Tuesday, 28 April 2015

May's SCB Conservation Cafe is all about Herpetofauna

The Sydney Society for Conservation Biology (SCB) have Michael McFadden, the Unit Supervisor of the Herpetofauna division at Taronga Zoo, for 2nd May’s Conservation Cafe. That’s reptiles and amphibians to the rest of us:

This May, Sydney-SCB welcomes Michael McFadden, the Unit Supervisor of the Herpetofauna division at Taronga Zoo. Michael began working at Taronga Zoo in January 2003 and now oversees the maintenance and husbandry of the Zoo’s collection of reptiles and amphibians. He works closely with the Zoo’s conservation projects which include captive breeding and release programs for the highly endangered Southern and Northern Corroboree Frogs. The current focus of Michael’s work is developing techniques to improve captive breeding and rearing success in threatened Australian frogs and reintroduction biology.

As before, it’s free: RSVP on Eventbrite.

Monday, 27 April 2015

Yet another study debunks yet another vaccine/autism myth

As reported by ABC Science last week, a large study (roughly 95,000 people) has hammered another nail into the well-and-truly debunked vaccine-autism link.

In an accompanying editorial in [the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA)], Dr Bryan King, a doctor at the University of Washington and Seattle Children’s Hospital, says the data is clear.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn from the study is that there is no signal to suggest a relationship between MMR and the development of autism in children with or without a sibling who has autism,” writes King.

“Taken together, some dozen studies have now shown that the age of onset of ASD does not differ between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, the severity or course of ASD does not differ between vaccinated and unvaccinated children, and now the risk of ASD recurrence in families does not differ between vaccinated and unvaccinated children.”

Make no mistake: if you avoid vaccines in fear of autism, you are a misguided fool. If you spread this myth, you are an ignorant menace to society. This may sound harsh but people can really die if anti-vaxxers get their way.


Jain A, Marshall J, Buikem A, Bancroft T, Kelly JP & Newschaffer CJ (2015): Autism Occurrence by MMR Vaccine Status Among US Children With Older Siblings With and Without Autism. JAMA 313(15): 1534-1540.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Best journal cover ever?

Courtesy of the Molecular Biology and Evolution Facebook page comes this awesome cover art:

According to the MBE Editor:

The author and artist info: The cover image depicts representative squamate species (lizards and snakes) playing poker, with the card and chip colors representing the sex-determining system most prevalent in each clade. The tabletop shows results from a comparative genomic analysis of squamate sex-determining mechanisms by Gamble et al in this issue. This study discovered that changes between sex-determining mechanisms in one clade, geckos, account for a half to two-thirds of the total transitions known in lizards and snakes. This remarkable frequency of transition is reflected in the illustration by the heightened activity at the gecko side of the table: the three gecko species in the foreground are cheating, implying that when it comes to sex determination, geckos do not play by the rules. The image was created by University of Minnesota biologist and artist Anna Minkina and pays homage to the Cassius M. Coolidge painting, “A Friend in Need”, part of the artist’s “Dogs Playing Poker” series.

h/t: James McInereny

Saturday, 25 April 2015

The amazing Anzac tribute of Atatürk (Mustafa Kemal)

It’s probably not escaped the attention of many that today is Anzac Day, and the 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings. Like all of WWI, it’s an horrific part of history, which makes me glad that I was not born 100 years earlier. For all our problems today, the world is surely a better place.

One of the reasons that the world today is a better place is leaders of the world who have advanced peace and reconciliation. One such leader was the commander of the Turkish forces at Gallipoli, Mustafa Kemal. He later became the first president of Turkey when it became a republic in 1923 and was given the title “Atatürk” - father of the Turks - in 1934. The same year, he wrote this tribute to the Anzacs killed at Gsllipoli:

Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives … You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours … You, the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace. After having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Good news! WHO calls for results from all trials to be reported

A bit belated but good news worth sharing nonetheless. From Ian Bushfield at Sense About Science, and as reported in Science and other media sites:

For the first time ever, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has taken a position on clinical trial results reporting, and it’s a very strong position! The WHO now says that researchers have a clear ethical duty to publicly report the results of all clinical trials. Significantly, the WHO has stressed the need to make results from previously hidden trials available. Ben Goldacre said, “This is a very positive, clear statement from WHO, and it is very welcome.” Ilaria Passarani from the European Consumer Organisation BEUC called it “a landmark move for consumers.” It is the position we and hundreds of you wrote to the WHO last autumn urging them to adopt. Well done everyone!

You can read more about the WHO’s statement and responses to it on the AllTrials website.

Further reading: Goldacre B (2005): How to Get All Trials Reported: Audit, Better Data, and Individual Accountability. PLoS Medicine 12(4): e1001821.

What happened on April 15/16? (And more dodgy Blogger stats)

My blog is a fairly modest affair that gets around 500 pageviews a day - mostly of old posts. However, this week has seen a rather unexpected spike in activity:

What happened on the 15th of April? It seems to be something to do with MacBook Air storage expansion, as that’s the post that seems to have the lion’s share of pageviews this week:

The odd thing is that in the detailed stats view, the peak of views is on the 16th. More dodgy Blogger stats it seems. Clearly unimportant but if anyone knows what’s going on (in either case), I’d be interested to hear!

