Thursday, 24 September 2009

Jaffa Cake Alert

Fulfilling the duty of this blog to include carb-based posts, I bring the news that Sainsbury's Free From Jaffa cakes have 0.67g of salt per 100g while their regular ones have 0.1g per 100.

Why anyone would want to eat anything other than the real thing* beats me. Imposters and pale imitations.
*0.1g salt per 100g

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

I Believe Part 3

A quick update on a small victory for science.

In June this year, I wrote about a poster in Finsbury Park, north London, put up by the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God.

The text of the poster read: My son was born with a heart problem. After a party he started bleeding from the mouth. I rushed him to hospital and the specialist said he had 16 loose arteries. He went into a coma, his heart stopped and both his lungs collapsed. Doctors and specialists expected him to die. At the UCKG I was given some blessed oil to anoint my son with. Now that his heart and lungs are better I thank the UCKG for all the spiritual support I received. Julia Caro.

At the time, I picked the claims apart and also pointed out that the US version of the poster has the same text but a different couple.

I also corresponded with someone who contacted me at work and encouraged her to report it to the ASA.

The ASA have now ruled against the poster, as reported in the Telegraph and the Guardian, among others. In their defence, the church said: The UCKG does not claim to heal people but believes that God can through the power of faith. Always follow your doctor's instructions.

If the healing is done through God, not the UCKG, does he really need to advertise, his wonders to perform?
The UCKG has more trouble heading its way.
Thanks to Pam for sending me this news story about how Bishop Edir Macedo, the founder of the UCKG, and nine others in Brazil have been charged with collecting money for charitable work, evangelism and building funds then using it to purchase companies which, in turn, were used to launder money which was then loaned to Macedo and other church leaders. That money was used to buy other businesses, real estate, aircraft and a TV station. Two of the companies involved are said to be responsible for moving and hiding over $71 million.
The church in Brazil has 8 million followers and is present in 172 countries. The Brazilian Public Prosecutor is considering filing formal requests with other countries to look into the financial dealing of the UCKG there.
The Lord helps those who help themselves.
All of which makes a claim on a billboard look like small potatoes. But it is important to challenge every attempt by religion to chip way at science, truth and sanity.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Roses are Blooming in Picardie

Picardie, where I spent a long weekend, is the land of Joan of Arc, hunting and oddly shaped spires.

Joan of Arc (aka La Pucelle) is a local heroine; there are monuments and plaques to her everywhere describing how she sacrificed herself to liberate France (from the wicked English) in 1431. They skip over the fact that it was the French (Burgundians) who sold her to the English and that the French king could have ransomed her but didn't. I suppose that when you have been consistently thrashed by another country, any hero is better than none, even a cross-dressing woman who hears voices. This is the version of her at Le Crotoy. She was known for wearing men's clothes but this statue has her in a more ladylike skirt. Unless she is the inventor of the culotte.

Picardie is a big hunting area. While the English traditionally hunt with horses and dogs, the French prefer guns - because they kill things they can eat. Including any rare bird that is foolish enough to fly through their airspace.

The tabac in Crecy, where I was staying, also sold guns and hunting accessories. There are signs all over the area reminding everyone that the countryside has been preserved by la chasse - hunting. Even the wildlife reserves also double as hunting grounds. The lakes in the reserve at Cayeux had decoy ducks in and hunting hides. And Icelandic ponies, for some reason.

It's an area that has seen a lot of battles. In 1346 the French were beaten by us at the Battle of Crecy during the Hundred Years War. They were led by John of Luxembourg, the Blind King Of Bohemia. We were led by Edward III and his son, the Black Prince, both of whom had eyes that worked, which might have given everyone some indication of how it would turn out. There is nothing to see at the battlefield site now apart from cows although there is a viewing tower and a sign that acknowledges our superior fire-power.

Crecy is also the only place I have ever been woken in the morning by a noisy donkey. It makes a change from bin men.

