Archive 016 (JAN - FEB 2005)

a dusty old archive by chris lawson

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Shakespeare's Villains
Chinese New Year album
Bruce Gillespie online
Be very afraid !
The Green List
Be afraid !
Giant Monsters!
An argument against Intelligent Design in schools

2005 New Year Quiz

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Shakespeare's Villains

20 FEB 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Steven Berkoff is one of those rare actors who is capable of performing both high art and popular entertainment without compromising himself on either stage. He has performed Shakespeare to great acclaim, and has appeared in two Kubrik films. He was also the villain in Rambo 2.

Today I took the Bride of Frankenblog to see Steven Berkoff perform Shakespeare's Villains. Although much of the material is derived from Shakespeare's best known works – Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Coriolanus, and A Midsummer Night's Dream – this is definitely Berkoff's show. He does not merely recite a selection of soliloquies; he talks about how Shakespeare meant his words to be understood, and the historical parallels between Elizabethan drama and modern politics, and the art of acting.

What I did not expect was how funny he is. Without exaggeration, this show could serve as well as a night of stand-up comedy. Berkoff slams the modern ethic that white actors should not play black roles such as Othello. Berkoff says that this is about as sensible as insisting that only Scots play Macbeth and only virgins play Juliet, "and how would you audition them?"

Berkoff's interpretation of the characters is cartoonish, but this is not a failing. Berkoff has a very difficult act. He has to switch between performing and talking to the audience about performing; at times he has to jump between characters on stage (not all of his excerpts are soliloquies); and he has to inhabit seven or eight major characters from different plays, without the aid of sets or costumes. So of course he exaggerates their foibles, their vocal mannerisms, and their tics. It is his way of bridging a gaping chasm. The show is about Shakespeare's villains rather than being one in which the villain is just another characters, and this is a brilliant device.

Shakespeare's Villains is highly recommended to anyone with a working brain.


Chinese New Year album

14 FEB 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

The New Year packed them in at Chinatown. It was huge, rambling, disorganised, and a lot of fun.

People came from everywhere. Traditional Chinese jacket and a trucker's cap.
Did I say there were a lot of people? KISS turned up to play.
The dragon arrives at last. The temple lions dance.

It's the Year of the Rooster. Happy Crowing!


Bruce Gillespie online

12 FEB 2005 | source Bruce Gillespie | permalink

One of the best fan writers in the world lives in Melbourne, not far from me. His name is Bruce Gillespie, and his perceptive essays and articles are well worth reading.

He now has a blog, and even better, his fanzine Steam Engine Time has been added to the wonderful eFanzines site, along with back issues and other fanzines Bruce has edited and contributed to such as his famous SF Commentary.

Bruce is one of those rare creatures who demonstrates that fanzines can be every bit as good as professional productions, and his contributors include Gregory Benford and Andrew M. Butler (and if you allow for letters, Sean McMullen, David J. Lake, and many others). Amateurism isn't synonymous with shoddiness. Amateurism really means activity for the sheer joy of it. Until recently the world's greatest athletes were amateurs and took pride in being amateurs. Bruce Gillespie is that sort of an amateur. Read him. Read his zine.


Be very afraid!

10 FEB 2005 | source The Sunday Age | permalink

You might recall last week's "Be afraid!" entry about the chemical fear story in The Sunday Age.

This week's Sunday Age contains a letter from Professor David Hill of the Victorian Cancer Council making exactly the same argument:

The data presented was extremely misleading.

If the same data were plotted as annual incidence there would be no apparent change over time.

There is another letter from Dr Barry Tomkins of the School of Forestry at the University of Melbourne. Dr Tomkins lists three errors and one glaring omission in Ms Miller's story.

So The Sunday Age was made aware of the deficiencies in Claire Miller's article, and yet in an act that defies generous interpretation, the paper this week contains a two-page spread by the same writer on the same story with a breakout quote that includes, "We're lucky we don't glow in the dark." Apparently the local resident quoted believes the area is being sprayed with radium paint instead of herbicide.

It is also instructive to discover that atrazine, one of the herbicides Ms Miller spends a lot of ink trying to imply causes cancers and other diseases, was the subject of an ongoing review by the Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority. The latest report is about as current as can be: it was released in October 2004 (link warning: 763k PDF). The conclusion of the review was that atrazine spraying has not been shown to have any adverse effects on human health, including cancers, despite extensive testing. Only direct exposure to atrazine concentrate has been shown to cause health problems. Ms Miller forgot to mention this.

I would have thought that a responsible newspaper would be extremely wary about printing inflammatory articles, especially with the knowledge that the writer has been dishing out extremely misleading information on the subject.

