in touch with reality, which makes their health advice something to be avoided. Beware the meme: it could be nonsense!

How to spot anti-science nonsense

Just recently I was asked a question on one of my climate change posts. The question, whilst not about climate change nor climate science, was about similar anti-science nonsense that acts to confuse and befuddle those who aren’t familiar with the field. The comment in full:

I like your writing, I wish more would understand your logic when they spout facts and relationships. If you have time please, an article (though imperfect) comments,

“Bacteria…and plants use a seven-step metabolic route known as the shikimate pathway for the biosynthesis of aromatic amino acids; glyphosate inhibits this pathway, causing the plant to die…. Monsanto says humans don’t have this shikimate pathway, so it’s… safe……however, that our gut bacteria has this pathway, and these bacteria supply our body with crucial amino acids. Roundup …kills bacteria, allowing pathogens to grow; interferes with the synthesis of amino acids including methionine, which leads to shortages in critical neurotransmitters and folate; chelates (removes) important minerals like iron, cobalt…”

I would love to know your take on that possible cause and affect.
Thank You for your Time !
Dennis Buchanan

Reference : http://healthimpactnews.com/2014/mit-researcher-glyphosate-herbicide-will-cause-half-of-all-children-to-have-autism-by-2025/

Dennis has asked how likely it is that this sciency sounding article is correct. The short answer is that you are more likely to get this week’s lottery numbers from one of these articles than any reliable facts. How can I be so dismissive? Well the thing is I’m not being dismissive, it just sounds like that because my skeptical science eye has spotted many holes in the quote and article. So let us go through them like a rugby player at an all you can eat buffet.

The source.

The first thing to note is the source of the article and the “expert” cited within. There are some tell-tale signs that a webpage may be unreliable, such as when they use terms such as “truth”, “natural”, “alt” as a prefix to any word, and “health” as their names. Health Impact News isn’t the giveaway here, it could be a legitimate source of information. In this case the giveaway is the byline “News that impacts your health, that other media sources may censor.” See: it’s a conspiracy!!! (Font = sarcasm) And conspiracy claims are always reliable (/sarcasm).

If you check out Web of Trust you can see that Health Impact News perpetuates a number of dubious and fraudulent claims, such as vaccine myths from the anti-vaxxer nutters. Which means that the slant the website is running is one that doesn’t respect scientific evidence. Not that this alone is enough to dismiss the claims.

The other source is the “expert” cited, one Stephanie Seneff. To say that this computer scientist is out of her depth in the field of health, genetics and chemistry is like suggesting Justin Bieber’s music is appealing to people with taste. She makes all sorts of wacky and unfounded claims about herbicides, GMOs and Monsanto, so calling her an expert or citing her work should get you laughed out of any room you are standing in.

The claim.

What the article claims is really the crux of the dismissal. If someone claimed to have seen bigfoot doing lines of blow with someone other than Charlie Sheen, we’d be immediately suspicious since we know that greater than 90% of all cocaine is snorted in the company of Sheen. Similarly when someone claims that the most extensively tested herbicide of all time, the safest agrichemical ever made, the most widely used agrichemical on the market, is responsible for [insert health consequence here, in this case autism] then you should be a tad suspicious.

Let’s ignore the fact about the extensive safety testing. Let’s also ignore the fact that autism seems to be the disease de jour of the alt-health fear-mongers, linked to everything from GMOs to vaccines. Let’s also ignore the fact that agrichemical safety and efficacy have virtually nothing to do with the safety and efficacy of individual GMOs (GM and GE being another kettle of fish entirely), despite what the article tries to imply. Let’s also ignore that glyphosate binds tightly to organic matter and is rapidly broken down in the environment so actual levels consumed will be negligible, and those amounts won’t be doing anything in the digestive tract. Let’s just assume that glyphosate is getting into our bodies and causing damage at huge levels: what evidence is there to suggest it is glyphosate and not any other agrichemical or environmental toxin that has increased during the same time period (e.g. coal pollution)? What evidence is there to suggest there has actually been any rise in maladies that aren’t as a result of something else (because everyone knows that fat people got fat whilst only eating celery sticks)?

The reference material or evidence.

Big claims require even bigger evidence. Solid evidence. One thing I hate about news sites is that they so often make oblique references to a study that may or may not have been published in a reputable journal, rather than just link straight to the journal and paper in question. In this case there is no link to a journal, reputable or not, just links to other unreliable sites such as The Mind Unleashed and The Alliance of Natural Health USA webpage, as well as a Youtube video. So far I’m underwhelmed.

Remember, this article is reporting on Seneff’s claim that half of all people will be autistic by 2025 thanks to herbicides. Half!! This is a condition that has a median occurrence of 62 cases per 10,000 people. The spectacular rise in autism that we should expect in the next decade for a herbicide that has been in wide use for many decades already would require a bit more evidence than “well, we reckon.” Seneff claimed a correlation between glyphosate use and a rise in autism. She clearly didn’t compare the rise in autism to organic food.

Damned organic food giving kids autism!!

Well, if you dig further into the reference of the reference (seriously, how hard is it to cite your sources properly!?!) you will find an actual journal paper by Seneff and Samsel in a journal called Entropy. Have you heard of Entropy and is it recognised as a go-to journal for science on the topic of, well, anything? Nope. And what about the study itself which claims that just about every malady you can think of is linked to glyphosate, what evidence does it present? Well pretty much none. To quote this article:

The evidence for these mechanisms, and their impact on human health, is all but nonexistent. The authors base their claim about CYP enzymes on two studies, one of liver cells and one of placental cells, which report endocrine disruptions when those cells are exposed to glyphosate. Neither study is CYP-specific (The effect of pesticides on CYP enzymes, by contrast, has been studied specifically.) As for the gut bacteria, there appears to be no research at all on glyphosate’s effect on them.

Samsel and Seneff didn’t conduct any studies. They don’t seem interested in the levels at which humans are actually exposed to glyphosate. They simply speculated that, if anyone, anywhere, found that glyphosate could do anything in any organism, that thing must also be happening in humans everywhere. I’d like to meet the “peers” who “reviewed” this.

Yep. That is a rebuttal from a Huffington Post article. Let that sink in for a moment. Even Huff Post don’t want to touch Seneff’s claims with a ten foot pole.

So far we have found that the suspicions about this article are well founded. The site is not reliable, the “expert” cited is not reliable, the sources cited are not reliable, the evidence cited is essentially non-existent, the claims made are not particularly plausible, and there is no evidence to support the claims. But this leaves us with a problem: short of hours of research on each point made, how do I confirm that these people are lying to me on the internet? Because you should be able to trust the internet, right?

The rebuttal.

The average person can’t be expected to be an expert in all topics, nor be expected to have the time to track down and read every piece of science to confirm an article is accurate. But there are people on the internet who have their favourite topics that they will write (or make videos) about. This means you just have to search for rebuttals to articles. Google can be handy for this if you are familiar with how to weed out the rubbish results. Joining forums or following experts in various fields can help as well (e.g. Skeptics Stack Exchange, Science Based Medicine). There are also webtools available to help find good information. I’ve already mentioned Web of Trust above, but there are many others.

rbutr is one such tool that can help with finding rebuttal articles (disclaimer: I am involved with rbutr on social media). In the case of the Health Impact News article there were two linked rebuttals (I’ll be adding this one as well), here and here. This really helps to figure out whether the arguments presented are valid (although in this case a basic application of logic should suffice). But there were more rebuttals linked to the Seneff journal article, 7 of them: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. These links allow people to easily see the arguments laid bare.

Thus we can now see that the article can be dismissed as rubbish. A fair bit of work to get there, but in the end we did it (~25 references and 1600 words later). Makes installing rbutr and Web of Trust in your web browser look like a great option, doesn’t it!

In the information age ignorance is a choice. But informing yourself isn’t as easy as just reading articles on subjects. Using a critical eye, applying logic, and accessing quality information has to be done to avoid being misinformed. When all said and done, evidence wins. And cat videos. And dog videos. In fact any video featuring a cute animal wins.

My art is better

Things you can only do whilst drunk

This week everyone was so pleased to have another chance to stick the boot into Britney Spears after the release of a recording of her singing rather terribly, allowing us to compare it to the auto-tuned album version. Britney is one of the celebrities people love to hate (South Park parodied this beautifully), and this “proof” that she is undeserving of her success is just the ammunition needed.

Now I’m not exactly the sort of person that would normally try to defend a pop star, because that would require me to listen to some of said pop star’s music, which would count as self-induced torture. But some of the comments that have been made are so intellectually lazy that I’ve felt the need to say something.

The common theme of the comments is that Britney lacks any actual singing talent, that she got where she is by being pretty or that she was manufactured as a pop star, and is undeserving of her success. Which is all utter crap. Spears has been in the entertainment industry since she was referred to a New York talent agent at age 8. Then she got her break after beating out hundreds of other hopefuls to become a Mouseketeer (along with Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling). Spears’ move into the recording industry again required impressing people with her talent, and was noted for her vocal styling and ability.

The producer who recorded Britney’s crappy singing has already addressed the singing and auto-tune issue. I’m not a fan of auto-tune, but I understand its use. While the warming up suggestion could be true, I’d bet money that Spears hasn’t worked on her singing in a decade, thus between not being a teenager anymore, not singing regularly (dancing and singing is not something you can do easily night after night, so miming makes sense), and having had kids, her voice is probably nothing like it was. So it is perfectly understandable that Spears sounded terrible and needs auto-tuning, but that doesn’t mean she has never been able to sing, and as I’ve already pointed out that is a ridiculous claim/insult (see this analysis of her vocals for more).

Essentially, you don’t rise to the top of the heap without some modicum of talent, because there are lots of other hopefuls wanting that same shot at stardom. As for whether Spears’ resulting success is deserved is really subjective, depending upon how much you actually like the music she sings, and how you feel about the “hit factory” style of music creation.

