links for 2010-07-22

  • Every so often I've seen the word "biodynamic." The Seven Stars yogurt in our fridge, for instance, claims to be "biodynamic." What does that word mean? A cursory search revealed that it means more organic than organic, a higher level of quality and environmental friendliness. That is wrong. In fact, biodynamics is batshit insane. It involves astrology, the occult, communing with the spirit world, homeopathy, and little underground gnomes that push plants up to help them grow. Seriously. Read this article. It's a hoot.
  • There are two ATMs at the south pole. This is an interview with the guy who is in charge of them.
  • Jeff Bezos' remarks to the 2010 class of Princeton are surprisingly interesting (and brief). The thesis statement is that it's better to be kind than clever. That's an important lesson, one that I must constantly relearn.
  • I think I'm drooling a little.
    (tags: trivia science)
  • If you want to use your iPhone's 3G signal to provide internet access to your laptop via its WiFi, you've got pay AT&T $20 month. Why? Because they can. Apple enforces this on their behalf by prohibiting any iPhone software that provides this tethering service. So this 15-year-old kid, Nick Lee, made what appeared to be a lousy bit of software—another flashlight program—but that is secretly a tethering app. While you're running it, your computer has internet access through your phone. Apple approved it, not having inspected in closely and people were briefly able to download it and tether their laptops. But word got out, of course, and Apple shut it down. Very impressive, Nick Lee! Not impressive, Apple.
  • I read this great blog entry about a month ago that is still with me, and thus is worth sharing. It's a list of mistaken assumptions that programmers make about names. For programmers, this will be very frustrating to read, because this isn't a best practices guide, but rather a list of things that you'd be wrong to assume. Millions of people don't have last names. Millions of people have a given name as their last name and a family name as their first name. Millions of people's names change during their lives. Software—like this very blog's comment form—must allow for these and many other realities of names. (Related fun fact for website developers: Ireland has no postal codes…except in Dublin.)
  • A study of 400,000 European adults over five years found that calories from meat cause more weight gain. That is, 500 calories per day from meat causes more weight gain than 500 calories from other foods. Which doesn't bode well for high-protein diets. Note that this study only determines correlation, and people's final weights were self-reported.
    (tags: health food meat)

34 thoughts on “links for 2010-07-22”

  1. Biodynamic is to agriculture as homeopathic is to medicine. Interestingly, Rudolf Steiner also is the guy who came up with the Waldorf educational philosophy.

  2. I’m not sure I’m a better person for having read that list of misconceptions. A world where viking helmets don’t have horns == a world that is turned upside down.

  3. This year I am trying out some biodynamic principles in my garden. Specifically, I am planting, cultivating, and harvesting according to the dates recommended by the biodynamic calendar. The calendar is actually based upon traditions that have been used by farmers for a long time (check out the farmer’s almanac).

    I don’t know how it will turn out – I am documenting the results in my garden journal for comparison to prior years. Perhaps next year I will try some of the preparations as well.

    I did not read the article, so I can’t speak to its accuracy. However, to describe the biodynamic approach to gardening as “batshit insane” based upon reading one article and without having researched it more thoroughly reflects ignorant narrow-mindedness I would never have expected from you, Waldo.

    C’mon, you have a garden. Try a more scientific approach to understanding this. :)

  4. However, to describe the biodynamic approach to gardening as “batshit insane” based upon reading one article and without having researched it more thoroughly reflects ignorant narrow-mindedness I would never have expected from you, Waldo.

    Seriously, read the article. :) As I wrote, it involves magical creatures who alternately kill or help plants, conversations with ghosts, and other assorted woo-woo.

    Try a more scientific approach to understanding this.

    That’s just it—the studies all show it’s worthless, no better than organic, and in some cases worse. When challenged on this, the author was told that you just have to believe in it, and if you don’t, then you can’t understand. That’s not science—that’s just nuts!

  5. Waldo, I got the impression that you based your opinion of biodynamic gardening solely on the referenced article, which is clearly biased. (Yep, I read it.)

