Three minutes silence

It’s hard to disagree with this post on the popbitch messageboard:

this wasn’t a disaster; it was a disgrace. The Centre for Nuclear Testing Monitoring with over 300 sensors able to provide early warning of such an event? Unmanned due to Christmas. Officials not having holiday period phone numbers for relevant departments in the countries affected. The Australian official who only emailed Australian embassies with the warning because he didn’t want to “breach diplomatic protocol”. TEN YEARS of advice from geoligists to countries telling them not to build within 300 yds of the shorelines because this sort of thing WOULD happen. And then…. paedophiles stealing orphaned children. We are holding up a mirror to the human race in 2005 and it isn’t pretty.

The poster isn’t making this stuff up. The Times reports:

Even when the full enormity of the quake sank in, the scientists were at a loss to know what to do. It was a holiday weekend and they had no telephone numbers for the relevant authorities to contact in the countries thousands of miles away that faced devastation.

“We tried to do what we could,” said Charles McCreery, director of the Honolulu centre. “We don’t have contacts in our address book for anybody in that part of the world.”

Other fatal slips were being made elsewhere. In Australia an automatic computer alert sent a seismology officer rushing to his office. Within 33 minutes of the quake he issued a warning of a tsunami — but sent it only to Australian embassies.

National officials in other countries were not warned, apparently for fear of breaching “diplomatic protocol”.

In India, the meteorological department dispatched a fax to warn a government minister — but sent it to the wrong person.

Perhaps the most sensitive equipment registering the earthquake was the network of the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organisation which has its headquarters in Vienna. Using 300 monitoring points around the world, it gauges seismic activity, underwater disturbances and changes in the atmosphere.

It should have been well placed to judge the size of the quake and to warn countries around the Indian Ocean that a massive undersea disturbance had occurred.

However, the machines whirred on unmanned and unobserved; the staff were on holiday. Like so many other locals and tourists in countries around the Indian Ocean, they were oblivious to the terrible destruction now rippling out across the sea.

The Pakistan Daily Times says:

According to the scientific magazine Nature, the only seismological equipment in Indonesia capable of providing an early warning was on the island of Java. Installed in 1996, it had no telephone line following an office relocation in 2000. Officials in Jakarta were alerted to the earthquake, but the absence of data from the specialised Java station prevented them from issuing a warning.

According to Symonds, seismologists in Thailand registered the Sumatran earthquake soon after it took place. Thai Meteorological Department officials convened an emergency meeting at which the danger of a tsunami was discussed, but the gathering decided not to issue a warning. With no tidal and other sensors in place, the meteorologists had no means of confirming whether a tsunami was on its way. Moreover, they knew there would be repercussions from both government and business if they issued a false warning. A major consideration was the peak tourist season and hotels running at full capacity.

We live in a world of global, instant communication, yet people died because sensors weren’t being watched and because messages weren’t clear, weren’t sent to the right people, weren’t taken seriously enough or couldn’t be sent at all.

The Engadget awards and Sony vs Apple

The votes have been counted and Engadget has published its Gadget Of The Year Awards. There are some interesting differences between the readers’ choice awards and Engadget’s own picks, which suggests the power of the online Mac community – typically if Apple makes something in any of the categories, the readers overwhelmingly voted for it while Engadget tended to go for non-Apple kit – but it’s nice to see Sony get a well-deserved kicking from readers and writers alike for its inept attempts to take on the iPod.

Don’t write off Sony just yet, though. The firm has now created a dedicated iPod-killer division that will grow to around 400 employees, and its aim is to return Sony to the top of the digital media tree. Elsewhere pundits are predicting that if 2004 was the year of the iPod, 2005 will be the year of the PlayStation Portable: half the price of an iPod, but with video and audio playback, wi-fi connectivity and of course, games.

Smoke gets in your lies

I received an email this morning from “The Angry Smoker”, directing me to a web site that enables nicotine addicts to “fight back”:

We have been penalised, long enough, it is time to fight back!
If you are fed up of being ripped off by a British government, who continually
raise taxes on tobacco, take away your rights of freedom by banning smoking
in public places, and use their mafia style tactics and organisation; ‘UK
Customs & Excise’, to threaten and scare you, then it is time you fought back!
For more information go to:

The site in question (link removed because I don’t want to encourage spam) takes you to a thinly veiled marketing site for various tobacco importation companies. These firms can sell cigarettes at ridiculously low prices to British fag-addicts thanks to various loopholes; for example:

In accordance with EU law, all our tobacco products are ordered by clients as gifts for family and friends. No further duty or tax is payable on gift items as long as they have been purchased inside the EU by a private person residing within the EU, and given to another private person also residing within the EU.

