Category Archives: Shopping guides and reviews

The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe

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I’m about to trash skepticism (as a cult) but before I do, I want to recommend that you get Steve Novella’s excellent new edition of The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

I no longer call myself a skeptic. Well, actually, I probably never really did, but now I’m more explicit about that. Why? Two reasons. 1) Global warming and other science deniers call themselves skeptics, and I don’t want any confusion. 2) The actual “skeptics movement” is described as…

…a modern social movement based on the idea of scientific skepticism (also called rational skepticism). Scientific skepticism involves the application of skeptical philosophy, critical-thinking skills, and knowledge of science and its methods to empirical claims, while remaining agnostic or neutral to non-empirical claims (except those that directly impact the practice of science).[1] The movement has the goal of investigating claims made on fringe topics and determining whether they are supported by empirical research and are reproducible, as part of a methodological norm pursuing “the extension of certified knowledge”.[2] The process followed is sometimes referred to[by whom?] as skeptical inquiry.

[source]

That’s all nice and all, but I discovered that the actual skeptics movement is made out of people not quite so cleanly guided by a philosophy, roughly one third of whom are not really skeptics (such as Penn Jilette and James Randi, who allowed their libertarian philosophy to drive “skepticism” of anthropocentric global warming long after the scientific consensus was established), “mens rights activists” (MRAs) who vigorously attacked anyone speaking out in favor of women’s rights, against rape, etc., and #MeToo movement poster boys, who have for years used skeptical conferences as their own private meat markets.

Besides, I’m an actual scientist, so I can be a fan of science without having to be a fanboy, which makes it easier for me.

I started writing publicly, blogging, partly to be an on-line skeptic, to take on politically charged topics, especially as related to evolutionary biology, but other areas of science as well (and more recently, climate change), addressing falsehoods and misconceptions. But I very quickly discovered that there multiple and distinct kinds of “skepticism” make up the larger conversation.

There is a lot of very low level, knee jerk skepticism that is little more than uninformed reactionism, based on, at best, received knowledge. That is about as unskeptical as it gets. The Amazing Randy says Global Warming is nothing other than natural variation. Therefore, I will believe that. Uncritically. Some of this is what I long ago labeled as “hyperskepticism.” This is where potentially valid skepticism about a claim is melded with hyperbole. “There is not a single peer reviewed study that shows the bla bla bla bladiby bla” coming from the mouth of a person who has never once even looked for a peer reviewed study about any thing. They hyperskeptic may create entire categories of things that include claims worthy of debunking, and put all of the thing into the debunked category even if they are not.

A fairly benign example of this relates to CAM medicine. “CAM” refers to “complementary and alternative medicine” like acupuncture, rolfing, and the like. These are mostly forms of treatment that have no basis in science, and probably don’t do anything useful even if they sometimes cost real money. Hypersketpics put all CAM into the same category and light a match to it. But, there is a subset of CAM that is legit … the very fact that I wrote that sentence just there will disqualify me, and my entire post, and everything I ever say — there will be comments below that say “I stopped reading when you said “there is a subset of CAM that is legit”. OK, hold on a second, count to four. One two thee four. Now that all the hyperskeptics have gone off in a huff I can continue … and I can give you an example. There are people who undergo regular, uncomfortable, sometimes painful or sick-making treatments as part of their normal medical routine. Chemotherapy, dialysis, that sort of thing. We know that the quality of an individual’s life can be improved, their stress levels, reduced, and thus, probably, the outcome of their treatments improved or made less complicated, if the environment in which they get the treatments are more comfortable. This is why dentists put ferns and pictures of the ocean in their waiting rooms. There is evidence to suggest that surroundings should be considered in design of treatment rooms, waiting room, etc. (See for example, Brown and Gallant, 2006, “Impating Patient Outcomes Through Design: Acuity Adaptable Care/Universal Rom Design. “Critical Care Nursing Quarterly. 29:4(326-341) and Ulrich, Zimring, and Zhu, 2008, “A Review of the Research Literature on Evidence-Based Healthcare Design. HERD 1(3). They hyperskeptic wants divide the world into evidence based double blind study proven and everything else, with everything else being always wrong in all ways. (Perhaps I exaggerate a little, but only for the irony.) This concept, of considering room and environmental design, now standard, did exist before CAM (those dentists and their ferns) but the study an implementation of stress reducing design as we now know of it comes from the CAM movement. What is needed is not closing down CAM, but making it accountable. It would probably get much smaller if that happened, but what is left of it would be useful.

