Base Stations Again

September 2, 2011

Let me say at the outset that I am not a fan of cell phones. In my view these anti-social devices have done more to damage quality of life (and, when in the hands of moronic drivers, to actually end life) than any other modern invention. It is no longer possible for me to enjoy a day at the beach, or a romantic dinner without being irritated by the constant ring tones and inane, high-decibel chatter of those around me, or, much worse, by my pointy-haired boss who is so dim he thinks an after hours computer error is an emergency, despite the fact that no one will die or even feel vaguely queezy because of it. No one would be happier than I if the damn things were swept off the face of the planet once and for all, but I am reluctantly forced to take up a position in their defence against the plethora of hogwash currently being spouted about their effect on health. Read the rest of this entry »


For Goat’s Sake

August 31, 2011

(Reuters) – Police in Nigeria are holding a goat on suspicion of attempted armed robbery.

Vigilantes took the black and white beast to the police saying it was an armed robber who had used black magic to transform himself into a goat to escape arrest after trying to steal a Mazda 323.

“The group of vigilante men came to report that while they were on patrol they saw some hoodlums attempting to rob a car. They pursued them. However one of them escaped while the other turned into a goat,” Kwara state police spokesman Tunde Mohammed told Reuters by telephone.

“We cannot confirm the story, but the goat is in our custody. We cannot base our information on something mystical. It is something that has to be proved scientifically, that a human being turned into a goat,” he said.

Belief in witchcraft is widespread in parts of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation. Residents came to the police station to see the goat, photographed in one national newspaper on its knees next to a pile of straw.

Just for now I have no comment.


Stellar Silliness

June 30, 2011

I received this offer the other day:

All About Name A Star:

Name a Star is ideal for:

Birthdays – Christmas – Valentine’s Day – Anniversaries – Engagements Weddings – Mother’s Day – Father’s Day – Baby Showers Showing Appreciation – Graduations – Retirements – Memorials

Give a gift that truely lasts forever. Name a Star is the ideal gift for friends and family of all ages and is perfect for those “hard to buy for” people.

Name a Star allows you to express your feelings with this special gift. Anyone is sure to be overjoyed when they receive this unique, personalized certificate.

For just R89 you can dedicate a star in our registry and get a beautiful, personalized certificate to present to your friends or family.

The certificate features the star’s celestial coordinates so it can be located easily using Google Sky.

If you fork over your R89 what are you getting? Do you imagine a couple of centuries hence astronauts setting course for a star system bearing your name? If so, you’re in for a disappointment–all you have bought is a certificate (actually a pdf file that you’ll have to print out yourself) signifying nothing; even though it might look lovely hanging on the wall next to your doctorate from Thunderwood College and your dog’s rabies innoculation certificate.

The truth is that no company can name a star on your behalf. Here’s what the International Astronomical Union has to say on the subject:

The IAU frequently receives requests from individuals who want to buy stars or name stars after other persons.  Some commercial enterprises purport to offer such services for a fee.  However, such “names” have no formal or official validity whatever: A few bright stars have ancient, traditional Arabic names, but otherwise stars have just catalogue numbers and positions on the sky.  Similar rules on “buying” names apply to star clusters and galaxies as well.  For bodies in the Solar System , special procedures for assigning official names apply (see the IAU theme “Naming Astronomical Objects“), but in no case are commercial transactions involved.

As an international scientific organization, the IAU dissociates itself entirely from the commercial practice of “selling” fictitious star names or “real estate” on other planets or moons in the Solar System. Accordingly, the IAU maintains no list of the (several competing) enterprises in this business in individual countries of the world.  Readers wanting to contact such enterprises despite the explanations given below should search commercial directories in their country of origin.

In the past, certain such enterprises have suggested to customers that the IAU is somehow associated with, recognizes, approves, or even actively collaborates in their business.  The IAU wishes to make it totally clear that any such claim is patently false and unfounded.  The IAU will appreciate being informed, with appropriate documentation, of all cases of illegal abuse of its name, and will pursue all documented cases by all available means.