There’s just one little problem with that claim. It’s bullshit.

Here’s what customs has to say about it:

There are no statutory reliefs for tobacco goods posted as gifts from other EC countries, however Customs will not normally make additional charges provided that: It is a bona-fide gift sent from a private person in another EC country to a private person in UK… Purchasing cigarettes from an internet company in another EC country to send to a family member or friend as a gift will NOT qualify for relief of duty and VAT.

If your consignment is intercepted – and it probably will be; customs is going after illegal cigarette imports in a big way – then you’ll either have to pay duty on the cigarettes – around £32 for a carton of 200 smokes, so your £30 carton of cigarettes will cost you £62; Tesco’s currently flogging 200 B&H for £44 – or your imports could be impounded and you could face prosecution.

If you want to get round the UK’s high tobacco taxes, there’s only one way to do it – and that’s to go to another EU country yourself.

See you next year

This’ll be my last post before Hogmanay, the Scottish version of New Year. Being Scots we take New Year very seriously, and on New Year’s Eve we resolve to cut out bad habits, embrace a healthier lifestyle and become better people. To demonstrate our commitment to these lofty aims, we then try to kill ourselves with alcohol poisoning, get into huge drunken arguments about nothing in particular and catch pneumonia after spending the night comatose in a ditch. It’s great :)

Here’s hoping that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing and whoever you’re with, you have a great Hogmanay and that the New Year hangover isn’t too debilitating. Slainte mhath, slainte mhor!*

* A Gaelic toast that roughly translates as: “Good health, great health!”

Is a headless Mac on its way?

I got slammed a few months back for suggesting (in print) that Apple needed to sell a cheap and cheerful Mac without a monitor, and for suggesting (in this blog) that Macs were too expensive compared to PCs. However, according to Think Secret, a super-cheap headless Mac is on its way.

With iPod-savvy Windows users clearly in its sights, Apple is expected to announce a bare bones, G4-based iMac without a display at Macworld Expo on January 11 that will retail for $499, highly reliable sources have confirmed to Think Secret.

Apple has been working on the low-end Mac for almost a year, sources report. Indications are Apple has been working mostly on finding the right mix of price, performance and features that would motivate Windows users to consider a Mac, and less on the actual engineering of the product. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to design a bare-bones PC,” said one source familiar with the project. “What it takes is a team of marketing and software experts to find the right mix to convince Windows users to buy a Mac at a price that is not much more than the cost of an iPod.”

Sources familiar with the product cautioned that the low-end Mac will be marketed towards a totally different audience than those who traditionally buy even a $799 eMac. “This product is not going to be about performance,” said a source close to Apple. “This is going to be the basics, but with just as much of a focus on software as any Mac could ever be.”

It might not be a flying machine, but a G4’s still fast enough for media recording and playback; depending on the outputs, it could double as a PVR or media centre. That’d be fun.

A Mac for less than a Dell? Yes please.

Update, 11.30am

The Register’s Tony Smith comes to the same conclusion as me:

One other thought occurs to us. While the reports of the new machine are pitching the box as a low-end personal computer, we recall recent Wall Street analyst suggestions that Apple is well placed to capitalise on the emerging ‘living room PC’ market. A Mac sold without a display would make a good candidate for connection to a TV, particularly if it comes in a slim, DVD player-style casing. Apple is expected to promote the new machine more for its software and functionality than performance. What if it’s got media streaming via Wi-Fi and TiVo-like PVR features? All for half the price of a Media Center PC – and with Apple’s stylish, more living room-friendly looks…

Incidentally, if the rumours are correct then the headless Mac will have a 1.25GHz G4 chip. That’s essentially the same chip that’s in my PowerBook, which is no slouch.

Crippleware

Over at BoingBoing, Cory Doctorow makes some good points about BitTorrent, DRM and the role of tech magazines:

…the recent Wired spin-off, Wired Test, featured page on page of reviews of music players, media PCs, and PVRs with hardly a mention of the fact that all of these devices were fundamentally crippleware, and all controlled by entertainment companies who can and do arbitrarily remove functionality from them after they have entered the marketplace, so that the device that you’ve bought does less today than it did when you opened the box. If you’re publishing a consumer-advice magazine, it seems like this is the kind of thing you should be noting for your readers: “If you buy this, your investment will be contingent on the ongoing goodwill of some paranoid Warners exec whose astrologer has told him that your pause button will put him out of business and must be disabled.”

