Archive for September, 2013

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Posted by on Thursday, 12 September, 2013



Posted by on Wednesday, 11 September, 2013




Are we getting a little ahead of ourselves?

There’s a big conference in New Hampshire – Preventing Overdiagnosis.  One topic at the conference: How come everyone who forgets the least little nothing thing is – BAM – labeled with dementia or predementia?

David de Lecour ( professor of medicine at the University of Sidney) says ( that we’re using the great tools we have to detect lots of minor stuff. We’re “over calling” Alzheimer’s and related illnesses.  The numbers seem to say that dementia’s becoming an epidemic;  maybe some of that’s because we’re doing a better job in identifying it. But LeCour and a lot of other experts say we’re doing a little TOO good a job and should slow down the ball a little.

Who’s right?

There’s no ScienceAintSoBad Rating on this. I just don’t know.

But something to be aware of, okay?

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That drawing’s mine.


Posted by on Tuesday, 10 September, 2013



We love those funny little  space buggies. They scoot over the surface of Mars, poking  their little camera stalks up  on command. Click click, and the images are floating back to earth at 186,000 miles per second. They scrape, shovel, drill, and sample rocks, using microscopes, chemical analyzers, and other stuff, helping scientists understand the wonders of an alien world. It’s amazing to watch all this; also, of course, very educational. And it’s safe because, if anybody gets killed, it’s not a human anybody – just an expendable machine.

 Here’s my question.  Do these things deserve to be called robots if  we’re making all the big decisions back here?  I know there’s some intelligence on board. Obviously. There has to be. With that 15  minute delay,  we wouldn’t be able to keep the rovers from falling over a cliff. They land themselves automatically too  –  they have to – and they drive from point A to point B on their own (once commanded).

Nobody’s calling our adorable little rovers dunces.  But for the big decisions –  which rocks to take a look at,  which data set needs to get sent back to earth first, which set of experiments goes next – these  all come from “the ground”.

That ground-Mars-Ground round trip’s starting to get on NASA’s nerves.  According to Kiri Wagstaff, computer scientist at JPL (article in Geophysical Research letters) a new set of  “brains” designed around a new camera system call TextureCam will give make these new rovers autonomous enough to function much further away than Mars.

ScienceAintSoBad ConditionalRating = 10  for this excellent step forward. If it all works out (that’s the “conditional” piece of the rating, of course), we’ll be well on our way to real robots in space.

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The cartoon is mine. 



Posted by on Sunday, 8 September, 2013

Won't feel a thing


 Maybe it’s just the idea of it. A stranger  sticks something sharp in  your arm. Or your butt.

If you cry, you’re a sissy.

Well THANK you, Dr. Lissett Bickfort. And thank you, Katherine Moga (graduate student) for helping to perfect the successor to the “nasty needle”.

Here’s what’s going on.

Researchers have been looking for an alternative to the hypodermic needle for years.  They (the needles) hurt. And how many times have you been sitting in the waiting room and heard the awful  sound of a wailing child who feels his.her trust has been betrayed by the nice lady in the white coat.

She said it would just be a little pinch.

Needles are a constant risk to the care giver. A  dreaded “needle stick”  can have terrible consequences.  Plus they aren’t cheap, and they’re hard to dispose of.

But what’s the alternative?


Researchers have been working to perfect microneedle patches. It’s a great idea – a small  patch. The patch contains a dose of medicine. When it’s applied to the skin, the medicine is delivered via an array of very tiny  needles which penetrate  just deep  enough to deliver the dose.

It’s painless. And, because the stuff winds up (very reliably) at the optimal depth, injections  last longer.

That’s hard to argue with.

But to replace something as basic as the hypodermic needle, it has to  be just as good. And, one thing the hypodermic needle is, is tried and true. The patch, on the other hand, while a neat idea, didn’t always work well. So Bickford/Moga thought the trick might be to alter its stiffness – to make it  more flexible. Their thinking was that they needed to get all the  nano-needles into contact with the skin. By doing this, they made the patch’s drug delivery very efficient.  Their new material was also water-soluble which means there’s less to dispose of.

