Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Notes in a Bottle

This blog post will probably be completely useless, but I feel like writing it just in case, the way the Voyagers have messages from the human race written just in case . . .

First of all, most of my traffic recently has been Google Images to the page about Johan Knapen's lecture (Googling his name is also a frequent way people get here!) - is there something anybody is looking for in particular? Please drop me a line as we are doing quite a lot on galaxy bars these days!

NGC 5850, a barred spiral as shown in SDSS.

Secondly, they say we're all connected through the internet, so perhaps I know someone who knows someone who knows someone (etc) who might pass on a little message to the lovely girls I met late at night on the train to London Paddington, and who were stranded in their attempt to get to Salisbury. I think I mishmashed my old mobile number with my new when I wrote it down: I believe I wrote a 60 near the beginning when I should have written 35. Yeah, typical Alice thing to do, but I was distracted and, I found out later, desperately dehydrated (excuses, excuses!). Anyway, I do hope you got to Salisbury all right. For those of you curious, there were a few funny goings-on on the trains on Friday night. The girls got on the wrong train, and the conductor who stamped their tickets didn't seem to notice. Then there was a completely random person sitting behind the help desk who appeared to be there to tell jokes, and, it transpired, didn't even work there. I wonder what was going on? Ah, the randomness of London's transport system! Anyway, I got them onto the right train in the end. And then managed to get onto the wrong train myself - the right destination, time, and platform, but the wrong route. Quite an interesting night all round! If you see this blog post, let me know if you got home!

Monday, 26 October 2009

Congratulations Rick and Stellar for Astronomy Picture of the Day!

Are you, like me, addicted to a daily checking of Astronomy Picture of the Day? It's always well worth a look, but today is extra special for the Zoo. A few days ago we were all rather intrigued that this nearly two-year-old topic consistently had about 70 visitors for well over 24 hours: back in January 2008, Kevin had invited us to nominate Galaxy Zoo pictures for APOD. In the end, we selected this picture, which has since been called "Rick's Mergers".

Rick, who's an expert on the peas and who swung me our Bristol lecture, had spent several days making it (here's his thorough description and credits). It's a composite of merging galaxies - the beautiful shapes formed when two or more galaxies come close enough to gravitationally disrupt each other and potentially collide. Third from the right at the bottom is called "The Mice" because of their long tails; the one above that has long been popularly known on the forum as "The Heron" or "The Crane". Kevin sent it off, but we didn't hear any more until the Voorwerp made APOD over the summer.

Anyway, after we'd made a few confused faces on the forum and asked each other if anyone knew why the topic was suddenly receiving so much attention, "RJN" - who I now realise must be Robert J. Nemiroff - told us he was thinking of using another of our pictures. The problem was that SDSS pictures do not have a high resolution, so lack the quality of (for example) Hubble. But we knew we could rise to that challenge, by creating a beautiful composite or imaginative picture, for example. Kevin wrote a blog post and created a thread for our submissions. I, like many others, leapt to the challenge, especially the "rollover image" he'd requested. Stellar, meanwhile, created this simple beauty:

RJN asked if Stellar's planetary nebula and its interior caption as a logo could be set in the bottom right of Rick's mergers, and here was the result:

And up it went today!

I'm so proud of both these creative people who I can call my friends: both very dedicated zooites, both of whom steered our community into special projects started by ourselves; without either of whom the forum would not be the same. Very many congratulations to both of you, and thanks to everyone else who contributed a possible picture. I hope that there will be many more - we have plenty of ideas, ranging from Alexandre's artwork to messages written in the Galactic Alphabet. Watch this space! And welcome aboard to those who've joined us as a result of this work.

Update, Tuesday 27th: Chris has just told us all that yesterday was the third most active day since the launch of Zoo 2. Whoopee!
Update II, Wednesday 28th: ± 1000 new people joined us on Monday - there was a huge backlog of classifications too. Zoonometer now reaches 44 million . . .

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Write to your MP about the libel laws!

What with Trafigura and Simon, last week was a great one for free speech, but we still have a long way to go. Good old Simon (the other one) just reminded us to write to our MPs. He has written a form letter and directs us to http://www.writetothem.com/. You can copy and paste his, though be careful as it says it will block copy and pasted letters - better change one or two words!

I would not recommend copying and pasting mine: I wrote my own, and some of the information is very specific to Pembrokeshire, as Stephen Crabb and I have exchanged e-mails about ID cards and Withybush Hospital before. It's very much a "me" letter. But it's good to send unique messages if you have time.

This is what I wrote:

Dear Mr Crabb,

I gather that tomorrow there is a debate in Parliament regarding the English Libel Laws and I am writing to you to ask you to support their reform.

At present, England's libel laws are infamous for being by far the most costly in the world, and for the burden of proof being shifted to the defendant. This gives particularly wealthy individuals and corporations a hugely unfair advantage, and means that individuals fear to speak openly about large-scale problems to avoid bankruptcy. This is the kind of mentality which was last week taken advantage of by Trafigura and their law firm Carter-Ruck in their attempt to prevent the media from reporting a question by N Paul Farrelly of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

In the case of science and health science especially, silence is extremely dangerous. Science can only progress through open criticism. The efficacy of a medicine, for instance, cannot be determined by court action, but only through fair trials and also fair presentation to the public. Using libel laws to repress such individuals as Simon Singh and Ben Goldacre creates an environment in which evidence matters less than money and fear.

If scientists had not spoken out, for instance, the drug Thalidomide would not have been removed from the market. It was also, I believe, the ability of individuals to speak out which has so far saved Withybush Hospital from being closed via the back door.

The campaign Sense About Science has raised interest in individuals from all three major political parties. Please support a change in the libel laws of this country.

