Monday, June 30, 2008

AU - an acronym for FARCE

The AU meets currently in Sharm-el-Sheikh. Competent mostly at doing nothing, this remarkable organisation succeeds once again in doing nothing. While, based on its own statutes it should have expelled Robert Gabrielle Mugabe from its ranks and from his big leather chair, because he wasn't democratically elected, he has been welcomed. He was also asked to start negotiations with the elected President of Zimbabwe, Mr Morgan Tsvangirai. Sadly Bob Madhat has no interest in doing so, and that's the end. The end. Prospective dictators of the world, learn your lesson: you WILL get away with it, unless you're planning on kidnapping an oilrich country. If you do (see Kuwait and Iraq), the world suddenly is concerned about the country in question. So pick a reasonably poor place without major natural resources, and - really - you can do what you want.

Hey, while I'm at it, the AU is, of course, sponsored by Western taxpayers, courtesy of their governments. Why not stop sponsoring expensive luxury hotel stays for those comedians (pardon me, African leaders) altogether.

Thousands and a million spectators at Toronto Gay Pride

Hey, I had a great weekend! I went to join in the fun that's Toronto's gay pride party (and march) this last weekend. Great stuff, lots of stages with non-stop events, and security asking for my ID to check my age (trust me, when you are about to turn mid-40s you do appreciate that someone is kind enough to check whether you've reached maturity).

Well, the march was ... long, very long, something like 4 hours (my mid-40s feet started hurting eventually), and ... ummm ... somewhat boring. Compared to the in-your-face kinkiness that Sydney and Berlin tend to offer to the (very much suspecting) public, this was a sedate affair, all in all. The occasional naked marcher popped up, even some leather folks, as well as a naked pre-op transsexual. And that was that. In any case, it's been a great great show that these volunteers put on. I am truly grateful for the time people put in in order to make this a memorable gay pride. This being the mainstream event that it is, even my bank had its own little float, as had other banks, radio and TV stations, the armed forces, firefighters, huge contingents of the Liberal, NDP and Green parties (kindly the Conservatives decided not to show up - this should conserve its Western prairies votes quite nicely - well done Mr Harper!), as well as the police, nurses and the list goes on and on and on. Mind you, even the hotel where I was staying, the downtown Hilton had its own contingent in the march. Good on them! There were even gay Christians like Catholics, Anglicans and assorted other Christian sects (they should really have another look at their God's bible, my hunch is that they just might have missed something there...)

The guy leading the march was a Jamaican gay activist (probably looking for asylum in Canada, seeing how militantly homophobic that creepy little island state is). No doubt this has been a very smart choice as it keeps reminding people how terrible the situation for gay people in even reasonably close-by places is. You'd find in the local Toronto papers suggestions that Canadian tourists should boycott Caribbean tourist destinations that do not protect the human rights of their gay citizens. Great idea!

Of course, gay events and alcohol go well together, so the main sponsor of much of this seems to have been the producer of a drink called xyz ice or something. No idea what it is, but whoever they were, they certainly splashed out, trying to persuade the partying crowd to buy their 7$ a pop drink. No doubt there were hidden stickers saying 'drink responsibly'. And you know what, people even party responsibly in Canada. I saw very very few people who were seriously over their limit. All in all, it's been a family friendly event (and I don't necessarily mean gay families, but any kinds of families). Nice one!

Oh ye, about the heading of this blog entry, check out this link... CTV, the media sponsor of this year's pride kinda couldn't decide how many people lined the streets to cheer on the marchers. The title says 'thousands of spectators', in the articles it says 'a million spectators'. I do accept that many thousands eventually translate into a million (and potentially more than that), but it's odd nonetheless.

On that note, glad I went. I even bumped into a colleague from Toronto Uni. Small world.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

South Africa's seemingly unstoppable march into oblivion

Na, I'm not going to rave again about Pres Thabo-the-man (Bob Madhat's significant other) or health prevention minister Whiskey-Manto-new-liver-for-me-ASAP, but here's a tell-tale sign as to how rapidly South Africa's heading south: Amazon has stopped delivering to the country, because theft of parcels has become so rampant that it's bad business to do business any longer with South Africans.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Thank you Paddy Ashdown!

