John Walker's Electronic House

Rants

International Institutionalised Lying Day

by on Apr.01, 2009, under Rants

Oh good, it’s International Institutionalised Lying Day.

I loathe this ridiculous day. A day on which you can’t trust anything you read, hear or are told. What a brilliant plan it is – trusted sources of information becoming deliberately unreliable. So anything you hear on the radio, watch on TV, or read today on the BBC News site, Wikipedia front page, or whichever newspaper you pick up, is to be treated with suspicion.

The largest problem being, all these sources of news information cannot dedicate their output to half-arsed jokes. The world continues exploding, shooting at itself, and throwing all its money out a window. The inclusion of deliberate lies amongst the carnage is a knob joke at a funeral.

(continue reading…)

16 Comments more...

Broken Sword: Director’s Cut, And Me

by on Mar.20, 2009, under Rants

I find myself in the completely new position of reading reviews of a videogame from the other side of the wall. Broken Sword: Shadow Of The Templars The Director’s Cut, a new version of Charles Cecil’s most famous adventure game, is now out on DS and Wii, with a chunk of brand new content, a smattering of new puzzles, and a new diary and hint system. I think it’s rather good. This thought is encouraged by my having written bits for it.

I’ve always loved the Broken Sword games, playing the first two multiple times in my teenage years, and reviewing the third – a game I adored – for PC Gamer. Broken Sword IV I also reviewed… But that aside, it’s a great gaming series, and certainly the best British adventure series there’s been. George, a American lawyer, and Nico, a French photo-journalist, pair up in escapades linked to Templar myths, modern day conspiracies, and the only decent will-they-won’t-they running story in gaming history.

(continue reading…)

22 Comments more...

Guest Host Syndrome

by on Mar.10, 2009, under Rants

There’s a question that affects all our viewing lives, and yet no one gives it the attention it desperately deserves. Why is the BBC so absolutely incapable of picking new hosts for its TV and radio programmes? Since 2002, when Angus Deayton’s penchant for privately hired ladyfriends saw him fired from Have I Got News For You, the network has become riddled with this Guest Host Syndrome, rendering them incapable of making a single decision.

The most recent example comes with the announcement that the Beeb won’t let elderly, painfully infirm I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue die with any of the dignity it might have left. Instead it’s to be wired up to wheezing pumps and machines, forcing its feeble organs to keep huffing and puffing through painstakingly scripted gags, into some unspecified future. It’s presenter, Humphrey Littleton, sadly died last year, but this is apparently not recognised as a graceful opportunity to move on. So who is to replace the enormously loved Humph? Naturally, a rotating roster of guest hosts.

(continue reading…)

21 Comments more...

From Kindle To Kindling

by on Mar.04, 2009, under Rants

You know when you read that bedtime story to your kids, your niece or nephew, or maybe that last time you were babysitting? You were violating the copyright agreement of the book, you disgusting criminal. Please hand yourself in immediately to the nearest police station, and you’d better be very, very sorry. As Amazon US has recently learned, reading books out loud without the publisher’s permission is the most heinous of crimes, tantamount to going to the author’s house and shitting in his goldfish bowl.

Of course all sorts of hundreds of years old industries are running around in increasingly frantic circles, alternately pulling at their hair and letting out terrified sobs, as various electronic tools start to render them irrelevant. The music industry is suing every grandmother, child and pet kitten it can find, trying to frighten everyone out of the evil act of sharing. The film industry repeatedly assures us that watching a pirated DVD is directly funding child molesting terrorists. And now the Author’s Guild is claiming that Amazon’s latest gadget, the Kindle 2, is driving writers to bankruptcy by its ability to read the books aloud in a little computer voice.

(continue reading…)

7 Comments more...

Social Websites Harm Scientists Brains – Update

by on Feb.25, 2009, under Rants

While I realise screaming at outright lies and dangerous stupidity on the front page of the Daily Mail is much like screaming that you don’t like lava into a volcano, there are days when you’ve no choice. Today’s headline, “Social websites harm children’s brains: Chilling warning to parents from top neuroscientist” is beyond ridiculous.