Many thanks for your time in reading this.

Yours sincerely,

Alice Sheppard

Thanks for that about the Thalidomide, Simon, I'd forgotten! About the scientists speaking out, that is. Come to think of it there was a recent article about how difficult it is for Thalidomide people to live today: one lady has a yearly grant which about 90% of went towards a specialist wheelchair.

Prevention of ghastly situations like that is better than having to manage them - since cure is not an option. Whether it's a question of drugs on the market, or whether it's some other industry keener on making money than on evaluating their own treatment's effectiveness and safety, scientists need to speak out. Go on, write to them now.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Back Knight's First Practical

Continuing the very bogus story co-authored by Crispian Jago . . .

Scene 3

The Back Knight has finished his apprenticeship and is now setting out to seek patients for his clinic, which Sir Simon (as I am told is now his nickname!) is destined to mess up a little later. He enters a hospital laboratory . . .

BACK KNIGHT: Old woman!


BACK KNIGHT: Old man, sorry. What doctor works in that office over there?

DENNIS: I'm 37.


: I'm 37, that's not old.

: Well, I can't just call you "Man" -

: You could say "Dennis".

BACK KNIGHT: I didn't know you were called Dennis!

DENNIS: Well, you didn't bother to find out, did you?

BACK KNIGHT: I did say sorry about the old woman, but from behind, you looked -

DENNIS (pushing aside his trolley of petri dishes): What I object to is you automatically treat me like an inferior.

BACK KNIGHT: Well I am Supreme Healer . . .

DENNIS: Oh, Supreme Healer, eh, very nice. And how'd you get that, eh? By exploiting the patients! By 'anging onto unproven unscientific dogma which perpetuates the health-related and educational differences in our society! If there's ever going to be any progress -

WOMAN: Oooh, at any rate there's some lovely samples 'ere. (Sees BACK KNIGHT.) Oooh. 'Ow d'you do?

BACK KNIGHT: How do you do, good lady. I am Palmer, Knight of the Spinal Patients. Whose office is that?

WOMAN: Knight of the 'oos?

BACK KNIGHT: The Spinal Patients.

WOMAN: 'Oo 're the Spinal Patients?

BACK KNIGHT: Well - we all are. We're all Spinal Patients. And I am your Supreme Healer.

WOMAN: Didn't know we 'ad a Supreme Healer. I thought we were a medicine-based hospital.

DENNIS: You're fooling yourself. We're living in a chill of libel-fear. A suing-happy market force in which the uneducated patients -

: Oh there you go, bringing education into it again.

DENNIS: Well, that's what it's all about! If only people would listen -

BACK KNIGHT: Please! Please, good people, I am in haste. Who works in that office?

WOMAN: No one works there.

BACK KNIGHT: Then who is your chiropractor?

WOMAN: We don't have a chiropractor.


DENNIS: I told you. We're a scientific teaching hospital. We take it in turns to act as a sort of lecturing professor for the week.


DENNIS: But all assignments by that professor have to be ratified at a special biweekly meeting.


DENNIS: By a simple majority in the case of purely routine medical practices -

BACK KNIGHT: Be quiet!

DENNIS: But by a two-thirds majority in the case of more complex -

: Be quiet. I order you to be quiet!

WOMAN (laughing): Order, eh, 'oo's 'e think 'e is?

BACK KNIGHT: I am your Supreme Healer!

WOMAN: Well, I didn't accredit you.

BACK KNIGHT: You don't accredit Supreme Healers!

WOMAN: Well, 'ow did you become Supreme Healer then?

: The Magic of the Spine. (Singing voices) The nerves clad in the purest shimmering Innate Intelligence, held aloft the revelation from the bosom of the body signifying by Divine Providence that I, Palmer, was to realign your vertebrae. (Singing stops.) That is why I am your Supreme Healer!

DENNIS: Listen. Strange vertebrae lying in spines distributing innate intelligence has no scientific basis in medicine. Supreme bodily health derives from a killing of the invasive microorganisms, not from some farcical subluxatic ceremony.


DENNIS: Well you can't expect to wield supreme medical reputation just because some wonky spine blew a pop at you!


DENNIS: I mean, if I went round saying I was a magician, just because some vaccine-denying twit had lobbed a farce at me, they'd put me away!

: Shut up, will you? SHUT UP!

DENNIS: Oooh, now we see the suing inherent in the system.


DENNIS: Come and see the suing inherent in the system! Help! Help! I'm being supressed!

BACK KNIGHT: Bloody skeptic!

DENNIS: Oooh, what a giveaway. Did you hear that, did you hear that, eh? That's what I'm on about - you saw him supressing me! You saw it, didn't you?

For Crispian's Monty BCA works, see here and here. These were my inspiration . . .

The Back Knight's Mentor

A completely bogus tale. My representations of historical characters are also entirely bogus and used only for convenience ( for instance, Hahnemann sounds like he had a point that medicine of the time was pretty gruesome and unhelpful).

We apologise for the fault in the history. Those responsible have been sacked.

Mind you, acupuncture bites Can be pretti nasti . . .

Scene 1.

The Back Knight to Be, a young servant of alternative medicine practitioners, rides along behind King Hahnemann through a great deal of fog, until they come upon a large hospital. Hahnemann reins up.

HAHNEMANN: Whoa there!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Halt! Who goes there?

HAHNEMANN: It is I, Hahnemann, healer of ills, from the temples of water. King of the Treatment, defeator of the poisons, sovereign of all healing!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Pull the other one!

HAHNEMANN: I am! And this is my trusty servant Palmer. We have ridden the length and breadth of this land in search of doctors who will join me in my practice at Leipzig. I must speak with your Chief Executive and doctors.

