Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Chemtrail Conspiracy

I was idly browsing the web when I happened upon the Truth Movement Australia website. It turns out that this is a website dedicated to finding out the "truth" about things like 9/11, the Bali bombings, reptilians and the New World Order.

I ended up having a look at one thread in particular, which claimed to have interesting proof about chemtrails being used by the U.S. Government.

For those of you who haven't heard of it before, the chemtrail conspiracy goes something like this; the government (or governments, or new world order, or whoever you fancy as your particular institution with a secret plan to dominate the world) uses aircraft to dump large quantities of poisonous gases into the air above population centers, in order to make people ill (or sterile, or whatever particular condition is in vogue).

There are some issues with this hypothesis which I will attempt to demonstrate.

Firstly, let's assume that the Government was trying to do something nefarious to us without us knowing about it. It would be much much simpler to dump chemicals straight into the water supply than it would be to put them into aerosol form and spray them from an airplane.

You aren't limited to spraying only when flights are scheduled. You don't have to bribe every single engineer designing, repairing or maintaining the aircraft to install or ignore the aerosol compartment. You don't have to bribe the pilots. You don't have to bribe the CEOs and staff of every single aircraft company. You also don't have to bribe all the other engineers, pilots and executives in the world who aren't in on your ploy so they don't point out that your planes aren't carrying as much fuel as they should be, given their size and lift coefficients. You have to make sure that planes that aren't carrying the extra payload of chemicals aren't out-performing your planes, meaning they can fly cheaper and charge much less for the same trip. The number of people you have to bribe to keep quiet goes on forever.

The other reason chemicals directly put into the water supply is easier is because the chemicals are much more likely to be absorbed by the population in larger doses. By the time chemicals float down to ground level (if they aren't caught up by atmospheric wind currents), they have dispersed and diluted to the point where they would almost be negligible.

Yet another reason it doesn't make sense for Governments to spray chemicals in the air is that they breathe the same air too. Unless I start to see Government officials running around with gas masks on, I'm not worried.

Or maybe, just maybe, contrails could just be the condensation of water vapour suspended in atmosphere when it comes into contact with the much warmer plane being affected by wind currents.



Monday, February 21, 2011

Book Review - 59 Seconds

If you've ever wondered whether the zillion other self help books out there know what they're talking about (after all, how many of them actually refer to any scientific studies to prove what they claim) then you can now stop wondering and use all the other self help books you've ever bought as footrests in your living room, because 59 Seconds, by Richard Wiseman, may be the only self help book you ever need.

All hyperbole aside, the book was an easy read and provides detailed evidence for what does and does not work when it comes to trying to improve your life, whether that means being fitter, more creative, getting that new job, fixing your love life or just being happy. The various psychological experiments described in the book, from which these conclusions have been drawn, are fascinating and humorously related, to the point where I would still consider the book well worth reading even if they were all it contained. But they're not. After the book is done, you get to walk away with things you can immediately start applying. Best of all, it doesn't involve lengthy courses and therapy. Richard Wiseman shows here that all you need is 59 seconds of your time to help change your life.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011

AVN Accuses SAVN of Opposing Free Choice

Here's an older draft post I've found again and decided to put up, regarding the AVN:

For those of you who haven't heard of them, the Australian Vaccination Network (or AVN) is an organisation devoted to preventing children (and indeed anyone) from being vaccinated.

They maintain they are pro-choice and that they merely wish people to be given the full story on vaccinations and their dangers. The dangers of which they speak are autism and other conditions that appear in children around the age of early vaccinations. This is supposedly caused by the dangerous levels of mercury in the vaccines.

I could go into the reasons this is codswallop, and perhaps at some point I will. But not here, not right now. It's all been said over and over.*

The Stop the AVN (or SAVN) group has been tirelessly posting on the AVN site's pages, forums and facebook page to name just a few places in order to make sure parents realise just how misinformed the AVN really is.

Parents are understandably concerned about their children's health and to take advantage of these fears by peddling nonsense, citing falsified or dishonestly presented statistics and papers on vaccinations is truly something only a callous individual would do.

I don't doubt that many members of the AVN truly believe that vaccines are dangerous. That they can believe this despite all the evidence to the contrary does surprise and sadden me, but that does not mean that they should be allowed to spread misinformation and unfounded fears simply because they are not aware they are wrong.

