Friday, June 30, 2006

Atheism is OK

Pharyngula has expounded in this post and this follow up post on the nature of atheism and whether we should try to avoid associating evolution with atheism in an effort to make evolution seem more attractive. It sort of morphed into a discussion about what happens when a scientist thinks about religion scientifically.

I agree with PZ on all his points. When a scientist looks at any religion, and demands all the same levels of evidence, consistency and cogency from it as he does for anything from physics to biology, he cannot avoid the conclusion that it is a hypothesis on a level with the idea of a 'luminiferous ether' - not only useless but false. Such a person who has come to that conclusion is an atheist by definition. You cannot evaluate religion scientifically without reaching the conclusion that it simply doesn't reflect the real world.

But no one says that as a scientists you have to consider religion scientifically. Scientists do compartmentalise their lives quite well, in that they are still swayed by instinct and emotion and bias in their personal lives. There's no reason that a scientist cannot switch off her logical, curious, enquiring mind to go to church. But you have to understand that this is what she has to do in order to accept religion.

In fact, it is the religious who continue to seek science's stamp of approval, trying to make ideas like creationism seem scientific by inventing Intelligent Design, or trying to explain how Moses could have parted the Red Sea. The only result of focusing the scientific lens onto religion is that you will either show how poor your 'science' is, or you will show how weak your hypothesis is. You are not going to convince anyone but the gullible, and they probably believe you already.

And what's wrong with associating something with atheism anyway? Atheists are moral, secular humanists for the most part, not slavering maniacs ready to tear your throat out at a moment's notice simply because they do not have the ten commandments to tell them not to. According to US prison statistics, you're far more likely to be a criminal if you're religious, so I don't get why the religious seem to think they're better people than atheists. They aren't. Judging by their consideration of religion, atheists are mostly people who see the world in a rational way, who think before they make a leap of faith, who consider an argument on its merits rather than on their own emotional bias, and who believe something when they've seen the evidence. I would much rather have such a person with their finger on the Big Red Button than someone who believes without question that God is on his side and wants him to protect the believers at any cost. I would much rather that person wanted to see evidence of Weapons of Mass Destruction before declaring war, rather than taking it on faith that they would be there.

Theists need to accept the fact that theirs is an illogical choice not supported by evidence, fact, or any relation to the physical world as we know it. And that's okay, as long as you're not trying to pretend otherwise. Many people require the belief that someone is looking out for them, just to get from one day to the next. But many people do not, and if someone is a functional whole person without the need for religion, then the religious shouldn't be offended by that.

To quote PZ:

If we insist on treating people like four-year-olds who mustn't be told that Santa isn't real, what we get is people with the wisdom and attention spans and screwy ideas about how the world works of four-year-olds.

So, do you believe in Santa?

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Midweek Cuckoo: W. John Martin

Dr. W. John Martin, MD, PhD, seemed to have everything a medical researcher could want. He was during the course of his career the chief of the Immunology/Molecular Pathology Unit at the LAC/USC (University of California) Medical Center, a professor of pathology at the USC School of Medicine, the director of the Viral Oncology Branch of the FDA's Bureau of Biologics and worked at the National Cancer Institute. So it was probably with some degree of trust that the medical community accepted his announcement in the 1980s that he had discovered a kind of virus that was undetectable to the human immune system, a "stealth virus" of sorts. He even claimed to have a method of detecting it. He received oodles of funding from the CAA, a non-profit organization funding reasearch into Chronic Fatigue and Immune Disfunction Syndrome (CFIDS), an affliction that Martin thought may be caused by these "stealth viruses".

But then things began to fall apart. Those who have read previous midweek cuckoos will recognize one of the first signs of kookdom when I tell you that Martin claimed stealth viruses were the cause of not only CFIDS but also fibromyalgia, attention deficit disorder, autism, Lyme's Disease, Gulf War Syndrome, and a host of other psychiatric and oncogeneric diseases. That was warning sign number one, the universal causative, second only to universal cure. Naturally, alternauts around the world picked up on the stealth virus and never let go. Then in 1992 the CAA funded an investigation into Martin's research, and thereafter cut his funding. Only later did the reason come out - Martin had claimed that he had a potential therapy, called Epione, that was already in stage 2 of federal testing. The CAA's investigation proved warranted when they discovered this was a blatant lie. With no published results after two years, and proof of his dishonesty, funding was cut. Martin later claimed it was due to a 'misunderstanding'.

But things got worse for Martin. In 1995 he was escorted off USC campus by security, and while he is still listed as a tenured professor, the university will only say that he is on 'indefinite leave', even a decade after the event. In 2002, after a patient complained to the State of California Health and Human Services Agency, the agency suspended Martin's license to conduct clinical studies, and ordered him to cease all laboratory testing immediately. And yet there is no evidence that he ceased anything. In fact, Martin published a few papers even after his license was suspended, leaving me wondering how legal the studies were. Reading them makes me suspect that a) the reviewers should be fired and b) Martin has slipped further and further into kookoo land. Here's a few snippets from the abstract of a paper from last year:

Several observations made during the course of studies on stealth-adapted viruses are explainable by a pervasive, energy-rich, ether environment… ACE pigments convert conventional forms of physical energies into a biological cell healing energy… ACE pigments may also capture etheric energy… also seen with several natural products, including a homeopathic formulation.
Need more? In the same paper, he had this to say in support of the existence of an ether:

Based on rather simple assumptions, 19th century physicists unsuccessfully tried to detenct an effect of an ether on the transmission of light.
What's he referring to? The Michelson-Morley experiment of 1887, of course! You know, the one that proved to scientists around the world that the luminiferous ether did not exist, and set them on the correct path of realising that light could propogate in a vacuum? The experiment that set Michelson on the path to his nobel prize? Martin tries to imply that they were bumbling idiots and would have found the ether had they only been better scientists.