At long last, someone is speaking sense in the 'international community'. While the slaughter in Zimbabwe continues unabated, and the delusional, syphilitic and somewhat deranged dictator running the show there declares that he can only be removed from office by God, Africans are once again paying the price for the useless leaders they elected to high office. The one country that could long have made a difference in Zim, South Africa, has been governed by Zanu-PF's (oops, the ANC's) Thabo Mbeki. Remember: Thabo-the-man hasn't seen anyone yet die on AIDS in the country that he has misgoverned for the last 8-10 years or so, and (while holding hands with Bob Madhat Gabrielle Mugabe) he declared that he doesn't think there's a major problem in Zimbabwe. So, the millions of illegal Zim refugees in South Africa are not really an indication that Bob Madhat Gabrielle Mugabe stuffed it up. Not at all, according to Thabo and his lover Robert Madhat Gabrielle Mugabe. That much is clear. Reassuringly the leadership void that is Thabo Mbeki has been filled by many African leaders who have condemned the rapidly escalating genocide in Zimbabwe.

Comes Paddy Ashdown. He suggests in today's TIMES that may be the time has come for a military intervention in Zimbabwe, to stop the thugs governing the country from destroying what's left of it, and to stop them from killing more brave Zimbabweans. Sadly, however, Zimbabwe has no oil to speak of, hence this almost certainly is not going to happen any time soon. All we've got is black-on-black violence, and as anyone knows, that doesn't really count. If there is no other reason than to preserve their lives, we can almost be certain that no truly international intervention will be forthcoming. To be fair, SADC or the AU could send their own troops, but they're probably equally unwilling to interfere with this Zim home-made problem.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Airlines taking us for a ride - oops, flight!

You know, like most people who have to fly for work related reasons - I hate air travel sufficiently to not fly in order to get to a vacation destination - I have got used to the ongoing offensively lousy customer disservices that outfits like Air Canada inflict upon the traveling public. So I'm used to flights getting canceled for no good reason other than that it was an 'act of God' (hello, can't us humanists at least get a slightly more intelligible explanation?), or that on long-distance flights they offer a dry roll wrapped around one slice of cucumber in lieu of a vegetarian breakfast, stuff like that. Yes, I got to be honest: the more of them go bankrupt the better off both the environment and the remaining traveling public will be.

Here's one gripe I have, however, and I hope regulators will step in soon to stop their shenanigans in that regard. Melbourne's THE AGE newspaper reports today that JAL is planning to levy a 1000 A$ fuel surcharge on flights from Down Under to Europe. Truth be told, I don't care what they charge. My gripe is that in order to compare like for like, airlines should be forced to quote one price for the trip from A to B and that's that. What is all this gimmickry including fuel surcharges, taxes, looking at planes twice, toilet fees, utilisation of seats etc? It's ridiculous. Of course, if you want to fly an airplane from A to B you need - hint - fuel. So, buy it and include it in your price, but spare me the ridiculous surcharges. If you're too incompetent to budget properly, don't make that my problem, just get out of business! I mean, they also have other cost factors, like running their planes, salaries, etc etc. Surely there is nothing in principle different between these costa and fuel costs or 'taxes', hence all of that should be included in one final price, and that is what the airlines should be forced by regulators to quote.

Otherwise it's a bit like a baker charging me a gas surcharge on the baked cake she's selling me, or a doctor adding a heating surcharge for the time that I spent in her heated waiting room. It's plain bizarre. Nearly as bizarre as Northamerican mobile phone companies charging you 'long-distance' fees for calls on the continent. Like, hello, don't you people understand the concept of satellite based communications. There is no such a thing as a long-distance call in any meaningful way on a mobile phone, yet these arbitrary charges are SOP of mobile phone operators in Canada. Oh well, getting off my soap box for this weekend. Enjoy yours. And remember, use the bicycle if you can.