Not far away is Agincourt (or Azincourt in French) where we beat them again in 1415. This time, the French King, perhaps remembering Crecy, made his excuses and stayed home. It's the battle which allegedly gave rise to the English V sign. The English longbows were state of the art and, it is said, when the bowmen were captured their two fingers were cut off to stop them shooting any more arrows (you shoot arrows, not fire them). Showing the V sign was a defiant way of saying they were still in action. Allegedly.

The area also includes the Baie de Somme, where bigger and bloodier battles were fought. The carnage is re-enacted every year when migratory birds fly over and are shot from the sky by local hunters in massive quantities. And then eaten.

There are some unusual spires in the area. This one is in St Riquier, a former northern stronghold of Charlemagne, once a city, now a small town.

While we're in St Riquier, it has a large and intact abbey from Charlemagne's time. We couldn't go in because some bugger was selfishly getting married but there are some great gargoyles on the outside. I'm not entirely sure this is a gargoyle (from the French: to gargle) as, to be one, it has to have a water spout in its mouth. This could just be a grotesque.

Back to spires, the one on the church in the village of Machiel was unusual too. The graveyard was full of tall, very ornate, but rusty iron crucifixes. It looked a bit like a scrap yard - which a cemetery kind of is, I suppose.

In St Valery, the owner of the restaurant where we had lunch was wearing a Welsh railway T shirt and we made the mistake of asking about it. He was a huge train enthusiast and talked a lot about all the trains he had been on in Wales and elsewhere. Every holiday involves trains for him and his wife, who kept very quiet on the subject then told him to stop talking to us because our food was getting cold. Incidentally, smoking is no longer allowed in French restaurants but dogs are.

On two evenings, we went into Crecy forest to look for deer. We heard a stag (and a lot of owls) and glimpsed a few deer but that was all. It got dark while we were there and suddenly, all my rational, urban sense went away and I was scared. Partly of getting lost or falling over in the dark - which was entirely sensible - and partly of what might be lurking in the darkness. No matter how scientific you are in your thinking, there are times when primitive instincts kick in and your body starts to react in an alarming way, making you feel vulnerable and jumpy, more than keen to be inside with the door locked. My forest companion thought this was hysterical and led us deeper in as the light failed. At one point, all I could see were his pale legs in shorts ahead of me.

I felt a bit wimpy at first but consoled myself with the thought that, although it has been a very long time indeed since such instincts were useful, I am descended from a long line of early scaredy cats who survived to pass on their genes while the braver ones got eaten by something that really was lurking in the dark.

Finally, there is one thing the French are currently doing much better than us - postage stamps. The latest range celebrates chocolate and is even impregnated with chocolate scent.

The latest offering from our Post Office features a set of rather naff mythical beasts. Unicorns, mermaids and pixies cannot compete with choco-timbres.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Magic Magnets

A woman in Java is selling headscarves with magnets sewn into them to cure various ailments including headaches and tiredness.

Herawati Widodo got the idea when she read that magnetic devices could reduce pain and improve blood flow, apparently. She said: "We created this magnetic hijab for Ramadan last year. We wanted to create a headcover that is not only a nice accessory but also a healthy option. We have 21 models of headcovers and produce more than 2000 pieces a month". Scarves cost between $6 and $15.

There's a handy testimonial to go with the story: "I suffer from migraine headaches and it has stopped since I wore this," said Ari Istiani, buying her fourth magnetic scarf.

Magnetic therapy has been around since at least the 18th century when Anton Mesmer, a Viennese physician, got the idea that there is magnetic fluid flowing through everything. He claimed that he could unblock the flow with his magnets. After a while, he found that his patients felt better even without the magnets and decided to use his own 'animal magnetism' instead. But the idea of therapeutic magnets stuck around.

Today there are many claims made for magnets, from helping broken bones heal faster to making wine taste better. Pain relief is one of the biggest sellers. Products include magnetic bracelets, bands, insoles, back braces, mattresses - and now headscarves. Many professional athletes are very keen on them (magnets, not headscarves).

