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September 13, 2014

Doing something useful (13/9/2014)
Today I joined a group of people on a walk around a park. It was part of a project by Lifeline called "Out of the shadows and into the light", with the aim of raising awareness and getting people to talk about suicide.

The Penrith event was organised by my friends Jay McGarrity and Jess Morton, and they have to be congratulated. I've been involved with this project for about four years now, and at the first walk all the people who attended were able to be seated around a single table at the Nepean Rowing Club afterwards for a beer and lunch. This year more than 100 people came along.

People might ask why it is important to publicly talk about suicide, with some even suggesting that mentioning it might encourage it. It's important because it takes more lives than road accidents (2,535 versus 1,310 in 2012, the last year for which comparable figures are available), but it has been a taboo subject for years. (My great-uncle shot himself, but the family mythology was that it was an accident.)

Several people who had been touched by suicide spoke to the group before we set off walking, telling their tales of personal desperation and family loss. I was going to give one of the talks, but I decided to refrain. Here is what I would have said.

I'm one of the lucky ones. I've suffered from depression for years, but I have never contemplated suicide. I'm lucky in another way, because it was averted when it came very close to claiming people I love. I hope that I never again have to utter magic words that take me and a patient to the front of the queue in a packed emergency department waiting room on a Saturday night. I hope that I never again have to hear a doctor say the words "I think we've saved her". I hope that I never again have to pass through a succession of locked doors in a hospital to get to visit someone who is under 24 hour supervision to prevent self-harm. I hope that I never again have to drive to places with high cliffs to talk someone back from the edge because they had stopped taking medication. (While driving that day I heard a quack on the radio advising people to stop taking psychiatric drugs and use herbs instead, because there is no such thing as mental illness. The word "rage" was inadequate to describe my emotion.)

It is important to talk about suicide, to bring it out as the slogan for today says "into the light". It has been a taboo for too long, but by removing the stigma it will become possible for those in the depths of despair to reach out without shame or embarrassment, for listeners to respond with sympathy and help, not criticism. At a government level, millions of dollars are spent each year on road safety but the number of suicides is twice the road toll and mental health is a low priority. Actions like this one today will help to break down the taboo and hopefully lead to this very serious social and health problem getting the attention, and answers, that it deserves. It also shows that families who have been affected by suicide are not alone and that there are others who understand and sympathise with their pain and loss.

Thank you all for coming.


MIA? (13/9/2014)
When I did my link check on this site this month to find links that have gone or moved I discovered that Bill Mutranowski's Atheist Cartoons has disappeared. I wasn't too surprised at this, because I couldn't find it when I went looking for updates a few weeks ago, and the last time I saw it it looked like it hadn't been updated for a while. A Google search turned up another site calling itself by the same name but it was just a tumblr collection of stolen and unattributed images, some of which had a gaucheness and stupidity that made me feel like going to church. It is the sort of thing that allows believers to say "Atheists can't think and have nothing to say".

Now to fix the 23 links from here to there. And here is the first of the cartoons I ever used, in September 2008.


Good news week. (13/9/2014)
The remnants of the band Queen are currently touring Australia (with the replacement for Freddie Mercury getting a surprisingly good reception from fans - he really is excellent) although I wasn't able to see them in Sydney. My disappointment has been heightened, because I would have loved to sing along with "Another One Bites The Dust". The reason for this is that my link check showed that the web site for the Canadian Cancer Research Group is no more. It is dead, has fallen off the perch, and has gone to join the sewer invisible. For those unfamiliar with CCRG, it was the web site of Mr William P O'Neill who did the world a favour by dying in March 2013. Here is the condolence message I posted on his family's memorial site.

For thirteen years this vile creature published lies about me and my family, using the foulest language known to man. He contacted businesses and organisations I could be connected to and lied to them about me. He used to pop up on almost any blog or forum where my name was mentioned and say disgusting things about me. The fact that he caused the early deaths of at least two people but used them in advertising (and at one stage pretended to be the husband of one of them when he emailed me) shows the depth of his vileness. You can see the record of his interaction with me here, including the mass of email and Usenet messages he created (many of them with a transparent anonymity).

I fully expected that the site would just wither away after he died or that someone would take over his quackery business and continue with his work of deceiving the desperate, but not only has the site gone but the domain name "ccrg.com" now points nowhere at all. In technical terms, it is no longer delegated. This is the result of a trace from my computer to the CCRG site:

But the news might not all be good. Here is the current Whois record for the domain name:

The registration was updated in February this year and is current until the end of January, 2015. The registrant has the email address goneill@aminomics.com and the web site associated with that domain name appears to be a retread of the CCRG site using the name "Immune System Management" that Mr O'Neill had been moving towards just before his timely death. It looks like the family is continuing the tradition of lying in order to steal money from desperate people. I wonder if I can get the current owners to also continue the tradition of stalking me. Perhaps I should send an email to "goneill" asking whether I should archive all the CCRG material here or expect to be able to expand it in the future.