Having said all that, the skeptical world includes a number of excellent and widely respected actual self-identified skeptics who have science or medical backgrounds, and who occasionally write books that everyone should read. One such individual is Steven Novella, who wrote some time ago a skeptics guide to the universe. Well, that book is out of date (universes evolve) and there is now anew edition: The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe: How to Know What’s Really Real in a World Increasingly Full of Fake.

Four others contributed to this volume, Bob Novella, Cara Santa Maria, Jay Novella, and Evan Bernstein.

I do not agree with everything in this book. For example, although the discussion of placebo effect is excellent, I have a different take on it. I like to divide the effect up into different categories than I do, and I want to make a more explicit connection between the phenomenon called placebo effect and the role and meaning of a control. But for the most part, every single one of the more than 50 topics covered in this book is well treated, informative, and enjoyable to read. (See what I did there? I was a little skeptical of the book, so now, you know it must be good!)

Do get and read this book, get one for a friend for a holiday gift, and enjoy. But right now, before you even do that, to tho the Amazon page and find the negative reviews. There are only two now (the book just came out) but they are a hoot.


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How to be a better LEGO architect in 1001 easy lessons

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Some of the earliest LEGO sets were for buildings or some sort of structure, and to this day architecture forms a core part of the LEGO panoply. If you build an architecture project from a kit, you’ll see that they are highly engineered. In order to make a LEGO project look like something other than a concoction of random bricks made by some kids having fun (which is, of course, just fine), serious planning has to have happened.

Most of the LEGO books I’ve seen are pure idea books. If you wanted to build a project based on what you see in the books, you have to either have a huge collection of LEGO parts very well organized, or you have to be prepared to order several specific bricks that are called for in the books.

But that is the wrong way to play with LEGOs. The books demonstrate concepts, give you ideas, guide you to become a better LEGOer.

Very few LEGO books that I’ve seen are clearly this, clearly about methods and techniques, as The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More by Alice Finch.

How does this work? Let me give you an example. Say you want to build a building with nice columns. There are many different kinds of columns out there in architecture land, and you can imagine that there are different ways to build each one, and which method you use depends, in turn, on the scale you are working on. Say you want to build columns that would go with a building that would work well with the assumption that the building will be used by minifigs (the small LEGO people that come with many kits). Finch gives you sixteen pages of ideas for columns, starting out with these two:

Or maybe you are in need of some curved walls:

Or stained glass:

Or towers:

You get the point.

LEGOs are bricks, and bricks are used to build buildings, and The LEGO Architecture Idea Book: 1001 Ideas for Brickwork, Siding, Windows, Columns, Roofing, and Much, Much More is a really helpful guide to developing the methods and techniques for doing that.

The wizzard behind the book, Alice Finch, is one of the top LEGO builders in the world, famous for her extensive renditions of Harry Potter’s world and other major projects (see below). This is a great book for the aspiring LEGO builder, and an excellent choice as a holiday gift for your LEGO-loving offspring.


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Amazing Book On Amazing Arachnids

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I am strongly recommending Amazing Arachnids by Jillian Cowles.

This book is in line to win the Greg Laden’s Blog Science Book of the Year.

Sample text, to give a taste of the science
It looks like a high quality, almost coffee table like, book on the arachnids, things like mites and spiders and such. But that is only what it appears to be on the surface. Just below the surface, it is a compendium of evolutionary amazingness, a detailed description of the photogenic history, behavioral biology, and co-evolution of plants and animals, with almost all the protagonists in the numerous loosely connected stories being one sort or another of amazing arachnid.

