Meanwhile, In America

Safe to say that since the election, Australia’s going to poo. We no longer have a Science ministry but we have a Minister for Sport. The Communications Minister has sacked asked the Board of NBN Co to resign. The Climate Change Commission has been dismantled, a same-sex marriage law is being challenged, and perhaps most worrying of all a cloud of secrecy is descending on the Drown Them All In Indonesia Turn Back The Boats plan.

But in America, where things have been poo for some time, they may be getting… um… pooer.

You might have heard of Obamacare. It’s actually the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but it’s Obama’s idea and Republicans hate that so they call it Obamacare. Anyway, it’s a federal law that represents a massive overhaul of America’s healthcare system.

Like most good things, the Republicans oppose it. They’ve tried 42 times to repeal it, and failed. It’s been passed into law (after Obama won re-election with it as his main platform) and comes into effect on 1 October 2013. Under the law, insurance companies will not be allowed to discriminate based on pre-existing conditions. Significantly more people will be insured, especially amongst the poor. And it’ll lower the government deficit and reduce government spending on Medicare. Good things, mostly.

Although it’s not perfect – Dan Savage described it as ‘the lesser of two evils’ on the Colbert Report. (If you clicked that link, stop looking at his amazing biceps and please ignore that I just linked to an arsehole’s blog. I didn’t want to but it had the relevant transcript.)

WARNING: The next paragraph contains the rudest of all rude words. I feel it is used entirely justifiably, but if it offends you please just replace it with “George Pell” in your head, because he is also one. 

The Koch brothers are evil cunts. Having inherited an oil fortune of an estimated $100 billion, they have ‘funded’ numerous climate change denying ‘scientists’, supported the Tea Party movement and fought Obamacare wherever possible. Their most recent effort – a scaremongering ad campaign – is, frankly, disgusting. It’s the most insane, duplicitous, vile thing I’ve seen in a long time. Watch:

Is that not awful?

And as for ‘don’t let the government play doctor’ – remember it’s always Republicans who want to introduce mandatory transvaginal ultrasounds. It’s always the Conservatives that want to control women’s uteri. It’s always the right-wing that wants the housewives doing the ironing.

Keep Real Journalism Alive

Jonothan HolmesAfter five years in the host’s chair, Jonathan Holmes is leaving Media Watch. It would be easy to assume that after documenting the scandals, the mistakes, the ineptitude and often the downright sleazy antics of media organisations he’d have nothing but contempt for the way ‘journalism’ is conducted in Australia. From the Sunday Telegraph’s fake Pauline Hanson nudes to The Australian’s continued War on Climate Change, to anything the Herald Sun has ever published, it’s hard to think that the nation’s premier media critic could have anything nice to say about the media. But Holmes finished his final program not with admonishment but with praise, and an appeal. “Media Watch regularly shows you the worst”, he notes, “but the best, I still believe, is worth paying for.”

So my parting plea is this: whatever your politics, or your preferences, and even if you’ve never bought a newspaper, start subscribing to at least one media website: whether it’s the Herald Sun or New Matilda, Crikey or the Sydney Morning Herald, old media or new, pay just a little to keep real journalism alive.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

My first reaction was of surprise and vehement disagreement. I have always believed that pay-walls are a stupid idea – as long as someone is willing to report the news for free (be it an advertising-supported or government-funded institution, a blogger or even social-media) then only fools will pay for it. And these days there is always someone else who will report the news for free. News organisations have never had anything close to this kind of competition. Take any news story on any given day – as an example, I’ll use the racist abuse aimed at Australia’s first Muslim frontbencher Ed Husic – and have a look at how many sources Google News has. Currently there are 208 online news sites that are reporting the very same story. And they’re reporting the very same facts and the very same quotes.

So why pay when I can get it for free, right? But, if I’m honest, that’s a bit naive. Sure, it applies to basic reporting – the What, Where and When of journalism. And it even applies to analysis – the How, Why and ‘So What’. In short, the mostly-public goings on in the world are by definition widely available to anyone and everyone. But the point Holmes makes, and I agree with him, is that investigative journalism costs money and carries great risk. Investigative journalism is undercover work. It’s ‘Deep Throat’ style car-park meetings with whistle-blowers, it’s digging through trash-cans to find shredded documents, it’s doggedly pursuing leads that may take weeks, month or even years before the story breaks. Investigative journalism is expensive.

