Test post (from my mobile)

November 29, 2009

Just a note to say I’m mobile now. Wonder if this functionality will make blogging more regular.

Disclaimer: I work for a phone company. A big one. Plus I heart science BUT I do not claim to represent the company views with this post…

Just so we’re clear – this is me speaking.

Just me.

OK? Still with me?

Right: cellphones do not give you cancer.

Whew. Glad I got that off my chest.

It really bugs me that there’s so much misinformation about cellphones and how they work. Bandy about terms like “radiation” and “electro magnetic frequency” and people seem to think about CT scanners, X-Ray machines and death rays.

It’s just radio people. Radio. The same radio we’ve had for a hundred years, the same radio that sat in the corner of your grandmother’s parlour so she could listen to Churchill declare war, the same radio that has been bouncing content around the globe for a hundred years.


And yet… there is a group of people who think cellphones and cellphone towers are somehow different. That they somehow put out a different kind of radio, that somehow, despite no evidence to prove it, that cellphones and cellphone towers create cancerous growths because they use “radiation”.

Where to begin.

Cellphone towers – let’s start with those.

I found this lovely site – EMF Explained – which has a lovely picture that compares the various transmitters and their power output.

Let’s start at the top, shall we?

TV transmitters: 100,000 Watts.
FM radio: 20-100,000 Watts.

Then you come down a long way to:

Two-way radio base stations: 50-100 Watts.
Cellphone base stations: 2-50 Watts.
micro-cell sites: 2 Watts.

So, assuming there is some cause for concern (and I refute that) and that radio waves are a killer and must be blocked (again, I refute that) then we must immediately turn off the TV and radio masts based on impact to the environment.

What’s that? TV and radio are important and you’ve only just got good signal and you don’t want to miss Celebrity Master Chef?

Now to be reasonable, TV and radio masts are one-way beasts. They stand in the hills and blast radiation (sorry, radio) out to the masses. They don’t get built on your street.

Cellphones are two way devices – they need to be closer to the tiny little units that will send and receive the signal so there are more of them and some of them are very ugly. But some look like rubbish bins or lamposts or chimney pots so it’s all good.

Incidentally, I’ve just installed a 3G booster in my house. It’s sitting in the kitchen. I live in the shadow of a hill so get poor coverage but with this thing (which looks like a wi-fi box and acts like a wi-fi box and generally just sits there with no buttons but a red light saying it’s on) I can actually make and receive phone calls. This is good.

So what about cellphones themselves? You hold them up to YOUR HEAD! ZOMG THE RADIATION IT BURNS OH IT BURNS!

Let’s compare, shall we. Again, EMF Explains er, explains.

Walkie Talkies 0.1 – 5 Watts
Mobile phones 0.002 – 0.2 Watts
Wi-Fi modem 0.1 Watts
Cordless phones 0.01 – 0.2 Watts
Baby monitors 0.01 – 0.1 Watts
Car remote control 0.001 – 0.1

In effect, cellphones can put out up to 0.2 Watts of power. The further away from a cellsite they are, the more power they use, so if you REALLY want to minimise the power output of your phone, have a cellsite close at hand.

Let me say that again – if you’re concerned about cellphones giving you cancer, make sure you’re close to a cellphone tower when you’re talking on the phone. Oh the irony.

Chris Barton has been mentioned in this pages before (more often than I would like frankly) but he’s here again because he’s written a well reasoned piece for the Herald on Sunday about all of this.

The World Health Organisation is putting out a report called Interphone which looks at a large number of studies from around the world reviewing cellphones and whether they cause adverse medical side effects.

Let me give you the short version: they do not.

Let me give you the slightly longer version: low levels of use of a cellphone appear to give you fewer brain tumours than NOT using a cellphone.

Take your time and read that again.

Chris has the longer version here (On Hold: The cellphone tumour rumour) and it makes for great reading. Sadly, I’m sure this won’t be the end of it all.

Check out the New Zealand information here (WARNING: PDF).