Annual sales are estimated at $300m (£171m) in the US and more than a billion dollars globally. So it's not just a negligible niche market for the gullible few.

The story has been widely covered in the South East Asian press, with a lot of women commenting on the story online, asking where they can get one. Scarves can be bought online (minimum order a dozen). I can't be absolutely sure this is the same company as all the news coverage replicates the original Reuters story and none links to Widodo's company.

However, this ad is as good as any for looking at magnetic headscarves. The claim is that it's 3,500 gauss neodymium magnetic under the jilbab can maintain the positive and negative ionic balance like yin and yang. This ionic balance can suppress the headache problem. The English may be flawed but it's good enough to include the get-out-of-jail-free card 'can'.

There are many many websites advocating magnetic therapy - mostly selling something - with a range of 'theories' about why they work (that they do is a given). These often involve helping the blood circulate. Vague sciencey words like 'ionic' are mixed with proper science terms like 'gauss' and touchy feely New Age terms like 'yin and yang' as in the advert above.

The evidence they cite is pretty much all just anecdotes of the 'it worked for me' variety. In other words, I used a magnet and I felt better. The woman with a migraine in the news story is a prime example of this. (Note that she is buying her fourth scarf - this is news in the sense of free advertising.)

I don't know much about magnets so I asked someone who does. He said that a 3,5000 gauss neodymium magnet would be very powerful - to the point that credit cards should be kept away from it. But would it cure anything?

There has been little scientific testing and the tests that have been done have not found any demonstrable benefit. There is a BMJ report to that effect which you can read with follow-up comments if you have a subscription or here if you don't.

Why wouldn't it work?

Blood is not ferro-magnetic. In other words, yes there is iron in blood but it does not respond to magnets, not even really really powerful ones.

To get technical, a therapeutic effect is unrealistc because any magnetic effect is entirely overwhelmed by the thermal motion, not to mention haemodynamic forces in flowing blood. Incidentally, there is only about 3 or 4g of iron in the body anyway, and not all of that in the blood.

So what is happening?

Two things.

Firstly, our old friend the placebo effect. Pain is particularly susceptible to placebo.

Secondly, just because A happens and then B happens does not mean that A caused B. That's called post hoc reasoning and it's behind a lot of superstitions and 'alternative' remedies. A lot of complaints get better on their own. Headaches and tiredness, for example.

Actually, a third thing too - good old fashioned marketing that can turn crap into Christmas.

Finally, some little experiments.

1. Put some blood next to a magnet. Does it jump up like iron filings do in those experiments you did at school?

2. Walk into the kitchen. Do you feel an irresistible urge to join the fridge magnets?

3. Get in an MRI machine. Do you explode?

4. Do you find yourself inexplicably attracted towards the North Pole (magnetic North, of course)?

Perhaps someone could enlighten me why the women of South East Asia would particularly need magnetic headscarves during Ramadan.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Tall stories

A study called Life at the Top: The Benefits of Height has been widely reported in the media with headlines like Tall People Lead 'Better Lives' and Taller People Make Better People. However, it is - of course - a bit more complicated than that.

I should declare an interest from the outset - I am a shade over six feet tall.

The study, by Deaton and Arora in Economics and Human Biology looked at phone survey data (in America) from over 454,000 adults who were asked their height and to evaluate their lives on a ladder scale. Top of the ladder is 'the best possible life for you' and bottom is 'the worse possible life for you'.

They found that, overall, people who are above average height (5'10" for men and 5'4" for women) put themselves higher on the ladder than people below average height. The finding applied to all demographic and ethnic groups. The difference is more marked between tall and short men than it is with women.

Tall people reported that they experience more enjoyment and happiness, less pain and sadness.

However, they reported more stress and anger; taller women also worry more. There is a noticeable increase in the stress levels reported by tall people, with tall women suffering more. So life is not all rosy for lankies.