Pointless gadget joy

One of the great things about the festive season is gadget joy, when you get a pointless gadget that you really, really want. My gadget joy this year comes from a Starck Weather Station:

It tells the time, the air pressure, the current moon phase, the temperature and the humidity, and thanks to the included remote sensor unit I can bore my wife senseless by telling her not just that it’s cold, but the precise level of coldness in this room and whether it’s warmer in the living room. Hurrah for pointless gadget joy!

Journalists are bad for your health

The Guardian’s Bad Science Awards give a well-deserved kicking to some of the charlatans, snake oil salesmen and clueless hacks who fill page after page of our newspapers with health news that’s wrong in many cases and completely invented in others. But it also raises a serious point: journalists are bad for your health.

There are exceptions, of course – the Guardian’s Ben Goldacre, for example, does a wonderful job of skewering health hackery in the aforementioned Bad Science column; some of the health correspondents for the more serious newspapers are incredibly knowledgeable – but in many cases, the people who write health stories and features for newspapers and consumer magazines have qualifications in writing, not in medicine. That’s why every day or so there’s a “cure” for cancer, and why every drug is a “miracle drug”.

Incidentally when I mention a product or health issue here, it’s not from a position of knowledge: I’m as clueless as, well, a youngish hack on a newspaper writing a story about the latest health fad, desperately trying to write 500 words on something they don’t really understand on a half-hour deadline.

Part of the problem, I’m sure, is that if you go to the doctor he or she won’t tell you what you want to hear. We don’t want to be told to change our diets or our lifestyles, to take more exercise or to cut down on the things that are bad for us; we want a quick fix, a miracle drug, a magic bullet. That such things rarely, if ever, exist doesn’t stop newspapers from levelling entire forests to bring us articles expounding the virtues of assorted quackeries.

Before his death, John Diamond began writing Snake Oil, a broadside against some of the quackery that’s printed without qualification in newspapers. He recalls a visit to the GP when he was suffering “one of the routine bouts of vague and minor mental and physical distress which strike most men as they slip out of young manhood”:

What I needed was somebody to tell me to stop working fifteen-hour days and playing twelve-hour nights; what I wanted the doctor to say was “Ah! Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome! Take this linctus twice a day for a week and you’ll feel better again.”

In many cases, newspapers do just that: Chronic Farnsbards Syndrome makes a better story than “stop overdoing it, you silly sod”.

The list of examples is depressingly long. Faddy diet after faddy diet, alternative treatments that are presented as cast-iron cures when the evidence for their efficacy is questionable at best and entirely absent at worst, “breakthrough” after “breakthrough”. Soon afterwards, the backlash. For example, Goldacre writes:

The Daily Mail… made big meat of a scientific study proving that the Atkins diet worked. The study, which only lasted six months, showed that the Atkins group lost just 4% more weight than the control group. A month later the paper turned on the Atkins diet as a result of a passing comment from an expert who had worked for the carbohydrate-peddling Flour Marketing Board.

Do you remember the Zyban hype, and the Zyban scares? They’re fairly typical of how tabloid and middle-market newspapers report health stories.

First, the hype: a new miracle drug stops people smoking, by removing the desire to smoke. It’s amazingly effective! It’s the drug everyone who’s tried and failed to stop smoking has been waiting for! Hallelujah! Look at all of these case studies! Zyban changed their lives!

Such claims were largely lifted from press releases – and when Zyban was made available on the NHS, GPs were inundated. But as GPs tried to explain to their patients, Zyban wasn’t a miracle cure: its success rate was one in three – still double that of nicotine replacement therapy, but hardly miraculous – and for it to be effective, you also needed to take part in counselling sessions. There was also a serious risk of side-effects: where most drugs have side effects that affect 1 in 1,000,000 people, Zyban’s side-effects seemed to affect 1 in 1,000.

(I have first-hand knowledge of this: I took Zyban and it plunged me into the worst depression I’ve ever experienced.)

Soon afterwards, the backlash came. Zyban is dangerous! It’s killing people! It’s plunging Scottish hacks into severe depression! It doesn’t stop everyone from smoking!

True enough, some people did die while taking Zyban – by 2001, the toll was 18 people out of the 1,000,000 Brits taking the drug. Most of those deaths were unlikely to be connected to Zyban – people whose doctors urge them to stop smoking because of serious heart disease or other severe health problems, people with underlying and undiagnosed health problems and so on – and people also die while taking nicotine replacement therapy, or going cold turkey, or while merrily puffing away on a cigarette, or while living a virtuous, smoke-free life.

