an irregular pseudoblog for both cultures by chris lawson
17 May 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
It should be fairly obvious to most readers, but I thought I'd make it official. Frankenblog is on indefinite hiatus. I have moved over to Talking Squid, a new group blog. This here site will not be updated for the foreseeable future. I will maintain the bibliography and personal pages as need arises, but I wouldn't bet on any frequent changes.
Aurealis winners and Ditmar nominations
28 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
On Saturday night I was at the Aurealis Awards in Brisbane. Boy they've changed since they were held in the upstairs, past the fetish shop, venue of Slow Glass Books. It ran like the Oscars, only without the overblown acceptance speeches. Apparently the Lord Mayor of Brisbane nearly attended, which I find pretty astounding. The winners are listed here. I'm especially pleased for Garth Nix, who thoroughly deserved his three awards, and for Lee and Lyn Battersby who have managed to make a major impact on the genre in Australia under difficult circumstances. It was an extremely entertaining night and a feather in the caps of the new organisers.
And tonight I discovered that the Ditmar nominations have been released. Much to my surprise, I am on the final ballot for two pieces: my novelette "Countless Screaming Argonauts" and my non-fiction piece from Borderlands called "Body Parts." I am surprised because this is a very strong year. Frankly this is the first year in a long time where I've actually had to think hard about how to order my preferences because there was so much great stuff published. I'm especially pleased that Rjurik Davidson's SciFiction story "The Passing of the Minotaurs" got up (Rjurik has a big future), as well as Lucy Sussex's "Matricide", also from SciFiction. There's also sterling work by Simon Brown, Rosaleen Love, and...well, I could really go on and on this year. Better to just point you to the voting form for the full nomination list.
Reviving immune cells
24 Feb 2006 | source Nature | permalink
I saw a paper in Nature this week and thought that's interesting. It niggled at me and the next day I went back to it and thought that's amazing. I read it again the day after and decided that's mind-blowing. This is likely to be one of the most important papers published this year. The paper is Barber et al, Nature 439, 682-687 (2006).
The paper ties in with an article I wrote for Borderlands ("Conspiracy theories are deadlier than conspiracies" from volume 6, just released) which treats immune function as a tension between detecting conspiracies (ie. infections and cancers) and over-reacting to non-existent conspiracy theories (ie. autoimmune diseases).
First some background: we have different types of immune cells. One of our immune cells is called the killer T cell and its function is to hunt down and destroy cells that are infected or cancerous. There is a subgroup of killer T cells called CD8+ T cells, but for convenience I will call them memoriser-killer cells because their role is to remember the individual face of a given infection or cancer. That is, each memoriser-killer cell is locked into a specific enemy, the idea being that once the cell has memorised the enemy, it can respond quickly to any future recurrences.
The trouble comes with chronic infections, such as HIV or CMV, which can get into your body and not go away. Over time, the memoriser-killer cells stop working. Immunologists describe them as becoming "exhausted." What Barber has shown is that this is incorrect. The memoriser-killer cells are not exhausted in the least. They have all their powers intact, but they have been switched off by the immune system to prevent them causing damage to healthy tissue. Instead of the army of memoriser-killer cells being exhausted, they have been demobilized to prevent them from causing trouble with civilians.
The lovely thing about this is that there is a very simple switch that turns the cells off. The memoriser-killer cells have a receptor on their surface called PD-1, and all the body has to do is produce a compound called PD-L1, which binds to the receptor, thus telling the cell to go to sleep. What Barber and his colleagues have shown is that if you prevent PD-L1 from binding to the receptor, that is, if you block the signal, the cells wake up and start going about their business of wiping out infections.
This extraordinary paper opens the possibility of treatments to eradicate chronic viral infections, and possibly even some cancers. There is a long way to go of course and it should be borne in mind that the "therapy" as it stands works by interrupting the normal function of the immune system, which may not be such a smart idea. Indeed, Barber's testing in mice shows that interfering with the PD-1 switch can have disastrous outcomes in some situations, such as pregnancy (where the survival of the foetus relies on dampening the mother's immune system). So we don't yet know how well this finding will translate into effective treatment, but the promise is extraordinary.
Review: Syriana and Good Night and Good Luck
22 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
Good Night and Good Luck chronicles the epic battle between Senator Joe McCarthy and legendary reporter Edward R Murrow. It is, of course, the battle of liberal values (freedom of speech, freedom of association) against anti-communist hysteria. It is wonderfully performed, written, and shot in gorgeous black and white. It has been compared, both favourably and unfavourably, with Arthur Miller's The Crucible, which was written druing the McCarthy era about the Salem witch trials. This is a fair comparison in that George Clooney is trying to do exactly what Miller did. That is, he is trying to compare a past injustice with the present in the hope that some audience members will make the connection and stand up to the political bullying that is currently damaging the West. Whether you agree with Clooney's beliefs or not is beside the point. This is still a great movie about an important subject. It is not, however, another Crucible. What lifts the Crucible to its status as one of the masterpieces of American theatre is that it draws on the specifics of the Salem trials to make points about the seductive power of vengeance and lies. On the other hand, Good Night and Good Luck draws on the specifics of the McCarthy hearings to make points about the McCarthy era. That is, the film succeeds in showing the terrors and injustices of McCarthyism but fails to provide the psychological complexity to draw a line through to modern politics. And I say this as someone who agrees with Clooney's assertion that the scaremongering of Joe McCarthy is not that different to the scaremongering of today. I believe it fails in this regard because Good Night and Good Luck is essentially a story of the battle between a good man and a bad man. There is a great deal of subtlety in the way this dichotomy is presented, such as station manager William Paley's devastating defence of self-censorship, but the fact remains that this is a White Hat / Black Hat battle, and the good guys eventually win through the strength of their moral character. In contrast, The Crucible is a tragedy in which there is only one truly innocent person, Elizabeth Proctor, and she is destroyed by the trials for the crime of loving her husband -- but even then the greatness of Miller's play is not in the destruction of innocence. That was just Miller turning the knife. The true measure of Miller's tragedy is that the events are set in motion by John Proctor's adultery, and Miller has the heart to say that we cannot allow flawed people to be treated as fodder to our fears. Even liars and adulterers need to be protected from hysterical violence. Good Night and Good Luck, for all it has going for it, does not quite rise to this level of moral clarity. Of course, it is not fair to criticise a film for not being as good as The Crucible. Good Night and Good Luck is a great film. Go see it.
