Friday, April 30, 2010

Noah's Ark Found! Oh Wait.

Noah's ark has been found, according to Chinese and Turkish evangelical explorers. Well, more like wooden remains of something, which they're pretty sure must be the ark from the bible story, since they can't think of any other reason for wooden remains to be up there. To be fair, they're erring on the side of caution and not claiming absolute certainty. Merely 99.9% certainty.

The fact that this archeological dig is being conducted by Noah's Ark Ministries International couldn't possibly be biasing the conclusions they are drawing from what they've found so far, could it? Some other possible hypotheses for the presence for the remains of a 4800 year old wooden structure could be, perhaps, a house? Those existed 4800 years ago, so did farms.

Oh, of course, the group "ruled out an established human settlement on the grounds that one had never been found above 3500m in the vicinity, Mr Yeung said."

I think, perhaps, you just did find one, Mr Yeung.

Ruling a normal human settlement out as a possibility just because no other such examples of settlement remains exist nearby would be like ruling out the first fossil ever found as being a fossil because you hadn't ever yet discovered fossils.

The bible claims that Noah, following God's orders, built a giant ark which carried all known and unknown species of animals* for a period of 40 days and 40 nights on the waters of an enormous, global flood which covered even the highest mountains of the earth until the ark finally came to rest on mount Ararat when the waters receded**.

The fact that these researchers consider this the most likely explanation for these wooden remains to have been found where they are speaks volumes about how seriously we should take their scientific credentials. Or not.


* For simplicity, we're not mentioning the need for food, water, waste disposal, proper separation and containment of predators and their prey, animals that don't normally live in social groups, like Tigers, etc.
*** Receding to whatever magical place the water would have had to have come from in the first place.

Larian LeQuella in the comments below has reminded me that while it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, the bible states the flood lasted for over a year. It only gets worse for the religious version of events.]

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Monkeys! (But Really Apes)

A dose of cuteness. And what's more cute than some monkeys (or apes, rather)?

I'm not biased at all.


[Note: I've used these images here without the express permissions of the authors, but am giving links to the two that I found the original source for.]

Kevin Rudd's Backflip on Climate Change

Kevin Rudd has just recently (yesterday) deferred action on climate change till 2013. This is after his grand speeches in 2007, as part of his election campaign and then again in 2009, where he said Australia had to take action now. We can only assume that when Kevin Rudd said "now", he meant 2007 (or at least 2009) rather than "some day in the future, like 2013, if I get re-elected".

GetUp! have started a campaign to call the prime minister to task on his latest political backflip. I urge everyone to go have a look and spend 30 seconds to lodge your protest to Rudd's actions (or rather inactions).


Ongoing Witch Hunts in Africa

Yet another story about witch hunts in Nigeria. Yet another example of irrational beliefs held by some leading to the horrific suffering of others.

Children attacked by their own mothers, children denounced as witches by pastors and prophets of God when taken to church. Children "tortured to death, bathed with acid, abandoned to die by the roadside or in the bush."

Again, we see that in a society where people's unjustified beliefs are not only respected, but encouraged and permitted by government, the innocent are made to suffer at the hands of the insane.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Child Sacrifice All Over Again

Just when you think we've managed to drag most of humanity out of the darkness and cloying fear of superstition and unjustified beliefs, someone stabs a baby.

Told by a witchdoctor that sacrificing their baby girl would make them rich, this Pakistani couple did what any good believer in the supernatural would do. They killed their baby.

I can't think of any clearer example of the dangers of believing in something without evidence. When people ask what's the harm when people have a personal, private belief in something, you can point at this dead baby girl and say "That's the harm."

These people believed in magic. This meant that when the witchdoctor, a trusted authority figure in their belief system, told them that killing their baby would make them rich, it made sense.

If they hadn't believed in magic, or if they hadn't been monstrous enough to believe that being rich was worth more than the life of their baby girl, they wouldn't have performed the sacrifice.

There is no such thing as a belief in a vacuum. When you believe in something, it shapes the way you live your life and how you deal with others. Unfortunately for this little girl, her parents believed she needed to die.


Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Why the Fuss About Naked Yoga?

I like stretching, it feels good. Sometimes being naked also feels nice. The person who decided to invent naked yoga was probably hailed as some kind of genius by people who loved both those things and could think of nothing better than doing both at the same time.

Fair enough.

It's a bit odd, to me at least, to see people start to get worried and confused or even concerned by the fact that these all-male naked yoga classes exist. Whether they, like Joshua Stein, editor-at-large for OUT Magazine, who attended a class in 2008, say that real yoga can't be performed in environments with such "heightened sensuality" or whether, like Mary Dillion, they don't see why you need to go to a class to perform naked yoga, since you can do it at home, some comments about the classes aren't making much sense.

Firstly, it's not exactly a secret that a lot of men go to yoga classes to be surrounded by beautiful lithe women*. Also, just because you** can't see why someone would enjoy naked yoga, doesn't mean others can't enjoy it. After all, they're not you. Not only are you not under any requirement to enjoy nude yoga, you're not not under any requirement to think it makes sense, since whether a bunch of other people enjoy stretching naked with a bunch of other naked people doesn't affect you in any way if you don't want it to.