The media often attempts to have balance in their reporting of issues, which, while seeming fair, often means that a fake balance is being presented to unsuspecting viewers. We do not expect to have an astrologer give an alternative opinion on what is happening in the cosmos, nor do we expect to have a neo-nazi holocaust denier have his opinion given equal weight when discussing the events of World War II. This same attitude should be carried towards the AVN and other anti-vaccination groups. They should be given a voice equal to the weight of their evidence. That is to say, at present, inconsequential weight.

Since I wrote up the above, the AVN has thankfully fallen into some public disrepute, with various radio announcers and interviewers calling the AVN out for the dangerous, lying, fear-mongerers that they are.

Sadly, that doesn't mean that the AVN has stopped, or renounced its scientifically unsubstantiated ways, but that they've merely crying victim more loudly to their followers and to anyone who'll listen. Thanfully the list of people who will listen is getting shorter and here's hoping that one day, ideally soon, the AVN will be a mere annotation in the textbooks of history, warning of the dangers of being belligrantly ignorant.


* First two points. Autism just happens to manifest itself in children starting from the same age as their first vaccinations. Remember, correlation is not causation. Secondly, Autism rates did not go decrease when Thimerisol, which isn't even the element Mercury, was removed from vaccines.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review - Confession of an Unrepentant Lesbian Ex-Mormon

I rarely heard of Mormons while I was growing up. I remember reading a book by Orson Scott Card, reading the word Mormon and assuming it meant a black person, because it sounded like Moor. I was 11 or so at the time. It was only later that I came to learn it was a religion, but I knew very little other than the fact that it was another offshoot of Christianity, with perhaps more than its share of qookiness.

When I travelled through the United States less than two years ago, I had the opportunity to learn a lot about the history of the Mormons, or Latter Day Saints (or the many other variations of the name). Not just the founding mythos, but the actual subset of US history relating to the Mormons' travel to Utah and their relationship with the rest of the Union. It was very interesting.

So when I saw Sue-Ann Post perform at a dinner in Sydney, and then subsequently promoted her book, Confession of an Unrepentant Lesbian Ex-Mormon, relating her experiences as a child in the Mormon church and then her subsequent journey to agnostic atheist, I wanted to have a read. She'd run out of copies that night, but gave me her card, so that I could order a copy through her agent. I did so, and the copy arrived, signed by Sue-Ann herself. (Anyone else signing it would have been strange and unexpected).

Being caught up with many things, it took me a while to get around to reading it, though it was prominently placed on my reading table. Eventually, I carved out a little time and set about reading. I found it engrossing. The book, of course, relates her experience when she was invited to perform her comedy routine in the heart of Mormon territory, Utah, at a conference for gay and excommunicated Mormons. As part of this, Sue-Ann reflects on her past in the Church, her journey away from it as she realised she was a lesbian, and then furthermore, an atheist (agnostic) lesbian. Her story is told honestly, almost brutally so in a way that pulls no punches towards the Mormon Church, but at the same time gives credit where credit is due.

I very much enjoyed reading the book, because as well as being well written, informative and entertaining it reminded me of several things. Very few things are ever as simple as 'Everything an institution does is good' or 'Everything an institution does is bad'. The pressures keeping people dependant on a particular faith and social group can be immense and are often unrecognised both by people on the outside, but also by the adherents themselves. Finally, whilst some things can scar someone for the rest of their lives, that doesn't mean they can't still strive for a better life despite it, and succeed.

After reading the book, I found myself with a more informed and rounded view of the Mormon Church (which is after all no stranger than any other religion, except perhaps Scientology) and a better appreciation for some of the hardships faced by those true believers who, thanks to their curiousity and quest for answers, find themselves becoming atheists, with no one else around to support them when much of what they thought was true and based their lives on, turns out to be false.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Book Review - Moments in Science #3

Moments in Science #3, or 'Munching Maggots, Noah's Flood & TV Heart Attacks', by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki collects in one place some of the odder or less well known facts discovered by science; like whether running in the rain is better than walking if you want to stay dry, or how maggots can help us fight disease. The book also clears up some persistent myths about astrology, and whether CPR will help you once your heart flatlines, like it does in Hollywood movies. There are also musings on space travel, information about why brocoli is good for you and just about everything you could ever want to know about coffee. (And that last part isn't even hyperbole). The book is as entertaining as it is informative, which means plentiful helpings of both.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review - Dis Information