Thus, like true love and many other of the best things in human life, the beauty of the night sky is not for sale, but is free for all to enjoy.  True, the ‘gift’ of a star may open someone’s eyes to the beauty of the night sky.  This is indeed a worthy goal, but it does not justify deceiving people into believing that real star names can be bought like any other commodity.  Despite some misleading hype several companies compete in this business, both nationally and internationally.  And already in our own Milky Way there may be millions of stars with planets whose inhabitants have equal or better rights than we to name ‘their’ star, just as humans have done with the Sun (which of course itself has different names in different languages).

So think twice before giving this “gift” to a loved one. She may realise that the thought counts for very little.

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Finger Trouble

April 7, 2011

Ever since I was a small child I have had the conviction that my life would end on some scaffold or other at the hands of a public executioner. I suspect that the reason for this is my short temper–there have been many occasions on which I have experienced a strong desire to commit murder, but I have hitherto successfully managed to keep axe and machete out of the skulls of the imbeciles who plague my life.

If I were executed, I would at least like to have the satisfaction of committing the actual crime first. It must be awful to stand on the trapdoor with the hangman’s noose about one’s neck, and know that one is innocent of the crime for which one is being executed, not to mention the bitterness of knowing that the real criminal has enjoyed the thrill of committing his crime without being asked to pay the price. We know that this has happened in the past: the hapless Timothy Evans hanged for the murders committed by Christie at 10 Rillington Place, and the innocent Hauptmann broiled in the electric chair for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby[1] are two examples that spring to mind.

We hope that these examples of judicial murder are isolated, one-in-a-million freaks of misadventure that are, with forensic technology advancing apace, not to be repeated. However, a piece of research has recently come to my attention that, if its data accurately reflect reality, means that these sorts of errors may have been and may still be far commoner than previously thought. The paper, Contextual information renders experts vulnerable to making erroneous identifications by Itiel E. Dror, David Charlton and Ailsa E. Peron of the University of Southampton, casts chilling doubt on the value of evidence that has been regarded as the “gold standard” of forensic evidence—fingerprints.

What they did was take five fingerprint experts from various agencies and give each of them a pair of fingerprints (latent and a rolled exemplar) that they had each several years before found to be a match. The experts were told that the latent print was one lifted from the suitcase used in the Madrid train bombings and the rolled print was that of Brandon Mayfield, who had been wrongfully arrested for the crime but had since been cleared. Four of the experts changed their minds and ruled that the prints were not a match (they actually were a match, and had been verified blind by two other experts).

Another more comprehensive study had similar results:

Despite the absence of objective standards, scientific validation, and adequate statistical studies, a natural question to ask is how well fingerprint examiners actually perform. Proficiency tests do not validate a procedure per se, but they can provide some insight into error rates. In 1995, the Collaborative Testing Service (CTS) administered a proficiency test that, for the first time, was “designed, assembled, and reviewed” by the
International Association for Identification (IAI). The results were disappointing. Four suspect cards with prints of all ten fingers were provided together with seven latents. Of 156 people taking the test, only 68 (44%) correctly classified all seven latents.

Overall, the tests contained a total of 48 incorrect identifications. David Grieve, the editor of the Journal of Forensic Identification, describes the reaction of the forensic community to the results of the CTS test as ranging from “shock to disbelief,” and added:

“Errors of this magnitude within a discipline singularly admired and respected for its touted absolute certainty as an identification process have produced chilling and mind-numbing realities. Thirty-four participants, an incredible 22% of those involved, substituted presumed but false certainty for truth. By any measure, this represents a profile of practice that is unacceptable and thus demands positive action by the entire community.”[2]

These studies show that fingerprinting, far from being the objective, scientific discipline that we thought it was, is in fact subject to the prejudices of the analysts charged with comparing the latent and exemplar prints. Every single conviction that has hinged on fingerprint evidence is suspect in the light of this research, and the results of the studies demand an overhaul of the methodology of analysing fingerprints.

I have never believed that the portrayal of fingerprint comparison as depicted in television programs like CSI are accurate. (A computer flashes prints on the screen, then beeps and flashes “Affirmative” annoyingly until someone shouts, “Eureka, we have a match!”) I did, however, think that there was some sort of scientific rigour in that the person doing the analysis would at least be insulated from the context of the case, in other words they would be given the prints and no other information, so their decision would be based solely on the prints and not on anyone else’s opinion as to whether or not a match is expected.

