24 April 2003

Last big boxes

Got two boxes yesterday, which contained one of my last major equipment purchases (for a while). It was the second of two stereo microscopes that I had ordered. Now all I have to do is get through the rest of the semester, and hopefull in less than a month, I'll actually have a chance to use all this equipment that I've been accumulating over the last year.!

12 April 2003

Happy anniversary, Major Gagarin, wherever you are...

Quirks and Quarks informed me that today is the 42 anniversary of the first manned space flight, by Major Yuri Gagarin. Major Gagarin died in 1968.

Being reminded of the early days of the space age makes me a little sad. I don't think any other enterprise in my memory has ever captured the exhilarating feeling of "Ever upwards!" (literally) than the space program. I wrote to NASA as a kid and got a big stack of goodies -- posters, pictures, articles -- back. Visited the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral on a family vacation. I can't think of any sort of equivalent science/technology program today that is as accessible and appealing, especially to kids. I just can't see a kid sitting down and writing, "I am interested in the Human Genome Project and would like to know if you have any pictures to spare to hang in my room..."

It's no accident that, "We can put a man on the moon" still has coin in our vocabulary as a towering achievement. (You know, as in, "We can put a man on the moon, but we can't get a cable guy to show up for an appointment on time.") Even though it's been how long...? Just over 30 years since Apollo 17 made the last moon landing.

Damn. From the first man in space to the last man on the moon in only 12 years. Was it really that short?

Maybe a research venture like the Human Genome Project is ultimately more practical. But when it comes to inspiration, real, honest-to-God space travel hasn't been topped yet. I miss it, even though I barely remember it.

09 April 2003


Little late to report this, but on Monday I was back out at the Coastal Studies Lab, taking our second candidate for a Biology faculty position, [name deleted for legal reasons]. For once, I planned ahead.

As I mentioned last week, there were a couple of small spiny lobsters in the public display tanks. I've been very interested in the behaviour and neurobiology of spiny lobsters for a long time.

While [name deleted] was getting a tour of the lab from acting director Don Hockaday, I set up a video camera and got a bit of videotape of these lobsters behaving. It probably wouldn't make it into a finished paper, but it should be enough to give me something to use as "preliminary data" in writing grant applications.

06 April 2003

Oh boy, here it comes...

While walking into my office this morning, I noticed that there’s heavy machinery on the future site of the Regional Academic Health Center (or RAHC – pronounced “rack" – as it’s frequently called here). It’s a little surprising to see something happening, since the groundbreaking ceremony was back in December and nothing had happened since then.

Although it’s located on Pan Am property, the RAHC is actually owned by the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio. Unfortunately, the presence of this facility is causing tension in my department (Biology) because there is a push for us to collaborate with the research going in the RAHC. While collaborations are good things, there is a certain fear that we will suddenly be expected to do applied medicine and not biology.

The building is slated for completion in summer of 2004.


Daylight savings time?! No! In this of all weeks, I didn't need to lose an hour!

04 April 2003

"Debunking" a 'Net "psychic," Part 2

How does the Flash Mind Reader work? (If you haven't seen it yet, you may want to scroll down to read yesterday's entry first.)

When I read the instructions, I strongly suspected that the little procedure ("Pick any 2 digit number, add the digits, subtract the total from first number") would give a very limited range of possible answers -- not the range of 100 shown on the page. Not being a mathematician, I had to check this in a "brute force" sort of way.

Using Microsoft Excel, I randomly generated a lot of numbers: over 65,000! I ran them though the procedure asked by the web page, and plotted them all on a histogram. As I suspected, the resulting numbers were not randomly or broadly distributed.

There are only nine possible answers. 9, 18, 27, 36, 45, 54, 63, 72, and 81. All multiples of 9. In retrospect, this isn't a big surprise, as 9 was considered a "magic" number by a lot of mystic thinking types. If you multiply any one digit number by 9, and add the two numbers together, you get... 9! This funny property is also used in this gag (also here). (When I was learning multiplication in school, this trick let me remember my multiplication tables for 9 easily; only the "5 times" tables were easier to learn.)

From here, the rest is easy to decipher. All you have to do is to put up the same symbol for the nine possible answers. Because:

  • The multiples of nine are widely spread,
  • There are 91 distracting "possible" answers,
  • There are over a dozen possible symbols, and
  • The symbols change every time you click on the crystal ball (and the page takes you to a new screen to get your "psychic" answer),

...The regular, invariant pattern is well concealed. Thus, the webpage creates the powerful illusion of "knowing" your answer -- which is not as wide as you think.

There you have it, folks! Behold the power of science!

Link of the moment: If you liked this journal entry, check out the website of magician James Randi.

03 April 2003

“Debunking” a ‘Net “psychic”

A crucial part of research is skepticism. It”s not just useful to being a practising scientist; skepticism saved me from the fake eBay email I mentioned in my last entry.

For a scientist, few things should trigger the old skeptical filter (a.k.a. the "BS detector") like the word “psychic.” So when a student mentioned the “Flash psychic,” my antennae went up.

As far as self-declared “psychics” go, the Flash Mind Reader is pretty innocuous. It presents itself only as a an entertaining diversion, and asks for no money. Something of a rarity among psychics.

The page shows a crystal ball with instructions underneath to pick any 2 digit number, add them, then subtract that from your first two digit number. On the right, you are presented with an array of numbers from 0 to 99 with associated symbols (I got to 15, then stopped counting). When you click the crystal ball, the symbol next to the number you picked is supposed to appear in the crystal ball.

It’s a clever little device. Its accuracy seems impressive. Try it.

Of course, being a scientist, I have to ask, “How does it work?” It took me a while, but I figured out the solution. (Hint! It's not really psychic!)

I’ll give you the answer... but not yet. Come back tomorrow to see how it’s done.

02 April 2003

eBay lookalike scam

Received a sneaky email that just about caught me. It looked like it came from the well-known online auction house, eBay. But I vaguely recalled seeing something about a scam that sent people official looking emails... which was a good thing, because there are some.

Nasty, ugly piece of work. And not as well known or easily detected as the "Nigerian" scam.

Read about it here and remember to excersize skepticism for all emails in your box!