Syriana is another wonderful film, but it is more problematic. Where Good Night and Good Luck fails to rise above itself to greatness, Syriana collapses under its own weight. This is another Clooney vehicle, this time a modern-day epic of the oil trade and its political intrigues. It is complex, intelligent, and understated, which is extremely rare in American cinema. Unfortunately, it also devolves into a battle between Good People and Bad People. The most ambiguous character, Clooney's tired CIA agent, is still a Good Person whose worst sin is following orders without asking a lot of questions -- at least until he finds himself betrayed. Even this could be salvagable, as stories about conflicts between Good and Bad People can be compelling. The essential problem is that the story is far too simplistic. It is highly complex, that is true, but it is shallow complexity. The film treats Middle East politics as a vast, impenetrable knot, which it is, but it tries to resolve this by creating story arcs that create a false sense of coherence. It is complex in the way that a Celtic knot is. It is beautiful to behold and one can only wonder at the craft behind it, but a Celtic knot cannot carry a complex story. What it needed was not shallow complexity but deep simplicity: it needed scenes that Goya would have painted. It needed to cut away the plotting and show the power of an Executions of the Third of May, to which there is no context, no way of judging the rightness of wrongness or legality of the executions, just an emotional outpouring of rage and dismay by the artist. This failing shows in several cheap plot devices: the electrocution in a pool that had been wired with all the latest electronics except safety switches; the completely unbelievable modern-liberal-values outpouring from the sheik's son (you see, he is a Good Man) and the missed fact that this would make him a far greater threat to the fundamentalists than to the Americans; the inexplicable change of heart from the Emir (which takes place off screen presumably because there was no way of scripting plausible dialogue for the missing scene); the tirade by the economic analyst who manages to solve a major problem by drawing in the sand (apparently the Arabs are incapable of working out obvious solutions for themselves) and who is then accepted as an economic adviser to the prince despite voicing insults that would have been unforgiveable; the failure of an experienced CIA agent with supposedly good knowledge of the region and an individualistic streak to recognise when he being fed complete bull by his superiors; and the bizarre final scene that, for all its attempt to be powerful, is let down by the utterly opaque motivations of two of the key players. What are the Americans trying to achieve that couldn't be done with far less fallout in other ways? What exactly is Bob doing there? Syriana is also flawed in that the script fails to question its own values. This was not the case in Good Night and Good Luck, where contrary views were aired fairly if not sympathetically. In Syriana, everything is the fault of the oil companies. Everything. Even the suicide bombers, although they are not exactly absolved of their sins, are held to be better, more caring people than the oil executives. Even the blame for the terrorism is placed at the feet of the oil company: the descent into terrorism is triggered by the laying off of Pakistani oil workers after a company merger. While there are other influences on the way, for instance the subtle shift of the Arabic school from teaching language to teaching radical Islam, the fact remains that every single bad thing in the film begins and ends with America. Even the remote control lighting that causes an accidental electrocution came from America. The CEO of the oil company is named Leland Janus, as in the two-faced god of Roman mythology, which is a further indication of the black-hat syndrome in the script. At least the name of Dr Evil from Austin Powers was a joke. Syriana is still a good film and I still recommend it, but you should go into it expecting a bleak spy thriller rather than a nuanced analysis of Middle East politics. Syriana has the intelligence and the pretension to achieve both goals, but not the perspicacity.
Review: Battlestar Galactica
21 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
Battlestar Galactica is the most unnecessary remake in television history. So how did it end up so good?
The original movie and TV series really only thrived by parasitising the Star Wars phenomenon. I was one of a worldwide horde of teenage boys who were ravenous for more Star Wars. We wanted more and we wanted it faster than George Lucas could pump it out. Hence Battlestar Galactica, a turgid, unimaginative, politically dubious pilot TV show released as a movie became a smash hit and a TV spinoff series. There were good things about the original, such as the cultural friction between colonies and the mash of mythologies, but apart from their sliding red eyeballs, the robotic villains were supremely unterrifying (even Dr Who's Cybermen looked more threatening, a race of camp mechanical Kray brothers) and it had the worst Cute Creature Suitable For Toy Marketing in history, at least until the Lost in Space remake came along.
And yet...I kept hearing how good this series was. Some people even called it the best SF show on television ever. So I bought the first season DVDs and watched them. Here's the verdict.
What's good about Battlestar Galactica?
It's furiously entertaining. It's intelligent. It manages to look great on a very limited budget. The actors are superb. The most important thing to know about the new series is that it has almost entirely ditched the original. The basic premise is the same: human-created cyborgs called Cylons have, in true SF fashion, decided that they can run the universe better than humans (although in the original series the Cylons were the machine remnants of an old, dead alien civilisation) and launch a killing blow against the human colonies. Only a handful of survivors are left, and they cluster around a battleship (the Galactica) in a last-ditch battle for survival, which entails a mystical attempt to find Old Earth and reunite with the ancestors of the human colonies. This much has remained from the original. But, oh, what changes they have wrought. The military are exhausted and overstretched and not always professional. They have constant decisions to make about how to deal with their limited and rapidly dwindling resources, people included. And best of all, they don't know who to trust. The Cylons have succeeded in building androids so human that they cannot be told apart. Some of them even believe they are human. That's right, we're in Phil Dick country. Add to the mix a scientist who has frequent (and often comical) wild sex with a Cylon in his mind, a President who is often at odds with the military and slowly going crazy, and a dozen guilty secrets. And the best, the absolutely best thing about the show is the clash of religious modes. This is gripping stuff and highly recommended.
What's bad about Battlestar Galactica?