Another problem with fingerprints is that there are methods of planting a fingerprint on a surface near which the finger in question has never been. An example was uncovered in the Inge Lotz murder trial, where the breathtakingly incompetent police tried to plant Fred Van der Vyfer’s fingerprint on a plastic DVD case in Inge Lotz’s Stellenbosch flat in an attempt to place him at the murder scene. Fortunately for Fred, the dimwitted flatfeet had lifted the print from a curved substrate and planted it on the flat DVD case, which was obvious to the FBI experts hired by the defence, and Fred was acquitted.

So when I do inadvertently leave my thumbprint on the Kenwood Chef I use to convert you into dogfood (you know who you are), I’ll be able to so discredit the evidence that I’m quite sure I’ll get off scot free. You don’t feel so smugly secure now, do you?

[1] No one has officially exonerated Hauptmann, but the obviously fabricated “evidence” that secured his conviction leave very little doubt that he was innocent.

[2] Zabell, Sandy. “Fingerprint Evidence”. Journal of Law and Policy. http://wwy.brooklaw.edu/students/journals/bjlp/jlp13i_zabell.pdf.

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Base Station Blues

February 22, 2011

I recently received a letter from my local homeowners association regarding the erection of a cell phone base station in our suburb. They had received complaints about the proposed base station on grounds of possible adverse health effects, not because it would be an eyesore.

Base Station

The letter also stated that

several health organizations have expressed their concern regarding possible Tumours, Cancers, Chilhood Leukemia, changes in sleep patterns, headaches and other related diseases. 

I have asked for further and better particulars of these “health organizations” but have so far not received a reply.

It seems extremely likely that these fears are groundless. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • Cell phone base stations are an ubiquitous part of the urban landscape across the globe. If they were really a health hazard as stated in this letter, their statistical impact on health would have been noticed by now.
  • RF radiation from base stations is long wavelength, non-ionising radiation, which means it cannot break down the DNA molecule and cause cancer.
  • Cell phone base stations broadcast at low energy levels—much less than TV or commercial radio stations. These energy levels are about 0.2% of the ‘safe’ levels reccommended by health authorities.

The fears expressed in the letter can be broken down into two categories: the cancers (tumours, cancer and childhood leukemia) and more subjective ailments (changes in sleep patterns, headaches).

A recent study published in the British Medical Journal, Mobile phone base stations and early childhood cancers: case-control study came to the following conclusion:

There is no association between risk of early childhood cancers and estimates of the mother’s exposure to mobile phone base stations during pregnancy. 

The American Cancer Association agrees

Most scientists agree that cell phone antennas or towers are unlikely to cause cancer. 

The headaches, changes in sleep patterns can be lumped together under the heading of EHS, or electromagnetic hypersensitivity (EHS). A study in Environmental Health Perspectives snappily entitled Does Short-Term Exposure to Mobile Phone Base Station Signals Increase Symptoms in Individuals Who Report Sensitivity to Electromagnetic Fields? A Double-Blind Randomized Provocation Study concludes

Short-term exposure to a typical GSM base station-like signal did not affect well-being or physiological functions in sensitive or control individuals. Sensitive individuals reported elevated levels of arousal when exposed to a UMTS signal. Further analysis, however, indicated that this difference was likely to be due to the effect of order of exposure rather than the exposure itself. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) has this to say on the subject of EHS

there is no scientific basis to link EHS symptoms to EMF
exposure. Further, EHS is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it clear that it represents a single
medical problem. 

I don’t care a jot whether or not they allow this base station to be built—I can’t see it from where I live and it may or may not improve my 3G data rates, but I certainly won’t lose any sleep over it, or worry about my health if they do decide to build it.

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Tummy Ache

May 31, 2010

Spam is usually a nuisance, but sometimes it can be quite informative and even entertaining. Take this example received from one of my favourite spammers, Antoinette Pombo. She specializes in hawking dubious health products on behalf of an organization called Fleet Street Publications. It was Antoinette—by the way may I call you Toni? Antoinette is a fistful too far for my typing; in return you may call me Grumps—who provided me with first intelligence of the Q-link and the low-down on testicular cancer. Here is the start of her latest dithyramb, this time in praise of an individual called Jonathan V. Wright. I’ll try to preserve her HTML if possible to give you the taste and aroma of the sheer idiocy of her outpourings.