This really shows just how lazy people are with their attacks on successful people. It is very satisfying to pretend that someone’s success is undeserved, that they were just lucky, or pretty, or shagged the right people, or whatever other excuse. Nothing makes you feel more superior than knowing you could have been just as successful, if only you’d been willing to shag that agent, or if you had bigger boobs. Meanwhile those we deem to be deserving artists, suffer in obscurity. But success takes more than being pretty, or lucky; it takes talent, perseverance, motivation, hard work, perseverance, and lots of hard work. For every successful artist (or any other field for that matter) there are hundreds of wannabes that fell at the first, second, third, fourth, or twentieth hurdle. Maybe they didn’t want to put in the vocal practice, maybe they didn’t make the right connections because they pissed people off, maybe they swapped the dream for a day job, maybe they never took their shot (watch Henry Rollins discuss taking his shot), or maybe the artist is too niche for whatever reason.

We all have that favourite band, singer, author, actor, painter, etc, that we feel is under-appreciated in their field. It is easy to wish that they had the success of the artists we see as unworthy. I doubt I have an artist in my music collection that has been as successful as Britney Spears, and I’d argue that most of them have more talent and write better songs. But the very reason I don’t enjoy Spears’ music is also the reason I love the music I do, which means that my favourite artists aren’t going to be as popular.

Which brings me to the argument I’ve raised before about worthiness (here on literature, here on genre vs literature, and here on good vs popular). It is perfectly okay for you to like what you like, there is no “guilty pleasure”. We should also stop pretending that our subjective taste is better than someone else’s. And as this latest furore about Britney shows, we should stop pretending that successful artists got where they are without talent, or hard work, or that their work is somehow inferior to something we prefer.


Death of the e-reader?


E-Readers Are Cool

For quite some time now, which is another way of saying I can’t remember when exactly, I’ve been saying that e-readers are one screen improvement in phones/tablets away from redundancy. Now tech writers (whom I love) are coming round to my way of thinking, with a recent article in Salon suggesting that e-readers are going the way of mp3 players and vinyl:

Tech writers have begun rolling out their eulogies for the humble e-reader, which Mashable has deemed “the next iPod.” As in, it’s the next revolutionary, single-purpose device that’s on the verge of being replaced by smartphones and tablet computers. Barnes & Noble is spinning off its Nook division. Amazon just debuted its own smartphone, which some are taking as a tacit admission that more people are reading books on their phone these days, to the detriment of the Kindle. The analysts at Forrester, meanwhile, expect that U.S. e-reader sales will tumble to 7 million per year by 2017, down from 25 million in 2012.

At New York MagazineKevin Roose argues that this is “bad news for the book industry.” He writes:

If you’ve ever tried to read a book on your phone, you’ll know why. Reading on an original Kindle or a Nook is an immersive experience. There are no push notifications from other apps to distract you from your novel, no calendar reminders or texts popping up to demand your immediate attention. And this immersion is partly why people who use dedicated e-readers tend to buy a lot of books. (One survey indicated that e-book readers read about 24 books a year, compared to 15 books a year for paper-and-ink readers.)

A drop in e-book sales, which are actually more profitable for publishers than hardcovers, would certainly mean trouble for the industry. But I’m not convinced that’s where the death of e-readers will lead. Nook and Kindle owners might buy more books than your typical American, but I’m guessing a lot of that is simply because they’re more, well, bookish. As Pew wrote in January, “Adults who own e-readers like Kindles or Nooks read e-books more frequently than those who only own other devices (like tablets or cell phones). However, it is difficult to know whether that is because dedicated e-readers encourage more reading or because avid readers are more likely to purchase e-reading devices.”

Devices come. Devices go. The Kindle and Nook helped teach us all to pay for e-books, and I’m guessing that will be delivering publishers dividends for years to come.

I think we can all agree that e-books themselves aren’t dying, or books for that matter. I’d argue that reading a novel, or similar, will continue to be a pastime for many years to come, regardless of medium: digital, physical, or metaphysical. We’ll probably still be reading books when flame breathing giant lizards enter our dimension to destroy civilisation. After that time we’ll be too busy building something other than giant robots to fight the monsters to worry about reading.

When e-readers originally hit the market, phone screens were much smaller and the iPad was in its infancy, thus the e-ink screens of the e-readers offered a much better reading experience. They were a hit with the avid reading crowd, with the ability to shop for books, read them, shop for more books, read them, maybe do a bit more reading, then think about charging the e-reader in between side-loading some more books. But all of those advantages were heavily reliant upon the better reading experience.

Phones and tablets as e-readers have many advantages: they tend to go everywhere with us; they can access all libraries; they can access all online bookshops, not just the one you bought the e-reader from (*cough* Amazon *cough*); they can be used for audiobooks; they have a larger market share so better technology advancements (i.e. where’s the colour e-ink we were promised?); and they can do things other than be used as a reading device. Now with a range of screen sizes in phones and tablets (e.g. Samsung Note, iPad Mini, iPad, standard phone, etc) there is a non-dedicated e-reader suited to you!

Although, let’s not get ahead of ourselves just yet. This magical new screen I’m seeing in my crystal ball – did I mention I see a breakup on the horizon for Brad and Angelina? – isn’t here yet. Until we have the new screen and e-reader owners are upgrading or replacing their old devices, the dedicated e-ink e-reader is still going to be the device of reading choice for avid readers. The articles are talking about a decline in sales from a peak of 25 million in 2012, to a “predicted” 7 million in 2017. Is this really surprising regardless of a tech upgrade?

You see, this is why I love tech articles so much: the lack of a reality check. 25 million sales in 2012 (26 million in 2011 from my source), on top of other sales in previous years, pretty much taps out the avid reader market to sell e-reader devices to. So any sales after that are going to be from old e-readers dying and needing replacement, which is probably where the 7 million figure comes in (note that my source shows that to occur in 2016, not 2017). That isn’t the death of the e-reader, that is the maturation of the market. I guess we could try to convince avid readers to not spend as much money on books and instead spend more money on buying e-readers, but that would lead to all sorts of problems. We’d need shelves to store all of these e-readers on, maybe even taking up entire walls; file them using some sort of system that allows us to easily find them in order; perhaps hire a person, let’s call them a librarian, to look after these e-readers until someone comes to use them.

So despite my agreement that e-readers will eventually be replaced by other devices, I think that news of the death of the e-reader is greatly exaggerated.

Kids these days.


Something I’ve noticed on social media, and the media in general, is the denigration of kids these days. Whether it be Gen Whatever complaining about the Millennials, or just people complaining about how (insert disparaging adjective here) the younger generation are, I never fail to be amused with the curmudgeons and their ironic statements.

Complaining about the younger generation has been a popular pastime for old people since the invention of young people. Usually the complaints are followed by the creaks of arthritic joints as canes, walking sticks and Zimmer frames are waved at the sky; because everyone knows kids live in the sky these days. Even some of the great philosophers have gotten in on the act of denigrating these uppity kids:

Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannise their teachers. – Socrates (469–399 B.C.E.)

That’s right, since the dawn of time, old people have complained about young people and how they are destroying society. And we should know, just look at how terrible society is now: deaths from war are at a thousand year low, homicides are also on a steady decline, the economy is on a 2000 year high, literacy levels are at an all time high, we live longer, and less kids die so they get to grow up, become old, and complain about the kids these days. How can we live in such a terrible time in history!

You see what is happening is a form of nostalgia, pining for a time that never really existed. This golden age only appears golden through a pair of rose coloured glasses, from which only the good memories remain, the bad memories having been covered over with years of alcohol abuse. The kids these days are doing the same stuff the oldies were doing at the same age (as witnessed in this Daily Show video).

We really need to stop with this ageist nonsense. Society has advanced: kids learn different things at school because different things will be expected of them in the future, computers are a thing now, phones are really handy, pop music is as dull as ever, and nobody cares how far you had to walk to school back in your day. So let’s stop picking on different age groups and get back to criticising the things that really matter: sport referees.


More articles worth a read:

Is science broken?

With the rebirth of Cosmos on TV, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and the team have brought science back into the mainstream. No longer is science confined to the latest puff piece on cancer research that is only in the media because a) cancer and b) the researchers are pressuring the funding bodies to give them money. The terms geek and nerd have stopped being quite the derogatory terms they once were. We even have science memes becoming as popular as Sean Bean “brace yourself” memes.

Sean dies

This attention has also cast a light on the scientific process itself with many non-scientists and scientists passing comment on the reliability of science. Nature has recently published several articles discussing the reliability of study’s findings. One article shows why the hard sciences laugh at the soft sciences, with the article talking about statistical errors. I mean, have these “scientists” never heard of selection and sample bias? Yes, there is a nerd pecking order, and it is maintained through pure snobbishness, complicated looking equations, and how clean the lab-coat remains.


As a science nerd, I feel the need to weigh in on this attack on science. So I’m going to tear apart, limb by limb, a heavy hitting article: Cracked.com’s 6 Shocking Studies That Prove Science Is Totally Broken.

To say that science is broken or somehow unreliable is nonsense. To say that peer review or statistical analysis is unreliable is also nonsense. There are exceptions to this: sometimes entire fields of study are utter crap, sometimes entire journals are just crap, sometimes scientists and reviewers suck at maths/stats. But in most instances these things are not-science, just stuff pretending to be science. Which is why I’m going to discuss this article.

A Shocking Amount of Medical Research Is Complete Bullshit
#6 – Kinda true. There are two problems here: media reporting of medical science and actual medical science. The biggest issue is the media reporting of medical science, hell, science in general. Just look at how the media have messed up the reporting of climate science for the past 40 years.

Of course most of what is reported as medical studies are often preliminary studies. You know: “we’ve found a cure for cancer, in a petri dish, just need another 20 years of research and development, and a boatload of money, and we might have something worth getting excited about.” The other kind that get attention aren’t proper medical studies but are spurious claims by someone trying to pedal a new supplement. So this issue is more about the media being scientifically illiterate than anything.