The Australian Journalists Association code of ethics states that journalists should at all times strive to:

1.  Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts.  Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.  Do your utmost  to give a fair opportunity for reply.
9.  Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate.  Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.
12.  Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

Apparently, The Sunday Age believes it is ethical -- and repeatable -- to print stories that it knows to be misleading and alarmist, provided it gives a few paragraphs of dissent on the Letters page.


The Green List

03 FEB 2005 | source Nature | permalink

Everyone loves a list. The world's nations have been ranked according to their environmental status. (link warning: 754K PDF)

Best 10
Worst 10


North Korea

Australia ranked thirteenth (61.0 points), a whisker ahead of New Zealand (60.9). The US came forty-fifth (52.9 points), and the UK came sixty-sixth (50.2 points) out of 146 nations.

As with any list, there's plenty to quibble about. The scoring criteria include agricultural subsidies, gross tertiary education enrolment rate, "Democracy measures", and "Civil and Political Liberties." I'm sure that right-wing commentators will accuse the index of being inherently biased towards left-leaning governments. Mind you, I'm sure that other right-wing commentators will gleefully point to the generally high scores of Western capitalist countries and the fact that, of the old Soviet nations, the ones that are faring better are those that were most enthusiastic about throwing off the communist occupation. There's something for everyone here. Have a read and see which figures you can pluck out to bolster your own prejudices.

The list was compiled by an international collaboration by the Yale Centre for Environmental Law and Policy, the Centre for international Earth Science Information Network at Columbia University, the World Economic Forum, and the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission.


Be afraid !

30 JAN 2005 | source Sunday Age | permalink

The Sunday Age today has a shock-tactic headline leading into a terrifying story by Claire Miller about agricultural chemicals causing cancers, neurological disorders and premature births. A close reading of the story, however, reveals unsupported suppositions, misleading presentation of data, and the prominent reporting of opinions from non-specialists over the opinions of the people who are trained – indeed whose job it is – to collect and interpret the appropriate data.

The graph looks persuasive, but look closely...

I hope I don't have to explain to you, Dear Reader, what this means, but I shall do so anyway. Cumulative incidence means that each year's figures are added to the previous years' totals. So cumulative incidence graphs always go up. If you tear apart the graph and rebuild it from what would have been the primary data, you get these two graphs.

Endocrine/reproductive cancers, 1995-2005

Digestive tract cancers, 2000-2005

These graphs may not be entirely accurate. The original graph was fudged by smoothing out the curves when they should have been discrete steps (if the purpose of the graph had been to convey information rather than to look pretty). So it's possible that the data points in my graphs are out by one here or there. Even so, what this looks like to me is random noise with too few data points to draw any meaningful conclusions.

Other things wrong with this story:

• The information is not drawn from a published scientific paper. It is drawn from an internal report to the Australian Medical Association that has not even been submitted. (I call this the Pons-Fleischman Indicator after the researchers who chose to announce their discovery of cold fusion by going straight to a press conference rather than submitting a paper to the rigours of a scientific journal.)

• The report has not yet been reviewed by the AMA's public health committee – it has not even been received.

• The AMA is a self-organised professional society for doctors. While it takes an interest in and often makes public statements on matters of health policy, it has no formal responsibility for the collection or the interpretation of population health data.

• The body that does have formal responsibility is the Department of Health, and according to its Director of Public Health, the cancer rates in the area are not significantly different to other areas with similar demographics.

• Unexplained neurological symptoms are just that: unexplained.

• Some people have suffered neurological symptoms after direct exposure to chemical sprays but that does not have much bearing on the possibility of cancers due to trace exposure.

• The collection of illnesses is rather disparate: premature births, childhood cancers, endocrine and reproductive cancers, digestive tract cancers, and undifferentiated "neurological problems." This looks suspiciously like data trawling. Let me explain what I mean. The common definition of "statistically significant" is that a given association has less than one chance in twenty of being due to chance. The International Classification of Diseases version 10 lists 21,161 diseases. If one was to trawl data by simply checking all possible diagnoses, one would expect a given place to have 1,058 statistically significant differences to the rest of the population, 529 of which would be elevated rates. Of course, a small population such that of St Helens won't have many cases of rare diseases, which make up the bulk of the ICD-10 database, but the point remains that if you go looking for statistical significance, you will find it if you collect enough variables – about one significant association for every twenty variables tested. And that's if the investigators use the appropriate statistical tests.

This story is terribly premature. I am not saying that there is no problem in St Helens, and I am not saying that the postulated cause of the problem can be ignored. But the data are unimpressive, the conjectures are unsupported by anything more than indirect anecdotal evidence, and the report has not been reviewed by anyone with public health knowledge. This is one story that should have been written a lot more carefully.


