Sunday, March 30, 2008

Hospital horrors

Over the past week or so I've been a regular visitor to South Tyneside hospital, visiting my father. He was admitted with an acute infection which occurred as a complication in his cancer treatment, which isn't that unusual. This week, it was discovered he has also contracted an MRSA infection on a wound. Fortunately it looks like he is reacting well to the treatment.

However, during my visiting I've been exposed to some of the harsh realities of our bright and modern hospital. Wards scrounging for dressings off other wards or using customised incontinence pads, pneumonia patients on general wards with patients at severe risk of infection and patients waiting hours for pain relief because of staff shortages.

This is supposed to be rich 21st Century Britain, not some broke third world country.

This is in no way a criticism of the staff on the shop floor. Most of them work incredibly hard and conscientiously, worthy of their salaries many times over. It would be easy to blame the problems on unions or privatisation, but the real responsibility lies in the command chain, in a management culture apparently distanced from the real work and needs on the ground.

Behind the headlines and photo ops of awards being won and targets being met there are real stories of suffering, caused by a management structure which goes all the way to government - which is failing patients, and possibly killing them.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Falling to Pieces

Going through my old albums, I've been reminded about the brilliance of Faith No More.

The missionary murder position

In a preface to a typical "atheists are evil heartless bastards etc" rant, Roman Catholic fundamentalist Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor gave us this little gem:
Many of those living with HIV/Aids are now too malnourished to take the drugs they need, though they have them. I asked Sister Margaret McAllen, director of an Aids programme in Harare, what she could do. She replied: "How can we give hope to people in such a desperate situation? Through love. Change comes through love."
What utter wank.

Here's an idea. One thing you could do Cormac, is ask your boss to abandon the Catholic Church's opposition to condoms and sex education. No, let's go further, lets see the Catholic Church make up for it's dogma which has been sentencing people to death through it's ignorance and start funding real world rational programmes to stop the growth of AIDS, instead of this love and beetroot juice bollocks.

Parents would have a hope that their kids would grow up in a world where AIDS has been defeated by science and reason, not by mumbo jumbo and good intentions.

That would be a start.

Until then Cormac, you and your religion, including the good missionary sister, will be complicit in wholesale murder through misinformation.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Party posers

Some shameless Labour electioneering over in Biddick & All Saints in today's Gazette on the back of an important issue. Labour councillor Olive Punchion rightly condemned the racist graffiti attacks in the Stanhope Road area.

One could have expected her to be similarly critical of the BNP, given that the racist party has stood a candidate in the ward in the last few elections. It's not too much of stretch to make the connection that such extreme anti-social behaviour is fed by the extreme ideology of the BNP.

But attacking racism isn't what this piece was all about. In the photograph accompanying the article in the Gazette, Labour managed to get a nice photo op for their candidate in the forthcoming local election, Anne Walsh. Funny though how the Gazette failed to mention this, referring to her as a "West Park resident". Perhaps the Gazette should be told.

Five years ago

March 20th 2003. That's when the UK and the USA rolled into Iraq, starting a war built upon lies.

A Labour war enthusiastically supported by the Conservatives. 175 British troops lost and possibly over a million Iraqis. That's blood on the hands of the Labour and Conservative parties.

Blair has walked away from it smiling and into million dollar jobs. Bush is likely to do the same. Both used God as the basis of their convictions. Both should be facing convictions in front of a war crimes tribunal. Neither should see the light of day again.

However, I keep coming back to the same thought - that people keep voting Labour and Conservative despite this terrible war. Is our nation's ethical spirit lost? I keep thinking that from councillors to MPs they will still get the votes without a thought for the lives lost in this disastrous conflict. And it chills me.

If there is one reason not to vote for these two parties of the ethically vacant, Iraq is it.

respect to punkscience.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Cash action

An article appeared in today's Gazette about a new group calling itself the South Tyneside Democracy Forum.

Who are they?