Due to budget constraints, there is a great deal of recycling of bit parts and extras, which can be rather disconcerting when a traitorous prison guard later turns up as a loyal bodyguard or a senator reappears as a judge and then a psychic priestess. The dialogue really, really suffers whenever anyone tries to talk politics. In the few episodes that attempt some sort of political analysis, the end result is sophomoric rather than sophisticated. Democracy this, democracy that, never mind that we're being hunted to extinction by an implacable enemy, let's cause mass disruption over constitutional distinctions, blah blah blah. The issue of terrorism as a means of social change is handled with all the nuance of clubbing a baby seal. Despite the frequent brilliance, there is still too much pulling rabbits out of hats and the irritating faux-suspense, rather like Lost, where mysteries are deliberately held back from the audience (often one suspects because the scriptwriters haven't figured out what the answers are) and then slowly extruded in such a way as to avoid any true resolution or revelation. Once or twice is OK, but the trick gets old very fast, especially as the semi-revelations become increasingly ridiculous and it is implied the entire Cylon war against the Galactica is being waged in order to create something that could be achieved in fifteen minutes with an adolescent in a closet. But the worst, the absolutely worst thing about the series is this: buying the brand new DVD box set, unpeeling the plastic, putting Series One, Disc One in the DVD player, and what's the first thing that comes up? "Previously on Battlestar Galactica..." That's right. The marketing vampires have struck. The pilot miniseries, which happens to be integral to the story arc is not included in the series box set. There is no mention of this on the back of the DVD. According to LOCUS, the second series of Battlestar Galactica is also marketed rather perversely (only half the season is available per box set, at full-season prices). A pox on the marketers. May they accidentally eat garlic in sunlight.
Ten points about the RU486 decision
19 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
The Parliament of Australia has just voted to take the approval of RU486 out of the hands of the Health Minister and place it with the Therapeutic Goods Association where it belongs. There are several points that I think need to be raised here.
1. Before the votes, the media reported how close the vote would run. As it turned out, the vote in the Senate went 45 to 28 in favour and the vote in the Lower House was so overwhelming that the votes were not actually counted after the call for ayes and nays. No doubt this will save a lot of politicians from embarrassment, but the bottom line is this: the vote was not close. It was never going to be close. The reporters were confusing fervency for popularity.
2. The anti-RU486 voters by and large said the vote was not about abortion itself, but their rhetoric, especially Danna Vale's disgraceful comments about Australia "aborting itself" into a Muslim nation, show the lie. The entire opposition to RU486 was an opposition to abortion, not to the choice of methods of abortion. Those opposed to abortion were trying to block RU486 because they feared that it would make abortion less traumatic for women. In essence, these Members of Parliament were seeking to make women suffer more through their abortions in the hope that it would discourage a few.
3. One of Australia's more media-hungry senators, Barnaby Joyce, has expressed reservations about the new cervical cancer vaccine. He said that he would think twice about giving it to his daughters because it could promote promiscuity. This is not about abortion, but it reveals the same thinking: punish women for not sharing your moral values. Barnaby Joyce is actually saying, although I'm sure that he doesn't realise it, that he is prepared to put his daughters at risk of dying of cervical cancer in the hope that this will discourage them from having unprotected sex with a man carrying the human papilloma virus. HPV infection is incredibly infectious - around 75% of sexually active adults have been infected, and amazingly, around one in five lesbians who have never had sex with men; in other words, while promiscuity increases the risk of cervical cancer, every woman who has ever had a sexual partner is at risk, even monogamous women, elderly widows, and lesbians (not exclusive categories, by the way). By the same logic, Senator Joyce should oppose Pap testing and should ask the Health Minister to block approval for all treatments for sexually-transmitted diseases. Does it need to be said that Joyce was one of the senators who voted against the RU486 bill?
4. After losing the power to approve RU486, Tony Abbott has decided that the government needs to act to reduce the number of abortions in Australia. I agree completely. 85,000-100,000 abortions a year is a terrible statistic even if you're pro-choice. But Abbott's prescribed programs are (i) create a telephone help line for pregnant women, and (ii) add psychology consultations for pregnant women to the Medicare schedule. In other words, let's try to convince pregnant women not to have abortions, but let's not prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
5. The original decision to restrict approval for RU486 was made in 1996 as a concession to an independent senator, Brian Harradine, who was a devout Catholic. Harradine does not and has never represented the mainstream opinion on these matters, but he was in the fortunate position of holding the balance of power in the Senate, thereby elevating the weight of his opinion way above his weight of representation (in fact, he represented only 32,000 out of 327,000 Tasmanian voters - that's 9.8% of the Tasmanian vote and 0.2% of the total Australian vote). The government of the day needed Harradine to pass their controversial sale of Telstra, which Harradine was also against, and traded his opposition to the Telstra sale for implementing his social agenda, including restricting approval of RU486 and in an absolutely disgraceful episode of political interference, secretly blocking the appointment of Professor John Funder, one of Australia's most respected medical scientists, to the National Health and Medical Research Council not because Funder was a poor candidate for the job but because he had performed abortions in the past.
6. The "blocking" of RU486 was not really a ban. It simply meant that any submission for the drug to be approved by the TGA had to first be approved by the Health Minister. While this sounds innocuous, the fact is that developing submissions is an extremely expensive and complex activity and demanding that the submission first be approved by the Minister, who has no charter and no direct accountability for his decisions, was a major obstacle. It was clever politics: don't actually ban the drug, just place excessive hurdles in the way.
7. The hurdles seem to have worked. RU486 has never been submitted for approval in Australia. Since 1996, approval has been sought and granted in many other countries around the world, including France, Britain, Sweden, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Spain, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Israel.
8. The Health Minister, Tony Abbott, found himself in a position that has troubled doctors throughout history: what to do when a patient asks for a treatment to which you have strong moral objections. I myself have faced the same problem when parents have asked me to refer their sons for elective circumcision. One of my wife's colleagues was a devout Catholic who was not only opposed to abortion but to artificial contraception - she wouldn't even prescribe the oral contraceptive pill. So how does one deal with this conflict? The standard answer of Medical Boards throughout Australia is somewhat like this from the Victorian Board's draft of Good Medical Practice guidelines: "[I]f you feel that your beliefs might affect the treatment you provide, you should explain this to patients, tell them of their right to see another doctor, and where appropriate, refer them to another doctor." Tony Abbott has done the exact opposite. Instead of explaining his beliefs and excusing himself from the process, or putting the question to Cabinet or acting on the advice of the AMA and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, he has struggled to keep the power to veto RU486 in his personal hands.