The truth about Zyban is that it’s neither a miracle cure nor a tool of the grim reaper: it’s a drug that in the right circumstances and with the right support and attitude, can improve someone’s chances of stopping smoking; its side effects can be nasty, and it should be prescribed with caution. But “new drug slightly improves your chances of binning the cigs, but you’ll still need determination and willpower; it isn’t suitable for everybody and you really need to talk to your GP about it” doesn’t make a good headline.

You can see the same trends in other health stories: the Atkins diet, MMR jabs, cosmetic or eye surgery, miracle homeopathic treatments, magic drugs that shift weight, improve your skin and make your hair glossy, and so on. The hype is usually based on press releases and the excitable claims of people with something to promote – self-appointed health gurus, pharmaceutical companies, beauty firms – and the backlash is the inevitable result of the products, services or treatments failing to live up to the ridiculous claims parroted from the original press release, or made by a well-meaning but clueless “expert”. Most of these stories are flatly contradicted soon afterwards: coffee kills you, coffee is good for you, no, coffee kills you, oops, we meant it’s good for you… and so on.

In many cases the problem is that the writer doesn’t understand what he or she is reading. Goldacre again:

The Daily Express [declared] in September that “recent research” has shown turmeric to be “highly protective against many forms of cancer, especially of the prostate” on the basis of laboratory studies into the effects of a chemical extract on individual cells in dishes, and no (zero) trials in humans.

One of the most worrying developments is the way in which information about alternative treatments is often presented. If that information you’re given is wrong, it could kill you. As Goldacre explains:

Ah, Susan Clark of the Sunday Times (What’s the Alternative?), how I love her. This time she’s giving advice about which natural substances are safe to take with warfarin. First, she bemoans the dearth of research on the subject. Then she ignores the useful stuff in what we do know. “As a simple guideline, patients who are taking warfarin should avoid any natural remedies that have an action on the cardiovascular system.” I have no idea where that idea came from: but warfarin is famous for being interfered with by other drugs. St John’s Wort, for example, is a very popular drug – herb, collection of drugs in a plant, whatever – that reduces the plasma concentration of warfarin, along with phenytoin and rifampicin: that’s not because they’re active on the cardiovascular system, that’s probably because they interfere with liver enzymes, which means it makes them work harder. Those enzymes also break down warfarin, so if they’re working harder, they break down the warfarin more too, so there’s less of it around in your blood, and you’re more likely to have another nasty clot and die. Likewise, ginseng reduces the plasma levels of warfarin, so they shouldn’t be mixed either. And lots of others.

This is serious. He continues:

In a recent study, 2,600 patients on warfarin were sent a questionnaire on what alternative therapies they took: 1,360 responded (believe me, that’s a high response rate) and a whole 19.2% of those responders were, it turned out, taking one or more complementary therapies. Ninety-two per cent of them hadn’t thought to mention this to their doctor. Only 28.3% of all respondents had even thought that herbal medicines could interfere with prescription drugs. Because hardly anybody’s telling them.

That doesn’t mean that all of the claims made by alternative health “experts” are without merit; the problem is the way in which they’re reported. As Diamond points out:

Alternative medicine in Britain is a business with a turnover of billions of pounds and an establishment all of its own, a business which gets regular and often uncritical coverage in most of our popular papers and magazines, which regularly makes – or allows to be made on its behalf – remarkable claims for its abilities, which are often untested, let alone proven, which has no independent body monitoring its activities and which from time to time kills its customers as a direct result of the advice or actions of its practitioners.

Of course, traditional medicine often kills its customers too – and not just when your GP is Harold Shipman. But to become a GP or a hospital consultant you need to undergo years of intensive study followed by a tough apprenticeship, and you need to stay on top of developments in medicine.

A quick quiz for you. You’re ill – who do you ask for advice?

(a) a qualified medical professional who spends all day every day dealing with health issues
(b) a journalism graduate whose last assignment was comparing lipsticks
(c) a self-appointed health guru with a mail-order PhD
(d) Big Dave down the pub

I’m a simple soul: if my car’s knackered I call a mechanic, if the central heating packs up I’ll call a plumber, and if I want advice on interviewing techniques, subheadings or newspaper style I’ll ask a journalist. But if I’m sick, I’ll go to the doctor.