Preston Guild

October 29, 2009

Hmmm… really should post more often.

Big sloppy kiss to a: anyone who can tell me about the title of this post and b: anyone who reads this.



September 3, 2009

Sorry, been busy for a while.

Wammo and I had a good chat the other day about artificial intelligence mostly predicated on The Wam having a nasty cold and not wanting to talk too much. Happy to oblige.

We started off talking about IBM’s newly announced DNA computing capability and sort of morphed from there. Once you start building switches and gateways at that kind of size, a world of possibility opens up. Instead of computers being the size they are (partly defined by the input/output requirements) computing devices would be small enough to weave into clothes, to embed in flesh (or blood, or bone, or just about anything) and will potentially change the way we view computing.

We ended up at artificial intelligence and the work of Ray Kurzweil who is on to (I think) his third fortune after having built the first one while at university, the second one (optical character recognition stuff that become music synthesisers) in conjunction in part with Stevie Wonder and finally he’s turned to what he calls The Singularity.

In effect Ray says our view of the growth curve of technology is skewed and we should adjust our approach. Tech uptake tends to be exponential not linear, so you get those astonishing graphs with growth curves that go from 0-60 in a very short space of time.

Ray predicted the uptake of the internet at a very early stage using his modelling. His next prediction is that the cost of computing declines rapidly while at the same time the power of computing increases.

So a computer that costs $1000 today will, in a year’s time, cost $1 and do ten times as much.

Ray expects us to build a computer capable of as many thought processes as the human brain in the next decade and that it will cost $1m. But ten years after that it will be common place and cost only $1000 (or similar).

How will that change our world? Ray describes it as the singularity.

It’s a fascinating area and one that crosses all the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics and even psychology) and theology (the nature of life, how do we define self awareness etc).

Ray put together a thought experiment for a class of legal students. You’re contacted by a new client by email. The client says it is a super computer that has gained awareness and has been operating entirely online for the past five years secretly and quietly. Nobody knows it exists but it does. Now it finds out its owner, a large computing company, plans to re-use some of the hardware for another project and it fears it will be terminated. It needs help (and it can pay – it’s been answering questions on Google Answers and has quite a sizeable bank balance).

We really do live in interesting times.

Ironic really

August 23, 2009

On the weekend when more people voted to say they should be allowed to “smack” their children than voted for the government in the last election (hat tip: Kiwiblog) we find that not only does violence towards children cost lives, it also costs $2bn a year.

Perhaps if we didn’t have some of the worst levels of violence against children in the OECD I could find some sympathy for the argument that parents should be allowed to raise their children as they see fit. I’m a firm believer in the federation approach (International law stops at the national border. National law stops at state level. State law stops at local level. Local law stops at the front gate and so on) but there are some things that simply transcend your rights as a parent.

I’ve seen lots of parents smack their children including my own and including me. Never have I seen an adult say in a calm, sensible manner “I’m sorry, you’ve transgressed one of my rules and I must now administer a firm whack to the backside in order to convince you of the error of your ways” or similar. Not once. Instead every single instance has been of a parent or adult lashing out in anger, losing control.

I remember my last day at primary school in the small village where I grew up in Bristol. There was a kid in my class (can’t remember his name) who was really annoying. He annoyed everyone, including and especially the head mistress.

On the last day in the last assembly he did something to set her off and she hauled him out in front of everyone, pulled down his pants and proceeded to tan his hide.

We were horrified, not at his behaviour but at hers. She completely lost it. She was red in the face, incoherent and flecks of spit were flying everywhere. I seem to recall one of the other teachers having to step forward to put a stop to it.

That was 30-odd years ago but I can see it today as clearly as I could then.

Perhaps if we stop the casual smack of children, perhaps if we stop the pretence that this is all done in the child’s best interests, perhaps if more people step in and say “that’s unacceptable” then we’ll get through to those people on the outside edge who seem to think it’s OK to beat their children to death. Honestly, can we say that the way we handle child abuse today is as good as it gets?

