Monday, 12 September 2016

Say NO to Lif3

​There's a wonderful section in the late Christopher Hitchens' Letters to a Young Contrarian where he discusses a daily ritual of frustration that made him feel alive. Every morning, he would sit down to read the New York Times, checking whether the 'bright, smug, pompous, idiotic' motto 'All the News That's Fit to Print' was still there to the left of the masthead. Yes it was. Did it still irritate him? Yes. Then at least he knew he still had a pulse.

I also indulge in a "daily infusion of annoyance", perhaps it is a form of secular self flaggelation. Mine is to visit the Twitter page for Lif3 Smartchip, a $70 piece of snake oil-infused plastic that protects you against the imagined dangers of mobile phone radiation. Because health. And the children. And the health of children. And really, don't you want to protect the children?

Never mind the fact that the overwhelming volume of evidence indicates electromagnetic radiation from mobile and cordless phones, Wi-Fi routers and other 'smart' devices isn't dangerous to human health. Never mind the slight inconvenience that there's no known biologically plausible mechanism for low power EMR to damage cells. Never mind the sober recommendations of the vast majority of national and international health bodies which indicate there's no reason to be concerned about EMR radiation. But overwhelming evidence aside, as Lif3 themselves say, 'why take the risk?' It is, of course, much easier to make a quick dollar by ignoring decades of evidence. Oh, and did I mention the children?

Daily I will visit Lif3's Twitter account and if I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do the insult me with their moronic claims and what do they take me for and why do they bother with their snake oil BS — all while earning the eye-rolling ire of my patient wife — then I know I too still have a pulse.

Unfortunately I can't check Lif3's Twitter page when logged in to my own Twitter account. I have to either log out or use private browsing because these fine corporate citizens have blocked me, along with many others who dared to question their pseudoscientific snake oil. But at least they're thinking of the children...and their parents' wallets.

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

(Talcum) Powder Keg

Not cocaine – By Mattman723, Wikimedia Commons
The news today tells me that Australian mining giant Rio Tinto is being sued in the US by ovarian cancer sufferers who claim their use of talcum power caused their medical condition.

This is not new. Talcum powder manufacturer Johnson & Johnson has been successfully sued twice in the US after juries found two womens' use of talc led to their terminal ovarian cancer.

Firstly, these are sad cases that often involve very sick people trying to find some rhyme or reason as to why they got ill and, in some cases, family trying to blame someone for why their consequent death. These are tragic circumstances in which these people find themselves.

But even in light of these successful lawsuits, there are a few things to bear in mind. Firstly, this is not like smoking and lung cancer. Smoking was pretty was known to be dangerous by the 1950s, with links suggested as early as the 1930s (the link is to a history of this research and is fascinating reading).
It was the tobacco companies continued to obfuscate, cover up and deny and their is no disputing their culpability. But there is no such evidence of a similar causal link between consumer talc and ovarian cancer, nor of like behaviour on the part of Johnson & Johnson.
Unlike with cigarettes and lung cancer, where the risks were obvious and well understood, there is very little evidence to suggest talc causes an increased risk of ovarian cancer, and even less to suggest it 'causes' it. Some studies find a slightly increased risk of cancer with talc use, others don't. And, as all the 'red wine increases/decreases risk of cancer' stories demonstrate, humans are crap at understanding what 'risk' really means. More info on the state of evidence here:

Secondly, science isn't decided by the courts, it is decided by the scientific process. Courts and scientists work to very different levels of proof with very different methods. Just because a French court rules a woman should get money because of her claimed electromagnetic hypersensitivity to mobile and wifi waves, doesn't mean such an affliction exists. Actual evidence — tried, tested and retested all over the world — suggests it does not and a judge's gavel cannot render decades of peer reviewed research null and void.
Natural therapy fans, antivaxxers and pseudoscience acolytes often point to these successful personal injury claims as evidence of harm. But they are not. They are evidence of success in a courtroom setting, not a laboratory.

