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Here are some of my favourite pictures from 2009. Click on any of these photos to enlarge.

February 2009 – Galtee Mountains, Co. Tipperary

April 2009 – Germany (Wiesbaden and Stuttgart)

May 2009 – Glenmalure,Co. Wicklow

May 2009 – Grand Canal, Co. Kildare

May 2009 – Cliffs of Moher, Co. Clare

June 2009 – Skellig Islands, Co. Kerry

June 2009 – Midleton, Co. Cork

July 2009 – Old Kenmare Road, Co. Kerry

August 2009 – Sheep’s Head, Co. Cork

September 2009 – St. Davids, Wales

September 2009 – Brecon Beacons, Wales

September 2009 – Elan Valley, Wales

September 2009 – Aberystwyth, Wales

September 2009 – Carrauntoohil, Co. Kerry

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I have to admit I am a late starter to Twitter. Like many people, I didn’t particularly see the point. So what if you are eating ham for dinner? So what if you enjoyed the latest episode of the X-Factor? Or you were just bored? To me, it seemed a glorious exercise in inanity, best left to people with way too much time on their hands. I had an account on Facebook. I had my blog. What more did I need?

Nevertheless, I dipped my toe in last June, motivated primarily by the feeling that I was somehow missing the point. I started following a few people and I quickly learned the lingo. I shared a few interesting photos and links. Over the course of a few weeks, my antipathy to the medium began to mellow. I now have to admit there is much more to it than meets the eye. It’s fast, reactive, informative and often highly entertaining. There is a dynamism to it that is quite unique. While blogs and web-pages are the fields and towns of the cyberscape, Twitter has been chosen as the shiny new motorway.

Twitter is powerful too. Even though the number of people who use it is still relatively small, the combined voice of the Twitter community can be deafening when there is a worthy cause to tweet for. We witnessed this in real time this week, when the Trafigura affair broke. It all started when the Guardian newspaper in the UK was prevented from reporting a parliamentary question in the House of Commons – an assault, if there ever was one, on democracy and freedom of speech. Within hours, Twitterers had uncovered who the main players were, what the issue was, and why they wanted so badly to keep the news secret. Trafigura are implicated in a massive toxic waste dumping scandal in Africa: arguably the biggest health disaster committed by a multinational corporation since Bhopal. Nobody knew very much about them until last week. Now we all know, and oh boy, it’s going to get very difficult from here on in for the ladies and gentlemen running that company. For a few hours, Trafigura and their insidious legal representatives Carter Ruck became the No. 1 trending topics on Twitter. Telephone numbers and email addresses were publicised and bombarded. Protests were planned outside their offices. Government ministers were pressed for answers. The report they desperately wanted to suppress was leaked to the Internet and is now stored on myriads of hard drives. The official media could only stand back in amazement as tens of thousands of Twitterers, like piranhas scenting blood, flayed the reputation of Trafigura into shreds. The “Twirlwind” finally abated when Carter Ruck flew the white flag, allowing the media to report the parliamentary question, as was their legal right in the first place.

Today another twirlwind went into full effect when Jan Moir of the Daily Mail penned a snide invective against the gay community using the recently deceased Boyzone singer Stephen Gately as her ammo du jour. In the course of the storm (which is still ongoing as I write), a number of companies pulled their advertising from the online edition of the Daily Mail and her article is the subject of over a thousand submissions to the Press Complaints Commission. In the course of the day, a rattled Moir issued an explanation, if not quite a retraction.

The clear message from both incidents is that Twitter has the power to effect real change. Its muscles flexed this week, and open season has been declared on anyone who wants to conceal information from the public, reveal the extent of their bigotry, or force their people into submission. If corporations, governments and anyone putting themselves up as representatives of the common people are not worried yet, they should be.

Picture 29This last weekend found me in the UK, attending a very unique conference – the TAM London event. TAM (“The Amazing Meeting”) is the brainchild of James Randi, a well known US based magician who is best known for his dogged debunking of the claims of mystics, frauds and charlatans such as Uri Geller, Sylvia Brown and Peter Popoff. TAM is a meeting of skeptics – people who tend to see the world (nay, the Universe) as fundamentally rational and who cast doubt on the extraordinary and often wacky claims of supernaturalists, conspiracy theorists and those who believe in different forms of reality.

It’s pretty interesting stuff, because there are myriads of strange, weird and wonderful ideas out there that make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Some claims are relatively benign (fairies, chakras and fortune telling, perhaps), but other claims are positively dangerous (vaccine denial, AIDS denial, and the rejection of modern medicine for curable complaints). There is just so much material to discuss and investigate, it’s like drinking from a fire hydrant. Where do you start? Going to TAM is as good a place as any.