Another issue is the part of medical science that Ben Goldacre has addressed in his books Bad Science and Bad Pharma. Essentially you have a bias toward positive results being reported. This isn’t good enough. Ben goes into more detail on this topic and it is worth reading his books on this topic and the Nature articles I previously referred to.

Many Scientists Still Don’t Understand Math
#5 – Kinda true. Math is hard. It has all of those funny symbols and not nearly enough pie charts. Mmmm, pie! If a reviewer in the peer review process doesn’t understand maths, they will often reject papers, calling the results blackbox. Other times the reviewers will fail to pick up the mistakes made, usually because they aren’t getting paid and that funding application won’t write itself. And that’s just the reviewers. Many researchers don’t do proper trial design and often pass off analysis to specialists who have to try and make the data work despite massive failings. And the harsh reality is that experiments are always a compromise: there is no such thing as the perfect experiment.

Essentially, scientists are fallible human beings like everyone else. Which is why science itself is iterative and includes a methods section, so that results are independently confirmed before being accepted.

And They Don’t Understand Statistics, Either
#4 – Kinda true, but misleading. How many people understand the difference between statistically significant and significance? Here’s a quick example:

This illustrates that when you test for something at the 95% confidence interval you still have a 1 in 20 chance of a false positive or natural variability arising in the test. Some “science” has been published that uses this false positive by doing a statistical fishing trip (e.g. anti-GM paper). But there is another aspect, if you get enough samples, and enough data, you can actually get a statistically significant result but not have a significant result. An example would be testing new fertiliser X and finding that there is a p value of 0.05 (i.e. significant) that the grain yield is 50kg higher in a 3 tonne per hectare crop. Wow, statistically significant, but at 50kg/ha, who cares?!

But these results will be reported, published, and talked about. It is easy for people who haven’t read and understood the work to get over excited by these results. It is also easy for researchers to get over excited too, they are only human. But this is why we have the methods and results sections in science papers, so that calmer, more rational heads prevail. Usually after wine. Wine really helps.

Scientists Have Nearly Unlimited Room to Manipulate Data
#3 – True but misleading. Any scientist *could* make up anything that they wanted. They could generate a bunch of numbers to prove that, for an example of bullshit science, the world is only 6000 years old. But because scientists are a skeptical bunch, they’d want some confirming evidence. They’d want that iterative scientific process to come into play. And the bigger that claim, the more evidence they’d want. Hence why scientists generally ignore creationists, or just pat them on the head when they show up at events: aren’t they cute, they’re trying to science!

But there is a serious issue here. The Nature article I referred to was a social sciences study, a field that is rife with sampling and selection bias. Ever wonder why you hear “scientists say X is bad for you” then a year later it is “scientists say X is good for you”? Well, that is because two groups were sampled and correlated for X, and as much as we’d like it, correlation doesn’t equal causation. I wish someone would tell the media this little fact, especially since organic food causes autism.

Other fields have other issues. Take a look at health and fitness studies and spot who the participants were: generally they are university students who need the money to buy tinned beans and beer. Not the most representative group of people and often they are mates with one of the researchers, all 4 of them. Not enough participants and a biased sample: not the way to do science. The harder sciences are better, but that isn’t to say that there isn’t limitations. Again, *this is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.*

The Science Community Still Won’t Listen to Women – Update
#2 – When I first wrote this I disagreed, but now I agree, see video below. As someone with a penis my mileage on this issue is far too limited. That is why it was only when a few prominent people spoke out about this issue that I realised science is no better than the rest of society. It hurts me to say that.

There is still a heavy bias toward men in senior positions at universities and research institutes, women get paid less, women are guessed to be less competent scientists, and apparently it is okay to ogle female scientists’ boobs… Any of these sound familiar to the rest of society? This is gradually changing, but you have to remember what age those senior people are and what that generation required of women (quit when they got married, etc). That old guard may have influence but they’ll all be dead or retired soon where their influence will be confined to the letters to the editor in the newspaper. After seeing the video below, especially the way the question was asked, I think it is clear that the expectations for women create barriers into and through careers in science (the racism is similar and is one I see as a big issue). So it starts long before people get into science, then it continues through attrition.

Fast forward to 1:01:31 for the question and NGT’s answer (sorry, embed doesn’t allow time codes).

Recently there have been a spate of very public sexist science moments. Whether it be telling female scientists they should find a male co-author to improve their science, or Nobel Laureates who don’t want to be distracted by women in the lab, it is clear that women in science don’t get treated like scientists. Which is why I find the Twitter response to the Tim Hunt debacle, #distractinglysexy, to be exactly the sort of ridicule required.

Scientists are meant to be thinkers, they are meant to be smart, they are meant to follow the evidence. They aren’t meant to behave like some cretin who hangs out on the mens rights movement subreddit discussion. Speaking of which, watch science communicator Emily Graslie discuss the comments section of Youtube.

It’s All About the Money
#1 – D’uh and misleading. Research costs money. *This is why we have the methods section, so that we can figure out the limitations of the study.* Money may bring in bias, but it doesn’t have to, nor does that bias have to be bad or wrong. Remember how I said above that science is an iterative process? Well, there is only so big a house of cards that can be built under a pile of bullshit before it falls down in a stinky mess. Money might fool a few people for a while (e.g. climate change denial) but science will ultimately win.

Ultimately, science is the best tool we have for finding out about our reality, making cool stuff, and blowing things up. Without it we wouldn’t be, this article wouldn’t be possible, we wouldn’t know what a Bill Nye smack down looks like. Sure, there is room for improvement, especially in the peer review process and funding arrangements, and science is flawed because it is done by humans, but science is bringing the awesome every day: we have to remember that fact.

Other rebuttals:

I think you’re Mythtaken: Guns #2 – The second armour-piercing round

After a recent discussion about gun myths, I realised that my last blog post hadn’t covered anywhere near enough of the myths that are floating around (this article will mainly be about US guns, but parallels from the resources and science cited can be drawn to other countries). This is obviously because stuff is much easier to make up than to research, just ask Bill “tides go in, tides go out” O’Reilly. One of the big problems with research in the US on guns is that the National Rifle Association has effectively lobbied to cut off federal funding for research and stymieing data collection and sharing on gun violence. As a result there are a lack of hard numbers and research often tends to be limited in scope. Scope: get it? So like a lost rabbit wandering onto a shooting range, or a teenager wearing a hoody, it’s time to play dodge with some of these claims.

Myth: Guns make you safer, just like drinking a bit of alcohol makes you a better driver.

The myth I hear the most often is that guns make you safer;  just like the death penalty is a great deterrent, surveillance cameras stop crime, and the internet is a good source of medical advice. The problem with this myth is that people like having a safety blanket to snuggle. What they don’t realise is that guns don’t make you safer, they make you 4.5-5.5 times more likely to do something stupid to someone you know and love than be used for protection.

I want to be clear here: there’s nothing wrong with going shooting at the range, or hunting vermin. The problem is thinking that you can use a gun for self-defence, when it actually makes the violence problem worse. That gun escalates the violence because people have it there: why not use it? To wit the criminals enter into an arms race and a shoot first policy.

Owning a gun has been linked to higher risks of homicidesuicide, and accidental death by gun. For every time a gun is used in self-defense in the home, there are 7 assaults or murders, 11 suicide attempts, and 4 accidents involving guns in or around a home. 43% of homes with guns and kids have at least one unlocked firearm, and in one experiment it was found that one third of 8-to-12-year-old boys who found a handgun pulled the trigger, which is just plain unsafe.

As for carrying around a gun for self-defence, well, in 2011, nearly 10 times more people were shot and killed in arguments than by civilians trying to stop a crime. In one survey, nearly 1% of Americans reported using guns to defend themselves or their property. However, a closer look at their claims found that more than 50% involved using guns in an aggressive manner, such as escalating an argument. A Philadelphia study found that the odds of an assault victim being shot were 4.5 times greater if they carried a gun. Their odds of being killed were 4.2 times greater.

It is even worse for women. In 2010, nearly 6 times more women were shot by husbands, boyfriends, and ex-partners than murdered by male strangers. A woman’s chances of being killed by her abuser increase more than 7 times if he has access to a gun, and that access could be the woman keeping one around just in case her attacker needs it. One US study found that women in states with higher gun ownership rates were 4.9 times more likely to be murdered by a gun than women in states with lower gun ownership rates; funny that.

There is also the action hero delusion that often gets trotted out when talking about guns for self-defence. The idea is that everyone is a good guy, so give them a gun and you have a bunch of action heroes ready to fight off the forces of evil. This has worked so well that all governments are thinking of getting rid of the military….

The reality is that the average person is not an action hero and would fail miserably in a high stress situation with actual bad guys. You only have to look at the statistics:

  • Mass shootings stopped by armed civilians in the past 30 years: 0
  • Chances that a shooting at an ER involves guns taken from guards: 1 in 5

I’ve seen several examples cited of “citizens” shooting someone who looked intent on killing everyone they could (with a gun…). But in every instance the “citizen” was actually an off-duty police officer, or a person in law enforcement, or someone in the military. In other words, the people who stop mass shootings or bad-guys with guns, are trained professionals.

There have also been a few studies done that claim X million lawful crime preventions, therefore guns must be good; notably by researchers Lott and Kleck. To say that their research is flawed is like saying Stephen King has sold a few books. Lott’s work has been refuted for extrapolating flawed data. Kleck’s research has similarly been refuted by many peer reviewed articles:

Myth: Guns don’t kill people, people kill people, quite often with a gun, because punching someone to death is hard work.

If this myth were true we wouldn’t send troops to war with weapons. I get where people are coming from with this myth, because the gun itself is an inanimate object and is only as good or bad as the person using it. Yes, I did just quote the movie Shane: thanks for noticing. But here is the thing, in a society we are more than just a bunch of individuals, we are a great big bell-curve of complexity. So when you actually study the entire population you find that people with more guns tend to kill more people—with guns. In the US, states with the highest gun ownership rates have a gun murder rate 114% higher than those with the lowest gun ownership rates. Also, gun death rates tend to be higher in states with higher rates of gun ownership. Gun death rates are generally lower in states with restrictions such as firearm type restrictions or safe-storage requirements.