If it turns out that these naked yoga "male-only gatherings tend to be more popular and have become a mini-phenomenon in the gay community" and that they are actually an excuse to get intimate and naked with a bunch of other guys, then so what? So's football.


* Or at the very least, it's a strong stereotype that society has no issue with, so long as looking remains just looking.
** And by you, I don't mean the reader, I mean the literary technique you.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Book Review - Defending Pornography

Nadine Strossen's book, Defending Pornography tackles the highly loaded issue of pornography and its relationship with free speech. She explains in detail why it is crucial that governments not be given the power of censorship, nor the legal powers to determine what is or is not obscene.

As a professor of Law, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)'s president from 1991 until 2008, Strossen has many examples and case studies of how attempts by governments to censor sexual material not only fail to achieve their stated goal - the decrease of violence and sexist attitudes towards women - but also consistently resulted in censorship of a far wider range of free expression than expected or desired, even by those backing the censorship laws.

This book was another that was lying on my shelf for a long time. Worried that the book might prove to be dry reading (being written by a lawyer), I was in fact surprised at how engrossing I found it to be.

The fact that the Australian Government is attempting to put in place a mandatory internet filter only goes to show that the issue of freedom of speech is as relevant today as it was in 1995 when this book was written and how relevant it is likely to remain in the future.*


* And worth keeping as reference for those times when Conroy shouts "Think about the children!"

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

It's a Wonderful World

This isn't going to be much of a post, in fact, all I'm going to do is put up some pictures I found on another site which you should all definitely visit.

There's very little in the world that compares to the beauty and awesomeness of nature and everything crawling around in it.* I came across these reminders of that and thought I'd share them around. They made me feel better, I hope they do the same to you.


* I know, technically, depending on how you define it, there's nothing outside nature, but you know what I mean.

Monday, April 19, 2010

British Chiropractor Association Drops Libel Case Against Simon Singh

In case you're living under a rock and haven't heard, the BCA has withdrawn its libel suit against Simon Singh.

Dear Friends

The British Chiropractic Association has dropped its libel case against Simon Singh. Read Simon’s, our and some of our supporters' reactions to the news here:

Keep an eye out for coverage about this today - there has already been lots, I'll include a few links below.

We are so pleased for Simon that the BCA has dropped the case but the campaign is far from over. Until we have a public interest defence that can protect discussion and comment about evidence and research, scientists, commentators, bloggers, forum users, authors and NGOs will continue to be bullied into silence, and cardiologist Dr Peter Wilmshurst is still fighting to defend his right to speak out about a medical device clinical trial.

With your support the Coalition for Libel Reform has secured manifesto commitments from all the major parties. But we need to continue to put pressure on politicians to make sure these promises are turned into meaningful reform once the new government is in place. We are organising a Free Speech General Election Hustings where you can come and question politicians on their commitment to libel reform for Wednesday 21st April in London. Check for more details about this soon.

The campaign reached 50,000 signatures of support last night. We really need to double this to keep the pressure up and make sure the politicians are aware of how serious the need for libel reform is. Please do all you can to help us reach our target by encouraging people to sign up at



This is great news. More detail here, here and here.

The greater battle, changing the libel laws in the UK, continues, but at least this case has highlighted the need for reform and Simon himself is now able to better spend his time showing that the claims made by the BCA about the benefits of chiropractic medicine are not supported by evidence and need to be taken to task by governments in order to safeguard unknowing consumers from further harm.


Friday, April 16, 2010

More Sorcery in Saudi Arabia

Just a few days ago, I talked* about the disturbing fact that the Saudi Arabian government still believes in magic and sorcerers and considers it a crime to practice those (non-existent) dark arts.

Just another example of this has come up in the news recently, with a twist. In Saudi Arabia, a man, pretending to be a sorcerer** able to create love potions, would film and then blackmail the women who came to him, in order to rape them.

This man is disgusting, but the society that has made his crimes possible is even more sickening. Let us ignore the fact that for raping over 100 women, with the number being possibly as large as 350, he receives a punishment of 1000 lashes and 10 years in prison. My first inclination is to think that it isn't much of a punishment. If it were a western prison, I would be able to affirm that a sentence of 10 years is a mockery of justice considering the number of victims***. Given that he may very well die from the lashes he receives and the fact that I don't know the condition of jails in the Middle East, I'd prefer withhold judgment on the appropriateness (or not) of the punishment to the crime.

What I do want to make note of is that the man's crimes, or rather, his method for luring and trapping his victims is only possible in a society like Saudi Arabia's, where belief in and punishment for association with magic, is rife.

In western society, there are few people who believe in the effectiveness of love potions. At the very least, it would be lower than the number of Saudi Arabians. This means that the number of women, say, in Australia, who would have gone to see such a 'sorcerer' would have been lower.

Even were that not the case, the crucial difference is that no one in Australia who went to consult or talk to, or purchase potions from any so called sorcerer would have to be afraid of being arrested by the Mutawa'een (a.k.a. Religious Police). That is what made it possible for this 'sorcerer' to blackmail these women. The mere fact of filming these women coming to talk to him about magic potions was enough for this man to get leverage over them.