The attendees at TAM were a motley crew of science enthusiasts, magicians, writers, atheists and agnostics, comedians and every shade in between. The speakers were similarly diverse, ranging from bloggers to musicians to scientists to famous authors – each of them passionate about getting the skeptical message across to the general public.

There were a few real highlights.

Brian Cox, for instance, is the public face of the Large Hadron Collider, one of the biggest machines every created by human beings, whose purpose is nothing less than discovering the fundamental nature of the Universe. He gave a wonderful talk on the potential discoveries in the offing, from dark matter to the “god particle” (aka. the Higgs Boson) to the nature of gravity. Brian can be credited with one of the more memorable quotes of the meeting: “Anyone who believes the LHC will destroy the Earth is a twat”.

Then there was Adam Savage. Yes, the Mythbusters guy. Adam, a man of boundless energy and enthusiasm (if you don’t believe me, watch his TED speech), has done more than almost anyone to make science and scepticism relevant and interesting for TV viewers the world over. His talk was all about the efforts the Adam / Jamie team went to in testing the difficulty of swimming through syrup (busted). Adam raised a big laugh when he described libertarianism as “anarchy for rich people”.

Another highlight was the incomparable Jon Ronson, author of “The Men who Stare at Goats”, and who self-describes himself as being “to humorous journalism what Brian Cox is to science”. Jon introduced us to some of the craziest people on the planet. His talk was brilliant – featuring group sex, murderous pieces of plastic, and the (in)ability of American generals to walk through walls. I can’t wait to see the movie, (where Ewan McGregor plays Ronson – huh?).

Not forgetting Tim Minchin, musician, comedian, precise commenter on the follies of modern life – fantastic! If you have never heard his poem Storm, stop now and listen to it on YouTube. He also sang us a wonderful song about looking forward to Christmas. For his efforts he got a well deserved standing ovation.

I was particularly keen to listen to Simon Singh, who wrote an article about chiropractors in the Guardian and has ended up in court because he, um, told the truth. The ridiculousness of the British libel system was devastatingly exposed for all to see. Simon won an award in the meeting for outstanding contributions to skepticism.

I could wax on about Ben Goldacre taking journalists to task; George Hrab singing about the candiru (nasty little blighter – look it up on Wikipedia); Ariane Sherine on receiving hate mail as a result of her atheist bus campaign; James Randi live over Skype from Florida, Phil Plait metaphorically blowing apart the movie “Armageddon”, and Richard Wiseman doing a truly wonderful job as host for the proceedings, but damn it, I need to get some sleep now.

Suffice to say that TAM London was worth every penny spent – it was truly amazing and wild horses won’t drag me away from going to future meetings.

And they said that squeezing 16 hrs of walking in Kerry down to two and a half minutes could not be done. Pah! I grimace menacingly in their general direction.

Here is the video of the walk. Right here, right now.

Today, bloggers all around the world are re-publishing an edited version of Simon Singh’s article that lead him to be sued by the British Chiropractic Association. I’m happy to reproduce the article here. The world should know what chiropractic is all about.

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.
But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.

If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.


Fantasy Section

Our prime minister has his own special place on the bookshelves…

No Googling

The table quiz is under threat. For many years, table quizzes (or pub quizzes) have been a terrific way to raise funds for good causes. However the format needs an urgent rethink, otherwise this source of evening enjoyment will die very quickly. The immediate reason? Cheating. The root cause? Google and Smartphones.

If you are not from Ireland or the UK, you may be unfamiliar with table quizzes, so here’s the skinny.  A large group of participants meet together in a pub. They are split into teams of four people. A quiz master reads out a series of questions that the teams must answer in a short period of time, 2 to 3 minutes usually. Usually the questions are batched together in rounds – maybe 5 questions at a time so that the teams can get an indication of how well (or how badly) they are doing. There are typically 10 rounds overall. The team that gets the most answers right wins. It’s good fun – a combination of teamwork, competitiveness and perplexing problems to while away many a dark Irish winter (or summer) evening.

Enter the smartphone. Smartphones make it pretty easy to cheat. Just log on to Google over a mobile network – ask your question, and the answer will be shown to you within seconds. It’s quick, it’s covert, and it gives those who possess an iPhone or comparable device a huge advantage over less technologically savvy (or more scrupulous and honest) teams.

Almost any what, who, why, where and how question can be answered immediately through a Google search, but it doesn’t stop there. Google translates into multiple languages, it performs simple arithmetic, it can give you synonyms and dictionary definitions, unit conversions and it will tell you what happened on a particular date in time. Most table quiz questions should be answerable in less than half a minute through a quick search of the Internet. 