RECEPTIONIST 1: What, treatment with dilutions?


RECEPTIONIST 1: You're using water!


RECEPTIONIST 1: You've got vials of plain water and you're shaking 'em together!

HAHNEMANN: So? We have shaken till the snows of winter are not this pure. Through the principle of like with like, through -

RECEPTIONIST 1: Where'd you get the medicines?

HAHNEMANN: We found them.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Found them? In water? The medicines are insubstantial.

HAHNEMANN: What do you mean?

Well, water's a non-medical drink!

HAHNEMANN: A molecule may move south with the sun, or the hellebore or the cinchona may seek wetter climes in vials. Yet these are not required to be present!

RECEPTIONIST 1: Are you suggesting that molecules migrate?

HAHNEMANN: Not at all. They could be carried.

RECEPTIONIST 1: What! A water vial carrying one molecule?

HAHNEMANN: It could replicate it by the shape.

It's not a question of replication. It's a simple question of dilution ratios. Five hundred vials of water cannot carry one molecule of cinchona.

HAHNEMANN: Well it doesn't matter. Will you go and tell your bosses that Hahnemann from the Practice of Leipzig is here.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Listen, in order to maintain an effective trace of hellebore, a vial needs to contain 43 parts per million. Right?



HAHNEMANN: I'm not interested!

RECEPTIONIST 2: It could be carried by a contaminated vial.

RECEPTIONIST 1: Oh yeah, a contaminated vial maybe, but not a diluted one, that's my point.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Oh yeah, I agree with that . . .

HAHNEMANN: Will you go and ask your bosses if they want to join me in my practice at Leipzig!?

RECEPTIONIST 1: But then of course contaminated vials could contain anything.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Oh, yeah . . .

Hahnemann and Palmer give up and turn to leave.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Wait a minute! Supposing two substances replicated it together?

RECEPTIONIST 1: Naaaah, they'd have to be RNA.

RECEPTIONIST 2: Well, simple! Just use a bit of engineering!

RECEPTIONIST 1: What, held under the leaf of hellebore?

RECEPTIONIST 2: Well, why not?

Scene 2.

Hahnemann and Palmer ride away from the hospital, rather disgruntled. As they do so, they go past the mortuary.

MORTICIAN: Bring out your dead! Bring out your dead! (etc)

. . .

As Hahnemann and Palmer go past.

GUY WITH DEAD RELATIVE: Who's that then?

MORTICIAN: I dunno. Must be in alternative medicine.


MORTICIAN: Hasn't got patient notes all over 'im.

Related posts: The Back Knight.
P.S. Yes, I am perfectly well aware that molecules do move around, or perhaps "migrate" - I challenge you to think up a better line!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Bloggers of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your ignorance.

Well, Simon Singh won!

That is, he has been granted leave to appeal against Judge Eady's ruling on the meaning of his article. The actual appeal, let alone the libel case itself, have not yet gone through. Nevertheless, Mr Justice Laws couldn't have improved things any more than he already has. For example, he rules that the narrow, twisted interpretation of "bogus" ascribed by Eady - an interpretation Simon would have had to defend, which he did not mean and even the BCA did not hear as such - was a) giving too much weight to reputation and not enough to freedom of speech, and b) as the supercool Edd points out, contravenes Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights.

If you haven't already caught up with Simon, you can read Jack and Crispian's reports (sensible and silly respectively, both wonderful in totally different ways!), and Simon's statement.

What with this today, and the success of the Twitterverse yesterday in toppling Carter-Ruck's outrageous injunction, it's been an astonishing week for free speech. A cliche I hope not to get dragged into using too often, but I'd say it's also a historic week for the online community. Many commentators and articles are saying of Twitter and blogs: we did it, we did it! Richard Wilson's banana cake is probably the most famous banana cake ever to have burnt on the surface of the Earth; and the Guardian certainly fulfilled Cantankerous's hilarious predictions of a front page article! (Their total list of relevent articles is rather huge - nevertheless the editorial, and a report on Peter Bottomley reporting Carter-Ruck to the Law Society and asking Gordon Brown to investigate the situation, are probably my favourites.)

Richard Wiseman's Banana Cake, uploaded with kind permission! Good luck with your protest tomorrow, by the way - I wish I could be there, and I wonder if banana cake (hopefully not burnt) will become a national symbol and end up being eaten traditionally on protest days? I hope the bananas are Fairtrade!

As I remarked yesterday, I believe that in both cases the online community was a major catalyst in the sudden clearing of the silence-or-punishment clouds this week. Sure, bloggers can't influence the judges. But we can make others aware of issues which the powerful attempt to hide; we can give heart to the punished and the silenced; we can raise large campaigns, indignation, and petitions such as the Sense About Science one which led to interest from all three main parties. In both cases, laws themselves are being challenged. Laws which are heavier in this country than many: Carter-Ruck and their client Trafigura have attempted to silence Dutch and Norwegian media over Trafigura's activities, and the Norwegian press have simply gone ahead and published anyway!

But here in the murky, law-yoked UK, BBC Newsnight is still being sued, with astonishing claims of "irresponsibility". I was open-mouthed when I read that. If it is irresponsible of BBC Newsnight to announce to the world the harm the dumping of the sludge, then how responsible is it to do this dumping in the first place? Take your pick which is more responsible - look at the first link in this paragraph, and then at this document, which might be the Minton Report and sets out very, very clearly and simply the chemistry, laws, and health effects of these substances. The possible-Minton-report certainly downplays the health effects in comparison to the BBC, who report three deaths, and many miscarriages among women. How can £1,000 each, allegedly for hmmm-might-have-been-linked-thought-we-don't-think-so-diahrroea, etc., possibly compensate for deaths and miscarriages?

