Another Case of Bad Science and Science Reporting on Marijuana

April 22nd, 2014 | Brain

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

You may have recently stumbled across one of the recent headlines in the media that look something like this:

Casual marijuana use linked with brain abnormalities, study finds

Casual marijuana use may damage your brain

Even Recreational Marijuana May Be Linked To Brain Changes

The scientific paper they are all referring to is linked here (although you can’t read it without a subscription, which brings up a totally different problem in access to science):

When I first read these headlines, I was understandably intrigued. Had someone REALLY found good evidence in MRI data that there are differences in the brains of casual marijuana smokers? The idea is not totally far fetched. Alcohol is known to be neurotoxic and it can shrink the size of the brain through dehydration, but this is mostly corrected after you quit drinking. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke is also a known neurotoxin, but I’ve never read about any changes in the size of anatomical regions of the brain from smoking tobacco, unless you count brain tumors. However, no one has ever really found evidence to support major anatomical changes in the brain following marijuana use. So could this really be true?

Even before reading the paper, my intuition said the answer was no… brain imaging research is notoriously fraught with spurious findings linked to inappropriate use of statistics.

I gave the paper a casual read, and immediately, I noticed problems, MAJOR problems. First of all, sample size… only 20 people were included in the cross-sectional study. That is low. A cross-sectional study means that they had no within-subject comparisons. In other words, all of the data was collected at one time. A much stronger approach would have been to image subjects before they smoke and then through time as they begin to “casually smoke” marijuana. Of course, this is much more difficult, but with a study design containing so many potential confounds (see below), it’s pretty much required (imho) to say anything definitively.

Second of all, the confounds… the investigators did not control for various other aspects of these people’s lives that may cause changes in brain anatomy. How much did each subject drink? smoke tobacco? do other drugs? etc… These all could be equally correlated to the differences in brain anatomy which they discovered. Or it could something entirely different like genetics?

And lastly, the statistics… I came across this article by computational biologist Lior Pachter, and that was sort of the nail in the coffin. I suggest reading through it because Lior does a great job of highlighting the problems with multiple comparison statistics, causation vs. correlation, and many other mistakes.

He even calls it  ”quite possibly the worst paper [he's] read all year.” The Journal of Neuroscience is a rather prestigious journal, so this is all the more upsetting.

I do not study the effects of marijuana use on the brain, so I can’t tell you how it may or may not cause harm. I am absolutely positive it has some effect. But it’s important to remember that pretty much everything you do creates changes in your brain. Reading a book, riding a bike, talking with your friends… these all create lasting memories that are encoded in your neurons. However, after reading this most recent article, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY you can assert that marijuana use is harmful, or creates anatomical changes, or anything really…

It’s just another case of sensationalist reporting of poorly conducted science.


Falcon 9 Reusable Rocket – First Test Flight

April 21st, 2014 | Space

Falcon 9 Rocket Test Flight

The folks at SpaceX are leading us into a new era of space technology dominated by private enterprise. The company already became the first company to send an unmanned spacecraft to the International Space Station back in 2012 (fulfilling a $1.6 billion contract with NASA), and now, they are setting their sights on developing a reusable rocket system which will save the company a significant amount of money.

“If one can figure out how to effectively reuse rockets just like airplanes, the cost of access to space will be reduced by as much as a factor of a hundred. A fully reusable vehicle has never been done before. That really is the fundamental breakthrough needed to revolutionize access to space.” –Elon Musk

Above, you can see the video taken by a flying drone of the Falcon 9 Reusable (F9R) rocket taking its first test flight in Texas. The goal was to lift off and hover at a height of 250 meters before returning to the landing pad. They are still developing the rocket, so it’s much easier to do these sorts of small test flights to spot any design flaws before moving on to the bigger tests which will take place in New Mexico.

The test flight was a success by all accounts. Stay tuned for the next design stage.


Light Installations by Nathaniel Rackowe

April 18th, 2014 | Space

light installations 1

light installations nathaniel rackowe 2

light installations 3

light installations nathaniel rackowe 4

light installations nathaniel rackowe 5

Nathaniel Rackowe is an installation artist who lives and works in London, UK. Taking a page out of the book of American Minimalism (written by the likes of Donald Judd and Dan Flavin), Rackowe creates beautiful neon installations which live in a world of abstraction.

If you’ve been reading this site for some time, you may know that we are suckers for neon installation art. There’s just something about that ethereal glow that draws us in… like insects. If you stopped to look at these images, maybe you have the same trait in your brain.

You can find more from the artist at his site.


Shape-shifting Table from the MIT Media Lab

April 17th, 2014 | Robot

Transform_interconnection_MIT Shape-Shifting table

Behold the new shape-shifting table created by the folks at the MIT Media Lab. The idea is relatively simple: a camera picks up motion in one place and transmits that motion into a new 3D space using a system of blocks attached to motors. As you can see in the video, the execution is extremely impressive. The whole system works in real time, with hardly any discernible lag.

The project titled, “Transform,” was created by Daniel Leithinger and Sean Follmer, overseen by their professor Hiroshi Ishii.

“A pixel is intangible,” Ishii told Dezeen. “You can only use it through mediating and remote control, like a mouse or a touchscreen. We decided to physically embody computation and information.”


The implications for this technology may be far-reaching. I had a discussion with visual artist Ashley May recently about possibilities to further connect people from a distance. You may already use Skype and FaceTime to have realtime conversations with your friends and family across the world, but currently, there is no way to reach out and physically touch your loved ones. Maybe technology like the shape-shifting table (or its future models) will allow you to hold your friend’s hand, or give them a hug… Distance seems to becoming irrelevant in our ever more connected world.


Robotic Kangaroo

April 16th, 2014 | Robot

Festo Robotic Kangaroo

Festo Robotic Kangaroo 2

Festo has a knack for creating incredibly realistic robotic animals (see Dragonfly & Jellyfish). The company’s new product is the Robotic Kangaroo seen above.

Here’s a word from Festo:

“On the artificial kangaroo, Festo intelligently combines pneumatic and electrical drive technology to produce a highly dynamic system. The stable jump kinematics plus the precise control technology ensure stability when jumping and landing. The consistent lightweight construction facilitates the unique jumping behaviour. The system is controlled by gestures.”

I still have no idea who purchases these robotic animals. What functional use do they have? Regardless, I am glad they do. If I had the money, I would have one of these hopping around my apartment right now.

Festo has now created jellyfish, penguins, kangaroos, and dragonflies… It would be pretty amazing to attend a company happy hour and see all of these animals moving around in the same space. Maybe they could make a robotic zoo of sorts?


The Blood Moon

April 15th, 2014 | Space


If you missed the Blood Moon last night, have no fear. NASA put together a short video showing you the entire event in all its glory:

The video was shot at the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles, CA. Here’s a short description about why the moon looked so red last night: about the Blood Moon.

If you want to see the next lunar eclipse, you’ll have to wait until October.


p.s. “The IRS commemorated the event today in America with its usual bloodsucking.” :)

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