Yes, yes. Quizmasters will ask that mobile phones are not used, but it’s increasingly unlikely that such requests can be effectively enforced, particularly if you have a large group involved. Access to the mobile internet is extremely easy these days. It’s better instead that quizmasters adapt their questions to the new reality.

Here are a few ideas that will help to limit the power of smartphones in table quizzes.

1) Use more picture questions. Picture rounds are already a staple of most table quizzes, but it becomes more important when hidden smartphones are being used. While words and descriptions can be easily googled, photographs of faces, objects and places are less easy to look up (for the time being). 

2) Use more audio soundbites. Again, sounds are common in table quizzes, and again they are difficult to google. Be aware though! Music, particularly if it is played for a long period of time, can be identified using applications like Shazam. Also be aware that common soundbites, like “One small step for man”, or “I have a dream” can be easily googled. You need to keep your soundbites relatively difficult to uncover, so that people have to concentrate on the sound and the voice, rather than the content. Also consider non-human sounds, such as birds, animals or machinery.

3) Get them to solve puzzles. Examples include:

  • Odd One Out. Give people three or four names or words and ask for them to identify the odd one out. Yes, people can google for more information, but the chances are that they will soon run out of time. It’s one of those things that you either get immediately, or you will have difficulty resolving.
  • Complete the sequence. Try some simple sequences, based perhaps on simple formulas or less obvious sequences like [7,4,1,8,5,2]*. . Just make sure that your sequence isn’t too obvious! Offset it by a fixed number perhaps. For instance [2, 4, 8, 16, 32..] is pretty obvious, but [5,7,11,19,35..] is less clear, even though it’s the same sequence offset by 3.
  • Maths problems – Yes, the ones we were subjected to when we were yinglings. Jim has 70 squaggles. Each squaggle is composed of 13 mirdles. Jim gives 10 squaggles to Bill who only wants 25 mirdles and who gives 3/5 of the remainder to Bob. How many mirdles does Bob have? It’s simple algebra but it will drive the smartphone cheats crazy.
  • Lateral Thinking Problems. These are the type of stories that have a very easy answer if you question your assumptions. For instance “A man who was not wearing a parachute jumped out of a plane. He landed on hard ground and yet was unhurt. Why?” (OK, that one was easy, but more difficult questions are available in books such as this one, and will keep the audience thinking)

4) Go Local. Although general knowledge is likely to be prominently displayed on the Internet, often local knowledge is more patchy. What is the name of the pub on the corner of Main St and High St? Who is the former principal of the local school? What club won the local athletics contest in 2005? Just check that such information is not already available on Google or Wikipedia before setting questions.  

5) Rapid-fire rounds. Give people more questions than they could possibly handle in a short period of time. Ask 20 or 30 questions in a single round. (It can be provided to them on a piece of paper). Yes, people could use a smartphone to answer the questions, but the entry of the questions alone will lose them time. This will put them at a disadvantage compared to more knowledgeable teams. 

6) Individual rounds. Nominate a member of each team to walk up to the platform and answer a series of questions in full view of the audience. Not so easy to use  a smartphone when every other team is looking at you!

Can you think of any other ways to keep Google out of the table quiz? Let me know!

* By the way, how did you get on with this sequence?

This was meant to be the last entry in my 2019 time capsule series, looking at current world issues and how they might develop over the next 10 years, but I think I will add an extra posting tomorrow, and then I’m done. Today I look at some of the after-effects from the Bush era wars.

Iraq

iraq-warIn 2003, George Bush and Tony Blair marched into Iraq on a wing and a prayer. It was arguably one of the greatest and most avoidable foreign policy blunders in decades. Iraq was a tinder box under the rule of Saddam Hussein, and the first year of occupation was an object lesson in how not to invade a country. By 2005, the “coalition of the willing” were stuck in the middle of a vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shias. Now in 2009, the US is starting to think about pulling its troops out and leaving the region for good. The big question is whether Iraq will manage on its own once the Americans have left, or whether the warring tribes will pick up where they left off. My bet is that it will do just fine. Ten years should tell a lot.