Add to this the fact that a woman who has been raped in Saudi Arabia, as the article says:
rape victims themselves are often the recipients of scorn and are sometimes themselves blamed
This second aspect of Saudi Arabian culture, namely their attitude towards women, is what allowed this man to trap and rape so many women before being caught. It was shame and fear of the law that made these women succumb to the 'sorcerer's blackmail and it was the same fear and shame that prevented them from reporting the fact that they had been raped.

The man who raped these women may have been arrested, but the environment that made any of this possible remains the real cause of their suffering and it has not changed. Until it does, it's the very society that these women live in that continues to betray them.


* Ranted.
** Keeping in mind that you can only ever pretend to be one, since they aren't real.
*** With even one victim being one too many.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Girl Not Allowed to Dance with Girl at Prom

I thought we were past this. The whole, "you're gay so you don't belong" thing. Perhaps I'm too modern, living in Sydney, as I do, to appreciate that in some places in the world, homosexuals are still being seen as somehow unnatural, immoral; a group to be feared*, reviled and marginalized.

I have to wonder what parents are afraid of. Are they worried that their children will become homosexuals, by coming in such close contact with a lesbian couple? Perhaps they are afraid that lesbians, being, of course, immoral and sexually promiscuous by nature, will begin to perform lewd acts at the prom? Perhaps they fear God would condemn them for permitting two women to show their affection for one another?

There is no reason I can think of that does not sound ridiculous. It is plain discrimination. The fact that the school would have preferred to cancel the prom rather than let McMillen dance with her partner, while not as surprising as I would have liked it to be**, still makes me wonder what kind of people the organizers and staff at the school are, to hold such attitudes. I would say they were throwbacks to tree-swinging gibbons, but that would be to insult my uncle, Alfred.

Would the parents have objected if two heterosexual girls happened to dance together for fun, at some point at the prom? I doubt it. I almost have to wonder how the organisers found out the gender of the different people being invited to the prom as dates to the students or why they even cared.

I applaud the ACLU for supporting McMillen's legal rights to equality of freedom and expression, meaning the right to be who she is. I simply wish that it hadn't been necessary for them to do so.

Apparently we still have a way to go yet, until we get to a time when everyone realises that other people's sexual orientation is their own business.***


* Whether some homophobes are afraid that homosexuals bring God's wrath, will rape them or are just deeply immoral people, I'm not sure.

** It is the US after all.
*** And their partner's obviously.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Some Upkeep: Library Page

I've created a library page to show a list of all the books I own and have read so far.

I intend to eventually write some sort of review about all these books, not only to help people choosing something to buy and/or read, but also to help entrench what I've read in my memory.

At the moment, the page is fairly basic, just a list. What I would like to have at some point, is a sortable table of information, so that people can search by author or by title, by category and whatever other book features I can think of.

That's a little way off though.*

In the meantime, enjoy.


* Monkey speak for "don't hold your breath".

Woman Shot Over Dress Sense

There are very few justifiable reasons for killing someone. Some would argue that there are none*.

What I am sure of, as sure as I can be of anything in life, is that the way someone is dressed is typically not worth killing them over.

I sincerely hope that when the article states that "the women fought", it means the argument moved on from the way Danielle was dressed to more important things, like whether or not Danielle was secretly a serial killer**. That would help me try to pretend that this event isn't the meaningless tragedy that it is.

Ms Burgess claims she didn't mean to kill Danielle Pickens, which I say is at the very least a stretch of the truth given she shot Pickens in the head.

If it is the case that Ms Burgess didn't mean to shoot, then this incident should be a reminder to all gun owners, actual or aspiring, that with ownership comes responsibility, never mind the responsibilities when you actually use one. One of the first rules anyone who's been trained in gun-handling would know is that you don't aim your gun or put your finger on the trigger unless you intend to shoot.***

I hope that at the very least Danielle's death can help remind people of the care they must take when using guns, otherwise I'm left with only the absurdity that someone's life can be ended for something as trivial as the outfit they wear.


* Successfully or not.
** Even then, if the TV show Dexter has shown us anything, it's that being a serial killer doesn't mean you're necessarily pure evil and should be killed.
*** I myself have never used a gun (there aren't any models made for monkeys) and I still know basic gun safety.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

All Major UK Parties Commit to Libel Reform

Again, there has been another promising move forward as a result of Simon Singh's court case in defense of his article on chiropractors. For those of you not receiving the emails from the Sense About Science campaign, I'm posting the email here so you can hear the good news for yourselves.
Dear friends,

Great news - all 3 major political parties in the UK are committed to libel law reform.

Dominic Grieve, the Shadow Justice Minister, told us on Friday that “the Conservative party is committed, if elected, to undertaking a fundamental review of the libel laws with a view to enacting legislation to reform them. This reform could best be done by means of a separate Libel Bill and this is the preferred approach for us.”

The Lib Dems made libel law reform a policy in September 2009 after Professor Richard Dawkins addressed their party conference and Jack Straw committed Labour to reforming English libel law at our mass-lobby of Parliament on 23rd March. The Labour manifesto, released today, pledges “To encourage freedom of speech and access to information, we will bring forward new legislation on libel to protect the right of defendants to speak freely.”