So where is Dr. Martin now? His website, www.ccid.org seems to be shut down. A blog search reveals mutliple blogs affiliated to him, none of which seem to be up and running (stealthviruses.blogspot.com, wjohnmartin.blogspot.com, drwjohnmartin.blogspot.com). But what revealed the most was that a search online for the address of his Center for Complex Infectious Diseases (CCID) at 3328 Stevens Ave, Rosemead California reveals hits for two establishments - the CCID, and also Ingleside Hospital. But Ingleside also pops up with another address, also in Rosemead, CA. But compare the two addresses (Stephens Ave vs Hellman Ave) on googlemaps: they are one block apart. And Ingleside Hospital, or more accuractely City of Angels Medical Center (Ingleside Campus), states its grounds as covering 5 acres of Rosemead. So it seems that the CCID is in fact part of Ingleside Hospital.

Why is this interesting? Ingleside is a phyciatric facility. I wonder if Dr. Martin's an in-patient?

(Thanks again to Brian for the tip-off)

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Lunch and the Intartron

Yesterday i was so busy i didn't eat lunch, which i feel is about the right kind of busy. Today is a lunch day at work, though (tuesdays and thursdays lunch is provided) so i'm taking quick break to eat lunch and blog. This post may be somewhat incoherent, as i'm just taking down thoughts while reading my usual selection of favorite sites.

Bad Astronomy has a link to a cute optical illusion. Nice.

Ugh, the news is just too much to mention. Over the last few days south africans have been murdered left, right and center, and yet our minister of safety and security still will not apologise for saying that south africans who winge about crime can get out of his country. It makes me so mad i can't even begin to comment.

Skepchick has a couple of funny articles about church building without a permit and some guy who claims he can read your baby's palms while it's still in the womb. Kooks and the religious, always good for a laugh.

Ah, Pharyngula is scathing as always. People who call themselves educated and don't know the name of Nyarlathotep deserve our scorn.

Hmm, maybe more later. Time to get back to work.

Friday, June 23, 2006

A Walk on the Science Side

Some sciencish headlines for you:
  • Space Shuttle to Launch Despite Urge for No-Go - Even though the NASA engineers are strongly pushing for a cancellation of next month's shuttle launch, NASA head honcho Dr. Michael Griffin has given the go-ahead. When the crew are trapped in orbit, necessitating a multi-million dollar rescue operation, and the shuttle program is killed forever, we all know where the finger will be pointing.
  • Stem Cells Repair Paralysis in Mice - embryonic stem cells have successfully been used to repair the spinal cords of paralyzed mice, allowing them to take steps after only six months. This could mean a world of difference to people with spinal cord injuries or motor neuron disease (what Stephen Hawking has). But the religious right want all research into this field stopped, because the creation of a stem cell line involves the use of gasp embryos or bigger gasp therepeutic cloning. Is this the Dark Ages, or what?
  • Test Tube Meat on the Way - Dutch researchers are working on a method to grow meat in a lab. Henk Haagsman (Professor of Meat Sciences - how cool is that?) and his colleagues believe that within the next few years we may be eating in vitro mince. A few meat cells need to be harvested to start the cell line, but that can be done without any actual harm to the animal, so i wonder if people who are vegetarian for moral reasons will consider in vitro meat to be okay? Is it kosher? Halaal? Either way, i'll eat it.
  • Gravity is the Strongest Force - well, at least according to DaveScot, who appears to have revolutionised physics over at Uncommon Dissent. This is the kind of science IDiots do.

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Midweek Cuckoo: Dr Andrew Wakefield

In 1998 a paper appeared in premier medical journal The Lancet, claiming to have shown a connection between the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. What followed was a noted drop in children receiving the vaccine (from 92.5% in 1995 to 78.9% in 2003), and the authors becoming instant heros of the anti-vaccination movement.

But not for long. By 2004, all but one of the 13 original authors had disowned the results, and the editor of The Lancet had apologized for publishing the paper. The last man standing was Dr Andrew Wakefield, and he is the reason the other 12 eventually withdrew their support of the paper. They had discovered that while Wakefield had lead them to believe that the patients who were selected for the study were done so at random, this was not entirely true. In fact, not only had they not been randomly selected as stated in the paper, some of the patients had even been supplied to Dr Wakefield by the lawyers of families who were specifically looking for medical support for pending law suits. Dr Wakefield also forgot to mention he was being paid a lot of money by said lawyers and families for results that were to their liking. Today, Dr Wakefield is facing charges of serious professional misconduct, initiated by the General Medical Council of Britain.

