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Skeptical Reporter for November 30th, 2012

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban believes that one of the NBA's marketing deals is "a scam". He said that he banned the Power Balance product from the team's locker room. Cuban made his opinion clear in a video he posted on YouTube last week in which he criticized Power Balance bracelets before throwing the display case that was in the Mavericks' locker room in the garbage.The rubber bracelets have a distinctive hologram that is "based on Eastern philosophies of health and wellness", according to the company's website. Power Balance bracelets featuring NBA team logos in the hologram are available for $32.99 on the league's official website. However, Cuban said that he will not allow the product in the Mavericks' locker room. In November 2011, Power Balance LLC reportedly agreed to a $57 million settlement to a class action false-advertising lawsuit by some customers who alleged that the company intentionally exaggerated its products' ability to improve balance, flexibility and strength. Cuban hastily dismissed a similar product when watches with holograms were pitched on "Shark Tank", the ABC entrepreneurial reality show on which he stars. "No, I'm allergic to scams", Cuban said on the episode of "Shark Tank" that aired in February. "Seriously, this is not new. It's been disproven. What you saw is the placebo effect. There's athletes that wear it. It's a joke. It's a scam. It's not real".

MMR vaccine coverage has reached its highest level in 14 years in young children in the United Kingdom, says the Health and Social Care Information Centre. 91% of children under the age of two received the first dose of the jab between 2011 and 2012, a rise of 2.1% on the previous year. But this is still short of the 95% that experts believe is required to stop the spread of measles. Measles outbreaks were seen in Sussex and Merseyside earlier this year. Tim Straughan, chief executive from HSCIC, said: "Today's report marks a significant point in the continued rise of MMR coverage since it hit a low in 2003-04 - as for the first time in 14 years, nine out of 10 children in England have had the MMR vaccine before they turn two". This is the first time coverage in England has passed 90% since 1997-98, when immunisation fell due to the controversial claims against the vaccine that were completely without foundation. The first dose of the MMR vaccine should ideally be given to children between 12 to 13 months of age. They are given the second dose before they start school, usually between three and five years of age, although it can be given three months after the firsteasles can cause serious illness and can, in some cases, be fatal. Complications can include meningitis and encephalitis - inflammation of the lining of the brain. Rarer disorders of the eye, heart and nervous system can also develop.

For the people in a tiny Serbian village there is nothing sexy or romantic about a vampire. In fact, they are terrified that one of the most feared vampires of the area has been roused back to life. Rather than 'Twilight's' Edward, the people of Zorazje fear that Sava Savanovic is lurking in their forested mountains of western Serbia. They believe that he is on the move because the home he occupied for so long, a former water mill, recently collapsed. Savanovic is believed to be looking for a new home. "People are very worried. Everybody knows the legend of this vampire and the thought that he is now homeless and looking for somewhere else and possibly other victims is terrifying people," said Miodrag Vujetic, local municipal assembly member. He added that villagers "are all taking precautions by having holy crosses and icons placed above the entrance to the house, rubbing our hands with garlic, and having a hawthorn stake or thorn. I understand that people who live elsewhere in Serbia are laughing at our fears, but here most people have no doubt that vampires exist".

The British government is taking the groundbreaking step of officially warning cancer patients and their families against substandard clinics – often abroad – that offer unproven treatments, following a Guardian investigation. The move follows coverage of the plight of children with neuroblastoma, a rare cancer diagnosed in babies that has a very poor survival rate. Distressed families, who are desperate to do anything they can to help their child survive, have been travelling as far as Mexico and China for treatments that clinics claim on websites can cure their children or relieve pain. The Guardian featured the case of seven-year-old Olivia Downie from Fraserburgh, who travelled with her family to a clinic in Tijuana, Mexico, for "sono-photodynamic therapy". But the treatment did nothing to help and Olivia died a few days after returning to Scotland. The warning on NHS Choices points out that photodynamic therapy (PDT) is a genuine, licensed and useful treatment for some cancers but it "should not be confused with the unproven, unlicensed versions of PDT sold by some private clinics in the UK and overseas". "If you or your child are seriously ill with cancer, it is understandable to feel desperate and want to try every available treatment that might help," says NHS Choices., "however, if you opt for NGPDT or SDT rather than going with NHS advice or treatment, you could be putting your life at risk. Your condition may deteriorate further and you may experience unknown adverse effects from the therapy".

And now let's look at some news in science

Fifty-nine years after James Watson and Francis Crick deduced the double-helix structure of DNA, a scientist has captured the first direct photograph of the twisted ladder that props up life. Enzo Di Fabrizio, a physics professor at the Magna Graecia University in Catanzaro, Italy, snapped the picture using an electron microscope. Previously, scientists had only seen DNA's structure indirectly. The double-corkscrew form was first discovered using a technique called X-ray crystallography, in which a material's shape is reconstructed based on how X-rays bounce after they collide with it. But Di Fabrizio and his colleagues developed a plan to bring DNA out of hiding. They built a nanoscopic landscape of extremely water-repellant silicon pillars. When they added a solution that contained strands of DNA into this scene, the water quickly evaporated and left behind cords of bare DNA that they could see.

Botswana will ban commercial hunting from January 2014 over growing concerns about the sharp decline in wildlife species, officials have announced. "The shooting of wild game for sport and trophies is no longer compatible with our commitment to preserve local fauna", the environment ministry said. As much as a third of the global elephant population lives in Botswana. Recent estimates place the number at about 130,000. The ban, set to come into place on the 1st of January, could turn out to be controversial as it may pose a threat to local communities, in particular bushmen, for whom hunting is a means to survive. Furthermore, selling hunting licences to wealthy Westerners is an extremely lucrative business. Hunting concessions currently exist in the northern Okavango Delta and the parks of the Kalahari region, famous for its upmarket safari lodges. According to the environment ministry's official statement, the government will continue to issue special game licences "for traditional hunting by some local communities within designated wildlife management areas". Designated hunting zones will be turned into "photographic areas".

More than 20 polar research teams have combined forces to produce estimates of the state of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica in a paper in Science. Until now different measurement means have produced a wide range of estimates with large uncertainties. But sea-level rise is now among the most pressing questions of our time. The new estimate shows that polar melting contributed about one-fifth of the overall global sea level rise since 1992; other factors include warming that causes the seawater to expand. Supported by US and European space agencies Nasa and Esa, the research brought together data from satellites measuring the surface altitude, the flow of the glaciers and the gravitational effect of the ice mass to produce the first joint assessment of how the ice sheets are changing. The results show that the largest ice sheet - that of East Antarctica - has gained mass over the study period of 1992-2011 as increased snowfall added to its volume. However, Greenland, West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula were all found to be losing mass - and on a scale that more than compensates for East Antarctica's gain. The study's headline conclusion is that the polar ice sheets have overall contributed 11.1mm to sea level rise but with a "give or take" uncertainty of 3.8mm - meaning the contribution could be as little as 7.3mm or as much as 14.9mm.

The galaxy NGC 1277, just a quarter the size of our own Milky Way, hosts a black hole 4,000 times larger than the one at the Milky Way's centre. A report in Nature shows it has a mass some 17 billion times that of our Sun. The surprise finding is hard to reconcile with existing models of black hole growth, which hold that they evolve in tandem with host galaxies. Getting to grips with just how large black holes are is a tricky business - after all, since they swallow light in their vicinities, they cannot be seen. Instead, astronomers measure the black holes' "sphere of influence" - the gravitational effects they have on surrounding gas and stars. On a hunt for the Universe's largest black holes, astronomers using the Hobby-Eberly Telescope in the US state of Texas undertook a survey that brought in a haul of nearly 900 host galaxies. The researchers were surprised to find that some of the largest black holes were to be found in small galaxies. NGC 1277 in particular was quite strange. "This galaxy seems to be very old. So somehow this black hole grew very quickly a long time ago, but since then that galaxy has been sitting there not forming any new stars or anything else. We're trying to figure out how this happens, and we don't have an answer for that yet", one of the researchers has explained.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Four asteroids, on the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, that had been discovered by Romanian professional and amateur astronomers have been named after four other Romanians that are passionate about astronomy. Arpadpal, Alexescu, Anestin and Boico are the first asterois discovered by Romanians and that have officially received Romanian names. The large chunks of rock were discovered by the "European Near Earth Asteroid Research" (EURONEAR) team , a project initiated by Ovidiu Vaduvescu and Mirel Bîrlan. EURONEAR studies asteroids that have an orbit close to that of the Earth and has so far discovered over 1.500 asteroids. Asteroid Arpadpal received the name of one of the most famous romanian astronomers, prof. dr. Arpad Pal. Asteroid Alexescu was named after prolific sky-watcher Matei Alexescu, member of the British Astronomical Association and the Association of Lunar and Planetary Observers in the US. Asteroid Anestin was named after Victor Anestin one of the very first Romanian science journalists to promote astronmy. Asteroid Boico received the name of amateur astronomer and engineer Vladimir Boico, who was president of the Bucharest Astroclub between 1991 and 1998.



