Monday, 31 January 2011

You have to be read

Does writing a science blog that nobody reads make me a real journalist? No, says Tim Radford, "Former Guardian science editor, letters editor, arts editor and literary editor"*. Why not?
Journalists write to support democracy, sustain truth, salute justice, justify expenses, see the world and make a living, but to satisfactorily do any of these things you have to have readers. Fairness and accuracy are of course profoundly important. Without them, you aren't in journalism proper: you are playing some other game. But above all, you have to be read, or you aren't in journalism at all.
Dammit! I'd like to be thought of as a journalist, of sorts, sort of. But the words "you have to be read" have haunted me since I read them.

I have to be read. I want to be read. I need to be read. The question is, how can I be read? I have a theory that will probably not pan out: Write it and they will come. If I produce good content, people will find the blog and link to it, and others will find it, and the cycle will continue. Is that realistic? What I don't want to do is spend my days pimping my blog wherever I can. That is not my way. I am, therefore, probably doomed from the start.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Brain-Body Performance Institute - Nintendo's creepy half-brother

Executive brain training hit the news this week...
OFFICE workers will undergo brain training to become ''executive athletes'' in an Australian-first clinical trial aimed at making staff smarter, healthier and more productive.
You know? Just like the Nintendo DS Brain Training games (RRP $49.95). The program being spruiked in this article is the one run by Paul Taylor of the Brain-Body Performance Institute.
We take the latest research from the disciplines of Neuroscience, Physiology and Psychology and blend it with the lessons of the Armed Forces and Elite Athletes to create programs that are both easy to follow and powerfully effective.
So you're saying I'll also need a Wii Fit Plus (RRP $159). Assuredly, though, my "Biological Age" ("as seen on the Biggest Loser"), bares no resemblance whatsoever to my Wii Fit Age? Or my Brain Age

I'm probably being unfair though. I am sure that the testing developed by Mr Taylor and neuropsychologist Dr Roy Sugarman is far more sophisticated than those silly Nintendo 'games'. Why not try this simple test? Pick which of these lines is from Mr Taylor, and which is from the website of Dr Kawashima's Brain Training.
Ten years ago we thought the brain wasn't very changeable, but we know now it is completely malleable, just like the body. And if you want to get the most out of it, you need a good training plan and you need to stick to it.
Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain.
The Brain-Body Performance Institute's website is humorously dressed up in typical life coaching mumbo jumbo. Here is my personal favourite:
...they enter into ‘self-determinism’, a critical stage in the motivation continuum which is characterised as being driven to improve current health and fitness situations
Translated into English = "they decide that they want to get a Wii Fit Plus, and they swear that they'll totally use it everyday".
Oddly (reminder, RRP $49.95), brain training programs are big business:
The trial is part of a growing trend, in which online brain-training programs in the United States have grown into a $US295 million business
Here is what you do. Develop a computer based IQish test, and then develop a training program so that participants get better at your test. You know? Exactly like Nintendo does.

Elements of the program also sound eerily similar to the embarrassment that is Brain Gym, a program which was popular in schools across the UK a few years ago.
Brain Gym is a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework.
Still, this new training program is probably good for a laugh, and if I worked for SAP I'd sign up. Actually, I might first ask a few questions about this "Biological Age" testing:
Mr Taylor's trial will start in March with 60 of SAP's Melbourne staff, who will have stress hormone levels measured, undergo genetic testing, brainpower assessments and bio-age tests to measure their real age against their health age.
Genetic testing? A multinational software company is going to allow a personal trainer access to the individual results of the most personal of all homonyms of jeans. The mind boggles. Admittedly this particular study is being run with some Swinburne University researchers, so it may be that someone on the ethics committee at the university keeps some kind of cap on the amount of personal genetic information that is passed around. However, Mr Taylor's websites contain the portentous line
coming soon...
This, my friends, is a VBI (very bad idea).

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Oh celebrities! Will you ever learn?

The excellent UK science charity Sense About Science have released their Celebrities and Science 2010 pamphlet, part of an ongoing campaign to correct some of the pseudoscientific crap spouted by various celebrities.
Each year at Sense About Science we review the odd science claims people in the public eye have made – about diets, cancer, magnets, radiation and more – sent in to us by scientists and members of the public. Many of these claims promote theories, therapies and campaigns that make no scientific sense. We ask scientists to respond, to help the celebrities realise where they are going wrong and to help the public to make sense of celebrity claims.
It has short explanations from experts in the various fields as to why these people are kooky, and is well worth a look, with simple explanations doled out by experts in the various fields. This year's collection includes a variety of food related celebrity silliness, such as Sir Cliff Richards' blood group diet, and Olivia Newton John's insistence on taking "digestive enzymes with every meal". Power Balance bracelets ($60 rubber bands) also get a mention. Disappointingly, my high school crush Julia Sawahla gets called out for, when visiting the tropics, taking homeopathic 'nosodes' instead of anti-malaria tablets; this is exactly the same as doing absolutely nothing.

By far the oddest though, comes from cage fighter Alex Reid with this delightful anecdote:
it’s actually very good for a man to have unprotected sex as long as he doesn’t ejaculate. Because I believe that all that semen has a lot of nutrition. A tablespoon of semen has your equivalent of steak eggs, lemons and oranges. I am reabsorbing it into my body and it makes me go raaaaahh.
although this is spoiled by the party poopers at Sense About Science
Alex... the nutritional content of the ejaculate is really rather small. And it’s worth remembering that unprotected sex might result in pregnancy or the passing on of a sexually transmitted infection.
The main lessons from this exercise are nicely summarised in four dot points:
  • Nothing is chemical free: everything is made of chemicals, it’s just a case of which ones.
  • Detox is a marketing myth: our body does it without pricey potions and detox diets.
  • There’s no need to boost: bodily functions occur without ‘boosting’.
  • Energy and fitness come from… food and exercise: there are no shortcuts.
Oh celebrities! Will you ever learn?