The good doctor still supports his findings, though. He has appeared all over the US in the intervening years, speaking at anti-vaccination conferences and continuing to tell people that MMR will give their children autism. According to the Millenium Project:
[Wakefield] recently spoke (to a standing ovation) at a conference run by America’s leading anti-vaccination organisation, the National Vaccine Information Center, about his ongoing research. I watched his speech live on the Internet but I had to turn it off when he said that one of the subjects in his current project was not autistic - yet. He included the child in the autistic group because the child had been vaccinated and was therefore probably going to be autistic soon. This is supposed to be science.
Even if Wakefield is just a money-grubbing slimeball who thinks the Hypocratic Oath is some guy swearing in greek, his 'findings' have become an article of faith to certain people who can only be called insane. The disowning of his work by every other person involved, the revelation that he was paid to get the exact results he got, the fact that children are by virtue of their natural growth vaccinated at around the same age as they develop noticeable-enough symptoms to be diagnosed with autism... none of this matters to them. They believe it, therefore it is true.

But how do the crazies justify the link? Well, they blame it on something called thimerosal, a preservative used in some vaccines which contains a compound of mercury. In altworld, compounds or alloys of mercury (like the fillings in your teeth) magically lose their chemical binding on contact with the human body, releasing massive amounts (sometimes more than was contained in the original alloy!) of mercury into your system. And we all know that mercury poisoning is bad for you. But here's the interesting bit: while some vaccines use thimerosal (which is safe, in case you didn't notice the sarcasm), MMR doesn't. It never has. And it cannot contain a preservative, because it is a live vaccine; preservatives would kill it and make it useless. But facts rarely stand in the way of people like this.

Here are some other lies that people tell about vaccines:
  • Measles, Polio and other vaccinatable diseases are actually harmless. Lie. Just ask any one of the several people who recently died in Namibia after the polio outbreak there, precisely because they were born before widespread vaccination began in that country 15 years ago. Oh, wait, you can't. Because they're dead.
  • Measles, Polio and other vaccinatable diseases are extinct. Lie. Just because these have been all but wiped out (by widespread vaccination you'll note) in the western world, that doesn't mean they aren't still prevalent in africa and asia. And they're just a plane-ride and a handshake away from you. See point above re Namibia.
  • DTP causes Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Lie. Studies have shown no connection, and there was no sudden rise in SIDS after the introduction of DTP. In fact, it has dropped slightly since.
  • The rubella vaccine is made with aborted foetuses. Lie. From the Millenium Project again: "One of the materials used in the manufacture of rubella vaccines is a cell line derived from a legal abortion carried out in 1962. This is a tissue culture, very many generations removed from its source, and could only be considered aborted foetal tissue in the minds of people with, well, no minds at all."
  • Vaccines cause Shaken Baby Syndrome. Lie. Shaking babies causes shaken baby syndrome.

Crazy. Just crazy. Here's more if you can stomach it.

The Man Who Should Have Been President

In a recent interview with Al Gore, the following exchange was recorded:

OLBERMANN: People who don‘t believe in global warming have said everything to you and about you and about the science in this, except to say global—there‘s no globe. The earth is flat, we all know that.
GORE: Well, they‘re in the—the people who still say that global warming isn‘t real are actually in the same boat with the flat earth society. They get together and party on Saturday nights with the folks that believe the moon landing was in a movie lot in Arizona.
Now that man has a quick wit. Why, oh why, was this man elected instead:

Bush: I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Book Review: Flim-Flam!

I have recently finished reading James Randi's Flim-Flam!, and believe me, there's a reason they call him James "The Amazing" Randi.

For those not in the know, Randi retired from a successful career as a professional magician and turned his considerable skill as a trickster to investigating the paranormal. He's been a member of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) since the 70s, and started his own organization, the James Randi Education Foundation (JREF), all with the intent and purpose of delving into the truth of psychics, spiritualists, faith healers and other woo-woo artists. Flim-Flam! explores some of Randi's early work in the field, ousting dowsers, card-readers, table-tippers, spoon-benders and the like. There are two things that make Randi's approach unique: he doesn't pull his punches, and he's not afraid to put his money where is mouth is. At the time of publishing (early 80s) Randi was offering $10,000 to any person who could prove, under conditions agreed to in advance by both parties, that they could perform some kind of psychic or paranormal act. Today, that figure stands at a whopping $1 million, guaranteed. There have been many takers, but so far not a single person has been able to perform under even the most basic of scientific conditions, even those they agreed to themselves.

During the course of the book, Randi describes several examples of psychics and divulges the methods they used to dupe even so-called 'paranormal investigators'. Uri Geller features prominently, and is in fact the subject of a later book by Randi, The Truth About Uri Geller. Geller, it turns out, is not just some Isreali bumpkin who discovered he had a talent for bending spoons - he's a professional magician who is incapable of performing his 'psychic' tricks under conditions that do not allow him to use prestidigitation, and refuses to perform when other magicians like Randi are in the audience. Randi also discovers that so-called 'scientific' investigators that 'proved' Geller's psychic abilities failed to disclose simple facts in their reports, such as that his magician's assistants were allowed to wander in and out of the supposedly secure room in which he was doing his 'readings'. Randi strips away the nonsense and reveals the truth beneath - most paranormal investigators will see what they want to see, and get the results they want to get, regardless of how obvious the trickery is. And sometimes, the trickery is really very obvious to anyone who bothers to actually look.