Monday, 13 April 2015

Love chocolate? Love ice cream? Love coffee? You'll love a Magnum Espresso!

I do like good chocolate, ice cream and coffee. What could be better, then, than something tasty that combined all three‽ Behold! The Magnum espresso

Magnum vanilla ice cream is not spectacular but it is good - and surrounded by really good dark chocolate. (It makes me wonder whether you can just buy bars of the stuff.) Stick in some swirls of coffee syrup and you’ve got a winner. It’s chocolate with a splash of coffee, rather than coffee with a splash of chocolate - so don’t be too disappointed if you are after COFFEE!

According to their Facebook page, it’s a limited edition. I hope its not too limited!

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Easy (and delicious) slow cooker beef chilli

Autumn has arrived in Sydney and with the dropping temperatures - we sometimes need two layers now! - there is an increased desire for warm, comforting food. We’ve therefore been seeking out recipes that are either made or can be adapted for the slow cooker. Today’s was an adaptation from a taste.com.au recipe for shredded chilli beef. (It was too yummy to remember to take a nice photo once dished up, so a photo of the pot will have to do!)


  • About 1kg beef chuck steak, cut into pieces and large bits of fats removed
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 brown onions, finely chopped
  • 2 garlic cloves, grated
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • 1.5 tsp smoked paprika
  • 1 tsp ground allspice
  • 690g jar passata (plus/minus) + water (see below)
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped pickled jalapenos
  • 3 dried bay leaves
  • 2 tins of red kidney beans


  1. Season the beef with salt and pepper and brown in the oil. Our slow cooker has a “sear” function, so I used that. If feeling lazy, I’m sure you can skip this step.

  2. Lightly fry the onions to soften. Again, I used the slow cooker “sear” function.

  3. Bung everything except the kidney beans in the slow cooker. Use a bit of water (50-100 ml, maybe) to get as much of the passata out of the jar as possible.

  4. Cook on low for 6-7 hours.

  5. Drain and rinse the kidney beans before adding around half an hour from the end. (My slow cooker had already flicked to "keep warm" so I added them and put it back on low whilst the cornbread was baking.)

  6. Serve with Firecracker cornbread and sour cream. (My wife made the cornbread, so I can’t brag about that.) It was also be good with rice, tortilla chips, or just about anything of that ilk.

Easy and delicious!

Edit: as I almost did in life, I forgot the kidney beans!

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Beware of fusion when drying your face with a hand-drier

The hand-dryer in the bathroom of a restaurant we went to recently:

I’m not sure what “fusion” is but it sounds scary. (The drier wasn’t strong enough to make be believe it was nuclear powered.) Who knew it could be so DANGEROUS! (Personally, I close my eyes if I ever stick my face it hot air but maybe that's just me.)

It may have been Australian made but I am not convinced that it was Australian proof-read.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Connecting to an AWOL bluetooth mouse on Mac OSX

If you are like me, you sometimes turn your Apple Magic Mouse off when leaving your computer unattended for a while. The problem is that sometimes it does not seem to want to connect again when you turn it back on. What to do? Without a mouse, how do you open the mouse preferences to reconnect?

One option is obviously to attach some other kind of pointer - a trackpad or USB mouse - and use this. But (a) you might not have one to hand, and (b) that’s rather labour intensive. So, instead, use the keyboard shortcuts:

1. In Finder (use cmd+tab to cycle through to Finder if other applications are open), use shift+cmd+a to open the Applications folder.

2. Select System Preferences using the arrow keys. You might need to tab into the window first. Hitting t will jump you to the first T… application, then just use the up arrow.

3. Open System Preferences with cmd+o.

4. Hit tab to enter the Search box and start typing mouse. The Mouse icon will get highlighted. Hit enter to open.

5. After a few seconds of looking, your bluetooth mouse should be found. Hit enter to connect. Job done!

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Lack of religious discrimination should start with schools

A modern society has to be a secular one. A secular society is not an atheist society; it is a society in which no one gains undue favour or faces discrimination due to their religious beliefs - or lack thereof.

According to the British Humanist Association:

1.2 million school places in England and Wales are prioritised for young people whose parents are of a particular religion, which is more than the total number of places at grammar schools and private schools combined. The law permits ‘faith’ schools to discriminate in all sorts of ways, including in admissions and employment, which has been shown to contribute to social segregation in communities up and down the country.

Religious discrimination is bad enough. What’s even worse, is that some schools seem to be using their ability to select students to discriminate against students from poorer socio-economic backgrounds. It’s not clear whether this is direct or indirect discrimination but given the general negative correlation between wealth and religiosity, it is hard to see how it could be accidental. Either way, it’s clearly not good.

To combat this discrimination, the Fair Admissions Campaign has been established.

Are you facing the prospect of your child being unable to gain admittance to your local school, because of religious selection? Or have you had to game the system in order to get them in? Are you happy to live in a society in which children are discriminated against on these grounds, while parents feel compelled to behave in this manner?

