Archive for February, 2008

All I can do is sigh

It seems that one of our hospitals once again makes a grievous mistake and everyday New Zealanders pay the price for it:

Dr Roman Hasil botched eight of 32 32 tubal ligations (sterilisation procedures), resulting in six pregnancies.

In his report Commissioner Ron Paterson censures the doctor and the DHB for “serious failings in the care of women at the hospital.”

A new report blames the health board for not making background checks which would have revealed the Czech trained doctor had spent time in jail overseas before coming to New Zealand from Australia.

Really, I don’t believe further commentary is really required but it does make me wonder if we should be making a stronger attempt here in New Zealand to hold onto our own doctors that we train (many of whom disappear overseas immediately themselves due to better wages and working conditions).

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Random banned books

I disagree with the practice in some places of banning books, which I view as a generally stupid and anti-educational practice (there would be certain exceptions of course, borderline pornographic romance novels would be one example I could think of, but even then…). Thankfully, there are groups that seem to want to fight back against this sort of thing, which is something I highly approve of and should be clearly encouraged. Something that does peak my interest is some of the weird choices in books people have campaigned to ban are. Some of them have at least some reasonably logical basis, such as having considerably racist language as they were written during periods when social inequality was the norm such as Huckleberry Finn. This doesn’t mean I agree with doing so however, as these books in context can be perfectly useful in an educational context. Consider banning the study of the Holocaust in WW2 or the American Civil Rights movement because students might be exposed to anti-semitic or racist ideas during the course of studying the events.

Some of the choices include:

Handford, Martin, Where’s Waldo, 1988 for having a picture of a woman who is lying topless on the beach. Now, I’m probably going to guess that there isn’t actually any breast involved here and that’s she’s probably face down (I’m not certain) and if that’s the case, it’s truly a weird thing to ban the book for.

Lewis, C S, The lion, the witch and the wardrobe for being overly violent and filled with people getting killed. Now, I’ll grant you that in my old age I can’t stomach this book as it literally beats you over the head with poorly disguised Christian allegory and morality (and in my opinion, horrifically mangles the message as well with a terrible deus ex machina plot twist), but when I read it at the age of 9 or so, I thought it was great. Apparently the book got banned as it doesn’t ascribe to “Good Christian values”*, which could be argued as the books are fairly bloody but then again you’d have to wonder if they had read the bible while making this complaint? I think that’s fairly ridiculous and whatever I may think of the book now, it’s good reading for children and at least can encourage them to start reading, itself fairly difficult.

Paterson, Katherine, Bridge to Terabithia, 1977 gets banned for having concepts like secular humanism and similar values. I imagine, though TVNZs article doesn’t list them, that you’d also find the “His Dark Materials” trilogy of books (which include the Golden Compass, recently made into a movie) in there as well for similar reasons. Again though, there are some weird reasons for banning the book, like “death being a part of the plot”, which just makes me scratch my head as to why that is so objectionable considering many of the best stories, myths and such involve death in some way (Frankenstein, the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Lord of the Rings to name a few of my favorites).

Seuss, Dr, The Lorax, 1971 generates a series WTF from me. The book was banned for being political commentary on the state of the logging industry?!? Shall we ban the Butter Battle Book as potential political commentary on the war in Iraq? The Cat in the Hat for encouraging socially unacceptable behavior with household pets? This is just stupidity.

Frank, Anne, Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, is apparently banned because it’s depressing in one case and has sexually explicit passages in another. I recall, back in the days of 3rd form English being forced to read through this book and thinking that it should have been studied in a better context in history, because as a novel it’s really not that engaging (not regarding that the history and situation they found themselves in is incredibly tragic, of which the diary Anne kept provides important insight into what it was like to be hiding from the gestapo, but it’s not a good book on its own). But again, I can’t fathom why someone would ban a book simply because it lacks the standard Hollywood happy ending that people seem to love and the sexually explicit passages, from what I remember are particularly tame (but natural for someone in that situation with only one young fellow around her).

The list of banned books is larger than this, I just picked these out as they either seemed particularly silly or the reasons for their banning were just ridiculous. Ideally books wouldn’t be banned and instead, in the case of examples like Huckleberry Finn, their historical context and reasons for the language they use should be explained- not just banned.

*Whatever this is supposed to mean anyway

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Psychic sexual powers and murder

I really can’t fathom this murder case going on in Australia terribly well:

His de facto wife, Angela Wells, 29, of Blacktown, was a long-time friend of Ms Mayfield and introduced the pair.

All three bonded with each other over a shared interest in the supernatural, and Shepherd persuaded Ms Mayfield to sleep with him by promising he could exorcise her demons with his psychic sexual powers.

Seriously, what in the hell were either of these women thinking to begin with?

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It appears that HD-DVD may have just had the last nail in the coffin as Toshiba have decided to cease producing new HD-DVD players or marketing them:

Toshiba is refusing to give any refunds or sweeteners to HD DVD player buyers who were burned by the death of the format, saying they still have “inherent value”.
Overnight, the company said in a statement it had reviewed its overall HD DVD strategy and decided it would no longer develop, manufacture and market HD DVD players.