On the flip side of the coin are those sad individuals who are not tricksters but who honestly believe that they possess some paranormal ability. Near the end of the book, Randi describes a challenge where four dowsers were subjected to a very simple test: three pipes following different paths were laid under a square of ground. Each dowser was given three tests, where a random pipe was opened to allow water to flow through, and the dowser was required to mark out the path of the water on the ground. As a double-blind test, not only did the dowsers not know which pipes were being used for which run, neither did Randi. Beforehand, to be fair, Randi requested that each dowser walk the field to first eliminate any natural water sources that might interfere with the test (and to make sure none could use this as an excuse later). All the dowsers agreed that they could perform under these conditions. The results were somewhat predictable: not one of the four dowsers came anywhere near the correct path on any of their runs, and they could not even agree on the position or existence of natural water sources in the area. They failed spectacularly, and were to the man completely shocked at their own failure. Unfortunately, instead of accepting defeat with grace, they soon began to make up all manner of excuses for why they could not perform, despite saying beforehand that the conditions were acceptable.

This book is a great read for anyone interested in finding out how the tricksters fool the masses, or themselves, and how even the most basic of restrictions (like cutting the deck of cards before allowing a card-sharp to perform their 'psychic' reading) can foil them utterly.

Monday, June 19, 2006

South Africans: Tough

At the weekend a 21-year-old Zimbabwean national took an air waitress hostage on an SAA flight, holding a syringe to her neck and demanding he be let into the cockpit or she would die. An off-duty SAA pilot and two other passengers promptly tackled him, bore him to the ground, and beat him senseless. Then they handcuffed him and tied him to a seat, before turning back to land at Cape Town International. One thing you can say for living in a society as violent as South Africa - we don't scare easy.

Last week I read an article about an Irish couple who had been cycling through Africa raising AIDS awareness. They'd been through many of the poorest countries on earth, including war-torn Sudan, on their six-month trek, but it wasn't until they hit South Africa that their experience soured. They took a night off and went to the Suncoast Casino in Durban to see a movie, parking their rental car in a 'secure' parking lot. They were gone for only a short while, discovering that there was nothing showing they wanted to see and returning to the car immediately. They discovered the car had been broken into, and among the valuables stolen were their digital camera, the woman's handbag with all the usual contents as well as all the jewelry they'd purchased from various countries on the trip, and a removable hard drive with over 25,000 photos from the last six months. They say they'll return to Africa, but never to South Africa. And my first thought is, who is stupid enough to leave a camera, a handbag and a harddrive in a car? Here, we're pleasantly surprised when we get back to our car and it's still there, never mind anything you may have left inside it. I suppose we're just desensitized, but it's almost inconceivable for me to leave something of any value in my car, regardless of how safe the area appears to be. It must be nice to live in a country where you can do something like that and expect your things to be there when you return. Here, you're on your guard all the time or you may as well be walking around with a sign saying 'victim'.

Speaking of how tough life can be here, I always chuckle when people talk about the danger posed by Killer Africanized Honeybees. In SA, we have Killer Africanized Honeybees, only we just call them 'bees'. They kill people too, but only those stupid enough to think that a sangoma chanting some mumbo-jumbo is going to be enough to protect you from them when you're trying to steal their hive. Or those who crash their car into the structure that is currently housing a hive. Or try to remove them from pipes without professional assistance.

I think the next FIFA world cup is going to be interesting. I can't wait to see English soccer hooligans meet Sowetan soccer hooligans, or soccer hooligans from Mitchell's plain. I think we have a thing or two to teach them about violence, plus the tourists are going to be easy pickings for the local 'entrepreneurs'. It's going to be hilarious.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Midweek Cuckoo: Ear Candling

Since my last couple of kooks have been of a serious nature, I thought today we should look at a brand of kookiness that no one in their right mind could possibly take seriously: the practice of ear candling, or ear coning (also called Audio Thermo Auricular Therapy by people who use terms like 'Home Executive').

In short, ear candling is the process of placing a hollow tube of (usually) unbleached muslin that has been soaked in (usually) beeswax into your ear, and lighting the exposed end. This is meant to create a gentle vacuum which sucks the cerumin (that's doctor for 'earwax') out your ear. It's claimed to be useful in treating everything from excessive ear wax to auricular zona (herpes of the ear, basically) to vertigo. It also clears your brain, nerves, emotions, sinuses and lymph nodes, because in the altmed version of human physiology the ear is just an open hole to the rest of your head, everything is connected by tubes, and any way all this stuff will osmose through your eardrum.

In the United States, the sale of ear candles marked as a treatment of any kind is banned. Locally, i don't believe we have any such ruling - you can buy ear candles online and ear candling is offered at several spas around the country (see for example Ingwenya African Retreat). All make claims of effective treatment.

