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There's a 'Waikato Wellness Fair" just out of Hamilton next weekend. Along with the usual woo (homeopathy, reiki, & so on) comes something called 'Access Bars'. However, these are not accessible places to have a drink - oh no! they are something far more mystical than that. 

Apparently 'Access Bars' consist of

32 Bars of energy that run through and around your head that connect to different aspects of your life. They store the electromagnetic component of all the thoughts, ideas, attitudes, decisions and beliefs that you have ever had about anything.

There are bars for healing, body, control, awareness, creativity, power, aging, sexuality, and money; 32 different ones in all. Just by gently touching the Bars you effectively erase everything you have every stored there.

It's claimed that having one's Bars addressed feels like a great massage. I can't help thinking that if this is the case, my hairdresser should be creating inadvertent amnesiacs every time she does the wash, rinse, & massage thing for her clients.

You'll find a nice diagram of the position of these 'Bars' here. I'm afraid I looked and laughed. You can address aging by having a scalp massage? Money I can understand, because I'm sure this 'treatment' doesn't come free, but aging?. And 'Implant'? Does the practitioner somehow erase those nasty mind-control implants that chemtrails give us?

As the blogger at Skeptical Vigilance says, 

Acess Bars appears to be just another form of magical thinking that if believed by its proponents has no real effect outside of head massage.

They are not so polite about those who don't believe in it but sell it anyway.

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A couple of days ago I did a spot of live radio with the good folks at 95bFM. It was great fun. One of the topics was dog evolution, which I've already written about here; another was the recent publications on human dispersal, covered nicely over on sciblogs.co.nz

The third was a brief discussion of claims made in an article on stuff, in relation to organic farming & its use of pesticides & insecticides. More specifically, the writer (Dr Libby Weaver) said this (my emphasis):

Organic produce is labelled "certified organic" when it has been grown, raised, harvested and packaged without the use of pesticides, insecticides, growth hormones and antibiotics.

Now, that phrase I've emphasised is simply incorrect, and extremely easy to check (as was pointed out fairly emphatically by several commenters on the original article). It would have been correct had the statement included something like 'synthetic' pesticides & insecticides, because organic farming certainly uses chemicals to control pests. Copper sulphate, for example, is widely used as a fungicide, while rotenone & pyrethrum are common insecticdes. 

There's an interesting post on organic production here. It comments, rightly, that many of the chemicals used in organic production in the US are quite toxic - and then goes on to point out that this need not be a problem if they are used correctly because it's the dose that makes the poison - something that is true for both organic and conventional farming.

But I snuck 'biodynamic' into the title of this post, & here's why. In that same stuff article we find this statement: 

it is so important to support organic, biodynamic and sustainable agricutlure.

I doubt anyone will quibble over the need for farming practices - whether organic or conventional - to also be sustainable.

But 'biodynamic'? Here's an NZ website about biodynamics; it did make me wonder how familiar the OP writer was with its contents. For instance, biodynamic practice appears to include the belief that the stars & planets have an influence on crop production - but with the disclaimer that this involves astrology. It would be very interesting to see the scientific data that demonstrates an actual positive impact from the stars on plant and animal health & production. (Note: the actual stars - not regular seasonal changes.) There's some interesting commentary on biodynamics here. And then, of course, there's the implausibility of possum peppering...

 

Incidentally, I was interested to discover that the Bt toxin, produced by a common soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensishas been available as a spray-on insecticide for organic farming, in some jurisdictions, for at least 50 years, and is used in New Zealand. Arguments in favour of this, and against the use of GM crops that express the same toxin, include the suggestion that the latter could lead to widespread resistance to Bt toxin. However, the use of targeted sprays is also an agent of natural selection, & could eventually have the same result.

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This is an amended re-post of something I first wrote back in 2012.

We're in the lead-up to the start of the A semester & lately I've spent a lot of time lately advising students on their programs of study. (Consequently I'm a bit short of the time needed to give attention to serious posts on Serious Subjects.) One of the things we often talk about is which major(s) a student should study, where a 'major' is the subject that they will devote most time to over the second & third years of their degree.

This is an important decision for first-year students as it pretty much determines how they're going to spend much of their study time in the ensuing years, and so we take quite a bit of time to talk about the various options, and I often find myself asking 'where do you see yourself in in 5 years' time? It's serious stuff as you don't want to get it wrong, and sometimes I encounter someone who is just a bit confused by the various majors on offer & how they're structured - but happily I have yet to meet anyone with the views parodied by the good folks at xkcd :-) (Thanks to my friends at Number8Network for passing this on, and yes - someone has already had a go at singing it!)

