Friday, 10 December 2010

The children of the conned liberals

Yesterday I took part in my first ever tweet storm.

Together with several of my followers and followees, I tracked and quoted my way across the landscape of the fees debate, the vote and the demonstrations.

For hours we pulled together quotes, opinions and live updates from MPs, demonstrators, observers and journalists into multiple feeds which attempted to assemble together the ground up and top down views of the event.

From views we agreed with to views we found despicable, the tweets flowed in.
The topics of discussion ranged from clashes with advocates of violence against the protestors, to concern for those trapped and held in the kettles, to choice sound bites from politicians. Gradually, events unfolded in a glut of information, opinion and action.

When it came time for the vote, my twitter world held its collective breath, though few held out much hope that the vote would come out in favour of the students.

They weren’t wrong.

Support for the proposal was slashed, but the vote passed the motion with a majority of 21, with 25 abstentions.

The clashes between police and protestors had been escalating all day. Alarming was spreading as the tactics used by the police become more and more questionable. Protestors, peaceful and violent alike were being held in kettles by the police, panic spreading through the crowds and injury reports flowing in. Fires were being lit and property was being damaged. Mounted police were charging the crowds, sending people fleeing for their safety, in scenes that sent shockwaves of horror resonating through observers.

After the results were announced, things seemed to be get worse. Protestors were held in kettles for extended periods of time and then funnelled through identification check points. Violent minorities began to really lay into private property and the tweets about police preventing medical treatment began to catch our attention.

Then Charles and Camilla arrived - wrong place, wrong time. A tiny number of violent demonstrators saw a target and took aim.

I woke up this morning fully expecting the press to be awash with clashes between protestors and police, reports about damage to property and condemnation of violent action, but I genuinely believed the focus would have been on the vote. Go on, call me naïve again.

However, I was shocked by the general decision by the press to lead with Charles and Camilla.

No headlines highlighting the broken promises of the Liberal Democrats and their failure to represent the liberals and the youth vote that had put them in power.
Neither was there any headlines highlighting the disproportionate use of force by the police. The disabled protestor pulled from his wheelchair, the bloodied heads, the charging horses, the kettling.

The head of the Met claimed that these measures were in response to protestors not sticking to the agreed route, but who had agreed this route? The NUS? This wasn’t an NUS protest, this was a diverse group of people, teachers, parents, students, objectors that had come together to show their condemnation of the coalition governments proposal.

In my opinion the media has missed the key message of these events. It has played down the actions of those that are supposed to protect the public but have protected the government, choosing instead to focus their coverage on the actions of the violent few who could no longer contain their anger and disappointment.

I am not going to apologise for this minorities actions.

I do not and will never condone violent action.

However, please, for the love of everything this country is supposed to hold dear, tell the story of the protestors.

Tell us the stories from the people inside the kettles, held against their will, without charge, for hours in the freezing cold.

Tell us about how peaceful demonstrators were denied medical treatment and funnelled through identification check points.

Tell us where the student representatives were. What was there part in these protests? Where was Aaron Porter?

Tell us about the abstainers who could have swung the vote.

Tell us about the broken promises of the people that we trusted and voted into power.

Tell us about the commendable actions of the many, instead of focusing on the deplorable actions of the few.

Don’t tell us about the brief involvement of icons of a generation that is no longer relevant.

Above all, tell us about how the Liberal Democrats have sold out to gain power and sentenced the next generation to crippling debt and an education system that will be even more class based and inaccessible to those from low income backgrounds than it already is.

Tell us about how this is going to condemn our children.

The children of the conned liberals.
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Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Education is a right, not a privilege - or obligation?

So back in 2002 we were protesting against top up fees.

Now, eight years later we're protesting against further increases in fees.

The arguments are essentially the same. Higher costs price lower income students out of an education they have a right to.

"Education is a right, not a privilege", that’s what we were chanting back in 2002. I still believe this, but it has taken me a while to get behind the current round of protests.