There is, the study reports, a very close correlation between height, income and education although the reasons for this are not known. Income has strong beneficial effects on all outcomes, it says. It would appear that it's not being taller per se that makes people happier but the benefits that accrue from it.

The fact that tall people earn more has been known for some time, so there's nothing new there. A real weakness of the survey is that people were asked during just one phone call how they had felt on the previous day - which is very unlikely to give an accurate assessment of how they feel about their lives in general.

The research does not uncover if there is a cut-off point beyond which increasing height gives diminishing happiness returns. For example, one man had his job offer as an air traffic controller withdrawn when it was found that, at 6'10", he was too tall to fit under the fixed desk. Beyond a certain height, buying clothes becomes difficult and expensive, there is never enough leg room, desks and beds don't fit, back ache and joint problems become common and regular people start to act like they're at a freak show. None of this contributes to general contentment.

Interestingly, one finding of the research is that people who put themselves right at the top of the ladder and say their lives are 'the best possible' are slightly shorter than average. Deaton and Arora say that perhaps the 8% of people at the top 'are different in some other respect'. Newspaper headlines can ignore them but they are annoying outliers that spoil the nice clean results and cannot be glossed over.

In fact, the Telegraph, Express, Mirror and Mail do ignore them. Brownie points to the BBC for including them.

So the conclusion is that taller people are happier with their lives than most short people, but not all of them and not in all areas. In other words, being tall is a bit of a mixed blessing. Probably. No shit, Sherlock.

Here's a summary of the article:

This is what we'd like our study to show.

Methodology - fingers crossed you won't spot the flaws.
Here's how we read the data. Oops, some bits don't really fit the theory. Or the title.
Ooh look, a table.
Damn, an annoying outlier.
Ooh look, a graph.
Here's some stuff everyone already knows.
Ooh look, another graph.
Here's someone's theory that might support ours. Or not.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Only God Can Save the Planet - Or Not

Lord May has said that religion may now be the only way to save the planet. With no government prepared to take the lead or able to co-ordinate a global effort, he thinks it may be time for God to take over. He claims that 'a supernatural punisher may be part of the solution'.

Lord May is the president of the British Science Association and a Zoologist at Oxford. He does seem to have got a bit muddled up though.

He says that 'Given that punishment is a useful mechanism, how much more effective it would be if you invested that power not in an individual you don't like, but an all powerful deity that controls the world... It makes for rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation' and would be ' immensely stabilising in individual human cultures'.

However, he also says that fundamentalism and authoritarian religion have directly undermined attempts to achieve global co-operation on climate change. He gives the examples of America and the Catholic Church and says that 'although (...) authoritarian systems seem to be good at preserving social cohesion and an orderly society, they are, by the same token, not good at adapting to change'.

Does this imply that we need to get rid of the current religions and get some nice new fluffy ones where everyone co-operates? But then we need the Wrath of God to keep us on the eco straight and narrow. Vengeful, punitive gods tend to come at the more extreme end of the religious spectrum. And where does this leave Buddhists?

There is another flaw in the argument. We are already threatened with eternal punishment if we do or don't do certain things and very few people pay close attention to the imminent fiery pit even if they have a religious belief - otherwise there would be no crime and no sex before marriage, for starters.

It's not just the average person in the pew who needs persuading, it's the leaders of the multinational corporations who will have to be convinced.

Strengthening religion will not come without side effects. Religions encourage tribalism, an Us and Them mentality; they do not come with built-in co-operation with other religions. It may create stability within societies, but not between them.

What about non-believers? If religion was given the upper hand in order to save the planet, their lives would become significantly worse; both women and homosexuals might find themselves on the wrong end of the wrath too. The Pope has already said that homosexuality is as much a danger to the planet as global warming and that atheists are to blame for it. Would the guilty parties be targetted?

Yes, this is the worst case scenario; the much more likely response is a few strong words from religious leaders that are promptly ignored.