PediatricsCenters for Disease Control and Prevention

Gun deaths graph: The three states with the highest rate of gun ownership (MT, AK, WY) have a gun death rate of 17.8 per 100,000, over 4 times that of the three lowest-ownership states (HI, NJ, MA; 4.0 gun deaths per 100,000).

The thing is that despite guns being inanimate objects, they affect the user/owner’s psyche. It’s like waking up one morning with a larger penis or bigger boobs: you not only want to show them off, you act differently as a result. Studies confirm this change in behaviour. Drivers who carry guns are 44% more likely than unarmed drivers to make obscene gestures at other motorists, and 77% more likely to follow them aggressively. Among Texans convicted of serious crimes, those with concealed-handgun licenses were sentenced for threatening someone with a firearm 4.8 times more than those without. In US states with Stand Your Ground and other laws making it easier to shoot in self-defence, those policies have been linked to a 7 to 10% increase in homicides.

Now people also like to try and red herring the argument against guns by pretending that video games or mental health is the problem. The NRA tried to claim video games were to blame after the Newtown shootings. Of course we’d be able to see this relationship by looking at gun ownership versus video game playing, like by comparing the USA to Japan.

United States Japan
Per capita spendingon video games $44 $55
Civilian firearmsper 100 people 88 0.6
Gun homicidesin 2008 11,030 11

Sources: PricewaterhouseCoopersSmall Arms Survey (PDF), UN Office on Drugs and Crime

The thing is controlling guns has been shown to work, although there are other factors in play, and policing is still key. But when gun control has been shown to reduce firearm deaths by 1-6 per 100,000 then the case is pretty much closed.

Myth: They’re coming for your guns to stop our freedom and tyranny and democide and Alex Jones said so and aliens made me do it!

As I stated above, the statistics on guns and gun violence is hazy. No one knows the exact number of guns in America, but it’s clear there’s no practical way to round them all up (never mind that no one in Washington is proposing this). Those “freedom” loving gun owners – all 80 million of them – have the evil government out-gunned by a factor of around 79 to 1. If government were coming for the guns, you’d think they’d have done so before being this grossly out-gunned.

guns-owned630Sources: Congressional Research Service (PDF), Small Arms Survey

Yes, 80 million gun owners is a minority! I find it interesting that from 1989 to 2000 there was a decline in gun ownership of 46% to 32%. Now the decline in ownership rebounds to hover between 34 and 43% for 2000-2011 (notably the high point in 2007 was after the Virginia Tech shooting which the NRA did a lot of campaigning around), which shows why the decline didn’t continue. Now compare those rates of ownership to the recent report from the US Bureau of Justice Statistics sums up the rates of gun violence. You can clearly see a decline in gun violence from 1993 to 2000 before a plateau that has pretty much held since. This is confirmed by other studies. This is an important take home point: all the research shows violence and gun violence is on the decline. The idea that people need a gun for protection is becoming more and more ridiculous. This is despite the global decline in violence, and trends seen in countries like Australia (more Aussie stats here). On a side note, in the last lot of statistics you see that the more female, educated, non-white, and liberal you are, the less likely you are to own a gun. 

So scare campaigns may work to boost sales of guns for a while, but overall, most people don’t want or need a gun. The long term trend has nothing to do with the government coming for the guns and everything to do with people realising they don’t need one and prefer to read a good book, or watch a movie, instead of going to the range.

The simple fact is that more guns in society is the best predictor of death, thus it is time to rethink the reasons for owning a gun, especially if that reason is in case you have to John McClane a situation.

More mythbusting gun articles: http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hemenway-guns-20150423-story.html



More science:


Nye vs. Ham: science vs. nonsense

nye vs ham

There is a general rule in arguments: don’t argue with stupid people, they drag you down to their level and beat you with experience. That is pretty much the problem scientists and experts have when debating anti-science proponents – such as creationists, anti-vaccinators, anti-GM campaigners, climate change deniers, etc. Yet Bill Nye the Science Guy decided that, in the interest of science and education, he would debate a creationist.

The debate started with Bill Nye and Ken Ham stating a 5 minute opening piece. Then Ken went into his 50 minute argument, which is when my cushion really started to earn its keep protecting my desk from damage.

I really find it hard to fathom how anyone can be credulous of Ham’s statements. In his 50 minutes he used all sorts of logical fallacies, most notably his videos of “creationist scientists” as argument from authority. But it wasn’t this that really got the lump on my forehead rising, it was the use of “evidence” for his argument that simultaneously refuted the arguments. One example was the phylogenetic tree for dogs. Ham argued that the rise of Canis lupus familiaris from a wolf (yeah, just one, let’s just let that one go through to the keeper) was what you would see from biblical predictions of dogs speciating after the global flood 4,000 years ago. Just one problem. Teeny tiny. The figure showed dogs evolving from a group of wolf ancestors over the course of 14-15,000 years.

He didn’t just do this once, he did it repeatedly. Another example arose when he was talking up one of his creationist pals who helped design a satellite (or something, didn’t really care because it was irrelevant). He used the example of how scientists had been debating how old the universe was: they couldn’t agree on the age. The part he left out about that particular debate was that the age of the universe was somewhere around about 13.8 billion years old (+ 37 million years), and they had a bunch of data they were trying to make sure they had the errors accounted for. The debate was about the difference in the confidence range (or error margin) between the Planck satellite measures and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe measures. The error margin is 6,000 times greater than the age of the Earth that Ham claims. The Earth’s age is still 2 million times older than Ham’s claim, yet he uses this example as if to give credence to his claims.

Now Nye did his best in his 50 minutes to show that Ham’s claims were flawed, but also how evidence and scientific observation and prediction work. Others have claimed, and I agree to an extent, that Nye’s mistake was to try and cover too much ground. If he was talking to a receptive audience he would have destroyed Ham and had the crowd eating out of his hand. But at a creationist museum, with a bunch of science deniers, it would come across as too much information and too confusing. Although Nye’s last couple of minutes pretty much killed the entire debate, with trees, rocks, size of the universe, distance from stars but limits of how fast the light can travel, all showing that the Earth and Universe are much much older.

The first rebuttal saw Ham carrying on about “you weren’t there so you don’t know.” Brian Dunning had a great take on this particular argument:

There is a rumor that Bill Nye @TheScienceGuy debated evolution with Ken Ham. Not true. It did not happen, because you weren’t there.

In this first rebuttal, Ham again used evidence that rebutted his own claims, especially when talking about radio-carbon dating. Showing that measurements have error margins, or can be somewhat imprecise, doesn’t negate the fact that the measurements are still many orders of magnitude outside of the age of the Earth claimed by Ham. Then he moved onto saying that the bible is right, everything else is wrong (let’s just ignore that the bible isn’t even consistent with itself, let alone the fact that it is a translation of a translation, thus literal interpretation isn’t supported by biblical scholars).

Nye then rebutted Ham’s statements. His classic put down was for the claim that every animal and humans were vegetarian until they got of the ark: lion’s teeth aren’t really made for broccoli.* Ba-zing!

Next Ham tried to point out that creationism isn’t his model (then he blames secularists for scientists). This is true, there are other nutters who came up with this crap. But Ham tried to pretend that “scientists” came up with the various creation models (NB: just because a scientist said something, doesn’t make it science or scientific). Then he talks about species and kinds and how Nye was confusing what a kind was. Easy to do when the idea of a kind is bullshit and unsupported by any actual science.

Nye then tore apart the claims about the rise of species from kinds using the basic math involved. He also called bullshit on the ship building skills of ancient desert people. The main point in this rebuttal was that Ham hadn’t addressed Nye’s point adequately, and that Ham’s claims aren’t supported by the majority of religious people, let alone scientists.

My desk and forehead had had enough by this stage, so I didn’t watch the Q&A section, but it can be viewed here.

The point I wanted to make from this was that Ham had a huge advantage in this discussion. I’m not talking about the home team venue, nor the credulous crowd, I’m talking about the lack of need for evidence. All Ham had to do, and pretty much what he did, was seed doubt in science and then declare “creationism wins” (which might as well be “God did it”). This is the problem with any debate with anti-science: the scientists have to prove their case with evidence and logical reasoning; the anti-science side only has to sow some doubt. And that doubt can vary between legitimate claims through to flat out lies, it doesn’t matter. So Nye shouldn’t have taken the debate.

But Nye was right to take the debate.

Hang-on. Have you hit your head against your desk a few too many times during that debate?

No. Bill Nye is a well known and respected science communicator. He went into the belly of the beast to stand in the echo chamber and sow some doubt (how’s that for a metaphor-fest?). As he stated himself, Nye knows that America (and the world, but let’s allow him his patriotism) needs science and innovation for the future of society. Creationism and other anti-science nonsense undermine this. If no-one challenges the group-think and echo chamber of the creationists (et al.) then they will continue to be mislead and misinformed by people like Ken Ham. You can’t have someone reject evolution yet rely on germ theory for modern medicine. You can’t have someone reject radio-carbon dating yet use medical imaging. That is incompatible, that is a rejection of reality, and it leads to stupid stuff happening that curbs development of new technologies and advancements to society.

Other opinions on who won:
Shane proposes that Nye needed to pick a couple of points to hammer home. This feeds into science communication research that shows you can get distracted from the main narrative with too many points. 

Christian Nation have Bill Nye winning the debate 92% to 8%. 

Update: Richard Linski has blogged about the debate and Ham’s use of his E. coli evolution work. Not surprisingly, Ham completely misrepresented the work. As I said above, Ham did this with many examples in his presentation. It is important that people realise just how deceptive Ham’s statements and claims are.

Update: It is clear that many of Ham’s supporters were not listening to Bill Nye and are wilfully ignorant. This Buzzfeed article (yeah, I know, Buzzfeed) brings up a lot of the points that Nye addressed, explained clearly and simply, showing they didn’t listen to Nye, and slept through school.