So, as you see, this is not just about freedom of speech, but its uses. Once or twice, disgruntled forum users have accused me of having no respect for freedom of speech when I have removed their obscene posts from the Galaxy Zoo Forum. I see a certain similarity with those who pry into the private lives (such as the breakdown of marriages) among the famous - which is what the laws protecting privacy were originally intended to address: a self-interested lack of distinction between what one feels like saying, and what desperately needs saying. Abuse of the former can end up backfiring and harming the latter.

It is a curious irony that huge corporations, which affect so many people's lives, but don't have feelings of their own, are often awarded so much more legal protection than individual people. Personally I would say there is seldom a case for writing reams about somebody's divorce. But when is there ever a case for a huge, powerful corporation being able to do harm in secret?

One good thing about Twitter is that it acts as a filter as well as a catalyst. Dross is ignored while good posts and articles are tweeted and retweeted: so much of what I read is what I would never have discovered without Twitter. The public's abilities are proven by citizen science and their contribution to the online world. In my opinion, we have proved that we can not only take a stand, but take a good quality stand too.

Therefore it is our responsibility to keep taking more stands. Carefully, choosily. Not in such a way that would get us all shut down too soon: that could all too easily happen. Not in a way that reduces free speech to "something we should have because we feel like it", though in many cases that is also true. Above all: something people have fought for, died for, endured prison and torture to get: because without talking openly about important things, no problems can be solved and no society can function. Historically it was students who led campaigns. Now us bloggers too are a force to be reckoned with. Let's connect, unite, and use our strength well.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

But we mustn't forget that tomorrow . . .

. . . it is Simon Singh's oral appeal against Eady's ruling.

The courts will, from the sounds of things, be packed. Jack has asked people not to blog or tweet live in court, as it will be seen as discourteous and won't help Simon. I wish I could be there. Or at least that my penguin galaxy could go along for me instead . . .

I wonder if the last two days' furore over Trafigura will affect the mood of the proceedings? (Three more interesting Guardian articles: "Twitter can't be gagged"; "Trafigura gag unites house in protest", and "A few tweets and freedom of speech is restored".) Carter-Ruck hasn't done a great job of proving the benefits of enforced legal silence. We've just emerged from a battle in which the whistleblowers were the heroes - and I see Simon as a whistleblower, too.

On this neat round-up of the story, one blogger leaves the worrying question in the comments: will this blasting of privacy for the privileged simply mean it'll be even easier for the government to make individual members of the public targets to this sort of thing too? Hmmm, it's a possibility, I suppose. But on the other hand, perhaps privacy versus publicity isn't the only deciding factor, but powerful versus not. Judge Eady invariably seems to rule on the side of the rich or powerful: the Guardian won over Nightjack; the BCA were favoured over Simon Singh. So Nightjack's privacy which was so essential to keeping the public informed about the police was not respected (shame on the Guardian! That spoils my enjoyment of their victory now); while the BCA was ruled to be perfectly at liberty to prevent a journalist from accusing them of not offering their patients the best treatment.

The privacy of an individual person is quite a different thing from the accountability of a large corporation whose activities affect the lives of thousands. A corporation is, I would say, capable of doing vast amounts more damage than an individual human, yet it, itself, has no personal feelings to be wounded as individual humans do. It's ironic how much more gently the corporation is treated.

But I hope it's now clear that corporations and large associations simply have to be written about. That Simon is given credit as one of those who upheld such a principle. And that it's remembered that without people like the twitterers, and like Simon, how much further and how deeply the balance of power would be shifted towards the corporations who may simply make well-meaning mistakes, or may damage, exploit, and even murder, at will.

So I picture it as being into an unexpectedly charged atmosphere that Simon goes into court tomorrow. Maybe I'm wrong and it won't make a blind bit of difference. I expect we'll find out soon. Whatever happens, though, it's only going to be another beginning. He has a long way to go.

So it's not too late to sign this.
free debate

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

It took 16 hours . . .

Last night's post took me until 5 a.m. Being unemployed I slept decidedly late today, and it was all over by the time I logged on. We were right all along that it was Carter-Ruck trying to stifle Britain's democracy to protect their clients - and incredibly, just our tweets and our blogging reached such a furore that the injunction has been dropped! Sixteen hours it took, sixteen hours for victory: shortly before 1pm today, the Guardian learnt that it can go into Parliament to hear the answer to the question after all.

"When is a secret not a secret? When it's on Twitter," screams the BBC. Jack of Kent tweeted this, along with high kudos for @dontgetfooled who was at the bottom of much of the essential fact-finding (certainly the source of the documents I accessed yesterday). Jack also explains the mechanism of yesterday's outrage: not libel, but contempt of court; and suggests that this was precisely what the Guardian intended by their article yesterday. His calm tones belie his suggestion that this is the most important case of our generation. It is. When a corporation's lawyers have more power than a newspaper like the Guardian over what people hear, something is terribly, terribly wrong.

But we won. The Guardian reveals in full the question it was prevented from reporting or hearing. "The case has prompted an unprecedented surge in comment on the company on Twitter, with #trafigura and #carterruck becoming the most popular topics on the social media site," the article announces. And their opinion piece: "If it had stuck, a terrible precedent would have been set whereby the powerful gained a pivotal new power over the people of Great Britain: the power to turn their elected parliament into a shadowy body, as impermeable and hostile to them as the lobbies of corporate buildings.

Twitter went bonkers. Wonderfully so. So wonderfully, in fact, that a human rights lawyer was barely able to conceal his glee when I called him this afternoon."