Following on from the embarrassing fiasco of publishing the completely unfounded and nonsensical claims printed last week, where they claimed that Facebook et al would give you cancer, now social networking is damaging our brains. And on what evidence is this based?

None.

This is what is most extraordinary. There’s not even a spurious study, a misunderstood academic paper, or even a suspected case. All there is are the thoughts, whimsy and suspicions of one Susan Greenfield. Greenfield obsesses on this subject, but boasts she does not have the data to demonstrate it.

Her claims “will make disturbing reading for the millions whose social lives depend on logging on to their favourite websites each day” say the Daily Mail. Well, let’s take a look at this damning evidence that merits a front page, and a deliberate attempt to frighten parents.

(continue reading…)

20 Comments more...

How Using Facebook Could Raise Your Risk Of Making Friends

by on Feb.20, 2009, under Rants

It is with serendipitous timing that I was recently having a discussion with friends about whether online communication has any effect on face-to-face interaction. It seems to be a received wisdom that people who spend time online are therefore spending less time in the physical company of other humans. But this is something that has never sat right with me. Because it seems to me that if anything has changed in the last fifteen years, it’s been a massive increase in the amount of communication we all conduct. And while this is only a guess, based on my experience and knowledge, it seems to me that communication leads to interacting with people.

This came to a head today with the Daily Mail’s phenomenally silly headline, “How using Facebook could raise your risk of cancer“. Of course, the Daily Mail suggests that anything and everything might send our cells mutating willy nilly, possibly dragging down the value of our houses along the way. Hopefully Facebook will be suing Dacre and the Mail into a black hole over this astonishingly stupid reporting. Especially since the article the piece was based on never mentions Facebook, let alone Facebook-like sites specifically. However, the article does make the claim that online communication decreases offline communication, and this, he suggests, in turn leads to a lower quality of life and an increased risk of morbidity. It’s quite a trip from using Facebook to cancer. And it’s a trip that the Aric Sigman’s paper doesn’t manage to cite.

(continue reading…)

7 Comments more...

Barnett Attempts To Spin

by on Feb.12, 2009, under Rants

It appears I’m considerably naive. One outcome I was expecting from the Goldacre vs. Barnett incident was, at some point, an act of contrition on the part of Barnett. Not because I think she is honourable – she has made it very clear through her actions that she is not – but because I really thought she would eventually snap under the weight of the attention the debacle has generated. By the time her name was being mentioned in parliament as a consequence of her dangerous actions, I thought she might buckle. Instead, she’s having her agent try and spin the events in her favour.

An Early Day Motion, currently gathering signatures, contained the line,

“expresses its disappointment that ill-informed comments by presenters such as Jeni Barnett on her LBC radio show will continue to cause unfounded anxieties for many parents and are likely to result in some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children”

By now Barnett must surely have noticed that her attempts to delete the posts from her blog were futile. They’re available elsewhere in full, with comments, for everyone to enjoy. But apparently this isn’t enough to have stopped her attempts to spin the situation.

Remarkably, her agent is telling some porkies to the press, claiming her reason for removing the reader contributions from her site was because there were, “hundreds of extremely personal and abusive comments”. In a story published on Journalism.co.uk, agent Robert Common declares that poor Jeni is an innocent victim, presumably hoping no one will visit the original posts and read the comments themselves, as this might slightly detract from his claims.

Of course, Barnett filters her comments, so there is the possibility that she was receiving others that were abusive, and not posting them, and the volume of these may have been more than she was prepared to put up with. That would make for a semi-reasonable reason to prevent further comments being posted to those two articles. However she chose not to do that, but instead to delete all the comments, and then prevent further posting. A very strange decision indeed. The next day she completely deleted both posts from her site. Since commenting on them was impossible (to the point where it would not let you even submit), it’s hard to see why she would need to remove the polite, intelligent debate from her site, let alone remove her own remarks. Unless, as I so naively thought, she had become embarrassed by the bilge she had written. Clearly not.