See more Close to Home here

September 20, 2014

Some people have no right to live (20/9/2014)
This advertisement is one of a series appearing on public transport in Concord, New Hampshire. Except for the fact that it is almost impossible to grade anti-vaccination liars because they are all as bad as each other, the National Vaccine Information Center probably ranks near the bottom because of the word "Information" in their lying name.

Here's another image that Barbara Loe Fisher of NVIC and her fellow anti-vaccination liars might like to consider.



See more from chainsawsuit.com here


I'm ubiquitous! (20/9/2014)
September was a big month for me appearing in magazines. There was my usual Naked Skeptic column in Australasian Science magazine, and I also appeared in the Forum section of The Skeptic. (You can click on the respective magazine covers to read the scribblings.) I must admit that getting (un)dressed to write the former was much easier than finding a laurel wreath and toga for the second, but getting into character is important.

I had to give even more consideration to how I dressed for my appearance in the third magazine, because it is one almost completely devoted to how people look and present themselves to the world. Yes, folks, I appeared in Vogue Australia. Yes, that Vogue! The one full of models in very expensive clothes, with their images interspersed between advertisements for jewellry and perfumes with prices that approach (and many times vastly exceed) what I paid for my car. My friends immediately launched onto Facebook to speculate about whether I had taken up a new career modelling while they simultaneously (and with extreme caution) hinted that my body morphology does not fit the ruling paradigm for the trade. There was also speculation that Vogue was semaphoring a change in fashions, with my usual ensemble of Dunlop Volley shoes, $12 jeans from Target and Hawaiian shirts becoming the new black.

Actually, I was there as an expert. A scientific expert, no less. I was interviewed for an article about the absurd fad of "grounding", where people go around in bare feet so that the positive electrons collecting in their bodies can be neutralised by the negative electrons in the ground below. I pointed out to the writer that I wouldn't want to be around anyone with an excess of positrons when they came into contact with electrons unless I could be behind several metres of concrete and lead. In fact, I pointed out several scientific absurdities in the whole idea. I think I even mentioned those chains that used to drag along under petrol road tankers back in my youth (until someone worked out that the shower of sparks from the chain was probably more dangerous than any static buildup). Most of what I said disappeared in the editing, but at least I got one point across:

Peter Bowditch, a spokesperson for the Australian Skeptics, says earthing is basically pseudo science. "Grounding is just another thing on the pile of untested, unlikely and unworkable forms of alternative medicine," Bowditch says. "If the claim that people were healthier in the past because they ran around barefoot is true, then it is hard to explain why life expectancy now is so much greater than it was centuries ago."

The next paragraph started with the question "So who to believe?", and I can only hope that the readers choose me. You can read the article here, or you could even go to your newsagent or the Vogue web site and buy a copy of the magazine.

And the differences between the magazines. Well, Vogue has a lot more pages (the table of contents is on page 60) and has a lot of glossy advertising pages. The cover of Vogue has a much prettier lady on it, although this is probably fair enough given the market and using a cover like that on either of the other magazines would send wrong signals and probably attract rage blogging about misogyny in the skeptic and scientific communities. I can read most of the content of Australasian Science and The Skeptic with interest, but much of the Vogue content doesn't interest me at all - note that this is not a criticism of the magazine, because it addresses a totally different market and is quite successful there (both the other magazines would love to have Vogue's circulation). And the back covers - an invitation to subscribe, an invitation to a convention, or an invitation to buy watches and trinkets from Cartier. It's a different world out there.


Speaking of a convention (20/9/2014)
The Australian Skeptics National Convention will be held in Sydney in November this year. You can find out all the exciting details about speakers, bookings, and everything else you need to know here.



See more Cyanide and Happiness here


A name changes. But not much else. (20/9/2014)
Doing a link check on this site I found that the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia have a new name and a new web address. They are now called Complementary Medicines Australia. I could wonder if the change if name was made to reflect the fact that what they do has little to do with health care, but that would be churlish of me.

They are also having a conference this year and I have applied for a free media pass. Sometimes my optimism overrules realistic expectations.


The trash is taken out (20/9/2014)
Finally, one of the most amusing farces of the legal world has come to an end. In 2012, ex-Dr Andrew Wakefield sued journalist Brian Deer, the British Medical Journal and Fiona Godlee, the editor of the BMJ. In an exhibition of arrogance and chutzpah which would have been remarkable coming from someone less sure of themself than Wakefield he asked the Court to deny the defendants the right to present evidence. The Court soundly rejected this nonsense and also threw out the original suit on August 3, 2012. You can see the ruling by clicking on the image at the right.

Wakefield appealed, of course, because what he wanted was not to win but to be able to continually claim that the defendants involved were being sued.

Then the fun started. Tim Bolen, spokespustule for all sorts of crooked doctors and dentists, announced to the world that Wakefield was certain to win because Texas was so important compared to the UK. The reason for the dismissal of the suit was no surprise to sane people, because an action for defamation in the UK was never going to be accepted as being within the jurisdiction of a Texas court. Here are a few choice quotes from Tim:

Texas is, of course, far larger in size than Britain, and has much more wealth and economic power. Texas can easily spank Britain publicly - and, with this case, probably will.