We are delighted that the Government and opposition have been moved by the campaign and by your support but now we have to make sure libel reform doesn’t become a forgotten election promise. Please keep telling your friends and colleagues what a fundamental issue libel reform is and encourage them to sign up to the campaign at

If you are in London this evening come to the libel rally organised by Westminster Skeptics in the Pub to hear about the next steps for the campaign and to celebrate Simon’s recent appeal hearing. More here:


Granted, this doesn't mean it's happened yet, nor that the reviews of libel law will result in the changes that need to be made to protect science and fair criticism, but it is very promising.


Monday, April 12, 2010

Book Review - Death from the Skies!

Imagine a book detailing the most horrific natural disasters conceivable by the human mind. Now imagine it detailing disasters not even conceivable by the human mind, on a scale so large and terrifying that the most devastating cataclysms known to date are like a candle to a firestorm. Even more aptly, like an ember to the end of the WORLD!

Scared yet?

Spare a thought for how much more terrifying this is for a tiny monkey*.

This is Death from the Skies!, another book by Philip Plait, PhD. In his book, Phil Plait delights in explaining the various threats the earth faces on a constant basis from outer space. Asteroids, gamma ray bursts (or GRBs) and gluttonous black holes. Still Phil Plait eases the fear by telling us exactly how likely these events are and what, if anything, we can do about them.

I won't lie, the book makes you feel very very small and puts all petty concerns firmly and brutally into perspective. At the same time though, it makes you take another look at the staggering, truly breath-taking beauty of the universe we live in.

This is absolutely recommended reading for anyone, regardless of educational background.


*5 cm tall, or thereabouts.

Friday, April 9, 2010

They Have Cabs, and They're Green

In Sydney, a first world country, it can be difficult to get a cab.

Whether you're somewhere in suburbia, or whether you're waiting at a taxi rank* in the CBD, you often have to wait a while. Additionally, if you're unlucky enough to need a cab any time after 2am and before 4am, you're out of luck.

In Cape Town, not only do they have taxis, they have several taxi companies competing with each other. Since they can't compete on price, these taxis are competing by offering additional benefits.

One such newly established taxi company is offering itself as a green alternative where the taxis are using more environmentally friendly fuel and pay for carbon offsets.

So not only does Cape Town have taxis, they have environmentally conscious ones. What do we have?**

Come on Sydney, the rest of the world is starting to really make us look bad.***


* In fact, especially if you're at a taxi rank.
** That's a rhetorical question.
*** To be fair, even Melbourne's taxis make us look bad. Shiny yellow and omnipresent things that they are.

Witch Hunting Revived

Most people would think that the world had seen its last witch hunt in 1693 when the Salem witch trials came to an end in colonial Massachusetts. These people would be sadly be wrong. Not only are accusations of witchcraft rife in countries in Africa, like Nigeria*, where levels of education are (obviously) very low, there are also accusations of witchcraft and sorcery in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, you have to believe in witches or sorcerers before you can start accusing people of being one.** Not only does the Saudi Arabian government believe in witches and sorcerers, they have their own religious police.
El Khansa told CNN her client was arrested by Saudi Arabia's religious police (known as the Mutawa'een) and charged with sorcery while visiting the country in May 2008.
Sibat, is the former host of a television show "Sheherazade" where he predicted the future and gave advice to his viewers. In any sane society, these come in two categories:

1. He is really able to tell the future. He consistently predicts the outcome of events in double-blind trials. In this case, he makes millions on the stockmarket or becomes a government advisor or works with scientists to determine how his powers work.

2. He's making it up, or thinks he has the power to predict the future, but in fact does not. He is not able to successfully pass double-blind trials testing his ability. In this case, no one cares about him.

Note that there has never been a reported case of a true psychic. Case 1 has never happened, to the world's knowledge.

The Saudi Government is not interested, it seems, in proving whether or not he really is able to predict the future, they just think that he must have powers, since he said so on TV. And we all know everything on TV is true.

They don't even seem interested in proving that he has harmed anyone. The mere fact that he 'has' these powers is enough to condemn Sabit, according to religious law. A law left over from a time where everyone thought magic was real. A time everyone else has outgrown and moved on from.

Of course it is the countries still steeped in religion, whether it be Nigeria and Christianity or Saudi Arabia and Islam, that believe in witches and sorcerers. They have to. After all, what are the prophets and Gods but wielders of magic? To disbelieve in the existence of magic completely is to disbelieve their Gods.


* Other examples are here.
** You also have to believe they are necessarily evil.

Topless Women Surprised at Male Attention


Now I have your attention. I am a monkey. As such, I don't really understand the human (particularly male) fascination and obsession with boobs. A certain article caught my eye though and for the sake of writing this post about it, I'm going to put my boob-liking hat on.

Here we go.

There are few things male human heterosexuals like more than breasts. Female breasts to be more precise.* In fact, I would argue that it is one of the things that men like most about women.**

So when a group of women in downtown Portland, Maine, in the U.S. got together to walk with police escort down (or up) the street to bring attention to double standards regarding toplessness, it comes as no surprise to me that many men showed their appreciation by whipping out their cameras.

Apparently it surprised the organiser, Ms Ty MacDowell who says "I'm really upset by the men … all the men that are here, just like watching it like it's a parade,".

I'm confused. She obviously wanted to draw attention to the fact that men take special notice when women are walking around topless, but was upset when she managed to draw that attention (admittedly in the very form she was attempting to combat). I think she needs to go away and think about what her goal is.

