Category Archives: inspiration


Infant distress vocalizations, or “crying”

In the final week before the symposium of Occam’s Beard, the video of the winning BAHfest presentation was released. This one explains the ratio of colicky infants in our population, the extremely aggravating sounds they emit, and Babybjörns — applying tribal warfare and an elegant computational model. Add to that the stage presence of Tomer Ullman, clearly pained by his own experience with procreation, and it is clear why he won.

… and the Q&A:

Our own event is around the corner! If you haven’t reserved your seat yet, you can do so at our eventbrite page. See you there!


Rise and fall of the Superhumans

Did you ever wonder how our species managed to adapt so amazingly well to such a wide variety of terrestrial habitats? Jordan Smith did. At BAHfest he presented a theory to explain this fantastic ability of our forefathers. After our departure from Africa, Jordan explains, “Within 150,000 years, we were everywhere. We had dominated every corner of the globe, and every climate imaginable.” To get to America, for example, “Humans would have had to cross the Sahara and the Arabian Desert, scale the Himalayas, cross the Bering strait… and then survive Canada.”

How did they do this? Simple: our forefathers had a double dose of mitochondria, and thus were energetic superhumans. Of course!

Not convinced? Watch Jordan explain his theory at BAHfest…

… and defend it at the Q & A that followed:


Farm me! I taste like chicken!

Another BAHfest presentation was made public today! This presentation by Cori McLean explores the hypothesis that humans exert an evolutionary pressure on animals to taste like chicken: we like the taste of chicken, so we will farm the animals in question (in other words: take care of their reproduction).

Do compare this presentation with the TED talk we posted earlier. It’s interesting to see how thin the line can be between a comedy festival, and the serious science presented at BAHfest.

Edit 24/01/2014: Cory, too, had to answer jury questions at the end of her presentation. Here’s the video for that:


The Descent of Man

In the beardy chaos of non-parsimony, at least two theories about our human origins are competing for your attention. Let’s leave creationism out for the moment — that one is old, and has been debunked by better men. (Not to mention, its proponents do a pretty good job ridiculing their ideas themselves.) Fortunately, even while embracing evolution there is enough room for hairy theories. And what is a more engaging subject for such theories than our own evolutionary past?

Theory I: the pig+chimp Pimp theory
Geneticist Gene McCarthy specializes in hybridization, and as such has started seeing hybrids everywhere. That happens, we all know it does. You spend the day dissecting larvae, and on your way home even the trees start to look like imaginal discs. But I digress.

The point is: Gene McCarthy, PhD, knows a hybrid when he sees one. In the mirror, for example: humans, McCarthy says, are clearly a product of hybridization. As he’s a geneticist he must have genetic evidence for this theory, right? Well, no—but he won’t let that spoil the party. Making anatomical comparisons will get you a long way, and so he listed all the traits that us humans have that can’t be found in our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. Think earlobes, thick skins, and hairlessness. From that list it was evident who the co-parent must have been: the pig.

Yes, he’s serious, and he has a lot of ideas about how that hybridization event could have come about. Rule 34 comes to mind, and I need to change the subject now.

So let’s talk about genetics, McCarthy—you must have something, right? Why yes, he has an excuse: the original hybrids must have been backcrossed to one of the parent species, and diluted any genetic signal from the other parent. Furthermore: “Sequence differences are not necessary for anatomical differences to be present”. Well that solves that puzzle.

But what of the idea that we’re hybrids at all? For this premise, McCarthy presents the dead giveaway: human infertility. With a population over seven billion that too seems a bit of a stretch, but let’s here the man out. On his site McCarthy details all the ways in which our spermatozoa are incompetent little bastards. And the logical steps from ‘our sperm sucks’ to ‘we’re practically infertile’ to ‘must be ’cause we’re hybrids’ follow easily.

To recap: humans are infertile, we share traits with pigs, and many backcrosses will have got rid of genetic evidence. Take away Occam’s shaving implements, and the case is clear-cut. (Sadly, some popular press seems to actually think so…)

Theory II: Homo aquarius
Our surprisingly hairless skins inspired more than just a reminiscence of porcine ancestors. Together with our bipedalism, the blubbery fat under our skins, our big brains, and—only added recently—our large and empty sinuses, they provided evidence for another theory about our forefathers: they inhabited beachfront property.

The aquatic ape theory, as it is called, was first coined in the 60s by Sir Alister Clavering Hardy, marine biologist (I’m sensing a pattern here). Subsequent exploration proved an entertaining exercise: pick a human trait, and try to link it to an aquatic environment. Even better if it’s a trait that can’t be detected in fossils.