So what's the scoop on ear candling anyway? Does it work? So far the unanimous decision among those who've bothered to actually test it is an emphatic no. After a session of ear candling, the practitioner will often slice open the candle and proudly display a lot of earwax-looking gunk to the patient. This, they claim, is earwax mixed with dead skin cells and other impurities, magically sucked out of your ear. Actual sampling and analysis of the gunk shows it to be exactly what any thinking person would expect - beeswax and ash. As for the 'vacuum' produced, measurement has shown that the ear candles produce no vacuum at all. In fact, according to Lisa Dryer, M.D.:
...the negative pressure needed to pull wax from the canal would have to be so powerful that it would rupture the eardrum in the process.
Sounds like fun, and indeed a number of people have discovered that the only measurable outcome of ear candling is infection, burns, and ruptured eardrums. This is why the FDA bans this kind of thing, people.

At least one site is putting this theory to the only use it deserves: they market the Butt Candle™, the gentler alternative to laxatives, enemas and anti-flatulence pills. Read the procedure for use if you need a good laugh.

(For more info on ear candling, see the Straight Dope, JREF and Skepdic entries.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Judge This

Judge John E. Jones III, who shot to relative fame during the Kitzmiller vs. Dover trial, is still receiving death threats from good Christians and being branded a traitor by the Republicans, six months after the trial has reached a close.

For those not familiar with the back story, Judge Jones ruled against the Dover School District in a case that was expected to allow the Pennsylvania science curriculum to include a statement that evolution was only a theory and that alternate theories (ie intelligent design) should be explored. Judge Jones ruled that the intelligent design was clearly a thinly-disguised form of creationism, that it contained no science whatsoever and was thus disqualified from being considered in a science curriculum, and that the inclusion of the statement was a violation of First Amendment Rights.

The IDiot camp were shocked by the ruling. You see, Judge Jones is a Republican judge appointed by a Republican president, and both party and president are supporters of biblical creation over evolution. They expected the ruling to be a shoe-in for ID. But Jones showed them that a Judge must leave his beliefs at the door, and consider only the law and the evidence brought before him. Amazing then that in the face of such judicial impartiality, he is being treated like the Judas of modern times.

A quote from the article linked above:

One particularly strident commentary piece by conservative columnist Phyllis Schlafly, published a week after the ruling, really set Jones off.
Schlafly wrote that Jones, a career Republican appointed to the federal bench by President Bush in 2002, wouldn't be a judge if not for the "millions of evangelical Christians" who supported Bush in 2000. His ruling, she wrote, "stuck the knife in the backs of those who brought him to the dance in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District."
Just replace 'millions of evangelical christians' with 'mafia' and you get a sense of what's going on here - the people who feel they are responsible for getting the judge his position tried to call in a favor, and are sending death threats because the judge they appointed turned out to be a man of the law. What next? A horse's head in his bed? Cement boots and a tour of the Delaware?

Republicans and Christians alike need to get it through their heads: Jones ruled on the law and the facts, not on faith and favors. In this, he may have been a poor Christian, but he was an excellent District Court Judge. Good for him.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Maybe God Just Hates This Guy

A guy shouts out "God will save me, if he exists!" and steps barefoot into the lion enclosure ala the biblical Daniel.

Does God save him? Of course not. God doesn't exist, and they guy is mauled to death.

Will this change anything for the faithful? Again, of course not.

Holy Headshot, Batman!


What new hypocrisy will Christians think of next? They preach 'Love Thy Neighbour', and then bring out a video game like Left Behind: Eternal Forces.

The synopsis on GameSpy reads:

Based on the renowned series of Christian-faith novels about the aftermath of the Rapture and the lives left behind in the ensuing turmoil after those who are saved by their faith in God are gone. Left Behind: Eternal Forces will put players in command of the apocalyptic battles raging in the streets of New York City between the angelic Tribulation Forces and the demonic Global Community Peacekeepers during the End of Days. Gamers will participate in events from the Left Behind book series in single player mode and battle to capture territory from other players in the multi-player online game mode.
But what does this marketing blurb really mean? Well, you play a man of god who must convert the infidels (i.e. Jews, Catholics, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists and Gays) before the coming apocalypse. If you can't convert them, what do you do? Blow them away, of course. But don't forget to say 'Praise the Lord' and pray a little afterwards. Cos that makes it all okay.

The good news is, in the multiplayer mode you can command the forces of good, or the forces of the antichrist. I know which side i'd play. Do you?

Official Site

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Midweek Cuckoo: Dissenting Opinions

My kooks today are a trifecta of sorts. They are linked in such a way that the two causal agents would never have been able to do the damage they had without the third, and the third may never have done the damage he did without the influence of the other two.

I'm speaking of South African President Thabo Mbeki, and his two 'advisors', Anthony Brink and Anita Allen. Together, they are the top three AIDS dissidents in the country [word doc].