To begin with, I had a Tory boy moment and decided that, as long as the extra money did find its way back to the students in the form of better facilities and increased amounts of contact time, and then it was probably going to be a good thing in the long term.

Students and parents of the current university bound generation would struggle, yes, but the following generations would just have to accept that they would have to save over a longer period and grants need be provided to help the lowest income families.

Spiralling student debt would be offset by higher repayment thresholds and variable interest rates, it all seemed to make a vague amount of sense to me.

Sarah Teather MP addressing a Liberal Democrat...Image via Wikipedia
So, maybe this is the rationale for Sarah Teather and co abandoning their belief that "All the evidence suggests that fear of debt will deter those from lower income families and ethnic minority communities", (from her maiden speech to the house of commons).



But seeing as this appears to be quite an epic swing, it would be nice if we could get some clarification on why they changed their positions, Teather in particular. Does Teather believe that there will be enough support systems in place that 'lower income families' will not be excluded? Or has she just abandoned them? I don't think the latter is true, but then I've been called naive more than once.

Unfortunately, we don't have an answer yet, and if this clip is anything to go by, we're going to have to wait until she's had adequate time to prepare a well composed, perfectly spun piece to camera to clarify her position.

Again with the naivety, I voted Lib Dem because I thought, ha, that it might mean a different kind of politics, but it appears that getting into bed with the Tories means you start playing the bedroom games their way. Kinky.

After seeing the demonstrations, the occupations and reading blogs and articles a-plenty, my opinion has been somewhat swayed. Not because I think that an increase in fees is itself a bad idea, but because I have very little confidence that the money will find its way to the students in any kind of real beneficial way.

I have never been a supporter of target based policies; 50% of school leavers going to University was always, in my opinion, a poor vision. I would support a policy that sees the people who are going to benefit from a degree going to university, supported financially, socially and where necessary, educationally, to do so.

I don't think that university should be for 'smart' people. I think it should be for those that want to learn, whatever their ability level.

I don't think that university should only be for those that can afford it, whatever the institution they want to go to. All students should have equal opportunity to access the best resources, with entry requirements being merit based, not financial.

I don't think that university should be the assumed natural next step after school. Most students would benefit greatly from working first, finding out whether a degree is actually going to be of benefit to them, before investing the time and money only to end up in a job that they could have worked their way into, earning along the way rather than accruing debt.

I was 21 when I went into university. Not a mature student really, but that extra two years, working in a call centre, cemented in my mind that if I wanted to achieve the things I had planned for myself, University was the way forward.

Now, many years later, after getting my degree, working in a bar for a year, I'm studying for a masters. My debt is spiralling, but I am still confident that it is a good investment.

Maybe the levels of debt proposed by the coalition government might put people off going to University, but for those who need to and for those that really want to I don’t think it will deter them.

I worry about a class based education system, but then do we not have one of those now anyway? Look at the Oxford and Cambridge students. Look at the top ten universities. Tell me we don't have a class based system.

Look at the schools these students come from, their parent’s socio-economic status, their cultural capital. Tell me we don't have a class based system.

I don't want to be an apologiser for the Lib Dem sell outs; I do think they have sold out on fundamental values, but maybe if they would talk to us, explain why they've changed their position, justify the increases, give us some sort of assurance that the support will be there and the funds will reach the students, we might be a bit happier to sell out too.
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Saturday, 4 December 2010

Freedom of speech, freedom of information, always. No exceptions.

Logo used by WikileaksImage via Wikipedia
So it would be foolish of me to assume that everyone knows what’s going on at the moment with WikiLeaks, so here's an incredibly brief summary.


Julian Assange, Australian, has published leaked diplomatic cables that have embarrassed to say the least, diplomats around the world. Chief suspect for passing the quarter of a million documents to WikiLeaks is Pembrokeshire born American Pvt, Bradley Manning.

Congressman Mike Rogers has called for Pvt Manning to be put to death as a traitor, as have former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee and ex-Pentagon official KT McFarland. They claim that this release of documents have put American lives at risk and have damaged national security.