In short, the BMJ and Brian Deer might be a big deal in tiny little Britain, but their influence is nil in Texas. Brian Deer, and the pipsqueak BMJ are in the big leagues now - and they won't do well.

Britain, and its entire construction, is a has-been world that, now, the State of Texas is going to put on trial. How? We are going to watch one of their primary structures, the BMJ, set in place in 1840, shredded and spit out in the Travis County County Courthouse, like a bad taco. And, all the world is going to be watching.

You just have to get used to the idea that, well, Britain isn't what it used to be, and, well, I hate to break it to you (actually, I don't mind at all), but your whole silly little system is going on trial in TEXAS, in the United States of America.

The country of Britain had its chance to slap down Brian Deer, and, because, I guess, of its inherent inadequacies, the argument has been moved to a higher, more competent jurisdiction - TEXAS.

Wakefield's appeal against the decision was scheduled for November 19, 2012, but three days before that he asked for more time to prepare and an adjournment was granted until January 4, 2013. I predicted at the time that he would ask for at least one more extension but it seems I was being optimistic, because he managed to drag the appeal process out until September, 2014. The ruling by the Appeals Court was inevitable:

Dr. Andrew Wakefield appeals the trial courtís order granting special appearances filed by the British Medical Journal Publishing Group, Ltd., Brian Deer, and Dr. Fiona Godlee (collectively, the Defendants) and dismissing Wakefieldís defamation suit. Because we conclude that the Defendants did not waive their special appearances and that the trial court did not err in concluding that the Defendants had insufficient contacts with Texas, we affirm the trial courtís order.

You can see the full decision by clicking on the image.

Goodbye, Andy. Go back to lying about vaccines. And Tim, you were wrong again, but that is no surprise as you are always wrong.



See more Angriest Programmer here

September 27, 2014

I write (27/9/2014)
The October edition of Australasian Science magazine is in letterboxes and newsagents now. Once again, I'll nag you to buy a copy, or better still subscribe. It is without doubt the most readable and informative popular science magazine in Australia.

This month's Naked Skeptic column is about the way that the opponents of reason don't seem to want to challenge their critics by using better science these days, but prefer to go straight to lawyers and courts. This can have a severely restricting effect not only on commentary but also on the sort of matters which people might choose to investigate, with some areas of research possibly being perceived to be too contentious to take on. The usual term to describe this is that it is a "chilling effect". I find extremely worrying that the direction of research can be dictated not by ethical or legislative considerations, but through the possibility of hurting someone's feelings or damaging someone's shonky business.

You can read the article here.

Next month's column will be about a food fad now being heavily advertised on television suggesting that the product is different and healthier when there is no real difference at all. I won't publish it here until it's on the newsstands which will be towards the end of October.


James Randi at TAM in Sydney, 2010. Photo by Geoff Cowan

Another thing I've been writing that will be published later in the year is my interview with James Randi about his life and times. This will probably appear in the December edition of Australasian Science. Randi will be touring Australia in December and you can get the details about the appearances and how to book here.

And all that writing is why there's not much else here this week.



See more Freethunk here


Which reminds me (27/9/2014)
Things will be a little rushed next weekend, because I will be spending Saturday on the official Australian Skeptics stand at the Australian Paranormal and Spiritual Expo. Yes, you heard me correctly. It's at the Casula Powerhouse and if you can get there please drop in and introduce yourself. I have already been asked by someone if I will read her aura, but that is just one of my minor paranormal skills. Come along. Be amazed.


CMA follow up (27/9/2014)
I mentioned last week that I had applied for a media pass to the coming conference being run by Complementary Medicines Australia, the industry body for people selling supplements, vitamins, and various forms of magic potions and snake oil. Sadly, I received this email.

Thank you for your interest in our National Conference.

Unfortunately we have exhausted our supply of media passes for this years event.

As I have no intention of paying the $825 for a one-day conference, it looks like I will have to continue to write about alternative "medicine" without the benefit of hearing experts speak about the vital knowledge of the wellness revolution.



See more Bizarro here


The homeopaths do research (27/9/2014)
I have been supplied with a scientific paper published in a scientific journal with the title "Efficacy of a Homeopathic Complex on Acute Viral Tonsillitis". The journal is the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, which might very well have the stature of Nature or JAMA but might equally be the sort of publication which adds gloss and credibility to dubious research about dubious topics. I will leave my analysis of and comments about the paper until after I have had a chance to see whether the investigation really did lead to the conclusion that "The homeopathic complex used in this study exhibited significant anti-inflammatory and painrelieving qualities in children with acute viral tonsillitis". I have had experience in the past of how some homeopathy researchers seem to have attended statistics courses which differed greatly in content from the ones I did at university, but like a true skeptic I will reserve judgment until I have had time to gather the facts. In the meantime, I will rely on conventional treatments if any of my family come down with viral tonsillitis. After all, the paper does say "a definitive conclusion cannot be reached".



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