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So, last night I was asked how hedgehogs mate. 

The obvious answer was, carefully! My interlocutor suggested that perhaps face-to-face was most likely, but as far as I know, very few species (& that short list includes our own) do that. It turns out that care is indeed needed, for the male approaches the female from behind, & she must adopt what's coyly called a 'special posture' and flatten her spines so that the sensitive portion of his anatomy doesn't take on the appearance of a kebab.

The question was actually part of a wider discussion around the architecture of sexual reproduction: the mechanics of how the bits fit. If you'd like to hear the entire thing, it's here on the RadioLive site.) Entomologists, in particular, seem to spend quite a bit of time studying this architecture, not least because these details may help them distinguish between species that are otherwise pretty much identical in their appearance. (There's a lovely story about Michael May's work on dragonflies here, complete with etchings illustrations.)

In many cases the structures - which can be quite bizarre - are driven by competition. Competition between the males, but also between males and females. So in those dragonflies, for example, the males' penes have all sorts of features that are related to sperm competition - they allow a male to scoop out, scrape out, or otherwise displace semen deposited by another male, and replace it with their own. And in mallard ducks, which are highly promiscuous, a sort of male/female arms race has driven the evolution of extremely complex genital anatomy in both males & females, discussed here by Ed Yong. Incidentally, that link also includes a video - perhaps not for the faint-hearted! - of the rather explosive uncoiling of & ejaculation from the drake's corkscrew penis.

Some of these structures can be rather large: we're talking a metre long for male African elephants, for example (according to wikipedia), around 2.7m in right whales, and up to 3m in Blue whales (the largest animals alive). And as one might expect, this has been attracting human attention for a long, long time. Sadly, some of that attention has been seriously harmful to the survival of some species - witness the aphrodisiac claims made for the sex organs of tigers by Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example. But there's also the point-&-wink sort of interest, shown in a painting of a dead sperm whale dating from 1606 and described by Menno Schilthuizen in the excellent book, Nature's Nether Regions:

On an otherwise nondescript Dutch beach likes the Leviathan, its beak agape, its limp tongue touching the sand. A smattering of well-dressed seventeeth-century Dutchmen stand around the beast. Prominently located, and closest to the dead whale, stand a gentleman and his lady. With a lewd smile, face turned towards his companion, he points at the two-metre-long penis of the whale that sticks out obscenely from the corpse. Centuries of smoke-tanned varnish cannot conceal the look of bewilderment in her eyes.

These few square feet of canvas ... [exemplify]... the unassailable fact (supported by millenia of bathroom graffiti, centuries of suggestive postcards, and decades of internet images) that humans find genitals endlessly fascinating.

However, it's only relatively recently that this fascination has really been reflected by scientific interest: interest in the structures, their function, and their evolutionary history. But, as Brian Switek points out in his book My Beloved Brontosaurus (which is also an excellent read), we still have no idea how dinosaurs - especially the big ones - actually mananged to mate. Particularly the big spiny ones. This may well remain one of life's not-so-little mysteries. 

 

It has occurred to me that the search history on my computer will look really, really odd as a result of doing a spot of research for this post!

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A friend recently pointed me (via donotlink - well done, Nicky!) at a post on healthnutnews (which reads a bit like an offshoot of mercola.com - this, it turns out, is hardly surprising). It's a while since I've read anything so full of total nonsense - well, a few days, anyway! 

The post, by one Erin Elizabeth, is a paean to someone called Johanna Budwig & her 'life-saving cancer protocol'. I hadn't heard of this particular person before, & according to Erin, this is because all knowledge of her work has been censored by teh ebil Western medical establishment, along with Big Pharma & the nuclear industry, all of whom would be, like, totally out of a job if everyone followed Budwig's advice. Being curious, I thought I'd check - surely there'd be time for a search before the men in black arrived...

To my complete surprise (I was shocked! Shocked, I say!!!), typing 'budwig protocol' into google brought up 142,000 results. Some, like Cancer Research UK, are obviously trying to repress knowledge of the dietary protocol (or at least, advising that It Doesn't Work), but an awful lot of the others provide recipes, advice, and testimonials about miracle cures.

Not a lot of repression going on there, then.

In fact, the entire post is a concatenation of quackery, woo, & mythinformation. Plus an appeal to authority: 

This German doctor was nominated six times for the Nobel Prize for medicine, which means that it would be wise to take her health work seriously. 

