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.