So what is an AIDS dissident? In short, it is anyone who dissents the medically and scientifically verifiable truth about HIV and AIDS, and who thinks that their complete lack of education in the field qualifies them to disagree with 20 years of medical experience. These are people who believe such things as 'HIV does not cause AIDS', 'ARVs will kill you faster than the virus', and 'AIDS only happens to gay people.' These are all lies that it takes only a few minutes and an internet connection to disprove, yet no amount of evidence can convince the liars they are wrong. As I see it, when the truth is so easy to find, those who perpetuate blatant untruths are either medically insane, willfully lying, or fatally ignorant. It may be that they are lying to themselves as well as you, but that doesn't make it any less of a lie. I would compare AIDS dissidents to Holocaust deniers (a subject for another Wednesday, perhaps). Someone who can say that HIV doesn't cause AIDS is just as deluded as someone who can say that there were no Nazi death camps. The big difference comes in that while Holocaust deniers only insult the families of those who died, AIDS dissidents have the power to kill, and have done so. As such, they deserve all the scorn and disgust you can level at them.

Anthony Brink was an advocate and part time jazz musician, practising law in Petermaritzburg. In 1996 Brink came upon the writings of international AIDS dissidents and fell headlong down the rabbit hole. He hasn't come up to breathe since. He is the convenor and international chairman of the Treatment Information Group, who have declared a veritable war on AZT, a widely-used antiretroviral. They claim it's more toxic than the virus, and Brink even tried to take Glaxosmithkline to court because he says it 'killed' a friend. Doctors say the friend died of an opportunistic infection, all too common in HIV patients whether they are on medication or not. We'll never really know what the outcome of the trial might have been, because Brink claims he ran out of funding. Personally i wouldn't be surprised if the multinational gave him a call saying 'We know you're full of crap, you know you're full of crap, and we can prove it. We will murder you in court so go ahead, make our day.'

According to Allister Sparks, Brink gained the president's ear as follows:
[Brink] became convinced ... that the drug AZT was dangerously toxic. ‘A medicine from hell’ he called it in an article in a Johannesburg newspaper in March 1999. This prompted a response defending the drug from Desmond Martin, president of the Southern African HIV/Aids Clinicians’ society. After more exchanges, Brink contacted Mbeki and sent him copies of the debate between himself and Martin. ‘That was the first time I became aware of this alternative viewpoint,’ Mbeki told me.
[Allister Sparks, Beyond the Miracle: Inside the New South Africa (Jonathan Ball: Cape Town, 2003) pg. 286]
Let's get something straight: yes, antiretrovirals have side effects, and some can be quite serious. None of them are serious as dying of AIDS. People regularly take drugs that are just as dangerous for cosmetic problems (Accutane, a common treatment for acne, causes liver damage and severe birth defects and is a schedule 5 drug). No scientists denies that there are side effects. But they are managable, and are blown out of all proportion by AIDS dissenters like Brink. So why lie about it? Well, this is one case where i get to turn a favorite altmed argument around - Brink is currently employed by the Rath Foundation, a 'pharmaceutical company' that makes multivitamins and claims they treat AIDS. Brink tells people AZT will kill them, Rath sells them some vitamin C tablets instead. I wonder if Brink earns commission on everyone who buys Rath's pills?

Anita Allen describes herself as “not a member of the HIV-causes-Aids sect”. In my opinion, she's not a member of the "firing-on-all-cylinders" sect either. Here's another quote from her:
No one as far as we know has been able to come up with evidence proving the HIV-causes-Aids hypothesis anywhere in the world. Plenty have tried, but no one has yet succeeded.
Even if she knows she's lying, you'd have to be insane to think you could get away with a whopper like that one. If you're really interested in this woman's insanity-fueled diatribes, go read some of her articles. The titles alone should warn you they contain hysteria and conjecture, and no real facts. Anita's qualification for making medical statements about AIDS and HIV? She's a journalist. Yup, you know, one of those people trained to report the truth and the facts without bias.

Anita says it is she who is responsible for Mbeki's view on AIDS:

It was close to midnight and the fax machine went off…what came through the fax was a handwritten letter from Mbeki, saying he had read her letter expressing concern about the HIV/Aids question and that he wanted to meet with her in the morning to discuss it. [ http://www.purewatergazette.net/farber.htm ]

Thabo Mbeki, president of South Africa, took this information and instead of gaining a real medical second opinion, he used it to delay ARV rollouts in South Africa, shortening unnecessarily the lives of tens of thousands of people. How Zuma can be fired as deputy president for a little corruption, but Mbeki stays in power after negligence leading to genocide, is beyond me. Here's a quote from our esteemed leader that says it all:
Now I do believe that is a sensible thing to ask: does one virus cause a syndrome? A virus cannot cause a syndrome. A virus will cause a disease.
[Reply to a Parliamentary question; 20 September 2000]
Lets look up the dictionary definition of 'syndrome': A group of symptoms that collectively indicate or characterize a disease. Maybe if he had taken the two minutes to pick up a god damn dictionary, he wouldn't have mislead so many people, or been so mislead himself.

Granted, this was a while ago and the controversy has died down. Do you think that Mbeki has rescinded his views just because his minders steer him clear of the subject these days? Sometimes he slips through their grasp and is able to talk to the press before they can shut him up. The results would be funny if so many people didn't idolize this man and take him seriously. For all the damage Zuma may have done by telling people he took a shower to reduce his chance of getting HIV, Mbeki has done much, much worse.