LBC are claiming that Barnett is also receiving personally abusive email at their station. Barnett does not make her personal email address available, so this can only be to her work address, which I’d bet a fair amount is read by her producer/assistants. Even so, it would be enormously disappointing if those asking her to stop spreading myths, that directly lead to the deaths of children, were personally attacking her. From my experience of the debate over the years, it has tended to be the hysterical anti-MMR brigade who have the greater trouble with manners. As has been the case here, of course, with Barnett publicly abusing polite and informed callers to her show, insulting them on air, and then further insulting them on her blog. (Perhaps this is another reason why she removed them? To hide her indefensible comments?)

The spin from her agent was given space after Goldacre had, reasonably, posted to his own site to discourage people from being unpleasant to Barnett. Despite Goldacre making it clear that both Barnett, and the LBC programme director, Jonathan Richards, had behaved very poorly throughout, Barnett’s agent chose to quote Goldacre’s apologising for any unpleasantness that’s appeared. He didn’t find room to quote when Goldacre added that Richards’ communications were “rather intemperate and unkindly written,” or that Barnett had been, “deeply unpleasant to and about individual people with less money and voice than herself.”

At the same time, LBC are being quite confusingly stupid about it all. Rather than putting their hands up and offering to present the other side of the debate fairly, or apologising for the misinformation, they appear to be digging their heels in. Throwing lawyers around, shouting down the phone at Goldacre, and apparently showing no regard for balanced journalism, what was once a wonderful radio station is now a corporate machine. It’s another sad fact to emerge from the debacle.

So Jeni Barnett is attempting to play the wounded deer, with the mean nasty scientist types reversing up for another strike. I don’t support or endorse anyone sending her abusive emails. I also doubt very much she’s had many, especially when her agent deliberately attempted to suggest that the comments on her blog were equally offensive, when the reality is there for everyone to see and read.

It’s very important that the vast majority of intelligent people who are rationally and critically aware that the MMR causes no demonstrable harm do not get portrayed as the cruel bullies. Especially when the person at the centre of it all was both cruel and bullying to callers to her show who dared to disagree with her motherly instincts. Especially when the likes of the prize fruitcake Melanie Phillips are writing dangerous nonsense like this. MMR is serious business, and the Barnetts and the Phillipses are doing measurable harm. The fight against that can’t be overturned by spinning the perpetrators as victims. These are people directly responsible for the endangering of children, with recorded cases of brain damage and death due to their actions. It’s deadly serious. It’s not about a rich lady on the radio getting called an idiot in an email.

P.S. For another example of Jonathan Richard’s astonishing manners, have a look at this. (The station has since replaced the stolen images on their site.)

Comments Off on Barnett Attempts To Spin more...

Goldacre Vs Barnett, Why The Internet Will Get You

by on Feb.10, 2009, under Rants

On 3rd Feb, Ben Goldacre posted to his Bad Science blog to report the most extraordinary radio broadcast from former TVAM star, Jeni Barnett. During her LBC show, she had spent 45 minutes campaigning against the MMR vaccine, shouting down any who disagreed with her, and perpetuating the lie that there were any connections between the MMR and any long-term disorders such as autism.

The piece of radio was remarkable not simply because it was yet another idiot spreading this dangerous lie, but because Barnett managed to involve every piece of pseudo-science, every misconception, every fallacy, every woo-woo belief, and all the while rejecting any other information presented to her. It was, as Goldacre observed, a textbook piece of bad thinking, and exemplary for those wishing to understand what rational science is competing with.

Barnett responded on her blog to the attention she garnered. (No link, as explained later). She posted remarkable doublethink statements, such as:

“I am not a scientist, I would not claim to be a scientist. When tested on the contents of the MMR vaccine I told the truth. I did not have the facts to hand. Was I ill informed? Yes.As a responsible broadcaster I should have been better prepared as a parent, however, I can fight my corner. I don’t know everything that goes into cigarettes but I do know they are harmful.”