Update: This article makes a nice statement that ties into some of my points about why Nye took the debate. To quote:

It brought new attention to YEC (Young Earth Creationism) to exactly the people we need to see it- the large swath of Christian and other religious parents who think of Intelligent Design or Guided Evolution or some other pseudo-scientific concept when they imagine “teaching the controversy“. These people are embarrassed by people like Ken Ham. They know the earth isn’t 6000 years old, and they understand just how impossible it is to square that belief with observable phenomena.

Update: The ever awesome Potholer54 just posted a video on one point about evolution and Ken Ham’s rebuttal of his own arguments. Worth watching.

* Okay, not the best point to make, as teeth aren’t definitive of diet, but if the comment is viewed as being representative of animal physiology overall, then it is a very valid putdown of the vegetarian claims.

Mythtaken: Shark Attack Deaths

Ever since Spielberg made us scared of seeing any more Indiana Jones films, people have felt better about blaming him for the hysteria around sharks.

shark tears

Recently in my home state of Western Australia there has been a decision made to cull sharks because some people have been killed by them. Clearly we should blame sharks for just wanting a hug and not humans for dressing up like shark food. This is a stupid decision and I’m about to outline why we can’t even tell if there have been more shark deaths, let alone whether a cull would actually work, let alone whether you’d know if the cull does anything. It all comes down to statistics. Well, that and media beat-ups to sell advertising space.

You’d honestly think that there had been a change in the number of people dying in Australia from shark attacks in order to justify a shark cull. Well, the official stats show there hasn’t been an increase in deaths from shark attacks. In fact the deaths are so low the noise around the long term average of 1.38 deaths per annum (2000-2012), that any increase or decrease in deaths are impossible to assign any significance to (see chart below). Three deaths in a year (2000): could be an anomaly. Zero deaths the year after (2001): likely to be regression to the mean. Number of deaths from the most ferocious animal on the planet: bees; 10 per year.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

Graph of Aussie shark attacks 2000-2012. Blue is total encounters, yellow is non-fatal, red is fatal. Trend lines for total and fatal.

What you do see in the data is a slight increase in the number of attacks. If you look at the number of attacks and fatalities since 1900, there has been a general increase in the number of shark attacks, but a decrease in the fatalities from shark attacks. It’s almost as though there are more people in the world and more of them bobbing up and down in the ocean in seal costumes, possibly on a tasty cracker.

graph 2 shark attacks since 1900 by decade

International Shark Attack File data, Florida Museum of Natural History

Now this is interesting for the world and Australia, as it appears that despite our best efforts as humans, sharks aren’t taking revenge for the 100 million of them we kill each year. But this is about a shark cull in Western Australia: what’s happening there? Well, these tables say it all really:

Unprovoked Cases Since 1791:

State # Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured Last Fatality
NSW 243 68 (27.9%) 120 55 2013 Coffs Harbour
QLD 251 82 (32.7%) 151 18 2011 Fantome Island
WA 92 20 (21.7%) 57 15 2013 Gracetown
SA 48 18 (37.5%) 23 7 2011 Coffin Bay
VIC 45 9 (20%) 27 9 1987 Mornington Peninsula
TAS 15 3 (20%) 8 4 1993 Tenth Is, Georgetown
NT 10 2 (Duh) 6 2 1938 Bathurst Island
Total 704 202 (28.7%) 392 110 (Revised  28/1/2014)

Provoked Cases Since 1832:

# Cases Fatal Injured Uninjured
Total 190 15 129 46

Western Australia accounts for ~13% of shark attack deaths. When we look at 2012 data we see that WA is having a greater proportion of the Australian attacks and accounts for all the fatalities in Australia. The terms “bigger population”, “longer coastline”, “more cashed up bogans come to mind.

Australian Shark Encounter Statistics for 2012:

State Cases Recorded Fatal Injured Uninjured
NSW 5 0 3 2
QLD 1 0 1 0
SA 1 0 1 0
WA 5 2 2 1
VIC 1 0 1 0
TAS 1 0 1 0
NT 0 0 0 0
TOTAL – Unprovoked 14 2 9 3
TOTAL – Provoked 8 0 5 3
All Cases 22 2 14 6

So there is no actual proof that there are any more deaths occurring from shark attacks, definitely no trend toward more deaths, but a significant increase in the number of media reports on those deaths (citation needed). Even on a state by state basis there isn’t any death trend. But there is a trend towards more shark incidents. What we are actually seeing is an increase in the number of people dressing up like seals/shark food (scuba divers and surfers).

Circumstances affecting shark / human interactions:
The number of shark-human interactions occurring in a given year correlates with human population increases and the amount of time humans spend in the shark’s environment. As Australia’s population continues to increase and interest in aquatic recreation rises, it would realistically be expected that there will be an increase in the number of shark encounters.

Let’s put that in perspective, Australians have a 1 in 3,362 chance of drowning at the beach and a 1 in 292,525 chance of being killed by a shark in one’s entire lifetime. In Australia there are 1.38 deaths per year from sharks, 121 deaths per year from drowning at the beach, and 1,193 deaths per year from driving. We’re more likely to die from all the stupid shit we do, than from sharks. So why have a shark cull?

There is no real reason to have a shark cull. We already kill 100 million of the things annually anyway. What we actually need to do is look at where the sharks are looking for food, has their food moved, if so due to what, and are we seeing less shark food available such that sharks are looking for alternate foods. The shark cull with drum lines and nets is actually likely to kill off dolphins, turtles, rays, and endangered shark species, which is why fisheries researchers don’t support the cull.

Update: I neglected to mention that other states in Australia have been using baiting and nets, in the case of Queensland, since 1962, and since 1937 in New South Wales. Reports are not complimentary of the Queensland nor New South Wales programs. To quote:

…the Fisheries Scientific Committee is of the opinion that the current shark meshing program in New South Wales waters’ adversely affects two or more threatened species, populations or ecological communities and could cause species, populations or ecological communities that are not threatened to become threatened.

And (okay, I’ve cherry picked this a bit, read the whole report on how we are overfishing, killing shitloads of sharks, destroying the fisheries and adding baiting on top of this):

The main pressures on grey nurse sharks appear to be fishing activities and shark control programs……. The biological susceptibility of sharks to over fishing, evidence for increasing fishing pressure and lack of information have given rise to increasing concern about the sharks and rays of the Reef.

Essentially shark baiting, whilst paling in comparison to the 100 million sharks killed for their fins annually, is another pressure that endangered species don’t need. Especially when the baiting is still killing other endangered animals, not just sharks.

For more, read these articles:

Will individuals respond differently to homeopathic remedies prepared with unboiled vs. boiled water?

I recently watched a debate between Ben Goldacre and Peter Fischer on homeopathy. During the course of the debate, an audience member asked, “If water has a memory, how come you’re not sick every time you drink water out of the tap?.

A homeopathic practitioner answered (paraphrased) that boiling the water resets the memory and that homeopathic remedies are only effective when using boiled water. He makes another comment implying that if a remedy were prepared with tap water, it wouldn’t be effective.

I realize the above related question (“Does water have a memory…?”) is nearly identical. I’m trying to ask it another way as it’s possible to persist with the water memory concept despite the other question’s answer. One could simply say (my hypothetical response),

“Well, we don’t know how it works and perhaps it isn’t by the known mechanism of how water behaves… but trials indicate that it works, nonetheless and that’s all I need.”

Since the audience member in the video indicated tangible predictions, I’m interested if they’ve ever been put to the test. Thus, my question is:

Has a trial ever been conducted in which homeopathic remedies prepared from both unboiled and boiled water were compared against one another in terms of patient response?

If there is another way to answer this question please go for it.


It really doesn’t make any difference if the water is boiled or not, homeopathy doesn’t work.

The Minimum Dose and Avagadro’s Number The second and most controversial tenet in homeopathy is that remedies retain biological activity if they are diluted in a series (usually in a 1:10 or 1:100 diluent–volume ratio) and agitated or shaken between each dilution. Hahnemann began this process to reduce toxicity, but later he claimed that this “potenization” process extracted the “vital” or “spirit-like” nature of these substances (2). The limit of molecular dilution (Avagadro’s number) was not discovered until the later part of Hahnemann’s life; by then homeopaths all over the world were reporting that even very high potencies (dilutions lower than Avagadro’s number) produced clinical effects. The implausibility of such claims has led many to dismiss any evidence of homeopathy’s effectiveness as artifact or delusion (3). http://www.annals.org/content/138/5/393.full

But lets pretend for a moment that water does have memory. The aspect of boiling has not been researched. A search of Google Scholar nets no results for boiling and homeopathy. When referring to “how-to” guides of preparations it becomes obvious that homeopaths are merely after clean or unpolluted water to make their preparations in.

Ingredients … 1/2 or 1 litre of boiled water (distilled water may be bought at pharmacies in some countries, if you want that, and bottled, rinsed water is commonly sold in groceries too)

Another example:

Preparing your own bottle: Boil the glass bottle and dropper in filtered water for 15 min. and let it cool completely. Fill it just to the neck with filtered or distilled water.

So clearly the idea that boiling is the only way to reset the water is not backed up by the practices employed by homeopaths themselves. This combined with the fraudulent claim that water retains memory shows that this is another misdirection to allow justification.

Is GM corn toxic?

According to Vendomois et al, 2009:

these data highlight signs of hepatorenal toxicity, possibly due to the new pesticides specific to each GM corn.

Monsanto, the manufacturer of two of the studied strains of GM corn, responded, dismissing the article, particularly by criticizing the statistical methods used. Is Monsanto’s criticism valid?

Have their been additional studies done that either support or refute the claim that genetically-modified corn has toxic effects?


The simple answer is no.