9. Having said all this, I do not wish to criticize Tony Abbott too much on this point. Much as I deplore his argumentative tactics and his attempt to slant the ministerial advice he received, the fact remains that he inherited this problem. The decision was made in 1996. There have been two other health ministers in that time, neither of whom are anti-abortion to my knowledge. Brian Harradine is no longer in the Senate, and the Liberal/National Party now holds the balance of power in both houses, although it has a slim majority in the Senate. This problem could have been dealt with long ago if anyone had come up with the courage to push the issue. But nobody did. People who believed in access to RU486 were prepared to accept the status quo because they were worried about the political repercussions. Abbott, for all his faults, at least stood up for his beliefs. The others were cowards. For too long moderate liberals have been afraid to live with the consequences of speaking up for their beliefs.
10. The exclusion of RU486 appears to be based on a new sort of utilitarian thinking. For those who don't know what I mean, the basic premise of utilitarianism is "the greatest good to the greatest number." It underpins many health policy decisions, for instance, the decision to pay for a medical treatment that saves 10,000 lives a year will be taken a lot more seriously than a treatment that saves 10 lives a year at the same cost. It gets a lot more complicated than that, because you have to throw in cost, efficacy, risks, quality of life, and many other factors to make good decisions. What is happening is a new form of political utilitarianism where the amount of outrage is being used to overcome lack of popular support. The equation seems to go something like this: WO = p x o, where WO is weight of opinion, p is proportion of the population, and o is the level of outrage expressed. Note that this means that the greater the outrage you can generate in your followers, the smaller the number of people you have to persuade.
Next time: a review of Battlestar Galactica. Bet you didn't see that coming.
Evidence for the prior hypothesis
15 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
In the previous entry, I talked about the clash between modern liberalism and archaic fundamentalism. Very kindly, Father John Trigilio, Jr of the Diocese of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania has written an opinion piece for the Catholic PR Wirewhich illustrates my point perfectly. He encourages Catholics to "[c]omplain, write letters, join protests and boycott the NY Times until they apologize." What heinous crime has the New York Times committed? It has decided not to print the Danish cartoons that have so inflamed the Muslim world. Now concentrate here. The problem is not in the decision to avoid the cartoons. Fr Trigilio describes the decision as "rightfully show[ing] prudence, respect and restraint." No, the problem is that the NY Times has previously published material offensive to Catholics, such as pictures of Chris Ofili's portrait of the Virgin Mary made out of elephant dung and Andres Serrano's photograph of a crucifix floating in urine. Fr Trigilio backs himself up with a very dubious quote from an unnamed NY Times reporter saying, "we're...concerned about upsetting Muslims since they take their faith so seriously but when is the last time you saw a bunch of nuns turn over cars and burn flags?"
There are several things wrong with this argument. The first is that Catholics actually have a long history of writing letters and protesting about things that offended them. Remember the Life of Brian protests? The Hail Mary protests? The "Piss Christ" vandalism? Heck, remember the assassins it sent after Queen Elizabeth? The second is that Fr Trigilio exhorts his flock to "peacefully but steadfastly express our outrage", but seems to miss the point that the problem with the Danish cartoon fiasco is that the protests have NOT BEEN PEACEFUL. That is what has elevated the issue to a major international news story. That is what has convinced the NY Times not to publish the cartoons. The third problem is that Fr Trigilio fails to understand that he does not have the right to not be outraged. In the Western world, there is no legal protection from offense and indeed the scandal of the Catholic (and to a lesser extent, Anglican) Church protecting its paedophile priests and placing the children in its laity at further risk would never have come to light if it was not for the press publishing material that church leaders found offensive. Also, the Catholic Church frequently makes statements that I find offensive but I very much doubt that Fr Trigilio has any interest in protecting my sensibilities by rule of law. He can't, because it would put an immediate end to all Catholic encyclicals.
Despite all these argumentative flaws, Fr Trigilio has a point. The NY Times has been hypocritical. My disagreement with Fr Trigilio is that he thinks everything that offends religious sensibilities should be quashed, where I think that on those grounds alone, nothing should be. (I can't emphasise enough that there are good reasons for restricting speech in certain situations, e.g. misleading advertising, but protecting people from drawing offense is not one of them.) In pragmatic terms, I have to concede that Fr Trigilio is more likely to have the winning argument. In the current climate, the short track to having your views acted upon is to back them up with violence, and if you can't countenance violence, you can at least plan an economic boycott. Now a boycott is a long way from burning down embassies. Don't get me wrong. But it still amounts to trying to sew lips closed with threads of intimidation.
What is happening around the world is a direct attack on the Western value of free speech and not many people have been standing up for it. This has not come out of nowhere. Last year, enraged Sikhs stormed a theatre in London to close down a play they found offensive. PM Tony Blair defended the rioters' action as free speech, whereas the rights of the playwright and the cast to express opinions without fear of violence were waved away. Blair's reason for doing this was almost certainly that several marginal seats had large Sikh populations. I predicted that this decision would be political poison for Blair and New Labour. I was wrong. But now we are seeing what comes of riding the tiger. You don't end up quelling violent protests by giving in to unreasonable demands. Appeasement only confirms to bullies that you are afraid of them and encourages ever greater exercises in violence. It astonishes and saddens me that this still needs to be said.
I'll close with Fr Trigilio's last sentences: "Toleration of such sacrilege is not diplomatic, it is cowardly and irresponsible. We must peacefully but steadfastly express our outrage or suffer the consequences of becoming completely irrelevant and incredible." Tolerance of sacrilege is in fact central to freedom of speech and to freedom of religion, but he closes on a shining truth that illustrates why religious leaders will continue to act the wounded victim of free speech. In Western politics, the church has lost its traditional tendrils of political power. Without outrage, it is nothing.