This situation is clearly unfair, and that’s what we’re here to challenge. We are a new campaign that is supported by a wide coalition of individuals and national and local organisations, aiming to tackle the single issue of religious selection in school admissions.

Happily, many organisations - including religious ones - are supporting this campaign. Religious selection as a basis for education has to end.

Religions already have tax-exempt institutions in which they can try to influence the minds of the innocent. They do not need schools as well. If you live in the UK, please support the campaign.

Monday, 6 April 2015

Sydney SCB Conservation Cafe, this Saturday at Centennial Park

This Saturday (11th April) will see the second Conservation Cafe organised by the Sydney Society for Conservation Biology (SCB)). The speaker this month is Samantha Crosby, the Education Coordinator at the Learning Centre in Centennial Park, which is also the venue. RSVP via Eventbrite (if you can). It’s free!

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Well played, Steel Panther!

At the end of February, I attended the first day of the two-day Soundwave Music Festival, primarily to see the headlining Faith No More. I’d perused the rest of the lineup before the day but not to the extent of doing any research on the bands that I did not know.

One such band had just started their set when we arrived to check out the main stage in the early afternoon: Steel Panther.

The picture from the Soundwave App (above) probably tells you 90% of what you need to know. The accompanying blurb:

STEEL PANTHER’s latest release ‘All You Can Eat’ fits this rock ‘n’ roll opus perfectly. There are badass riffs aplenty, arena-size grooves, lyrics about sex, drugs, and senior citizens, and the lingering scent of whisky, a stripper’s perfume, and hairspray.

I’m actually a bit of a fan of hair metal, and Steel Panther have a sound that hits the genre perfectly. Lyrically, though, they were not quite Bon Jovi. They were Spinal Tap!

I commented on this at the time but did not realise that they really were like Spinal Tap, being a parody act complete with wigs. From a small dose it was not entirely clear, except in hindsight: they did it very well.

I have since got All You Can Eat from EMusic and, whilst not for the lyrically faint-hearted, it has some cracking tunes on it. I'm not sure that I would consume the whole feast in one sitting but it's a good one to dip into occasionally for some well riffed silliness.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

The power of positive incentives for healthy behaviour

There’s no real secret to a long and healthy life: eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg (but eat your fruit, don’t drink it), However, despite the fact that we all know this deep down, knowing it and doing it are two different things.

Unfortunately, most of the messages we get, and tactics used to modify behaviour, focus on getting us to avoid the stuff we are not supposed to do. Cigarette and alcohol is restricted, taxed and comes with warning labels. Tasty unhealthy foods have “traffic lights” telling you how much bad stuff there is in there (sugar, salt, fat) and what it corresponds to as a percentage of your daily recommendation. There is regular talk of whether there should be a sugar tax or a fat tax.

If you are anything like me, these negative messages are only of so much use. I don’t smoke, and never have (and never will), so that one is easy to obey. The other stuff, however, is generally at its most appealing when my will power is also at its lowest. When I eat unhealthy food it is usually because it scores high on combined taste/convenience, not because I have consciously sought it out.

A tax would probably help in this respect, but what would really help would be something to encourage eating of good stuff, which tends to have the double whammy of being expensive and more effort to cook.

Exercise is the same. We all know we should do it but it’s not always easy to find the motivation. One step (no pun intended) is to know how much you are doing, just as one step to a healthy diet is labelling food. But this only goes so far.

For example, I got a FitBit for Christmas, which was great for seeing how much general exercise I was getting. I walk to work and back so thought that I was probably doing OK. However, my daily step counts for January and February paint a different picture:

The good week in February was our holiday in Tasmania, which featured quite a lot of walking. This included, I still did not have a single week where I hit the 10k goal every day. (Although I was better than the 3.5k-5k average.)

Then came March:

The difference? I’d like to say that I just decided to be more active. I have taken up running again more seriously, which is part of the answer - but only a small part. The main difference is this:

That extra incentive was enough to actually cause a change in behaviour. There weren’t actually that many times that I needed to pick up extra steps at the end of the day - about four times I went for a short evening stroll - but I did change my behaviour to make more trips to the shops on foot and things like that and routinely hit the 10,000 step target. It also served as extra motivation for running.

The annoying thing is obviously 28th March when I lost track of time and midnight came before I’d made the target. It was enough to miss out on the $100 (although I should get $10 credit for 10 consecutive days) - and make me rather cross with myself - but not enough to avoid developing the habit. And, at the end of the day, I think it’s really all about building habits. The incentive has run out but I still went for a stroll on Wednesday to get the extra 700 steps before bed. (Today is a very rainy day off work, which will be the real test!)

The best way to avoid the bad stuff is to replace it with good habits. Rather than taxing sugar or fat, I think that it would be much better to subsidise fresh fruit and veg. Or, if you are going to tax sugar and fat, then use the revenue to subsidise the good stuff. Or give out vouchers for it. Anything, really, to give us more carrots (literally!) and fewer sticks.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Happy Ēostre celebrations

Some Easter levity, courtesy of Jesus and Mo:

Enjoy your chocolate eggs/bunnies!