Of course, the first line there is also important. Toshiba isn’t required to give refunds or incentives to anyone who bought HD-DVD initially and quite frankly, I always figured it would be a horrible idea to back either format until a clear winner was emerging. This is a good move for Toshiba in the end anyway, they were getting hammered all over as various movie studios had dropped them and adoption of blu-ray playes was getting ahead of HD-DVD in key markets like Europe. Of course, I find it curious that they claim their players will have “inherent value”, given that the decision makes them worthless bricks almost and anyone with one will almost certainly have to upgrade to Blu-ray in order to continue with a high definition movie option. Perhaps they mean you can use the thing as a paper weight? Or perhaps hollow it out and make a particularly festive hat out of it, which could be considered rather arty as well (tech art?). Alternatively, you could always use it as a fancy kitty litter box among other things.

I’m sure all these uses will make the $100 plus dollars many of these players cost seem completely worth-while.

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With Florida deciding if they should adopt good science standards or insert nonsense from the usual suspects, I think a quick reminder of my previous “turtles all the way down” essay is in order. Despite the age of this and that it’s a fairly common anti-ID argument, I’ve never really seen it adequately refuted. One particular argument (well cop-out really) is that aliens that could design us don’t need to be complicated themselves and could have evolved elsewhere. Of course, when asked what these aliens could look like, what ID predicts the environment they evolved in should be and what methods they could have used (being ‘simpler’ than us, who must have been designed you see) usually results in the crickets chirping. I still stand by that ID is nothing more than creationism redressed to make it more palatable to being inserted into American classrooms after creationisms heavy defeats in key court cases in the early and late 1980s. Ultimately, any ID proponent that wants to argue space aliens has to somewhere demonstrate where these space aliens may have come from and why they were able to evolve by natural means, but life on earth could not (again, another question that is merely greeted with the sound of crickets). In any event, this repost is for you Florida ❤

Turtles all the way down.

Around the net I’ve seen this expression come up called ‘turtles all the way down’, usually referenced to intelligent design. The term comes from a story, of unknown source as it seems to come up often from different people, where essentially a famous lecturer was giving a talk on astronomy. After he was finished a little old lady came down and told him he had it all wrong.

“The world is really on the back of a giant tortoise” the woman said to which the scientist asked, in an attempt to stump her most likely, “Well then, what is the tortoise standing on?” To this the lady triumphantly replied “You’re very clever young man, but it’s of no use – it’s turtles all the way down”.

In many respects this is the problem that intelligent design faces when it proposes a ‘designer’ is natural. For example, when we take Dembski mathematics, fancy as they are and apply it to the designer we find, unsurprisingly, that the designer must himself be designed. If we do the same thing again, we find that each designer in turn requires another designer. Eventually, we have an infinite regress of designers, each one designing the previous one; turtles all the way down in other words.


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Nature and HIV pessimism

This news article in Nature, entitled, HIV can ‘never be cured’ caught my interest pretty much immediately as it describes some interesting new research on the HIV virus and for its unusually pessimistic title. For one thing, it’s true that HIV is a very tricky virus to get rid of because it attacks the immune system that a vaccine and the host needs to actually destroy the virus to begin with. Additionally, as if things weren’t bad enough, HIV is pretty crafty and likes to hide in a wide variety of places such as inside T-cells (the generals of the immune system for a rough comparison), follicular dendritic cells (which store antigens for restimulating memory T-cells) and apparently even the gut (1). Being able to infect the gut causes a few problems, one of which is that the current top of the line anti-retroviral drugs don’t seem to be able to destroy this gut reservoir of HIV. This leads to a continual re-infection of the rest of the body from the HIV population in the guts lymphoid (immune) tissue.

While a serious problem, I don’t view this as making HIV ‘incurable’ by any stretch, just it makes things considerably more complicated. It should mean rather than being a result that makes us more pessimistic, instead it should be taken as a result that bolsters our understanding of how HIV causes an infection and better design a vaccine/new drug regimen. For example, armed with this knowledge a potential vaccine may have aspects that help target mucosal immunity and could [theoretically] inspire the gastrointestinal part of the immune system to help destroy the virus: or even prevent the early reservoir from being able to form abrogating an infection. Likewise, current anti-retroviral treatments could have new drugs or altered existing drugs that can target the virus in the gut lymphoid tissue, helping to further prevent reinfection with the virus.

It should be conceded that HIV being able to form a relatively protected reservoir in the gut does make life a whole lot more difficult, I don’t think it’s a result that warrants undue pessimism by any stretch. Knowing something you didn’t know before and couldn’t account for, doesn’t make HIV any more ‘incurable’ than it was before, instead it should be taken as a new way of thinking and attacking the problem at hand. Statements like declaring it ‘incurable’ are not going to help anyone anytime soon.

1) Chun, T.-W. et al. J. Infect. Dis. doi:10.1086/527324 (2007).

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Goat guitar

The series American Dad, depicting a dysfunctional CIA agent and his equally dysfunctional family wasn’t really that good a show at first considering the pedigree of the guys who made it (Family Guy), but I must admit it’s getting better every season. I don’t think anything will quite top this bit in a while:

Edit: Curses, it has been removed! You win this time youtube, you win this time, but your victory shall be short lived >: (

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