Giant Monsters!

20 JAN 2005 | source Agog! Press | permalink

Robert Hood and Robin Pen have announced the story list for their new anthology Daikaju! It's the next big thing to come out of Cat Sparks' Agog! Press. Daikaiju! promises to be a wonderful romp through Japanese giant monster movie themes. My only disappointment is that I couldn't cobble together a story in time to submit to the editors.


Giant Monsters!

20 JAN 2005 | source Agog! Press | permalink

Robert Hood and Robin Pen have announced the story list for their new anthology Daikaju! It's the next big thing to come out of Cat Sparks' Agog! Press. Daikaiju! promises to be a wonderful romp through Japanese giant monster movie themes. My only disappointment is that I couldn't cobble together a story in time to submit to the editors.


An argument against Intelligent Design in schools

15 JAN 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Many years ago, a number of my friends told me they didn't know why I got so riled by Creationists since they were clearly a lunatic fringe. Well, just take a look now.

It has taken me a while to think up a new argument to counter Creationism or Intelligent Design being admitted to the science curriculum. Finally I've come up with one that I haven't seen before. I don't know if it will be persuasive in the public arena, but it has the virtue of being both accurate and rhetorically powerful.

Point 1: Creationism and Intelligent Design have provided no new scientific insights. There has not been a single primary research paper supporting either Creationism or Intelligent Design in a peer-reviewed biology journal. Almost the entire body of Creationist and ID literature has been published in journals set up by Creationists in order to promote Creationism.

Therefore the teaching of Creationism and ID is not supported by the scientific community.

Point 2: Having failed to convince the scientists, Creationists have attempted to force Creationist beliefs into school curricula and textbooks. Whenever they have tried to do so, biology teachers have refused to teach it.

Therefore the teaching of Creationism and ID is not supported by the teaching community.

Point 3: Having failed to convince scientists and teachers, Creationists have infiltrated school boards with the intention of forcing teachers to teach Creationist religious beliefs as scientific theories. When this has occurred, the ACLU or other interest groups have brought legal action against the school boards, and on every occasion the Creationists have been embarrassed in court.

Therefore the teaching of Creationism and ID does not have the support of the US Constitution or the legal community.

Point 4: In most cases, when Creationists have infiltrated school boards and demanded changes to the science curriculum, school parents have been appalled at the deception and have voted out the board at the soonest opportunity, even in Bible Belt districts.

Therefore the teaching of Creationism and ID does not have the support of most school parents.

Creationists and ID proponents on school boards are opposed to all the bodies of expert opinion that matter, that is scientists, teachers, and judges, and are acting against the wishes of their constituents, that is, the school parents. In opposing quality science, quality education, and legal propriety, and in the deceptive tactics they employ, they have betrayed their duty as elected protectors to school children.



04 JAN 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

There are moments in any political system that come to define the fortunes of the parties that lead nations and states. In Victoria, we are about to see the self-immolation of the Labour Party over its new land tax. Britain's Labour is similarly about to self-immolate over the recent outbreak of violence by Sikhs which forced a London theatre to close a production of a new play. The violence itself is nothing new, but what is extraordinary is Tony Blair's ministers falling over themselves to defend the Sikh extremists, and worse, to defend their violence under the principle of freedom of speech. (The only thing that might save Blair is the poor form of the Tory opposition.)

I have become increasingly disturbed at the trend towards defending acts of censorship as acts of free speech. It is a part of a general trend towards the undermining of the traditional liberal ideal of tolerance. Apparently tolerance no longer means allowing others to have their point of view; nowadays one has to kowtow to fools to satisfy them. Think this is an exaggeration? Just look at the howls of protest anytime a scientist or doctor says that homeopathy is unscientific -- which it demonstrably is.

A few years ago I wrote a series of what I call "thought poems." It's not a good term, but I haven't come up with anything better yet. Suggestions would be welcome. Thought poems don't have to rhyme or scan, but they are meant to have a certain cadence to them. They are supposed to be a progression of thought trimmed of all extraneous crud, indented along sub-threads as many computer languages do. They are not supposed to be logical arguments, although they are supposed to be founded upon logic and rational argument. I couldn't think of anywhere to submit them, and in the light of extremists closing down a theatre by violence with post-hoc approval from a nominally leftist government, I guess I'm just going to put this one online.