I don't know about you, but I feel like running around the streets throwing balloons around, plus whatever people did when they heard that World War II was over. I feel like sending congratulations to every blogger, every twitterer out there who joined in. This isn't just about free speech, or rather free hearing, after all. It's about people's responsibilities to each other: the terrible things that happened to the people of the Ivory Coast, simply because Trafigura didn't feel like spending a few euros: things which should never happen, and which we should all be aware of to at least begin the fight. But Richard Wilson, the real name of "Don't Get Fooled Again" or @dontgetfooled, warns us, "They'll be back". In other words, he warns us that as lawyers such as Carter-Ruck catch up with the times, Twitter and other sites may eventually fall under the shadowy hands of the oil-diggers and the government, and be just as easy to repress as the newspapers. We can circumvent them for now, but will that always be the case?

Well, I don't know, but we shall just have to do what we can, and strive, whenever repression and gagging is practised by the powerful, to stay one step ahead. I'm sure there will be many more battles to come.

Update: Hahaha! "Let's all say thank you . . ." Well done LDV, excellent.

For the first time in history . . . and it's to protect liars in oil?

Eighty-odd years ago, when the woman who brought social work and the concept of co-operative problem solving to Iran was a little girl, it was known even to young children that real news would not be heard through the press, but only by gossip and rumours. Henceforth, socialising - though only among your extended family if you were respectable - was the only way to hear what the government was up to. The ultimate reason for this whispering, frightened atmosphere was oil.

Iran's oil, Sattareh Farman Farmaian explains in her book "Daughter of Persia", was being exploited by the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, which later became British Petroleum, and very few jobs and very little money from this was allowed to reach any Iranians. To protect their oil, the British had installed Reza Shah to act as military dictator - just as Iran had been painstakingly developing a democracy, because its own aristocracy had been studying the European governments, and were willing to face a brief time of bloodshed and overcome 3,000 years of absolute power from the monarchy to make this change. The invaders threw all that away so they could have the oil. And suddenly I wondered if oil's dark shadow still has a similar effect today.

I had nice plans for this evening: to catch up on a lot of work I should be doing at the zoo, to fill out yet another job application form and to play Roller Coaster Tycoon for hours - which were scuppered by the astonishing news that the Guardian "is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament".

"Today's published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found," this article reports.

The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations."

Jack of Kent remarks that this is really like a crossword puzzle. "After all, the parliamentary website is not that difficult to search if you are familiar with it," he remarks. "And published order papers are in turn not difficult to search."

He declines to reveal his sources: good man, considering what happened to Nightjack. Not knowing much about this kind of thing, I had to rely on Twitter - thank goodness that is not yet a machine of libel paranoia. "OK, this is *seriously* out of hand now," said Ben Goldacre. Then I noticed a lot of re-tweets from @dontgetfooled, who provides some highly interesting links plus this appeal:
Bloggers, pls help beat this attack on free speech. Have published banned Parliamentary Question here: http://tr.im/Bzzz
I do so with pleasure, esteemed fellow blogger. Here is the question:
N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.
Dontgetfooled has two good web links, here and here. Guido Fawkes also suggests that this is the banned question.

As background, the case is about Trafigura, who had some shiploads of oil mixed with sulphurous compounds to purify. Amsterdam offered to do this purifying, but Trafigura declined, and instead mixed a solution of caustic sodium hydroxide in with the oil; this allowed the oil to rise to the top and the sodium hydroxide plus contaminants solution to fall to the bottom of the tank - a horrendous solution which they then dumped in the dead of night on the Ivory Coast, leading to the illness of the entire local population, three deaths, and many miscarriages. Trafigura claim that the substance was "smelly, but not dangerous" - but are being sued because evidence is showing now that they knew all along that the sludge was highly toxic.

A basic knowledge of chemistry alone, of course, will tell you that mercaptans and other sulphurous compounds which were in the oil are so smelly that they can induce vomiting, nausea and other unpleasant symptoms, and that sodium hydroxide solution is very dangerous indeed.

The Guardian and Newsnight both describe the story. There is another much-talked-about source that seemed un-Google-able - the "Minton Report". Good old @dontgetfooled seems to have found a letter signed by a John Minton which basically goes through the chemistry, Trafigura's wrongdoings, and how to deal with such sludge - not as Trafigura dealt with it. Worth a read: the chemistry is not far above school level!

But what has taken me most of the night was this document, assembled by those prosecuting Trafigura now. This is correspondence - e-mails and faxes - among Trafigura employees debating what to do with the toxic waste, including their rejection of Amsterdam's clean-up offer and recommendations. I do not know if the two documents will be available online forever. Trafigura or their lawyers may insist on them being taken down. I don't know. Anyway, download them.

I have read and re-read the e-mail collection and I must admit defeat by the prospect of offering you a comprehensive review. Perhaps someone with the know-how can shed more light.

Nevertheless, a few statements do jump out at me. There are references to the "PMI shit" which the people want to get rid of. They veto getting it disposed of properly at Amsterdam because of the cost; they also rule out leaving their boats at Milford Haven for the same reason (a shiver went through me at this, for Milford Haven is nearly on my own doorstep - and it is very expensive to moor there, no doubt about it) and opt to "spend some of our hard-earned cash" on leaving the boats at Gibraltar. After a little reading around, I realised that the purpose of sitting around at Gibraltar was to do their own little DIY-purification. My God, they might have been doing it at Milford under our noses. Incidentally, Milford has no night fire service, an incredibly wise economy in a rural area with oil refineries and one of Britain's few deep-sea ports. In any case I'm getting off the subject. They don't want to pay to get it treated properly, so this is what they did instead.