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Melbourne: Most Insecure City in the World

Eureka Skydeck, 2013

The Economist Intelligence Unit has named Melbourne the "Most Liveable City in the World" for the sixth straight year. Huzzah! Break out the champagne, but just make sure it's a 1996 Bollinger La Grande Annee Brut. What? You can't afford a $600 bottle of champers? Then too bad, because these rankings aren't for you.

Despite social media crowing from every civic leader from the Premier down, the "Global Liveability Ranking" means very little by itself and means even less to those who already live in those benighted cities fortunate enough to make the cut. Melbourne, like the rest of Australia, is desperate for external—preferably foreign—validation, has taken these rankings and run with them for decades, without actually thinking about what they mean. 

The beneficiaries of this aura of "liveability" are the executives earning a whole heap more than you. These global rankings are generated by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the sister company to the more well-known magazine. The goal of the EIU is to help "businesses, financial firms and governments to understand how the world is changing and how that creates opportunities to be seized and risks to be managed". Translation: they don’t care whether your local public school is falling down, only whether there are quality private schools nearby for executives with expense accounts to send their little darlings to.

The rankings are devised for senior executives schlepping into town (in business class, of course) for a two-year stay to restructure the local business (synergise efficiencies and such, the action formerly known as sacking people) before leaving with a well-earned pay raise and a promotion.

The people for whom these rankings are divined will not be searching for an affordable home within a 60 minute drive of the CBD, nor will they be worried about the quality of public education from their nearest state school. They won't be struggling to find amenable employment or efficient public transport because the issues that matter to you and me will be looked after by their cashed-up, tax-dodging multinational employers. 

Don’t just take my word for how meaningless these rankings are, take a look at this quote from EIU themselves on the top 65 “Most Liveable” cities: “Although 17.2 percentage points separate Melbourne in first place from Warsaw in 65th place, all cities in this tier can lay claim to being on an equal footing in terms of presenting few, if any, challenges to residents’ lifestyles."

Soooo basically, tax-dodging multinationals, you can send your overpaid staff anywhere in that top 65 and they will likely not be stabbed or robbed or fleeced and <zinger>will be free to do same to the local government </zinger>.

This is not to say Melbourne isn't a great city—it is. We have great healthcare by international standards, pretty good schools and an abundance of decent coffee [note to self: pitch EIU Global Coffee Index]. But it's strange to think of Melbourne being up there with Vienna. Both are nice cities, but Vienna has a proximity to Europe that Melbourne simply can't match. It is also the home of many international institutions and global initiatives that are simply more important to the world than, say, the Australian Open. It also has dumptruck loads more culture than Melbourne, a functioning public transport system (one that has been updated since the 1930s) and, most importantly, the Leica Shop.

But remember, regardless of how relevant this ranking is, we still beat Sydney. And that’s the important take home lesson from all this: Sydney sucks.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Imperial Evidence

Well done, voters of Queensland (ABC)
I'm usually fairly derisive of Q&A. I regularly admonish its fans and audience as being part of #QandAland, a happy land where harsh political realities cease to exist and we all sing kumbaya around a camp fire, holding hands with a leather-jacketed Malcolm Turnbull who has taken his rightful place as the leader of the Liberal Party (polite applause).

Most of the time, it is a pretty terrible exercise in inertia that gives Fairfax its main news stories for the next week. Sure, it's fun seeing Richard Dawkins and "Big" George Pell field incendiary questions about how evolution is just a "theory" or if an atheist can be a good person, but it's less a debate than a sideshow. There will never be a middle ground reached—there can't be—and the producers are perfectly happy to keep it that way.

Occasionally, however, the show can be revelatory. Duncan Storrar's questioning of a hapless Kelly O'Dwyer demonstrated how out of touch the Turnbull government was (and is), and how low the Murdoch papers will stoop with ad hominem attacks on those who disagree with their noxious world view.