An important question you would think, since the group's name features such equitable words as 'democracy' and 'forum'. A cross party body perhaps? Sadly though, the Gazette reporter failed to provide an answer to this question. But we were told why they were set up:
"The forum was set up to promote Mr Khan's case, increase the public's knowledge of the missing ballot boxes issue, and to raise money to pay off the legal bill."
Given that the two names featured in the piece, Ahmed Khan and Steve Cairns, are affiliated with the Alliance awkward squad, the more objective spectator of local politics would be forgiven for thinking that it's little more than a front group for the Alliance.

I've got no problem with a genuinely democratic group which monitors, reports and takes action on local democracy issues in a non-partisan manner - including raising money for legal actions. But when it comes to protecting democracy, it should be above the mire of party politics and cheap point scoring.

If it is just a cynical Alliance machine then it's an insult to true democracy and just cheap spin hiding behind a noble name.

But hey, if it gets you extra column inches in the paper - good luck with it.

What price a free press?

I'm normally not one to regurgitate Private Eye's work, but a piece in today's Eye puts the view of the Johnston Press as a bastion of local press freedom in doubt.

Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer was charged with soliciting and receiving leaks from one Mark Kearney, the ex police officer at the centre of the Sadiq Khan bugging scandal.

Murrer faces a lengthy and expensive battle against the charges, which are under laws designed to protect the Police from whistleblowers and those who report their stories. No problem, you would think. It's normal for newspapers to support their journalists through such trials, especially when fighting what is such an unjust law. But not so. According the the Eye, the Johnston Press, the owners of Milton Keynes Citizen, has failed to fund Murrer's defence - instead offering an interest-free loan to pay her legal costs.

Local reporters in South Tyneside now know how far their employers will go to protect them, as Johnston Press, as well as owning the Milton Keynes Citizen, also owns the Shields Gazette.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Sir Arthur C Clarke, 1917-2008

It's tempting to say goodbye to Arthur C Clarke, but given the volume of work he has produced, he'll be around for a long time yet.

I grew up reading science fiction and works by writers like Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Arthur C Clarke featured heavily, and I remember in my youth buying secondhand yellow-paged paperbacks from jumble sales and second hand bookshops. I still have many of them today and have now in my collection two Arthur C Clarke first editions.

He wrote smart, inventive and sometimes darkly funny short stories, as well as huge epic novels. They were always human, not focussing too much on fantastic technology - the story and characters coming first. Clarke's HAL, the artificial intelligence super computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey driven to psychosis by clumsy programming, is probably the most famous of those characters and despite 'his' homicidal tendencies, the most sympathetic. The 1968 movie, directed by Stanley Kubrick and written in a parallel collaboration with Clarke, is still considered by many to be the best sci-fi movie ever.

In a science fiction field now much dominated by dark dystopian futures, like Asimov, Clarke's view of the future was filled with a bright optimism typical of many sci fi writers of the post war period.

Despite his interest in science, he also poked around in the occult and supernatural, UFOs and other strange phenomena. However, he also maintained a healthy scepticism about religion, combined with a comic wit.
"I would defend the liberty of consenting adult creationists to practice whatever intellectual perversions they like in the privacy of their own homes; but it is also necessary to protect the young and innocent."
Arthur C. Clarke, 1984.
Arthur C Clarke - a writer of monolithic proportions.

The dirty truth

I was thinking about coal a while back, sparked by an article in the Shields Gazette (one of several over the last year) where local geologist Paul Younger was trying to sex up coal energy extraction. I never posted my blog on it, but was reminded about it today when I read George Mobiot's article. So here it is...

In carbon emissions terms, energy from coal is about as bad as you can get. It's dirty and kicks up a lot of other nasty things you wouldn't want your kids to breathe. Environmentally, extracting it is mostly disastrous. Despite efficiency improvements, even the new proposed coal energy plants will spew more CO2 than their predecessors.

I admit that I used to be warm to the concept of replacing 'King Coal' with 'Clean Coal', the latter being the burning of coal using a technological fix to extract the CO2 from the coal, either before or during burning, and bury the CO2 in exhausted oil or coal seams.