I am yet to see any evidence that any lives have been lost because of these leaks, though it is far too early to say that none will be.

I have seen evidence of corruption, torture and heinous mistakes.

There are also calls for Julian Assange to be assassinated from the Washington Times Jeffrey Kuhner and from Canadian official Tom Flanagan (even if Flanagan claims his remarks were in jest - we all remember Gareth Compton don't we?).

I am outraged by this.

Information should be freely available to all. On any subject, no matter how embarrassing it may be to the diplomats and government officials involved.

Now before you call me naive, I recognise that these documents contain very sensitive information that will have a direct impact on world politics and could potentially lead to awful situations.

That does not negate the fact that contained within these documents is information that the public have a right to be aware of.

We should know what our governments are doing in our name and we have an absolute right to decide given all available information, whether we are going to support our leaders in their actions.

If the governments don't want events like WikiLeaks to happen, they should take pre-emptive measures and either release this information themselves or not undertake activities which they fear the public finding out about.

This is a very hastily written post. And yes, I am an idealist. But surely if governments aren't hiding things that the public will want to know about then people like Julian Assange wouldn't need to release, en mass sensitive documents that risk national security.

I have no interest in what diplomats think about each other or the stupid things they say and do at dinner parties.

I have no interested in military operations that are secret but legal.

I AM interested in illegal, amoral and devious activities undertaken by our governments in our name, for our safety but without our consent our knowledge, and if the only way I can find out about them is through mass releases of sensitive documents like this, then so be it.

As for anyone who tries to assassinate Julian Assange or execute Pvt Manning, they'll have to come through me and the hundreds of thousands of supporters that they have.

The world is watching.
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Wednesday, 17 November 2010

#StupidScientology

This week I, along with two fellow MSc students and Nic went to the Cardiff Skeptics in the Pub meeting. We were all Cardiff SITP virgins, but after a couple of bottles of wine, we felt like we fitted right in.

The speaker was Councillor John Dixon and his topic was the maelstrom that followed his flippant tweet "I didn't know the Scientologists had a church on Tottenham Court Road. Just hurried past in case the stupid rubs off."

In case you don't know, Cllr Dixon faced disciplinary action when an ombudsman decided that a complaint submitted by a slighted Scientologist was valid and required further investigation.

The Ombudsman's decision provoked a twitter storm with many people voicing support for Cllr Dixon. What had started as a throw-away comment, developed into a news story that saw Cllr Dixon appear on news night being interviewed by Kirsty Wark.

In the end, he won the argument, when it was agreed that despite his twitter handle suggesting it was a professional tweeter account, his comment was of a personal nature.

Cllr Dixon's talk highlighted the contradicting nature of politics; we want our representatives to be honest so we can vote for someone who we feel we can agree with or at the very least put up with, but at the same time they are expected to not express any personal opinions that could be deemed offensive.

This is a question of freedom of speech. Just because a person becomes an elected representative does not strip them of the right to express their opinion, whether we agree with it or not.

Cllr Dixon quoted Voltaire "I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." This is something that I agree with completely.

I would fight for the right for Dr Sheila Matthews to express her doubts about gay parents, though I disagree. I would fight for anti-vaxers to say what they want, though I disagree.

Why? Because as Cllr Dixon suggested in his talk, no-platform policies are a bad idea. They drive dangerous ideas out of the harsh light of public scrutiny. When everyone can express themselves publicly, debate can weed out the bad, dangerous, wrong or downright stupid ideas.

Freedom of speech means freedom of speech for everyone, always. This includes our elected representatives.

From his talk, I got the impression that Cllr Dixon does not regret his tweet, his wording or even the sentiment. Scientology has much harsher critics, but Cllr Dixon was victim of a pedantic exercise by a powerful and maleficent organisation trying to silence criticism and debate by stifling freedom of speech.

Shame.
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Friday, 29 October 2010

Science Journos shouldn't fear for the future

Recently proposed cuts to science funding fuelled by the recession are causing for concern for many young scientists looking for work, but should science writers also be worried?