The man is a moron; it's a crying shame you can't impeach him for it. And the people who lead him to his moronic views are a self-important liar and an ignorant fool. It's our responsibility to shame them to the best of our ability, and hope they are eventually so publicly humiliated they retreat into their little delusional world and are never heard from again.

Thanks to Brian for the tip-off.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Begging for Change

New bylaws passed in Cape Town now make it illegal for beggars to:
  1. Touch someone without their consent.
  2. Follow someone in a manner or conduct that influences reasonable fear for bodily harm.
  3. Continue to beg from someone after being turned down.

The bylaw also prohibits fornication, urination, defecation and spitting in public. And living in your car. Hell yeah.

Let's be very clear: it doesn't make begging illegal; it makes aggressive begging illegal. Anyone who has actually been accosted by aggressive and sometimes even violent beggars welcomes this bylaw. Certainly, anyone who ever encountered 'Cyclops', the one-eyed beggar in Rondebosch who begs with a stick raised in his other hand, would welcome the opportunity to call the police and have the violent fucker thrown in jail.

But not these bleeding hearts. They say it's retrogressive and out of the dark ages. Interesting that they all seem to think it outlaws begging, but never mind that. None of them seem to recognize that while it's not a crime to be poor and have to resort to begging, it is a crime to threaten someone in order to get money from them. Here's one example of the idiocy: Sandra Morreira, director for The Homestead, which deals with street children, said:

This bylaw does not want to see beggars in town and it will make it impossible for them to survive.

Really? So is she implying that currently the only way beggers get money from people is to harrass and threaten them, and that begging in a non-aggressive manner will result in them being unable to survive? Interesting. I thought she was on their side. Here's another one: Colin Arendse, secretary for the Homeless People's Crisis Committee, said:

Given the social standing of homeless people, most are indigent and such a bylaw is out of sync with our new-found democracy.

I'm sorry, out of sync with our new-found democracy? Which party was it that was promising violent begging in exchange for your vote? Where in the constitution does it protect the right to threaten people with bodily harm if they don't give you money?

Let me be clear on something: i don't give money to beggars, because it only perpetuates the cycle. But i am never, ever rude. I turn them down politely, and if they are respectful in any way of their fellow citizens they will leave it at that. Those who harrass you, follow you, grab at you and continue to demand money long after it has been made politely clear you are not going to give them any, are stepping over a line. I am very glad that we now have a legal recourse when they do so.

What is this, the Straight Dope?

Bast asks:


I have a question, with regards to the possible impact crater found in antarctica. If an asteroid 50 km in length slammed into the earth could it alter the orbit around the sun? and by alter I mean not just a little wobble but actually push the earth further away (or closer I suppose depending on whether it hit at night).
The full solution to this problem is likely to be quite complex, so forgive me if i do a bit of handwaving and back-of-the-envelope calculating here. The way i see it, at the bares bones we're talking about a collision. When it comes to collisions, at the very least we know that momentum will be conserved so, to start with, the important factors are mass and velocity. If i know the mass and velocity of the two bodies (the earth and the impactor) prior to impact, i can use those to work out the final velocity of the earth after impact. But how does knowing how fast the earth is moving help me?

Well, when it comes to orbits there is an inverse proportionality between orbital radius (the distance of the orbit from the sun) and orbital velocity. Decrease the earth's orbital radius, and it will increase it's orbital velocity. Similarly, if you decrease the earth's orbital velocity, it will increase it's orbital radius (this what makes it difficult for shuttle pilots to manoeuvre in orbit - changing your speed can have undesired effects).

Knowing the change in velocity allows us to calculate the change in radius as a result of the change in velocity, assuming conservation of momentum. This is of course the simplest way of getting an order of magnitude answer - i could go to a lot of effort calculating the exact orbital mechanics, but for this i think we just want a feel of how big a change can be made. I'm going to make assumptions like a circular orbit for earth, and a constant orbital velocity for earth, anyway.

So, we are going to need to set some bounds to the problem. How massive is a 50km wide asteroid? How fast can it be going when it hits us? How elastic is the collision. The following are the extrema i've selected for each variable:

  1. Density for observed meteoroids is between 3-8g/cc.
  2. Impact (i.e. relative) velocity of impact has been recorded in the range from 11-72km/s.
  3. The collision can range from perfectly inelastic (all impactor's energy released, final mass = earth mass), to perfectly elastic (no energy released by impactor, final mass = earth mass + impactor mass).
  4. Direction of impact can range from travelling in exactly the same direction along the orbital path, to travelling in exactly the opposite direction along the orbital path.

I calculated the range of possible values for all combinations of these extrema, and came out with a range of variance in final velocity from 0.000094% increase to 0.0000067% decrease. So on order of magnitude we're talking roughly a 0.00001% change one way or the other, depending on how the impact happened. Since orbital velocity is inversely proportional to orbital radius, this translates to a 0.00001% change in our distance from the sun.