The nonsense deepened as she continued, with peculiar cries of,

“Injecting tiny babies with substances that may compromise their immune system needs to be looked at not shouted down.”

Something with which I’m sure no one disagrees. Of course, MMR doesn’t fit into this category, since it enhances their immune systems, but I think we can all get on board with Jeni’s campaign to stop people injecting these especially small babies with botulism or lead paint. She then declared that her critics wouldn’t be able to present a three hour radio programme, and finished with what proves to have been quite a prescient claim:

“Should anybody from BAD SCIENCE read this I urge you to continue the debate, and if it gets too heated there is always the option of turning me off.”

Meanwhile, LBC’s lawyers contacted Goldacre, telling him to remove the segment of the radio programme from his blog, or they would take legal action. This is, of course, standard procedure for copyright enforcement. You simply cannot post long sections of radio programming without the broadcaster’s permission, even though it was beamed through the airwaves into people’s radios for free, and would be very unlikely to be something LBC could use to make more money. (I’ve a sneaking suspicion it won’t be appearing on many ‘Best Of’ segments.) Goldacre posted about that here, along with many more updates regarding the story.

The comments thread on Barnett’s site filled quickly. It was a mixture of three groups. There were the rational scientists, explaining why she was incorrect, and why her claims were so dangerous. Then there were the angries, who posted to say she was a moron. And there were the anti-MMR brigade, mobilised from their mysterious headquarters, to post links to the websites of the usual suspects. These included the tragic stories of poor parents whose children have autism, and for whom the MMR lie has taken over their lives, leaving their grief and rage misdirected, mostly on themselves. To Barnett’s temporary credit, she allowed all manner of comments through her moderation process, with the weight heavily against her.

This led her to post again, and very sadly, rejecting all the polite and carefully expressed information she had been offered. She wrote in a post titled “Bad Scientists”,

“I thank those of you who have sent me information about sites that may be of use to me.

I thank the Bad Scientist for being just that. Sarcasm doesn’t shift peoples opinions. Making another person feel small because they don’t have a Bad Science degree and then nit-picking over semantics is not the answer either. I care about humanity my way, and you Bad Scientist yours.

To all of you Bad scientists, who are SO angry with me, good luck with your research. Should you fall ill I will attend you as best I can with my motherly love. Should I fall ill, as a non paid up member of your club, will you administer to me? And should I refuse your drugs then what?”

The final paragraph is the most remarkable. That she would reject everything in favour of the bullshit links she received to John Stone and Andrew Wakefield’s misinformation is not too surprising, especially after she had previously stated that she didn’t care if she was wrong, she was going to believe it anyway. But to imply that those with qualifications (something that, pleasingly enough, disqualifies them from having a perspective in Jeni’s world) would leave her to die because they disagreed was incredible. And then the last sentence… huh? Then you’d die by your own choice, you peculiar person.

Meanwhile, the internet began doing what it does best. Not letting things go away. The phenomenon known as The Streisand Effect kicked in, where an attempt to silence something makes it an awful lot louder. When Goldacre could no longer host the LBC segment, he suggested that maybe it could be divided into “fair dealing” chunks on a series of blogs, which he could coordinate on his site. He believed the clip was too valuable to lose. Of course, the internet is more efficient than this, and within minutes the full 45 minutes was hosted in a number of places. You can hear it at Wikileaks when their servers can carry the load (you can also make a donation to them to help keep their servers going). And don’t tell anyone, but it’s also here. And the transcripts are coordinated here.

Not letting awkward things go away is one way in which the internet leaps into action. Another, of course, is spreading the information. Goldacre has a popular following, writing a regular column for the Guardian, and articles exposing a-medical nonsense in various newspapers. But his blog-based following is generally restricted to those already on his side. The story was picked up by bloggers and written about all over the world. And thanks to the recent explosion in the popularity of Twitter, the tweeting was cacophonous. Then the great grandfather of Twittering mentioned it, Stephen Fry. It’s been re-tweeted a kerbillion times, and Goldacre’s site is creaking under the pressure (fortunately it’s hosted by Positive Internet, and they will be working hard behind the scenes to keep it going).