Bob Madhat Gabrielle Mugabe

Nuff said

5* Hotels and the Pharmaceutical Industry

You will probably know that pharmaceutical companies (despite quadrillions of ethics codes of conduct that were usually produced by bioethics consultants of sorts) try hard to persuade doctors to prescribe their medicines as opposed to equally effective cheaper products. So they go about this by means of giving doctors plastic pens, inviting them to fanciful dinners, and much much more. Anyway, one way of keeping selected medics on their side has been to invite them to 'educational' events, usually in a nice city like Paris, Sydney or Berlin. All expenses on those junket trips are naturally paid for by industry.

Well, there has been a bit of an outcry over this, seeing that many people are unable to afford the medicines their obliging doctors prescribe them, private health insurance fees have gone thru the roof, and public health care systems resort to ever more draconian resource allocation measures to deal with the rising prices. So, unsurprisingly perhaps, it has been suggested that luxury hotel accommodation like 5* outfits for such junket trips are kinda unacceptable. Pharmaceutical companies have, hence, become reluctant to book such venues in recent years. Clever hoteliers in Berlin have found a way to deal with this (and I am not joking!). 5* hotels like the Hilton, Steigenberger, Intercontinental, Swissotel, and the Esplanade are giving one of their stars back to keep the pharmaceutical industry bookings rolling in. The service levels remain the same, of course, and so do the prices. It's a scheme designed to permit freeloaders and their service providers to continue feeling comfy again without having to worry about how it will look like in the public eye.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Gay Marriage? - Whatever ...

I don't care much about the gay marriage activism, so the drama playing out in California kinda bores me to death. It's essentially a conservative agenda as most feminists have long realized. I also don't care much about the internal US politics on that issue as the country is stuffed so substantially that a small 'victory' on a by and large unimportant civil rights issue should not divert attention from how bad things really are over there.

Just to be clear, gay people as much as anyone else are perfectly entitled to see their relationships legally recognized (ie visitation rights in hospitals, retirement planning, access to partner's medical plans and so on and so forth). This, however, doesn't seem to be the activists' issue as they have claimed in many countries that civil partnerships that guarantee to same-sex couples the same legal rights and protections as to married couples (except the word 'marriage' won't be used to described those relationships) are insufficient and hugely discriminatory.

Well, here's my main problem with this: In my little universe, marriage as an institution has been an overwhelming failure. Roughly every second marriage today ends up in the divorce courts, and there is an even larger number of people who would get divorced but stick together in unhappy marriages due to religious or other cultural pressures. - And that's just for straight folks. Now, explain to me, why do gay folks clamor so hard for the 'right' of access to the same flawed institution? We do not seem - well, most of us anyway - to be hardwired to sustain marriages as the life-time type institutions that they're supposed to be.

To my mind, the state should not be in the business of sanctioning marriages. Leave it to religious organizations as a special membership benefit. So, queer churches such as the MCC - ignoring anything the bible ever said about homosexuality - can then offer to their gay flock marriages at a discount.

Beats me though, why there is this hysteria about marriage...

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Ouch, the religious 'conscience' is at it again

In that never-ending saga of special rights for religious folks, here's the latest installment. The Washington Post reported yesterday that there is a growing number of pharmacies refusing to stock condoms, birth control pills, the morning-after pill and the like. 'Pro-life' pharmacies as they're misleadingly called have decided to pass moral judgment about patients' needs and have decided to meet only some patients' needs but not others.

Whatever medical needs they choose to meet is entirely based on their arbitrary conscience instead of something usually called professionalism. So, here we have people whose job it is to dispense prescription drugs (like the pill), and who have been given a monopoly by the state for the provision of prescription drugs. Pops God in and professional conduct goes out of the window. They decide to provide only some medicines but not others.

Let me do a quick reality check here: Reportedly the Christian God isn't too keen on guys having sex with each other either. As it happens, sometimes while guys have sex with each other, condoms break and a quick visit to the pharmacy becomes necessary in order to order to access HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (the kinda cool acronym is PEP). Well, are the conscience pharmacies going to provide such medicines? How will their conscience based service provision lottery pan out on this one? Or, imagine a gay guy who's developed AIDS and needs to purchase AIDS drugs, will he get them or will the cross wielding pharmacists tell him to take a hike? What about pharmacists who belong to a white supremacist (aka aryan) church? Are they no longer obliged to serve minority ethnic folks because their good conscience tells them not to? What if the conscience pharmacy is the only one by a long stretch and people have no choice other than to go there, is it really acceptable for them to abuse their monopoly in such a manner as to force their bizarre views of the world on their clients?