Clash of the wrong civilisations
13 Feb 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
Sorry about the long break, but I've just moved interstate and I'm just getting things back on track now. I have a few things to catch up on, but today I'm going to post about the so-called Clash of Civilisations. To many people, the current conflict is just such a thing, to others it's a misnomer. I think it is a clash of civilisations -- or at least, civilised values -- but I think the clash is not between Islam and the West but between modern liberalism and religious extremism. The reason I think this is that the battle lines are not being drawn between Islam and the Western world (although that's what a lot of people would like you to believe). The battle lines are showing up between hardline religious conservatives and liberals. Far from being a war between Islam and the West, the battle lines are taking place inside Muslim countires. In Iran, the current bulwark of Islamic fundamentalism, there is a little-reported struggle between the government and its hardline imams and the bus drivers. A more extensive version of the story can be found on the Guardian's website, but the short version is that Tehran bus drivers have been asking for increases in pay and conditions. The government responded by disallowing the bus drivers to form a union and instead put in place an Islamist council, which appears to have been siphoning off cash and thus making things worse for the drivers. The bus drivers formed their own union anyway, and the response of the government has been to crack down hard, even beating the bus drivers' families. What we are seeing is the struggle within an Islamic nation between modern liberal values and fundamentalism. It's hardly been reported in the news.
The same battles lines are forming within Western countries too. The current "debate" about intelligent design is nothing less than an attempt by religious conservatives in the US to bypass the constitutional separation of church and state, that is, the religious extremists are trying to bring down one of the pillars of the Enlightenment. The battle in the West has been nowhere near as dramatic or violent as in the Middle East, but the issues are surprisingly similar. People who believe that they are in possession of the Ultimate Truth, and who have failed to convince others by persuasion, are abandoning mere evangelism and trying to force their views onto everyone. Under the Taliban and in Iran, women were forced to wear the hijab and in Afghanistan, they were banned from attending schools. It didn't matter what the women believed themselves. Those who refused were punished. In the US, the religious extremists have only gained a tiny toehold of power. It has been enough to have them attempt to force children to read pro-fundamentialist, anti-scientific harangues in schools, and to develop legal strategies to overturn Roe vs. Wade. It doesn't matter that most American women want to have access to abortions, if not for themselves then for others. It doesn't matter that the vast majority of scientists are dead against teaching intelligent design as science. The extremists want to force their views onto others. Again, the level of violence is far less dramatic. The worst violence in the US has been a rather tame beating (by world standards -- American thugs, lift your game!) of Professor Paul Mirecki, who dared to run a class treating intelligent design as the religious myth that it is. In Kansas. The beating was deplorable of course, but nothing compared to the foments and riots around the Middle East. The different level of violence has little to do with the difference in religions. The very same day that Professor Mirecki was beaten, conservative Christian commentators were accusing him of inventing the assault to get sympathy. Clearly these commentators, for all their simulated renunciation of violence, are actually quite willing to give comfort to thugs and bullies and to find a way to blame the victim for the assault. Pat Robertson has given public advice that the president of Venezuela should be assassinated. Jimmy Swaggart has announced that he would kill any man who made a pass at him, then passed it off as a joke. So we have Western religious leaders advising murder -- or at best joking about it -- apparently in the name of the God of Peace. How is this different from the imams whipping up violence in the name of the Prophet (peace be upon him)? The only difference is in the willingness of their audience to comply.
The chasm between Western and Muslim nations is not as great as you would think. The struggle between modernism and religious extremism is taking place all around the world. In Iran the women have to wear a hijab. And in Australia, we are only just going through the process of allowing women access to RU-486, a drug that has been blocked by the health minister here on the basis of his personal religious views. Likewise, while many (not enough in my opinion) people have stood up for the right of the Danish newspapers to publish offensive material (even though I think the cartoons were foolish and the decision to publish was hypocritical), it is also true that Indonesia, the largest Muslim nation on the planet, has pleaded with Denmark to maintain its embassy there despite the threats, and expressed deep regret when the Danes finally decided to withdraw. Turkey is pressing ahead with its plans to join the European Union, even though it means conflict with its own Islamist parties. There are moderates struggling against extremists everywhere, even in the deepest pits of fundamentalist tyranny such as Iran and Afghanistan, not to mention Kansas.
Many years ago I wrote a short story called "Written in Blood" about a Muslim girl coming to grips with her father's faith in an environment of anti-Muslim prejudice following a major terrorist attack. I wrote the story in 1998 and it was published in 1999, two years before the 9/11 attacks. The reason I mention this is not to claim prescience -- anyone who was capable of reading the news knew that something was brewing, even if the details were opaque. But I wrote it largely in response to an excellent story by Bruce Sterling called "We Think Differently." My main concern was not to reject Bruce's story. It's still a wonderful story, but to correct the impression that some readers might take that all Muslims are extremists. They are not. And this message is, I believe, extremely important. We are facing a Clash of Civilisations but the main stress point is within Islam. We have a choice. We can invite moderate Muslims to join us in the fight against extremism. This is a difficult task. We have to show that we are fighting the fundamentalists and not the moderates, even though both call themselves Muslim. And we have to fight the Christian extremists in the West as well. Generally I am opposed to wedge politics, but this is the time that we have to use the wedge. We have to drive it between moderates and extremists, not just in Iran and Iraq, but in Australia and the US. Not just in Islam, but in Christianity. We have to fight political extremists, too -- the Maoists in China and South Korea, the arch-capitalists in Texas. For if we fail to hammer the wedge, or if we place it in the wrong spot, we will end up with a war between Islam and the West, and we will have to work alongside our own extremists out of necessity. And worse, a genuine war between Islam and the West is a war that cannot be won by either side, not even by conquest.
Two new rotavirus vaccines
8 Jan 2006 | source Frankenblog | permalink
This week's New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) publishes the trial results of two new rotavirus vaccines. Rotavirus is the nastiest virus you probably never heard of. It kills nearly half a million children every year. There was a vaccine released years ago, but it was quickly withdrawn from the market in 1999 due to a potentially fatal side-effect known as intussussception (try that at your next spelling bee!). The vaccine should never have been withdrawn, in Frankenblog's opinion. While it was reasonable to withdraw the drug from the US market, the fact is that rotavirus is a major cause of death in the Third World, whereas intussussception was rare at about one case per 5-10,000 children vaccinated, and in the study that demonstrated the link, there were no deaths among the children with vaccine-related intussussception. Sadly, the vaccine was withdrawn from the US market, and in effect the entiure world as Third World governments decided the vaccine was too expensive. Of course, they couldn't admit that, so they got on their high horse about how if it wasn't good enough for Western children, it obviously wasn't good enough for children in poorer countries either. As a result of this inverse colonialism, which could almost certainly have been alleviated by a funded program from the UN or the WHO, millions of children have died in the last 7 tears of a preventable disease.