Dr John Cokley, a Visiting Research Fellow at Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, believes not. He spoke to us today about his vision for the future and gave some brief advice on how to avoid the various pitfalls a successful science writer must negotiate.

As science moves from an industry focussed on innovation to one centred on commercialisation, John feels that the role of the science journalist will become more important in helping the public to not only keep up with scientific progress but also to understand and critically evaluate it.

The role of the scientific journalist, according to John, is to understand new science, interpret and communicate it effectively to a public who may not have the requisite knowledge to appreciate the potential implications.

This is more complicated than it sounds. The science journalist will likely have an intrinsic interest in all things relating to science and so any new and exciting developments will capture their attention, but it is unlikely that this will be true for the majority of their readers.

John reiterates that the best way to get people interested is to know your audience inside out. Researching the demographic statistics for your readership will give you invaluable information on what issues they are likely to take in interest in and more importantly, how to frame your report in a way that will make them take an interest.

The most important question to ask when writing any report, scientific or otherwise, is ‘Why would my reader care?’ If you can answer this and write with it in mind, you will produce a piece that your readers will be far more likely to read and engage with.
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Saturday, 16 October 2010

MMR, Autism and Poor Science Reporting

The Australian Vaccination Network have this week tweeted that evidence supporting Andrew Wakefield and his discredited Autism/MMR study had been published.

In fact, the article being touted by the AVN as new information is a four year old story published in the Mail on Sunday.  Not only is it four years out of date, but the research on which the article is based does not relate to a link between autism and the MMR, but because of sloppy journalism, you could be forgiven for believing it did.

With the title "Scientists fear MMR link to autism", Sally Beck, whose work includes other autism related stories, such as "I helped my son beat Autism by giving up Weetabix", illustrates just how badly science journalism can be done.

The immediate problem that I spotted was that the article was the claim that:

    "New American research shows that there could be a link between the controversial MMR triple vaccine and autism and bowel disease in children. The study appears to confirm the findings of British doctor Andrew Wakefield, who caused a storm in 1998 by suggesting a possible link."

When in fact, what the scientist, Dr Walker was quoted as saying was:

   "[Wakefield's] study didn’t draw any conclusions about specifically what it means to find measles virus in the gut, but the implication is it may be coming from the MMR vaccine. If that’s the case, and this live virus is residing in the gastrointestinal tract of some children, and then they have GI inflammation and other problems, it may be related to the MMR"

The way in which Ms Beck has written, suggests that the link is between the MMR triple vaccine and autism, as well as bowel disease. In fact, what has been claimed is that there is a possible link between the MMR and gastrointestinal problems, in children with autism.  This may seem pedantic, but many readers may not be able to make that distinction.

In many cases this would be a trivial error, but in this case it has far reaching, dangerous repercussions.  This article has been linked to and referenced on numerous websites, used to defend Wakefield and to spread the message that vaccines are unsafe.

Ms Beck's poor choice of sentence structure aside, the interpretation of the research seems flawed.  After searching for more information, the only available source which seemed to relate to the article is a poster submitted in 2006 to the International Meeting for Autism Research.

As the AVN were linking to this article as new information, it appeared that Ms Beck had not only misinterpretated research, she had used work that was four years old.

Dr Walker, the quoted scientist, when asked if there was some as yet unpublished work that this article was based on, replied saying:

    Chas,

    This story is not current. It was written by Sally in 2006 following a presentation of an abstract that I did at IMFAR (International Meeting for Autism Research) in Montreal. The final peer-reviewed article has not been written, mainly due to an inability to get appropriate control samples to complete the study. And you are exactly right - we were thinking the data might be indicative of a possible link between MMR and gut problems, not MMR and autism.

    Hope that helps.

    best regards,
    Steve

 The science was in fact current in 2006 - when the article was published.  It was only by looking at the comments attached to the article that it became apparent the Mail on Sunday did not display the date the article was published.  Is this responsible journalism?  This leads anyone who reads the article and does not look past the page on which it is displayed, to believe the article was current, as I did.