Last night's National Science Week-themed Q&A also offered some gems, along with a great lessons in how to deal with the incurious, ignorant, chemtrail-addled obscurantist bore in your life (c'mon, we all have at least one).

Simple rule: don't argue with Professor Brian Cox unless you are discussing something which is impossible for him to have knowledge of, like the number of cracked Ikea coffee mugs in your cupboard (although he could probably give you a global mean) or on the finer points of Australian New Wave cinema.

One Nation lunatic-elect Malcolm Roberts gave a textbook performance as a conspiratorial nutjob. He challenged Professor Cox to present "empirical" evidence of climate change (it's almost like Malcolm knows what those words mean), and when presented with said evidence, claimed it was doctored. It's classic conspiracy believer stuff, with evidence against their tinfoil worldview appropriated as evidence for their conspiracy.

Think moon landing hoaxers: for them, the extensive photographic and data record of the Apollo program is fabricated, therefore this evidence the average person considers supports the moon landing is seen as evidence against the moon landings in the conspiratorial mind. Any evidence presented by authorities in inherently untrustworthy because it comes from Big Pharma, Big Farmer or the Guvment or Big Space (which is how I assume they refer to NASA).

Even though Brian Cox would have known he would be unlikely to alter Roberts's unfalsifiable position by presenting actual evidence, Cox's approach is a good one to keep in the critical thought toolbox when dealing with nutcases.

First off, Cox presented data. Now, presenting data almost never whips your a conspiracy-minded opponent into contrition, but it's worth a try. At least you know you have evidence to support your contention.
Secondly, when Roberts inevitably objected to the data, Cox asked specific questions as to why he objected. When Roberts claimed the data had been "corrupted" and "manipulated", Cox asked "by who?" By NASA, of course.
For many observers, this will be enough to demonstrate your opponent is a loon. Indeed it was enough for the residents of #QandAland to start laughing. Conspiracy theorists are, by and large, great at creating a compelling macro-scale worldview, but are woeful at detail. Once again, this doesn't change the mind of the conspiracy theorist, but it does deny them credibility among reasonable fence-sitting people.

For #QandAland, this is probably just the first appearance of many by this particular One Nation loon-elect. In an effort to concoct a sense of "balance", the ABC has gone out of their way to make sure fringe individuals like Pauline Hanson and Lyle Shelton get oxygen on programs like Q&A and The Drum. It is even less reason to engage in the alleged "debate" the show engenders.

I think Brian Cox said it best last night on the show when trying to communication the Australian Academy of Science's climate change report to Sovereign Idiot-elect Roberts: " can never get any sense on programs like this. They're adversarial things..."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Ultimately, you're unlikely to change the closed mind of a deliberately ignorant individual. As a rational being, you're already at a disadvantage compared to the science denying loon because you require evidence to support your claims—the denier does not adhere to such inconvenient niceties. No amount of peer-reviewed evidence is going lead someone like Roberts along the road to a Damascene conversion.
But not everybody out there is intentionally ignorant. Sometimes, people just receive bad information and carry it with them. So here's advice from UQ PhD student Diana Lucia, as offered on Radio National's Ockham's Razor: time you’re at a dinner party and find yourself sitting next to a science denialist, return the favour, latch onto every illogical inconsistency they throw at you and force them to address it. Find out exactly what they object to and where they have been getting their information from. I doubt you’ll force them to have a sudden epiphany by the time dessert is served, but you can be part of the process that breaks down the barriers to begin to change people’s minds. 

Until next dinner party...

Good resources:
How to Talk to a Climate Skeptic: Responses to the most common skeptical arguments on global warming,
Science deniers use false equivalence to create fake debates, Skeptical Raptor
Don’t let denial get in the way of a good science story, The Conversation

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Telecom Australia's "Fun & Knowledge Telephone Book"

Consider this my gift to the world.

I have a saved search in my eBay app for "Telecom Australia". Don't ask me why, but I think it has something to do with a time long gone when governments actually owned and built things, rather than making excuses for why they can't or shouldn't.