    If you have done your usual thorough researching and still think it is, “batshit insane,” well, we are all entitled to our opinions. =)

    As for me, I prefer to test things out myself rather than rely on other folks who may or may not be biased. These days many researchers have an axe to grind. Not me – I’m just looking for something non-lethal what works.

  6. RE: the misconceptions article (which for a lot of those things, if you don’t know they are wrong, you are living in a hole):

    Who knew? I had never heard this myth before.

    And maybe I feel foolish for having bought into the interstate highways as runways misconception.

  7. The premises of this biodynamics business were long ago disproven—it’s not like we need to re-test them when it comes to plants. :) The position of Mars relative to some constellation has no more impact on a tomato than it does on you or me. Sprinkling chamomile on the ground can’t prevent hurricanes. Burning a mouse and sprinkling its ashes on a field will do nothing to keep other mice away. Putting manure in a cow’s horn, burying it, and digging it up again will not imbue them with amplified astral forces, whatever those are. Potassium and calcium will not turn into nitrogen, either by Steiner’s ascribed power of “transmutation” or any other force. No amount of experimentation will prove anything to the contrary. Thousands of years of science are very clear on this.

    I’m in good company in this knowledge. From the article:

    No less a figure than Jim Fullmer — the executive director of Demeter-USA, the sole American Biodynamic certification agency — admits that “science hasn’t proven our efficacy yet.”

    Belief in biodynamics is belief in magic. Anybody who wants to think that their cucumbers grew well because fairies blessed them or elves pissed on them or whatever is certainly welcome to that belief. It’s the same thing as believing that God made us out of mud one day 6,000 years ago, or that dinosaur bones were put underground by Satan to plant doubt in the human mind. Folks are welcome to think that such things are true, but I’m not about to pretend that such beliefs are anything other than silliness.

  8. Potassium and calcium will not turn into nitrogen, either by Steiner’s ascribed power of “transmutation” or any other force.

    I dunno, what about the weak nuclear force?

  9. Waldo, there are some sound gardening practices to be extracted from biodynamics. Yes, the bits about magic are junk, but planting calendars and such are quite valuable.

  10. Okay, so if it works for me, you can just call it the placebo effect. Lol!

    Meantime, earlier this summer I pulled in my largest garlic harvest ever using those principles.


  11. Malena might want to adjust the phrasing of this

    “Meantime, earlier this summer I pulled in my largest garlic harvest ever using those principles.”

    ever so slightly, to something like this:

    “Meantime, earlier this summer I pulled in my largest garlic harvest AFTER using those principles. I do understand, though, the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, and therefore I acknowledge that the size of my garlic harvest could be related to other factors entirely and the mere fact that the size of the harvest followed the usage of these principles does not prove that the usage of this principles caused the large harvest.”


  12. Waldo, thanks for the story on names and programming. My husband and kids have a last name that has an apostrophe in it. The state of Illinois could not put an apostrophe in his name on a driver’s license. The state of Virginia could not get either of our kids’ names spelled correctly on their birth certificates. Most databases in which their names are entered can’t accept the apostrophe. When I go to the pharmacy to pick up meds for my kids, I have to take a guess as to whether or not the Rx I’m at was able to take them into the system with or without the apostrophe (“you’re not finding him in the system? okay, try spelling it without the apostrophe…”). With the number of Irish (O’Name) and Italian (D’Name) names in this country, it boggles my mind that an apostrophe would be considered an invalid character.

  13. The biodynamics article is more than a little bit bizarre, but I can’t help but feel like some of us might have been better-served by skipping this amusing-but-apparently-controversial piece and instead dedicated that time to second reading of the Princeton commencement speech upon the topic of how it is harder to be kind than clever.

    Marlena, I really can’t bring myself to care how you grow your garlic, so long as it isn’t doing me any harm or causing a public danger. I do, however, acknowledge that garlic is one of a handful of spices that I simply cannot live without, and thus I congratulate you upon your haul.

    If it continues to work out for you, I would suggest adopting a tongue-in-cheek attitude about it all and publishing a cook-book for home garden recipes inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Because I never know what to serve for Elevenses.