Shattering discovery



Your
body’s worst enemy is…




Your

STOMACH


Suffering from Asthma?


It’s your
stomach…




Are
you losing your memory?



It’s your
stomach…




Are your arteries
diseased?



It’s your
stomach…




Or maybe you have
macular degeneration? Osteoporosis? Chronic Hives? Gallbladder disease?
Angina? Arthritis? Cockrot? Ingrowing Toenails?


It’s
all your stomach…


Here’s one simple
trick to tame your stomach and live healthier than ever


It goes on in much the same vein for another 2,000 words, so I won’t reproduce the whole thing here, but will share with you some of the more amusing quotes. I must state at this point that I had hitherto not heard of the good (or perhaps not) Dr Wright. In the course of my researches I discovered that he is the hero and blue-eyed boy of the arch-crackpot Suzanne Somers, which is not the right foot on which to be starting off. I am not qualified to know whether or not Dr Wright is a quack; I’ll merely point out that he is listed on Quackwatch with a red asterisk, indicating that he may very well be.

Toni begins by offering a series of anecdotes in which the hero, who is at death’s door, goes to see Dr Wright and within a few short weeks is totally cured. Take Hernando, whose legs were so knackered his doctors wanted to amputate. After seeing Dr Wright he was leaping like a hart (whatever that may be). Or John who had angina, or Sam who had macular degeneration, or…

All these people were allegedly suffering from hypochlorydria—too little stomach acid, which Dr Wright apparently knows how to cure.

After the “case studies”, Toni gives a truly boot-licking, sycophantic resume of Dr Wright’s career and qualifications:

“No other doctor of our time has crusaded harder or sacrificed more to bring the healing power of nutrition to ordinary people like you and me than Dr Wright.”

This is one impressive guy: he was awarded “the highest medical honour ever” which I must assume is an honour higher even than the Nobel prize. Well, Toni says it is, so who am I to argue? She is referring to the Linus Pauling Lifetime Achievement Award (LPLAA), of which I have never heard. I have, however, heard of Linus Pauling who is one of only two scientists to win two Nobel prizes, one for physics and the other for chemistry. (There is some speculation that he was in line for the Peace prize as well, but he was passed over.) In the latter part of his life he descended into crackpothood, though, advocating the consumption of staggering quantities of vitamin C.

A search of the internet reveals that the LPLAA is perhaps not what it’s cracked up to be: a google search for “Linus Pauling Lifetime Achievement Award” yields only three results, all of which are about Dr Wright. It seems no one else has ever been the recipient of this mysterious award, or indeed knows anything about it.

Then we are treated to the usual rants against “mafia-style pharmaceutical companies” and “the capitalist institutions that have a death-grip on our health and quality of life”, which Toni always inserts into her pieces. I’m sure she even sticks this stuff into her christmas cards.

And, at last, we get to the punchline. We too can be cured of just about everything if we subscribe to Dr Wright’s publication Nutrition & Healing which will cost a mere R57 per month. As is customary for quack remedies, Dr Wright’s snake oil is marketed as a substitute for not supplemental to science-based treatments, which means people will inevitably be harmed by falling for Toni’s nonsense. It doesn’t really matter though; if you’re dumb enough to buy this tripe, then you deserve your fate.

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Bally Ache

November 17, 2009

Lance Armstrong -- Survivor


I am not a doctor. I do, however, possess a body heir to the usual ills, so I take a keen interest in the medical sciences. One thing I have noticed is that genuine medical research is published in medical journals such as the Lancet or the New England Journal of Medicine and doesn’t make it into the mainstream media at all for the most part. If it does, it is often sensationalized by journalists who do not understand how the scientific method or the protocols of medical research work. The result is often something similar to what is reproduced, in all its ghastliness, here.

The treatment is worse than the disease!
Christine O’Brien
Contributor to Nutrition and Healing

The number of problems that survivors of testicular cancer are facing is much higher than previously thought. Simply because mainstream medicine just didn’t bother to take a look until now.