Geographically, the book focuses on the arid American Southwest. This allows the author to be quasi-comprehensive in coverage of species (about 300 from among 11 orders). It also allows the author to tell the story of these critters as a story, with interconnected features of evolution and ecology. This is literary hard core science, with great illustrations (about 750 color photos, and other illustrations).

Because of the US SW focus, it might be a better purchase for people living in just that area. But as is the case with a handful of other nature-oriented books, like the The New Neotropical Companion, the science content and overall interest of the book transcends geography. You’re not really going to want to get that close to these arachnids anyway….

This is a very good book. You will learn things, even if you already know a lot about arachnids.

The author is a clinical microbiologists and photographer.


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A New Robot For Littler Kids

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The typical robot these days (such as the Makeblock DIY mBot and the Tomo) hooks up to an android or iOS device, via blue tooth, and allows for programming using a scratch-like programming language.

The smaller of the two kits, normally about $60 but under $50 last time I looked.
For somewhat younger kids, and for kids who do not happen to have a tablet they are allowed to use because they drool on it and stuff, there is an alternative that is on one hand a little harder to code but on the other hand more intuitive and very creative. I speak of the Botley Coding Robot, which comes in two styles: 1) Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot Activity Set, 77 Pieces and Learning Resources Botley the Coding Robot, 45 Pieces. (I tested the latter, but they are the same in the parts that matter). Continue reading A New Robot For Littler Kids


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Making Sense of Weather and Climate

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Read Making Sense of Weather and Climate: The Science Behind the Forecasts, by Mark Denny if you want to … well, do what the title of the book says.

I know a lot of you are interested in global warming/climate change, so you need to know that this book is not mainly about that (but it is covered). Rather, this book is the Rosetta Stone that allows you to connect a general understanding of the planet (it is round, it spins, it has an atmosphere that includes water vapor, and tends to reside between -50 and +50 degrees C, etc.) and the person on the TV talking about air masses going up and down and what is going to happen during “the overnight” and “the overday” and such. Continue reading Making Sense of Weather and Climate


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The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!

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From Hypatia of Alexandria to Katherine Hayhoe, women have made and continue to make important contributions to the physical sciences. Now, you can get the “Notable Women in the Physical Sciences” deck of cards to celebrate them!

Here’s the deal. Continue reading The Ultimate Science Stocking Stuffer, Also Fights the Patriarchy!


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The Official 2017 Cool Tech Gift Guide

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Not to be confused with the Official 2017 Maker Tech Gift Guide!

I’ve mixed a wide range of techno-stuff in this guide, so there is stuff that flies, stuff that cooks, and stuff that makes noise. This is your prompt. It is up to you to match and expand on the ideas and integrate them with target gift recipients you know and love. Or, you can always put items on your personal wish list and see what happens!

Without further ado: Continue reading The Official 2017 Cool Tech Gift Guide


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What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?

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Part I: Liquids, edibles, slimy things. (The next part will tend towards the electronic and robotish.)

Focusing on elementary school, mainly around 2nd or 3rd grade, this is what I see on the market this year. A lot more water, day to day pragmatic science, and specialized kits that generally produce stuff you eat, throw out, or otherwise dispose of, which saves a lot of closet space in your home! Continue reading What are this year’s best science toys for young kids?


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An Excellent Robot Kit: Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1

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Tenergy is a company that you know well even if you don’t know them. They make a lot of the replacement batteries for everything, external power supplies, other electronic items. But recently they’ve added a few items to their line of products that reach out in an entirely different direction.

Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1 Transformable DIY STEM Education Programmable Robot Kit is a robot kit that can be configured as a tricycle with two large wheels, or as a two-wheeled “bicycle” which operates like a Segway. Which is pretty amazing.

So far Tomo is my favorite out of the box Robot Build, and I highly recommend it. It is also very reasonably priced (see note on that below).