Skeptical Reporter for November 23rd, 2012

In San Francisco, the District Attorney has announced suspects in a bizarre ghost scam have been charged. The scam has targeted people in the Asian community and authorities were quick to launch an awareness campaign that ultimately led to the fraudsters being caught. Two women were arrested and now face jail time for grand theft, extortion, attempted extortion and attempted grand theft. The M.O. was the same as the last Chinese ghost scam from earlier this summer in the United States, where the suspects duped dozens of elderly Asian women to hand over their cash and valuables. In total, the suspects made off with more than $1 million, according to police. In September, three more women were arrested on suspicion of stealing victim's money after telling them there were evil spirits attached to them. One victim alone lost $35,000. Since then, the cops and the DA have been hosting community meetings to educate residents about this crafty scam. But on the 10th of November, the scammers struck again, targeting elderly Chinese women at the Alemany Farmer's Market.  The first victim was approached by three of the defendants who told her that she was plagued by "evil spirits" and that a family member was in danger, so she had to get her money and valuables and bring them over for a blessing. Frightened by the thought of evil spirits, the victim headed home to get her valuables. But on her way she recalled having just heard a warning on the news about this kind of scam. So instead of going home, the victim went to Ingleside Police Station and reported the scam. The cops responded to the market, where the victim identified the suspects.

France dashed the hopes of those who had planned to take refuge in one of the few places on Earth some believe will be spared when the world ends on December 21st. Local officials banned access to the Pic de Bugarach, a mountain in the southwest where rumour has it the hilltop will open on the last day and aliens will emerge with spaceships to save nearby humans. Eric Freysselinard, the state's top representative in the area, said he was blocking access to the mountain for public safety reasons to avoid a rush of New Age fanatics, sightseers and media crews. Believers say the world will end on December 21, 2012, the end date of the ancient Mayan calendar, and they see Bugarach as one of a few sacred mountains sheltered from the cataclysm. Freysselinard said the 100 police and firefighters he plans to deploy will also control approaches to the tiny village of the same name at the foot of the mountain, and if too many people turn up, they will block access there too.

An Indian publisher is drawing criticism for a school textbook that says meat eaters cheat,  lie and commit sex crimes. "New Healthway," a health and hygiene textbook published by S Chand for 11- and 12-year-olds, includes a chapter titled "Do We Need Flesh Food?". The book says "some of the characteristics" of non-vegetarians are that "they easily cheat, tell lies, forget promises, they are dishonest and tell bad words, steal, fight and turn to violence and commit sex crimes." Janaki Rajan of the Faculty of Education at Jamia Millia University in Delhi said the claims in the textbook are "poisonous for children". "The government has the power to take action, but they are washing their hands of it," she said. The publisher declined to comment.

On an episode of the syndicated TV show “The Doctors,” scientologist Kelly Preston promoted Kirstie Alley’s Organic Liaison diet program and also the producer of supplements for the diet. Unfortunately, the part that was not revealed in the program is that the “expert” at Alternative Laboratories that she talked to is a pharmacists whose license got suspended in 2004. Ryan Margot, who was presented as “doctor Ryan” pleaded guilty to 39 counts of obtaining drugs like Hydrocodone through fraud and got ten years in a Florida State Prison, suspended sentence, and 60 months of drug probation. For the last two years, Margot has worked for Alternative Labs, identified in Preston’s piece as the place Kirstie Alley uses to prepare foods and diet supplements. He gave Preston a short lecture on the value of “organic foods” and was identified as an expert on the subject. “The Doctors” apparently just took the taped segment from Preston without questioning it.

And now let's look at some news in science

Dwarf planet Makemake is about two thirds of the size of Pluto, and travels around the Sun in a distant path that lies beyond that of Pluto but closer to the Sun than Eris, the most massive known dwarf planet in the Solar System. Previous observations of chilly Makemake have shown it to be similar to its fellow dwarf planets, leading some astronomers to expect its atmosphere, if present, to be similar to that of Pluto. However, a new study now shows that, like Eris, Makemake is not surrounded by a significant atmosphere. The team, led by Jose Luis Ortiz from the Instituto de Astrofisica de Andalucia in Spain, combined multiple observations using three telescopes to look at Makemake as it passed in front of a distant star. Makemake's lack of moons and its great distance from us make it difficult to study, and what little we do know about the body is only approximate. The team's new observations add much more detail to our view of Makemake -- determining its size more accurately, putting constraints on a possible atmosphere and estimating the dwarf planet's density for the first time. Makemake was initially known as 2005 FY9. It was discovered a few days after Easter in March 2005, earning it the informal nickname of Easterbunny. In July 2008 it was given its current official name. Makemake is the creator of humanity and god of fertility in the myths of the native people of Easter Island.

In a breakthrough for nanotechnology and multiple sclerosis, a biodegradable nanoparticle turns out to be the perfect vehicle to deliver an antigen that tricks the immune system into stopping its attack on myelin. This has led to stopping a model of relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis from advancing in mice. The new nanotechnology also can be applied to a variety of immune-mediated diseases including Type 1 diabetes, food allergies and airway allergies such as asthma. In MS, the immune system attacks the myelin membrane that insulates nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and optic nerve. When the insulation is destroyed, electrical signals can't be effectively conducted, resulting in symptoms that range from mild limb numbness to paralysis or blindness. About 80 percent of MS patients are diagnosed with the relapsing remitting form of the disease. The new technology does not suppress the entire immune system as do current therapies for MS, which make patients more susceptible to everyday infections and higher rates of cancer. Rather it leads to the immune system resetting to normal.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no connection between lunar phases and the incidence of psychological problems. This is the conclusion reached by a team of researchers directed by Professor Geneviève Belleville of Université Laval's School of Psychology after having examined the relationship between the moon's phases and the number of patients who show up at hospital emergency rooms experiencing psychological problems. To determine whether the widespread belief linking the moon to mental health problems was true, researchers evaluated patients who visited emergency rooms at Montreal's Sacré-Coeur Hospital and Hôtel-Dieu de Lévis between March 2005 and April 2008. They focused specifically on individuals that complained of chest pains for which no medical cause could be determined. Psychological evaluations revealed that a sizable number of these patients suffered from panic attacks, anxiety and mood disorders, or suicidal thoughts. Using lunar calendars, the researchers determined the moon phase in which each of these visits occurred. The results of their analysis revealed no link between the incidence of psychological problems and the four lunar phases.

A research team at Georgetown Lombardi Comprehensive Cancer Center say they have turned adult epithelial cells into a new stem-like cell that has attributes which may help regenerative medicine become truly possible. The scientists report that these new stem-like cells do not express the same genes as embryonic stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. That explains why they don't produce tumors when they grow in the laboratory, as the other stem cells do, and why they are stable, producing the kind of cells researchers want them to. "These seem to be exactly the kind of cells that we need to make regenerative medicine a reality," says the study's senior investigator, Richard Shlegel, chairman of the department of pathology at Georgetown Lombardi.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Google will organize an event dedicated to 24 European students who have shown great potential in science and engineering at the third edition of the European Google Trailblazer Awards. The event will take place in Zurich on the 29th and 30th of November and six winners are Romanian. Google partnered up with the InfoEducation camp from Romania in the past three years and offered 220 students the opportunity to learn more about computers. In the three years 18 young Romanians have received the Trailblazer title and many of them have continued their scientific studies.


Skeptical Reporter for November 16th, 2012

A Chinese senior health official has called on the European Union to impose fewer restrictions on imports of traditional Chinese medicine. Wang Guoqiang, vice-minister of Health, said that the EU should consider the character of Chinese culture and of TCM when making regulations on TCM imports. “Unlike Western medicines, which attach great importance to laboratory results, TCM practitioners can determine symptoms of illness by checking the pulse”, he explained. An EU directive, issued in March 2004 and implemented in May 2011, mandates that herbal medicines be barred from the EU market unless they are licensed by an EU member state. To gain authorization in the EU, herbal medicine makers must pay large sums for registration and collect documentation proving the product has a 30-year history of safe use, including 15 years in the EU.

In Ireland, a claim from TV3 that pregnancy is not “strictly considered to be a health issue” has been dismissed by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland as it upheld four complaints against the controversial Psychic Readings Live programme which the station broadcasts. While TV3 did admit that “the provision of psychic services is not an exact science” it robustly defended the programme in the face of a growing number of complaints which accused it of exploiting vulnerable people for commercial gain. Under the BAI’s code of conduct it is forbidden for psychic services to discuss health matters or to predict the future as a matter of fact. Another complaint centred on a presenter who told a woman she would be married in Asia in three years but before that she could expect her flat to burn down. She was told not to worry because her house insurance would cover it. The complaint said the presenter “cast fear into the caller’s heart” and that the broadcast “amounts to mental and financial exploitation of the vulnerable”. In response TV3 insisted the programme met all regulatory requirements and that it was clearly “identified as an entertainment service at all times”. The station also pointed out that the psychic had “clearly stated that the prediction (…) was being made in his opinion”. However the Compliance Committee upheld the complaint and concluded that “the broadcast as a whole conveyed the message that the service was more than an entertainment service.”

