Donate Your Organs

My brother used to have a “Don’t take your organs to heaven, heaven knows we need them here” bumper sticker on his car. I respected his decision, but I didn’t agree with it. Something about the idea squicked me.

This was before I’d cemented my atheist beliefs and come to terms with the likelihood that there is no afterlife. I was young. I had naive questions, like “we don’t know what happens when we die, what if we do need our livers?”. I think a part of me was secretly hoping the vikings were right, and after my passing I’d have an eternity of drinking and feasting to look forward to.

That all changed, however, in my early twenties. My best friend went into hospital, needing open heart surgery to replace a faulty aortic valve. The plan was to use an artificial, mechanical valve that would do the job, but for a variety of reasons would be sub-standard. It would need to be replaced every 10 to 20 years, for a start, and could require him to take anticoagulant medication and have monthly blood tests. But, if that was the cost of saving his life, so be it. He was prepared for it, as best as anyone could be.

At the last minute, though, he got some great news: a donor heart valve had become available! The human valve was transplanted into him, and ever since he’s been a picture of health. Because of some dead stranger’s gift, he can live like everyone else. Organ donation changed his life.

The next day I went and signed up to be an organ donor. I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, but if there is I’m fairly certain we don’t need our corporeal bodies in it. What I DO know, though, is that there’s a urgent need for organ transplants. Mark Colvin, host of ABC radio’s PM news and current affairs program, wrote about it brilliantly on The Drum today. You can’t help be moved by reading it, and I hope you will click here and sign up to be an organ donor.

Who’s Afraid of Islam? America Is.

Artist rendition of the “Ground Zero Mosque”Can’t we all move past the whole “They’re different to me, I’m scared” thing?

Last month the Pew Research Center released a report showing that most Americans don’t know what religion their own President is. The survey found that nearly one-in-five Americans (18%) think Obama is a Muslim, up from 11% in March 2009. Nearly half (43%) say they do not know what his religion is. He is, actually, a Christian – a fact that only a third of adults (34%) correctly answered, down from 48% in 2009.

Well, he says he’s a Christian, anyway. While in Australia we don’t have a problem with an atheist Prime Minister, in the US it’s almost political suicide. As Bill Maher said in an interview on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show: “He of course has to SAY he is, because he’s running for President in the ‘United Stupid of America’”. Of course, a leader’s religion isn’t necessarily a big deal. Politicians should, ideally, be elected based on their policies, not beliefs. But there are times – fortunately not very often – when politicians will need to comment on religious topics. And a week after that survey was released, Obama did just that: he spoke out in support of what the media has dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque”.

Which isn’t at Ground Zero.

And isn’t really a mosque.

It’s a 13-story building with an auditorium, theater and performing arts center. It has a gym, swimming pool and basketball court; a creche, a bookstore, a culinary school, art studio, and food court. It also has a September 11 memorial, AND a mosque.

But because it’s planned to be built 200m away from the site of the World Trade Center, it’s become a hotbed of controversy. With many opposing its construction complaining it’s an insult to the memories of those who died there. Even though, as Matt Sledge writes for the Huffington Post, “Muslim prayers are already taking place right on the edge of the construction site … Families are going there to pray – for the souls of the dozens of innocent Muslim victims who died on September 11”.

It’s been nine years and Islamophobia is still widespread in America. It’s well time to move on. The 19 hijackers on September 11 were no more Muslim than the Westboro Baptist Church lunatic, Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps is Christian. They were a tiny, extremist element of an otherwise peaceful religion.

Stability Alone Is Not Enough

Ever since Australian voters couldn’t make up their minds about who they want to run the country, I’ve gotten a bit sick of hearing the word “stability”. The independents say they want it, both parties say they can deliver it, and the other team can’t. Everyone’s focused on making sure that whatever government forms out of the democratic no-man’s land we’ve created, it will be built to last.

Since when has that been all that matters?

There’s no point being in power if you’re not going to do anything – or worse, do bad things that damage the country. The new government will need forward-thinking policies and a plan for real progress – two things mostly lacking in the campaign. With such a small minority, it’ll be hard to get any major legislation passed, and anything visionary will be watered down to the lowest common denominator that gets approval from everyone. A government of slow, stable, mediocrity.