Tomo the robot has the usual sensors that come with such a device, including a line tracker and a distance sensor that resembles a pair of eyes. The yellow color of the framework and the overall configuration give Tomo a sort of Wall-E look, which is cute.

Assembly: Instructions are clear. Assembly involves Continue reading An Excellent Robot Kit: Tenergy Odev Tomo 2-in-1


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What computer mouse is best?

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I did some research on mice, and I thought I’d pass it on. First, though, let me suggest that you get some of this stuff. Use it to paint a symbol on each of your wireless mice that matches a symbol on each of your mice dongles. It will help keep you sane. You’ll still find yourself constantly in possession of mice and dongles that do not match, but at least they will have these pretty little symbols you drew all over them.

There is some interesting and exciting stuff going on with mice.

Best but most expensive small mouse for general mobile use

The Logitech MX Anywhere 2 Wireless Mobile Mouse, Long Range Wireless Mouse is over fifty bucks, but it has some excellent features. It is small and portable and normative in shape and design. It works on any surface, is highly precise, nice to use, all that. It is a Laser tracking mouse. It has an internal rechargeable battery.

This mouse uses a small USB dongle or bluetgooth (Bluetooth Smart Ready). You can pair up to three different devices. It has hyper-speed scrolling.

The Most Magical of Mice: Flow technology

There are several mice in this category ranging across price. One of them is the Logitech MX Anywhere 2S Wireless Mouse with FLOW Cross-Computer Control and File Sharing for PC and Mac – 910-005132, which is close to 80 bucks, and is like the MX Anywhere 2, but has the additional magical capability of controlling multiple devices, including managing a cross-device clipboard. You pair the mouse up with each computer, then you tie it into the same local network both computers are on. Here’s a video from Logitech:

This supposedly works on Linux, Macs and Windows.

Super Ergonomic

I am suspicious of the whole ergonomic thing. Ergonomic, in mice and similar devices, seems to be “we fit your hand so well you will only move one or two muscles ever,” which seems a bad idea. I think a mouse should require more movement and adjustment by the hand in order to Not cause repetitive motion syndrome. Note that this is entirely my non-expert opinion and I may be quite wrong.

Anyway, one of the top rated and coolest Ergonomic mice is probably the Anker 2.4G Wireless Vertical Ergonomic Optical Mouse which is extreme in its design and intended to minimize RSS. The same company makes a variety of products, and note, these are generally not expensive.

General all round mouse

The affordable Logitech M720 Triathalon Multi-Device Wireless Mouse pairs with multiple devices, has fancy buttons, has hyper fast scrolling capability, and uses a single AA battery. It uses bluetooth.

Glows in the dark


I have a keyboard that glows in the dark. Maybe I need the ASUS ROG Gladius II Aura Sync USB Wired Optical Ergonomic Gaming Mouse with DPI target button. This $100 computer critter is a high end gaming mouse, and note that the interface is a wire. Proof that new technology (in this case, wireless interface to mouse) is sometimes inferior, and the old technology gets you more.

Other mice

The Logitech M330 Silent Plus Wireless Large Mouse is a large size mouse that makes no noise and is inexpensive (and wireless, but not bluetooth)
The super accruate, wired, Corsair Gaming M65 Pro RGB FPS Gaming Mouse, Backlit RGB LED, 12000 DPI, Optical is for gamers and has lots of buttons.

The mouse I need is probably the one I hope to find over at Goodwill; I need a plug in USB mouse to allow quick access to any computer any time without needing a dongle dangling off the back of something.


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Best Father’s Day Gifts

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… for the science literate or geek. It is hard to think up gifts at the last minute, so I’m passing on a few suggestions that have been mentioned lately in my presence.

Some Amazon Kindle e-readers are $20 off

A second monitor (or a third). I like this one.

A Darth Vader Pen Holder

Virtual Reality: Google Cardboad Kit, Magicoo 3D VR Video Glasses, VR Headset for Movies and Games, Compatible with All The 3.5″-6.0″ Smartphones (Black)

Dune for Kindle for 1.99

A stick made out of metal designed to poke at meat on the BBQ


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