The most well-known brand that produces homeopathic pills, Boiron Laboratories, has released a study on the use of homeopathic treatment of migraine in children. According to the conclusions of the study, the homeopathic pills produced a significant decrease in the frequency, severity, and duration of migraine attacks and, consequently, reduced absenteeism from school. The study has immediately come under fire for being flawed, with Dr. Edzard Ernst, former Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter, writing: “To put the result of the Boiron-researchers into the right context, we should perhaps remember that even the most outspoken promoters of homeopathy on the planet concluded from an evaluation of the evidence that homeopathy is ineffective as a treatment of migraine. Therefore it seems surprising to publish the opposite result on the basis of such flimsy evidence made to look impressive by its multi-national nature.  (…) Debunking flawed homeopathy studies is not what I aim for or spend my time on. Yet this study, I thought, does deserve a brief comment. Why? Because it has exemplary flaws, because it reflects on homeopathy as a  whole as well as on the journal it was published in (the top publication in this field), because it is Boiron-authored, because it produced an obviously misleading result, because it could lead many migraine-sufferers up the garden path (…).

A self-styled 'guru' has been sentenced to eight years in prison for cheating three generations of an aristocratic French family out of their fortune by making them believe they were under threat from a secret masonic plot. Thierry Tilly convinced 11 members of the De Vedrines family to barricade themselves into their turreted manor house, Château Martel near Monflanquin, a medieval village in south-west France. In what the court described as a "Machiavellian plot", he tricked them into handing over up to €4.5 million, and eventually made the family flee to Oxford, persuading them he was a former secret services agent and there was a plot against their lives. The family members, aged 16 to 89, described being in his sway for around nine years until 2009. Tilly, 48, who met the family when he worked as an administrator at a school run by one of the De Vedrines sisters, was convicted of psychological abuse and deprivation of civil rights.

The Kansas State Board of Education heard a report that as many as one in five elementary teachers in Kansas and surrounding states are reporting science grades on student report cards, despite the fact that they don't spend any time teaching the subject or testing pupils' knowledge in it. George Griffith, superintendent of the Trego school district in western Kansas and a member of a Kansas committee helping craft new national science standards, said he conducted a survey of more than 900 elementary teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska. Griffith said teachers responding to the survey said they reported grades in science because there was a spot on the grade card for it. But the teachers felt so pressured to increase performance in the high-stakes reading and math tests that they have cut back or eliminated class time for science. Griffith said he has presented his findings to national organizations of science teachers, and he said few people are surprised to learn what he found.

And  now let's look at some news in science

Vision researchers at Barrow Neurological Institute have made a groundbreaking discovery into the optimization of light sources to human vision. By tuning lighting devices to work more efficiently with the human brain, the researchers believe billions of dollars in energy costs could be saved. The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is believed to be the first attempt to tune light-emitting devices to the optimal temporal dynamics of the human visual system. The discovery concerns the way humans perceive temporal modulations of light. For example, most light-emitting devices, such as light bulbs, video monitors and televisions, flicker. "We found a temporal sweet spot in visual perception that can be exploited to obtain significant savings by redesigning light emitting devices to flicker with optimal dynamics to activate visual system neurons in the human brain," says Dr. Macknik, author on the study. The researchers estimate that if every light-emitting device in the U.S. -- from light bulbs to cell phones -- operated at optimal efficiency for the human visual system, it could result in billions of dollars of savings in electricity and power.

Researchers and patients look forward to the day when stem cells might be used to replace dying brain cells in Alzheimer's disease and other neurodegenerative conditions. Scientists are currently able to make neurons and other brain cells from stem cells, but getting these neurons to properly function when transplanted to the host has proven to be more difficult. Now, researchers at Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute have found a way to stimulate stem cell-derived neurons to direct cognitive function after transplantation to an existing neural network. "We showed for the first time that embryonic stem cells that we've programmed to become neurons can integrate into existing brain circuits and fire patterns of electrical activity that are critical for consciousness and neural network activity", said Stuart Lipton, senior author of the study. The transplanted human neurons not only conducted electrical impulses, they also roused neighboring neuronal networks into firing, at roughly the same rate they would in a normal, functioning brain.

By combining the power of NASA's Hubble and Spitzer space telescopes and one of nature's own natural "zoom lenses" in space, astronomers have set a new record for finding the most distant galaxy seen in the universe. The farthest galaxy appears as a diminutive blob that is only a tiny fraction of the size of our Milky Way galaxy. But it offers a peek back into a time when the universe was 3 percent of its present age of 13.7 billion years. The newly discovered galaxy was observed 420 million years after the Big Bang. Its light has traveled 13.3 billion years to reach Earth. This find is the latest discovery from a program that uses natural zoom lenses to reveal distant galaxies in the early universe. The Cluster Lensing And Supernova Survey with Hubble (CLASH), is using massive galaxy clusters as cosmic telescopes to magnify distant galaxies behind them. This effect is called gravitational lensing.

Cambridge scientists at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN, near Geneva, have spotted one of the rarest particle decays ever seen in nature. The result is very damaging to new theories like the extremely popular Supersymmetry. Supersymmetry is called in to fill some of the gaps of the Standard Model in physics. Since it predicts new phenomena, the theory of Supersymmetry can be thoroughly tested at the LHC. A very good place to search is through the decay of a Bs particle (composed of a beauty quark and a strange anti-quark) into two muons (very heavy electrons). It is expected to be a very rare event but can be greatly enhanced be the presence of new physics. This decay has been observed for the first time by a team at the LHC beauty (LHCb) experiment. The observation is bang on the Standard Model prediction, but comes as very bad news for supporters of Supersymmetry. Indeed, new physics failed to show up where it had the best opportunity. "If new physics exists, then it is hiding very well behind the Standard Model" commented Cambridge physicist Dr Marc-Olivier Bettler, a member of the analysis team.

And now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

The country is facing a health crisis with a lot of cases of HIV infection. Health officials have expressed their concern at the large number of young people who are infected because they use combinations of herbs that can be purchased legally to get high. The Romanian authorities have repeatedly tried to warn the population on the risks of using such herbs as drugs, but many take the risk since they cannot be arrested for buying the products. Many have resorted to injecting the herbal mixtures therefore increasing the number of HIV infections.  The president for the National Union of Organizations for Persons Affected by HIV/AIDS, has declared that in the first six months of this year 31% of those diagnosed had been infected because they used injectable drugs. He added that the trend in the past two years has been for this number to increase.


Skeptical Reporter for November 9th, 2012

Interactions between prescription drugs and herbal or dietary supplements can cause complications including heart problems, chest and abdominal pain and headache, according to a review of existing evidence. Remedies and supplements including ingredients like St John's wort, magnesium, calcium, iron and ginkgo caused the greatest issues, researchers reported in the International Journal of Clinical Practice. Experts from the China Medical School in Taiwan studied data from 54 review articles and 31 independent studies involving 213 herbal and dietary supplements and 509 prescribed drugs. A total of 882 linked effects were observed, with warfarin, insulin and aspirin digoxin among the drugs which were most affected. In almost half of all cases, the drug interactions happened when ingredients in the supplements altered the way in which the prescribed drugs were absorbed and spread around the body, metabolized, and later removed from the system.

The largest, randomized, double-blind trial to date has confirmed what smaller studies have suggested and what many physicians have long believed: a daily multivitamin does not reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases.  If fact, they might be detrimental to preventing such health problems. "Individuals who believe they are deriving benefits from supplements may be less likely to engage in other preventive health behaviors, and chronic use of daily supplements poses a financial burden, with annual vitamin-supplement sales in the billions of US dollars," Dr Howard Sesso and colleagues write. The investigators acknowledge that multivitamin supplementation may play a role in populations with nutritional deficiencies, and their study results do not extend to such groups. In an accompanying editorial, Dr Eva Lonn notes that over one-third of the US population takes some kind of daily multivitamin, swelling sales of dietary supplements to almost $24 billion in 2008.