I'm not saying government-owned monopolies didn't have there problems, but on the other hand, there's little doubt the decades-long regimes of privatisation have left a lot to be desired. With privatisation has come the privation of job security and indeed labour security of any kind.

At Telecom's privatised and <sarcasm> greatly loved</sarcasm> successor, Telstra, a new CEO is installed every few years and undertakes the review to end all reviews. They try to find new efficiencies (read: people to sack) and ways to "foster relationships with [their] key stakeholders, operate at best practice in issues management, build [their] reputation through ongoing promotion of positive activity, and leverage our technology and expertise to make positive contributions to the community" (actual line from Telstra's 2015 Annual Report, p.17).

After all, what else screams "SUSTAINABILITY" than embedding " and environmental considerations into our business in ways that create value for the company and our stakeholders" (ibid. p.27).
But I digress, on one of my eBay searches, I found this delightful publication: Your Fun & Knowledge Telephone Book. It's a freaking Telecom colouring and activity book. How could I not?

Ostensibly I have bought it for my son, but really I have bought it to gift to all you as well so that the imperfect past can be remembered into an uncertain future.

I've scanned each page using my Epson V700 and lovingly cleaned it up so that you too an learn about the history of the telephone and the new technology called "touch tone".

After you've read the books, colour in the pages!

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

The View from 15B

'Relax' instructed the paper beverage cup on my tray table. Of course I was trying, but there's nothing particularly relaxing about being strapped in a space smaller than a doll's toilet cubicle, hurtling at 900 km/h some 32,000 feet in the air.

I love airports and adore aircraft. The travel itself, however is never worth remembering. At 6'4", the travelling part of air travel appeals to me about as much as a colonoscopy. And trying to relax surrounded by 176 other examples of your fellow living, breathing, sweating human beings is just damn uncomfortable.

Add to the mix a miniature human, some 7 months old lying prostrate across mine and my wife’s lap and you have a strong candidate for least fun one hour and fifty-four minutes spent in an self-propelled aluminium tube.

After the tumult of taxiing and takeoff, little Archer decided to be the happiest boy in the world before cracking the sads. There was no cheering this little lump up. Eventually, he fell asleep with a bit of coaxing from his mother. More than I can say for me. I am typing this with my left hand (goddamn oversized iPhone screen) as he is lying across our laps. With a seat pitch of what I assume is minus 10 microns, my legs are slowly dying under the tray table. I can't put it up because those cups are still there, partially filled with scalding liquid. 'Relax'.

But it's a bit difficult. The man in the seat ahead insists on leaning his seat back, even though he is in an exit row (with an extra 10 microns of leg room) and is far shorter than I. Typing with my left thumb is also proving a frustrating experience and I am filled with regret for not downloading Microsoft's one handed keyboard. Autocorrect is at once, immensely frustrating, but will be amusing with the distance of time: my legs—“dying" under the limited tray table space, were initially "drying"; the wee baby Archer cracking the "sads" was briefly "sass", perhaps an appropriate word if not entirely the one I was looking for.

But soon we’ll be at our destination. The first officer just announced (…with great…and…unnecessary…GAPS between…words) that the temperature at our destination—Melbourne—was 7ºC. A cabin-wide groan ensued. What a lovely cliché. After all, we had not 90 minutes ago left sunny Brisbane where 21ºC was just another winter’s day. Such are the joys of modern aviation that you can leave home and arrive on holiday within a couple of hours. Unfortunately, the return journey is just a quick. Uh-oh. The little man’s moving again…

Friday, 24 June 2016

Fuck Off Baby Boomers. It's time to leave the world to those who actually have to live with your clusterfucks.

The results are in. The United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union. Yep, the washed-up Norma Desmond of the geopolitical world, has voted to leave the world's largest economy, basically because of fear of the other: xenophobia.