The central issue here is that professional conduct, particularly from providers with a state guaranteed monopoly, can't reasonably be held hostage to arbitrary individual decisions, be they grounded in conscience or anything else. We have every right as a society to expect uniform services from pharmacists across the country and we have every right to refuse to accept an on-going opt-out lottery by people who hold strong views on some kinds of patients or others. If they do not wish to provide comprehensive health services their license should be revoked. End of story.

Oh well, conscience bizarristan in action - as ever in the USA near you.

Yay! Firefox 3 is on the go

Hey folks, Firefox 3 is ready for free download. If you don't have Firefox yet or you didn't know that Firefox 3 is on the go, check it out here. They're trying to set a new worldrecord for browser downloads, so check out the site and register with em.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Low IQ predictive of religious beliefs

Here's a cool piece of research to be published in the journal INTELLIGENCE. Richard Lynn, John Harvey and Helmuth Nyborg from universities in the UK and Denmark have tried to investigate whether there is a negative relationship between IQ (measured in psychometric terms) and religious belief. They cite existing evidence 'pointing to a negative relationship between intelligence and religious belief (coming) from four sources. These are (1) negative correlations between intelligence and religious belief; 2) lower percentages holding religious beliefs among intelligence elites compared with the general population; 3) a decline of religious belief with age among children and adolescents as their cognitive abilities increase; 4) a decline in religious belief during the course of the 20th century as the intelligence of the populations has increased.' There has been plenty of empirical research to establish that case from within nations, eg a representative study in the Netherlands found that non-believers scored in the average a statistically significantly higher IQ than the God squad.

Anyway, Lynn, Harvey and Nyborg decided to investigate the relationship between average IQ and religious belief between nations. They then compared the average IQs of most of the world's nations against the percentage of believers in those nations. Their finding is that 'the negative correlation between IQ and religious belief that has been found in numerous studies within nations is also present between nations.' Explaining the surprisingly high percentage of religious believers in the USA, they observe that 'religious belief has a significant heritability of around 0.4-0.5, so it could be that a number of religious emigrants from Europe had the genetic predisposition for religious belief and this has been transmitted to much of the present population.'

No surprise then that nations with an average IQ that's not overly high tend to be found among those countries with a particularly low percentage of non-believers. Check out the country-by-country statistics presented in the paper. Kinda fun reading if you're suitably prejudiced:).

Disclaimer: I am aware of the academic work highly critical of the concept(s) of IQ. Enjoyed the paper anyway. Here's the doi:10.1016/j.intell.2008.03.004

Thanks to my good friend Michael Ristow (now a medical prof in Germany, back in our student days a fellow leftwing activist) who kindly passed this reference on to me!

Monday, June 09, 2008

Why You and I Should be Vegetarians

Hey, going on for awhile longer with my Greenie theme (I'm even wearing those aptly named 'lesbian sandals' aka Birkenstock sandals currently), here's a green reason for why you and I should be vegetarians. It's all really very simple actually, and it doesn't take a lot of philosophical acrobatics to explain the matter. The truth of the matter is that very many people are going hungry today, and the reason for this is directly linked to our unreasonable demands on beef, chicken etc production.

Check this out, culled from wikipedia - without much further checking, so don't take my word for it and check the claims if you doubt their veracity -: 'the data we had indicated that a beef animal consumed 100 kg of hay and 4 kg of grain per 1 kg of beef produced. Using the basic rule that it takes about 1,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of hay and grain, thus about 100,000 liters were required to produce the 1 kg of beef.' You can do the same exercise for energy consumption. The bottom line is that the production of beef - even if there were no other reasons against the breeding and killing of animals for food products - is so utterly wasteful and detrimental to our survival interests as a species, it is remarkable that we continue living as we do, and pretending that it's ok. We got away with this wastefulness for a long time, simply because most folks in Africa, Asia and Latin America just couldn't afford to eat the amounts of beef and chicken that the average Northamerican and the average European consumed. Thanks to their growing economies, however, many people have become much better off there. Beef is seen in many of the rapidly developing nations on our little planet as a sign of wealth, so the result is that many more people than ever eat ever more beef. It's highly unlikely that our environment can sustain that sort of thing. So, if you care about future generations of people like you, try to be as vegetarian as you can possibly be.