French intellectual and writer Joseph de Maistre once famously said “every nation gets the government it deserves”. Marieke Hardy says that’s exactly what happened, and the government we got was: “half of each plus a couple of farmers, a hippy, a whistleblower and the unclassifiably deranged Bob ‘Many times I’ve gone to bed as a cockle-doodle-doo and woke up the next morning as a feather duster’ Katter”. It’s a brilliant (and delightfully poetic) analysis. Nobody has any confidence in the leaders of either major party. The Greens, with their first ever seat in the lower house, are too new and inexperienced to lead the country. And an independent as Prime Minister makes about as much sense as a Family First member – none at all.

I can’t see a minority govenment lasting very long. The last hung parliament we had, 70 years ago, the government formed from that lasted less than a year. But maybe that’s what we need. A year of doing nothing, while the parties take a good long look at themselves. And after a bit of navel gazing, perhaps next year we can have another election. An election where each party realigns its policies with the core values of its members and supporters – not the latest poll results. An election where all parties campaign on their strengths, not the weaknesses of their opponents. An election with substance. With vision.

And hopefully, by then we’ll deserve it.

Film Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Graphic novels are all the rage in Hollywood. Every year since 1981, at least one comic book has been made into a feature movie. And it’s happening more and more – in 2011 there will be eight comic book adaptations hitting the theatres. Who said Hollywood’s running out of ideas?

The latest is one you may not have heard of – Scott Pilgrim. First released in 2004, there have been only six issues of the black-and-white graphic novel. It was widely well received, winning several awards, and developed a strong cult following. The film centers around 23 year old unemployed layabout Scott Pilgrim. He plays in a band called “Sex Bob-omb”, is still getting over a bad break up a year ago but finds himself dating a 17 year old high school girl, Knives Chau (“She’s Chinese!” Scott has to continually explain). But when delivery girl Ramona Flowers moves in, Pilgrim falls in love with her. Little does he know that if he wants to date her, he must battle to the death her “seven evil exes”. What follows is a fantastic Mortal Kombat style series of battles complete with level-ups, bonus lives and – of course – coins!

If you think that sounds far fetched – you’re right. Such is the nature of all comic books, I suppose. I’ve never really been into them, myself. I never collected them, I don’t think I’ve ever even bought a comic book. Except for Frank Miller’s Sin City series – and I bought them AFTER seeing the movie! But the beauty of comic books is that they force us to suspend our disbelief and immerse ourselves in a different world. They drag us through the story by our imaginations.

And on the surface, Scott Pilgrim vs The World is a cookie-cutter Hollywood action-romance film. There’s the Ben Stiller-esque ‘ordinary bloke’, a love interest, a series of hurdles the hero needs to overcome, a brief crisis-of-confidence before an epiphany, an epic final battle scene and ultimate victory. There’s even a training montage at one point. But really this movie is SO MUCH more than that. There’s very cool special effects (complete with comic-book onomatopoeic sound effects like “Pow!” and “Thunk!”) and great martial arts sequences. It’s at times goofy, other times deadly serious.  I mean, it’s a LOT of fun. It’s very much in the spirit of Kick-Ass, with zany characters in danger, and you really find yourself cheering for them. But on top of all that, the dialogue is extremely tight. Funny, entertaining and very “geeky”, the language and style is very well done and rarely predictable.

But what makes Scott Pilgrim so great is that it’s a totally unashamed geek-fest. It’s packed full of video-game references, mostly the old-style arcade and console games. Even the theme tune from Zelda is recreated, and lots of the music has definite 8-bit overtones. Yahoo!Games has a summary of the video-game aspects here. Shortly after seeing this film I tweeted that it was “thousands of tiny geekgasms rolled into one giant geekgasm.” If you’re into comic books or video games, or if you were EVER into comic books or video games, you will love Scott Pilgrim.

Made for geeks, by geeks, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is easily the best film I’ve seen this year. Go and see it.