I have nothing against women walking around topless if they want. That's their business. By the same token, I have no issue with anyone taking pictures of other people (in this case topless women) in a public area. Sure, to me it seems a little sleazy, but again, that's their problem, not mine. Just because I wouldn't take photos of women doesn't mean I can or should tell other men (or women) they shouldn't take photos either.

Ty MacDowell somehow expects men to not find breasts attractive. Her reasoning is that men going around topless doesn't excite anyone or seem out of the ordinary, so it should be the same with women.

I'm sorry Ty. First of all, I'm sure if a group of sexy, well-toned men was to get together and walk topless down the street, women (and homosexual men) would probably appreciate it, text their friends and take lots of souvenir photos. Second, women going topless is less common in a public setting than men going topless is. That being the case, until naked boobs are "just another thing"***, they'll receive lots of attention when they make an appearance. Thirdly, well, men really like boobs.


P.S. Notice in the photo, it's a woman using her phone to take a picture.

* And more precisely still, female human breasts.

** I would argue, but it may not be true. The point is a lot of men like them a lot.
*** I hope that never happens. It would be a shame to lose such a source of happiness. For other men to lose it, I mean.

Oriental Yeti Baffles Scientists

Some hunters in remote central China have trapped a strange looking animal, the Daily Telegraph says. The article claims that scientists are baffled as to what it could possibly be, a combination of cat, bear or yeti? Who knows?

The odd thing is this creature is so baffling it's managing to baffle people who haven't even examined it yet. The article mentions that the animal has just been sent off to Beijing where its DNA will be analysed.

In the meantime, the locals (or indeed the Daily Telegraph) aren't waiting until the facts are in before they start speculating. Some think it's a bear, but it's not hairy. Perhaps it's a cat, it sounds like one. It has a tail like a kangaroo, maybe a Chinese bear got lonely one night, searched online on and found a mate.*

The last claim reported by the article is that, according to local legend, there was a man who turned into a bear and that that is what the hunters have caught.

The article already calls the creature the 'Oriental Yeti'.

Those seem like strong, plausible and rigorously scientific hypotheses to me.

Or maybe it's just a poor cat whose hair was burnt off. In any case, perhaps the conjectures should wait, or at least be reined in, until someone without a need to increase his village's income from tourism can have a look at it.


* Ok, so I may have exaggerated that last claim.
** Or perhaps that should be who.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

1st Milestone

Posting a few things this morning, I realised I'd posted enough since I started a week ago (feels longer than that*) to have too many posts for the front page to handle on its own. That's right, this means readers now have to click on the 'older posts' link to see the first few posts.

"You're crazy Charles!" I hear you say, "It doesn't take many posts to make that happen." Of course you're all correct, it doesn't. It did, however, bring a smile to my crazy monkey face and I thought that warranted a mention.

:) <- A smile like this.


* I have yet to make the calculation in monkey weeks.

Simon Singh and Libel Reform

This morning I received an email through the Sense About Science mailing list, relaying a message from Simon Singh. I thought I'd display it here as well, for those of you interested in the ongoing court case Simon Singh is having to go through to defend the statements he made about chiropractors in Trick or Treatment as being fair comment, rather than libel.

Message from Simon Singh : “A big step for me, a small step for libel reform, and what you can do to help today.”

Dear friends,

With apologies for cross posting,

Sorry for the silence, but it has been a ridiculously hectic (and happy) time since last week’s victory at the Court of Appeal. However, I urgently wanted to get in touch to update you on the status of my case, the latest news on libel reform and what you can do today to push libel reform up the political agenda.

BCA v Singh

April Fool’s Day 2010 was a day to remember. The Court of Appeal gave a ruling in my libel case with the British Chiropractic Association. The ruling strongly backs my arguments and puts me in a much stronger position when my trial eventually takes place. At last, after two years of defending my article and my right to free speech, I seem to have the upper hand and can breathe a small sigh of relief.

Moreover, the judges made it clear that they did not want to see scientists and science journalists being hauled through the High Court. In particular, they endorsed the view that a so-called comment defence should be adequate for scientific and other articles on matters of public interest. As well as the legal technicalities, the three wise, charming and handsome judges quoted Milton on the persecution of Galileo and directed that the High Court should not become an “Orwellian Ministry of Truth”.

Libel Reform Campaign

This is a small step forward for libel reform, but there is still a huge battle to be fought over the issues of costs, libel tourism, public interest defence, balancing the burden of proof, restricting the ability of powerful corporations to bully individuals (e.g., bloggers, journalists, scientists) and so on.

The General Election was called yesterday and the manifestos will be published in the next week, so we need one last push to persuade the major parties to commit to libel reform. Although we have already achieved a huge amount (from editorials in all last week’s broadsheets to the Commons Select Committee recommending libel reform), we must keep up the pressure!

Both the Labour and Conservative parties have made encouraging sounds about libel reform, but now is the time for them to make commitments in their manifestos.

What you can do today to pressure politicians

I have spent over a million minutes and £100,000 defending my article and my right to free speech, so I am asking you to spend just one minute and no money at all persuading others to sign the petition for libel reform at

The last time I made this request, we doubled the number of signatories from 17,000 to 35,000. Can we now double the number from almost 50,000 to 100,000?!