Clinicians only report treatment problems that are life-threatening or require medical intervention. And they only monitor most patients for five to ten years after treatment, meaning that many men suffering the after-effects of toxic cancer treatment have simply fallen through the cracks.

But researchers are finally getting a clue and took a look at data from the past 20 years.

Of course, what they’ve found is more or less all bad news. In a study that appeared in the Journal of the British Association of Urological Surgeons, researchers detailed an alarmingly long list of long-term effects.

Details like: Sensory nerve damage in 10-30% and hearing loss in 20% of patients on cisplatin-based (a platinum-based drug) chemotherapy. Pulmonary complications in men over 40 who are treated with bleomycin (an antibiotic) before surgery. Premature thickening of the arteries. Chronic fatigue in 17% of survivors (that’s nearly twice the normal population). And survivors are nearly TWICE as likely to develop secondary cancer.

This laundry list of threats to your health didn’t keep researchers from reaching for some good news. They reported that, “on a more positive note” up to 80% of men who try for fatherhood after treatment are successful.

I’m sorry, but with the possibility of permanent nerve damage, secondary cancer and hearing impairment, that doesn’t just seem to be enough of a silver lining.

Let’s hope that this serves as an example of why a close look at the long-term is so critical. I couldn’t help but think of the recent swine flu vaccine studies – they gave the drug the seal of approval after only a month of safety trials.

And now there are promises of protection from the pandemic – but who knows what long-term risks are waiting around the corner? And are we willing to sacrifice our lives for short-term benefits?

Let’s start with the title. Is a 20% chance of hearing loss or a 17% chance of developing chronic fatigue years or decades in the future really worse than dying of testicular cancer now? Perhaps Ms O’Brien’s cavalier attitude could be traced to the fact that she, presumably, does not possess testicles, cancerous or otherwise. Or perhaps the nonsensical headline is merely a means of grabbing eyeballs and the actual article might make some sense.

Alas, the first paragraph puts paid to that optimistic hope. The horrible ogre “mainstream medicine” couldn’t be bothered to “take a look until now”. Codswallop. If Ms O’Brien has a means of foretelling the side effects of a treatment given now which will manifest themselves decades in the future she should disclose it now; the medical fraternity will, I’m sure, be agog to hear it and the Nobel Committee will fall over themselves to honour her. Or perhaps she thinks clinical trials should last for a minimum of the average human lifespan before a drug is approved for use.

I think it was Benjamin Disraeli who first referred to “lies, damn lies and statistics”. The problem with statistics is that, whilst they are incredibly useful if properly used, they are extremely easy to misinterpret through ignorance or to misrepresent in an attempt to shore up a shoddy argument. Ms O’Brien has made extensive use of the latter technique here. Let’s have a look.

Firstly, the quoted statistics have little or no relevance to current treatments. Ms O’Brien neglected to tell us that “Some relevant observations, in particular those referring to long-term effects, are from survivors treated with ‘outdated’ therapies, although many of these survivors, treated after 1980 are still alive and with a life-expectancy of 20–30 years.” We are not told this because it makes the whole thesis of the article irrelevant.

17% chance of developing chronic fatigue? Well, unless we read the actual paper we would never know that this is in contrast to 9.5% of men who do not have testicular cancer and that “Compared to those not fatigued, the survivors with chronic fatigue were older, had less education, more unemployment and economic problems, hazardous alcohol use, somatic comorbidity, neurotoxic side-effects, mental distress after treatment, depression, anxiety, and cancerrelated distress, poor HRQL, high level of neuroticism, and a less satisfying sexual life.” Just reading that gives me chronic fatigue.

22% hearing loss? No, 22% ototoxicity, ranging from tinnitus to hearing loss, no other information provided. And so on.

A truly horrifying statistic that Ms O’Brien chose not to present is that 10% more testicular cancer survivors marry than their cancerless brethren. This is where I expect people to point out that correlation does not necessarily mean causation and that some other factor may be at play.

Ms O’Brien concludes her ridiculous rant with the question: “And are we willing to sacrifice our lives for short-term benefits?” But that is precisely what she are asking her readers to do. Sacrifice their lives for fear of long term consequences that may or may not arise in the face of the mortal peril they are facing now.

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