Sure, the "leave" camp (soon to be "the people who destroyed the EU and the U.K.") tried to rationalise their decision as an economic one—that EU sausage regulations were killing Britain—but ultimately it was because they don’t like dem imigrints. 

The vote was heavily skewed between extremes: educated urban folk, who largely voted to remain; and uneducated rural folk who opted to leave. Those over 65 who largely voted leave (and who won't live long enough to rue their decision); and those under 35 who have seen the benefits of peace, prosperity, freedom of movement and not being a dick to people different from them, largely voted to remain. The Scots and Northern Irish—keenly aware of how big a dicks the English are—voted to remain; rural England and Wales voted to leave.

This is depressing. It's depressing for Europe, for the United Kingdom and the rest of the western world, because our population is ageing. The same generation that tipped this referendum into the disaster that is ‘leave’ are the very same gaining the ascendancy all over the western world. The fucking Baby Boomers.

This generation—who were once the hip young freethinking peaceniks of the 1960s—have become crotchety old people upset about younger people on their lawns. And the young people are only on the Boomers' lawns because their rented studio apartment has no lawn and even though there's nobody else at home, their Boomer elders have elected to remain in their five bedroom home because they need a sewing room. 

Yerp. Those who have gained the most from the unprecedented increase in material and cultural wealth in the second half of the twentieth century are now largely denying future generations a share in their prosperity through their pariochial selfishness. 

A little more than 15% of our population is aged over 65. This cohort has the ability to tip elections and to change the future, even though they won’t actually get to share in it. It is this group that overwhelmingly rejects the science on climate change, objects to increased taxation (and any changes to the tax haven known as superannuation), is happy to incarcerate foreigners in offshore gulags, and refuses to accept the housing market is any different from when they bought their first home 1970 (‘We worked bloody hard, got a free education, didn't go out or have fancy phones or computer games or travel overseas. You young people want everything now!!’). 

On current demographic trends, a 75-year-old man has 5.1 years to live with elected leaders like Tony Abbott as Prime Minister smashing asylum seeker heads on Nauru, or objecting to un-havening their superannuation. Someone like me, on average, has another 53.5 years to try and clean up their mess, all while those who kick on past their expected use-by date (an ever-increasing metric shittonne of them) demand more and better care in their decrepit old age. And probably all while refusing to allow the family home into the asset test.

What I am about to say is going to sound harsh—perhaps despotic—but as Prime Minister Abbott always said, you can't make an omelette without raw onion, tough times call for tough measures. The U.K. Referendum result has clearly demonstrated that we must excise those aged over 65 from our electoral rolls. These leeches who have enjoyed every financial benefit and bribe offered by governments of both persuasions over the past 50 years must be weened off the teat of democracy. Those who will never work a day again in their aged lives do not deserve a say on where the tax dollars of earners go. It is time to leave the decision making up to those who will actually live with the consequences of their decisions. 

Such a seemingly non-democratic move could actually save democracy. It is the 65+ age group that is largely more than comfortable seeing liberal nations slide into reactionary right-wing autocracies. 

Right now, there are millions of Britons aged under 35 who are terrified of what the future holds, all because some 70-year-old goat herder in the Cotswolds read a story (probably in a Murdoch paper) about how imigints and EU sausage regulations were not helping Make Britain Great Again. The younger Britons' futures will be irreparably damaged as freedom of movement is restricted throughout the EU and Britain moves away from the common market (TBH, I hope Europe twist the Article 50 knife). Of course I could be wrong. Nigel Farrage et al may indeed return £350 million per week to the NHS. That would be a good thing. But I think that Cotswold's farmer's pigs are more likely to develop wings and fly than that occurring. Believe me, the 'leave' process is far from done and dusted.

The British decision to leave the EU is an unmitigated disaster. I don’t know about you, but I am sick of old white men imposing their fascist hangups on the rest of the world without a care for the future. They should shuffle off centre stage freely, otherwise every other generation should reserve the right to get all Kent State on their arses.

That should take them back to the good ol’ days.