The noise was loud enough for even The Times to pick up the story, David Aaronovitch writing a good summary of the events. I would imagine that today, post Fry-tweet, it will be further reported.

Jeni Barnett, meanwhile, has made the most astonishing choice. Yesterday the 200+ comments across both posts mysteriously vanished. Then this morning, both the posts went too. Her site has removed the incident entirely. Quite what she hopes to achieve by this is unclear, but presumably she’s under a great deal of attention, and she’s not having much fun. From reading previous entries on her blog, Barnett is obviously a very emotional and insecure person (I say this as no slight – this seems to be the most recurring theme in what she writes about) and she must be having an extraordinarily hard time. However, if she thinks deleting her own references to her vociferous attempt to prevent children receiving vital vaccinations will help, she doesn’t know the internet at all well. Both posts, and all the comments, are here. For those of us taking part in the discussion in her comments starting a few days ago, her deleting them is remarkably unpleasant. While the first post received a great deal of offensive nonsense, the second, “Bad Scientists”, contained a wealth of intelligent, polite individuals writing sensibly and helpfully. Her deletion of it was fairly grotesque. Unfortunately for Barnett, nothing gets deleted on the internet.

At the same time as all this unfolded, with remarkable timing, a series of stories regarding the MMR scandal appeared. The first was the news that thanks to the drop in MMR vaccinations, the herd immunity in this country had been lost, and measles cases are rising at a terrifying rate. 2008 saw a 36% increase on 2007, as was revealed on Friday. A disease that was almost eradicated in the late 90s is now killing children again, because of people refusing to take the perfectly safe vaccination, all thanks to one despicable man, Andrew Wakefield.

There’s no point in reproducing the Wakefield story here, but this is absolutely essential reading to not only catch up on exactly how Wakefield single-handedly caused the deadly scare, but also the extraordinary depths to which it is alleged he falsified the data. Of the twelve children followed in his study, The Times demonstrated that some were diagnosed with autism before receiving the MMR, and others have never been diagnosed with autism, nor indeed did they ever manifest the bowel disorders Wakefield claimed was the cause. What this story doesn’t repeat, however, are the revelations from two years ago that Wakefield was paid over £400,000, that he failed to declare in his study, by the lawyers trying to build a case linking MMR to autism. It is mind-boggling.

This is why Barnett’s mistake was so huge. Finally, after a decade of this hideous man’s work having somehow dominated, despite dozens and dozens of further studies failing to reproduce the results, and the MMR being repeatedly proven safe, the tide in the media is beginning to turn. Newspapers that perpetuated the myth are beginning to report the truth. This hopefully means, along with the recent revelations as to the depths of Wakefield’s malpractice, the tide might begin to turn.

(PS. Nothing to do with the above, but another example of when the internet won’t let someone undo history is here, and it’s a fun one.)

Comments Off on Goldacre Vs Barnett, Why The Internet Will Get You more...

US Election Experiences – Part 3 – Prop 8

by on Nov.11, 2008, under Rants

So there’s a final part to the US election results that needs to be added. It’s the wretched, miserable part, but it cannot be ignored. It’s the spiteful pill dropped in the water. California’s Proposition 8.

It made what should have been a jubilant Wednesday into a bitter tasting victory. Obama, a man many hold up as representing hope (and indeed is already delivering on it, with plans to end the human rights abuse of Guantanamo Bay, and reversing Bush’s plans for devastating oil drilling and his prevention of stem cell research), never said anything against Prop 8 in the time he campaigned, rather prevaricating and embarrassingly avoiding an issue he knew would lose him votes.

Somehow the people of the defiantly Democrat California voted in favour of this most hate-driven bill.

It just doesn’t make any sense. I can attempt to understand the reasons why people say they are against homosexuality (although that sounds as mad as being against weather). I get that this is born of the fear of otherness. I get that people are infected by religion that tells them to hate certain people. I get that people are terrified of their own sexuality, and want to destroy the subject. I cannot sympathise with any of these people, but I recognise that they think these things. But I just cannot comprehend how anyone can take issue with two people getting married.

