It's Homeopathic Awareness Week!

I’ve been reading Trick or Treatment, which is a book about testing alternative medicine. It starts off with an interesting account of the death of George Washington (via bloodletting) and the history of mainstream medicine. (For a long time, mainstream medicine was just ancient Greek medicine that nobody had ever bothered to question and mainly involved bloodletting. It was horrible and ended up killing more people than it helped.) Then, one day, a dude thought, “Hey, maybe we should actually test this stuff.” Everybody else got mad and sued the dude. The book talks about acupuncture and chiropractic therapy, which are both the manipulation of magical energy (chi and “innate intelligence”) in the body that “can’t be detected through any physical means.” It talks about homeopathic medicine, which some German guy came up with in the 1700s (before we even knew about germs) and claims that the more you dilute homeopathic medicine, the more powerful it becomes. So, super-diluted homeopathic medicine (water) can cure almost anything because water has a “memory”. (Who knew?) The descriptions of chiropractic manipulation were just downright scary…having some guy shoving your spine around using 1800s pseudoscience. Sounds like a plan.

But the book also points out that these things actually help people feel better. How can this be? It turns out that if you really expect something to make you feel better, then it may do the job. The example cases were pretty amazing. Because of a lack of morphine at a military field hospitals, an anaesthetist in World War II, Henry Beecher, would sometimes inject saline into a patient and say he was giving a powerful painkiller. The patients relaxed and showed no signs of pain. The book also points out that there is great variety in the quality of studies out there. There are many ways you can cheat in a study…even unintentionally. Biased researchers who want to make their theory come true, lack of any group who thinks they’re getting the treatment but aren’t really (to check for placebo), lack of reproducibility, stacking the deck with different types getting the treatment and the placebo. It takes careful examination of a study to make sure it’s of good quality and not cheating in some subtle way.

So what’s the harm in these treatments if they make people feel better? For one, people may think it’s working and forego something that might work better, as in the case of malaria or even something as simple as eczema. Another problem is the cost. It can all be very expensive for no real reason. As an example, a single duck’s liver goes into making millions of dollars worth of oscilicoccinum (a homeopathic flu remedy). (Remember, the more diluted, the more powerful.) That’s an expensive duck!

The book points out that clinical studies aren’t just a conspiracy to take down alternative medicine, but that such studies also take down conventional medicine theories that turn out to be invalid and even validate alternative medicine theories that turn out to be useful. The book is willing to admit when good clinical trials show a remedy to be effective, as in the case of some herbs that are actually effective in some cases…not because a bunch of anecdotes say so, but because of good testing.


I was thinking about googol and remembered to look it up this time. A mathematician’s 9-year-old nephew thought up the nonsense word for him in 1938. Googol is 10100…ten with 100 zeroes. (Why does wikipedia print it with 145 zeroes? Looks like someone got away with it!) The correct name would be ten duotrigintillion, which sounds cooler anyway. So why is the search engine instead of

Sean and Larry [ founders] were in their office, using the whiteboard, trying to think up a good name – something that related to the indexing of an immense amount of data. Sean verbally suggested the word “googolplex,” [1 with googol zeroes] and Larry responded verbally with the shortened form, “googol” (both words refer to specific large numbers). Sean was seated at his computer terminal, so he executed a search of the Internet registry to see if the newly suggested name was still available for use. Sean is not an infallible speller, and he made the mistake of searching for the name spelled as “,” which he found to be available. Larry liked the name, and within hours he took the step of registering the name “” for himself and Sergey.

Whoever owns is probably hoping google with give them googol dollars for it.