You could ask parents, siblings, colleagues or friends to sign up. You could email everyone in your address book. You could blog about it, mention it to your Facebook friends and Twitter about it.

In fact, I have pasted some possible tweets at the end of this email – it would be great if you could twitter one, some or all of them.

You could forward all or part of this email to people or just steer them to Or you could persuade people that English libel law needs radical reform by using some of the reasons listed at the end of this email.

Remember, we welcome signatories from around the world because English libel law has a damaging impact globally.

Please, please, please apply maximum pressure to the politicians by encouraging as many new signatories as possible. Please do not take my victory last week as a sign that the battle is over. My case is still ongoing and the campaign for libel reform is only just starting.

Thanks for all your support – it has been incredibly important for the campaign and a real morale booster personally over the last two years.

Simon Singh

Ps. Please spread the word by sending out one, some or all of the following tweets

Pls RT English libel law silences debate, says UN Human Rights Committee. Sign up at & back #libelreform

Pls RT English libel costs 140x more than Europe. We can't afford to defend our words. Sign up at & back #libelreform

Pls RT Two ongoing libel cases involving health. The law should not crush scientific debate. Sign up at & back #libelreform

Pls RT London is notorious for attracting libel tourists who come to UK to silence critics. Sign up at & back #libelreform

PPs. Reasons why we need radical libel reform:

(a) English libel laws have been condemned by the UN Human Rights Committee.

(b) These laws gag scientists, bloggers and journalists who want to discuss matters of genuine public interest (including public health!).

(c) Our laws give rise to libel tourism, whereby the rich and the powerful (Saudi billionaires, Russian oligarchs and overseas corporations) come to London to sue writers because English libel laws are so hostile to responsible journalism. (Again, it is exactly because English libel laws have this global impact that we welcome signatories to the petition from around the world.)

(d) Vested interests can use their resources to bully and intimidate those who seek to question them. The cost of a libel trial in England is 100 times more expensive than the European average and typically runs to over £1 million.

(e) Two separate ongoing libel cases involve myself and Peter Wilmshurst, and we are both raising concerns about medical treatments. We face losing £1 million each. In future, why would anyone else raise similar concerns when our libel laws are so brutal and expensive? Our libel laws mean that serious health matters are not necessarily reported, which means that the public is put at risk.

PPPs. I know that I will leave people out of this list, but I owe a huge thanks to:

  1. The 10,000 people who joined the Facebook group “For Simon Singh and Free Speech - Against the BCA Libel Claim”, particularly those who joined when the rest of the world ignored the issue of libel.

  1. The 300 people who packed Penderel’s Oak in May 2009 and who helped launch the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign, particularly the speakers: Nick Cohen, Dave Gorman, Evan Harris MP, Professor Brian Cox, Chris French, Tracey Brown (Sense About Science), Robert Dougans (Bryan Cave) and David Allen Green.

  1. The 20,000 people who then joined the Keep Libel Laws Out of Science campaign.

  1. Jack of Kent and every other blogger who ranted and raved about libel reform when the mainstream media was turning a blind eye.
  1. Everyone in the mainstream media who is now covering the various libel cases and the issue of libel reform.
  1. Sense About Science, Index on Censorship and English PEN, who formed the Coalition for Libel Reform. And thanks to everyone who has contributed pro bono to the campaign in terms of design, technical support, chivvying support for the EDM and more.
  1. The 46,000 people (i.e. you) who have signed the petition for libel reform, particularly those who have cajoled others to sign up at
  1. All the big names who have spoken out in favour of libel reform, from Professor Richard Dawkins to Derren Brown, from the Astronomer Royal to the Poet Laureate, from the Amazing Randi to Ricky Gervais. Particular thanks go to Dara O Briain, Stephen Fry, Tim Minchin and Robin Ince, who have gone out of their way to step up to the plate when the campaign has needed them. Immense thanks also to the 100+ big names who were the first to sign the petition to keep libel out of science and highlighted the need for libel reform.
  1. Everyone who has emailed and twittered and told me in person that I am not going crazy, and who reassured me that I am doing the right thing by defending my article.
  1. Thanks to Nick Clegg, leader of the Lib Dems, for promising to put libel reform in his manifesto. And thanks in advance to Jack Straw (Justice Secretary) and Dominic Grieve (Shadow Justice Secretary), because I know that the Labour and Conservative parties are going to commit to libel law reform. I cannot believe that they will allow more scientists, serious journalists, bloggers, biographers, human rights activists and others to go through the same hell that I have had to endure for last two years.

Stranded Ship Threatens Great Barrier Reef

The Great Barrier Reef is the largest system of reefs in the world. In fact, it is considered one of the seven wonders of the natural world*: unique, fragile and irreplaceable**.

In a strict no-go zone for certain kinds of ships, such as giant coal tankers, the fact that a ship managed to “take a shortcut”, get stranded and damaged, so that at any moment oil could leak out of its tanks, should be intensely embarrassing to our coast guard and navy. Admittedly, the reef encompasses some 344,400 square kilometres, which makes it difficult to survey and monitor. However, it is their job to protect our waters from any threat to Australia. A potential oil spill which would severely damage the Great Barrier Reef IS such a threat.

The captain of said ship is more concerned that his crew might be running out of food and water (as he will now be feeding the rescue crew) rather than any remorse about any damage his disregard for Australian maritime law might cause.