It’s such an aimless hate. Generally people will pick on promiscuity when they want to pronounce what’s wrong with gay people (while seeming oddly quiet on the same subject applied to heterosexuals). Faced with a couple who want to commit to one another for life, who are in love and want their partnership to be recognised, how does this hate not at least dampen? And how – just how – does gay marriage translate in people’s minds to be in some way “harming” marriage itself?

This is what’s so utterly moronic about the whole thing. They are not only campaigning to prevent same-sex marriage, but with such an astonishing volume of bilious hate have passed a bill that could legally divorce all those who were previously married, because they claim that it was in some way endangering marriage itself.

And it’s such a stupid, stupid lie. One marriage doesn’t change another! If I should ever get married, it will likely be to a Christian, and we will declare our love before God and the church, and our faith will be the reason behind that marriage. I cannot understand how any marriage, from two drunken strangers getting married in a drive-thru in Vegas, to a loving gay or straight couple publicly declaring their commitment in the next town, can in any way do harm to my (currently imaginary) relationship. Because it obviously can’t. It’s sheer, bleeding-eyed madness to suggest otherwise.

So a couple in love who want to spend their lives together, in a recognised commitment, whether before God or themselves, who are the same sex – how on Earth could that change anything? You know how it can change it? I reinforces it. It recognises the sanctity of marriage, and celebrates it. It nurtures the concept of marriage.

I felt hope when Obama won. Not because I believe he can change the world – in fact I fear he will be remembered as one of the most vilified and loathed presidents, as the actions of the Republicans bear their fruit throughout his term/s and a stupid majority level him with the blame – but because people made the choice that I believe was most right. America proved everyone wrong when it was said they weren’t ready to elect a black man. That gave me more hope in people. It was a hope so quickly undone when Prop 8 was officially declared as passed. Where I’d felt pride before, it was replaced by disgust. That Prop 8 was ever proposed generates a great deal of horror. The idea that a minority of people were so spiteful as to try and dissolve marriages of loving couples because of their own, private prejudices, was depressing and painful. That a majority – that more people were in favour of this than against it – look, I’m an optimist. I get teased for my faith in humanity by my friends. It took one hell of a blow on Wednesday. Just what? What? Is this where we are as a people?

People voted against love. That’s fucked up. We’re in a terrible, terrible place.

As I started writing this, I saw Olbermann has commented on the subject, and captures the hurt this hate has created. He too seems just bewildered, hurt and disgusted by this most awful of results.

.

A friend of a friend also makes some wise and passionate remarks about it here and here.

Comments Off on US Election Experiences – Part 3 – Prop 8 more...

A Very Long Story About Thursday And Friday

by on Sep.09, 2008, under Rants

Thursday night wasn’t good to me. I’d been remarkably lucky on Wednesday, flying to Seattle, going straight into the developer’s offices after getting off the plane, then wandering the town finding somewhere to eat, and heading to bed by 10.30pm (6.30am in my head). The likelihood of the first night in America is waking up around 5am, because your brain, as tired as it might be, is certain it’s 1pm and it’s ludicrous that you’re still in bed. Wednesday night/Thursday morning I woke up at 3.30am and was a bit disappointed. Then fell back asleep until my alarm woke me up at 8.30. Amazing – 10 hours sleep.

So Thursday was spent in the offices, followed by dinner with a few lovely people who worked there, and then back to my hotel. I had a lot to write before my flight home, leaving from the hotel at 4pm Friday. 4000 words needed to be written, and I had figured I’d do some Thursday night, and as much as possible on Friday. But getting back to the hotel Thursday evening, I was already exhausted, and went to bed at 10.30pm again. I set my alarm nice and early so Friday could be all work, and fell asleep by about 11. And then woke up at 1.30am. I rolled back over to go to sleep, but that didn’t happen.

(continue reading…)

Comments Off on A Very Long Story About Thursday And Friday more...