The U.S. FDA has sent a letter to the Burzynski Research Institute demanding that they stop promoting their products, antineoplastons, which they claim can treat brain tumors, as being safe and effective. In the document, FDA officials explained that they have reviewed a number of materials promoting the use of the Burzynski products and have found them to be in violation of the law. This is what the officials explain in the letter: “The totality of these claims suggest that Antineoplastons, investigational new drugs, are safe and/or effective for the treatment of the various types of brain tumors indicated above, when they have not been approved for these uses. Since Antineoplastons are investigational new drugs, the products’ indication(s), warnings, precautions, adverse reactions, and dosage and administration have not been established and are unknown at this time”.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky, created quite an uproar in 2007 when it opened with exhibits showing early humans co-existing with dinosaurs. Five years later, the public fascination with that baseless take on paleoanthropology seems to be fading. This week, the museum explained that the number of visitors for the year dropped by 10% and it's the museum’s fourth straight year of declining attendance and its lowest annual attendance yet. The $27 million museum drew 404,000 visitors in its first year. To ensure its financial health, the Creation Museum raised admission prices on the 1st of July, to $29.95 for adults, up from $24.95.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

The British psychiatrist Simon Wessely and the Chinese science writer Shi-min Fang are the two inaugural winners of the John Maddox Prize. The prize rewards individuals who have promoted sound science and evidence on a matter of public interest, with an emphasis on those who have faced difficulty or opposition in doing so. Sponsored by Nature and the Kohn Foundation, and stimulated and organized by the UK-based charity Sense About Science, the prize commemorates a former Editor of Nature, John Maddox. John was distinguished for his championing of robust science. In this inaugural year, the judges were able to make two awards, each of 2.000 pounds. Shi-min Fang is controversial for his campaign against academic fraud.[1] Founder of New Threads, a publication and website that targets the overseas Chinese audience, he even challenged official support of traditional Chinese medicine. In the summer of 2010, thugs hired by a urologist attacked Fang with a hammer and, according to Fang, tried to kill him. Simon Wessely is a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, who has specialized in two areas above all — the mental health of military personnel and veterans, and chronic fatigue syndrome. He carried out a massive and ambitious study to test the link between common viral infections and later fatigue, and found that there is no simple causal association. All along the way Wessely has had to suffer continued abuse and obstruction from a powerful minority of people who, under the guise of self-help organizations, have sought to promote an extreme and narrow version of the disorder. Hostile letters, e-mails and even death threats have been directed at Professor Wessely over two decades.

A new super-Earth planet that may have an Earth-like climate and be just right to support life has been discovered around a nearby star by an international team of astronomers, led by Mikko Tuomi, of the University of Hertfordshire, and Guillem Anglada-Escude, from University of Goettingen. The new super-Earth planet exists in the habitable zone of a nearby star and is part of a six-planet system. The system was previously thought to contain three planets in orbits too close to the star to support liquid water. By avoiding fake signals caused by stellar activity, the researchers have identified three new super-Earth planet candidates also in orbit. But they were most excited by the planet with the outermost orbit from the star. With a mass at least seven times that of the Earth, it orbits around the host star at about the same distance that Earth orbits the Sun. Also, the planet is likely to be rotating on its own axis as it orbits around the star creating a daytime and night-time effect on the planet which would be better at creating an Earth-like environment.

The simple act of turning a page has begun to look outdated with tablets replacing books and manuals for many working professionals. But an augmented reality display similar to Google Glasses frees up wearers' hands by allowing them to turn virtual pages using their eyes alone. Such a display comes in the form of futuristic glasses that allow wearers to see virtual maps, drawings or other images — up to 1 meter in size — projected in front of their eyes. A chip smaller than half the size of a postage stamp can detect the wearer's eye movements so that they just need to glance at an arrow key to turn a page in a virtual instruction manual or book. "The data glasses allow us to see the real world in the normal way, while at the same time registering our eye movements with the camera," said Rigo Herold, project manager at the Fraunhofer Center for Organics, Materials and Electronic Devices Dresden in Germany. Such eye movement control frees up the hands of the glasses wearers entirely so that they can focus on their real-world work .

A team of researchers from the Netherlands and Italy has succeeded in making sharp pictures of objects hidden behind an opaque screen. Materials such as skin, paper and ground glass appear opaque because they scatter light. In such materials light does not move in a straight line, but travels along an unpredictable and erratic path. To date it has not been possible to resolve an image from light that has been completely scattered. A team from the MESA+ Institute for nanotechnology at the University of Twente in the Netherlands has now succeeded in doing just this. The researchers were not able to form an image of the object directly, but the information needed to create that image still existed, just in a scrambled form. The two young scientists who are the first authors of this paper had the brilliant idea to find out whether that scrambled information is sufficient to reconstruct the image -- and they found a way to do so. They succeeded in making an image of a hidden fluorescent object just 50 micrometers across -- the size of a typical cell.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

Plagiarism scandals are still plaguing the country, this time involving the minister of Education, Ecaterina Andronescu. Nature magazine has published an article that criticizes the supervision process in Romanian research. The article reveals that minister Andronescu has backed a financing request for half a million euros for research based on plagiarism. Ecaterina Andronescu is also accused of having delayed investigation in a number of cases involving plagiarism, including that of prime minister Victor Ponta.  Education minister Andronescu declared that the scandal is just misinformation.


Skeptical Reporter for October 26th, 2012

Sadly, the skeptics community has lost two great personalities this week. Leon Jaroff, a science writer and editor who persuaded Time Inc. to start Discover magazine in 1980, became its top editor and for many years wrote the popular Skeptical Eye column challenging pseudosciences, died Saturday at his home in East Hampton, New York. He was 85. Mr. Jaroff was managing editor of Discover, a monthly, for four years, overseeing cover articles on the search for life in space, the evolution of sex and the secrets of the brain, among other topics. Also, the Center for Inquiry marks with great sadness the passing of Paul Kurtz, founder and longtime chair of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the Council for Secular Humanism, and the Center for Inquiry, who died at the age of 86. A philosopher, activist, and author, Kurtz was for a half-century among the most significant and impactful figures in the humanist and skeptic movements.

For many women, premenstrual syndrome, or PMS, is a familiar preamble to their monthly cycle. But a new review of the data suggests that mood changes aren’t as closely tied to menses as many have assumed. A team led by Dr. Sarah Romans of the University of Otago in New Zealand reviewed 47 studies that followed women’s moods across the menstrual cycle. Only 15% of the studies found that women tended to have “classic” PMS: moods that worsened as the menstrual period approached and lifted when menstruation occurred. An additional 38% found PMS that lasted into menstruation or another cycle phase. However, a further 38% of the studies found no association between mood and any particular phase of the cycle. And 9% found that the worst moods actually occurred outside of the premenstrual phase. That means that little more than half of the studies (53%) found any link between menstruation and bad mood, and 85% didn’t find classic PMS. “The major finding of this review was that clear evidence for a specific premenstrual-phase-related mood occurring in the general population is lacking”, the authors concluded.

Why some people respond to treatments that have no active ingredients in them may be down to their genes, a study in the journal PLoS ONE suggests. The so-called "placebo effect" was examined in 104 patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) in the US. Those with a particular version of the COMT gene saw an improvement in their health after placebo acupuncture. The scientists warn that while they hope their findings will be seen in other conditions, more work is needed. Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter, said: "This is a fascinating but very preliminary result. It could solve the age-old question of why some individuals respond to placebo, while others do not. And if so, it could impact importantly on clinical practice. But we should be cautious - the study was small, we need independent replications, and we need to know whether the phenomenon applies just to IBS or to all diseases." The placebo effect is when a patient experiences an improvement in their condition while undergoing an inert treatment such as taking a sugar pill or, in this case, placebo acupuncture, where the patient believes they are receiving acupuncture but a sham device prevents the needles going into their body.

Eating a raw food diet is a recipe for disaster if you're trying to boost your species' brainpower. That's because humans would have to spend more than 9 hours a day eating to get enough energy from unprocessed raw food alone to support our large brains, according to a new study that calculates the energetic costs of growing a bigger brain or body in primates. But our ancestors managed to get enough energy to grow brains that have three times as many neurons as those in apes such as gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. How did they do it? They got cooking, according to a study published online today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "If you eat only raw food, there are not enough hours in the day to get enough calories to build such a large brain. We can afford more neurons, thanks to cooking " says Suzana Herculano-Houzel, a neuroscientist at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil who is co-author of the report.

Google Maps has officially stepped into what may be its most difficult challenge yet — mapping the alleys, ledges and trails of the world unreachable by Street View’s cars, tricycles and snowmobiles. The effort formally began on foot Monday as Google took three of its Trekker backpacks down into the Grand Canyon for the new gadgetry’s maiden voyage. “When we were designing Trekker, we really knew we wanted to take it to these rugged, remote locations. We worked really hard to make sure it was waterproof and could handle heat and cold and all kinds of abuse on the trail”, said Ryan Falor, a product manager on Google’s Street View special collections team. The Trekker — which looks like a Ghostbuster’s Proton Pack with an oversized soccer ball mounted on top and a USB-connected Android smartphone and was first shown off at a Google Maps event back in June. At that point, the device was still a prototype and a bit lighter than it is now. But after about a year and a half of prototypes and improvements, the Trekker is finally polished enough to collect 360-degree imagery for use in Google Maps Street View.