The Problem of Authority

When Too Much Information Is A Bad Thing

We’re inundated with information all the time, from every source imaginable – traditional media like newspapers, television and radio; new media like blogs, forums and podcasts; conventional in-person interactions and a host of other forms. That’s a fantastic thing. To think that now I can type “vaccination” into Google and get more than 15.2 million results in less than one-fifth of a second is phenomenal. Twenty years ago, we could only dream of such a huge volume of information. It was amazing back then, when a complete and searchable encyclopedia could fit on a compact disc. Now, of course, just the English version alone of Wikipedia (only 3.37 million out of a total 16 million articles for all languages) is over 230.3 gigabytes – or 337 compact discs. This, as The Wire’s Marlowe Stanfield would say, “sounds like one of them good problems”.

But the problem isn’t that there’s so much information, the problem is that the quality doesn’t match the quantity. Of those 15.2 million vaccination results, some will be from blog posts saying “today I took Billy in for his vaccination, he was very brave” while others will be useful, factual information from peer-reviewed medical journals. Sure, search engines do an incredible job of finding and sorting relevant information. That blog post isn’t going to get nearly as many links as the Wikipedia page or the website of the Australian Vaccination Network – the top two search results – so it will be buried further down in the results. And right there is the problem – that’s relevancy, not authority. Yes, those sites are more relevant to most people, but are they the most informative, authoritative sites? There’s no way for a search engine to know if the Australian Vaccination Network gives accurate, scientific information or not.

And guess what, it doesn’t.

After investigating the group, the NSW Healthcare Complaints Commission (HCCC) has released a damning report that claims “the AVN provides information that is inaccurate and misleading”. The report reveals that the group “provides information that is solely anti-vaccination” and that it “quotes selectively from research to suggest that vaccination may be dangerous”.
The story is best covered by Walkley Award winning journalist Steve Cannane on Lateline:

The problem of authority is obviously a problem not just on the internet, but in real life as well. And just as finding relevant information online was a challenge before Google came along, I think finding authoritative information is our current – and much harder – problem. But at least on the internet it’s easy to reference the sources of information and determine its accuracy. That’s perhaps what the quest for authority demonstrates – the awesome power of the link. By showing sources, by linking to the facts, a site demonstrates its authority. It’s self-regulation, and clearly not particularly effective, but for now it’s the best we can do.

Election 2010: What Matters To You?

Politicians and the media love dictating the issues to us. But in a democracy, it should be the people who decide what’s important and where the debate should be.
Kevin Rudd was big on that, hosting the Australia 2020 Summit to decide how the country should be run. But only 1,002 out of more than 22 million people got a chance to attend, so it’s likely you weren’t there. Julia Gillard also seems to like the idea, promising a “Citizens Assembly” of 150 people if she’s elected, that will determine her climate change policy. Elections, of course, give us a chance to have a general say on many issues.

Triple J’s brilliant current affairs program Hack has opened it’s “Straw Poll” where you can vote which issues matter most to you. Last week Mia Freedman asked her staff and readers what matters to them. Part of the ABC’s fantastic election sentiment site, Campaign Pulse, gives you the choice to rank ten issues (the results of which so far put everything except defense above immigration).

If I had to break my priorities down to a list of 10, here’s what matters most to me:

  1. Climate Change
  2. Foreign Aid
  3. Health
  4. Same Sex Marriage
  5. LGBT Rights (adoption, etc)
  6. Internet Filter
  7. National Broadband Network
  8. Education
  9. Economy
  10. Population, immigration, on-shore processing.

Some of those were extremely hard to rank in order, but it’s a rough approximation. How about you? What issues will decide who you vote for this election? What’s your Top Five (or ten, or twenty)?

The Truth About (Some) Men

That self-appointed voice of masculinity, AskMen.com, has released it’s annual “Great Male Survey” for the year. “Great” is their adjective, not mine. With over 100,000 responses, the survey proclaims to “shed serious light on how the modern man thinks and behaves — professionally, romantically and in his downtime – in 2010”. But nobody seems to be questioning the actual survey itself.