There is a certain cynicism at work here too. It seems that any god will do, any faith, as long as it has an eco-friendly message. Save the planet or (insert name of god/s here) will smite you.

Lord May really hasn't though this one through.

Religion On My Mind

The Telegraph has a story today about how the human brain is hard-wired to believe in God.

This isn't news. However, George Pitcher, the Telegraph's religion editor and an Anglican priest at St Bride's Fleet Street, is claiming that research on the subject has 'made religious faith feel normal for once' and that it shows religion 'makes us perform better'.

He is overlooking a few inconvenient facts. He mentions Professor Bruce Hood's research but can't have read it very thoroughly. Hood, and other writers like Pascal Boyer, Marc Hauser, Paul Bloom and Matt Ridley, have made it very clear that religion is a side-effect of the brain's evolution.

You could equally well say that we have evolved the ability to read and write, to find flowers pretty, to believe in horoscopes and ghosts, to be vulnerable to malaria and to be heroin addicts. All of these are side-effects. Not all side-effects are beneficial; picking one that suits your argument is lazy. As is ignoring the bad effects of religion or blaming them on some other cause.

There is no evidence that the brain has evolved to believe in the Christian god in particular, so believers can't use this factlet to justify their own belief as the only right one any more than a belief in Zeus, Ra or Thor. And even if we had evolved to believe in a certain god, that doesn't prove that he or she exists any more than believing that horoscopes are true makes them so. It's wishful thinking.

Hood and others like him are not 'promoting' religion as Pitcher suggests. They are investigating why this particular evolutionary spandrel has proved so tenacious.

As we all have common ancestors, why do some of us not believe in any god or other superstition? This is a question that needs to be answered by scientists and by believers using a mis-reading of evolution to bolster their faith.

Friday, 4 September 2009

What Gillian Did Next

Gillian McKeith is back. Her new show, Eat Yourself Sexy, starts a 13 episode run this weekend on the W Network - in Canada.

In the show, she challenges her charges to reveal the sexier woman within - in just eight weeks. The trailer shows the husband of one of the women who gets the McKeith treatment; he says "She was Little Miss Sexy. Honestly, how sexy is she now? A three." She responds with "If he was having an affair, I couldn't really blame him". He is neither thin nor particularly sexy himself. The plucky Scot has crossed the Atlantic to help.

The show has been widely reviewed and hyped in the Canadian media. McKeith is described on one website as 'the renowned Scottish born nutritionist'.

The site with the trailer has the following text: According to Dr Gillian McKeith, "Good food equals good sex' hence the title of the series". The good doctor is on a mission - to whip drab, frumpy, libido-less people into sexy shape through diet, exercise and more than a little of her own pointed commentary. Eat Yourself Sexy uses clever devices such as a head-turn meter that counts every time a head turns when a central character walks down the street (before and after going through Dr McKeith's sexifying regimen), but it's the doctor's snappy no-holds-barred repartee with her subjects that will keep viewers tuned in.

Has no one told the Canadians that she is not now nor has she ever been a doctor, as Real Doctor Ben Goldacre explains. Even if she did not write the text, she has not corrected the error.

Judging by the trailer and various press interviews, the show is a mixture of common sense about healthy diet and exercise, mixed with her trademark haranguing and some random science words. She says that healthy food will help with sexiness because 'The B vitamins in green leafy veg should help hormones needed for good sex'.

I'm not a scientist (and nor is she) so I consulted someone who is - Alastair Duncan, the Principle Dietician at Guys and St Thomas' Hospital in London. He described this statement as 'tenuous' and said: "Zinc and the B vitamins are important for the metabolism but unless someone was B vitamin deficient, they wouldn't need extra. Deficiency to the level that would negatively impact on the hormones needed for sexual function is very rare. Eating green vegetables would not boost sexual function".

And that's just in the trailer. Not-Doctor Gillian also advises eating a lot of seeds of various kinds - and it just so happens that she sells a seed mix. There is no book to accompany the series yet but it can only be a matter of time.