The good news is that the two new vaccines, one from Merck and the other from Glaxo, appear not to have intussussception as a side-effect. You can read all the details in the NEJM, which has generously offered the papers free to all. I would also like to point out, in this time of conspiracy theories and reflexive hatred of multinational drug companies, that we are very lucky to have these vaccines available. As the NEJM editorial says, "Despite the prospect that other live oral rotavirus vaccines might also be associated with intussusception and despite the expense of conducting large-scale clinical trials for safety, two manufacturers accepted the challenge." If either of these vaccines had shown an increased risk of intussussception, the companies would have flushed a few hundred million dollars down the drain. I keep hearing about how awful drug companies are, but so far in history, no government has been prepared to take on the risks that pharmaceutical companies accept on a routine basis.
I have worked for Merck before, and I am currently a paid member of Glaxo's Australian Rotavirus Advisory Board, so you can make of this conflict of interest what you will. I would however add that I would not be working in my current capacity if I felt ethically compromised by my role.
I would certainly not argue that drug companies glow by the natural light of their sainthood. They are corporations made up of individuals, and naturally they can act with all the greed, duplicity, and ethical lapses of the very people who comprise the organisation -- rather like governments, NGOs, and sewing circles for that matter. But they can also act with compassion, not that you'll hear about it in the daily news. I recommend the story of Merck and ivermectin as an antidote to unfocussed hatred of drug companies.
Merck found itself in the unusual position that it had developed a veterinary drug that was also effective against filariasis in humans, an extremely nasty worm that slithers into human lymphatic channels and blocks lymph drainage. The result is grossly swollen limbs, vulvae, and scrotums, commonly known as elephantiasis. The adult worms also get into human skin, creating sinusoidal scars where the worm has crawled, and can also get into the kidneys, and into the cornea, thus causing "river blindness." Merck found itself with a veterinary drug that was also effective in treating one of the cruellest human diseases around, but a disease that affected people too poor to pay for the treatment. So they gave it away. When Glaxo developed a similar treatment, it joined in. Together Glaxo and Merck have given away hundreds of millions of dollars of medicine, again, not that you will hear about it in the papers.
The ID backlash: princes and lies
24 DEC 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
The vast majority of the reporting on the Dover decision has been either matter-of-fact, or editorially in favour of Judge Jones's decision. However, it is worth pointing out that too many journalists continue to see this as a debate between valid points of view, such as this piece from the Indiana Star that contorts itself into pretzels of credulity, and even worse is this from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which looks like it was written by cribbing straight from a Discovery Institute press release. You would think that the journalists in question were not aware that the pro-ID movement has been found to have lied in court, and yet here they are treating it like just another point of view.
An even worse opinion piece appears in today's USA Today, one that shows the Discovery Institute lying repeatedly. This is not a criticism of USA Today, which has the unusually enlightened policy of giving editorial space to writers opposed to their editorial pieces. But this counter-piece by John G. West of the Discovery Institute is studded with lies, which only goes to show that Judge Jones's opinion about lying by pro-ID school board members goes all the way up the chain of the ID movement. Here is a handy table.
Frankenstein Journal hereby proposes a new scale for assessing dishonesty in reporting.
D = 1000 x ( L + 0.5 M ) / W,
where L is the number of lies, M is the number of misleading statements, and W is the number of words. On this scale, John G. West's opinion piece scores 1000 x ( 5 + 2/2 ) / 332 = 18.1 for dishonesty density.
Judge smacks down intelligent design
22 DEC 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
The case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District is over. Judge John E. Jones III, a Bush-appointed conservative, has ruled against the Dover School Board in a damning judgement. According to Judge Jones, teaching intelligent design in schools violates the separation of church and state guaranteed by the US Constitution. This extends the previous ruling Edwards v. Aguillard from 1987, which found that teaching creationism was a way of slipping religious instruction into science classes. Judge Jones concluded that intelligent design is nothing more than creationism in disguise, and a tatty, Clouseauesque one at that. To add to the misery of ID supporters, Jones accused some of the pro-ID defence witnesses of lying to cover their true agenda.
This is certainly a ruling to savour. What is most pleasing is Jones's final summation, which shows an astute understanding of the scientific method. The full 139-page judgement can be found here (warning: 311K PDF file). It is worth quoting the conclusion (pp. 136-138) almost in full:
The proper application of both the endorsement and Lemon tests to
the facts of this case makes it abundantly clear that the Board's
ID Policy violates the Establishment Clause. In making this
determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID
is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID
cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious,
This statement, particularly the reference to the role of science, ought to go down in history as one of the great legal summations.
I'm celebrating today. But there's a long way to go. More on the backlash soon...
Me polluting the airwaves
18 DEC 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
I was on the radio last week talking about the effects of technology on medicine. It was an informal chat more than an interview. I enjoyed it a lot. You may not learn a lot from it, but we had fun. It's available on podcast here for now.
This will give you some idea of the tone of the show.
774 ABC promotes untested drugs in early pregnancy
06 DEC 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
I was driving to work this afternoon when I heard Lindy Burns of the Drive Program on 774 ABC get on board the story of the 48-year old Melbourne woman who has just become pregnant without IVF.
This is an interesting story. But Lindy Burns did not interview the woman...no, she interviewed the "doctor" who had prescribed the "natural herbal" remedy that had lead to this amazing success. To be fair, Lindy did ask a few investigative questions, like what her qualification was. It turns out that "Doctor" Antonia Ruhl has a PhD in "paranormal science." And Lindy did go on to interview Gab Kovacs, one of Australia's leading fertility specialists, who managed by some miracle to contain himself and merely ask Ms Ruhl to participate in a randomised control trial to test her claims.