The Biggest Loser might be a TV ratings winner, but its extreme depiction of exercise is more likely to turn people off than get them off the couch, according to new research from the University of Alberta. Researchers in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation found that watching a short video clip of the Biggest Loser fueled negative attitudes toward exercise, raising further questions about how physical activity is shown in the popular media. "The depictions of exercise on shows like The Biggest Loser are really negative," said lead author Tanya Berry, Canada Research Chair in Physical Activity Promotion. "People are screaming and crying and throwing up, and if you're not a regular exerciser you might think this is what exercise is -- that it's this horrible experience where you have to push yourself to the extremes and the limits, which is completely wrong."  Berry said the results debunk the belief held by some researchers and many in the popular media that shows like The Biggest Loser can be motivational and get people off the couch. In fact, the negative portrayals of exercise are counterproductive to public health campaigns.

Researchers in the US have been shocked to discover a beluga whale whose vocalizations were remarkably close to human speech. While dolphins have been taught to mimic the pattern and durations of sounds in human speech, no animal has spontaneously tried such mimicry. But researchers heard a nine-year-old whale named NOC make sounds octaves below normal, in clipped bursts. The whales are known as "canaries of the sea" for their high-pitched chirps, but while a number of anecdotal reports have described whales making human-like speech, none had ever been recorded. Once they identified NOC as the culprit, they caught it on tape. They found that vocal bursts averaged about three per second, with pauses reminiscent of human speech. Analysis of the recordings showed that the frequencies within them were spread out into "harmonics" in a way very unlike whales' normal vocalizations and more like those of humans. They also found that the mimicry was no easy task for NOC. "Our observations suggest that the whale had to modify its vocal mechanics in order to make the speech-like sounds," said Sam Ridgway, president of the National Marine Mammal Foundation and lead author on the paper. "The sounds we heard were clearly an example of vocal learning by the white whale."

A small British company has developed a way to create petrol from air and water, technology it hopes may one day contribute to large-scale production of green fuels. Engineers at Air Fuel Synthesis in northern England, say they have produced 5 litres of synthetic petrol over a period of three months. The technique involves extracting carbon dioxide from air and hydrogen from water, and combining them in a reactor with a catalyst to make methanol. The methanol is then converted into petrol. By using renewable energy to power the process, it is possible to create carbon-neutral fuel that can be used in an identical way to standard petrol, scientists behind the technology say. "It's actually cleaner because it's synthetic. You just make what you need to make in terms of the contents of it, so it doesn't contain what might be seen as pollutants, like sulfur", Peter Harrison, chief executive officer of AFS, said in an interview. The work is part of a two-year project that has so far cost around 1 million pounds. AFS plans to build a commercial plant in the next two years that will produce around 1,200 liters a day of specialist fuels for the motorsports.

And now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

Romanians’ smoking habits will be analyzed in a five year study by the Davidson College, in the United States , and the University of Medicine and Pharmacy of Targu Mures, Romania. The research will be coordinated by professor Kristie Folley and professor Balacz Peter, from the University Semmelweis in Budapest, who is in charge of a similar project in Hungary. The project aims to study smoking in teen and children groups, in pregnant women and people with cardiovascular diseases. Also it will try to answer questions about the high rate of failure in quitting smoking. Romania has a high rate of both active and passive smokers and a lot of those trying to quit aren’t able to do so.


Skeptical Reporter for October 19th, 2012

We begin this edition of the skeptical reporter with an announcement.

Merseyside Skeptics are giving the UK’s top psychics, including Sally Morgan, the opportunity to demonstrate they can talk to the dead. This is what Michael Marshall, vice president of the organization explained about the event: “If the mediums are right and the dead really can get in touch, it would have a profound effect on the way we understand our lives. Which is why it was so frustrating that Sally Morgan – the UK's most commercially successful psychic – refused to take part in a simple test of her abilities last year. Fortunately, not all psychics think there are better things to do than to validate their profession, which is why I'll be working once more with Professor Chris French and science writer Simon Singh to test the paranormal abilities of two professional psychics on Sunday, with the results to be announced on 31 October. This year we have widened our challenge to include the other top mediums currently touring the UK, formally inviting Colin Fry, Gordon Smith, T J Higgs and Derek Acorah. If any one of the top five touring psychics in the UK wishes to prove themselves once and for all, they'll be very welcome to participate in our test, which takes place at Goldsmiths, University of London”.

And now for some skeptical news

Some corporate disclosures are so delightful it's best to just let them speak for themselves. This week a Nevada-based company called Psychic Friends Network Inc. released a copy of its latest investor presentation as part of a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Psychic Friends Network, which used to advertise heavily using television infomercials starring singer Dionne Warwick, went bust in 1998 when its parent company at the time filed for bankruptcy. Now it's back. And it is promising to "leverage an iconic brand name using new technologies and social media to re-establish PFN as the industry leader for daily horoscopes and psychic advice". And the company is forecasting $64 million of net income for fiscal 2015. Then again, the first page of the presentation includes some important cautionary language. "Undue reliance should not be placed on the forward-looking statements," it says, "because PFN can give no assurance that they will prove to be correct".

Brazilian police fearing a mass suicide that was going to take place this week, intervened to rescue the children of a doomsday cult who had barricaded themselves inside a house to await "the end of the world". Authorities believed that the members were ready to kill themselves by drinking soup laced with poison after the group's leader, the "prophet" Luis Pereira dos Santos, convinced his followers that the Apocalypse was coming. Last month Santos convinced his 113 followers to leave their jobs, give away all their possessions, and take their children out of school. On Thursday evening, 50 military policemen forced their way into the home and removed 19 babies and children after they received "credible" information that the group had planned to kill themselves by drinking poison. Police say that during the operation, a "significant quantity" of rat poison was found at the residence. The children will be placed in care homes. Children's judge Maria Luiza de Moura issue the protection order that allowed the police to remove the children, and said: "We believe that a mass suicide or murder may happen using a soup ingested by cult members. The adults are free to act of their free and spontaneous will, but we have to make sure that nothing happens to the children”.

In a highly unusual move, Academics Review, an association with global membership including academics, researchers, teachers and authors who commit to peer review for the purpose of establishing sound science, criticized popular television celebrity dr. Mehmet Oz for his show on genetically modified crops and foods. This is what the organization explained: "An October 2012 airing of the Dr. Oz television program includes the use of graphic images alleging associations between specific health risks and foods from crops produced using agricultural biotechnology.  We the undersigned academics, scientists, researchers, health and related professionals find these claims and corresponding graphic representations to be highly misleading and irresponsible. Dr. Mehmet Oz has repeatedly allowed Jeffrey Smith, an activist with no scientific or medical background or other relevant credentials, to appear on his program and make claims that GMOs are somehow associated with human health and safety risks. As Dr. Oz  and his producers have been repeatedly informed: The safety of biotech-derived foods has been thoroughly addressed by the international scientific community through decades of peer reviewed, published research. We urge Dr. Oz to make an immediate public statement disavowing these misleading health claims promoted by his show, and we urge his program promoters, sponsors and distributors to reevaluate their continued involvement with this or any programs which promote such baseless and irresponsible health claims".

Unknown gunmen have killed a polio vaccinator in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan, highlighting resistance to the country's immunization campaign, officials say. The shooting happened in the provincial capital Quetta a day after a three-day campaign kicked off across the country. Baluchistan, which borders Afghanistan and Iran, is plagued by sectarian violence between the minority Shi'ite and majority Sunni community, as well as by Taliban attacks and a separatist insurgency. The Taliban have banned immunizations in some areas, condemning the campaign as a cover for espionage since a Pakistani doctor was jailed after helping the CIA track down al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden using a hepatitis vaccination program.

And now let’s look at some news in science.

Since public health officials began recommending in 2006 that young women be routinely vaccinated against HPV, many parents have hesitated over fears that doing so might give their children license to have sex. But research published in the journal Pediatrics may help ease those fears. Looking at a sample of nearly 1,400 girls, the researchers found no evidence that those who were vaccinated beginning around age 11 went on to engage in more sexual activity than girls who were not vaccinated. “We’re hopeful that once physicians see this, it will give them evidence that they can give to parents,” said Robert Bednarczyk, the lead author of the report. HPV, the most common sexually transmitted virus in the United States, can cause cancers of the cervix, anus and parts of the throat. Federal health officials began recommending in 2006 that girls be vaccinated as early as age 11 and last year made a similar recommendation for preadolescent boys. The idea is to immunize boys and girls before they become sexually active to maximize the vaccine’s protective effects. According to research, nearly a third of children 14 to 19 years old are infected with HPV.