The work they do requires time, and money, and the willingness to risk huge costs incurred fighting battles in the courts.

– Jonathan Holmes, Media Watch, 1 July 2013.

Let me be clear: I am not suggesting that the only way to fund investigative journalism is through pay-walls. Far from it – there are a range of funding-models available to all news organisations. The first that springs to mind is advertising. But unfortunately online advertising is weak tea – another victim of the range of online sources. The same amount of advertising money is now being spread not just on the few big Australian newspapers, TV networks and radio stations, but also the international news sites, the smaller independent news sites, and, well, all the other websites in general. The King’s Tribune highlights the difficulties facing smaller news organisations wanting a slice of the ad-revenue pie: “We’re too small to attract big advertisers and too big to get the small ones.”

Nor can we expect the government-funded organisations to be the sole bastions of investigative journalism. The ABC and SBS are terrific institutions and their fierce independence is to be lauded. But their belts are already tight, and ‘more money to the ABC’ is not a catch-cry we hear very often from policy makers. They do their part, and perhaps punch above their weight in many regards, but they simply don’t have the resources or funding to be the lone providers of investigative journalism. And nor should they. It’s not healthy for a democracy to have the only institutions that keep a check on government, funded by the government. Like them or loath them, independent news organisations are vital.

So I’ve decided to take Jonathan’s advice and “pay just a little to keep real journalism alive”. I’m looking into various outlets to see who’s worthy of my coin. Crikey came highly recommended when I asked on Twitter.

And of course The Conversation is an exemplary site which clearly puts accuracy and ethics ahead of speed and populism. And while it’s free (getting most of it’s funding from universities and some government programs) it does accept donations.

Walter Cronkite

The Moon. Let’s Go Back.

Image

Last night I snapped this photo of the moon. I’m delighted to say that I wasn’t the only one: Lots of people around the world were taking some great photos. And while the moon is absolutely gorgeous, part of me is sad, angry and frustrated that we haven’t been back since 1972.

Twelve human beings have set foot on that grey lump of rock. Twelve. There’s 7 billion of us alive, it’s only a three-day journey to another world – another frontier – and we’ve only sent twelve of us. And none of them since 1972.

Since 1972 we’ve sent people as far as the Hubble Space Telescope – 578 km above the Earth. At its closest point, the moon is about 362,570 km from Earth. We’ve gone nowhere near it for more than 40 years.

There’s no reason why we can’t go back, of course. We still have all the technology, the engineering knowledge, the expertise to do it. If anything, we have better technology now than we did 41 years ago. And there’s plenty we still have to learn about the moon! We don’t really have a good understanding of how it was formed, or why it seems to have two very different halves. The Apollo landings were all on the near side to us – for obvious logistical reasons. We have very sketchy information about the far side. And perhaps the best reason of all: water! At least three separate instruments on two different space probes have detected signs of sub-surface water. And where there’s water

But the science we can learn from manned lunar missions doesn’t just stop with understanding the moon. Like Mars, the moon is a hostile environment which makes it ideal for testing planetary exploration technologies. If we are ever to build a colony on Mars, it makes sense to start on the moon first: it’s a three day trip if anything goes wrong, and you don’t have to wait months for a launch window. And the moon would be a perfect stopover for further space exploration. Launch from Earth, refuel on the moon, then launch again to your next destination. And if there turns out to be a lot of sub-surface water there, that can be easily broken up with solar-cells into breathable oxygen and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

It’s not a question of money, it’s a question of will. Political and societal will. The US government is currently planning to buy 2,443 brand new Joint Strike Fighter F-35 warplanes at a cost of $1.1 trillion over the next five years. The United States spends six times more money on the military than China, the next biggest spender. Yet NASA’s budget is continually being slashed, especially in planetary sciences. NASA’s budget over the last five years came to around $85 billion. If you’re having a hard time picturing how much more important the US Congress thinks fighter planes are over space exploration, I made a little graph:

NASA vs F-35
Source: Reuters / Wikipedia

Our future is in space.

There can be no question about that – we are explorers. Our history as a species is one of exploration and development. To quote Sam Seaborn from The West Wing, “we came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill and we saw fire; and we crossed the ocean and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is hung on a timeline of exploration and this is what’s next.” Of course, if our natural inclination to explore isn’t enough to get us off this planet there’s a good chance the ravages of over-population and climate change will.