ScienceAintSoBad Rating10 on this one. This is a great idea. I didn’t mention it above, but the new product also lends itself to economical production. If this doesn’t wind up in your doctor’s hands soon, I’ll eat my patch.

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The drawing is mine.



Posted by on Friday, 6 September, 2013
A wig













Samsung’s recent announcement of a “smart”  watch seems to have kicked off a flurry of announcements,  pre-announcements, rumors,  and speculation about “wearables” in the technology space. The most startling rumor –  a leak,  actually –  is from the “it all started here” company we call Apple.

According to a high official (name withheld, of course), at some time in the last quarter of this year,  Apple will be releasing a smart hairpiece called IPiece.

I don’t blame you if you think this is a joke. That was my first thought. But as my source kept talking,  I found myself agreeing that it not only made sense,  it was the coolest thing I’ve heard of since the the original iPhone.

The wig (custom matched to a bit of your hair) contains all the tech of a modern smartphone plus a little bit more. Perfectly concealed in a high quality hairpiece,  technology fades into the background. The need for conspicuous glances at your phone disappears. All communication is wig-centric and unobservable by others.Audio is cleverly handled by bone conduction based on aviva’s micro cranial transduction system. And images are displayed by a revolutionary  network of very fine optical fibers woven into the forward section of the head covering. One beta tester described the sensation as surreal. She said sounds and pictures seemed to emerge from within her head.

Input, as you might imagine, called for a radical rethink of everything that came before. Voice uses the WiGig input sensor –  essentially a repurposed system of noise  cancelling microphones. Ancillary input is based on mapping portions of the scalp onto a virtual keyboard ; with about an hour of training almost anyone can type efficiently by tapping. I was surprised to see how easily “scalp tapping”  can pass as mere “fiddling with ones hair”.

The camera, a 38 megapixel beast, by the way, is completely concealed and rises on a small stalk when needed.

Google’s Glass and Samsung’s Gear never seemed entirely convincing to most of us out here in reality land, but Apple may finally be able to prove to its distractors that its best days are ahead of it.

Look for an announcement.






Posted by on Friday, 6 September, 2013



The new IPhone is expected to have a fingerprint sensor which MISTER ScienceAintSoBad thinks is a great (marketing) idea. People trust fingerprints. If you really want to protect your phone do it with fingerprints.  It”s as close to perfect security as you can get.

So let me ask you something.

How do we know that fingerprints  can be trusted? Is it for real? Does every single person on earth really have a unique paw print?

It is in courtrooms, where where fingerprints matter the most. And there, the fingerprint evidence is judged by an “examiner” who’s opinion, in effect, is the fingerprint since the jurors don’t get to see the originals.  How good are they? Do they ever  hang the wrong guy? What if the prints are smudged? Or partials? What about examiners who slug back a couple on work days? Are you telling me there’s never a deal where the examiner screw it up?

Matching prints


The International Association for Identification (the fingerprint guys) administered a proficiency test to 156 examiners.

Not that it was worried.

Still.  How could it hurt to have some proof?  Maybe back off some skeptics. The results were a surprise.

“Despite the absence of objective standards, scientific validation, and adequate statistical studies, a natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the International Association for Identification (IAI).The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents. Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief,”..

(That’s taken from Wikipedia)

They flunked their own test – and  they didn’t do much better when they were retested later. Can we expect better from smartphone sensors?

We don’t know.

Apple probably won’t share its secrets. (Does it ever?)  We won’t know how good the rejection rate is on those sensors but why should they push too hard? The lower the rejection rate (the sloppier the fingerprint sensor is about allowing a false match), the more convincing the fingerprint magic will seem. After all, this more about user convenience.

Until someone swipes the phone.

Loosening up on the rejection rate means the idea that only you can unlock your phone is wrong.  You’re not the only one.  Actually? There are three of you. Maybe a thousand of you. Maybe, even, a million. The odds are still pretty stiff against any one who swipes the phone being among the lucky million.

That’s good enough for me.

The IAI deserves credit for its transparency. At least we know the idea of fingerprinting perfection is an illusion. If, indeed, Apple uses this technology, isn’t it fair to ask for something similar?