After flying to an altitude of more than 39,000 meters in a helium-filled balloon, Felix Baumgartner completed a record breaking jump for the ages from the edge of space, exactly 65 years after Chuck Yeager first broke the sound barrier flying in an experimental rocket-powered airplane. Austria's Felix Baumgartner earned his place in the history books after overcoming concerns with the power for his visor heater that impaired his vision and nearly jeopardized the mission. Baumgartner reached an estimated speed of 1,342.8 km/h (Mach 1.24) jumping from the stratosphere, which when certified will make him the first man to break the speed of sound in freefall and set several other records while delivering valuable data for future space exploration. The 43-year-old Austrian skydiving expert also broke two other world records (highest freefall, highest manned balloon flight), leaving the one for the longest freefall to project mentor Col. Joe Kittinger. Baumgartner and his team spent five years training and preparing for the mission that is designed to improve our scientific understanding of how the body copes with the extreme conditions at the edge of space.

European astronomers have discovered a planet with about the mass of Earth orbiting a star in the Alpha Centauri system, the nearest to Earth. It is also the lightest exoplanet ever discovered around a star like the Sun. The planet was detected using the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-meter telescope at La Silla Observatory in Chile. Alpha Centauri is one of the brightest stars in the southern skies and is the nearest stellar system to our Solar System, only 4.3 light-years away. It is actually a triple star, a system consisting of two stars similar to the Sun orbiting close to each other, designated Alpha Centauri A and B, and a more distant and faint red component known as Proxima Centauri. Since the nineteenth century astronomers have speculated about planets orbiting these bodies, the closest possible abodes for life beyond the Solar System, but searches of increasing precision had revealed nothing. Until now. "Our observations extended over more than four years using the HARPS instrument and have revealed a tiny, but real, signal from a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri B every 3.2 days," says Xavier Dumusque, lead author of the paper on the discovery.

A European team of scientists has built the first atlas of white-matter micro-structure in the human brain. The project's final results have the potential to change the face of neuroscience and medicine over the coming decade. The work relied on groundbreaking MRI technology and was funded by the EU's future and emerging technologies program with a grant of 2.4 million Euros. The participants of the project, called CONNECT, were drawn from leading research centers in countries across Europe including Israel, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Denmark, Switzerland and Italy. The new atlas combines three-dimensional images from the MRI scans of 100 brains of volunteers. To achieve this, CONNECT developed advanced MRI methods providing unprecedented detail and accuracy. Currently, biomedical research teams around the world studying brain science rely on a brain atlas produced by painstaking and destructive histological methods on the brains of a few individuals who donated their bodies to science. The new atlas simulates the impossible process of painstakingly examining every square millimeter of brain tissue (of which there are around 100 million per brain) with a microscope, while leaving the brain intact. The key novelty in the atlas is the mapping of microscopic features (such as average cell size and packing density) within the white matter, which contains the neuronal fibers that transmit information around the living brain.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

A classification of institutions with research activities in the country revealed a startling situation: a lot of private universities came on lower positions than high-schools, environment agencies and factories. the list, put together by the scientists' association Ad Astra, looked at ISI Thompson scientific articles, that have an international importance and impact. In other words, high-school students learn from better trained teachers, that are more interested in quality research than some students in universities.

This was Miruna for the Skeptical Reporter. This show was recorded today, the 19th of October 2012. Thank you for listening.



Skeptical Reporter for October 12th, 2012

Some Australian homeopaths claim they can treat anything from autism to deadly infections to violence, including domestic violence. Sydney clinic Homeopathy Plus, for example, promotes the use of homeopathy for potentially fatal anaphylactic shock and post-childbirth infections and director Fran Sheffield said homeopathy can treat “excesses of human behavior” including domestic violence. The Homeopathy Plus website links to an article that claims homeopathy is “a safe and effective way to treat the victims as well as the culprits of domestic violence” and contains a list of remedies for both victims and perpetrators. Asked whether she really believed homeopathy could treat domestic violence, Fran Sheffield explained that “uncontrollable rage and anger” were symptoms of an imbalance that homeopathy could fix. Australian Medical Association president Dr Steve Hambleton said homeopathy was not even “biologically plausible” and that it was dangerous to pretend it could work, and called for sanctions against “outrageous claims”. The NHMRC, Australia’s leading health expertise body, has formed a Homeopathy Working Committee to develop a position statement on homeopathy. A draft statement found it was unethical to use homeopathy because it doesn't work, and that it could be risky if using it caused someone to delay real, effective treatment.

Police are investigating a beauty clinic in Hong Kong after four women were hospitalized with septic shock after receiving a treatment experts say is usually only administered to cancer patients. Two women, aged 46 and 60, remain in a critical condition after being admitted soon after undergoing the procedure at the DR beauty clinic, according to a statement from the Hong Kong Department of Health. In a statement from the health department, which is investigating the matter, a spokesman said patients had received what's called a DC-CIK treatment, a procedure that involves, "concentration and processing of blood taken from the person, and subsequent infusion of the mixture back into the patient. According to the investigation, the treatment was provided by registered medical practitioner." Dr. Ho Pak-leung, President of the University of Hong Kong's Center for Infection declared that he had not heard of any scientific evidence that DC-CIK treatment was useful for cosmetic purposes. "I have serious doubts about the medical and scientific basis of the treatment," he said.

After eBay took a step in the right direction and banned the sale of magical objects and potions, the people selling such items found themselves in quite the unprofitable situation. So they promptly created their own auction website to make sure devoted clients of paranormal products could get their fix. This is what a statement by Carlos Portales, of the newly formed Magickals, said: "The 10th of September 2012, eBay ban directed at the Metaphysical Community has begun. The former eBay Metaphysical Community has been left in the dark to fend for themselves. Well no longer, a ray of light is being shown by a group of former eBay buyers, whom have banded together, to help out the industry they know, and love. They have come together, and created the new auction website, known as". The statement also explained that many sellers in the metaphysical community were devastated by the ban: "The most tragic situation this event has caused is, causing some former sellers to decide to outright retire. It has been a truly sad and abrupt, disbanding of a wonderful community that most of the mainstream public is unaware of".

In Great Britain the National Health Service has taken a look at the latest research in the use of Echinacea that made headlines. Newspapers reported that Echinacea could prevent colds after the results of the largest clinical study into the use of the herb were published. The NHS experts took a look at the study and found there were a number of problems with it. "What was not widely reported in the news was that the study also reported finding no significant difference between the groups when they looked at the number of colds each group caught. So, the difference seems to have been related to how long a cold lasted, rather than the frequency of cold. This randomized control trial was well designed and had a good sample size (755 participants), however, there are a number of oddities in the reporting of the study findings that cast a shadow of doubt over the results, such as: no declaration of funding and only partial disclosure of conflict of interests, no results table, limited reporting of unpleasant side effects, no estimates of error around the results reported, selective reporting of results and the applicability of the results to the general population. This news story should stand as a warning to journalists of the dangers of taking research at face value without bringing any critical faculties to bear".

And now lets look at some news in science

Orbiting a star that is visible to the naked eye, astronomers have discovered a planet twice the size of our own made largely out of diamond. The rocky planet, called '55 Cancri e', orbits a sun-like star in the constellation of Cancer and is moving so fast that a year there lasts a mere 18 hours. Discovered by a U.S.-France research team, its radius is twice that of Earth's with a mass eight times greater. That would give it the same density as Earth, although previously observed diamond planets are reckoned to be a lot more dense. It is also incredibly hot, with temperatures on its surface reaching 1,600 degrees Celsius. "The surface of this planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond rather than water and granite," said Nikku Madhusudhan, a Yale researcher. The study, in collaboration with Olivier Mousis at the Institut de Recherche en Astrophysique et Planetologie in Toulouse, France, estimates that at least a third of the planet's mass, the equivalent of about three Earth masses, could be diamond. Diamond planets have been spotted before but this is the first time one has been seen orbiting a sun-like star and studied in such detail. "This is our first glimpse of a rocky world with a fundamentally different chemistry from Earth," Madhusudhan said, adding that the discovery of the carbon-rich planet meant distant rocky planets could no longer be assumed to have chemical constituents, interiors, atmospheres, or biologies similar to Earth.

Astronauts plucked a commercial cargo ship from orbit on Wednesday and attached it to the International Space Station, marking the reopening of a U.S. supply line to the orbital outpost following the space shuttles' retirement last year. After a two and a half day trip, Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon cargo ship positioned itself 33 feet away from the orbital research complex, a project of 15 countries, which has been dependent on Russian, European and Japanese freighters for supplies. Astronaut Akihiko Hoshide then used the space station's almost 18 meters long robotic arm to grab hold of the capsule. "Looks like we tamed the Dragon," commander Sunita Williams radioed to Mission Control in Houston. The Dragon's cargo includes a freezer to ferry science samples back and forth between the station and Earth. For the flight up, it was packed with chocolate-vanilla swirl ice cream, a rare treat for an orbiting crew. The capsule is expected to remain docked to the station for about 18 days while the crew unloads its 400 kilograms of cargo and fills it with science experiments and equipment no longer needed on the outpost.