The question is, how big a change is this, really? Is it enough to significantly affect life on earth?
One of the measures of whether life can exist on earth or not is the so-called Habitable Zone, the range of distances from a star where water is in a liquid state. For our sun, this is in the range 0.7AU to 1.5AU (one AU, or astronomical unit, is the distance from the earth to the sun). We would therefore require at least a 30% change in our orbital distance to radically affect all life on earth.

But all life on earth isn't us. We would be severely uncomfortable at temperatures that many bacteria would thrive in. How big a difference is 0.00001% to us? Another way of looking at it is to measure the change in energy we're receiving from the sun. This is usually measured in terms of the Solar Constant, the amount of energy received by 1 square meter of the atmosphere when the sun is shining directly at it. This is naturally related to the distance from the sun. Given the numbers from the previous calculation, we're looking at a variance in the solar constant on the order of 0.000002%. Again, how big is this in terms that mean something to us? Normal changes in the earth's distance from the sun due to axial tilt, precession and orbital eccentricity (the Milankovitch cyles) are thought to be a factor in the causation of ice ages, but the factors involved create changes on the order of a few percent, much larger than our variance.

In other words, any change in the earth's orbit due to a collision is going to be negligable, even for an object as large as 50km across. Even then, an object of this size impacting the earth is extremely rare (there are no measured Near Earth Asteroids greater than 25km across at present). At the end of the day, it's the dust kicked up by the impactor that has the real long term effect - it only takes a 2km meteor to throw enough ejecta into the atmosphere to result in serious environmental damage, and anything larger than that is guaranteed to cause mass extinction.

Here's a good page on meteorites, with plenty of good links.

And here's NASA's comet and asteroid impact hazard site.

Proviso: any and all calculations made in this post may be completely and utterly incorrect.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Search for Terrestrial Intelligence

Should aliens turn their intelligent design filters to earth, i think that William Dembski would be surprised to find he does not register. I mentioned yesterday that Bill was mouthing off again about how if people accepted that SETI was science, they had to accept that ID was science. The argument always makes me think of Johnnie Cochran saying 'if the glove doesn't fit, you must acquit.' Look at the silly monkey.

So in case you thought this was a relevant argument, here's a very very thorough refutation of exactly why it's a load of bollocks.

Also, more Intelligent Designers lying for god. So much for the whole 'thou shalt not bear false witness' thing.

Poking Fun at Scientology

Do you know what an 'assist' is? Yes, i meant to use it as a noun. In scientology, an 'assist' is exactly this: pointing at people to heal them.

There are two kinds of assist: the Nerve Assist (pointing at people), and the Touch Assist (poking people). These are meant to heal you of psychological and physical trauma. Scientologists are so serious about this that they are training Volunteer Ministers and sending them all around the world to poke and prod survivors of tsunamis, hurricanes, earthquakes and other publicity-gaining disasters.

I can train you to be a Volunteer Minister right now:

  1. Take both hands and curl them into fists.
  2. Now extend the index finger of your right hand without uncurling the other fingers of that hand.
  3. Do the same with the left hand.
  4. Now, angle both hands so that the tips of your index fingers are pointing directly at someone.
  5. For a better effect, try pointing at the exact area that requires healing.
  6. If that fails, try moving your hands closer to the person, until the tips of your extended index fingers are in contact with the area requiring healing.
  7. Congratulations! You are now a qualified Volunteer Minister for the Church of Scientology!
Seriously, can you image it: you've just had your entire life swept away by Hurricane Katrina, you're lying on a makeshift stretcher, your only possession the tattered clothes on your back, no idea where your family is... and someone in a yellow shirt comes over and asks if they can point at you? How do people take this seriously?

Here's some more fun at the expense of scientology: The Onion reports on the new religion sweeping across the globe: Fictionology.

And a biography of L. Ron Hubbard in its entirety, online. I am so going to read this.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Too busy to blog

well, not exactly, but i am pretty busy. Big project delivery, much scrambling, not enough time to blog (properly).

So i leave you with a few random thoughts for today:
  • X3: The Last Stand was awesome, a truly excellent final chapter in the trilogy. Frasier was surprisingly good as Beast. I am very disappointed that Gambit was not in the trilogy, other than a name on a screen in X2. I am mostly disappointed because Josh Holloway (Sawyer in Lost) was offered the part and turned it down because it was too close to his TV role. He would have made an awesome Gambit. Also, those of you who did not stay to the end of the credits are lamers, because there was a little somethin'-somethin' there for people with real staying power.
  • On the topic, my special mutant power is to remember the names of actors, no matter how obscure they are. My kryptonite is that if there is plumber's crack in the room, i will always be looking in that exact direction at the exact time of exposure.
  • sort of on the subject of mutants, on the subject of evolution, the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publishing of On the Origin of Species in coming up in 2009, and the Smithsonian isn't sure it's going to do anything for it. It's afraid it might offend people. Seriously, WTF?
  • and speaking of evolution makes me want to go and see what Bill Dembski is up to. Let's see, trotting out that tired old argument about how SETI is also looking for intelligent design and no one questions their science. I don't need to answer the question, it's been answered before. Oh, and the origin of the argument? Bill, in 1998. Fast forward to 2005 and he's till asking the same old tired questions that have been refuted over and over. When will he learn a new trick?

Yeah, i'm going home now.