We should be preparing for that. We should be back on the moon doing science, and building a Moon-base. But we’re not. We’re stagnating.

I’ll finish with one of my heroes, Neil deGrasse Tyson, explaining ‘the case for space’ much better than I ever could.

Burzynski Clinic – no evidence, just intimidation

A quick post to let you all know about the vile harassment and intimidation coming from the Burzynski Clinic. Stanislaw Burzynski has a treatment, which he believes can cure cancer. This would be wonderful if true, but sadly there is no good independent peer-reviewed RCT evidence supporting that claim.

This does not stop desperate, terminally ill patients raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for a chance to take this wonder-treatment. Well-meaning celebrities have done fundraising gigs and auctions to help send people to the Burzynski Clinic. They’re being fed false hope.

They’re being taken advantage of.

A number of bloggers have written about this situation, and that is when the Burzynski Clinic showed their true nature.  Please read high schooler Rhys Morgan’s brilliantly-written piece detailing the harassment and legal threats he has received, for simply telling the truth.

Here are some other excellent links (courtesy of Lucas Randall) you should check out for more information:

And lastly, my good friend Lucas Randall has written some poetry about the saga. Here is the first stanza, you can read the full poem here.

Stanislaw Burzynzki has risen to fame
‘cross the Net, no less, due to making some claims
He can cure Cancer, in its many known guises
With a treatment derived from a source that surprises.

What really IS skepticism?

On Saturday, Melbourne held its first Skepticamp – an informal day of volunteer-given presentations and workshops. There’s no set schedule – anyone can give a presentation or hold a group discussion. It was a huge success, with around 80 people attending. A fantastic tribute to the two people who did most of the work ‘unOrganising’ the event*Chris Higgins and Lucas Randall.

What Really IS Skepticism?

Continue reading

Apple saves children from horrible foul language

So, last night I was looking at the iTunes page for the Science on Top podcast. Thanks to all the kind people who have written such nice reviews, it’s very much appreciated!

But while there, I noticed something strange. Our latest episode, “Bugs Bonking Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes” has been censored by iTunes. Now, I need to be clear here: the actual show has not been censored, and the show still has a ‘Clean” rating which means it’s not full of rude words. But the title, as it shows up in iTunes, has been censored.

The actual title:

SoT 28: Bugs Bonking Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes

Has been changed in iTunes to:

SoT 28: Bugs B*****g Bottles – The Ig Nobel Prizes

Screenshot of iTunes, with "bonking" censored

That’s right, that bastion of good taste has decided that the word “bonk”, with its obvious connotations of wild, vigorous lovemaking, is inappropriate for young children to read. Nevermind that the dictionary definition of bonk lists quite innocuous meanings initially:

noun /bäNGk/
bonks, plural

  • An act of knocking or hitting something that causes a reverberating sound
    • – give it a bonk with a hammer
  • A reverberating sound caused in such a way

And it’s only when you get to the third definition that bonk gets raunchy:

  • An act of sexual intercourse
  • A level of exhaustion that makes a cyclist or runner unable to go further
    • – we had the bonk when we were saddle sore

And personally, I find the words “saddle sore” far kinkier than the word “bonk”, but that could be just me.

Now I know it’s not cool to be ‘hating’ on Apple less than a week after Steve Jobs’ death. And believe me, I’m deeply saddened that the tech world has lost someone of such vision and capability. Were it not for Jobs, I would not be called a podcaster. I’d be a ‘netcaster’ or (shudder) a ‘Zunecaster‘. Even iTunes has changed the game and made it easy for people to find great podcasts like Science on Top. And I know, the word ‘bonk’ was probably automatically ‘bleeped’, I doubt there’s a human being who actually has a problem with the word.

Someone still had to tell the automated software to bleep out ‘bonk’.

And that’s just bonking stupid. #bonkgate

From Atlanta to New York, via Washington DC

I’ve not been very good at keeping this up to date.

Trouble is, I’m just totally in holiday mode. Living ‘in the moment’ and not thinking about keeping people updated with my travels. Sorry ‘bowt that, Chief!

So Dragon*Con in Atlanta was a blast. Lots of really interesting talks and panels on everything from science fiction (Mythology, Philosophy and Truth in Star Wars), science fact (DNA Sequencing and You!), space (The 100 Year Spaceship – NASA & DARPA working on manned intersteller flight) and skepticism (Everything Evolves – Including Creationism). And of course the parade was SO MUCH FUN! Just great to see so many people having a good time and being crazy!