Commonly known as 'carbon capture and storage', it promises an opportunity for the UK to use it's hundreds of years worth of coal resources without a carbon hit. It seemed like a sensible way to bridge any coming 'energy gap' whilst renewable energy technologies matured, and guarantee a level of national energy security that gas or nuclear can't provide. A true energy magic bullet.

I've changed my mind. Carbon capture is industry-government groupthink bollocks.

Sequestration technology is still very much in it's infancy, and unproven as a mass commercial solution. Viable large scale capture technology may not be about for decades, and probably too late to have any benign effect on emissions. In May last year Alistair Darling conceded that commercial carbon capture technologies “might never become available”. Even if such technology does become available, there is no guarantee that such storage will be safe and wouldn't just place an unfair burden of responsibility on future generations. In these terms, carbon capture and storage fits a similar risk and sustainability space as nuclear power.

Essentially, the process will require digging up the carbon, burning it to release energy and create CO2, and then capture the CO2 and bury the carbon again - whilst ensuring that the capture and storage process uses considerably less energy than you produced from the burning.

Another more immediate problem with carbon capture is that government and energy companies will throw shit loads of money into research. Money which could be used to develop renewable power.

Instead of creating an environment to encourage the growth in renewable infrastructure that we need, through tools such as carbon price controls to make renewable energy more attractive, our government is hell-bent on coal extraction and burning.

In my past preference for capture, I had assumed that any coal dug up would be used in British power stations. However, in the cold cash reality of a globalised market the coal would go to the highest bidder - wherever they may be in the world. The economic powerhouse that China is becoming could buy all the coal it could afford, pushing up coal prices which would no doubt impact on domestic UK energy supply. We can already see China's hunger for uranium accelerating uranium prices. So much for the energy security argument.

Meanwhile the British countryside is scarred with opencast mines.

The carbon locked the rocks has already been captured and stored. It seems that the best way to reduce fossil fuel emissions is by leaving the fossil fuels in the ground in the first place.

The way to go forward is zero carbon. Large scale investment in any fossil based generation is a waste and a danger.

Evolution of an agenda

Well, Archbish Williams is at it again. He's decided to pit his huge Mekon-sized intellect against evolution. And came out of it looking like a complete fuckster. His learned opinion on evolution is:
"It's a limited theory about certain limited phenomena which is very plausible as far as it goes but it's not a complete philosophy."
Wow. He's managed to stuff so much bollocks in one sentence. I mean, how the very fabric of reality doesn't fall in on itself with such a high bollocky mass is remarkable.

Evolution: "It's a limited theory...." Backed by mountains of scientific evidence, so presumably not as limited as the "god did it" theory.

"...which is very plausible as far as it goes..." What kind of woolly nonsense is this for an intellectual, if only to play the doubt card? This argument is along the lines that global warming deniers or flat-earthers would use: "It sounds plausible, but..."

"...but it's not a complete philosophy". No shit sherlock - it's science.

You know, it's so obvious it's pathetically easy to knock his argument. So what's he really saying?

Hidden in the measured language lies zealotry with an agenda.

Don't get me wrong, I don't think science should only be the preserve of the high priests of science (ouch, I'm going to get it for that one). Too many people are becoming too disassociated from science as it is. Similarly, examination of religious belief isn't the preserve of the high priests of faith. The difference between the two is that science is built upon evidence and reason, and faith is supported by, well, faith.

Okay, Williams isn't a stupid bloke, so this has got to be a little more than a Southern baptist style attack on natural selection. The whole evolution whinge is is more likely another Williams-brand straw man. It's not really about evolution, as much as his Sharia law nonsense wasn't really about Sharia law. This issue is about science as whole, and the high priests of faith want to take science down a couple of pegs, by casting doubt of a key scientific theory not on it's evidence base, but on it's 'philosophy'. What folks like Williams really mean by 'philosophy' is a religious moral code.

The thing is, science doesn't have a religious moral code, and that's what zealots like Williams can't accept.

