Monday, June 19, 2006

Photos: Another Hawk

A while ago I posted photos of a hawk that lives on our block. We've seen him several times since then, sometimes quite close (he flew past our faces as we left for work one day, about 20m away). But I didn't mention at the time (because I didn't know) that there's a hawk living where I work, as well.

Grange Park HawkI work in a building on John Street with a view over Grange Park and OCAD. We discovered recently that a hawk has taken up residence in the park, scaring the pigeons and perching on a green drainspout on the side of the old St. George Church tower.

Grange Park HawkIt's easy to tell when the hawk's out -- all the park pigeons start flapping around in a panicked group, circling and circling from building to building. The hawk usually parks himself on his favourite downspout, but can occasionally be seen soaring back and forth. One time we spotted him taking off from his tower and turning back, aimed straight for the wall. He seemed to crash into it and fall, but a moment later he righted himself and sailed off to a tree with something in his claws -- a squirrel, as near as we could tell.

Grange Park HawkLast Friday I spotted the usual pigeon panic, but this time I had my camera with me, and shot off dozens of photos of him on his perch -- he wouldn't oblige me by flying around, though. Unfortunately, the windows in the office are covered in a thin film to keep out excessive sunlight, which ruined the sharpness of the photos. I had to go outside to ground level to get these photos. He stuck around for quite a while, mostly ignoring me, though a couple of times he looked me over.

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Books (Science): Voodoo Science

Voodoo science is bad science for fun and profit -- mostly profit. Bob Park's Voodoo Science: The Road from Foolishness to Fraud is one of the best books on the subject, a great introduction to various kinds of bad science and, more importantly, the harm bad science does.

Voodoo science includes traditional pseudoscience like ESP or UFOs, but Park spends relatively little time on those subjects. These are the most blatant examples of bad science that you'll see, but not the most insidious. Park is more interested in other kinds of voodoo science -- junk science twisted to suit ideological ends, incompetent science used to prop up pet theories or sell shares in inventions, and so on.

One of the most interesting chapters in Voodoo Science is the one on the EMF scare of the 90s. In 1989 the New Yorker ran a series of articles by Paul Brodeur about how high-tension lines cause cancer. The entire premise of Brodeur's articles (and later book, Currents Of Death) was a basic piece of biased observation and mixing correlation with causation. Study after study showed that there was no connection, and Brodeur dismissed every negative study as part of a conspiracy to cover up the truth. Park reports an estimate that dealing with the fallout of Brodeur's book cost the US about twenty-five billion dollars, and nothing ever came of it. However, the mythology that Brodeur created around EMF still persists, almost 20 years later, with some new variations (the cell phone/brain cancer scare being very similar).

Another favourite target of Park's are the free-energy inventors, such as Joe Newman. Twenty years ago, Newman created an "Energy Machine" based on a basic misunderstanding of how motors and generators work, and sold "shares" in his company, which he claimed would revolutionize the energy business "very soon".

(Note another great example of how voodoo science infiltrates public consciousness: the Wiki page that "Joe Newman" links to above says that "a perpetual motion machine is regarded as (probably) physically impossible within mainstream physics". The "probably" is completely spurious: any competent physicist regards violations of conservation of energy as impossible.)

Again, even though Newman is old news, the example is relevant. Another free-energy inventor was Yull Brown, who claimed that "Brown's Gas" was the fuel of the future. It turns out that "Brown's Gas" was just electrolyzed water (water split into hydrogen and oxygen) that was then recombined to produce power. There's nothing special about this, except that Brown claimed that it was free energy: he never mentioned (maybe didn't realize) that it takes more energy to electrolyze the water than you get by burning the hydrogen.

Just this year, various news sources (especially Fox) have been running stories about "HHO Gas", a new miracle fuel. But a quick skim of the articles shows that it's just "Brown's Gas" come back to haunt us.

If you have any interest in pathological science, but don't want to read yet another debunking of Uri Geller (who's still out there, making money by scamming gullible people), Voodoo Science is a good place to start. Also check out Park's What's New column, and his interview in the Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. Read more!

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Photos: Swallows

SwallowPhotographing swallows isn't easy. You rarely see them sitting still -- they're usually zipping around eating bugs. But on a recent walk, Lori (my wife) and I came across a very cooperative fellow who let us get within a couple of meters of him.

Hey!We were walking around Hydro Marsh in Pickering, near the nuclear power plant, when we came across him sitting on a fence rail. He was rather talkative, and would occasionally dart off to fly around a bit, but always came back to the rail to pose.

Lift Off!Lori caught this great shot of him taking off. After this, he didn't bother coming back, but flew off over the marsh, where we caught a glimpse of a blue heron leaving.

Lift Off! (Crop)If you look closely at the take-off shot, you can see that his feathers are a little damp.

Afterwards, wandering through the park north of the power plant, Lori caught these photos of other swallows flying over the grass.


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Friday, June 02, 2006

Photos: Waterwebs

This coming Sunday I'll be participating in the Becel Heart & Stroke Foundation Ride for Heart (feel free to sponsor me if you like -- all money goes to the Heart & Stroke foundation). I'll be doing the 50km route.

Last Sunday, as a warm-up, I attempted a 73km tour of Scarborough -- up the Don Valley to Lawrence, through parks and hydro corridors to Highland Creek, along the Creek to the lakesore, and then back on Kingston Road.

Highland Creek FootbridgeUnfortunately, I ran out of energy at around 60km -- I had skimped on breakfast and ended up paying for it at Kingston & Markham Rd.

Still, it was a good run, and I did get a chance to take some fun photographs at the mouth of Highland Creek. As you can see from the photo at left, the trail I was following crosses a footbridge that runs under a rail bridge. When I got there, there was a heavy fog coming off the lake.

The footbridge rails were covered with spiderwebs, dozens of them, and each one was catching water from the fog. Droplets would condense around the web strands, growing until they were too heavy and dropped off.

I'd grabbed the small camera as a last minute, "just in case I see something interesting" thing, and I'm glad I did.

Spider Web Spider Web
Spider Web
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