The fine the owners of the boat, Chinese owned Cosco***, face is a sum up to $1 million. The captain himself may be fined up to $250,000. These fines are ridiculously small considering the scale of this company, and how much it is costing rescue and salvage crews to deal with the situation. Then there is the small matter that the Great Barrier Reef itself couldn't be replaced for any amount of money. There is no doubt in my mind to how the Chinese would react to having someone accidentally almost destroy the Great Wall of China, or the Forbidden Palace.

Premier Anna Bligh has spoken out against the captain, for failing to understand the seriousness of the incident. Senator Bob Brown has requested a royal commission be launched to investigate further, since this seems to be far from an isolated incident; many foreign ships take such "shortcuts" through our protected waters. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has also mentioned that the laws may have to be changed. So at least the Government seems to be taking it seriously.

The Great Barrier Reef as we know it today took over 20,000 years to form. Not only that, but it has formed itself on top of the remains of coral reefs that themselves started forming 600,000 years ago. The time the captain's "short-cut" would have saved: one hour.


* The Great Barrier Reef World Heritage values
** Well, it's replaceable if you don't mind waiting around a few million years.
*** This company is seriously huge!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

15 Seconds of Fame

About 15 minutes ago, I was working on another post when I noticed someone had left a comment on my review of Bad Astronomy.

This was the first comment anyone had left, so I excitedly clicked to find out what it said. It was by Larian LeQuella* saying that he had found my blog by following a link from Dr Phil Plait's blog, Bad Astronomy.

Wow. It nearly blew my little monkey mind.

Fine, so he got the name of the blog a little wrong. No single barrel could possibly contain the personality that is this monkey**. I'm not about to complain though. Dr Plait could have called my blog Bob's Blog, and I would have seriously considered legally changing my name***.

Needless to say, my day's definitely been made.


* His profile pic makes me want to find a monkey sized uniform and a couple of flags. I like it.
** I only have access to really really small barrels.
*** Not really.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Dealing with the Australian ISP Filter

A lot of people have talked about how to stop Stephen Conroy from being able to push his mandatory filter proposal through parliament. Interestingly, some people are already starting to talk about how to bypass it in the event of it going through.

Exit International is teaching people, particularly the elderly, how to bypass the filter by using proxy servers and virtual networks, so that they can access online information about Euthanasia. (Full article here)

The planned filter is already going to be a breach of our rights to freedom of speech*. Hopefully as people see how easily the planned filter will be to circumvent, more and more people will also see it as the complete waste of tax-payer money that it is.**


* As Australians, we don't have a bill of rights, so our freedom of speech isn't as enshrined in law as it should be.
** $44 million to setup and $33 million every year thereafter.

Stem Cells Paving Way to Cure for HIV

It's a popular claim or rant of religious extremists that HIV or AIDS is God's punishment for a life of homosexuality, and sexual promiscuity in general. This, of course, ignores the fact that, if you look at the stats, AIDS rates look like they have a lot more to do with overall education and poverty levels than the percentage of the population that is homosexual. One such site is the CIA Factbook, in which African countries are up among the top in percentage of adults living with AIDS.

If AIDS was a homosexual phenomenon, you would expect a clear trend where rates of AIDS are higher in areas with more homosexuals (particularly homosexual men, since that's what homophobes are usually thinking about when they consider same-sex). In the US, looking at the statistics collected by the Avert website, it's impossible to see any such trend. There is a larger percentage of homosexuals living in San Francisco according to surveys (check here and particularly here) yet that is not where we see the highest rates of AIDS. In fact, one of the areas with quite high rates is Jackson, MS, or even in Texas.

This is all a side issue or rather prelude to the core of this post though.

As part of a patient with leukemia's treatment, doctors implanted him with healthy stem cells from a donor. Since the patient also had HIV, doctors chose a donor who had a natural resistance to the virus, to see whether this would confer the natural immunity to the patient. (See here for more details) Since the operation two years ago, he has shown no signs of HIV in his blood.

This is amazing news and may indeed turn out to be a cure for AIDS. It's early days yet and the operation itself is rather involved to be, at this stage, a lightly undertaken procedure, but it certainly should be cause for hope for the millions of people worldwide who are afflicted by the virus.

In summary, to those religious people who claimed or still think that AIDS is God's punishment upon homosexuals, or indeed, the world:

Humanity 1, God 0.


Book Review - Bad Astronomy

When I bought a copy of Bad Astronomy, a book by Philip Plait (PhD), at TAM 2009, I'd already had the book on my to-buy and to-read list for at least a year. After buying it and getting it signed by Phil Plait himself, I returned home from TAM having every intention of reading it as soon as I got home, if not before (plane flights are long and even more boring when you're in the baggage compartment).

It sat on my bookshelf for almost another year until in March, I picked it up and decided I would finally carve out some time to read it. This time, I did, and I managed to read it in less than a week, or roughly 10 hours (So I’m a slow reader, you can stow it, I'm a monkey! It's amazing I can read at all.).

Phil Plait's style of writing is relaxed and witty. He easily exposes and explains a myriad of mistakes people make with regards to science and astronomy, like thinking NASA didn't send astronauts to the moon, to answering questions like why the sky is blue. I confess I accidentally found myself learning some basic astronomy and science, which, given my usual attention span when reading actual textbooks, is no mean feat.