Really? Nominations are secret & by invitation, and nominees need to have a fairly solid body of research under their belt. However, a quick pubmed search didn't come up with anything by Budwig, but did give a number of papers whose authors had looked into this & similarly restrictive dietary protocols and concluded that It Doesn't Work (see here, and here, for example). 

Erin also trots out this standard alt.med cliche: 

Any researcher who found a cure would quickly find himself looking for another job, and at some level, all of them know it.

Here is a simple answer to that particularly offensive statement:

Image via The Credible Hulk and sheeple.

What else do we have?

Cancer is ... a modern man-made epidemic? Apparently so, evidence from antiquity notwithstanding: in the world according to Erin, the reason ancient Eyptians suffered from cancer, for example, was mass heavy-metal poisoning.

Medicine is the 3rd leading cause of death in the United States? Well, that one's easy to check, and it's not correct - you'll find the list here. Erin, could it be that you are being just a leetle creative in your narrative?

Surveys show that most oncologists would refuse their own treatments if they had a cancer themselves? Nope. This is cherry-picking, pure and simple. A 1985 survey about the then-new drug cisplatin, which has significant side-effects,did find about 67% of the oncologists surveyed would be reluctant to use it. A follow-up survey in 1997 found a significant reversal: 64% would now use the drug if they needed it. And why? Because science-based medicine moves on & those side-effects can now be minimised or better controlled, or different drugs may be available.

There's also a misrepresentation of Otto Warburg's work around tumour formation and physiology (work for which he really did receive a Nobel Prize), and the rather startling statement that

The secret to beating cancer is that life-giving breath of God: oxygen.

Apparently all that is needed to cure cancer - any cancer - is to provide cells with sufficient oxygen again. My immediate response was, so why is lung cancer so common, then?

And how do you get your tissues back into that oxygen-rich state? With a rather complicated and restrictive diet, of course!

At least Budwig's patients were spared coffee enemas, but they did get flaxseed oil via the back passage if too far gone to take it by mouth. And champagne was on the list of OK things to ingest!

Frankly, the only reason to repress this nonsense would be to reduce the harm done to people gullible enough, and desperate enough, to invest time and money into following it.

Was that a knock at the door ... ? 

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Following on from the private lives of snails, I bring you: slugs! (The first part of this post is largely a repost of something I wrote back in 2009.)

 

Leopard slugs, like other terrestrial slugs & snails, are hermaphrodites. They produce both eggs & sperm, but must exchange sperm with another slug in order to fertilise their eggs. (This reproductive strategy means that an amorous snail or slug doesn't have to find a partner of the opposite sex, it needs only to meet another snail. Or slug. Of the same species, of course.) Actual copulation is preceded by a range of somewhat slimy courtship & precopulatory displays - in garden snails this involves (among other things) piercing one's partner with crystalline darts... Sounds painful, I know, but this part of the ritual apparently enhances uptake of the piercer's sperm by its partner.

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This morning when I went out to feed the goldfish, I encountered a pair of snails in flagrante delicto. I resisted the urge to step on them :)

However, I was reminded of a post that I wrote several years ago, on the sexual habits of snails, and thought it was worth a repost. So here goes:

Copulation in garden snails is generally preceded by (among other things) pushing 'darts' into each other's bodies. There've been various explanations for this odd behaviour (I mean, it sounds painful!), including the suggestion that the dart acts as some sort of 'wedding present' (nuptial gift), which might make the pierced partner more inclined to mating. Or that it indicates how ready the dart-shooting snail is to mate. But data from a 2001 study (Pomiankowski& Reguera) suggests another reason for this behaviour.

Snails have quite intimate, elaborate courtship rituals that involve a lot of close physical contact before actually mating. After about 30 minutes of mutual stimulation, one snail pushes a sharp pointed dart into the other. (This is often described as 'shooting', but it isn't - it's more of a hard push.) The darts aren't essential for copulation - virgin snails don't have darts, but still mate successfully. (As do snails that miss the mark - apparently around 33% of darts either don't hit the partner at all, or fail to enter their body.) So why go to the trouble of making darts (which aren't re-used, so an amorous snail must be constantly making new ones)?