Afghanistan.

talibanIn 2009, Afghanistan is as close as you will get to witnessing hell on Earth. Afghanistan is the archetypal failed state. Divided up by tribal leaders, it resembles the world as it was back in the 14th Century. It took a bunch of religious madmen – the Taliban – to create a semblance of order in the place until they backed the wrong horse and got ousted by NATO after the 9/11 attacks. Now they are on the resurgence, fed by hordes of uneducated boys crossing over from Pakistan, and whole areas are now back under Taliban control. It is likely that a very large troop increase will be required to establish any sort of security in the country. My guess is that Afghanistan, like Somalia and the Sudan, is a generational problem, and that the militaries of many nations will be based there for decades to come. Reinvigorating failed states could well be one of the most important political and economic challenges of the century.

great-circle

When I was younger I used to get very confused about how, if you were travelling to San Francisco from Ireland that you need to travel over Greenland and the cold wastes of Northern Canada to get there. Hold on, isn’t San Francisco to the south of Ireland? So why the hell do planes need to fly north to get there? It didn’t make much sense to me.

What I didn’t fully appreciate at the time was that spherical geometry is very different to planar geometry, and the fastest way to get from one location on the planet to another is a great circle – a ring around the centre of the earth connecting both points. Great circles do not care about arbitrary definitions such as North and West, only the shortest distance between two points, and if that line crosses over the North Pole, so be it.

Anyway, a few years ago I came across a mapping program on the Web called the Online Map Creator. The program produces maps of many different shapes and sizes in multiple projections. The one that captured my imagination however was Azimuthal Equidistant Projection. If you imagine drawing ever increasing circles around a chosen location on the planet you will get the idea. Consider, for instance, where you are right now. The 10 km circle represents all locations 10 km away, the 1000 km circle represents all places 1000 km away, and so on until you can’t go any further, i.e. the other side of the planet, about 20,000 km away from you. Each point on each circle represents objects that you would come across if you were able to point a telescope at a particular compass angle and see everything on the surface of the globe in that direction. It’s the route an airplane would take, if it didn’t need to worry about atmospheric currents and headwinds etc. Areas tend to get more distorted the further away you go. The extreme is other side of the world from you. No matter which direction you go, you will end up at that point eventually, so every point on the edge of the circle is actually the exact same location on the far side of the planet.

Here are a few maps I made using the map generator.

1) London, England.

London Azi

Notice that if you start out due west from London, you will end up, not in Canada, but flying across Cuba and Mexico. To get to Japan, you need to travel across the Arctic Ocean and northern Siberia. Also note how huge Antarctica and Australia are compared to everywhere else, and if you look closely you will see an enormous narrow island taking up nearly 70 degrees from North to East – that land is New Zealand, on almost exactly the opposite side of the world to the UK.

2) Chicago Illinois

Chicago Azi

This map shows that if you wish to travel from Chicago to Thailand, you need to cross over the North Pole, even though Thailand is close to the equator. It also indicates a considerably northerly path for Japan and China. To travel to Mozambique in southern Africa, you need to set out due East. Australia and Antarctica are enormous, again because they are furthermost from Chicago.

3) Sydney, Australia.

Sydney Azi

Look at how West Africa is distorted! West Africa is now gigantic compared to the rest of that continent, again owing to the fact that it is nearly on the other side of the world. The Iberian peninsula is similarly disfigured. To reach Chile, you need to travel South East, and traveling to parts of eastern Brazil requires a southern journey over the Antarctic ice cap.

4) Beijing, China

Beijing Azi

This is an interesting map. Most of the globe is recognisable and relatively well proportioned (OK Africa is a bit oversized, but we will ignore this). But look at South America! If you look closely, there is a ring of yellow encircling this map. Clearly the furthest point away from Beijing is in Argentina and as a result the mapping severely distorts the continent, The black lines are a bug that I can’t quite explain. In addition Hawaii looks a lot bigger than it should look, given it’s distance from China. I have a feeling that more gremlins are at work here.

Most people will agree that we are now going through a period of time that will be remembered for a long time, like World War II, 9/11 or The Great Depression. It’s probably the first time in world history when the entire globe has been caught in the grip of a sudden and calamitous economic crisis. No country has been untouched. Governments,  businesses and households worldwide are desperately fighting to shore up their reserves while avoiding financial meltdown. The problem is far from over and recovery will take many years.

Last month, Dominique Strauss Kahn of the IMF gave the current economic crisis the rather unimaginative appellation “The Great Recession“. Given that we still don’t know how long this crisis will last, or how deep it will be, events might yet consign this name to history.

Doing a quick trawl of the web, I have discovered a few potential alternatives.

  • The Great Deception (*)
  • The Bush Kaboom (*)
  • Depression 2.0 (*)
  • The Flump (*)
  • The Clump (*)
  • The Not So Great Depression (*)
  • The Repression (*)
  • The Econopocalypse (*)
  • World Crash I 
  • The De-Hummerization (*)
  • The Great Uh-Oh (*)
  • The Boomer Bust (*) 
  • Econorrhea (*)

And what would you call the young people who will be shaped by these events? Generation OMG.

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