But it wasn't good enough. For nearly ten minutes, Lindy allowed Ms Ruhl to prattle on making claims that were scientifically absurd. Responsible journalism does not involve giving more air time to fringe lunatics than genuine experts, nor does it involve letting ludicruous claims go unchallenged. Ruhl claimed to have a 100% success rate in treating infertility within 12 months, including in women with "blocked" Fallopian tubes. (Maybe it was 24 months. I can't recall exactly and I couldn't find a transcript.) This was just one of many claims that Burns let through and sometimes even cooed along to.
So you can judge for yourself, here are a few of the health claims that Ms Ruhl makes on her website:
The amino acid "absensic" is "an anti cancer agent" and "asparfic acid" gives "energy".
The "only difference" between cholorophyll and haemoglobin is the metal atom at the centre of the molecule.
The "high enzyme content" of wheatgrass "helps dissolve tumours."
"Quantum physics has clearly demonstrated that the building block of life as we know it is not a physical particle but a quantum of energy. This includes humans."
"Recent research has discovered that acid is a cause of obesity. Fat is actually an over acidification problem. What does that mean: The body creates fat cells to carry acids away from your vital organs, so these acids don't literally choke your organs to death. Fat is saving your life! Fat is actually a response from the body to an alarming over acidic condition. The solution? Alkalize and Energize."
Her website doesn't just list testimonials (one of the cardinal signs of pseudoscience), it actively solicits them. "We would prefer testimonials created in MS word format and photos as JPG sent as an attachment."
Now I have a question for Lindy Burns. In what parallel universe is it acceptable to give this shonk ten minutes of virtually uninterrupted advertising? On publicly-funded radio? It's not enough to give "balance" at the end, in a homeopathic dose. This program will generate a surge of interest for Ms Ruhl among people desperate for a pregnancy. Nothing Gab Kovacs said afterwards was going to make any difference to that.
Lindy Burns has given Ruhl a massive promotional freebie, which will undoubtably lead to women taking untested herbs during early pregnancy, with unforeseeable consequences. Well done, Ms Burns.
My new favourite bumper sticker
05 DEC | source Frankenblog | permalink
I saw this on the back of a car today.
If you don't get it, try here.
If Michaelangelo had met Niels Bohr
4 DEC 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
Surely someone else has done this before, but I can't find any predecessors on Google Image.
More ID nonsense in The Age
29 NOV 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
The Age is one of Australia's oldest and most respected newspapers, but it is currently in the process of making a complete ass of itself.
They have now published their third pro-intelligent design opinion piece, this one by Professor Peter Coghlan. This in itself is not a problem. Intelligent Design, even though it is poor science and a front for Creationism, is an important public topic that needs to be debated and it is vital that major news services give voice to pro-ID writers.
But...The Age has allowed blatantly pro-ID pieces that contained errors, in one case serious errors of fact that were not corrected despite the editor being informed by several sources. The pro-ID piece mentioned above was published on November 23. Since then, there has been no counter-piece until today, November 29, when this appears in the letters page:
The advocates of intelligent design in or out of the science department have yet to show what is intelligent about the "design" of the universe that includes tsunamis, volcanoes, floods, etc.
That's it. Six days after Peter Coghlan's 1,000-word pro-ID essay, we get a 31-word response that has nothing to do with evolution.
Here is the letter I sent that was not published.
Professor Peter Coghlan may not understand why
Intelligent Design should not be taught in high school biology
classes. The answer is simple. Intelligent Design is not
As you can see, it was not inflammatory. I would not mind that this letter wasn't published except NO counter-opinions have been published in The Age beyond that irrelevant 31-word snippet. The story gets even more appalling if you read Ian Musgrave's letter that didn't published.
Last time I wrote in I was much less equanimous, but then the article I was responding to was far more irresponsible. I didn't expect to get it published, but I did expect the editor to issue some corrections. Of course, nothing came of it. The Age did print an anti-ID essay last time, but it was a broad generic piece that did not address the errors made. Those errors remain uncorrected two months later. So here is the previous letter that went unpublished, vitriol and all...
While The Age continues to refuse to publish corrections, it falls to the blogosphere to correct its editorial shortcomings. I wonder how long this behaviour will persist once Media Watch is back on air.
13 NOV 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
It has been a tumultous time at Frankenblog's Castle. Here, in a nutshell, is what is going on.
1. Not me, but my wife: muscle pain and weakness on a history of rheumatoid arthritis and angioedema.
2. Creatine kinase rising, indicating breakdown of muscle tissue. Peaks at just over 1000 U/L. Normal level <180 U/L.
3. What is going on? Is it new manifestation of rheumatoid disease? Is it adverse drug reaction? To find out, muscle biopsy.
4. Anaesthetist concerned about risk of malignant hyperthermia, a rare but deadly complication of general anaesthesia which is more common in those with known muscle disorders. So no general anaesthetic. Sedation and local only.
5. Muscle biopsy over. Wound seems bigger than anticipated. Learn afterwards that muscle biopsy is not just a few needle cores. No, they take two 4 cm strips of muscle and one 1cm cube from lateral thigh. Yowsers! Wife and I decide we were better off not knowing gruesome details beforehand.
6. Taken off medication that has been known to cause muscle breakdown in a previous case from the 1970s, who also had rheumatoid diseases. Start steroids for possible polymyositis.
7. Muscle biopsy results normal. Yay! But... polymyositis a patchy disease. Can have normal chunks of muscle, so biopsy can miss it. And medication that wife has stopped was very useful. On the other hand, polymyositis is no fun at all. Not sure which is worse. Polymyositis or adverse drug reaction. Think about it a little. Actually, polymyositis worse by far.
8. Response to steroids good, but not as good as one would hope given no longer taking suspect medication. May be polymyositis after all. Diagnosis still uncertain. May need MRI.
9. Two weeks later, pain from muscle biopsy still there, but at least able to walk for ten minutes without a break.
10. While this has been happening, house has been on the market. Given pain caused by Melbourne winters, we had already decided to head closer to equator. When recent problems arose, decided not to pull house off market as it would just mean starting all over again and mucking up plans. As a result, all of the above has been going on around house inspections. Joy!