I stuffed up my planning, though, and booked my hotel in Atlanta (and therefore my flight to Washington and check-in in DC) for the last day of the convention, so I missed a few panels and talks. Oh well!

Washington was great. It’s definitely a beautiful city. I went to the International Spy Museum which, as you might expect, is all about spycraft. With all the gadgets and things associated with espionage: cypher wheels from the American Civil War, bugs, micro-dot cameras and poison-dart umbrella-guns from the Cold War, footage from the McCarthy era, models of the Vietnamese tunnels etc right up to cyber-warfare and modern day espionage. A really interesting museum! They even had an Astin Martin DB5 like in James Bond: Goldfinger! 🙂

I also went to the National Air & Space Museum, where I saw the actual command modules from the early manned space flights and Apollo missions – tiny! Like tin cans!

The Museum of Natural History is also fantastic. Really well laid out and lots of interesting fossils and demonstrations.

I did a night-tour of the city, which included stops at all the usual landmarks – Capitol; Lincoln, Roosevelet and Martin Luther King memorials; Washington Monument etc. Only due to security restrictions we weren’t able to see the Whitehouse. Fortunately, I have watched all seven seasons of The West Wing so I’ve a pretty good idea what it looks like.

One of the newest and more interesting museums I went to was the Newseum. Originally at Arlington, Virginia since 1997 it moved to a huge building on Pennsylvania Ave in 2008. It takes a really in-depth look at journalism – from the invention of the Gutenburg press in 1455 right up to the modern internet age. And by doing so, it highlights many of the defining moments of history, particularly in the last hundred years. Lots of original newspapers and footage, and lots of commentary both on the events and the way the events were covered. There are a few special exhibits – a September 11 room with a piece of the WTC TV aerial, and covering the walls are front pages from newspapers all around the world. There’s also an exhibit about Hurricane Katrina, detailling how long it took the government to react and commemorating Pulitzer-prize winning newspapers like the Times-Picayune, a New Orleans paper that kept printing every day (sometimes two or three times a day) with updates and news. It also posed ‘ethical’ questions that confront journalists in such situations – at what stage do you stop ‘reporting’ and actually get involved with saving people etc.

Anyway, a fantastic building and excellent museum – sorry, Newseum. Well worth checking out.

I also took a long journey – train, bus and taxi – out to NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. This is where many of the unmanned NASA missions are controlled. Unfortunately, though, the Visitor Center was much smaller and more boring than I’d expected. I possibly spoiled it by doing the Air and Space Museum the day before, but Goddard turned out to be a few models of the Space Station, the Shuttle and a bunch of “press this button to see how gravity works” type displays. Sure, would probably be great for young kids, but it was nothing new, interesting or exciting for me.

And yesterday I jumped on an Amtrak train and made my way to New York. Wow. Especially going from Atlanta and then Washington, once you get to New York it’s a huge culture shock! No longer can Sydney or Melbourne be called ‘cities’ – they’re barely even large towns compared to NY! I can’t believe how huge and more importantly how BUSY it is. Particularly Times Square, of course. Once I got settled I went for a walk to Broadway which is just phenomenal. Apparently Broadway now rivals Las Vegas’ strip in terms of ‘illuminated signs’.

Of course, 9/11 is on everyone’s minds, today being September 11. There are police on every street, and it was quite confronting when I got off the train and saw armed soldiers. And yet, they aren’t threatening and I feel oddly very safe and grateful for them. Although I know there’s not a lot they can do and if someone really wanted to do something it wouldn’t be too hard, it’s still strangely reassuring. It definitely doesn’t have a ‘police state’ feel to it.

I don’t know what my chances of getting to the WTC site are today – I’ve heard it’ll be survivors and families only. But I’ll wander over and see what’s happening. I can always go tomorrow, or later in the week. Also planning on a visit to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium which are supposed to be excellent. Apparently you can get good views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island from the Staten Island ferry, and I might go for a walk on the Brooklyn Bridge. I’m very close to the New York Times building, which has a 9/11 memorial exhibit so I might look at that too. And then there’s the Empire State Building – I might do that in the evening to avoid crowds of tourists – and I’ve got tickets to a comedy show sometime this week.

So much to do, so little time!