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Both drawings are mine




Posted by on Wednesday, 4 September, 2013


Diluting a substance


Crown Prince Interfering With The Health Service?

‘If he wishes to lobby ministers, he should stand for Parliament or join a lobbying firm, but he should not be using his position as heir to the throne to do it.” — – – Paul Flynn, Labor MP

Prince Charles has pissed off some of the big guns in the UK who are responsible for national health policy. They say he has been  meeting privately with  the UK’s Health Minister to get a more liberal policy on drugs. Specifically he wants them to keep  “homeopathic remedies” on the menu even though there’s no evidence that they work. According to the Mail, the prince’s active lobbying is wrong.


What the prince is into is strange stuff.   Homeopathic organizations are generally hostile to  regular doctors, regular hospitals, and regular drugs. Homeopaths excuse themselves from the need for all the usual scientific testing of their “elixirs”.  You either believe or you don’t. If you don’t it’s probably because you’ve been influenced by the “medical establishment”.

Here, in the US, homeopathic remedies are available all over the place. Look on the shelves of your drugstore. They look authentic but, if you inspect the package carefully, you will see that there probably aren’t any active ingredients. There’s  just water or just alcohol (sometime there is a faint amount of something else but nothing a doctor would ever think of as medicine).

The American Medical Association says these guys are  quacks.


Well, Prince Charles isn’t our problem. Years ago, Americans made it pretty clear how we feel about the monarchy. No need to rehash.


We’ve got our own issues with homeopathy.


A 1938 US law requires homeopathic stuff to be treated like any other over the counter medications.  This “allows” you to be  buying homeopathic remedies when you really thought  you were buying something that would cure your headache. The packages have an air of authenticity. You might need a magnifying glass to see that this  is a homeopathic “remedy”.

Maybe you think that drugstores have a duty to educate their customers about  products that lack any active ingredients or any proof of efficacy  but I guess  that’s not how the boss at the store  sees it. Drugstores “appreciate the business” and “respect consumer choice”.

Don’t get hoodwinked.  Water doesn’t fix headaches.


What is homeopathy? It seems to have originated  in 1796. Samuel Hahnemann had the idea that he should be able to cure a disease by a) figuring out what its symptoms are b) finding a  substance that caused “similar” symptoms (cinchona bark, for example, makes you feel woozy with symptoms similar to malaria) 3) weakening (diluting) the substance until it is basically gone 4) Giving what’s left of the original substance (or isn’t left) to the patient.

That’s it.

No seriously. That it. That’s the cure.

The odds are that, after the repeated dilutions,  there’s nothing left in the bottle but water or alcohol.  You spoon it out to the patient and he.she quickly recovers from vapours, consumption or, I suppose, prostate cancer.



Here’s how a homeopathic remedy is usually made. First you dilute the solution. Then, you knock the container against something a few times (succussion).  You do that over and over again. How many times seems to vary, depending on the recipe. Some practitioners don’t give the actual potion  to the patient. Instead they pin a piece of paper with the name of the active ingredient to the patient’s clothes, place it in the patient’s pocket, or position it under a glass of water which the patient than drinks.

You don’t believe me, right?  How could something like that work? Especially since the “cure” has nothing curative in it, Luckily, Hahnemann, the father of homeopathy, had the answer for that one too. The water (or alcohol)  “remembers” the substance that used to be in it. Even though it is now gone completely.

Well that’s the theory.

Real stuff?


Scientifically, it’s nuts, right? But- you know what? If it works, it works.

Look,  if I didn’t know better,  I wouldn’t have seen the point of zapping a cancer patient with radiation. Or giving chemo which, after all, is pretty toxic. But it’s been shown that those things  can help – shown scientifically, that is.

I’m a pragmatist. If homeopathy works, all good then.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t! There is no evidence that would convince anyone but a crazy person (or a prince) that it does.

Here. Read this.

If that doesn’t convince you. Read this, okay?

The top doctor at England’s National Health Service has stated that homeopathy  is “rubbish”.

It is.

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The two drawings are mine. The photo was snapped in a chain drugstore.  I won’t name the store as I don’t imagine the owners would appreciate the publicity.