  14. Okay, so I’ve lived in a community where some of Rudolf Steiner’s approaches were used. As to effectiveness, I’ll leave that discussion to someone else more qualified. I’d also agree with Waldo that on some level this is faith, not science per se. Of course if you pick up the farmer’s almanac you’ll find much of the same. To some degree the nature of farming lends itself to such rituals. I agree that marketing it on a label as better in some way is just plain silly, but whatever.

    What disturbs me a little though, is that I detect a sense of superiority in tone, the same one that I hear when I someone talks about a group of native people as “primitives” who obviously need our salvation since we are far more “enlightened”. In fact, I pretty much find the use of the term Voodoo used in the context you did as offensive. Imagine using the word “Jewish” in the same way, and yet the Vodoun faith is no less rational than Catholicism, Judaism or any other mainstream faith. Sure if you’re Atheist then you probably consider them all bunk, but then again there’s probably no need to single out the non-middle eastern faiths as somehow inferior.

    As for Rudolf Steiner, I think the context is important. In many ways he was a child of the Romantic movement. People were disenchanted with mainstream religion and decided to look back to indigenous European belief systems for inspiration. While sure a lot of it turned out be hokey, there were a lot of profound ideas that come out of that same period (including environmentalism and feminism) which continue to provide inspiration and insight. The whole point is people were challenging the status quo and trying to find something different. Part of that for Steiner was organic farming and different ways to think about education that emphasized individual expression. So yeah, gnomes pushing up the peas? Bunk; however, as I watch a film like My Neighbor Totoro, which addresses local food from a Shinto perspective, I find myself wanting to believe that a forest spirit makes the trees go, or that local corn might help a mother recover from tuberculosis. In fact, maybe we as a society can use a little more suspension of disbelief and a little more magic.

    William Wordsworth said it best:

    The world is too much with us; late and soon,
    Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
    Little we see in Nature that is ours;
    We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
    This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon,
    The winds that will be howling at all hours,
    And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
    For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
    It moves us not. -Great God! I’d rather be
    A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
    So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
    Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
    Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
    Or hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn.

  15. Lonnie,

    I’ll do this hastily (which probably means I’ll regret it), but I would offer that while we as a society might need SOMETHING, some kind of corrective in regards to our relationship with the natural environment, I wouldn’t say that our only and/or best option is to go with magic. What’s wrong with science? You can get your heart back via an embrace of science. Gnomes are not required.

    Also, I would just point out that it wasn’t Waldo who used the term “voodoo” in the context you found offensive: that was the title of the article he linked to. Your issue there is with the author of the article, not Waldo.

  16. True enough Waldo, and I appologize, since it does just seem that you used the actual article title. I had a weird day and was mainly waxing philosophical.

    Am I saying that the answer is to “go with magic”? Certainly not, but neither is the answer for societies ills a methodology for gathering data (i.e. science). Science might tell us what to think about the natural world but says absolutely nothing about how we should feel about it. Even though the term Romantic is pretty much a dirty word in this century, it’d be foolish indeed to toss out all 19th Century philosophy. As far as I can tell, Steiner had some good ideas, some really bad ideas and some relatively harmless ones. Besides if you want to look for absurd or unreasonable belief in magic, then look no further than the FCC.

    On a lighter note, and an example of sorts, can you guess which repected wartime leader liked to dance around at stonehenge with Druids?

  17. As far as I can tell, Steiner had some good ideas, some really bad ideas and some relatively harmless ones.

    Oh, surely. Montessouri schools seem to have worked out very nicely. :)

    FWIW, I think that this biodynamics thing is well within the realm of bad as it’s practiced. It’s one thing for somebody to go sprinking elf poop on their own crops. I don’t care. After all, what’s it to me? But it’s this “more organic than organic” business that I find reprehensible. If the folks selling biodynamics thought that people wanted what they’re offering, they’d be up front about what they’re doing. Instead, they pretend that it’s some sort of super-organic practice when, instead, it’s this spirit world business. That’s deceptive, and that’s wrong. It’s greenwashing.

