Monday, 14 December 2009

BA staff vote for suicide strike

Bad news for anyone planning of international travel over xmas.
Reported here.

Seems like a stupid idea to me. I don't know enough to say if their issues have merit, and one could certainly argue that BA should have put more aside when times were good, but to strike now will help no-one and will lead to more job losses.

Sunday, 13 December 2009

Berlusconi given a knuckle sandwich.

Italy head man, Silvio Berlusconi has apparently received a punch to the face from an angry protester.
In my opinion Berlusconi has made a bit of a joke of Italian politics and has to much control of media, judges and other politicians to be trusted with the top political job too. However, I doubt that giving him a split lip is the best way forward.

BBC have covered this here. I'm sure there we will all be sick of this being repeated on the news within an hour.


Edit: It turned out to be a model cathedral which was used as a weapon.

In Tamiflu we trust.. but maybe we shouldn't.

This is somewhat old news, but I think it is the first systematic review of neuraminidase inhibitor drugs (Tamiflu, etc). If you don't want to read it then the super-executive summary is that it is only mildly effective as a treatment and almost worthless ans a preventative. There have also been cases of resistant H1N1 reported, so there is no good reason for healthy people to be taking Tamiflu and no-one should be hoarding the medication.

Some beautiful spirals from Russian rocket booster.

The Norwegians seem to have all the luck when it comes to sky gazing. They get very little light polution, they get the aurora, and now they have amazing rocket ejecta spirals. I would have loved to see this.

Of course the various breeds of loons, nuts and conspiracy theorists are all over this. Phil Plait has covered the story here and here.

On another note: those in the UK lucky enough to have a clear sky should expect to see a meteor shower, which should peak (~2/minute) at ~2200 this evening. The show is courtesy of the Geminid meteors.

Friday, 11 December 2009

I'm Back!

At last my ISP have got their act together, so I'm back. They haven't had the good manners to even tell me why I have had no internet for so long. I certainly won't be renewing my contract.

I'll be posting more shortly, I'm a bit behind on everything 'net related at the moment.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Quick Update & Nigerian Witch Hunter Claiming Religious Discrimination

Well my internet is still off at home, so I'm posting from work. I have no idea when it will be back, maybe they started the disconnections early ;-)

On a more serious matter:
It appears that one of the key fanatics behind the child witch hunts in Nigeria, Helen Ukpabio of the Liberty Gospel Church, is claiming that her religious freedoms have been infringed and is claiming ~$800,000 in damages. The claim is based on the arrest of some members of her group who were disrupting and stealing from a conference on child rights and the problems caused by belief in witchcraft.
If you want to find out more, a lot of information will be turned up by a google search on her name.
There is a petition asking for her and her organisation to be brought to justice which you can sign if you agree with what they are calling for.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

My ISP... experiencing some problems at the moment, meaning that I am posting this from a friends house. Hopefully I'll be back on line soon and posting some more content.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Homoeopathy Discussed By Parliamentary Comity.

Homoeopathy has recently been the focus of an 'evidence check' by a parliamentary sub-comity on science and technology. The video is available, as are all the written submissions.
The most interesting bit to my mind is where the gentleman from Boots (a large UK pharmacist chain) admits that there is no reason to believe that homoeopathic remedies are effective, despite Boots being one of the largest retailers of such 'treatments'. I'm already well aware of both the evidence of effectiveness (almost entirely negative) and the theoretical background (comical) of homeopathy so I found the rest of the video either frustrating or nothing new. If there is no reason on a theoretical basis to believe that something might work and plenty of empirical evidence showing that it does not then surely the tax payer should not be funding it on the NHS and it should not be sold as an active medicine? People can still buy it if they want, but it should not be marketed as an effective treatment.

Biological Hypotheris For Mars Fossils Boosted.