by Chris Lawson

I used to know what tolerance meant,
Back when Voltaire said it.
It used to mean everyone had the right to their own opinion,
        No matter how stupid.
Now the word has twisted in the hand.
When I hear something said that is
Wrong or uninformed or mendacious,
And I speak my mind,
        I am automatically accused…
                Of excessive concern for evidence,
                Of narrow-mindedness,
                Of silencing dissent,
                Of anti-egalitarianism,
                Of racism / sexism / Westernism / reductionism,
                Of being a bastard,
        Some of which is true.
For a time I doubted myself.
        Then it struck me that those words were hurled
        At Asimov, at Huxley, at Gardner, at Randi, at Sokal.
        Carl Sagan, of all people, accused of intellectual cruelty,
        For knowing whereof he spoke.
So I resolved to be
But I cannot manage the last.
        I cannot help it;
        It's a knot in my wood.
So forgive me.
I will allow your disagreements, as Voltaire would,
        And I will defend your right to say them.
But you want respect and courtesy?
        When the words that fall from your mouth are
        Blinkered, uneducated, and cold-hearted?
You ask for more than tolerance.
You ask for doe-eyed docility.
        And if you insist upon it,
        You can take your stupid opinion
        And shove it.



03 JAN 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

I've been studiously avoiding talking about the Indian Ocean tsunami last week because I had nothing to say. Reading the letters pages of the local newspapers only confirms that in the face of such a momentous calamity, most people are incapable of making reasoned observations. In one extraordinary article today, the Age's religious editor, Barney Schwartz, defends his vision of God with an interpretation of the Book of Job that he must have cribbed from Bible Stories for Nervous Children. In the face of this second tsunami of ignorance and special pleading, I have decided there is only one thing to say, and that is to mirror what Arthur C. Clarke wrote...

Our thoughts go to all those affected by the disaster. We have given a second donation to Care Australia this season. Anyone who is thinking of doing the same can contact these agencies:

Care Australia | Care International

Sarvodaya | Sarvodaya donation page

International Red Cross


2005 New Year Quiz

01 JAN 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink

Note that you need to allow blocked content for the dynamic HMTL to work...

Which year lasted 445 days?

45 BC

Who wrote Auld Lang Syne?

Nobody knows. Robert Burns wrote the version we are familar with today from an old folk tune.

Which is longest, a sidereal year, or a solar year?

The sidereal year is longer by 20 minutes and 24 seconds.

Following an ancient attempt to prise New Year's Day from its pagan origins, on January 1 many Christian churches celebrate what?

The Feast of Christ's Circumcision

In 2005, what day is Chinese New Year?

February 9

In the Chinese calendar, what year will it be?

Year 4702, year of the Horse

In Japan, what are New Year's Day celebrations called?

Bonenkai, or "forget last year" parties

When is the Jewish New Year in 2005?

Rosh Hashanah starts at nightfall, October 5

In the Jewish calendar, what year will it be?


What great legal document came into effect on January 1, 1863?

Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

Which famous spy was born on January 1, 1912?

Kim Philby

Which famous novelist was born on January 1, 1919?

J. D. Salinger

Which famous lawman was born on January 1, 1895?

J. Edgar Hoover

Which controversial pope was born on January 1, 1431?

Pope Alexander VI, aka Rodrigo de Borgia

Which famous patrician was born on January 1, 1449?

Lorenzo de' Medici

Why is it bad news for US parents to have a child born on January 1?

Because age is determined by the IRS to click over the day before one's birthday, parents miss out on a whole year of child tax credit.

What happened to the Beatles on January 1, 1962?

They failed their audition with Decca.

Can the decline of Western civilisation can be tracked through the music chart toppers of January 1?

1949: "Don't Fence Me In" by Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters

1961: "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" by Elvis Presley

1977: "Tonight's the Night" by Rod Stewart

1985: "Like a Virgin" by Madonna.

On January 1, 1946, who announced he was not a god?

Emperor Hirohito of Japan

On January 1, 404, what ancient sporting event ended?

Gladiatorial contests in Rome

On January 1, 1995, what great comic tradition ended?

Gary Larson's "The Far Side" cartoons

On January 1, 1901, what nation was constituted?

Australia, of course

How to interpret this test:

If you got less than a third right: You are an uneducated Philistine. Read a book some time.

If you scored more than a third right: You have wasted your life reading books and articles that cannot possibly add anything meaningful to your life. Go surfing or something.

If you scored between one and two-thirds: You are oh so middle of the road. Your friends find you boring. Try breaking out of mediocrity for a change.

If you counted your score exactly: You are obsessive and your self-esteem depends on measuring yourself against other people. You should spend more time on the IQ tests on the Web and stop bothering normal people.

If you checked whether the answers were correct: You are fixated on details. Once upon a time, you could have found a useful role as a researcher for a media outlet or government agency. Sadly, your skills are now as marketable as scythemanship.