In fact, I move that Bad Astronomy be a recommended text book at secondary schools everywhere, or even primary schools, for that matter. Scratch that. Everyone in the world should read this book. Phil Plait manages to break things down to an easily understandable level, so that people without a background in physics or astronomy* can grasp the core concepts.

The lesson to be learned here is not to let this book collect dust on your shelf. At least, not until after you’ve read it.



* Like yours truly. Though I do have some knowledge of physics. After all, you don't live in trees without coming to some sort of understanding with gravity. She is a harsh mistress.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Senator Conroy Says the Internet Isn't Special

Senator Conroy's latest comment regarding the internet is to say that it is a communication platform like any other. According to the Sydney Morning Herald article:
"Why is the internet special?"* he asked, saying the net was "just a communication and distribution platform"
He goes on to say that the Internet should be censored just like books, films and so forth.

This only goes to show how ignorant Stephen Conroy is about the medium he is trying to create legislation for.

The internet is not a book, it is not a film, it's dynamic and constantly changing. Any particular site's content is likely to change on a regular basis, unlike a book, where the content of any particular edition will not change and is precisely known.

Senator Conroy also mentions that his filter is 100% accurate and that it will not underblock or overblock or have any impact on speeds.

Given that the internet has over a trillion pages and the filter as currently proposed will have pages listed only in the thousands, I would say it's a pretty safe bet that it will be underblocking. And we know from the leaked blacklist that it overblocks, since an australian dentist's website was found to be on the list. Note that the dentist was not told so he could do anything about it.

The idea that the filter will have no impact on speeds is shown to be a lie, since Senator Conroy has assured Australians that high-traffic sites will not be filtered. Sites like YouTube, Facebook and Wikipedia will be exempt. If there was no impact on speed and performance, there would be no reason not to include sites, no matter how high the traffic.

Senator Conroy then mentions that the filter is necessary to protect children from child pornography. In his own words: "If we know there are 355 websites today that have child pornographic images on it, should we say well we're not going to do anything about it?"

There are a few reasons this is a particularly strange (I'm a polite monkey) thing to say. The main one is the fact that if the pictures are up on the web, this means the children actually in the photos have already been abused. How about instead of filtering these pictures, we try our hardest to make sure they never get taken in the first place?

Take note that in criminal law, knowing about a crime and covering up the evidence is known as being an accessory. If Senator Conroy is not careful, he could be taken to court. (355 is a very specific number, I wonder how Senator Conroy came up with it?)

Second, even if we should do something about the images up on the web, to protect other children or adults from accidentally seeing them, that does not mean that the mandatory ISP filter is the solution. To present it as a choice between being for (or at least apathetic towards) child pornography on the web and being for the mandatory filter, is to present a false dichotomy.

As we move further down the article, Conroy points out that Google already censors much more than the proposed filter plan will. First of all, Google can do what it likes, it's not a government agency. Second, Google has already decided it's tired of censoring websites for China and is pulling out, which shows that just because a company is doing something now, doesn't mean it's happy about it or will continue to do it in the future. Thirdly, just because Google (or anyone else) censors free expresssion, that doesn't make it a valid course of action.

What I am happy about is the way the SMH article closes with a statement from Senator Ludlam, which, quite frankly, I don't think I can improve on very much, so I'll just post it here:
"For $44 million, we're buying ourselves an initiative which will have no measurable impact whatsoever," Senator Ludlam said.

"In exchange, we establish the architecture for future governments to abuse the loose and undefined 'RC' category to add a creeping range of material to the list. Once this architecture is established, the idea that its scope won't be expanded by future governments is a gamble we don't believe we should take."

* You may not think the Internet is special, Mr Conroy, but I think you are, in the mentally deficient way**.
** I apologise for comparing actually developmentally challenged people to Senator Conroy, it's unfair to them.

The Greens New Policy for Better Education

Earlier this week Senator Bob Brown announced the Greens new proposed policy to "increase the number of teachers and student support" and get rid of nationally funded chaplains, which were put in by the Howard government, which would be replaced by counsellors and community liaison officers.

A second part of their new policy would be to give scholarships to university students studying teaching so long as they agree to teach several years at public schools.

I don't have much to say about this except that the idea sounds like a very good one and makes me a very happy monkey indeed. You can read more details here and here.

The benefits this policy would provide would be far-reaching. Firstly, the removal of chaplains in favour of counsellors and community liason officers would mean public schools would return to being more religiously neutral, as they should be, given that everyone's money is going to pay for them, not just Christians. Second, having trained counsellors and community liason officers would mean that children at the schools would get much appreciated help if they need it, rather than whatever it is that the chaplains were supposed to do*. Finally, encouraging and helping university students become public school teachers would help improve education levels, which benefits everyone in society in so many ways that I hope are too obvious to bear mentioning**.

I sincerely hope that the Greens manage to get this proposal seriously considered by the current government, or indeed the future one, whether they themselves get voted in or not.


* Best case, the same help counsellors would give. Worst case, made up fairy tales that cause harm and distract from real solutions.
** But here are some anyway, smarter population, meaning smarter politicians and public servants, a stronger economy, better research, etc...