A very short one now to make up for the previous two. I've just been reading a short report in New Scientist that links to several other articles. Apparently new research has given added support to the hypothesis that the unusual features in the ALH 84001 meteorite (composed of Martian rock) are best explained as fossil micro-organisms. The alternative that they are of non-biological origin has been weakened by much study and now appears unlikely. It could also be that they are due to contamination by terrestrial microbes, but the features in question do not resemble any known variety of earth microbe. Whatever the case turns out to be, it is extremely interesting.
The Times have picked up the story.

Friday, 27 November 2009

Internet Disconnection

The British government recently introduced a bill via the Queens speech known as the "Digital Economy Bill". This bill contained provisions for the arbitrary disconnection of those accused by content industry bodies of copyright infringement from the internet. So what exactly is all the fuss about? why do I care?

The first few clauses of the Digital Economy Bill are in essence a list of obligations that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) must follow. These include various information which must be kept about internet usage of their customers (you) and an obligation to forward any 'strikes' (accusations, warnings and threats) that rights holders wish to send you. These 'strikes' are to be sent solely on the word of the rights holders. All they need to provide is an IP address and a time. There is no requirement for these accusations to be evidenced or even be on reasonable grounds. There is no penalty for wrong, careless or even malicious accusations. So there we go, no evidence required what so ever and only the rights holders have any say in the matter. The proposel then provides for those with strikes against their names to be permanently disconnected, bandwidth throttled or have specific sites blocked at a later date. Only a single appeal is allowed and that will be descided by a single unnamed person. There is no opportunity for a trial.

But surely there is no reason to think that false accusations would be made except as an occasional freak incident? Well, these rights holders and their representative bodies have a long history of sending out false accusations and threats of legal action to private residents in the USA. Some innocent people (some even without an internet connection) have paid up to settle the matter, purely out of fear as a result. The phrase "The Innocent have nothing to fear" has presaged so many atrocities, injustices and immoral concerns that anyone hearing is should experience a shudder.

Then there are some technical concerns. How do you distinguish a pirate from someone sharing legitimate material over P2P (for eg, a linux cd image or some creative commons music over bit torrent) for a 'pirate'? Much of the traffic on P2P networks is encrypted by default, so its content is very difficult to determine. The way 'pirates' are usually 'detected' is by use of 'honey pots' which log the IP addresses of any macdhienes which try to communicate with them. The most likely scenario I can see is that the lists of IP addresses and time stamps from these honey-trap machines will simply be sent to the ISPs who will have to send out the threatening letters and record a 'strike' against those users. Simply having your IP on one of theses lists is far from proof of any wrongdoing.

Another technical concern, almost all of us use wireless networking or some form of shared network. Did you know that networks using WEP encryption can be broken in to in a few seconds. Even the best WPA encryption can be broken in to given a little patience, bad password choice or poor technical configuration. This meand that your neighbours or a passer by in a car or with a wifi enabled portable device can fairly easily gain access to the majority of wireless networks down any street and start downloading material and getting innocent people on the 'strike' list. You also have to consider, is it reasonable to expect connection owners to trust all their house-mates, friends, family or community? According to the bill you are responsible if you 'allow' another to commit an act of piracy over your connection. Where does this leave libraries, universities, coffee shops, employers or simply community spirited individuals? (on a side note, this is worth a read)

Next up is the issue of collective punishment. So lets ignore all the issues above and assume you, the actually owner of the network, really have infringed copyringt and you have been disconnected. This is the best case scenario for disconnection under the bill. So you could argue that you have committed an offence and been punished, so tough cheese. However, you have to consider that now your sun can't do his homework or maintain his social life, your wife can't do her on-line banking, bill payments, entertainment or continue her interest in local politics. Your foreign student lodger is no longer getting a service they though was included in their rent, communicate with their family, continue their language course and keep up to date on their university studies. Surely this is both disproportionate and unfair those who are 'collateral damage'?