And, if this doesn't persuade you, here is another good reason for why we shouldn't eat animals anyway, regardless of the environmental impact issue.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Ooops, our oil reserves are finite - what a surprise

Quite funny, the Green movement has told us (well, at the time I was a very active part of it) some 20 years ago that we're running out of oil, and that - among other things - we need to reconsider our predominant modes of transport (a 1 ton vehicle to transport a 70kg body to the supermarket around the corner; academics like myself flying frequently to a far-flung corner of the world to give a 15-20 min presentation that could have been presented just as well by audio-videolink - but hey, what else do we have to feel good about ourselves :-).

It goes without saying we Greenies were variously called tree-huggers, stupid, romantic, naive or a combination of these things. Well, we were right, of course, our resources on this planet are very much finite (hence the idea that we need continuing economic growth to be happy is so remarkably and so obviously silly, yet it drives everything that we do).

So, fast forward to mid 2008. The oil price has reached breathtaking heights, and while we should be mostly concerned about the impact this will have on the affordability of food products, if you watch TV (presumably on your giant flat screen TV, which happens to have replaced ovens in many homes because they're emanating so much heat) you will be forgiven for thinking that the oil price issue is really about airline survival and the Hummer (the ridiculous GM car still produced for the Homer Simpson types of the real world - reportedly men with really really small penises). There is some good news, though, airlines shut down plenty of planes; here is hoping that Air Canada might fall by the wayside altogether, but things are not looking promising because the airline has long since begun to treat its customers particularly badly, so it might survive longer than some of its better behaved competitors.

There's also some huha about GM shutting down car factories in various countries. The truth is, of course, that this is a small reason for celebrations as it will bring us closer to keeping much-needed energy reserves for longer. Of course, for some bizarre reason, those in power (let's call them our 'representatives') do not seem to bother about putting efficient public transport systems in place. I live currently a lot of the time in Kingston, a medium-sized city in Ontario. The public transport system does arguably not even deserve the name system. The bus stops don't display information as to the route of the buses that happen to stop there on the odd occasion, indeed, even information about when buses can be expected to stop there (it's called a timetable in Europe) is not on display. Surely it can't surprise then that people take their giant American car out for a ride to the supermarket. So, decades after we knew we couldn't go on like we did, we chose collectively to stick our head in the sand and voted for GM's Hummer, Chrysler's 300C (incidentally a car driven by Barack Obama the supposedly so clever US Senator trying to become the next President of the USA), and my all-time favourite car, the Maserati Sedan.

Ok, I'm getting off my soap box now. Guess all I'm saying is, ask yourself more often what the impact of your action on the environment and future generations is. If your action is incompatible with a high-quality environment and existing future generations of people, don't do it unless you really have no choice (slight inconvenience isn't the same as saying that you really have no choice).

Conflict of interest declaration: I can't drive, so decent public transport would make a big difference to my life.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

AIDS vaccine research - Time to call it a day?

AIDS prevention research has hit a major road block. More than 150 recent prevention trials including vaccine and microbicide candidates failed to protect trial participants against HIV infection. It is inevitable that the question is asked: Is there ever a point in time where we should concede defeat and abandon any further HIV vaccine and HIV microbicide trials?

With the death toll standing at 25 million lives lost prematurely to AIDS, and 33 million people worldwide currently living with HIV, the unpleasant truth is we have no choice other than to press ahead with further trials. I am not a great fan of Winston Churchill, but his famous remark, ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never’ seems to be the only appropriate response to the vaccine/microbicide trial question in the age of AIDS.