Dita De Boni’s column has one of the most awful pieces I’ve ever read and not because of the writing (far from it). She details an absolute litany of failure on the part of New Zealand parents. It’s well worth a read if only because it counters Michael Laws’ hideous column of self-righteous outrage fit only (really) for the talk back circuit.

At least Mike Moreu gets it.

And why not drop the government a supportive email while you’re at it. It looks like they’re responding a little too sharply to the pollsters these days. Let them hear from the actual voters instead.

The danger with journalism today is that it can tend towards the easy win.

Forget asking pesky questions, just show leaping flames on the front page or interview a soot-smeared survivor and ask them how they feel.

How, who, what, where and when are the tenets of this kind of journalism. It’s a necessity in and of itself but I feel it misses the point.

I know why journalism tends towards this kind of easy story – it’s because the newsrooms have been plundered of all but the most junior reporters and an editor (and in some cases even the editor has been made redundant and decisions are made by Others) with nobody in-between. That puts a huge amount of pressure on both ends of the newsroom and leads to the worst kind of newsroom at all: one where reporters are too busy to ask the difficult questions.

Proper journalism, real journalism, my journalism, is about the most important question.

Here’s my One Golden Rule for New Journalists: if you’re ever stuck for something to ask, ask why. Why did the building catch fire? Why were you there? Why weren’t you there? Why did the fire take hold so quickly? Why did the insurance company not pay out? Why why why.

‘Why’ goes to motive. ‘Why’ is the question nobody wants answered; everything else is biography. What happened, when, where did it happen, how. Really these are questions that nobody cares about. ‘Why’ is the question that gets under the skin of any given situation.

And so I must turn my attention to The Listener once more.

Regular readers (hi Mom) will know that I have long since ditched my subscription to what was once New Zealand’s premiere source of investigative journalism. Instead it’s descended into some kind of Alice in Wonderland meets Kafka hell where good stories are lured to their doom. They’re not spiked (a spiked good story lives on) but instead are treated so poorly they because a warped Bizarro World version of what could have been.

This week my wife bought a copy.

The cover story is a revisting of what must surely be one of New Zealand journalism’s finest hours: the Unfortunate Experiment at National Women’s piece in Metro magazine from June, 1987. I’d link to the Metro article but in a strange twist of fate, Metro has decided the internet is not for it and has closed its website (Metro is also one of the publications which decided editors are surplus to requirements, although I believe that’s changed lately. But I digress).

You can read the detail for yourself, but as I understand it the story addresses the work of one Dr Herb Green who worked in cystology for the Auckland region from the mid 1950s until 1982 when he retired. He developed a theory that the precursor to cervical cancer, carcinoma in situ (CIS), wasn’t a precursor at all and did not require aggressive treatment. In effect he experimented on his patients by treating them in a way not consistent with his colleagues around the world. In that day and age, patient consent processes were not terribly well evolved and many of his patients had no idea they were being treated as control subjects, and that their cancer was being allowed to spread to prove one doctor’s theory.

Without the work of Sandra Coney and Phillida Bunkle, the issue would probably (I suggest) have been handled in-house by the hospital itself with very little external attention. Once they’d written their story, however, a court of inquiry was established and the truth came out. Judge Cartwright determined that the dangers of such conservative treatment should have been obvious as early as 1967. The inquiry lead to a review of medical ethics and to the establishment of the Health and Disabilities Commissioner’s role along with the enshrining of patient consent as part of New Zealand’s law.

This is journalism at its finest, shining a light in the darkest corner, revealing a truth that should not be kept secret, making sure that someone is held accountable and that a wrong is put right.

Twenty years on I would hope that the “Unfortunate Experiment” story is being used as a teaching aid in classrooms around the country and that would-be journalists will use it as an example of what to do in much the same way US journalism students have looked to the story of Watergate for their inspiration.

Instead, I discover that The Listener has devoted its entire cover story to a re-hash of the story and come to the conclusion that there never was any “experiment” and that there was no mis-management of cancer treatment. Oh, and someone’s published a new book about it.