The unexpected survival of embryonic neurons transplanted into the brains of newborn mice in a series of experiments at the University of California, San Francisco raises hope for the possibility of using neuronal transplantation to treat diseases like Alzheimer's, epilepsy, Huntington's, Parkinson's and schizophrenia. The experiments, described this week in the journal Nature, were not designed to test whether embryonic neuron transplants could effectively treat any specific disease. But they provide a proof-of-principle that GABA-secreting interneurons, a type of brain cell linked to many different neurological disorders, can be added in significant numbers into the brain and can survive without affecting the population of endogenous interneurons. The survival of these cells after transplantation in numbers far greater than expected came as a shock to the team. The prevailing theory held that the survival of developing neurons is something like a game of musical chairs. The brain has limited capacity for these cells, forcing them to compete with each other for the few available slots. Only those that find a place to "sit" will survive when the music stops. The rest die a withering death. But what the research team found was very different: regardless of how many neurons they transplanted, a consistent percentage always survived.

Studying fruit flies has revealed strong evidence in favor of natural selection. Known as Drosophila Melanogaster, fruit flies left Africa tens of thousands of years ago, when humans migrated. Now the fruit flies, widely used for genetics research, are returning to Africa and establishing new populations alongside flies that never left, offering new insights into the forces that shape genetic variation. That's one of the findings from two new papers of researchers at the University of California, Davis, and their colleagues that describe the genomes of almost 200 strains of the tiny flies. The work reveals strong evidence of pervasive natural selection throughout the Drosophila Melanogaster genome, said Charles Langley, professor of genetics in the Department of Evolution and Ecology. That is in striking contrast with what is known of the human genome, which shows comparatively little evidence of adaptation over the last 100,000 years. The overall aim of the research is to better understand the forces that shape genetic variation, Langley said.

And in local news from Romania we learn that

A local skeptical blogger has come under fire after writing articles that prove a colon cleaning product, known as ColonHelp, does not work. After being threatened with lawsuits and warned to take down any articles in which the name of the product appears, the blogger was notified that the company that produces ColonHelp, Zenith Pharmaceuticals, has sued WordPress. The company is trying to remove all criticism related to its product, but provides no evidence that its product is effective. Their defense rests in "it's a really popular product". This is what the blogger at Insula Îndoielii had to say about the issue: "Right now I simply want it to be known that a company is trying to shut down a well-regarded blog for simply stating facts. Or let’s put it another way, fact-based opinions. Screw people having the right to express their opinions! They are claiming that I have affected their sales and brand image even though hundreds of thousands of people have used their products due to massive advertising campaigns. They have made 7 Million $ revenue in one year (as per documents submitted to the court). I want people to know that colon cleanses are a baseless, fact-less, silly product that is marginally helpful in limited cases and potentially dangerous if instructions are not followed".


Skeptical Reporter for October 5th, 2012

California has become the first state in the nation to ban therapy that tries to turn gay teens straight. Governor Jerry Brown announced that he has signed a Senate Bill, which prohibits children under age 18 from undergoing “sexual orientation change efforts”.  The law, which goes into effect on the 1st of January, prohibits state-licensed therapists from engaging in these practices with minors. "Governor Brown today reaffirmed what medical and mental health organizations have made clear: efforts to change minors' sexual orientation are not therapy, they are the relics of prejudice and abuse that have inflicted untold harm on young lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Californians", Clarissa Filgioun, board president of Equality California, said in a press release. The bill was sponsored by Senator Ted Lieu who said bogus and unethical practices by mental-health providers to try to change a young person’s sexual orientation have resulted in irreparable psychological and emotional harm to patients.

Dozens of weight loss and immune system supplements on the market are illegally labeled and lack the recommended scientific evidence to back up their purported health claims, government investigators warn in a new review of the $20 billion supplement industry. The report, released by the Department of Health and Human Services' inspector general, found that 20 percent of the 127 weight loss and immune-boosting supplements investigators purchased online and in retail stores across the country carried labels that made illegal claims to cure or treat disease. Some products went so far as to state that the supplements could cure or prevent diabetes or cancer, or that they could help people with HIV or AIDS, which is strictly prohibited under federal law. Consumers may not just be wasting their money on pills or tablets, but they could be endangering their health if they take a supplement in place of a drug thinking it will have the same effect, the report concluded. Federal regulations do not require the Food & Drug Administration to review supplement companies' scientific evidence for most of their products' purported health benefits before they hit the market. The Office of Inspector General found that in numerous cases, when companies did submit evidence to back up their health claims, it fell far short of government recommendations. One company submitted a 30-year-old handwritten college term paper to substantiate its claim, while others included news releases, advertisements and links to Wikipedia or an online dictionary, according to the report.

A chiropractor forged the signature of an Edmonton woman on a patient consent form, after she suffered a massive stroke that her family blamed on a neck adjustment. In early September 2007, Sandra Nette was left in so-called “locked in syndrome,” meaning she was so severely disabled that she was unable to walk and barely able to speak or swallow. Tests appeared to show tears in the arteries at the back of her neck. Nette and her husband, David, explained that she suffered the injuries after a neck adjustment by chiropractor Gregory John Stiles, from whom she had received treatment for years. The couple said Nette was not properly warned of the risks of the neck adjustment, and filed a $5 million lawsuit. And another man has revealed his health struggles after visiting a chiropractor. Richard Rossert of Nashotah suffered a vertebral artery dissection, or the tearing of an artery that supplies blood to the brain, that caused a stroke. This happened after the man returned from a visit to his chiropractor. “It happens a lot more than you realize,” said Attorney Karl Gebhard, who has worked on three of these types of cases so far.

Famous skeptic, science writer and libel reform campaigner Simon Singh has been threatened with legal action for criticizing a health magazine. Earlier this week, Singh took to the social media network Twitter to denounce a magazine called What Doctors Don't Tell You. Described by its editor, Lynne McTaggart, as being aimed at "intelligent women between 35-55" the magazine claims to provide information about what works and what does not work in both conventional and alternative medicines. Coverlines on the current issue include "sunbathe your diabetes away" and "how I avoided my hysterectomy through diet". Writing on Facebook, McTaggart called on the magazine's supporters to fight the actions of "bully boys" who wanted to push it off newsagents' shelves. Singh confirmed that he had contacted Comag, the distributors of WDDTY, to say that in his opinion the magazine was largely unscientific and was promoting advice that could potentially harm readers. "Also, many of the adverts appear to make pseudoscientific and unsubstantiated claims," he said. "I even offered to meet with Comag and introduce them to medical experts, but they have not accepted this invitation".

And now let’s look at some news in science.

NASA's Curiosity Mars rover checked in on Mars using the mobile application Foursquare. This marks the first check-in on another planet. Users on Foursquare can keep up with Curiosity as the rover checks in at key locations and posts photos and tips, all while exploring the Red Planet. "NASA is using Foursquare as a tool to share the rover's new locations while exploring Mars," said David Weaver, associate administrator for communications at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "This will help to involve the public with the mission and give them a sense of the rover's travels through Gale Crater." Back here on Earth, Foursquare users will be able to earn a Curiosity-themed badge on the social media platform for check-ins at locations that generate an interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This partnership, launched with astronaut Doug Wheelock's first-ever check-in from the International Space Station, has allowed users to connect with NASA and enabled them to explore the universe and re-discover Earth.

In the first study of its kind, researchers have found that numbers of women in the science, technology and innovation fields are alarmingly low in the world's leading economies, and are actually on the decline in others, including the United States. The study maps the opportunities and obstacles faced by women in science across the US, EU, Brazil, South Africa, India, Korea and Indonesia. It was conducted by experts in international gender, science and technology issues from Women in Global Science & Technology and the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World. Despite efforts by many of these countries to give women greater access to science and technology education, research shows negative results, particularly in the areas of engineering, physics and computer science. Women remain severely under-represented in degree programs for these fields-less than 30% in most countries. In addition, the numbers of women actually working in these fields are declining across the board. Even in countries where the numbers of women studying science and technology have increased, it has not translated into more women in the workplace.

You may never have to worry about losing all the money in your account. A team of physicists is developing a scheme for noise tolerant and yet safely encrypted quantum tokens. Giving away the numbers of your card, your bank account and so on always holds the risk that the information may be duplicated and you will wake up penniless. Nature provides ways to prevent forging: it is, for example, impossible to clone quantum information which is stored on a qubit. But although safe, devices that use quantum information are generally quite challenged by noise, decoherence and operational imperfections. Therefore it is necessary to lower the requirements on the authentication process. A team of physicists at Max-Planck-Institute of Quantum Optics, Harvard University, and California Institute of Technology has demonstrated that such protocols can be made tolerant to noise while ensuring rigorous security at the same time.