It seems that the dart carries mucus along with it, & this mucus seems to paralyse the partner's female reproductive tubing. This lets more sperm make it to the sperm storage organs, where they're stored until needed to fertilise the eggs. This is important - when garden snails (Helix aspersa) mate they produce & pass to their partner a spermatophore containing 1-10 million sperm, but only about 0.025% survive in the partner's female reproductive tract (Pomiankowski & Reguera, 2001). Most of them end up in the no-return area of the bursa copulatrix, where they're digested & absorbed. But in a study of mating pairs, virgin snails that were firmly pierced by their partner's dart contained twice the stored sperm of non-stabbed virgins. And yet 

successful shooters appeard to transfer fewer sperm than did unsuccessful shooters. This suggests that successful shooters can afford to reduce the amount of sperm transferred because the penetration of dart mucus ensures a higher rate of sperm storage.

Koene & Schulenburg (2005) suggested that this may well lead to something of an arms race between the manufacture of a 'love dart' that maximises the shooter's success, and the female spermatophore-receiving organs (because the 'female' partner's reproductive success may benefit by using sperm from as wide a range of partners as possible).

But there's a lot we don't know about the finer details of snail reproduction. For example, snails may vary in how their female tracts respond to the paralysing mucus. And what's the story in those snail species that don't shoot their partners during foreplay? Hard questions to answer...

A. Pomiankowski & P. Reguera (2001) The point of love. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 16(10) 533-34

J.M.Koene & H.Schulenburg (2005) Shooting darts: co-evolution and counter-adaptation in hermaphroditic snails. BMC Evolutionary Biology 5:25 doi:10.1186/1471-2148-5-25

Mind you, the inimitable "True Facts" also does a good line on this tale :)

 

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The internet is a seething pool of 'stuff', and one of the challenges faced by those using it is to distinguish useful information from foolish fantasy. And there surely is a lot of the latter! Thus we find that

According to a BBC news story, the Indian government's Agriculture Minister  has said that yogic farming would "empower the seeds with the help of positive thinking", and that this 'would help improve yield and soil fertility and contribute to making India prosperous.' This has been quite widely reported, with more details of the Minister's comments given in the Indian Express, including this one:

The idea is to help farmers. With the help of Rajyog [yogic practices], we should enhance fertility of the soil. It will help activity of micro-organisms in the soil too.

Somehow I can't see magical thinking having much effect on seeds, fungi, protozoa, or bacteria...

Lemons neutralise acidity. Yes, you read that right. This bit of mythinformation keeps popping up on various 'natural health' sites - here, for example. These sites all make the same claims: that the stresses of modern life put the body's pH out of whack, and that various foods can fix the problem (some even going so far as to suggest that eating the 'right' ie 'alkaline' foods will help to prevent or cure cancer). And for some weird reason lemons are listed as a food that will neutralise that pesky acidity and set the body to rights. (The site I linked to also lists pineapples, limes, oranges, tangerines, kiwifruit, and vinegar as foods that will make your tissues more alkaline.) 

The fact that lemons contain citric acid, that anything ingested must pass through the highly acidic environment of the stomach; and that the body does an excellent job of maintaining a constant pH environment around its cells - all this is happily ignored. Luckily there are science bloggers out there who do an excellent job of addressing this nonsense - Dr Kat Day's The Chronicle Flask is one of them, & you should go there now & read her great explanation of why lemons are not going to neutralise acidity and why claims to the contrary are nonsensical.

And if your DNA's been damaged by exposure to fluoride, never fear! For you can repair that damage by reprogramming water's memory, or so a commenter on the Girl Against Fluoride's FB page would have others believe. You have to distill the water first:

The forced medication [community water fluoridation] corrupts our DNA, Distilling the water clears any memory in the water, which then allows you to reprogram it.

And how does that work? Apparently you can 

reprogram the memory in it with a water proof speaker. Play the 528hz tone in the distilled water. The distilled water will absorb the vibration and change the structure of the water molecules. This water will help repair your DNA.

So here we have an example of someone who doesn't understand chemistry and also believes in homeopathy (the first is pretty much required for the second). Their thinking seems to be in line with the dangerously crazy idea, promoted by some homeopaths, that homeopathic 'remedies' can be delivered via mp3 recordings. And the idea that water's 'structure' can be modified by good or bad vibrations seems to hark back to the claims made by one Dr Emoto, who claimed that he could distinguish between ice crystals depending on whether they'd been the subject of good or bad 'intent'. Orac did a thorough dissection of these claims back in 2009, so it would appear that some woo never changes.

 

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Today's Life/Style section in the Herald on Sunday brings us the latest 'beauty trend' to hit our shores: the snail facial.

Yes, you read that correctly. Apparently one can (if one has a sufficiency of funds) already purchase Snail Soap, which contains "snail slime, virgin olive oil, honey and extracts from medicinal plants". The slime component supposedly helps 'beat' wrinkles (what's wrong with a bit of character?) & reduces scarring. We're told that "No one has come back and said it is rubbish or doesn't work," but then, it might be a tad embarassing to have to 'fess up to spending $25/bar on soap that didn't meet one's expectations.