On Page 10, someone circulates an odour report, which they "desperately need for the govt guy" - it begins with the fact that odours are causing "distress" to local people and workers (they don't mention health effects); the report briefly describes each ship, and offers solutions. However, the reader of the document asks that the paragraph explaining the likely cause of the problem (di-enes) be removed; the writer does so. No reason is offered or sought. I don't expect they needed to, amongst themselves.

On page 21 someone is asked to outline the exact objection to discharge in Nigeria. The response is as follows:

"Lagos does not have proper de-slopping facilities as was shown by the fact that a barge was supplied and they wanted the Master to pump the slop overboard into an open tank, which he refused to do. The receiver of the slop may also try to sell it in the local market which has potential implications on us.

More importantly from my point of view is that Lagos is notorious for cargo theft with collusion by ship's Masters, and so any kind of ancillary operation such as this should only take place after all cargo on board has been discharged."

The first paragraph makes it clear that they knew the waste was toxic. As for the second, it took me a while to work out exactly what they didn't want stolen. Is there a possibility that they wanted to sell the oil and let the toxic sludge be stolen, or am I misreading things?

On page 23 is the brief fax:

"Dude, please call CD.

I spoke to him yesterday and he said NO to any such operation in Nigeria [i.e. discharging the slops, preferably offshore].

We go to Lome, charter a barge and bring it back to Nigeria for Daddo under a different name."

I don't think there's any misreading the intentions expressed here!

As we know now, they did sell the oil - and they simply dumped the sludge at the bottom. I'm slightly bewildered by the whole thing, though. The cat's out of the bag. Newsnight and the Guardian have made it clear what they've done. Why are they still so keen to stop the public and the press from getting at the Parliament bit?

Perhaps they feel they still have a stake. Perhaps we are so dependent on oil that it does not matter what the press and public say, but it still does matter what we hear from the higher powers. Perhaps their hope is that, without the press present, the answer to the question can amount to "We won't protect whistleblowers, and we'll give Trafigura our secret support, we don't care about people or the environment, it's money that matters." . . . Or perhaps the hidden question is something different altogether?

It is frightening how these giant corporations can influence our government beyond what even their own fears of terrorism and its own citizens' privacy, liberty, and abilities to get things done without endless red tape, can do. That is to say, such injunctions have evidently not even been made while debating terror bills and how to force ID cards on us. Yet the government, or a judge, obeys this order to stay silent even when the powerful business is already in disgrace . . . Is this a step towards blocking the press from parliament? Or is it a step to making corporations, in the end, our true governments?

Dawn is now nearing; I'm alone in this messy blue-walled room with whirring computers, a few infuriating flies, and a racing mind. I'm frustrated by how little I know, though expect several other bloggers to have found out and deduced far more (and would seriously appreciate it if you could leave a comment with all the links you could find). I start to think of how the blogosphere might have to take over from the newspapers in passing around the news that really matters, as we did for Simon Singh. And then how quickly the government will leap to silence us, too. I begin to fantasise about being arrested for publishing this, or for future posts or documents I download and upload; the choice of silence or arrest. While half of me knows this is just a piece of ludicrous red tape imposed by the privileged, the other half wanders on through the small hours, choosing between revealing secrets and avoiding arrest, and thinks: it's times like these that you know who you are. Am I just naive, to prefer arrest to obedient silence? Probably. Do I write this because I don't believe it'll ever happen? Or is there something to my memories of simply shutting out what hurt me at school and work when the bullies came - the way I simply shut down and didn't even feel it when I was crushed by crowds, hit on the head, or shouted at for my best efforts? Will we have to learn to shut out prison the same way?

I don't know. I don't even know enough about this case to speak with any authority. I only know this: that when a newspaper is silenced, but bloggers are not, it is our duty to reveal what we can.

Best. Advert. EVER!!!

Found, as so many of the best things are, on Twitter - and I've been giggling all day! You might need QuickTime player or some other videoy programmy thing. When the TV with the pigeon comes on, it's worth pausing it to examine closely what it says on the screen. In fact, this is worth about 20 viewings just to pick up all the laughs.

Click here to see it.
Update, Oct 31st: Or here or here for youtube versions, if it won't work. Or search "robinsons bird advert". (Dear Firefox upgraded and ever since then it's been telling me to download plugins it can't download.)

Please retweet, tweet, tweet!

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Writing about Women in Science

I'm pretty proud of two long bits of writing I've just done. I promised (whether you wanted me or not) to point you to an article as soon as it came out: here it is, at Pulse-Project again, whose documentary I hope will soon be out - we just have one more difficult thing to arrange!

The other is a rather long article, about Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin again - when I wrote about her on Galaxy Zoo, I tried to keep the focus at least somewhat on the science of what she did: the analysis of spectra. But writing about her on the She is an Astronomer forum was a good place to write about the challenges she faced - only two which were being forbidden to receive a degree and being effectively forced into retracting her greatest discovery, which was no less than that the Universe is made mostly of hydrogen, not iron like the Earth. Anyway, thanks to Crispian Jago for retweeting it - it has now had over 70 views, but not a single comment. I'm not really sure that's a good thing . . .

Friday, 9 October 2009

The Archers, the Awesome Ideas Collection, and Active Galactic Zooclei

Hopefully another guest blog article from me will soon be out - I'll point you to it when it is - which was largely about the She is an Astronomer project. In researching it, I came to find out a lot about, and gain a huge respect for, Dr Helen Walker. She has also started what I hope will become a very, very important thread on the forum, as we gain more followers: How can we get the IAU resolution going?