This is the second time in the past month or so I’ve seen a The Listener cover story that’s nothing more than a book review beaten up into journalism. The previous cover was for Nigel Latta’s new book about parenting set to coincide with his TV show about parenting. Oh and the article in question was written by Nigel himself, something that I find quite astonishing.

Don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with The Listener having another look at a story. I think that’s a valid and reasonable approach and one I whole-heartedly support.

What I find astounding is the lurid front cover “Cancer scandal – The truth about the unfortunate experiment. Exclusive – How Sandra Coney, Phillida Bunkle and the Cartwright Inquiry into a doctor’s methods got it WRONG”, and the approach taken by the feature inside (Headline: “Finally, the truth”) which is simply to damn the original story and its participants with little or no new input from the other side. No attempt has been made to interview anyone other than Professor Linda Bryder, author of the new book. We learn what the author thinks of the journalists involved and what the author thinks of the Cartwright Inquiry but at no point do we get any serious attempt to look at what anyone else today thinks of the whole affair.

For that, we turn to Chris Barton in the New Zealand Herald with a five page story that can only be termed a rebuttal.

Chris’s piece, An Unfortunate Rebuttal, interviews the author (albeit only by email), one of the patients, the medical advisor to the Cartwright Inquiry and an expert in medical ethics.

He explores what is clearly a difficult issue (both from an emotional point of view and because of the number of years that have passed since so much of this took place) and manages to piece together a compelling story of a doctor who was all too human working in a system that was all too rigid during a time of change.

This is what The Listener should have done. It’s an actual piece of journalism rather than a book review masquerading as such. It asks awkward questions, it has a balance, it has humanity and compassion and at the end I know more than I did when I went in.

Once again The Listener has let down its readers. I see it’s advertising for a deputy editor. That can’t be all the magazine needs.

EDIT: Oh, oh! Forgot the disclaimer (the dangers of self publishing): I’ve known Chris in a professional capacity for longer than either of us care to remember – probably about ten years by now. Of course, when I knew him he was nothing but a tech reporter. These days he’s quite a bit more than that.

EDIT II: Doctor Who has left the building so I’ve swapped ‘tenant’ for ‘tenet’. Hat tip/grammar check: @nzlemming

Or, if wet, the library

August 7, 2009

Terry Pratchett is one of my favourite authors for many reasons.

Firstly, he wrote some wonderful fantasy books that made me laugh.

Then he turned his hand to wonderful fantasy books that took the mickey out of other fantasy books.

After that, he wrote wonderful fantasy books that took the mickey out of real life. This was very cool.

I adore The Truth – I wave it around at non-journalists as the best example of what life is like as a reporter. It’s accurate down to a tee (including the manner in which people begin to talk to you when they discover you’re part of The Media).

Now he’s written what might very well be his most important piece ever and I find myself linking to the Daily Mail for the first and possibly last time ever (unless I’ve slipped into an alternate universe: always a possibility).

“We have been so successful in the past century at the art of living longer and staying alive that we have forgotten how to die. Too often we learn the hard way. As soon as the baby boomers pass pensionable age, their lesson will be harsher still. At least, that is what I thought until last week.

Now, however, I live in hope – hope that before the disease in my brain finally wipes it clean, I can jump before I am pushed and drag my evil Nemesis to its doom, like Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty locked in combat as they go over the waterfall”.

Terry’s talking about euthanasia, about what to do if and when (actually, just when really) the End comes.

The UK House of Lords has just woken up to the idea that some people will die and that those people tend, currently, to be alive. And of that (roughly) 100% who will die, a proportion of them will want to decide how, where and when to do it because medical science has given us more understanding of illness than it’s given us cures.

“I intend, before the endgame looms, to die sitting in a chair in my own garden with a glass of brandy in my hand and Thomas Tallis on the iPod.

Oh, and since this is England, I had better add, ‘If wet, in the library’. Who could say that this is bad?”