It’s filled with “great”, although often trivial, insights into the AskMen.com readership. For example, I found it particularly interesting that presumably, the modern man in 2010 is 100% straight.  The questions were all loaded with a clear heterosexual bias, like “Would you dump a girlfriend if she became fat?” (54% are shallow bastards). There were some questions that left the door open to everyone, such as “Of the choices listed below, which one thing would you change about your partner?” (57% were either single or wouldn’t change anything). Now I understand AskMen.com may think only stereotypical heterosexual neanderthals with beer, breasts and football obsessions surf their site, but how would they know? The point of a survey is to ask questions, not make assumptions. And gay men might have some interesting thoughts on the “Do you believe in the institution of marriage?” question (67% of survey respondents do and the rest don’t or don’t want to be married).

Putting aside the hetro slant, I was surprised at how the survey was reported in the media. There seemed to be some very alarming results that were completely ignored, while trivial responses were reported everywhere.

Forty-nine percent of men said that if there were no repercussions, they would happily punch a colleague in the face. Forty-nine per cent! I couldn’t find any news report that mentioned that. Nearly half of men want to get violent on a coworker, and that’s not important? Nobody’s asking if we have aggression issues, or what’s happening in our workplaces to get us riled up?

Given the stereotypical obsession men have with sex, it’s surprising how uncomfortable we are about it. Forty-two percent of respondents haven’t told their partners any of their sexual fantasies, and 45% have only discussed some of them. Similarly, one in two men are uncomfortable having their genitals examined by a doctor. That’s during an appointment, I should add – I’m sure most people would be uncomfortable if a doctor came up to them on the street and asked to examine their bits.

The survey shows that only 16% of men are logical and rational people, since 84% believe in either aliens, angels, ghosts or vampires. I’m not making this up! 52% of men seriously believe Aliens exist, but 17% think angels are more likely. I suppose this isn’t really all that surprising, if you remember back in April I wrote that 49% of Americans believe that have had a ‘mystical or religious experience’. When I also consider the success of scams such as PowerBalance bracelets, I find myself wondering what happened to people’s critical thinking skills? Do we now just believe whatever we see on television?

I realise, of course, that AskMen.com is a Lowest Common Denominator type of trash site – the online equivalent of Zoo Magazine or FHM. But when you brag about being “approved” by internationally recognised statistics company Ipsos, I expect the questions to be phrased without bias or loading. I also expect that the media, when covering a survey with over 100,000 respondents, to draw attention to serious or worrying results. But then, maybe I’m wrong and the public does need to know that every second man wishes he was James Bond.

Cash For Clunkers Could Be Too Effective

Yesterday, Prime Minister Gillard has promised a “cash for clunkers” scheme that Labor will introduce if re-elected. The scheme will give people $2,000 if they trade in an old, pre-1995 car for a new car that meets current emissions standards.

It’s not a new idea – Cash For Clunkers was a program Obama introduced eleven months ago to boost the brink-of-bankruptcy US auto industry. So I thought it might be interesting to have a look at how that went, and it turns out it was actually pretty successful.

For analysis, here’s America’s most trusted newscaster explaining that success:

Click Here

The PowerBalance Scam

I saved a workmate from wasting $20 the other day. Granted, it’s not a huge sum, but there’s a global financial crisis and every bit helps. You see, she was bidding on eBay during her break, and I asked what she was trying to buy. Turns out she’s buying a magic product designed to make her stronger, more flexible, and more balanced. It could probably make her invisible, able to fly and see through walls.

It’s a kind of magic.

PowerBalance bracelets are the latest craze in town. Particularly in the sports and gym industries, where people will buy any gadget or gizmo if they think it might improve their performance. There’s not much information on the official site, but here’s how they say it works:

They “embed” some “naturally occurring frequencies” into a hologram on a silicone bracelet.

And that’s it.

Even basketballer Shaquille O’Neal endorses them, saying: “I don’t really do a lot of testimonials, but this really works! … I kept feeling something when I wore the bracelet, so I kept wearing it … I want to do everything to get the slightest advantage; wristbands, necklaces, t-shirts, band-aids, everything and anything we can get our hands on. I’m here to tell you it works!” Well that should be enough to convince anyone. I wonder if they do PowerBalance band-aids?