    On a lighter note, and an example of sorts, can you guess which repected wartime leader liked to dance around at stonehenge with Druids?

    Is that a younger, thinner Winston Churchill?

  18. Waldo, Rudolf Steiner is the dude behind the Waldorf method. Maria Montessori is behind Montessori schools.

    Gotta go harvest my cherry tomatoes. No elf poop involved.

  19. Waldo, Rudolf Steiner is the dude behind the Waldorf method. Maria Montessori is behind Montessori schools.

    D’oh—I looked that up, read about the two people, the two educational methods, came back here, and still wrote the wrong thing. :)

  20. FWIW & IMHO, the Montessori method rocks. I can’t speak to the virtues of the Waldorf approach. But Montessori got it right, IMHO.

  21. You guessed it, Winston Churchill. Pretty amusing photo.

    Yeah, the marketing of something like biodynamics as super organic (or even the marketing of it at all), seems quite wrong to me too. Greenwashing may be a strong term though, since I usually think of that term being used to describe covering up some environmental misdeed with some clever PR trick. In this case, at least they are organic even if there is some elf poop involved.

    Speaking of greenwashing, here’s an easy way to spot it. Any time you hear any company on television or radio make some sort of proclamation about how they are helping the environment you pretty much know they’re doing something bad – usually in inverse proportion to how great they claim they are.

    The interesting thing to me though is that a lot of this 19th century philosophy continues to play such a huge role in society. The people involved were almost always very colorful and imaginative people, and like Steiner often believed some wild things. Nonetheless, sometimes that’s what is necessary to move society forward. It’s also typically far less interesting to see what these people came up with, than to see what other people did with it later. In the case of Steiner, it also led one of his follower to start the Camp Hill movement which provides life-sharing communities for people with disabilities.

    For that matter, it’s also important to note that these clear lines we seem to draw between science, magic and religion were not so clear prior to the 20th century. Respected scientists like Isaac Newton often were quite involved in astrology, alchemy and summoning spirits and in Newton’s case, his discoveries in physics were considered incidental to what he felt was his main work. For that matter, our modern definition of “magic” is quite different from the 19th century one, which did not assume that it was necessarily supernatural nor unexplainable. In that sense, modern science tries to pretend that it was an orphan adopted by the modern age, while it maintains a significant amount of the occult in its attic left over from it’s parents.

  22. Don’t worry, it’s all text…

    It’s an article about mass hysteria in Sudan, in which men went into a panic believing that their penises were falling off or shrinking back inside their bodies, due to the use of evil or contaminated combs or hair-dryers. The “victims” initially blamed Satan, then on West Africans, and finally the Zionists. Here’s a choice pull-quote:

    “Focusing on the report of the Sudanese man who lost his penis after contact with a comb, Abbas wrote: “No doubt, this comb was a laser-controlled surgical robot that penetrates the skull [and passes] to the lower body and emasculates a man!! I wanted to tell that man who fell victim to the electronic comb: ‘You jackass, how can you put a comb from a man you don’t know to your head, while even relatives avoid using the same comb?!'”

  23. I forgot about that whole African penis-shrinking hysteria. (Though the whole robot comb twist is new to me. :) As I recall, one of the popular ways to shut down a particular accusation was to ask to see the site of the missing member. When it was found to be intact, that was the end of that.

  24. No, here’s my favorite quote from the disappearing-penis story:

    “Twenty percent came the next day to court and withdrew their complaints, claiming that they had recuperated.”

    Or, as they said in Monty Python,

    “She turned me into a newt!”

    “A newt?”

    “Well….I got better.”

  25. Well this conversation took an interesting turn.

    Waldo’s law: As a discussion on grows longer, the probability of a comment involving penis shrinking approaches 1.

  26. Oooooh, so close. It’s actually named after the late mathematician Clarence A. Waldo who stopped Indiana from re-defining pi. All good mathematicians should have a law named after them. Any resemblance to real blogs, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

    But keep holding out hope. Your day will come, I’m sure.

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