The IAU resolution, of course, is the one she got passed in Brazil: to encourage and support female astronomers. She's put up a list of specific recommended moves, and asked for everybody's ideas on how to put them into practice. I hope that a lot of practical suggestions will get made. I'm about to write down mine, but the more ideas the merrier. If you've got an idea but don't want to join the forum, you're more than welcome to contact me or Helen with it. Contact details are at the bottom of this page!

Lots of various zoo news in the meantime; serious news requires a separate blog post but I'd like to share two smile generating snapshots with you. Firstly, we've had two mentions on the Archers! Apparently a party is coming up, and they hope they can drag Dan away from Galaxy Zoo. "What? You can't go to the zoo on whoever-it-was's* birthday!" "No, no . . . Galaxy Zoo. People from all over the world . . . sort of . . . categorising galaxies. It's quite addictive, actually." Someone's obviously been clicking - keep it up, mate! I hope someone from the Archers will create Dan's profile for us too.

(*Whose birthday was it - I didn't catch the name, since I'd never listened to it. Could a regular listener let me know if Dan did get successfully dragged away? And someone on the Zoo blog says Dan died a long time ago. How is this possible?)
** Update II: It was a confusion of Dans. Thank goodness for that - I know people like classifying but I'd be disturbed to discover that someone was coming back from the dead to do it.)

There's something really special about getting a mention in fiction. We've been having a good chuckle on the blog and in the Cafe, where you can pick up the links.

Finally, Carie of the Peas is putting in a proposal for postdoc funding. She wants to study the role of the active galactic nucleus in galaxy evolution, using citizen science (i.e. us) as her data gatherer. It seems the surveys will not just be SDSS, but "deep multi-wavelength". I think the "build-up of the red sequence" probably means the galaxy evolution, though I've asked more.

Anyway, do you have an idea for a cool title? Carie says: "These all sound so great. I wish the referees had as good of a sense of humor as the zooites! Hmm, the stress of it all is driving me towards titles like: 'Please fund me, the zoo is cool'." I have suggested Active Galactic Zooclei.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009


(This post was inspired by a wonderful piece by Jack of Kent. Thanks Jack!)

Back before I began teaching, there was a thought-provoking question in a textbook. It stated that at some point in your career, a pupil will get bored and ask: "What do I need to know all this for, my mum says I'm only going to work down at Asda, I don't need to know this stuff to do that." It said that each teacher will have their own individual answer - and you need to decide in advance what it is.

The question never came up during my course. But that didn't stop me mulling it over for some time. I decided to reject such obvious answers as "Well you still need to pass your exams" and even "You might not work at Asda". I decided to go deeper. I decided, should I ever be asked that, to respond with a deep challenge: namely, "Tell me, X, what do you think about child labour?"

When the pupil had condemned it (I don't think I planned what I'd do if they supported it!), I'd make this point: that you don't really need anything you'll learn in school to work at Asda - you merely need to be able to push a few buttons, which any four-year-old can do, and to have a need for the money (and that's why people from all walks of life get jobs at such places). Therefore, theoretically, you could leave school very young indeed if that was all you were going to do. Because education is not just to prepare you for jobs. It's to train your mind.

In Haruki Murakami's bestseller "Norwegian Wood", one of the heroines, Midori, asks the protagonist out of the blue if he can explain the difference between the past and present English subjunctive. He says he thinks he can. (I certainly can't, although I find grammar fascinating. A Spanish professor at university says that English does not have subjunctives!) Midori asks: "Tell me, what use is that kind of stuff in everyday life?"

"It's no use at all," replies the hero. "It may not serve any concrete purpose, but it does give you the kind of training you need to grasp things in general more systematically."

Midori finds this insight "amazing", and wonders "if her whole life has been a mistake" because she hasn't bothered to remember information she thought of no use to everyday life. But I don't think this goes far enough, because the protagonist's comment refers even to outstandingly dull exercises and information (he decides to think of university as "a period of training for techniques in dealing with boredom") - how much further could you go with information that is interesting. I find it heartbreaking that so many people feel compelled to apologise for wishing to know something simply for its own sake.

Newspapers report that more and more students opt for courses designed for a specific career path, and that purely intellectual studies are a luxury for the rich. This is not because having a job is so noble and more rewarding than knowledge, it's because education is so costly that you have to have to find a way to pay for it afterwards. The message being sent out is that you can't learn a job by doing it, but you have to pay if you want a good one - and therefore, additional learning is an unnecessary extra expense many of us can't afford.

To me, this feels like the murder of our greatest abilities, our realest selves. People write on the Galaxy Zoo Forum that this is the most interesting thing they have ever done, that they would no longer feel right - or even like themselves any more - if they could not classify galaxies, contribute to research, and learn astronomy from each other. You ever hear anyone say "I don't know what I'd be without my shiny desk/senior management position/pay increase"?

Now, I'm not saying there should be no training courses for the workplace - far from it. Many of them sound terrific, and more than one person I love and respect very much are doing such courses right now. But they've made a choice as adults that this is the career they want: not felt, after nine or eleven or thirteen years' schooling, that they would be stupid not to do it because knowledge itself is worthless. Education is a journey, and the workplace should not be the one worthy finishing line. Most job skills come as one of many by-products of good education, just as a healthy skepticism and feel for methodical research comes as a by-product of people having a great time clicking on galaxies and chatting on forums together, because they have ideas for new research projects and argue with each other about how best to collate the data.

Good old Paul Lockhart writes: "Just because a subject happens to have some mundane practical use does not mean that we have to make that use the focus of our teaching and learning. It may be true that you have to be able to read in order to fill out forms at the DMV, but that’s not why we teach children to read. We teach them to read for the higher purpose of allowing them access to beautiful and meaningful ideas."