Williams' comments were prompted in part by the debate over the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which is going through Parliament (and partly to do some Dawkins-bashing). Similar to his last agenda piece on law, he wants the religious elite to be given the power to judge and influence scientific advancements through moral guidelines, based upon his giant religious brain. Here's what he says:
"The problem is with our own inability as a society to know what to do with discoveries of science."

"Man playing God is not a problem about science. It's a problem about our decisions about the results of science and we shouldn't be so much afraid of science as we should about our own inability to have a clear moral perspective on these matters."

"We haven't as a society got a sufficiently clear notion of what constitutes a human organism. My own view is that an embryo is a human organism but that requires some argument, which isn't something that can be settled simply by science alone."
We can ignore his casual bandying of terms like 'human organism' - they're just distractions. He's saying we should be afraid of 'our' (by which he means normal plebs) inability to make the right moral choice, presumably at least according to his moral code. In a nutshell - too much science and not enough god. Also note Williams doesn't use the term 'ethics'.

He's clear - 'moral perspective' is what he wants - and his particular religious moral perspective.

Fortunately though, science is done in a laboratory, not in a pulpit.

There are ethical issues raised in the Bill, and in the application of science. But they shouldn't be dominated by a subjective moral code which relies on belief in a deity.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Six degrees

This is a trailer for the National Geographic documentary Six Degrees Could Change the World, based upon Mark Lynas' 2007 book Six Degrees. The show aired back in February on National Geographic and hopefully it will be re-aired. Whilst it (and the book) is based upon model-based predictions, it's sobering stuff, and timely given the EU's concerns over mass immigration driven by climate change. It breaks down the changes we face for each degree of planetary heating from 2 degrees to 6 degrees.

The IPCC's Fourth Assessment Report raised the worst case scenario for projected warming by 2100 from 5.8 degrees to 6 degrees - unless we do something to significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases we pump out.

Two Degrees is the limit we should try to stay under. Over that, the likelihood of serious negative impacts increases.

Welcome to Gattaca

Gary Pugh, the director of forensic sciences at Scotland Yard and DNA spokesman for the Association of Chief Police Officers ACPO, wants to start screening children for criminal traits at a young age. Pugh said:
"If we have a primary means of identifying people before they offend, then in the long-term the benefits of targeting younger people are extremely large... the younger the better."
Further, he wants all primary school age children on a DNA database. Such an activity would be in effect the cataloguing of every future generation.

This is wrong for so many reasons. Science fiction meets Nazi social Darwinism meets 21st Century phrenology.

If we ever needed a reason to send the ACPO members on a winter holiday to Snowdon this is it. Then again, if we had a mechanism to screen for dickheads, we could have spotted Pugh earlier and given him help.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Straw man's straw man

In what looks like a shot over the bows in the election battle for Fellgate & Hedworth, the independents who are part of the Independent Alliance grouping are attempting to derail other candidates planning to stand in the ward as independents in the coming election by implying they will be puppets of Labour councillor Paul Waggott.

Their Winter 07/08 campaign leaflet says:

"IT’S EMERGED that the last remaining Labour Councillor, Paul Waggott in a last ditch attempt to cling onto his seat may be behind a plot to stand another ‘independent’ in May’s local Elections, which clearly stinks of desperation.

Remember the one and only true INDEPENDENT candidate for Hedworth, Fellgate & Calf Close endorsed by current Independent Councillors Steve Harrison and George Waddle is GERALDINE WHITE."

This means that any independent other than the candidate 'endorsed' by Waddle and Harrison has effectively been smeared as a Labour straw man before the nomination papers are even signed. This is without even considering the sheer arrogance of the Waddle and Harrison politburo in assuming the role of arbiters of who is or isn't 'independent'.

Without any evidence, these claims are pure dirty tricks spin.

This 'clearly stinks' of cynical electioneering and makes them no better than the Labour party they supposedly despise.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Do 'left' and 'right' have any meaning?