Apparently the next contribution gastropods have to make to our outer beauty is the snail facial: snails crawl about over your face, leaving their silvery mucus trails behind them. This probably does leave your face feeling a bit tighter, when the trails dry. But saying that "snail facials are believed to be very good" may well be an example of wishful thinking, especially in the absence of supporting data.

Snail slime does contain lectins, which are a class of glycoprotein; the amount & type of this substance vary with the species of snail. (Many years ago now, my Significant Other used to go out collecting them on dewy mornings, so that the lectin could be extracted and analysed.) It also contains other proteins such as collagen & elastin, which probably comes in helpful for the slug species that indulge in balletic aerial s*x at the end of a mucous bungee cord. But as far as I can see the claims that smearing one's face with this slimy mix will encourage skin cells to make more of these proteins lack support. And indeed, quite why putting protein molecules (which are highly unlikely to be absorbed through your skin) on the dead outer surface of your skin would encourage the cells beneath to spring into activity, is not immediately clear.

Lectins are 'sticky' molecules produced by plants (& algae), animals, fungi & prokaryotes, and are involved in communication between cells, defence against pathogens, fertiliation, metastasis of tumours, and appear to generate an inflammatory response (something that's picked up on by various 'alt.health' sites such as mercola.com). Those from snail slime may have anti-microbial activity, but in absence of actual infection that would not be a burning reason to use it on one's face. And indeed, I think there's need for caution in their use, as it seems that bacteria such as E.coli can survive for quite some time in snail faeces: I'd certainly want to be sure that the snails had been kept long enough to evacuate their bowels prior to crawling over my skin!

NB It was good to see a skeptical comment from a dermatologist, at the end of the Herald article - but more as an afterthought than an an attempt at investigative journalism :(

PS And 'thank you!' to my friends in the Skeptics for riffing on this in the first place :)

EDIT: one Smut Clyde has since expanded on this very subject. He notes that one can search in vain for the chemical known as "Helix Asperia Muller" - and this is not surprising, as the phrase is actually a typo (?) for the old taxonomic name of the actual garden snail, Helix aspersa (Muller), Muller being the chap who first described it. The species has now apparently been reclassified as Cornu aspersum. I didn't know that.

 
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I've always liked frogs. I remember, when I was probably around 4 years old, being fascinated by the tadpoles that Dad brought home in a big jar from a farm pond. Mum explained about how they'd gradually metamorphose (thought I doubt she used that word!) & we watched their legs slowly grow & their tails disappear as they swam around in an old tub, until the point where they became frogs.

Frogs are amphibians, along with newts & mud-puppies & axolotls and the legless caecilians (which look like a cross between an eel and an earthworm). As a group, frogs are much younger - in geological terms - than the others: most fossil frogs date back only about 50 million years, although the earliest-known frog-like creature, Triadobatrachus, lived about 250 mya in the early Triassic.

Like almost all terrestrial amphibians, adult frogs use not only lungs for gas exchange, but also their skin and the membranous lining of their mouths. (Lungless salamanders are an exception - as the name suggests, they must rely on their skin alone, which is very convenient for those researching amphibian gas exchange.) This reliance on transcutaneous respiration has meant that amphibians are very susceptible to harm due to to chytrid fungus infection, which severely damages the skin and markedly reduces the animals' ability to exchange O2 & CO2 with the atmosphere.

In addition, using your skin as a gas exchange surface means that you have to keep it moist. This means that we'd expect to find frogs only in environments that are humid and damp year-round, & in general that's the case. But there are always exceptions. and the desert rain frog is one of them. Breviceps macrops lives in one of the most inhospitable environments there is, a dry coastal strip of land in Namibia & South Africa. Hardly a place for a frog! It spends most of its time in burrows dug deep enough to reach into moist sand, but comes out at night when the air is cooler & more humid. While there's very little actual rain, moisture-bearing sea fogs roll in from the ocean on at least 100 nights each year, bringing some water to the habitat as the fogs condense onto dunes & vegetation - enough to allow these little amphibians to survive. (There's no actual tadpole stage in their life cycle; little froglets develop directly from eggs in the burrows.)

And like other amphibians, they vocalise to advertise their presence. I hesitate to say the sound is a croak. In fact, it drove my dog to distraction when I played the following clip.

I give you - 'the sonorous war cry of a very angry frog'.

 

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