At a time when the value of gold has reached an all-time high, Michigan State University researchers have discovered a bacterium’s ability to withstand incredible amounts of toxicity in order to create 24-karat gold. “Microbial alchemy is what we’re doing – transforming gold from something that has no value into a solid, precious metal that’s valuable,” said Kazem Kashefi, assistant professor of microbiology and molecular genetics. He and Adam Brown, associate professor of electronic art and inter-media, found the metal-tolerant bacteria Cupriavidus metallidurans can grow on massive concentrations of gold chloride – or liquid gold, a toxic chemical compound found in nature. In fact, the bacteria are at least 25 times stronger than previously reported among scientists, the researchers determined in their art installation, “The Great Work of the Metal Lover,” which uses a combination of biotechnology, art and alchemy to turn liquid gold into 24-karat gold. The artwork contains a portable laboratory made of 24-karat gold-plated hardware, a glass bio-reactor and the bacteria, a combination that produces gold in front of an audience.

And, now, in local news from Romania, we learn that

Due to abnormally high temperatures this month, apple trees in Sibiu district have blossomed. According to local people this phenomena is extremely rare, some stating that they have never seen such an odd thing in their entire lives. Expert horticulturist Ioan Anghel explains: "It's a rare event. There are some years when the autumn is long and because of high temperatures, apple trees blossom. Luckily this poses no problem and will not affect next year's harvest". The district of Sibiu has seen temperatures of over 30 degrees Celsius in the past few weeks, 10 degrees higher than the season's average.


Skeptical Reporter for September 28th, 2012

Chen Guangbiao, a famous Chinese businessman and philanthropist, has recently launched a line of canned fresh air collected from various parts of China and Taiwan. The product is called “Chen Guangbiao: Nice Guy” and sells for about 80 cents. It’s no secret China has a huge air pollution problem, but while authorities don’t seem to be taking any action to resolve it, billionaire Chen Guangbiao, aka “Brother Biao” is trying to raise awareness in a very original way. He has recently started selling canned fresh air collected from “revolutionary” areas of China, including Jinggang Mountain in Jiangxi Province, some ethnic minority areas and Taiwan. ”One only has to open the can, directly ‘drink’ it or put the nose close to the can to breath deeply,” Chen said. He has mentioned he will be donating part of the proceeds to the Chinese military, to support their effort in defending the Diaoyu Islands.

Fabrizio Freda, Estée Lauder’s chief, recently announced that he intended to make China the company’s “second home market”. Many multinational companies simply create a new product or two specifically for the Chinese market. But the Estée Lauder Company, which already sells 12 of its 28 cosmetics brands in China, is taking that concept further: adding an entirely new brand. Next month, the cosmetics company, known as the maker of popular brands like Estée Lauder, Clinique and Bobbi Brown, plans to introduce a hybrid East-meets-West beauty line called Osiao (pronounced O-Shao). In a nod to consumers who said they believed in the power of medicinal plants, the company developed formulas with ingredients like the Asiaatic Penny wort herb and ganoderma, a type of mushroom. The brand’s in-store counters are designed to emulate traditional apothecaries, with wooden drawers and cabinets. To further that theme, first-time customers will be invited to sit down with a skin care adviser who will take them through a questionnaire and observation process that echoes the diagnostic techniques used by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine. Afterward, the advisers will give clients suggested skin care regimens customized for their own skin type.

New South Wales is in the midst of the worst outbreak of measles in a decade with 124 cases reported so far this year. NSW Health says the numbers continue to rise and is appealing to people to ensure their family is fully vaccinated. “Anyone with symptoms of measles should not to go school, work or go out in public. Anyone who thinks they might be infected should see a doctor, but call ahead to make sure they don’t infect others at the doctor’s office,” said Dr Jeremy McAnulty, health director for health protection. Numbers began to spike in June in Western and South Western Sydney, two months after a young adult returned home from Thailand while infectious and transmitted the virus. The health authority said there had been clusters of cases at metropolitan Sydney emergency departments, one paediatrics ward, at several high schools and in the community generally. Children aged under five have been worst affected, largely as a result of transmission to babies too young to be vaccinated. There have also been high rates in 15 to 19-year-olds.

Taking Gingko biloba supplements does not improve memory, attention or problem solving in healthy individuals, according to researchers from the University of Hertfordshire. The paper is the first meta-analytic review examining the effects of Gingko biloba on healthy people across all age groups. The researchers led by Professor Keith Laws found zero impact on the cognitive functions whatever the age of the people, the dose taken or the length of time of taking Gingko biloba supplements. Keith Laws explained: “Gingko biloba has been widely used for a number of years to reduce the mental decline associated with aging. But more recently it has been marketed as a memory enhancing supplement for healthy individuals – and it is crucial to establish the validity for such claims. Our findings show that taking Gingko biloba supplements at any age to boost memory have no impact at all – and may be a waste of time and money.”

And now let's look at some news in science

The same "green revolution" concepts that have revolutionized crop agriculture and helped to feed billions of people around the world may now offer similar potential in forestry, scientists say, with benefits for wood, biomass production, drought stress and even greenhouse gas mitigation. Researchers at Oregon State University recently outlined the latest findings on reduced height growth in trees through genetic modification, and concluded that several advantageous growth traits could be achieved for short-rotation forestry, bio-energy, or more efficient water use in a drier, future climate. This approach runs contrary to conventional wisdom and centuries of tree breeding, which tried to produce forest trees that grow larger and taller, the researchers note. But just as the green revolution in agriculture helped crops such as wheat and rice produce more food - on smaller, sturdier plants, the opportunities in forestry could be significant. "Research now makes it clear that genetic modification of height growth is achievable," said Steven Strauss, an OSU professor of forest genetics.

NASA's Curiosity rover mission has found evidence a stream once ran vigorously across the area on Mars where the rover is driving. There is earlier evidence for the presence of water on Mars, but this evidence -- images of rocks containing ancient stream-bed gravels -- is the first of its kind. Scientists are studying the images of stones cemented into a layer of conglomerate rock. The sizes and shapes of stones offer clues to the speed and distance of a long-ago stream's flow. "From the size of gravels it carried, we can interpret the water was moving about 3 feet per second, with a depth somewhere between ankle and hip deep," said Curiosity science co-investigator William Dietrich of the University of California, Berkeley. The rounded shape of some stones in the conglomerate indicates long-distance transport from above the rim, where a channel named Peace Vallis feeds into the alluvial fan. The abundance of channels in the fan between the rim and conglomerate suggests flows continued or repeated over a long time, not just once or for a few years.

Physicians and environmentalists alike could soon be using a new class of electronic devices: small, robust and high performance, yet also bio compatible and capable of dissolving completely in water or in bodily fluids. Researchers at the University of Illinois, in collaboration with Tufts University and Northwestern University, have demonstrated a new type of biodegradable electronics technology that could introduce new design paradigms for medical implants, environmental monitors and consumer devices. "We refer to this type of technology as transient electronics," said John A. Rogers, Professor of Engineering, who led the multidisciplinary research team. Three application areas appear particularly promising. First are medical implants that perform important diagnostic or therapeutic functions for a useful amount of time and then simply dissolve and resorb in the body. Second are environmental monitors, such as wireless sensors that are dispersed after a chemical spill, that degrade over time to eliminate any ecological impact. Third are consumer electronic systems or sub-components that are compostable, to reduce electronic waste streams generated by devices that are frequently upgraded, such as cellphones or other portable devices.

The point of no return: In astronomy, it's known as a black hole, a region in space where the pull of gravity is so strong that nothing, not even light, can escape. Black holes that can be billions of times more massive than our sun may reside at the heart of most galaxies. Such supermassive black holes are so powerful that activity at their boundaries can ripple throughout their host galaxies. Now, an international team, led by researchers at MIT's Haystack Observatory, has for the first time measured the radius of a black hole at the center of a distant galaxy -- the closest distance at which matter can approach before being irretrievably pulled into the black hole. The scientists linked together radio dishes in Hawaii, Arizona and California to create a telescope array called the "Event Horizon Telescope" that can see details 2,000 times finer than what's visible to the Hubble Space Telescope. These radio dishes were trained on M87, a galaxy some 50 million light years from the Milky Way. M87 harbors a black hole 6 billion times more massive than our sun; using this array, the team observed the glow of matter near the edge of this black hole -- a region known as the "event horizon."

And in local news from Romania we learn that

Over 200 researchers working in foreign countries and in Romania are demanding that a conference organized under the auspices of prime minister Victor Ponta on "Diaspora in Scientific Research" be boycotted. The conference was announced from the 25th of September to the 28th of September. Cristian Dogaru, scientific researcher at the University of Bern is the person who created a petition to boicot the event. So far over 200 researchers have signed it. The petition specifies that Romanian researchers will not condone minster Ponta's behavior in the academia, after he has been accused of plagiarism.