The Australian Vaccination Network claim to aim to help parents make informed choices, yet they are disseminating information which is four years out of date and inaccurate. An organisation claiming to inform parents about vaccines has a responsibility to check the information they give out, and should be held to account when the quality of the information they disseminate is poor.  I contacted the AVN for comment, but they have not responded.

The funny thing is the research in question is actually suggesting a detrimental effect of the triple MMR vaccine.  Completed and published, it will be interesting to see if this research does show a significant effect.

Judging from their twitter feed, the AVN appear to be more interested in presenting any piece of information that supports their anti-vaccination position, rather than finding and informing people of the truth.  So if this research does come out in favour of vaccinations, will the AVN will be as quick to correct itself as it was to demand Wakefield’s exoneration? 

When the time comes, you can expect a follow up article evaluating the findings and the AVN’s response.  But unlike the AVN’s approach to research and Ms Beck and the Mail’s approach to science journalism, whether it says good things about vaccines or bad, it will be reported on this blog with an open mind, with clear language and without sensationalist claims.
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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Learning to Communicate

My undergraduate degree from Aston University was in Sociology and Politics, but being a science geek at heart when I spotted an MSc at Cardiff University in Science, Media and Communication I thought it was worth a look. My A-levels were all science; Maths, Chem, Biology, Physics, Environmental Sicence, Geogrpahy and ICT but because I was lazy and ill in an unfortunate combination, I didn't do well enough to study science at a higher level. I'm almost glad; Sociology was something I feel into but something I excelled at.


The main building of Cardiff UniversityImage via Wikipedia

People are fascinating subjects to study and the way they operate en mass is even more interesting as it is so predictable but utterly random at the same time. I've slowly built up a regular list of science-based podcasts, newspaper columns and books that I consume constantly and my growing twitter addiction is fuelling further interest in all things sciencey. So the opportunity presented by this masters course to learn how to bridge the gap between people and science was one I couldn't resist.

Having started the course, I am thrilled that it is everything I hope for and more (so far), given me the opportunity to work with children at Techniquest, inspiring young mnds to get interested in science, whilst providing me with usuable tools in science journalism so I can get involved at higher levels and hopefully make some money out of it (I have to pay the bills at some point).

I've decided to interject this blog on science-things-I-think-are-interesting with personal entries on how my course is going and what I am learning. So far, I haven't got a huge following, lol, but I'm hoping if I can keep this going, some people mihgt be interested to hear what is being taught to science communicators of the future.

So for this first course-based blog, I thought I'd set out what I want to learn from this course, you might not be interested, but it will be interesting to me to come back to this in a year and see if I have achieved any of it.

Firstly, I want to learn how to inspire people to take an interest in science. I admire hugely people who are making a career out of doing this but have a sneaking suspicion its something you've either naturally got, or haven't.

Secondly, I want to learn how to critically, sceptically but fairly evaluate scientific claims and communicate my opinions to a wider audience.

Thirdly, I want to learn how to entertain whilst educate, because no one likes a boring teacher.

Fourthly, and finally I want to contribute something positive to the field of science communication. I'm doing this course because I want to make a career out of this, but I want to be able to do something good whilst paying the rent.

So they're very quickly thought up goals, as with all my blog posts I tend to blog-on-the-fly so I will probably amend and add to them later.

Like I said, this is more for my own records, so I can evaluate my progress and my achievements when I come to the end of my course, but maybe you'll be interested in reading it. Maybe not.
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Friday, 8 October 2010

It's a miracle! No. It isn't.

The logo of The Skeptics' Guide to the Universe
I was directed today to a facebook page advertsing "Miricle Mineral Solution" of MMS also known as Miracle Mineral Supplement by a fantastic your twitterer #rhysmorgan. I first heard of Rhys and MMS when he was being interviewed on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe Podcast. He was talking about MMS and
the disgusting treatment he had recieved whilst participating in online forums where he dared criticise the product and inform others of the FDA warnings relating to the product.