Lastly, for I fear I may be loosing readers through the length of this screed, there is a clause inserted in this bill which would allow the appropriate Secretary of State (Lord Mandelson as of now) to essentially alter a large part of the copyright law of the country at will. This allows legislation to be altered covering an number of intellectual property issues without consultation of any publicly accountable body such as parliament. Not very democratic I'd think you'll agree.

If you agree with me that this is a bad thing and want to do something:
  1. If you are a British citizen the sign the petition.
  2. Tell Lord Mandelson what you think and add your voice to this web-wall.
  3. Contact your MP - after all, 'they work for you'.
  4. Spread the word - Blog, tweet, link and talk.
  5. Support the work or organisations like Open Rights Group and EFF-Europe.
If you think I'm wrong or have spotted any mistakes or inaccuracies then please let me know in the comments.

Here's a humorous musical open letter on the issue.
Ars Technica have an article which makes clear some of the ways the innocent can easily end up listed a pirates.
panGloss is an excellent cyber-law bolg, which has many articles on this issue.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

The Sins of the Catholic Fathers

Today marks the release of another report, resulting from the investigation of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic archdiocese of Dublin. The report details some heinous and grotesque crimes perpetrated priests. However, the direct abuse of children by dangerous individuals can hardly be blamed on the church as a whole can it? No, but what the whole church hierarchy should be shaken by and is guilty of is callously and deliberately putting protection of its own reputation above the safety of children. The tactics used do not stop at the well known cover-ups, sheltering of the guilty from the secular authorities or even the fascilitation of the individuals to continue committing these offences. The church has gone as far as heaping further injury on the victims, knowingly smearing and slandering them in the community and threatening them with hell if they cause trouble. There is good evidence that the knowledge of the problem and these tactics for dealing with it which put protection of the church as the highest priority run right to the top of the institution. These problems are also sadly far from unique to Dublin or Ireland, they are global and are inherent in the structure and policy of the Catholic church.

The civil authorities in Ireland are also far from blameless, when abuses were reported to them victims were often told they were lying without investigation or the concerns were simply passed on to the church to deal with internally. The civil authorities should never bow the authority of a religious institution, especially considering their track record and power. The investigations are well overdue and are largely a result of pressure from growing numbers of victims who have had the courage and desire to protect other innocents and spoken out.

So what should come out of all this? Certainly the Catholic church should not be trusted to reform its self, indeed they continue to show where their priorities are and that is not with children in their care. Civil authorities must take these problems seriously. Hopefully with raised awareness victims will be more willing to come forward and denounce those who have harmed them. Any accusations should be investigated in a fair but through way and anyone guilty should be prosecuted and removed from contact with children permanently.

For more information you can search on the net for any related terms. Also worth a reading up on is the documents known as "crimen sollicitationis" and "De delictis gravioribus" in which Ratzinger states that "Cases of this kind are subject to the pontifical secret.".
Here is a link to a Panorama program on the issue.
The Guardian have an analysis of the latest report here.
Another documentary, Sex in a cold climate.
From the Irish Times:
Church used don't tell approach.
Commission finds church covered up child sex abuse.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

"Quacks Quacks Everywhere, What A Cause To Think"

Quacks Hijacking Autism Research
The full article can be found here. It would appear that highly speculative research on neuro-inflammation (and many other topics) is being seized upon by various 'alternative medicine' practitioners and even some real GPs and used to peddle untested, ineffective and even dangerous treatments on little to no evidence. It looks like various combinations of wish-thinking, poor understanding of the science and cynical, exploitative quackery.

Lets see science based medicine get some respect please!