GM corn has the BT gene that allows lower use of pesticides due to increased or the RR gene that allows the use of glyphosate for weed control. Neither of these alterations have any impacts upon the production of sugars or proteins in the plant. http://www.ca.uky.edu/entomology/entfacts/ef130.asp

The problem that can arise is from the pesticides that are now used on the crops and the timing of their application. These pesticides are known to harm mammals and if the dose is high enough can cause problems. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2793308/

Generally though, because you are removing pests and weeds the plants tend to be healthier so they are less impacted by pathogens, thus better for consumption. http://www.acsh.org/factsfears/newsID.962/news_detail.asp

There is an issue with using corn as a feed supplement in animals though. Corn is not a complete food source and is generally low in protein, especially tryptophan. This means that a feed mix is required, not just straight corn meal. http://www.ag.ndsu.edu/pubs/ansci/beef/as1238w.htm

Another issue is that corn can cause Pellagra. This is due to the niacin and B12 being bound in the corn starches and not being released in normal digestion. Tryptophan is also low in corn and can cause Pellagra.

So the problems often cited with GM corn are actually just problems with corn itself. Neither are harmful, if used correctly in a balanced diet, but pesticide residues are of concern. For more see this: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.0960-7412.2002.001607.x/full

Another point that should be made is that the paper cited is from a notorious “research” group who produce shoddy science in order to further their biased agenda against GM technology. The big problem with the paper is that it uses the wrong sort of analysis and the data has already been analysed by two other papers and found to say the opposite of what this paper says. Essentially, if you do a statistical test with a 95% confidence margin, you are saying that you have one chance in twenty of being wrong because of natural variability. So if you measure 20 variables with separate tests, you are likely to have one be a false positive result. Measure 40 with separate tests, 2 false positives. This is what the research group did, set up the stats to generate lots of false positives, instead of analysing the data correctly with tests that account for this problem. It should be noted that this is a common problem/tactic with anti-GM research papers.

Additional question: The ACSH source claims Studies Indicate GM Crops Are Safer and Healthier, but last time ACSH reported their funding, they were co-funded by what are now GMO companies. Currently they are not open about their funding at all. Therefore, their independence cannot be established. Can you back up the claim by research where all funding sources are open and independent? – gerrit

Reply: Of course there is plenty of independent data. gmopundit.blogspot.com/ has an entire series devoted to the safety studies of GM crops. The highly respected journal Nature had an entire edition devoted to the topic. But that is beside the point, the underlying mechanism of the Bt is not one that works on humans (it is even sprayed on organic farms). We don’t have an alkaline stomach to activate the chemical (ditto some insects it doesn’t impact either) which means it can’t do anything. So the concerns are completely misplaced.

Is EPA-approved insecticide (clothianidin) responsible for killing off bees?

recent article in NaturalNews claims that last year there were leaked documents exposing that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) illegitimately approved toxic pesticide clothianidin for use, while being aware it might kill bees.

Now, the article says, there’s a new study by Purdue University that confirms that clothianidin is actually killing off bees, and that it’s spread has become systematic in the entire food chain.

The entire report is available online via PubMed: Multiple Routes of Pesticide Exposure for Honey Bees Living Near Agricultural Fields

The article goes on to warn about the consequenses of all this:

Without bees, which are now dying off at an alarming rate due to exposure to clothianidin and various other insecticides and fungicides, one third or more of the food supply will be destroyed, including at least 100 varieties of fruits and vegetables that rely on bees for pollination.

The claim is that if people in US don’t do something to stop the bees from dying, at least one third of the food supply (in the US) will be destroyed. Because bees are dying. Which is the caused mainly by clothianidin. Which is in use because of EPA’s failure or corruption.

Is this information accurate? Or does the article misrepresent the situation somehow? Is the study legitimate?

Related: Are Bees Disappearing and Why


Clothianidin is similar to imidacloprid, being of the same chemical group of insecticides and both being linked to bee population decline (Colony Collapse Disorder – CCD).

There is controversy over the role of neonicotinoids in relation to pesticide toxicity to bees and imidacloprid effects on bee population. Neonicotinoid use has been strictly limited in France since the 1990s, when neonicotinoids were implicated in a mass die-off of the bee population. It is believed by some to account for worker bees’ neglecting to provide food for eggs and larvae, and for a breakdown of the bees’ navigational abilities, possibly leading to what has become generally known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

Low concentrations of imidicloprid and clothianidin have impacts upon bees’ ability to forage and return to the hive.

The results show that almost all the control honey bees returned to the hive, and started again visiting the feeder between 2 to 5 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with the concentration of 100 ppb also returned to the hive, but they returned to visit the feeder only 24 hours after the release. Honey bees fed with 500 ppb and 1000 ppb completely disappeared after the release, and they were not seen during the following 24 hours, neither at the hive nor at the feeding site.

But neonicotinoid insecticides are only one of of many things impacting upon bees, and most research indicates that it is a combination of factors that is behind CCD.

The most recent report (USDA – 2010) states that “based on an initial analysis of collected bee samples (CCD- and non-CCD affected), reports have noted the high number of viruses and other pathogens, pesticides, and parasites present in CCD colonies, and lower levels in non-CCD colonies. This work suggests that a combination of environmental stressors may set off a cascade of events and contribute to a colony where weakened worker bees are more susceptible to pests and pathogens.”[20] Applying proteomics-based pathogen screening tools in 2010, researchers announced they had identified a co-infection of invertebrate iridescent virus type 6 (IIV-6) and the fungus Nosema ceranae in all CCD colonies sampled. (Quoted from Wiki, original USDA report linked above)

So this issue is much larger than any one chemical group and is about environmental management and pesticide usage in general. Most insecticides will kill bees, especially with direct contact. Bees are only one of several pollination vectors in the world, so while they are important, this scare campaign is misguided. What is actually needed is further understanding of CCD, bee breeding programs and management strategies that will actually deal with this issue.

Also, as a general rule of thumb, just about anything that appears on Natural News is likely to be wrong.

Update: A paper published in the middle of last year has some interesting results that could indicate a/the driver of CCD in horticulture. Essentially the article shows that bees don’t just forage on one farm, instead collecting pollen from the surrounding area as they see fit. As such, they come back with all sorts of pollens and all sorts of pesticides and fungicides. It is this combination of pesticides and fungicides in the bees’ found that appears to make the bees a bit sick, so they are more likely to get lost whilst foraging or get infected with mites and fungi. Note the lack of worry about clothianidin and other neonicotinoids, but rather the fungicides being the big problem. To quote:

Our results show that beekeepers need to consider not only pesticide regimens of the fields in which they are placing their bees, but also spray programs near those fields that may contribute to pesticide drift onto weeds. The bees in our study collected pollen from diverse sources, often failing to collect any pollen from the target crop (Fig. 1). All of the non-target pollen that we were able to identify to genus or species was from wildflowers (Table S1), suggesting the honey bees were collecting significant amounts of pollen from weeds surrounding our focal fields.

This indicates that beekeepers and horticultural farmers don’t appear to be respecting withholding periods for agricultural sprays the way they should. Partly because the bees are foraging where they don’t expect them to and partly because they haven’t correctly planned sprays and pollination. It will be interesting to see if these results are backed up by more causative work, although I’m not sure it will apply to broadacre farming (does that mean CCD is mainly a horticulture and small hectare farming issue?).

Update: reasonably balanced TED talk on CCD:

Global warming and mild winters

Does global warming make for milder winters? What about specifically North America?

(You often hear people extol global warming for giving us mild winters. Is there evidence of a causal link?)

Two examples claims of global warming causing mild winters in New York, and Tibet are linked in the comments. However, my question is whether this is a global phenomenon.


This is a tricky question to answer because weather, what you experience at your house right now, is not really that same thing as climate, the patterns of global air and sea movements that bring weather.

So milder winters can be a possibility in certain locations, as they will be exposed to an overall warming of the entire atmosphere. But colder winters can be experienced.

Since the mid 1970s, global temperatures have been warming at around 0.2 degrees Celsius per decade. However, weather imposes its own dramatic ups and downs over the long term trend. We expect to see record cold temperatures even during global warming. Nevertheless over the last decade, daily record high temperatures occurred twice as often as record lows. This tendency towards hotter days is expected to increase as global warming continues into the 21st Century.

Vladimir Petoukhov, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, has recently completed a study on the effect of climate change on winter. According to Petoukhov,

These anomalies could triple the probability of cold winter extremes in Europe and northern Asia. Recent severe winters like last year’s or the one of 2005-06 do not conflict with the global warming picture, but rather supplement it.

Weather being a local response to climatic conditions means that you have to understand what has changed in the climatic patterns in your region. What are your local weather drivers? How have they changed since the 1970s?

Thus, you could end up with some areas experiencing colder winters; due to greater moisture levels in the air, more precipitation of snow, greater heat loss at night due to clear skies, etc. Or you could have an area that will experience milder temps in winter due to warmer air currents, warmer oceans, localised heat island impacts, etc.

For further information you should investigate the weather and climate agencies publications for your area.

More anti-Amazon nonsense

This morning I was browsing my various news feeds when I noticed someone had written an article about the arrival of the Amazon Kindle store in Australia. Clearly this article was going to feed my confirmation bias on how awesome it was to have an Aussie version of Amazon available, just like Canada, the UK, India, Germany, Spain, etc. No longer being locked out of some editions of books because of our region, an Aussie store is one step closer to Aussie writers not having all the publishing issues that currently exist, a .au suffix making us feel special: all good! Right?

Well, not according to the article Amazon’s Australian Kindle store: an unhappy ending for the book industry? by Ben Eltham. Rather than stream bile right here, I’ll dissect Ben’s opinion piece about the demise of the protected Aussie book market, and hopefully inject some much needed reality.

Amazon has been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers for years – but what will its local push on Kindle mean for readers, writers and publishers?

It is always good to start an article by using emotive language and by poisoning the well. The use of a logical fallacy so early in the article does not bode well for Ben’s opinion piece.