Of course you can do the same thing with basically any other hypothetical environment, but where’s the fun in that? (Actually, I was joking: there is a lot of fun in that.)

You know what: I think I get it. If you’re hairless, you don’t need a razor. It all makes sense now.

Photo by cdorobek, licensed under creative commons.

Angels make the universe turn

Praying to Change the Past

In 2001, Leibovici published the results of a rather phenomenal experiment.

Medical files of over 3000 patients were split into two piles; one was left alone, and the other received a small prayer. The result: Patients who had been prayed for spent (statistically significant!) less time in the hospital, as well as having less fever and a lower mortality rate. Oh, and did I mention that the medical files were from patients who had left the hospital more than 4 years before the study was performed?

How is this possible? Well, God is not “… limited by linear time, as we are”. The amazingly titled: Effects of remote, retroactive intercessory prayer on outcomes in patients with bloodstream infection: randomised controlled trial explains it all!

Cleanliness is next to Parsimony(ness)


Here’s a warning to users: if Ockham’s razor is dirty & rusted it can present aspiring epistemic barbers with severe problems. Albert Einstein, who may or may not have needed a trim himself, once cautioned that “(…) the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.” This is frequently paraphrased as “make things as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

Affectionately referred to as the clap (which wikipedia wikinforms me derives from the French clapier*, meaning brothel—and not, as I suspected, from the ironic clapping of close friends, accompanying comforting words like “congratulations asshole, you’ve done it again”), Gonorrhea is caused by the bacterium Neisseria gonorrhoeae. Its sister disease, syphilis, is caused by the much easier to spell bacterium Treponema pallidum. Both bugs were identified in the golden age of bacteriology, the former in 1879, the latter in 1905.

Prior to the advent of the germ theory of disease, and of the technology required to identify and culture bacteria, Scottish surgeon John Hunter took the Razor to the nether regions of medicine and postulated that both diseases had a common cause, an epistemic “Brazilian” that would have disagreeable consequences. The idea itself is not as far fetched as it may sound to modern ears—after all, co-infections must have been common, a brothel two-for-one special of a particularly unpleasant sort. Hunter hit on a gloriously parsimonious solution: in his Treatise on the Venereal Disease, the esteemed (Fellow of the Royal Society) physician proposed that both diseases had the same origin. To prove it, he inoculated himself with a gonorrhea dipped needle.

Initially it appeared that our Patron, Brother William, smiled his beatific Franciscan grin over the good doctor’s work, which had the anticipated outcome. Syphilis and gonorrhea manifested themselves—possibly the first time since the Aztecs sent their pet treponeme to the Old World by way of “thank you for massacring us” that anyone was glad to examine their johnson and discover a chancral bloom. Sadly, and painfully, the Razor played a cruel joke on John Hunter. The needle used in the experiment, purposely slathered in clap was also also inadvertently carrying the syphilis bacterium**.

The lesson, Ockhamites, is of course controls, controls, controls. And that Einstein thing.

* Classical English literature often refers to gonorrhea and/or syphilis as “the French disease”.
** In Hunter’s defense, some historians dispute the veracity of this story.

Damn you, Ava!

Say it with me kids: correlation does not imply causation. Now repeat that 10 times.

I’ll wait.

And if you still haven’t got the message, maybe you can ask Ava to repeat it for you. If she isn’t too busy causing housing bubbles, that is. Oh you hadn’t heard about that?

Screen Shot 2013-11-21 at 2.18.58 PM

For more magnificent correlations (which do not imply causation! Although you never know! And at the very least it causes suspicion!), check out this collection of graphs in businessweek.

Hat tip: Marina Fridman


Please welcome our plant overlords

Did you know that us humans, fancy consciousness and all, are actually mere minions of a select number of other species? And no, this is not about a discovery of alien life: these are species that live among us on planet Earth, and have done so for as long as we can remember. These species enslaved us some 10 000 years ago, sank their metaphorical teeth in our flesh, and never let go. These are our crops.

At least, so says gardener and writer Michael Pollen Pollan (what’s in a name?) in his TED talk, where he chronicles the development of his idea starting at his first revelation — when he was gardening together with a bee, and realized that just like the bee was doing the bidding of some angiosperm master, he himself was positively tuber-whipped by the potatoes he was “voluntarily” planting.

Watch it:

Here’s the kicker: a similar, a very similar talk was given at BAHfest. Not about crops, but about livestock, and about how selective pressures make everything taste like chicken, but still. As soon as the videos are up I will link to them here, and I for one can’t wait to compare the two presentations.

In the meantime, please excuse me while I go tend to my basil.

Thanks to Nico Bonacchi for the tip!