Thursday, 27 August 2009
(Sorry for the excessive colourfulness, but I found it was easier to read that way. I'm just not giving up my Pleiades.)
Enter PERRY and PATSY.
PERRY walks ahead, carrying a briefcase; PATSY walks behind with a camera and clipboard. They overhear howls of pain and soon come upon a chiropractic practice named "The Back Knight". After a few minutes a patient stumbles out rubbing his back. BACK KNIGHT watches him go with a stern expression. PERRY and PATSY examine numerous claims in the windows.
PERRY (to BACK KNIGHT): You practice on the strength of many claims, Sir Knight.
PERRY: I am Simon Perry, interested in trading standards.
PERRY: I seek the finest and the bravest chiropracters in the land to join me in my quest for science.
PERRY: You have unproved claims! Will you talk to me?
PERRY: You make me sad. Come, Patsy.
PERRY and PATSY attempt to enter the practice. BACK KNIGHT spreads his arms to block their entrance.
BACK KNIGHT: No scientists shall pass.
BACK KNIGHT: No scientists shall pass.
PERRY: I have no quarrel with you, good Sir Knight, but I must investigate your evidence.
BACK KNIGHT: Then you shall waste your time.
PERRY: I challenge you, as an honest man, to prove that!
PERRY points at a large banner claiming that manipulation of the spine can cure toddlers' asthma.
BACK KNIGHT: I prove for no man.
PERRY: So be it!
PATSY backs off and starts taking photographs and scribbling down frantically everything on the window. PERRY's briefcase springs open by magic (accompanied by battle-style music) and out shoots a scientific journal in which a blind trial finds no evidence that chiropractic helps infant asthma. It blazes a laser-like beam at the window advertisement. Another laser-like beam emits from inside the practice, carrying a bulletin of blogs, advertisements and other unconvincing sources of evidence to fight PERRY's journalistic weapon. After a few flashes of light, etc, BACK KNIGHT's weapons puff out and his advertisement falls crumpled to the ground.
PERRY (at door): Now stand aside, worthy advertiser.
BACK KNIGHT: 'Tis but a displaced vertebra.
PERRY: A displaced vertebra!? Your advert's off!
BACK KNIGHT: No it isn't.
PERRY: Well, what's that, then?
BACK KNIGHT: I've had worse.
PERRY: You liar!
BACK KNIGHT: Come on, you traditionalist!
More light flashes from inside the practice and out whooshes a soppy anecdote of a mother whose child's crying and bed-wetting improved after a session of chiropractic, the two events which she links with gratitude. A volume of statistics and the method for a blind trial shoot out of PERRY's briefcase. They do battle, and the anecdote crumples on the pavement beside the advertisement.
PERRY: Victory is mine!
PERRY turns away momentarily, calling Trading Standards on his mobile.
PERRY: "We call thee, Lawrence, because in your district . . . Ouch!"
BACK KNIGHT picks up a lawyer and hits PERRY with him.
BACK KNIGHT: Come on then.
BACK KNIGHT: Sue at you!
PERRY: You are indeed genuine, Sir Knight, but your science is wrong.
BACK KNIGHT: Oh, had enough courtrooms, eh?
BACK KNIGHT throws a brief at PERRY. PERRY starts to look slightly annoyed.
PERRY: Look, you stupid woo-woo, you've got no claims left.
BACK KNIGHT: Yes I have.
BACK KNIGHT: It's just a subluxation.
BACK KNIGHT throws the lawyer at PERRY.
PERRY: Look stop that!
BACK KNIGHT: Skeptic. Skeptic!
PERRY: Look I'll have your reputation.
BACK KNIGHT throws a judge's wig at PERRY.
PERRY darts into the practice and comes out with a business card which titles BACK KNIGHT as "Dr". He throws it to PATSY. Immediately a distant condemning-sound horn blows, green lights flash and a medical definition of "Dr" appears in the air. BACK KNIGHT's lawyer suddenly starts to look nervous, puts his judge's wig and briefs back in his briefcase, and scuttles away leaving BACK KNIGHT looking distinctly off balance.
BACK KNIGHT (fearfully): Right! I'll do you for that!
PERRY: You'll what?
BACK KNIGHT: Sue you!
BACK KNIGHT makes as if to run after his lawyer, who is by now out of sight. He turns back to PERRY looking hopping mad.
PERRY: What are you going to do, practice on me?
BACK KNIGHT: I'm infallible!
PERRY: You're a loony.
BACK KNIGHT: The Back Knight always cures! Have at you! Come on then . . .
PERRY looks up at the sky. Huge brilliantly-lit diagram-ghosts of bacteria, viruses, multiplying cancer cells, crowded conditions and poor hygiene zone in on the last remaining large claim in the window, which quotes from Daniel David Palmer that 99% of disease is caused by displaced vertebrae. Within seconds this last advert crumples and falls to the floor.
BACK KNIGHT (pleasantly): All right. Direct your questions to the BCA.
PERRY: Come, Patsy!
Exit PERRY and PATSY.
BACK KNIGHT: Oh, I see! Running to scientists, eh? You yellow bastards! Come back here and take what's coming to you! I'll sue your legs off!
At this point a black-robed group of faith healers go past, hitting their noses so as to have something to heal, and a reversal of time takes place in order to take us to Scene 5, The Scientist Trial by Crispian Jago.
Wednesday, 26 August 2009
I thought it was high time I opened a gallery here of Pure Artwork from the forum. I'm writing this while halfway through choosing the images and let me state at this time that it is monstrously difficult not to post practically all of them and run headlong into my upload limit. (Yes, Blogspot does have one. I may need to create my own website some day, but only when I've actually done something more impressive than moderate a forum and waffle a lot!)
(Update, a few hours later: I really did read all 96 pages of the Pure Art Thread this evening. It was a pleasure, and felt like no work at all.)
Anyway, the Pure Art thread is 96 pages long - and I recommend reading the entire thing, even if bit by bit. I have just found that I can go through 30 pages at a time without wanting to stop.
It has many heroes, but I think Alexandre and Caro are the greatest!
The SDSS images provide plenty of their own pure artwork. Alexandre called this imaging artifact "Asteroid Fall in the Ocean" . . .
. . . and this one "The rising of a red giant, with the reflection, on a telluric planet with methane ocean". But it's not all oceans.
Tweaks and brush strokes in Pure Art began lightly, with Alexandre using the invert button to show "NGC 5005 as never seen":
Jules introduced humorous irony with "Emptiness" . . . .
. . . and Pluk the mystical, with "I confess . . . I confess . . .":
Caro, the other artistic genius, landed upon the thread and soon procured for us a "Another view of my favourite star":
and Alexandre found a "Polarised Interstellar Cloud".
He also demonstrated some science with "Particle and Wave".
Jules found "Sunset Divided":
Milk_n_Cookies painted an amazing cloud . . .
. . . and Liz found some balloons . . .
Lemsgate's Sock soon became quite a favourite. As he put it, "I always knew there was a wormhole at the back of my sock drawer."
Of course, sometimes the Universe tells us what it thinks. "Colouring the Universe" by Alexandre.
It was Caro who started inserting several images at once as well as playing clever tricks with the imaging, in order to take the art to a new level:
Then she learnt about FITS, from an Object of the Day by Pat.
Citisue supplied us with some Psychedelic Art of most satisfactory colours:
This is one of my favourite ever pieces of artwork from Caro.
Caro again. I don't even know how to make these little squares. I presume they have some SDSS purpose.
She also discovered how to make a galactic drawing board. Is she a secret architect?
Ionnab discovered a starry toothbrush!
And by this point I really don't know what Caro's doing.
Among much more, Lizardly drew up some impressive geometric patterns:
Then Pluk outstripped nearly all the pictures in here with this . . . and guess what its caption was?
"People of Earth, your attention please,
This is Prostetnic Vogon Jeltz of the Galactic Hyperspace Planning Council.
As you will no doubt be aware, the plans for development of the outlying regions of the Galaxy require the building of a hyperspatial express route through your star system, and regrettably your planet is one of those scheduled for demolition."
But the Pure Art Thread isn't the only astonishing artwork taking place at the zoo. There's also a wonderful topic, again by Alexandre, titled "Just Draw me a Sheep". He draws the galaxies.
First we have the Loch Ness Monster . . .
Then the Snow Angel:
And finally - the Hula Hoop!
I'd better stop now before I do run out of megabytes! But I have the feeling that I will have to celebrate more Galaxy Zoo Artwork again. Especially as Stripe 82 is down and therefore I can't get at most of Caro's amazing work tonight - which is probably just as well!
I have always been terrifically inspired by the creativity of the Zooites, and have written three Objects of the Day about Galactic Art. Here they are:
The Journey of the SDSS Starship Enterprise
How the Milky Way was really created
Have fun and join the artists!
Wait, hold on -- Australia?
You can't be a young-earth creationist and be from Australia. I think if you're a young-earth creationist, you're not even allowed to believe in Australia. That continent is evolution's playground, it's showroom. Ken Ham couldn't have built his Creation Museum in Australia because they already have a thriving Evolution Museum there -- it takes up the entire island. The displays are fantastic.
How do the Creationists account for Australian flora and fauna? But I appreciate the main point of the blog post: that arguing over details isn't worth it in relation to the terrible position of either believing Genesis to the letter, or your universe going to pieces. It sounds like the most horrendous, agonising mental trap to be caught in. Education and science are such a release! In practical terms, the best thing is that nobody is my enemy or the enemy of any deity I believe in; as far as I see it, the entire human race is up for my friendship.
What can actually be done to help people caught in such a mental trap? Well, I don't want to interfere in others' beliefs; it's not my business to be so arrogant or cause such pain. It does seem, though, that this extremism can only be a manifestation of a deep-felt terror and utter distrust. To these people, the Universe is evil, other people are evil unless they think a very specific thing. That sounds to me like a society full of distrust, where money means influence and, no doubt, violence - where trust and cooperation and sharing are not expected. But perhaps I got that out of Daughter of Persia (the society, not the religion) . . . A New Scientist article I read years ago, which I'm trying and failing to find now, linked religion to the belief that other people are evil and to societies which don't cooperate or share well. A discussion of another one, which I've just found, simply states that if someone you trust tells you religion is true, you're likely to believe it.
I have no interest in converting anyone to atheism. I do have an interest, though, in making people feel safe - safe with learning what an amazing Universe we live in, and safe with the idea of working together, sometimes with people who are very different.
(P.S. If you want to leave a comment, do read the article, which is on a site called Slacktivist and is much better than mine!)
Tuesday, 25 August 2009
This classic of science fiction was published in 1969, and is as up-to-date as though it came out yesterday. Perhaps that's a strange thing to say about a novel set thousands of years in the future, on a planet not our own. But perhaps it's a gentle mocking of our own history. Or even a warning to our race. Yet at the same time the world is wonderfully and convincingly completely foreign.
The planet in question is named Gethen, nicknamed "Winter" by the first humans to visit it, because its temperatures are permanently freezing. Its inhabitants, the Gethenians, are both similar to and different from humans, the most important difference being that they are all hermaphrodites.
The Gethenians have no space travel or knowledge of alien civilisations; so when an Envoy arrives from a far-future, much-improved Earth, offering them an alliance with many other worlds, they disbelieve and fear him. Not the sort of fear you'd expect; but you must find the details out for yourself. He begins the story in beautiful prose:
"I'll make my report as though I told a story, for I was taught as a child on my homeworld that Truth is a matter of the imagination. The soundest fact may fail or prevail in the style of its telling . . . The story is not all mine, nor told by me alone. Indeed I am not sure whose story it is; you can judge better." The other tellers of the story are a Gethenian, a human scientist, and several short legends of two major countries on Gethen: Karhide and Orgoreyn. The legends shed much light on the world's religions, laws, traditions, and families. They are a treasure to read, and I could almost see sunlight making patterns on the ice as I did so.
They are also a delightful tickle to anyone keen on science, especially astronomy. One legend is about an all-seeing fellow named Meshe (well, I say "fellow"; the characters choose to use the pronoun "he" because it is less specific than "she" or "it"). He was all-seeing in the sense that "our doing is his Seeing: our being his Knowing" and that, to him, past and future are all the present. Apostrophes and entertaining but profound footnotes are used occasionally in the book; here is one such case:
Meshe saw all the sky as it it were all one sun . . . The stars that flee and take away their light all were presnt in his eye, and all their light shone presently.*Which is completely true, and was dubbed by one professor I had as "the simplest experiment you can do" (go out and look at the night sky - the fact that it's dark, rather than covered with stars, means the Universe must be expanding).
*This is a mystical expression of one of the theories used to support the expanding-universe hypothesis, first proposed by the Mathematical School of Sith over four thousand years ago and generally accepted by later cosmologists, even though meteorological conditions on Gethen prevent their gathering much observational support from astronomy. The rate of expansion (Hubble's constant; Rerherek's constant) can in fact be estimated from the observed amount of light in the night sky; the point here involved is that, if the universe were not expanding, the night sky would not appear to be dark.
The inhabitants of Gethen all being the same sex is a major theme in the book, and the consequences of this anomaly are very far-reaching. The Gethenians do not go to war, and the Earthly protagonist remarks, "They behaved like animals, or like women" - which sounds like an insult, but also like a compliment, and was very funny. One chapter begins, "My landlady, a voluble man . . ." Not to mention, "The king was pregnant." Alongside the laughter is the totally unexpected, such as a warning to humans that their masculinity or femininity will never be appreciated on Gethen: "One is respected and judged only as a human being. It is an appalling experience." That which I would long for as a freedom and relief! Anyone can be a mother, or father, or both; everyone and no one is tied down and categorised. Their reproductive means are complicated, intriguing, and made me intensely curious - and rather wishful that we Earthlings could be like that, or at least that I could slip into the mind of a Gethenian to try it all out.
One aspect of real bravery in writing is not writing some of the things your book is saying. Just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, a point subtly made - which the reader works out for himself - is a stronger point than if it was spoon-fed. It takes even more courage to leave a plot dangling, the great question of the book never answered, as Cynthia Voigt does with "Sons from Afar". And what Ursula Leguin does at one point in the novel is to leave the readers' desires unfulfilled. There was a point in the book when I felt almost - being so very much inside the minds of the characters - that I would be able to "try it out"; but I was left unfulfilled. It was disturbingly clever. I was left in longing - left to speculate, left to care a lot more, so that the book was able to clobber me round the throat and leave me aching with sorrow. Not that the ending is all sorrowful: by the end, a healthy hope is growing for Gethen.
The whole book is disturbingly clever. It's not long, but has reams of satisfactory ingredients for a delicious read. It's got travels across this Arctic planet rich in detail; it's got alien tricks that appear almost magical (just as the human protagonist's equipment does to them); it's got adventure, toil, political intrigue, tragedy . . . It's also got mystery and beautifully constructed lack of understanding. The dialogue at first seems clunky, unrewarding, and containing little interesting information. As the reader gets to know and understand the Gethenian's different ways of communicating, you start to realise what they are really saying, and unlike some novels which involve misunderstandings it's chillingly plausible and inevitable. Largely because of this, good and evil wear each other's faces very convincingly, and the character you end up liking the best is not the one you expected to.
I found the book a bit hard to get into for the first chapter. At first I wasn't sure whether it was a Gethenian or the Envoy talking (it's the Envoy). But within a few pages, I was immersed in it; I could feel the cold and see the Gethenian streets and forests and faces. I was also a bit dubious about some of the science - I don't think any primates as advanced as them could have evolved on a planet with no other large or intelligent terrestrial animals, and I'm not convinced that an elliptical planetary orbit alone could cause seasons (the planet isn't very tilted; our Earth also has an elliptical orbit, and we're furthest from the Sun during summer if I remember correctly). I think there's also a hint at one point that capitalism and individuality means more concern for others, with which I didn't agree (though it had an important context with which I wouldn't argue); and I wanted to jump into the pages and start a row when a Gethenian remarks to himself "To be an atheist is to maintain God" - even though that again has an extremely specific context.
There is an awful lot to think about in that book, yet at no point did I feel any dryness, or information overload. Perhaps one of the most interesting things is the demonstration of two "ideals": one, the hermaphrodite state, in which everybody is equal; two, the Ekumen, a civilisation humanity has managed to attain whose morals and abilities make our present politics and countries look savage and stupid. I had a look on her website and it looks as if there are many more books about the Ekumen. "The Left Hand of Darkness" has the feel of one of those unique novels to me, one of those super-special ones whose sequels would never be as good - but I am impressed enough that I've every intention of reading more of Ursula LeGuin's work to find out. There's something for everyone in "The Left Hand of Darkness". I can't think of anyone who wouldn't find it interesting.
Monday, 24 August 2009
This was an important meet-up as we knew a lot of Zooites were coming. Chris leaked the news that there was going to be a special one back at the Peas in Oxford gathering. That's why I called it the Mystery Meet-Up: nobody knew quite what was happening, and the zookeepers were infuriatingly vague. They enjoy themselves that way!
Anyway, we began to get the idea that it would be a large gathering, and zooites began to book trains. One of the most exciting things was that our beloved Bill would be coming all the way from the States.
I began to prepare . . .
Yes - red, green and blue smarties are missing. There were surprisingly few of them for 2 packets of smarties. They made asteroid muffins. I went to London a few days in advance and stayed with some lovely people who enjoyed eating these muffins, so I made some more. The bewilderment my hosts must have felt when I asked them not to eat the asteroids . . .
(Asteroids appear as green, red and blue spots because the SDSS telescope has a green, a red and a blue filter. The asteroid moves in relation to the Earth while the camera looks at it through its different filters. All the images are a conglomerate of these colours, plus two more filters which don't show up visibly - but moving objects appear in separate places.)
Obviously, the Zoo first congregated in the Cafe.
I was delighted to meet some people I hadn't met before, such as Julianne (Capella on the forum); Peter from the brother and sister duo LizPeter, our nebulae specialists; a friend of Rick's; and Caro the artist.
There was a show at 13:45 which many people went to, "The Sky Tonight". I didn't as I've seen plenty of things like that before! As soon as that was over, we headed to a little courtyard at the bottom of some steps . . .
(I love the dapply sunlight and the reflections of Zooites in the windows! The shows run behind them . . .)
. . . where we met Bill! He was wearing his NGC3314 shirt.
I saw Fluffy talking to someone who looked familiar - and it was Carie from the Peas Project! It was great to meet her too; she explained some extremely cool stuff about peas and dust to me on the way down the hill later. We had a lovely tour by a very friendly guide who later came to the pub with us. Sadly there were so many of us that not everybody heard very much! This is very cool - a sundial of two dolphins.
As is the inside of one of the domes.
I had such a great day last year when I saw a couple of planetarium shows - one of the best bits was when they began the usual announcement: "If you've got a mobile phone . . ." then continued, ". . . don't worry about it - we are under 32 tonnes of bronze and the likelihood of your getting a signal is vanishingly small!"
During the tour several of us had to rush off to see the next show, "The Dawn of the Space Age". It had some good parts, but all in all I was very disappointed. The historical highlights were great, but the rest of it was . . . well, slowed-down and cartoonified. There was almost no live footage, even though I think a lot of the sound tracks were authentic. Showing the Russian astronauts orbiting the Earth, and then Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landing on the Moon as cartoon characters, seemed unnecessary as well as insulting. (I really must write a blog post on why I don't like the use of cartoons to tell stories.) Also they wasted an awful lot of time with clunking bits of machinery and emotional music, trying to stretch it out, when actually I was just sitting there getting bored. But it was nice to see the show even so. And it ended with a quote from an astronaut saying that it's historically accurate, which is one thing!
Incidentally, if you're wondering what planetarium shows to see, I recommend "Star Life" and the young children's one about the cardboard rocket! I do not recommend "Black Holes: Beyond Infinity", which is basically a bunch of overblown graphics and left the three children who came to see it with us bewildered as to what a black hole actually is. There is another I haven't seen about ice worlds, which some people seem to enjoy and others not. I'm quite curious about it.
Anyway, the really interesting bit came after that show was finished. We got herded into a lecture theatre - and then realised there were just too many of us.
So, thanks to the fantastic people working at the Observatory, we got another lecture theatre. Chris and Bill herded half of us into another room. The remaining half were left with Carie and Jordan. We all introduced ourselves. I explained that I was the dictator.
Jordan told us about his work looking into why people try out Galaxy Zoo. He interviewed some people at random, who came up with many reasons to classify galaxies: beauty, teaching, learning, community, possibility of being the first person in the world to see something . . . But the overwhelming reason people gave for choosing to participate was the chance to contribute to real scientific research.
This means various things - very good things. For a start, it means that Galaxy Zoo wasn't just lucky: it means that other citizen science projects are likely to attract people who want to contribute, as well. And to me, it also means that people have a deep respect for science, and that citizen science is the way both to teach people and to do science.
Jordan wrote up the "12 Reasons" why people participate here. I see a certain way to sort them: one is what gets people here, and the other what keeps them. For example, the beauty and the thought of being the first person to see some galaxies is the former; the community and learning is one of the latter. The chance to contribute to research, I feel, is both.
Carie told us more about the peas, and when we'd swapped rooms Chris and Bill told us more about zoo projects generally. The story of how Bill got to the forum is really wonderful - that's another thing I'll save for a separate post, perhaps if I ever find out his birthday! (Hint, hint!)
Outside in the sun again, headed for the pub, I made sure that the shirts got on record again. Jules and I were the only two to turn up in proper uniform.
Bill has been taking the Zoo Sign on tour quite a lot lately, and it was ceremoniously handed over to Capella who can take it to Italy and South Africa.
And then we had a great group photo!
The best astronomical ideas (such as Galaxy Zoo) start in pubs, so that was where we headed next. Chris has a habit of picking good pubs. Suddenly a lot more people seemed to arrive on the scene. I hadn't been there too long when I had one of the most pleasant surprises of my life: two very nice American ladies who Chris had brought along wanted to meet me to hear about how to moderate a forum! Chris introduced me as "the queen of the forum", which I'm not quite sure is true, but we stood and talked for a long time. I cheekily asked Chris if this meant there were more forums coming, and could I moderate them too? He pointed out that I can't moderate fifty forums. Hmmmm! Curiouser and curiouser!
How do you moderate a forum successfully? Well, I told them a lot of the basics, such as praise in public and reprimands in private, avoiding arguing, dealing with the behaviour rather than the subject under discussion if a nasty argument starts, and deciding when to address something publicly and when privately. I emphasised how important it is never to forget you are a moderator and therefore you just have to give up a little freedom in expressing your opinions (that's one reason I have this blog!); when interfering with someone's post, such as moving it to another thread, it's good policy to demonstrate to them that it's to their advantage rather than just interfering. I talked about a good book I read many years ago, "That's not what I meant!" by Deborah Tannen, about linguistics and how signals can be misinterpreted; I recommended that you find every opportunity to save people's pride, and be patient with them, and the next thing you know they'll be supporting a culture they initially found very strange . . . I said a lot more, I expect. But the most important thing about moderating a forum, I think, is harder to explain. I'll relate a totally unrelated story to try and express it.
"We Need to Talk about Kevin" by Lionel Shriver is a fascinating and painful novel set in the Clinton era when, evidently, high school shootings were frequent. The protagonist - Eva, the mother of a boy who kills several of his classmates - has a keen eye for extreme detail about other people, and runs little soliloquies about them. Her parents-in-law have quite a hobby of gadgets and time-saving. Her father-in-law especially is constantly building new items to save himself time - and gets a bit bewildered to find himself having more and more free time. What can he do with it?
That made me think of how society generally, and workplaces, and government targets and so on, are obsessed with using machines when people could do the job, so laying off workers; and, when this isn't possible, telling people to stick to methods to save time. This sounds like a negative view of what's generally a good thing. But there are times, particularly in human relationships, when this is a damaging thing to do. There aren't quick fixes with bringing up a child, or maintaining a happy partnership. Time and love, the things all these methods and machines try so hard to circumvent, are the only things which really work.
If you ask me, it's the same with the forum. No fancy methods or tricks I could perform would be a real substitute for spending a lot of time there. If I never made any mistakes on the forum, but I didn't care about it much, I wouldn't affect what happens there. It's like writing long instructions threads for people. That's often useful and saves time, but it's also impersonal. I find that people often understand much quicker simply because somebody else is taking the trouble to explain something to them. In fact, if someone is unhappy on the forum I can get very hurt even if I know rationally that they are being unreasonable. And I do make mistakes sometimes, but I find people are very forgiving of that.
There's a lot of human messiness, vulnerability, and time-wasting involved in my approach. But it works better than any fancy tricks.
Other people I met were some young programmers, who I couldn't resist privately dubbing "The Programmers in Black"! One is named Scott; he's wearing the grey cap. They have evidently been in on some messages I sent to the administrators about the problems the forum merger created, which I should have phrased more tactfully, and probably thought I was an unappreciative dragon! Well, it was lovely to talk to them anyway!
It was lovely how many zooites had come along to meet more of the people they talk to in the virtual world every day; and thrilling to meet so many people of whose existence I hadn't even known, coming to work at the zoo as it expands beyond my own sight. I think there are going to be a lot of surprises over the next few years.
The following week, there was a big week-long conference for all these people! Several zooites assumed I'd be there and have been asking me questions about it. I wasn't. I was supposed to go to a session, but then, at the last minute, plans changed and the work became less speculative and more confidential and plan-filled. To say I wasn't upset about this would hardly be true, especially when I missed Tom and Jules talking in the education conference; but I guess nobody can go to everything. I guess I'm not enough of a specialist to go anywhere in a conference. I'm not a scientist or teacher or programmer, I'm just . . . the one who takes care of things when they come. In any case, you can follow it on Twitter here, and read more on the forum and blog. (I missed all the livestreaming. I just wasn't feeling well and didn't turn it on! I hope someone will write it up for us all.) Highlights include a planned Moon Zoo, and some videoing and taking more spectra of selected galaxies!
There also seems to be a planned return to something I thought must have fallen by the wayside: studying crows in their natural habitat. Crows can use tools pretty spontaneously in the laboratory, and are very good at using human machines for their purposes. I saw a wonderful video a year or so ago about a crow that worked out for itself to bend a wire and make a loop to get food out of a jar, and wild ones dropping their nuts under car tyres to crush them. The question is: do they do this in the wild, without human influence? Getting lots of humans to watch them on camera will be much better than one or two people!
All in all, the future of the zoo - or the zoo idea, as it's going to many more places - is looking incredibly exciting. This isn't the first post I've ended with some artwork of Caro's, so here is another of her pieces of perfection:
P.S. I reminded myself at the beginning, but it had still dropped out of my head at the end, to say thank you to Jules and Mr Jules, Caro (and Mr Caro?), Paddy, Blackprojects, Geoff, and probably more of you for these wonderful pictures which I stole with impunity.
Saturday, 15 August 2009
Read the post and particularly the letter here.
In the comments especially, the question is emphasised: Are they claiming to treat colic or not? The chiropractors say no, we're not. But it seems that there is a claim on their website that colic may improve after treatment.
First of all, colic probably improves after treatment because colic goes away on its own anyway. A blind trial would demonstrate whether it goes away faster or more commonly (or what have you) following chiropractic than following no treatment, or some other treatment. I am sure such a trial would have been unearthed by now if there were such results?
But there is an interesting point raised here. Scientifically, a lot of things can happen in conjunction. Place a beaker of cold water over a Bunsen burner flame, and you'll find after a while that there's a lot of steam in the air. Therefore, the Bunsen burner flame gives off steam? No, of course not, the water does. The two do happen in conjunction, though.
Or take the case of a patient with anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome and a general feeling of ill health. The doctor prescribes an antidepressant for the anxiety. The anxiety diminishes - and the irritable bowel syndrome and general health also improve. The antidepressant was not prescribed for the physical symptoms, but it did end up affecting them. Improvement in one thing may lead to an improvement in others. The mind and the body work very much together: it is all too well known in the teaching profession that teachers suffer from illness in the holidays because their bodies hold it off until they have time to be ill. (Or, if the stress overcomes them, they get ill a lot during term time.)
It's all a bit like this great XKCD comic, Correlation:
I have the feeling that if we had a well-educated, scientifically aware and confident public, there actually wouldn't be a problem with presenting the case scientifically. Get some treatment, and your general health is likely to improve. As things are, there are just too many problems associated with that.
For one thing, chiropractic is not as risk-free as claimed. For another, it's operating as a business, and therefore it should be subject to the same standards as other businesses. I remember an incident when I was very little: I noticed an advertisement on a shop sign saying "A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play". I remarked to my mother that surely that wasn't true. She said indeed not, and they had in fact been prosecuted for saying it.
"Dr" Homoky challenges Simon Perry with the statement: "I wonder if you have applied the same rigorous analysis to a wide range of medical treatments which are provided by medical doctors on a daily basis—many of which are proven to be ineffective, unnecessary and/or carry a high risk of negative outcome." The difference is that this is well known and acknowledged. If I go to the doctor and am prescribed a medicine, they say, "Make an appointment for a week's time, and tell me how you're getting on with it. It's different for everyone. If it doesn't work for you, we'll try something else." A good doctor will discuss an operation with a patient and their family before they go ahead with it, so that they know the outcome may not be what they want. Traditional medicine does not claim to provide miracles.
A patient is a vulnerable person. They're often tired, their minds are seldom at their best, and they may be lonely and very stressed and unhappy. That, I believe, is at the heart of what's wrong with the government's great idea of providing "choice for patients". I know what it's like to be severely ill, and the last thing you want then is to have to make choices. If the patient chooses, they're still responsible and in charge just when they need a break. It also means that if they make the wrong choice, the outcome is their fault - I can't think of anything that would make one more bitter about lasting ill health. If you really are ill, you need someone knowledgeable to take over. I don't make these statements lightly; not only have I experienced serious illness but come from a medical family.
Chiropracters are posing as these knowledgeable people. A suggestion that they will help your screaming baby's colic sounds like a godsend. And that's why more care is required: they're not addressing a scientific journal, but often very tired people who want quick remedies and often lack knowledge. Ah - how very convenient.
According to the e-mail Simon Perry received, knowledge is none of the public's business. "I’m afraid I won’t be sending you any information . . . I was happy to provide details to the Edinburgh Council as they requested, but this is, quite frankly, our business and not yours." Not to mention criticising Simon Perry's not talking to him whilst making it clear that he's far too busy to talk!
I also couldn't help noticing that behind the very friendly, polite tone of "Dr" Homoky's letter was the tactic of guilt trips. "My new wife and I have had our first baby, and we would like to enjoy his beautiful entry into the world. Please do not send any further emails to me." He's made it clear he's not on leave, he has the time to be practicing, so the implication is that Simon Perry is preventing him from enjoying his baby by e-mailing. This "poor little me, my feelings are so hurt" attitude seems to be the reasoning behind which the BCA sued Simon Singh, too. Diana Wynne Jones has written a wonderful book "Black Maria" about how people use guilt to control others!
In effect, it's using weakness as a weapon: not countering an argument, but "You wouldn't stoop to hurt me, would you?" Now I'm being very naughty to go down this route, but I suspect clashes between this approach, and the more straightforward battling one, is one symptom of cultural clashes. When I was 21 I lived in southern Spain, and it was well known that the Spanish and the Moroccans didn't always get on. I hadn't been there long when I noticed that, while the Spanish often enjoy a shouting match, the Moroccans tended (no, I am not saying "exclusively Moroccans" or "they always did this" - I don't want to judge or generalise, merely to report something I spotted over 10 months) to use the weakness approach, particularly in facial expression. It was only days before I found that the less help I asked for, the more determined I was to settle my own problems out there, the more the Spanish bent over backwards to help me. They admired independence. This snippet has no relevance to the BCA or the e-mail other than entertainment, and the tentative suggestion that it's a cultural difference. Science enters straightforward battles. Chiropractic says "Poor little me". What do you think?
All in all, I can't resist quoting just once more from Ben Goldacre's wonderful article that led to my previous post: "You may view this as bullying individuals, and initially I had some sympathies. But my heart was hardened." Poor Little Me is not a statement of competence or truthfulness. Would you put your health in the hands of a doctor who refused to give you information but only asked you to protect him? I don't think so.
Tuesday, 11 August 2009
"In the court of public opinion", Simon Singh has already won - as have "an intrepid, ragged band of bloggers"
Simon has just added a PS: his oral appeal, although it has a less than 50% chance of success, is set for 14th October. He sounds optimistic. "At the heart of the case," he writes, "is whether or not chiropractic can help children with serious ailments. More broadly, there is the issue of how freely a journalist can speak out on a matter of public interest."
Earlier in the same post, he writes, more specifically: "Moreover, there have already been many positive outcomes emerging from the case. For instance, the legal battle has shone a light on chiropractors and their claims; there have been major articles in magazines such as ‘New Scientist’ and the ‘British Medical Journal,’ and, of course, bloggers have been writing extensively about the lack of evidence for some chiropractic claims."
It wasn't until the BMJ landed on the doorstep of my medic-filled house that I learnt about a delicious article written in the Guardian by Ben Goldacre. Back on 29th July, Goldacre remarked that the positive outcomes of the fight that has ensued between the BCA and free speech will far outweigh the negatives if Simon loses the case. With glee-raising hilarity, he mocks the "cherry-picking" approach to science by the BCA, and their pathetic appearance next to other medical bodies. "Neither the General Medical Council nor the British Medical Association have ever sued anyone for saying that their members are up to no good. I asked them. The idea is laughable."
He states that it is scientifically and ethically wrong to try and settle disagreements by suing, rather than by proper healthy scepticism and seeing if claims can stand up to evidence. "To stand in the way of ideas and practices being improved through critical appraisal is not just dangerous," he writes, "it is disrespectful to patients, and even if someone has been technically defamatory in their wording, it is plainly undesirable for all critical discourse in healthcare to be conducted in a stifling climate of fear." Scientists and real doctors can take criticism, because they're actually trying to cure people. Apparently, the BCA is too weak for such harsh realities.
But those who really come out in full glory - apart from Simon, of course - are the bloggers. The BMJ article, whose whole is unavailable online (and asks to be cited as BMJ 2009; 339:b3166), clearly supports the fact that the law is not the same as scientific reason, approvingly quotes many statements made by Sense About Science, and concludes by quoting Goldacre as crediting them with doing "a better job of subjecting an entire industry's claims to meaningful, public scientific scrutiny than the media, the industry itself and even its own regulators".
I'd say that was the case. It was the Quackometer plus bloggers who revealed the highly telling McTimoney letter, which certainly reveals the fear and ethics by which chiropracters are asked to work with (even if the BCA said no such thing, it now can agree with McTimoney and look silly, or disagree with them and look divided). Bloggers in swarms reproduced the original article containing the criticised thus immortal words, ". . . happily promotes bogus treatments" - whose edited whole plus removed sentences you can find with Jack of Kent plus others. It was bloggers who took the trouble to go through all the "evidence" presented by the BCA and tear it apart; to keep everybody updated; to cry out for "free speech"; to devote more time to the case than a newspaper or magazine might choose to pay for, "to an engaged lay audience, with clarity as well as swagger". (Not, I might add, that newspapers and magazines have neglected the issue. It's gone all over the world, especially the issue of free speech. The Guardian article has a lovely long list of them.) Also, it was such bloggers who made the formal complaints, to bodies such as the Trading Standards Office. Simon Perry has a wonderful blog post about his Adventures in Nonsense on this front . . .
As Galaxy Zoo demonstrates, citizen scientists are a unique strength to science; and as Clay Shirky writes in my favourite ever article, ordinary people who write for websites such as Wikipedia are a huge new social force. "Never doubt that a small, thoughtful group of people could change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever does," is an oft-repeated quote of Margaret Mead.
I hope that what the people do can lead to a change in the law. "It's strange this task has fallen to them," concludes Ben Goldacre, "but I'm glad someone is doing it, and they do it very, very well indeed."
Personally it has been an invigorating experience getting - in my own tiny way - involved with this campaign. I had never heard of Simon Singh or even really of chiropractic before this business began. I did vaguely know that libel laws were ridiculous and too easy to use for quick money. I didn't know how quite how flimsy the science of alternative medicine could be (though I had an intuitive scepticism, admittedly strengthened by coming from a medical family), and the nonsense they seem to be getting away with compared to the rigorous standards expected of food and chemicals, for example.
I seriously hope Simon wins his case - though I won't be surprised if he has to take it to the European Court of Human Rights. I expect it to be very long and costly for him, and an unpleasant experience. I am really delighted and encouraged to feel optimistic about human beings by the amount of support he's getting. I intend to buy his books as well. Hopefully, there'll eventually be a change in the law, which will doubtless be of benefit to me as well as millions of other writers and people interested in science. Personally, I've learnt a lot more about public science, the media, and the law - and also encountered great people such as Jack of Kent. If some people are behaving like greedy unscientific idiots, others are being brave, devoting their time, and demanding better of responsible bodies. Hats off to them!
Monday, 10 August 2009
Thanks to Geoff on the forum for taking this one! Both guys are RAS folks. The back of the moon shirt says "The Dark Side of the Moon". Don't the three of us have outstanding taste?
Friday, 7 August 2009
Lezard writes, "We are in the grip of a joyless, bleak utilitarianism, one whose gaze is becoming fixed not on the horizon, or the stars, or the bigger picture, but on the bottom line: the line of economy, of cost/benefit analysis, a world of bean-counters, box-ticking and assessments."
"Don't get me started," I hear many of you reply, groaning about all the extra nonsense you're landed with in the workplace. Unless of course you subscribe to such things, and talk about how today's school pupils are the "best in Europe", meaning that they pass our exams better than the Finns do - while other surveys find that our pupils are among the least educated (getting to know many non-English students in the UK and in Spain certainly bore that out).
It's certainly true that things like this are a childhood toy of a dream to be put away once you're sensible and ready for a tick-box and agree-with-the-boss career:
Credit: APOD, 3 years ago yesterday (I was clicking around randomly and accidentally stumbled upon it. Yes - a piece of that sky is my new title heading!)
The stars may look pretty, but they won't fill your bank account, etc. etc. etc. etc.
Lezard chose an interesting little snippet to illustrate the "degradation": that in his old college, there is no longer any means of cooking except with a microwave oven. "If you want to turn impressionable people . . . into mindless consumers," he writes, "then one very good way to start the process is to make microwaving the only available means of preparing food . . . It's another area of potential delight closed off forever. In its small way it symbolises the barbaric, rootless anti-civilisation we are turning into."
It certainly means the students will be living off pizza, chips, and frozen microwaved meals bought at vast expense from the supermarkets - where as many of them who can will be working, probably through lecture time, to try and begin to pay off the huge debt they are accumulating, and which will accumulate further from not learning to cook and feed themselves cheaply.
Last year, I worked for an environmental company. A girl who was getting all the right boxes ticked at university and who was on a placement with us was due to leave university in £30,000 of debt. She's due for a great career, so she may well be able to pay it off one day. But that's a massive multiple of what most people will be earning after they leave.
There are two heavy financial costs of university: tuition fees, and everything else. I'm going to rant about each of these separately.
A few years ago there was the news that prospective university students would be questioned about whether their parents went to university, giving preference to those whose parents did not. I now feel bad for any future children I have, since I went and a lot of it was a waste of time. Children are punished enough for their parents as it is: those who have a poor relationship with them are more vulnerable to pressure at school, since teachers can exploit their poor relationship by threatening to telephone them about bad behaviour. And by the time you're 18, university should be about you, not your parents.
I have a friend whose parents refused to pay the tuition fees or give my friend any financial support for university, as they had different career plans for their offspring in mind. This makes university an extention of boarding school. Few young people can fund such a thing for themselves. In fact, if their parents are well-off, they are more vulnerable, because they won't get any financial support if their parents won't stump up. The really sad thing about tuition fees is that they make university a private enterprise, and all about the market, rather than about learning. If the universities really need all that money all of a sudden, where did it come from before? Could it be that the government is depriving them in favour of the arms industry and going to war? In effect, that's just getting the citizens to pay for our wars - or whatever the government is funding.
If universities are suddenly overstretched, what is the reason for that? It certainly isn't that their professors are spending all their time teaching people, in my experience. I very rarely saw any professor face to face, and we didn't have tutorials, only lectures and practicals run by PhD students. I should have gone to the library more, but I hadn't a clue what to do in there. Books upon books upon books of incomprehensible papers. I hadn't the slightest idea how to read and digest a science paper - in fact, I still feel frustrated and confused when I try to read them. I hadn't the foggiest how to even find the right one, and nobody ever explained. I hadn't a clue what sort of thing I was supposed to read, how I should find out, what I should be looking for. For me, university was a case of: "Here, show me what you learnt at school, and we'll award your degree on that. If school left you totally unprepared, that's your problem." Only by listening to the arrogant private school graduates, who had been carefully tutored and prepared, did I find out a little of what on earth I was supposed to be doing - too late for my dissertation. By the time I actually had some inkling of what research actually is (as opposed to memorising, which I'd thought was what I was supposed to do), it was time to graduate.
That particular problem is only going to get worse. The hottest fashion accessory of my teaching course was "personalised learning". Oh, guess what - I just looked it up again to provide you with a link - there was reams of "personalised learning" stuff written on the Every Child Matters agenda in 2007 and 2008. No surprise: it has now gone out of fashion and the page has been taken down.
Anyway, "personalised learning" was the catchphrase of the year, the must-have accessory that the fashion police would pounce on you for failing to buy. (Whether you genuinely believed in the children as individuals or not, of course, was completely irrelevant.) It consisted of, rather than teaching several small points in a lesson, taking an entire hour to teach one small point in several different ways. The well-meaning intention was to cater for every learning style. The cumulative effect is, I suspect, trying to learn to ride a bicycle by not being allowed to pedal more than once a minute, or go more than six inches at a time - so you'd lose your balance and fall off. (Put a super-easy piano piece in front of me and I just can't play it! Put something complex enough to have a rhythm or a tune that makes sense, however, and I can get the pattern and give it a go.) It also meant that no child should be expected to read, write or listen. Some haven't got "the skills" to do that, and therefore nobody should be set a target that wasn't "SMART" - I forget what most of that stands for, but the "A" was for "achievable". Therefore, it was quite all right to teach people solely with playdough.
This was told to us as student teachers by an "advanced skills teacher". We were shocked. Wasn't it far crueller not to bother to teach a child to read just because they find it difficult? What about the rest of their life? What about university - you can't hand in a dissertation made of playdough! Such a suggestion made no sense to this teacher whatsoever. We might have been talking about preparing the kids to meet aliens. It was completely absurd. She looked at us with bigger and bigger eyes and said in a bewildered, but correcting voice: "Well, universities will just have to adapt." To playdough? Professors? Look, just move the professors and PhD students to another institution where they can do some real research, and equip universities with nursery school staff. That will solve everything.
Oh, except . . . no students. Sorry. Young people in this country are too stupid to be real students nowadays. But never mind - they do the best in Europe in their examinations!
Back to financial gripes. The option that is no longer open to students is, once they're at university, to live cheaply. That means find a cheap room to rent, and learn to cook. You can eat healthily and very cheaply with an old-fashioned marketplace, a few saucepans, and an oven and gas ring. You can also have your mates round for a meal, which those polystyrene microwave boxes aren't big enough to supply.
One thing that seems to have been outlawed is cheap accommodation. I shared a kitchen and bathroom with about 11 other people, and I loved it. We actually had a washing up rota that lasted pretty well for most of a year, and we soon learnt when we needed to get up in time to get a shower in the morning (that was easy for me - there was only one other science student on my corridor who needed to get to anything at 9am. The arts students only had about 4 hours of lectures a week. Their £3000/year-paying counterparts today will be paying £18.75 per lecture!) It encouraged us to cook for each other, to accept each other, to chat, to compromise, and to share.
But we were a minority. Those who lived in the swankier halls were appalled at the idea of sharing a bathroom with someone else. You had to swipe your card to get in, and then to get into their little collection of rooms plus kitchen. It felt very Orwellian, though I suppose it cut down on the people stealing milk. (Milk thieves are an age-old problem. My parents witnessed and experimented with such measures as: putting blue dye in it, putting a bicycle chain around it, and leaving a note saying "You do not know how I suffer when you steal my milk. Please keep off your hands!" I stuffed mine in plastic bags or behind my vegetables. Thieves are lazy and don't eat greens.) Not only did they develop suspicion and phobia of other people, they'd also still be in overdraft after each installment of their loan.
[This is my old hall of residence, Waveney Terrace, where endless fun and madness occurred. I will never ever forgive its demolition! Credit: This Flickr site, the picture donated by Natalie Usher. Its replacement is another swanky, debt-inducing, people-phobic nursery.]
To be in serious overdraft means you're desperate for any job going. You can't afford to be choosy, to strike if there's a problem, or to refuse to work very long hours. You depend on the clemency of the bankers to support you, and you live in fear of your home being taken away. You're also far too tired and busy working to do anything like criticise the government. Pinching paperclips and playing Solitaire become thrilling rebellion. Worry eats at you all the time, demands get too much - until dishonesty and corner-cutting become a necessary break, rather than lowdown, shameful behaviour.
I don't suggest that this is a concious motive of most of those who wish students to pay huge tuition fees and get pampered and spoiled rather than learn to live economically. But I bet they wouldn't object if it was pointed out to them. Because it means this country's citizens are learning, above all, dependence. More dependence means more consumerism, as John Wyndham pointed out in his thought-provoking short story "Consider her Ways". It also means obedience and gullibility. Very convenient while the oil still flows from the Middle East and unfortunate places like the Niger Delta. It won't be so convenient in the long run.
Thursday, 6 August 2009
This picture and the story appeared in the Telegraph a few days ago. Casper is a 12-year-old cat who looks spookily like my tortie-and-white longhair Cassie - but, unlike her (usually), Casper "loves people". His owner couldn't understand why he'd been disappearing every day for the last four years - it turned out he was jumping on the bus along with everyone else at the bus stop just outside his garden!
He catches the 10:55 bus and goes, from the sounds of it, all over Plymouth. A bus driver named Rob Stonehouse told the Telegraph, "He usually just curls up at the back of the bus. Sometimes he nips between people's legs but he never causes any trouble."
He's getting old now, so "the drivers often have to shuffle him off at the right stop. A spokeswoman for First Bus said the firm has put a notice up in the office asking them to look after the non-paying passenger." I bet many of the drivers and passengers love little ghostly Casper to pieces! And I do wish I could catch that bus!