The rain in Spain falls mainly from the plane

We went to the Nuclear Science and History Museum which opened in its new location near our house this weekend. It’s pretty large now, with a lot of exhibits. One annoying thing was a loud water electrolysis exhibit that separated hydrogen from water and used it to fire a ping pong ball high into the air. It was like a gunshot going off every few minutes. Hopefully, they’ll move that one outside. It looks like they’ve still got to assemble some large stuff in the back lot. Lots of unlabeled airplane and rocket parts sitting out there. Anyway, I learned that people have been weird about radiation. They’ve been scared where they don’t need to be and casual where they should have been scared. The nuke stuff was pretty insane. In the 60s, there was even a small nuke that could be carried by 3 soldiers and launched 1000 feet away.

Sounds like a really bad idea. In 1966, an air collision between US planes in Spain caused the accidental dropping of 4 nukes. There was no nuclear explosion, but one of them broke up and dumped some plutonium. There was an x-ray machine just to make sure your shoes fit you in the shoe store in the 30s and 40s. Yikes. All kinds of quack radiation treatments involving radium. But then the museum had to have large exhibits just to point out that nuclear power is pretty safe if done correctly, since people in the US are deathly afraid of that.

Taking a knap. (See what I did there?)

We went to the library Saturday and saw a demonstration of flint knapping.

Flint knapping is chipping a rock into a useful tool like an arrowhead or knife. Why didn’t somebody think of this before? This guy used obsidian because it’s the easiest to work with. He would initially knock off a chunk of obsidian with a rock. Then he’d alternately grind the edges and flake off small pieces with an antler. It sounds like it’s not trivial to learn. The type of rock you’d often use in New Mexico would be chert. You would possibly want to heat up chert to make it easier to work with. Once heated, it is permanently easier to chip. He finished making an arrowhead in the demonstration. Such arrowheads were one-shot deals and broke very easily. I tried shooting with a compound bow a while back and just wasted the arrows as they flew into the ground and were lost or ruined. I can only imagine if I’d taken 30 minutes fashioning each arrowhead, how much more frustrated I’d have been when I’d missed. Well, my mission in life is to ask the stupid questions, so I asked if you could just have sharpened a stick for an arrow instead of going to all that trouble. He said you could. The arrow wouldn’t penetrate as well, though. I also asked if you could shave with obsidian. He said he’d heard of some guys who would go down to the river, knock off an obsidian flake, and shave with it. Obsidian is very sharp when it’s broken off. It’s sharp enough to use for surgery…novelty surgery where sponges are direct from the sea, lobster claws are the clamps, and the anesthesia is grog. Arrrr!

The House of Artificial Sweetener

The original Hansel and Gretel story was kinda gruesome. Aside from the point that the witch wanted to eat the children, the childrens’ parents abandoned them in the woods in the first place, because they couldn’t feed them anymore. They don’t make kids’ stories like they used to. Apparently, child abandonment like this was not unknown during the middle ages. Anyway, there are often three phases of revision in old kid stories. The original is kinda unpleasant. Then, Brothers Grimm would make a gentler, more kid-friendly version of it. And then Disney would Disney-ize it even further.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

Ethan lent me his Jack Benny DVDs. Jack Benny had a comedy show in the 40s. It was heavily sponsored/produced by Lucky Strike cigarettes. The opening title even says, “The Lucky Strike Show, starring Jack Benny”. I guess it would be like “The Jello Pudding Pop show, starring Bill Cosby”. Anyway, it’s odd to see TV commercials talking about all the virtues of their cigarettes without a care in the world. The basis of one of the skits is Jack trying to renew his contract with the American Tobacco Company. A friend pointed out that the US military included cigarettes in soldiers’ rations during World War II.

That’s a bit like the rum that the British Royal Navy gave sailors in the 1700s as their main drink.


Opening Saturday at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science is STARTUP…an exhibition about the history of the computer. It’s funded by Paul Allen, a founder of Microsoft. Bill Gates (also of Microsoft fame) has an investment company called Cascade investment that is going into a 50-50 joint energy venture with PNM. Microsoft started in Albuquerque, so it’s interesting to see the Microsoft boys interested in New Mexico again in some way.