Short Review: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals is the latest in Terry Pratchetts extensive (37 in total) Discworld series. I have just finished reading it and thought I'd post a few of my thoughts here. I've read a few of the other books in the series and have found them all thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed, reading a few of the preceding books greatly enhances the appreciation of which ever of the individual stories you happen to be reading since character development is often spread across several tomes and constant reference and in-jokes are made for the pleasure of the loyal readers.
That said, this book stands fairly well on its own since there is nothing of vital importance which is left out. Those with political minds will be kept stimulated by frequent reference, parody, emulation and metaphor of real life affairs, whist those of a more scientific or literary bent will appreciate the allusions to both scientific concepts and literary works. The use of language is very entertaining and unique in style, as anyone who has read other work by this author will doubtless expect.
The story is developed at a reasonable pace, some woud say a bit slowly, but the above mentioned parody and references justify the volume of writing well for me. The only criticism I'd make is that it leaves me wanting more on some plot lines and characters where I'd be willing to sacrifice detail in other places for it. But maybe its meant to leave you wanting more?
To summarise the story in one sentence: A group of fairly hapless wizards are forced by a concatination of circumstance to enter a violent and firecley tribal game of football, aided by a unique and dangerous individual with a mysterious past.

I'd give it 8/10 and recommend it to anyone who likes the genera or Terry Pratchetts writing style.

It's available in hardback everywhere and also on CD (make sure you get the unabridged version).

If anyone has read it then please add your comments, but avoid any spoilers.

Modern Day Witch Hunts

People in various parts of the world are still killing each other for the 'crime' of 'witchcraft'. There are sadly hundreds of examples, the two I've seen today are a channel 4 dispatches investigation of the 'witch children' in Nigeria and the upsetting case of an official prosecution and death sentence for witchcraft of a TV presenter in Saudi Arabia.
The first case is a terrible example of the deadly combination of religious extremism, superstition and the mass hysteria of a scared and ignorant mob. In some ways I find the second case more disturbing in that it is official and state sanctioned. The western world (especially the UK and the USA) turn a blind eye to these issues (and their treatment of women and homosexuals) as they do a lot of business with the Saudis, including sales of advanced weapons, something we should all be against in my opinion.
A group called Human Rights Watch are on to this. There is also a BBC report here. Hopefully this will get enough attention that international pressure will be put on the Saudi rulers to put a stop to this nonsense.

Whither Strict Liability?

I have just read this post regarding what is (if the facts are right) a rather alarming example of why "the innocent have nothing to fear" can be a dangerous lie.

Now, I don't know the details and truth of the specific case mentioned and that's not what I'm writing about here. Reading the post and linked articles got me thinking about the idea of "strict liability". Colloquially put, strict liability is the legal doctrine that, regardless of any fault, intent or wrongdoing you are guilty of a crime simply by an act its self (in the case above the possession of an unlicensed firearm, despite good reason). There are more through definitions of "strict liability" all over the internet, just search for that term.

I can see that there are reasons for wanting such a doctrine. If you are trying to prosecute truly dangerous individuals who have firearms then it greatly simplifies matters if all you have to do is prove that they did indeed have the firearm in question. However, surely there should always be a valid defence of good cause? One can think up any number of situations in which the morally right thing to do is to commit a 'crime'. When "strict liability" is applied to those actions isn't that inherently acknowledging that the law often has nothing to do with morality?

I'm very definitely not a lawyer and I'm quite aware that I may be missing something here. Please feel free to put me right or share your thoughts in the comments below.

Hello World!

Hello to anyone who stumbles across this,

I've started this blog as a place for venting my thoughts about things that enlighten, enrage, excite or entertain me. I hope it may be of interest to others too, but simply saving my friends and family from suffering my constant gibbering will mean that this enterprise will have been a success and of great service to the cause of reducing suffering in the world.

So, a little bit about me..
  • I'm a physical scientist.
  • I'm male.
  • My political views are generally liberal.
  • My religious views are best summed up by Douglas Adams: "Isn't it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?"
  • My views are definitely not fixed. I don't take offence easily and try to welcome informed criticism of my ideas.
I can be contacted by electronically delivering messages to <one without a name> dot bloger at the service provided by google.

That will do as an introduction for now. I look forward to posting some more soon!