MMS is a solution containing 28% sodium chlorite, a chemical used widely in paper manufacturing to generate chlorine dioxide, an industial strength bleach. Chlorine dioxide is so volatile that it is deemed unsafe for transport, which is why users of MMS will mix the sodium chlorite solution with an activator, usually citric acid or vinegar to generate the bleach on-site.

Now I'm no chemist, but it doesn't take one to realise that ingesting industrial strength bleach is not going to be beneficial, let alone treat cancer, HIV, malaria or the common cold as some websites claim. What it can do is make you nautious, vomit, give you diarrhea and produce symptoms of extreme dehydration.

The FDA has issued warnings that drinking MMS can cause serious harm (http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/ucm220747.htm) and yet here it is, cropping up on websites and facebook sites for sale in the UK.

Jim Humble, the man claiming to have discovered and developed this 'miracle' has a website (http://www.mmsmiraclemineralsolution.co.uk/#Miracle_Mineral_DVD_)which provides numerous ways for you to buy the product, but almost no information about what the product is, what it does, any evidence of efficacy or safety - apart from that it is GMP certified, meaning it has been manufactured to a particular standard. He does plug his books and DVD's, but don't worry all the profits go to him, not big Pharma, so your doing a little bit of good whilst you poison yourself.

It is understandable that people who suffer from chronic or terminal illnesses will look for solutions wherever they can find them, but the purpose of this blog entry is to beg you, if you are reading this and you're thinking of trying a new treatment, research the product you are buying, find out what's in it, find out if there are medical warnings in other countries and stay away from anything with the word 'miracle' on the label!

Always remember the old saying - if it's too good to be true... they're probably trying to steal your money whilst you continue to suffer.
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Monday, 19 July 2010

BEWARE - The Energy Vampires BLAH BLAH

Have you ever felt that an interaction with another person has left you drained, tired or listless? You may be the unwitting victim of an energy vampire! Have you ever felt that someone is being relentlessly negative, can't take responsibility for their actions or is being disproportionately dramatic about a seemingly trivial incident or situation? Could be you're in the company of an energy vampire! Does prolonged eye contact leave your positive energy drained and you feeling exhausted depressed and sad? Could be you've been attacked by a psychic vampire!

But wait, sure, being with some people can suck, but draining your positive energy? Through eye contact?

Some people use the term 'energy vampire' to describe a person whose constant negativity has a detrimental effect on your own mood and although it might be a bit melodramatic to label this person a vampire, I can appreciate that not all social contact leaves you feeling warm and fuzzy.

Some websites advocate limiting the time spent with these people and delineating personal boundaries as clearly as possible to reduce the amount of sucking. Fair enough, its not fun being bombarded by negativity and limiting social contact may help, but have you ruled out that constant negativity might be someone's way of seeking social contact, comfort or help?

We all like a good moan but what we're more often that not seeking is a way to express ourselves, get advice and even bond. Why not try really listening to what they are saying; most people aren't expecting you to fix all their problems, they just want an ear to bend or a shoulder to quietly sob on. It's not your responsibility to fix everyone's problems, but it never hurts to take a minute and listen.

All that said, what really makes me giggle is the suggestion that eye contact can allow these 'psychic vampires' to steal your positive energy. What kind of energy are we talking about here? Something tells me we're not talking about any kind of biochemical energy or any other form of energy that could be measured or observed.

The suggestion that someone could 'suck' energy from your eyes is simply bizarre and requires some variation of a human energy field that is not known to science. No evidence for energy fields, channels or any other metaphysical transport network within the human body has ever been found - in fact, were it to be found it would require a complete paradigm shift in the way we understand the biological functions of the human body.

So next time you're in a situation with someone who is whining, over dramatic, relentlessly negative and is starting to get you down, don't reach for the garlic, try listening, if you keep an open mind and open ear, maybe the vampire won't have to suck your eyes.
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