AIDS drugs have become more sophisticated, and no one knows for sure how long people will be able to cope with the side effects of such powerful agents. Truth be told, while new drugs are being developed continuously, we are barely ahead of the ever-mutating virus. Are we ahead at all, or are we falling further behind? For every one person bring treated in the developing world, roughly five new people become infected. It is far from clear that we can win the numbers game.

Even though significant inroads have been made, it remains that the vast majority of people in developing countries who could clinically benefit from AIDS drugs have no access to the life preserving medications that continue to be brought to the market.

While AIDS vaccine trials continue unabated, so do the equally unsuccessful microbicide trials. Microbicide trials are described by some as the politically correct brother of the better funded AIDS vaccine trials. Their scientific rationale seems as shaky, if not shakier than those of vaccine candidates, yet they continue because they are seen as the last best hope for women in developing countries to protect themselves against infection. The trouble is that so far all these trials have achieved so far is an increase in the number of women who have become more susceptible to an HIV infection as a result of their trial participation.

Proponents of the defeatist stance, including Homayoon Khanlou and Michael Weinstein of the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, the largest provider of HIV/AIDS medical care in the USA, argue that instead of continuing to squander hundreds of millions of dollars on a futile quest for an HIV vaccine, the focus should shift to spending on the prevention, testing and treatment of AIDS.

But we will only ever know after a trial whether or not it has been futile. At this point in time there is no real reason to assume such trials will necessarily fail. What we should be focusing on instead are other ethical concerns such as the provision of care to people who seroconvert during trials, or people who become more susceptible to an infection due to their trial participation. We have to ensure that no trial participant is left without adequate clinical care at the very minimum. The talk about pulling the plug on HIV vaccine and microbicide trials needs to end sooner rather than later.

Universities too lenient with plagiarising students

A remarkable piece of research was reported by the BBC. The target of the investigation were some 80 plus UK universities. It seems as if of 9200 students caught plagiarising only 143 students were expelled. That's possibly fair enough, because without further information about the severity of the cheating it's difficult to ascertain whether expelling the students would have been more appropriate in the majority of cases found. Still, it is hugely worrisome that the reason given for why penalties have not been harsher is that academics felt they would likely not be backed up by their institution and/or worries that high-powered student lawyers would destroy the case in court. Check out the original reporting and read the commnens made by university teachers as well as cheating students. It's frightening!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Enhancing my grey cells

There's no doubt among those 'in the know' that in the foreseeable future we will be able to access new drugs that will permit us to boost our brain functions. Drugs designed to halt or prevent the deterioration of Alzheimer's patients will likely equally be able to enhance the memory of people with brains like mine. My friends and colleagues know all too well that my memory has always been absolutely atrocious, and it is remarkably selective, too. I manage to remember most stuff to do with my work (most, but by no means all important things), yet on the odd occasion I forgot even my own birthday, not to talk about my long-suffering parents' birthdays. In fact, my dear sister has a habit of sending me little reminders that my Mom's or my Dad's birthday are about to come up. Yes, I know, I could, of course, simply set up a reminder in my on-line diary.

But, wouldn't it be nice, if I could simply pop a pill and manage to boost my memory to the point where my sister wouldn't have to remind me, and I wouldn't have to put every little appointment into my diary (incl a detailed description about what it's for etc). Such a drug would clearly enhance my cognitive functions. Now, it's a short step from there, of course, to boosting our regular brain function, too. There is no in principle reason, it seems, why the brain functions of people with lower intelligence could not also be improved over time. Other such drugs might permit people with bad memories (say a traumatic accident) to eliminate such memories altogether.

Now, the question is, of course, whether we should permit people who experience mental states not defined as an illness access to such drugs. Is it acceptable for someone who hasn't Alzheimer's to be given access to a drug that enhances her memory? I can't see why that should not be the case to be honest, because at the end of the day our definition of any given illness fundamentally look toward improving the human condition of someone who is suffering from that condition. Bad memory, traumatic experiences and lower intelligence, to name just a few, all contribute - all other things being equal - to a lower quality of life of those affected by them. There is no good reason to declare them 'not ill' and prevent them from access to such drugs. It is as simple as that, to my mind.