In yesterday's Guardian, both Toynbee and Monbiot attack the econo-tards and corporate whores who make up the Labour government, selling us out to help the stinking rich, well, get richer. Quite timely given that Alistair Darling will be presenting his budget today.

Over on Curly's blog recently Labour councillor Iain Malcolm rated the Labour party as 'centre-left'. Given that not even Thatcher sold off the NHS (and the post offices), perhaps 'centre-left' has bizarrely shifted to the right of Thatcherism.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Free speech 2 : Jeebus 0

March 5th proved a fruitful day for human rights and freedom of speech. First, the House of Lords threw out a petition to appeal brought by religious zealots Christian Voice, who had tried to prosecute the BBC for screening Jerry Springer - The Opera. The appeal was rejected on the grounds that the case did "not raise an arguable point of law of general public importance". Simply put, the law in this case was an ass and irrelevant in a modern liberal society.

Then, in another small victory for reason and common sense, the House of Lords voted 148 to 87 to accept an amendment to the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill that will abolish the common law of blasphemy and blasphemous libel.

However, in a society where religious fundamentalists are never far away, there remains the risk of scary new laws to allow the faith lobby to try and stifle free speech.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008


I'm furious. In fact I'm livid - in disbelief at a council which studiously follows stupid and arbitrary bureaucratic rules. Logic and common sense have been abandoned.

I'm angry at a government to which 'parental choice' is fiction.

Bitter about a schools building programme which has caused a reduction in school places to a point where schools are so 'heavily oversubscribed' that people can't send their children to their school of choice.

Anyway, you get the message - I'm pissed off.

My son has been denied a place at our secondary school of choice - because we live outside the school's catchment area.

However, we live less than 400m from the school. That's about a 6-8 minute walk. That's also despite the fact that my son is leaving a primary school that is further away than our secondary school of choice and the primary school is a feeder to that secondary school. My son's best friend manages to be in the catchment area despite living over a kilometre away from the school.

The school he has been allocated, the second 'choice' on the application, is three times the distance and requires the crossing of a dual carriageway. So much for the safe routes to school concept.

It's concerning that dogmatic adherence to policy comes before an objective risk assessment of child safety.

The almost religious devotion to arbitrary lines on a map is council bureaucracy at it's most Kafkaesque. What is the point of making choices on an application form if they are just going to be ignored anyway?

Choice? Don't make me laugh.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

How independent is independent?

A great post from punkscience, discussing the sinister use of allegedly 'independent' organisations to propagate the opinions of whoever is paying the cheque. This technique isn't limited to corporate 'think-tanks' or 'independent analysts' - the state isn't afraid to use a bit of the old 'independent' subterfuge to mislead the public too.

It reminded me of how our local education bodies on Tyneside were marshalled to produce a teaching resource website called 'xingthetyne' to promote the second Tyne Tunnel project. The creators of the website, South Tyneside and North Tyneside Education Business Partnerships, (along with the education departments of North and South Tyneside prostituting themselves to the cause) claimed it was to encourage student participation in democracy and citizenship. But all of the information on the website came exclusively from the tunnel sponsors, and naturally represented their views. Despite the objections to the tunnel, none of the opposition viewpoints were represented in the material.

One question was 'Why do we need a second tunnel?', instead of analysing if there was a 'need' for a new tunnel. A clear case of teaching children what to think instead of how to think. I wonder if the genius who wrote this beauty is now spending their time compiling consultation questionnaires for South Tyneside Council.

What was meant to be an independent educational resource was little more than a marketing tool to sell roads to kids and perpetuate the 'car is king' culture, and received some enthusiastic support from Labour leader Councillor Paul Waggott.

The 'xingthetyne' site now seems to have disappeared into the internet ether, apparently no longer needed now the mission to get permission to build the tunnel has been successful.

I'm now expecting the local waste partnership to sponsor a new educational resource "How incinerators are great and getting cancer from the shit they spew out isn't too bad actually."

Suffer little children

So faith schools are not only religiously divisive and teach mumbo-jumbo as science, it also looks like they are doing their best to reinforce class barriers.