Of course, it’s likely The Shaq only says such nice things because I assume PowerBalance is paying him a lot of money to do so. But he says on the website he “did the test” and was convinced of their ability. What test is that? Well here’s a promotional clip that shows you. It’s very convincing:

See, I told you it was convincing. And I can understand why my coworker wanted to get one. She said someone did the flexibility test on her and she was really impressed with the results. And for only $20, it’ll be worth it!

Unfortunately – and you knew this was coming, didn’t you – the bracelets are nothing but a scam. They don’t work, all they do is take away your money. Even just ignoring the ludicrous “science” used to describe how it works, the “tests” they do are well-known tricks used as part of applied kinesiology. Applied Kinesiology is a method chiropractors and other “alternative medicine” practitioners use for diagnosis. Richard Saunders, vice-president of Australian Skeptics, made this video to demonstrate how it’s done.

So there you go. The usual adage of “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is” holds firmly. When Today Tonight ran a story on the amazing bracelets, they got such a response they did a follow-up a week later. The second time they got Richard on the show as well to run some tests, which proved the PowerBalance bands don’t work. The story was badly edited, and doesn’t show all the tests, but it’s still clear enough.

The lesson here is, as always, to think things through rationally and objectively. The internet’s a great resource for researching suspicious claims. And never be satisfied with someone telling you “it just works”. Find out how it works. Learn about it, and investigate the science behind it.

Have you ever been conned by a gimmick, or come close to it? Ever busted a myth?

A Label Can’t Tell The Whole Story

If you’ve never heard of Courtney Roulston, it’s probably because – like me – you don’t pay attention to anything about Masterchef. But she’s a contestant on the popular cooking show and, apparently, she has a girlfriend. That in itself is not unusual. What’s strange, to some people at least, is that she doesn’t call herself a lesbian. She had a boyfriend for seven years before hooking up with her current girlfriend of three years. Social commentator and blogger Mia Freedman found this situation surprising. She writes:

“I found what Courtney says so interesting on so many levels. I’m of the belief that being gay is not a choice or a lifestyle decision.

Does one relationship have the power to label you? Are women like Courtney and Cynthia lesbians or are they just in love with individuals who also happen to be women?”

Kinsey ScaleIt’s important to remember, as I’ve said before, that we don’t live in a binary world. We’re not gay or straight, Labor or Liberal, black or white. We’re mostly all somewhere in between. Yes, some people are going to be 100% straight, or 100% gay, but research shows they are actually the minority. Most of us have some degree of same sex attraction. In the late 1940s Dr. Alfred Kinsey developed what became known as the Kinsey Scale. Essentially, 0 is completely heterosexual and 6 is completely homosexual, and most people fall somewhere along that scale. Another category, X, was added for asexual people.

So the popular concept of gay/straight/bisexual labels aren’t accurate, and don’t suffiently describe someone’s sexuality. But even the Kinsey Scale is still too simplistic. It only covers basic physical attraction, and at one point in time. Sexuality is so much more complicated than that. It’s about activities, fantasies and frequencies, not just gender. Sexuality is fluid, it changes over time. I do things now I never would have done ten years ago. And in ten years time they might not interest me anymore, and may be doing things I couldn’t dream of now.

Labels are simple tools for quick communication. They’re for getting to the ‘important’ bits quickly, without the “well, it’s complicated” talk. When I talk about my sexuality, I usually just say “I’m bisexual” because that’s an umbrella term that covers me best. But in reality it IS more complicated than that. Sure, I’m attracted to and have slept with both men and women – but that’s a purely physical thing. I’ve never been in an emotional relationship with a guy, and at the moment it seems unlikely – I have trust issues when it comes to men. But I’m certainly not ruling it out. And rather than give a long explanation like that, most of the time I’ll just say I’m bisexual and that covers it. People have the option to either question me further about it, or direct the conversation elsewhere. Because that’s all a label is – a quick and dirty way of describing something complicated.

To put any more stock in labels, or to be ‘shocked’ when someone doesn’t fit completely in a label, is to over-simplify our complicated lives. I am who I am, and you are who you are, and that’s it.