In Dis Information, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki dispels many of the myths that are held as common knowledge. Has Hollywood taught you that bodies explode in a vacuum, that bodies get thrown back by a bullet's impact, or that the Titanic ran into an iceberg because its captain was trying to break a record? Then you've been misled, and Dr Karl can set you straight. Have you ever wondered why cats purr or whether you really shouldn't drink alcohol while you're on antibiotics? Dr Karl not only knows the answers to those questions but will share them with you, along with the answers to quite a few other questions you've never thought to ask, and the real facts behind myths you've never thought to question.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Gorilla Walking on Two Legs

A video of my great-grandad's cousin on my mother's side walking around on two legs.

Isn't he awesome?

Showing off, as usual, of course.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book Review - Living Dolls

Living Dolls: The Return of Sexism is a fascinating read revealing that, despite the many advances feminism has helped women achieve, there still exists, lurking behind the facade of female sexual empowerment, the very real presence of sexism.

Natasha Walter makes the case that some women may be unknowingly stepping women's equality back a pace or two by overly buying into the narrow stereotypes being presented to them by men and, sadly, by other women as well.

I very much enjoyed the book. Full of personal anecdotes and interviews with various women in all situations, the book doesn't take the holier-than-thou attitude I'm always afraid of encountering whenever I read on the subject of feminism. Instead, Natasha shows that society is, whether consciously or not, pressuring women and men both to conform to some sort of impossible and more dangerously, a restricting ideal, rather than being free to be or do whatever they can be.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Book Review - When God Speaks for Himself

When God Speaks for Himself, by Mark Tier and George Forrai, is a compilation of passages from the bible that contradict one another, or don't make sense, or are plain disgusting and immoral, and yet are the word and commands of God. The idea behind the book is a good one. Many adherents of Christianity haven't read the bible at all, and those who have have often read only portions or been read portions of the bible by their reverend or priest or pastor. Often, too often, these chosen passages from the bible are the nice ones, the ones that fit into the 'God is just a really nice, laid back guy' idea that most people start off with. Obviously any god they follow, being decent people themselves, would also have to worthy of their admiration. So this book aims to remind people of all the horrific, crazy and, dare I say, evil, parts of the bible that show God for what he really is, someone who makes any human dictator or mass murderer look like a kid messing around at playtime.

Unfortunately, there were several things that made the book slightly harder to read. One was the way the text has been formatted. The fonts and sizes used to differentiate the side-notes or addenda as well as quotes and excerpts from the bible from the main text are confusing. Often, I would lose track of when I was supposed to be reading a passage from the bible and when I was back reading what the authors had to say.

Which brings me to one of the other problems I had. The terms of phrase and wording used by the authors are fairly colloquial and everything written is thick with the authors' opinions. There is nothing wrong with this on the whole, obviously, I have purchased their book and therefore it is their opinion I want to read, but there are occasions in the book where it feels like the authors are stretching to interpret several bible quotes in a negative fashion. This, combined with the fact that in those cases, little extra context, whether historical or current theological opinion or any other basis for more objectively and concretely showing that said passages mean what the authors are telling us they mean, impacts on how objective I perceived the authors as being, and therefore how trustworthy the rest of the information was. The book ended up coming across in parts as more of an opinion piece rather than the reference material I had hoped it would be.

And this is a shame, because the vast majority of the information is obviously correct and those passages in the bible do exist and they are as vile or wacky as the authors are pointing out (after all, you can check the passages are in the bible yourself).

At the end of the book, I found myself hoping that the authors would create a second edition of the book, improving on the formatting and various other small issues, so that the book could be the absolute reference to shocking bible quotes that it deserves to be.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Ben Goldacre on the Placebo Effect

I've been reading a few books by Richard Wiseman and Dr. Karl Kruszelnicki, among other people. Among other things, when you read books about science written by scientists, as well as being far more interesting than any news article about the same topic could be, you also hear about the placebo effect time and time again.

Well, here's a short stand up comedy sketch by Dr. Ben Goldacre explaining exactly how weird the placebo effect really is: