Truth and Fiction (5/4/2003)
I have had an article published in the magazine Australasian Science. It's too long to reproduce on this page, but you can go here to read it. If you live in my part of the world and are interested in science I recommend this magazine. You can see more about Australasian Science here.
SARS – Scary Awful Rumour Syndrome (5/4/2003)
A new plague is threatening the world. Worse than the 1918 influenza epidemic, more horrible than Ebola, scarier than the yet-to-be-discovered weapons of mass destruction festering in Baghdad basements. It is the 14th century all over again as this terrible bug comes up like thunder out of China across the bay. Hundreds have been infected. Tens have died. Yes, I am talking about "Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome" or SARS. If AIDS was the TB of the eighties and nineties, SARS is the AIDS of the noughties. People everywhere are being advised to wear protection while engaging in risky behaviour like breathing, and the days of casual kissing with strangers are gone.
All is not hopeless, however. In times of desperation in health matters the practitioners of alternative medicine have never been too shy to climb out of the sewers and offer their bogus cures, and they have not disappointed this time. The first hint I had that the quacks were onto the problem was a message on a Hulda Clark supporters' mailing list saying that the zapper might prove effective in treating SARS. The real story, though, was that Young Living Essential Oils are claiming the first real, documented cure by drizzling frankincense and other magic potions on a sufferer. Well actually, it's one of YL's pyramid distributors making the claim rather than head office, but this is normal practice for MLM companies. (For example, Amway is never the origin of the rumours about Procter & Gamble and Satanism – it's always a distributor.) Even if you weren't sick these people would still make you want to vomit, wouldn't they?
Misdirected spam of the week (5/4/2003)
One of the annoyances with spam email is how badly it is targeted. I already have too many credit cards and a big enough home loan, I'm a city boy so I don't care what girls do in the farmyard, I get my inkjet cartridges at wholesale prices already, my cell phone reception is so good that I can't hide anywhere, and a bigger penis would just be a hindrance in the triathlon. This week I received a very strange email from a company in Thailand which sells electronic components. It seems that they think I make or sell transistors and even said "I understand that you are in "Quintessence of the Transistor" business, and I am very impressed with your web site and the way you promote your business on the internet". The page they had discovered "on the search engine HotBot when using the keyword search transistor" was in Quintessence of the Loon and even the poorest of English speakers should be able to figure out that the page has little to do with selling transistors. (Jack Shulman, the topic of that page, once sent me what is arguably the best piece of hate mail I have ever seen. You can see it here.)
Speaking of spam … (5/4/2003)
I have tried a variety of programs to help with the torrents of spam that afflict everyone these days. Over the last week I have been testing a program called MailWasher, and it looks like it does everything I want. I thoroughly recommend it, and, best of all, it's free (with a donation requested if you like it). There is a paid version if you want to filter Hotmail or download from multiple servers, but the free one will suit most people. You can download MailWasher here.
Pseudoscience in court (5/4/2003)
Some pseudoscientific theories have a surface plausibility that makes them look like they might almost be true. Some of these theories are so obviously wrong that the universe would look completely different if this was not so. A third class of theories are of such obvious and monumental crackpottery that it can be hard to work out what the propounders are talking about. Into this last class falls the research of Mr Theodore Rout (he is "Mr" because he has eschewed formal academic education). Up until now I have been ignorant of Mr Rout's body of work, but he claims to have proven that the speed of light is not constant, that it is easily possible to fuse four hydrogen atoms into helium, and that the arithmetic rules about multiplication and division by zero are incorrect. At least, I think that's what he claims, as he lacks a certain quality of lucidity. Of course, Mr Rout has a web site.
In his attempt to gain recognition for his marvellous discoveries, Mr Rout spent some of my tax money to appear before Justices Kirby and Heydon in the Hight Court of Australia. (The picture at the right shows The Honourable Justice Kirby shaking hands with a certain web site owner. It is not Mr Rout.) It appears from his web site that Mr Rout is no stranger to the Court. He seemed to think that the Court could make laws about anything it wanted to, including science (or even non-science), and could also order sanctions against the people conspiring against Mr Rout in order to suppress his findings. As an aside, he wanted a member of parliament dismissed for snubbing him. Justice Kirby was extremely polite in his discussions with Mr Rout, but I doubt that he had any better idea of what Mr Rout was talking about at the end of the session than he had at the beginning. You can read a transcript of this wonderful court appearance here. The opening paragraph of Mr Rout's argument appears below.
Okay, I might point out that the High Court of Australia, the legal system and I are victims of a mythological peer review organisation that does not exist and is staffed by volunteer workers of which there are none. So I am responsible for more than just proving there is another set of dividing and multiplying by zero and that it is incorrect. I have also proven in 1993 that Einstein's.....relativity is law. Now, all this data is related to, directly and indirectly related to, fusing of hydrogen which is..... I proved that the speed of light is alterable and controllable and I have delivered the evidence verbally in the Supreme Court on 29 August. I then went on in September last year to prove that time and the speed of light equal one another, such you alter one, you alter the other, and this in turn enables the altering of the speed of light within Einstein's relativity.
The right man for the job (12/4/2003)
Now that the first part of the war in Iraq is over, the question that has been on everyone's lips is "Where is he?". No, not Saddam Hussein, because nobody really cares which dumpster he ended up in, but Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, the former Iraqi Information Minister who daily regaled us with reports of the progress of the Battle for Baghdad. Rumours have abounded about his new job, although it was unfortunate that he was a little bit too late to apply for what would have been the perfect position – head of the audit division of Andersen's. Some have said that he has taken up a diplomatic post in France, where his job will be to argue that French farmers are so efficient and so much in favour of free trade that they require massive tariff walls to protect this efficiency and freedom. Another suggestion was that he had moved to Sydney to take up the vacant position of the head of State Rail, where he could assure the public that all trains always run on time, there are no bridges with bolts falling out of them, and that the only problem with the new and fabulously expensive Millennium trains is that the Roswell-derived alien technology used in the air conditioning system still has a few bugs in it. It was briefly thought that he had taken up a position in the software industry where his task would have been to explain how software was completely free of errors. (I tried to check up on this but nobody at Microsoft would return my calls.)
The mystery has now been solved, and in a RatbagsDotCom exclusive I can report that Mr al-Sahaf has established a public relations consultancy servicing the alternative cancer treatment industry. Traditional spokesfolks such as Tim Bolen and Mr William P. O'Neill now have some real competition for the hearts, minds and bank accounts of desperate people. Here is an extract from his first press release:
These mercenaries think they can come in here with their cutting, their burning and their poisoning to attack cancer. No oncologist or researcher is within 100 miles of a cure for cancer. We are in total control of the minds and wallets of the people suffering the effects of vaccination, amalgam fillings and aspartame. The bodies of conventional doctors are piling up as they commit suicide against the walls of Tijuana. We will slaughter the rest and rip out their spleens with magnets. Their blood, neoplasms and mercury from their teeth will flood the streets. Linus Pauling is alive.
Haven't the Iraqis suffered enough? (12/4/2003)
The aftermath of any war provides many opportunities, and not only for former business associates of senior politicians and manufacturers of carpet bags. One person seizing the day in Iraq is Franklin Graham, direct descendant of old Preaching Billy. Unlike many of the conman preachers (like Benny Hinn), Frank actually distributes some of the proceeds of Bible thumping to worthwhile causes. He has announced that his organisation is going to Iraq to provide humanitarian aid, and nobody could object to that. What can be objected to, however, is that it will also be used as an opportunity to preach the Gospel and enlighten the heathen Muslims to the one true path to salvation. Throughout the build-up to the war and during its execution the spin doctors have been very careful to squash any suggestion that this was a conflict between anyone and Islam, but this is just the perception which will be inferred if one of the first people into Iraq is a Bible-bashing preacher intent on converting lost souls, especially a preacher who is so close to President Bush. So, Mr Graham, please stay at home. Pray for the Iraqis by all means, but give your money to the Red Crescent or Red Cross and let them get on with what they are good at. There will be plenty of time for missionary work after Iraq has been turned into a civilised country again.
Speaking of rebuilding Iraq … (12/4/2003)
There is apparently no truth to the rumour that the commission which will establish democracy in Iraq and set up the electoral process will be headed by Governor Jeb Bush.
When help doesn't really help (12/4/2003)
According to the Alexa ranking system, the fourth most popular quackery site on the Internet is CureZone. (Robert Atkins is in first place, although I don't know how this will be affected by his recent accident, Andrew Weil is second, and Joseph Mercola is third. RatbagsDotCom would be in about 20th place if it were to be classed as an alternative medicine site.) During the week I was looking with horror at the support groups at CureZone and thinking how useless (and even dangerous) it would be for someone with an illness to expect any real help from these groups, and at the same time I was talking to someone about how even support groups for reputable outfits (in this case Weight Watchers) could lose their value if not properly managed. These incidents reminded me of a couple of experiences I have had with support or peer groups in real medicine. I realise that these are anecdotes and that a sample where n=2 is not very representative of anything, but I'm going to talk about them anyway.
I know someone who used to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. I went to a support group with her once and the experience was quite bizarre. The first warning sign suggested that this was a reinforcement group rather than a support group. One of the participants said that she had given up all hope of ever leading a normal life or having any relationship with a man. She was a reasonably attractive woman in her mid to late twenties who seemed quite intelligent and articulate. I told her that she should not give up because OCD could be overcome. The meeting then turned ugly, and I was challenged about my qualifications to make such an outlandish claim. I was also asked why I was there if I didn't have OCD myself.
One feature of OCD is rigid adherence to patterns. I had already put a wedge in a crack by being there without being a "victim", but a second incident caused the whole thing to fall apart. A lady "of middle-eastern appearance" (as the PC newspapers say) came into the room holding a piece of paper in her hand and asked in broken English whether this was room such-and-such. The normal, polite response to such a question would be to say something like "No. That's the next door along the corridor". Instead, the meeting leader simply told this poor woman to go away and stop interrupting. The lady obviously didn't understand what was said to her, so she asked again. This elicited a torrent of shouting and abuse which went on until she ran away. (I was brought up to be polite so I followed her outside. She was looking for the English class and I pointed her towards the correct room.) It was obvious that the person running the meeting was the maddest person in the room and that being part of this group was not going to help anybody. My companion and I got out as soon as it was politely possible to do so and never went back.
In the second case, a friend of mine was in a residential rehab program because of abuse of prescription drugs. We went to a social function at the place and the sole topic of conversation for all the inmates was the pharmacological activity of various chemicals. While not strictly a support group, it was obvious that the only patients who were likely to get any benefit were ones who never spoke to anyone other than the clinical staff.
"Limited only by the laws of physics" (19/4/2003)
I have had an article published in the magazine Australian Doctor. It's too long to reproduce on this page, but you can read it here.
Shaken Grandparent Syndrome (19/4/2003)
I was planning to write a piece this week about the people who are trying to get the world to believe that there is no such thing as Shaken Baby Syndrome, but ironically I was distracted by a baby who needed medical attention for a possible head injury. (This is also the reason for the late update this week.) My grandson fell onto a hard wooden floor when the handle broke off the basket he was being carried in, and he was taken to hospital strapped to a back board. It's surprisingly difficult to explain to a six-month-old why he has to wear an uncomfortable plastic collar, have his head immobilised, have all sorts of tubes and leads attached to him, be exposed to doses of radiation so strong that everyone else around has to wear lead aprons, and have strangers perform indignities on him. There is no apparent permanent damage and he is home now. He shared a hospital room with a toddler who had fallen down a flight of stairs, and this other child is also in fine condition after his adventure.
The incident made me think about two things. One was the question of which "alternative" medicine modality would have had any way of treating these children or of finding out the extent of their injuries. I suppose a chiropractor could have fiddled with their necks, but I wonder what the reaction would have been from some of the people, like the one who wrote to me this week, who reject all conventional medicine and who rant on about how dangerous hospitals are. The other thing that I thought about was, given the minor injuries sustained by these two children, how much force must be used when shaking or throwing a baby to cause the damage seen in babies shaken to death. It takes a lot more than a fall from a cot.
How did I miss this one? (19/4/2003)
Somehow, until now I have overlooked Phyllis Schlafly and the Eagle Forum. I can only assume that it was such an obvious candidate for inclusion in The Millenium Project that I thought it must already be here. I was reminded of Mrs (never Ms) Schlafly this week when someone suggested that she was active in a campaign to send the Statue of Liberty back to France because of froggish failure to fight on the side of the White Hats in Iraq. While this sounds like the sort of loopy thing she might be involved with, it was actually a joke.
Most of the sites listed in The Millenium Project are easy to dislike, because they deal with only one topic. The Eagle Forum is an example of the minority where there are flecks of gold amongst the dross. There are some things there that I strongly agree with, such as the correct way to teach English and the need for a country to have a single official language, and there are some other topics where I can broadly agree with Mrs Schlafly's point of view. On balance, however, the racism (expressed as opposition to immigration), the religious and sexual bigotry, the opposition to vaccination, the denial of treatment (and even existence) of psychological and behavioural disorders, and the general tone that some people are inferior by birth and therefore less equal than others all make it an appropriate inclusion in the lists here. In fact, the Eagle Forum has set a new record by being listed in more categories than any other site.
It's official – Homeopaths can tell lies (26/4/2003)
Imagine that someone wanted to sell you water for several hundred dollars per litre, that they publicly admitted that it was nothing but water, that they sold several such waters for different purposes and admitted that there was no difference between the different products other than in the labelling and intended purpose. Imagine also that this someone claimed that these magic waters with nothing in them cured, sorry "relieved", various illnesses including colds, asthma, arthritis, osteoporosis, jet lag, PTSD following the World Trade Center destruction, and even the ill effects of vaccination. Imagine then that you were a concerned citizen who objected to the fraud and lies and wanted to do something about it. If you live in California, it looks like you would be out of luck because an appeals court has just established a precedent by ruling that some liars called King Bio Pharmaceuticals can say and do whatever they like.
Supporters of and believers in quackery have been overjoyed at this ruling. What made it especially good for some of them is that the court rejected the expert evidence of Dr Stephen Barrett of Quackwatch, apparently because he was biased against the idiocy of homeopathy. Apparently it is not legitimate to object to a fraud or express an opinion about it unless you have no opinion about the fraudulent practice! Only a judge or a believer in magic could cope with the dissonance of this doublespeak. I was once accused of being biased against quackery, and my response was "If you have to ask, I am not communicating well enough".
Speaking of liars and thieves … (26/4/2003)
I received an email this week which appeared to come from PayPal and started off with the words: "This e-mail is the notification of recent innovations taken by PayPal to detect inactive customers and non-functioning mailboxes. The inactive customers are subject to restriction and removal in the next 3 months. Please confirm your email address and and Credit Card info number by logging in to your PayPal account using the form below". The following form was then included in the email:
The email obviously did not come from PayPal, because there is no way they would ask for this sort of information in this way. PayPal's security had not been breached, because the email address it was sent to is not the one I have registered with PayPal but is one being used by spammers on a regular basis. Anyone who does not have a PayPal account who received this would probably just delete it and assume that a mistake had been made. Anyone filling in the form and hitting the "Log in" button would be inviting possible bankruptcy, and at the least would find their PayPal account cleaned out and their credit card maxed within a very short time. (Don't worry – the form on this page has been deactivated.) If they banked with the normal sort of bank, they would find that they have no recourse against the bank for recovery of the stolen money because they had willingly given the ATM PIN to the thieves.
This is not the first scam of this kind to come along, and I often receive reminders from merchants like Amazon.com saying that they will never ask anybody to email them sensitive information. What amazes me, however, is that whenever I talk to so-called experts in Internet security they usually seem to be obsessed with firewalls and encryption and other high-tech matters but they never seem able to advise their clients of the simple things that users can watch for and do to protect privacy and security.
The Back Issues part of this site has been extensively reorganised. There is now one page per month containing all the material which appeared for the first time in that month. This is one of those times when everyone wins – it is easier to navigate through the archives, the stuff which was repeated in later weeks has been removed making downloads faster, I use less disk space and bandwidth on the server and save some money, and my ISP doesn't have to bother with sending me invoices for exceeding quotas.
Alexa slump (26/4/2003)
Everyone is familiar with Mark Twain's comment about statistics (or Benjamin Disraeli's same comment if you live on the other side of the Atlantic), so I won't redundantly repeat it again. There is a system called Alexa (owned by Amazon.com) which ranks web sites based on a collection of criteria such as number of visitors (they sample the surfing habits of about 10 million people), number of sites linking in, position in search results at Google, and some other factors. The important figure that Alexa produces is a three-month average ranking which indicates the popularity of a site compared to others.
The ranking for the RatbagsDotCom domain had been progressively rising in line with increasing visitor counts, and it was encouraging for me that this site see-sawed with James Randi's site on the Skeptical Skoreboard. We both update weekly, but on different days. This gives both sites a rhythmic pattern of visits, with the peak days being immediately after the updates when the regular crowd shuffles in. The peaks for the two sites are almost exactly half a week apart.
One of the first things you learn in Statistics 101 is to apply a bit of intuition to statistics and measurements to get a feel for whether the numbers are realistic and reasonable, so I was a bit perturbed when the ranking of this site dropped by about 25,000 over just two weeks. This happened at a time when the visitor count at the site was steadily increasing each month, and, in fact, for the 25 days so far in April the daily average has been about 4% greater than for March and the total for the period is about 10% more than for the whole of December 2002. I looked for an answer at the Alexa site and it appears that I dropped off their radar for a couple of months. Why this should be so is not really clear, although I did have some problems with the process that automatically submits my sites to search engines so perhaps I dropped out of a search engine that has a particularly high weighting in the Alexa formula. Whatever the reason, I am a bit more suspicious of the Alexa rankings than I was before, but they are still probably the best indication of site popularity. And The Millenium Project is still well ahead of most of the sites listed here …
Speaking of James Randi … (26/4/2003)
I might have to apply for Randi's million dollar prize for my psychic abilities, although the truth could be that Randi is actually the psychic and reads my mind. When I checked the latest update to his site today I found that he had addressed two of the topics that I was planning to write about this week. As anyone who has done this sort of thing knows, the easy part is the writing about and the hard part is thinking of what to write about. I guess I'll just have to put on a big jug of coffee and fire up the Rant-O-Matic™ Topic Generator module in my beta test copy of MS Office XPT 2008. I was so looking forward to an early night, too.
CompuServe and spam (26/4/2003)
I have had an account with CompuServe for years. I don't use it much, but it is often handy to have an alternative email address or a spare dial-up account. CompuServe is pretty aggressive when it comes to spam filtering, but I didn't know how aggressive until this week. When I received an email that my regular mail program could not display correctly I forwarded it to my CompuServe address so that I could read it with another program. The massage was rejected because CompuServe blocks all email coming from IP addresses belonging to Telstra, Australia's largest ISP (and the country's largest communications supplier). I hate spam as much as anyone, but when the preventive measures stop me from sending email to myself it looks like the technology has taken over from common sense.