The local book industry is threatened by Kindle’s entry into the Australian market. When Amazon opened its Australian Kindle store last month, it was to feisty reaction from independent bookshops. Charismatic Sydney bookseller Jon Page of Pages & Pages Booksellers even relaunched his “Kindle amnesty” – a scheme that allows conscientious local readers to swap their Kindle for the Australian book sector’s preferred e-reader, the Kobo, and receive a $50 book voucher for their trouble.

This opening reference to a stand by one independent bookshop being representative of all bookshops is another example of polarizing the argument before raising any actual evidence, essentially further poisoning the well. You see we are set up to believe that the Kobo e-reader is somehow better for Australian bookshops, despite Kobo also being in direct competition with stores in the same way the Kindle is, as well as to love the “feisty” response to the big bully Amazon arriving.

“We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0,” jokes Page, who is spruiking for the Kobo Aura HD, which he argues is “equal to or better than the Kindle Paperwhite”. Those who read via tablets such as the iPad or Galaxy have access to Kobo reader apps. “We want to take the fight to Amazon because they are so dominant in this market, particularly with the Kindle device,” argues Page. Pointing to the Commonwealth’s 2011 Book Industry Strategy Group report, he claims that Kindle represents about 70% of dedicated e-reading devices. (This figure does not include tablets, phones or laptops). “That’s a problem, because the Kindle locks competition out and locks customers in.”

My idea of a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline. “We’re calling it Kindle Amnesty 2.0” doesn’t really make the grade as a joke, but this is all about, again, poisoning the well and polarizing the reader to the author’s opinion without needing to state facts or evidence.

The next point about the Kobo being as good or better than the Kindle is neither here nor there, it just doesn’t matter. I agree that the Kobo is a great e-reader, but most e-readers are pretty good, you are really choosing an e-reader based upon the stores and catalogue they offer access to. I’ve written before about hearing Kobo Australia’s chief seeming to have a very good idea of what is needed in the market place for readers and authors. But ultimately the raising of Kobo vs. Kindle in a discussion about Aussie bookstores is like raising a conversation about which is the tastier bacon at a vegetarian food store.

Finally we do get some actual data, showing that the Kindle is the biggest e-reading device. Well, d’uh. Amazon have the biggest store and have expanded into the most markets, have invested in technology early, have created new markets themselves, and have….. Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. The point is that the argument raised is that Amazon and the Kindle have a monopoly. Which is true. What is false about this assertion is the idea that the monopoly isn’t one that can be supplanted by the next generation of technology, or better business models arriving, or the competition preying on Amazon’s weaknesses.

You see, the key weakness for Kindle is also it’s strength. If you lock readers into one store you allow the competition to usurp the market by doing the deals with many stores and libraries (hang on, that’s what Kobo is doing in Australia and Canada!). You also have to remember that the Kindle or any other e-reader is only really for avid readers. Tablets and phones are for the more casual readers, thus they aren’t locked into one device or one store. So we are only another generation of technology away from e-readers losing their advantage over tablets and phones, and the entire Kindle argument becomes moot.

Industry sentiment is divided over the impact of the entry of the tech giant into Australian online retailing. Some have been forecasting impending doom. Others are merely apprehensive about Jeff Bezos’ juggernaut. Amazon’s thin margins terrify competitors. Despite vast revenues, the parent company makes no profit. Amazon raked in US$17bn in net sales last quarter, for an operating loss of US$25m. Analysts and brokers are starting to wonder whether, eventually, Amazon’s gravity-defying stock price will tumble to earth.

This part is a doozy. Ben has framed a false dichotomy in how the industry perceives Amazon. Where is the mention of the people who love their Kindle and the Amazon store? Where is the mention of the people who like their Kindle and Amazon but want to be able to use other formats and borrow e-books from their local library? This is a common false dilemma fallacy used in arguments.

Next the argument goes to Amazon’s business model, providing some facts but leaving out others. Why? Why not mention what the “thin margins” are that terrify competitors? I’d sure like to know. The next point is about how Amazon makes heaps of money, yet doesn’t profit….. Remember above how I mentioned that Amazon had stayed ahead of the competition by expanding and investing? Well that’s where all that revenue is going, straight back into making their business better.

What I’ve always wondered was why an online bookstore was the first one to grab hold of the e-reader concept. E-books are not new, nor are e-readers. They have been waiting in the wings for a decade or more, waiting for a company to invest and make things happen. Why wasn’t this investor a publishing house? Why not a major bookstore chain? Surely they are meant to be knowledgable about their industry and future trends, so why weren’t they the ones creating the new digital marketplace instead of Amazon? The answer is obvious. Amazon had the balls to do it and had an eye on the future, instead of a protectionist view of old and antiquated business and media models. To the victor go the spoils.

But other industry observers have argued that an Australian Amazon presence will be good for consumers and readers. As Kobo’s Malcolm Neil told Melbourne’s Independent Publishing Conference recently: “Amazon is good because the customer likes them … We’re not going to win the argument by telling people they’re wrong.”

Didn’t I say above about Kobo’s boss being a bright guy that knew what the industry wanted? If you’ve heard Malcolm talk about the publishing industry before you know that he has a lot of good points that have been left out, can’t think why. Malcolm’s points are the first example in this article of a different viewpoint being offered. But we’ve already been setup to either disagree with it or ignore it.

Martin Shaw, books division manager at independent retailer Readings, argues that Amazon’s Australia venture may not be such big a deal. “It is only ebooks,” he says. “That market has got so many players in it now, who knows what sort of impact it will have? We will just have to see how the dust settles.” Shaw foresees a coming war of devices in which competitors try to lock customers into competing ecosystems. “I think there will be a lot of devices flooding the market trying to get people to enter the walled garden,” he says. “That will force other e-tailers like Kobo to become more aggressive.”

This speaks to my points above about Amazon and Kindle only being one technology change away from losing market share. I used the example of tablets and phones, but there are other examples in the online stores themselves. Both Kobo and Amazon have exclusive author deals happening. We’ll probably see more of this, which starts to sound like publishing houses and their favoured deals with stores.

Of course the irony is that, in our globalised world, Amazon is not really “starting up” in Australia at all. The retail behemoth has long been prising open the wallets of Australian consumers, who have been buying books and all manner of other things from Amazon in the US for years – estimates of how much that market is worth vary enormously. The move by Amazon to begin an “.au” store that trades in Australian dollars and sells Australian ebooks through Kindle merely makes that custom one step easier. “All that’s changed now is that it’s an Australian-facing site,” Page argues.

I think the irony with this paragraph is the use of the term irony when there appears to be none. But it does give the article a chance to move away from the viewpoints the author disagrees with and move back to more Amazon hate.

There are upsides for consumers. The Gordian knot of digital copyrights, based around various national boundaries, has meant that some US and Australian titles were not available as ebooks in Australia. The new Amazon.com.au store can now stock a much wider range of titles that have Australian-only digital licences.

Lower prices for consumers: Yay!

And prices will be forced lower. Shaw says that we may see “a race to the bottom”. Amazon’s deep pockets, he says, means “they can go there [to low prices] and stay there for as long as they want”. Australian book prices are still much higher than comparable titles internationally. In Amazon’s view, that margin can be returned to consumers in the form of lower prices.

Okay, Yay and Bullshit. Currently Australian e-book prices are ridiculously high. You cannot justify the high cost of an e-book when there are no distribution or printing costs. I have been meaning to post some figures taken from a few publishing houses and their presentation to the shareholder meetings, figures that show just how profitable e-books are for them thanks to the lower costs associated. There is actual irony here, because those same publishing houses are using e-books lower price to justify lower advances and smaller royalty percentages to authors. So Amazon making prices more competitive is a good thing, for readers and authors.

A quick look around the various sites for Australian ebooks revealed some savings. An ebook of Ross Garnaut’s Dog Days worth $9.99 on Kobo, was $9.49 on Amazon. Eleanor Catton’s Booker-winner The Luminaries was $10.68 on Kobo; on Amazon it was $9.35. (As a comparison, a paperback of Dog Days costs $15.29 from Bookworld, while The Luminaries costs $22.49). For other titles, owing to so-called “agency pricing”, Kobo and Amazon’s prices have converged: Christos Tsiolkas’ Barracuda was the same price on both.

Notice that this is the only time “agency pricing” is mentioned. It will not be discussed again. Despite the importance it plays in this entire argument about e-books, pricing, readers, authors, the industry and who is screwing whom.

The other potential winners of Amazon’s entry are successful authors and self-publishers. Amazon’s benefits to authors are controversial, but for the top tier they are real. The Australian publishing industry has been rather wary of embracing the digital world and while it’s hard to pinpoint precise figures, there’s a perception that many local authors have lagged well behind their US counterparts in ebook market penetration. Australian self-publishers will now get a 70% royalty for books sold to Amazon.com.au accounts. International experience has shown that a lucky few will reach big new audiences with bestselling self-published titles. Although on the other hand, mid-rank and lower authors may find themselves little better off.

Well, d’uh. Any new bookstore or way to buy books will favour already successful authors (NB: self-publishers are authors too), because, wait for it, people buy books by successful authors. What is not mentioned is that Amazon algorithms are more likely to expose readers/buyers to authors they haven’t heard of because of purchases they have made or books they have liked. I don’t know if Kobo have a similar system, but I do know that most bookstores do not have anything remotely similar to the promotional power of Amazon for new, emerging or midlist authors.

The statement about Australian self-publishers will “now” get 70% royalties is deliberately misleading. They already get a 70% royalty, that has been the policy from day one at Amazon, it is what all the other self-publishing platforms have come to adopt as well (correct me if I’m wrong on this, I haven’t checked them all).

Meanwhile, agents, publishers and booksellers still face real challenges from digital, Amazon or not. Digital is reshaping the industry and still threatens to cut middlemen out of the chain. Online-only retailers like Bookworld may be the most vulnerable, lacking the size and scale to adequately compete. When Amazon bought Book Depository, the UK retailer popular with Australian consumers, there was consternation in the book industry, despite the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission deciding not to oppose the move.