11. House auctioned yesterday. Fair price. We're happy. Buyer is happy. Damn good house. Old bricks, built by man who then lived in it for fifty years. Has amazing parquetry floor in hall. The builder was a furniture maker for Myer way back when, purchased the timber pieces from his workplace. Every day he cycled home from factory in Footscray with a few more pieces in his bag and laid them down each night. Beautiful workmanship in the house. His children came to the auction yesterday and were even more delighted than we were when it was bought by a family rather than a developer.
12. Next step: find house on Sunshine Coast in good school zone. Then move after Christmas. Then find whole new cast of medical specialists to deal with variety of health problems. About two years ago, one of our doctors joked that my wife would make a good long case (i.e., a person with a complex medical history suitable to use in exams for medical students and trainee specialists). Now she would be too complex to be a good long case. Examinee wouldn't have time to get the story straight in an hour.
(12a. Researched risk of flooding in area we're looking at buying into. Learn that official Australian govt. definition of flooding is water where is it not wanted. Now you know.)
13. Try to write. Succeed in some ways. Fail in others. Submitted non-fiction to Borderlands called "Conspiracy theories are deadlier than conspiracies." Working on another piece for Ticonderoga called "Still evolving after all these years." Discuss with Bruce Gillespie about small press and why he can't afford to publish all he'd like to. Find out how much it costs for him to do an issue of his highly-regarded Metaphysical Review. Ye Gods! No wonder he doesn't print it often anymore.
14. Went to writer's critique week in October. Invitation only. Eight of us. Bunya Mountains beautiful. Extremely helpful week. Story I submit called "Screening Test" is set in the housing estates of modern-to-near-future Paris. Revolves around a pair of children living in family disarray who burn down part of their school, thereby setting off a tragic chain of events. About three weeks later, the real Paris estates erupt in violence. Real schools are torched. My reaction indefensible: Why couldn't this happen next year?
15. A lovely man has just been diagnosed with cancer. Feel awful for him and his family and for being slow on the uptake. Still waiting to hear if cancer is operable.
17. SciFiction has just been given the last rites by its publisher. High-quality fiction doesn't attract the hits to justify its existence. More space for media tie-ins and movie rumours. First Gardner Dozois. Now Ellen Datlow. Being a top-flight editor doesn't seem to count for much. Streams of award-winning fiction counts for even less. It's all about hits. Respect doesn't pay for bandwidth.
18. At last some good news: Margo Lanagan just won two (count 'em!) World Fantasy Awards. Best Short Story for "Singing My Sister Down" and Best Collection for Black Juice. She even stayed home to write rather than attend the convention and pick up her awards. That's professionalism, folks! Now where can I get me some of that?
30 OCT 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
Betty LaVette, I've Got My Own Hell to Raise
Warren Ellis, Chris Weston, Laura Martin, The Ministry of Space
Thanks to Ben Peek for tipping me off to Betty LaVette.
Two new stories
30 OCT 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
I have two new stories in the publication queue. The new Eidolon anthology is taking "Hieronymous Boche" and COSMOS has bought "Displaced Empathy" (although that title may change between now and publication). The bibliography will show any future updates.
More Undistinguished Science Medals
22 OCT 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
The British Medical Journal has reported on the findings of a study in the journal Maturitas that a herbal concoction called black cohosh is no better than placebo for treating menopausal symptoms. Unfortunately, I can't access the Maturitas paper itself as it is published on the web by Elsevier, which has a habit of charging US$30 per download, and I refuse to subject myself to shameless gouging unless George Lucas is involved.
What I find most interesting about this is that the BMJ story has already collected comments from two doctors trying to handwave away the finding with an array of appallingly na?ve arguments. The first letter, from a GP with an interest in complementary medicine, actually claims that the lack of statistical significance can be ignored because "I have certainly seen many patients benefit significantly from black cohosh preparations. Dosage might be important." The second letter, which (gulp!) comes from a professor of medicine, is a masterpiece of tortured logic and comes to the amazing conclusion that a modest percentage difference is obviously clinically significant even when it isn't statistically significant.
What makes the letters even more astounding is that these doctors have rushed to the defence of black cohosh -- a herb known to cause severe liver damage and other unpleasant symptoms (fortunately these reactions are rare) -- without either one of them having read the paper!
This sort of thing disgusts me. I don't mean to sound judgemental, but these doctors have betrayed the scientific foundations of medicine. I am not saying that women should not take black cohosh, but I would say that they should be informed of the facts so that they can make their own decisions.
On a more humorous note, I present to you a wonderful paper that will, I have little doubt, appear in the May We Recommend section of the Annals of Improbable Research...
"Genre analysis of tax computation letters: How and why tax accountants write the way they do," by John Flowerdew and Alina Wan. The authors report, "this study is a genre analysis which explores the specific discourse community of tax accountants." Enjoy!
Intelligent Design supports the Flying Spaghetti Monster
Imagine someone actually performing an experimental test of Intelligent Design. Despite decades of promise and millions of dollars and scores of fellowships, the Discovery Institute has failed to even design an experiment, let alone perform one. Fortunately, Thomas D. Schneider has now provided compelling experimental evidence for Intelligent Design...and controversially, it supports the existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
Schneider's lucid thinking is best demonstrated in his devastating conclusion: "Although it is considered unethical to destroy incipient life-forms, thereby causing them to go extinct, the experimenter was hungry so he ate them anyway."
Proof of Intelligent Design, al dente.
1 OCT 2005 | source Frankenblog | permalink
I've just discovered the joys of podcasting. I like iPodder. I really like Coverville, a wonderful podcasting site that specialises in cover versions. There I came across a live cover of Britney Spear's "...Baby One More Time" by Scottish alt-pop band Travis. Poor Britney. In the first chorus, you can hear the audience laughing. By the second chorus, you can hear the band members laughing. By the third chorus, lead singer Fran Healey is so close to corpsing that he struggles to stay on pitch. Coverville is a treasure trove of famous covers, obscure covers, and the occasional original thrown in for flavour.