So when I heard that the inventors of CCD chips and fibre optics had won the Nobel prize for Physics this year - and exulted in the board's description of volunteer science projects which reminded us of something - I felt both amused and sad to read this Discovery article light-heartedly mocking the "impracticality" of these inventions.

Other Nobel prizewinners just happen to strike precisely the same chord. Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and John Szostak won the Nobel for Physiology or Medicine for their work on the mechanisms of chromosomes to resist decaying as they divide again and again as the body ages. Someone in my family heard one of them speaking on the radio: she said that they had no particular goal in mind, but simply wanted to know what the chromosomes were up to! I have no link, but this article contains the remark: ''[It was] really a tribute to curiosity-driven basic science", from Carol Greider.

Galaxy Zoo 1 had specific things to find: blue ellipticals, and the ratio of clockwise to anticlockwise spirals. But we found hundreds more things than that. Galaxy Zoo 2 has a much vaguer goal, namely to place all the galaxies along Hubble's tuning fork - but they're assuming that a great many more questions will be answered than they had even thought of asking, not to mention more questions asked for the first time! The result? So many papers in the pipeline that it's frightening. I know the full number already planned, but I don't think it's public knowledge yet, so I'll leave you curious for the time being.

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Catching up on back issues

I'm afraid my brain has gone to porridge since coming back from holiday and I missed a chance to write up the latest on Simon Singh and the fight with unjust libel laws. So I'll just post the recent highlights - I've been goaded into it today by reading several tweets (have found nothing official yet, so I am merely presuming and hoping it's true) that he's a) won the James Randi award and b) going to be a dad! Many congratulations Simon and family - have a galactic rose from your supporters at Galaxy Zoo.

(Credit: SDSS telescope, reference number 587728676861051075.)

Recently, Richard Dawkins was a guest speaker at the Liberal Democrat conference, and the result was that the LibDems have made reforming libel laws one of their policies! This was very encouraging, and you can find more here. The Guardian did a great job writing it up, emphasising the inappropriateness of trying to stifle criticism - the health of good science - by law, money, and fear. The Liberal Democrats evidently "proposed reforming the libel laws by shifting the burden of proof towards the plaintiff". Whoopee! (Cynically, I am more encouraged by the symbolism than the hope that they'll get elected and put it into action themselves. The sad thing about that party, in my personal view, is that for every election they lose, they drop the very policy that made me vote for them, or hope they'd win before I was old enough to vote. Examples include proportional representation and the 50% tax for the highest earners.) Anyway, it's a great speech and I thoroughly recommend a read, if you didn't at the time.

It contains many sinister reminders of how thoroughly money can stop mouths, and in London worse than anywhere; the quote I would like best to share with you is this:
Homeopathy is obvious nonsense, and given another two minutes I could prove it to you. It can even be damaging, if it lures patients away from seeking the best, evidence-based medical advice until it is too late. Yet before saying a thing like that, I have to look nervously over my shoulder, intimidated by the notorious English libel laws. The biologist Olivia Judson wrote last week in the New York Times: Several times this summer, science journalists in London have leaned over to me and said something along the lines of, "I was thinking of writing," and gone on to describe an article that was going to be critical of someone. "But then," the speaker would gloomily conclude, "I thought to myself, 'Simon Singh,' and I decided not to."
The article, written of course in the States, an outside perspective, is here - and excellent. Well said, Olivia Judson. There's also a good article about Sile Lane in the Irish Times - who, as they say, started off with an interest in stem cells to fight lung cancer, but has now ended up running the "Keep Libel Laws out of Science" campaign.

On a more general note about scientific journalism, Crispian Jago offers a highly useful device for how to create sensational articles as a result of a conference he attended. Very funny, as ever.

It's only 11 days to go until Simon's oral appeal now. Things should start getting extremely interesting again soon. This is a matter of great importance to the future of science in the public eye, and in public health and education too. Which will win, power and money, or the best truth science can find? If you feel as I do, please sign in support of Simon Singh and freedom of debate in science here.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Woot! Press release now out

The She is an Astronomer Forum has gone public - we have a nice new press release out, and there is a link on the main page. It has some nice quotes - they've kindly put in a quote from each moderator - and a good one from Helen Walker: "A recurrent theme that has emerged from [interviews with female astronomers] is the importance of support and mentoring from other women working in the field." So let's all encourage each other online!

The forum is growing slowly but steadily. A really nice place to look is the team introductions - you can meet the other moderators and also the people who set it up.

Another "She is an Astronomer" interview you must definitely read is that of Aida Berges, founder of the Hyper-Velocity Stars project among many other achievements on the Galaxy Zoo Forum. Aida has many interesting personal stories to tell you, but the most striking thing in her interview is the progression in the society she knows: "I come from a third world country . . . In my time girls were supposed to marry young and be housewives, but now I see that the universities there are full of women studying and that makes me so proud. There are no barriers now for us, maybe just a few reluctant men, but we are winning."

That is such a wonderful change from what I usually hear and feel. In my own country women have been largely emancipated for a long time: our problems aren't that we can't get into education or professions, but, more commonly, issues such as what we are able to do with our achievements - which is sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. A few people I talk to, and some places I have worked in, have made me feel hopelessly disregarded or taken advantage of - but those few instances pale into insignificance beside this.

Of course, there are so many people, men and women, who for one reason or another can't achieve what they should in the first place, but that's another multitude of stories. For me, Aida's interview emphasised how important other people are in your life and your achievements: teachers, friends, family . . . My family and the mother of my oldest childhood friends gave me astronomy books when I was little, and Chris, I think, decided that I would become an astronomer three years ago (was it that long?), all of which were crucial occurrences. So if you're at all interested in gender equality, please come along to our forum and meet us!