Yeah, who’d have thought an antiquated business model would be under threat by changes in the industry? And didn’t the article make the point that Amazon has already been in Australia to a large extent for years? So doesn’t this kinda negate any points made here?

As books blogger Patrick O’Duffy wrote recently in a long analysis of Amazon’s entry into the Australian market: “By starting this process of moving into Australia, Amazon is going to permanently affect the local writing, reading, publishing and bookselling world.” That much at least seems certain.

Um, no. This final statement and paragraph are about 10 years out of date. E-books and the ability of authors to manage their own careers without ‘gatekeepers’ is what has changed the industry. This has happened for quite a while now. To say that Amazon opening an Aussie store suddenly changes things completely negates the history and many of the points raised in this article.

Now that I’ve addressed the article by Ben Eltham, paragraph by paragraph, I think it is clear that this article is nonsense. It is just another in the long line of e-book, e-publishing, self-publishing, fear-mongering articles that have come to represent “informed” comment on the publishing industry over the last 5 to 10 years. I for one am sick of these articles, in fact I hate them. It isn’t just the continued “fear of change” mantra they all adhere to. The main reason I hate these sorts of articles is that they are trying to pretend that the publishing industry is hurt by changes that benefit readers and writers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Readers and writers are the publishing industry, everyone else is there at their behest. If those middlemen want to stay in the game then they have to offer something to the readers and writers that is beneficial to both. And the success of Amazon (Kobo, etc) and the various publishing houses (agents, editors, designers, etc) that have adopted/adapted to the new paradigms, only illustrates how out of touch these articles are with the industry. Instead of discussing the real issues, like the squeeze on authors, we get another stream of uninformed bile.

Mythtaken: Shark attacks

A while back I wrote a post on how sharks aren’t the deadly monsters attacking people all the time that we think they are. Now I’m not suggesting that we all go and hug sharks, they only like to be touched by cleaning fish, nor that we jump in to swim with them, they play tag far too roughly for delicate humans. What I’m suggesting is that we really need to start worrying about stuff that is actually a concern rather than stuff that is just wild gesticulations in front of a camera for ratings.

So here is a list of things that kill more people than sharks annually:



Picture from: http://themetapicture.com/things-that-kill-more-people-than-sharks/

How Copyright Made Mid-Century Books Vanish

Now this is an interesting study and article. I have actually noticed this phenomenon myself when looking for crime and thriller authors and books from various generations. Everyone knows Robert Howard, Raymond Chandler and Donald E Westlake, they’ve pretty much stayed in print since they were released. But what about the other authors from the 1920s to the mid 1980s? On various writer forums you will find writers re-releasing their novels from the 80s as ebooks. This is the downside of copyright. Read for this article I stole am re-blogging from The Atlantic.

A book published during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur has a greater chance of being in print today than one published during the time of Reagan.

neweditions650-thumb-650x317-128315 Last year I wrote about some very interesting research being done by Paul J. Heald at the University of Illinois, based on software that crawled Amazon for a random selection of books. At the time, his results were only preliminary, but they were nevertheless startling: There were as many books available from the 1910s as there were from the 2000s. The number of books from the 1850s was double the number available from the 1950s. Why? Copyright protections (which cover titles published in 1923 and after) had squashed the market for books from the middle of the 20th century, keeping those titles off shelves and out of the hands of the reading public. Heald has now finalized his research and the picture, though more detailed, is largely the same: “Copyright correlates significantly with the disappearance of works rather than with their availability,” Heald writes. “Shortly after works are created and proprietized, they tend to disappear from public view only to reappear in significantly increased numbers when they fall into the public domain and lose their owners.” The graph above shows the simplest interpretation of the data. It reveals, shockingly, that there are substantially more new editions available of books from the 1910s than from the 2000s. Editions of books that fall under copyright are available in about the same quantities as those from the first half of the 19th century.

Publishers are simply not publishing copyrighted titles unless they are very recent. But this isn’t a totally honest portrait of how many different books are available, because for books that are in the public domain, often many different editions exist, and the random sample is likely to overrepresent them. “After all,” Heald explains, “if one feeds a random ISBN number [into] Amazon, one is more likely to retrieve Milton’s Paradise Lost (with 401 editions and 401 ISBN numbers) than Lorimer’s A Wife out of Egypt (1 edition and 1 ISBN).” He found that on average the public domain titles had a median of four editions per title. (The mean was 16, but highly distorted by the presence of a small number of books with hundreds of editions. For this reason, statisticians whom Heald consulted recommended using the median.) Heald divided the number of public-domain editions by four, providing a graph that compares the number of titles available. titlesavailable650 Heald says the picture is still “quite dramatic.” The most recent decade looks better by comparison, but the depression of the 20th century is still notable, followed by a little boom for the most recent decades when works fall into the public domain. Presumably, as Heald writes, in a market with no copyright distortion, these graphs would show “a fairly smoothly doward sloping curve from the decade 2000-20010 to the decade of 1800-1810 based on the assumption that works generally become less popular as they age (and therefore are less desirable to market).” But that’s not at all what we see. “Instead,” he continues, “the curve declines sharply and quickly, and then rebounds significantly for books currently in the public domain initially published before 1923.” Heald’s conclusion? Copyright “makes books disappear”; its expiration brings them back to life. The books that are the worst affected by this are those from pretty recent decades, such as the 80s and 90s, for which there is presumably the largest gap between what would satisfy some abstract notion of people’s interest and what is actually available. As Heald writes:

This is not a gently sloping downward curve! Publishers seem unwilling to sell their books on Amazon for more than a few years after their initial publication. The data suggest that publishing business models make books disappear fairly shortly after their publication and long before they are scheduled to fall into the public domain. Copyright law then deters their reappearance as long as they are owned. On the left side of the graph before 1920, the decline presents a more gentle time-sensitive downward sloping curve.

But even this chart may understate the effects of copyright, since the comparison assumes that the same quantity of books has been published every decade. This is of course not the case: Increasing literacy coupled with technological efficiencies mean that far more titles are published per year in the 21st century than in the 19th. The exact number per year for the last 200 years is unknown, but Heald and his assistants were able to arrive at a pretty good approximation by relying on the number of titles available for each year in WorldCat, a library catalog that contains the complete listings of 72,000 libraries around the world. He then normalized his graph to the decade of the 1990s, which saw the greatest number of titles published. adjustedtitles650 By this calculation, the effect of copyright appears extreme. Heald says that the WorldCat research showed, for example, that there were eight times as many books published in the 1980s as in the 1880s, but there are roughly as many titles available on Amazon for the two decades. A book published during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur has a greater chance of being in print today than one published during the time of Reagan. Copyright advocates have long (and successfully) argued that keeping books copyrighted assures that owners can make a profit off their intellectual property, and that that profit incentive will “assure [the books’] availability and adequate distribution.” The evidence, it appears, says otherwise.

Mythtaken: Good versus Popular


Plenty of what’s popular isn’t good, and plenty of what’s good isn’t popular.

There is a school of thought and snobbery that says anything good is not popular and anything popular is not good. I regard this as a myth. I can’t remember any good stuff that wasn’t popular, because who is going to remember stuff that wasn’t popular and good? Well, it is a little more complicated than that.

Back when I was in high school the music scene changed. No longer were pop bands like New Kids On The Block acceptable on the radio, now it was Grunge and heavier, alternate styles of rock that ruled the airwaves. In 1991  Nirvana released the seminal Nevermind, Pearl Jam released Ten, Soundgarden released Badmotorfinger, and thus the reign of Seattle and Grunge music began. Add to that the release of Guns ‘n’ Roses last decent album, Use Your Illusion (1 and 2), and the cross-over metal album that forced the Grammys to include a new Hard Rock/Metal category, Metallica’s black album, and you can see that it was a good year to be a pimply teen music fan.

At the time you couldn’t talk about music without talking about Nirvana or Grunge. With the release of Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, the follow-up albums from Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and the influx of punk bands like Greenday and The Offspring, alternative music like Grunge was KING. Unless you looked at the charts.

The best-selling song of 1991?
Bryan Adams – (Everything I do) I Do It For You.

Best selling album of 1991?
In Australia, Daryl Braithwaite – Rise; in the USA, Maria Carey – The Human Dog Whistle.

Okay, so some easy listening pop music snuck through with some sales, but Nevermind and the single Smells Like Teen Spirit must have been top 10, right? Nope. Nirvana’s single didn’t make a dent in the charts until 1992, and even then it only cracked the top 50 in Australia (#46) and was #32 in the USA. Of course, rock and metal have never sold singles as much as albums, but Nevermind still only got to #17 in Australia and was beaten by frikin Garth Brooks and Michael Jackson in the USA.

Alright, maybe this is just a once off. The Beatles were huge, right? They combined good music with popularity. Well, in the UK, yes, but in the rest of the world, not so much.*

Before I end up beating you over the eyeballs with this example further, I’ll come to my point: popular has nothing to do with good. Sure, there are examples of good art also becoming popular. The examples I used were still very popular music acts whose influence will continue long after we’ve forgotten what a Bieber is.  But people were still more likely to own an album by Garth Brooks or Vanilla Ice than Smashing Pumpkins.

This is why I think that good art is often remembered more fondly after the fact than at the time. Good art stands the test of time, influences others and finds new audiences. Popular art is often shallow, or is transient, which means the audience has forgotten it when the next popular thing comes along.

To quote Neil Gaiman, make good art. Make good art and popularity will be someone remembering your work long after you’re gone.

NB: Sorry for not including other countries’ album charts, more can be found here.
Some other blogs on the same topic: http://americantaitai.com/2012/11/02/good-vs-popular/

NB: This article is referring to Survivorship Bias, which is a form of sampling bias, and can be a form of logical fallacy.

* I wasn’t aware when I wrote this article of the actions of the US record label Capitol Records. It appears they did their best to make sure The Beatles weren’t popular in the US. I’d like to say I’m surprised by the things done by The Beatles’ own US record company, but tales of this sort seem to be all too common.

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