It doesn't take a scientist to see that she is playing on women's fears about their bodies and their desirability. The trailer shows her grabbing a handful of a woman's belly and wobbling the fat vigorously while the woman looks miserable and humiliated. Self-loathing makes great TV.

This is the casting call that was put out to find participants:

Would you like to lose weight, eat better and feel sexier and have your own nutritionist and personal trainer for Free!!

W network is making a new TV series with renowned nutritionist Gillian Mckeith from TV shows "You are what you eat" and "Super size Vs super skinny." She is here to help You!

Do any of these Statement describe you?
-Are you more than 30lbs or more overweight?
-Do you have bad eating habits and an unhealthy diet?
-Are you in a relationship?
-Do you feel unattractive and undesirable to your partner?
-Have you tried every diet under the sun only to end up back at square one?
-Would you feel comfortable discussing these issues on TV?

If you answered yes to each question and you want to get healthy, lose weight and feel sexier,get in touch with me and tell me your story.

Single women need not apply, by the look of it. In fact, the ad doesn't mention women but it is clearly targeted at them. How often do men talk about the need to feel sexier?

Even though Not-Doctor McKeith claims the show is about making women feel better about themselves rather than making them skinny, it is clear that fat = unsexy. Not only should women feel bad about being overweight, they should worry that they are inadequate as women too, that their partners will find them undesirable and maybe even leave them.

She does a 'sexual health profile' on each woman, telling them how sexy they should be for their age and how sexy they currently are - which is of course not nearly sexy enough. To do this, there is a sexy-o-meter but it's not clear on what scientific principles it is constructed. There is also the 'head-turn' test to see how many men turn to look at the woman before and after she has been McKeithed. All randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, replicable methodology with a sufficiently large sample, then. She is a doctor, after all. Oh wait, no she isn't.

And yet. No one forced these women to be on TV. These are willing victims, accomplices of the Not-Doctor. Whether it is the lure of micro-celebrity or desperation that causes them to expose themselves to the nation, I don't know. It's the women watching who are most vulnerable to the fat= unsexy message, the ones who do not have Domme McKeith to transform their lives from lumpy frump to sex kitten. No matter how many products she markets and how many books she writes, these women will have their negative self-image and insecurities re-inforced. The men, meanwhile, can continue to be as lardy as they like

Maybe the show will encourage some to change but not for the right reasons, not just to be more healthy. They will change to be more desirable to others (men), because they have been emotionally blackmailed to care more about what others (men) think of them than about being healthy and content in themselves. Their complex psychological relationship with food will not be reshaped in a more healthy way, making relapse more likely.

If they are not feeling 'sexy' because of physical or psychological factors, or because the marriage is in serious trouble, then changing their diet and waistline is not going to fix anything.

It would be entertaining if, at the end of the show, the sexied-up woman was told that she could now do so much better than her judgmental slob of a husband and was given the number of a good divorce lawyer.

Good luck, Canada.

UPDATE 10.3.10

The show has arrived in the UK. Not the high-profile slot on Channel 4 she once had but 10pm on the Discovery Channel on Mondays. Lucky us.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Bad words

A recently launched search engine called offers an extra service - it warns you whether the words you are searching are potentially haram (unclean, forbidden by Islamic law).

There are three levels of warning. The first is for things that 'could be haram', the second says 'If you still think the results will be clean click me' and the third is 'I would like to advise you to change your search terms and try again'. These words are not searchable. Each level is awarded stars, with three stars for the worst.

Acceptable words include:
sausage, boy, sadomasochism, flagellation, abortion, bra, pants, stockings.

One star words include:
virgin, girl, love, pig, alcohol, nipple, knickers.
The word haram itself is a one star word as is, for no reason I can think of, lemon.

Some two star words:
ham, breast, vagina, penis, sex, adultery.

The three star no-nos include:
gay, lesbian, bisexual, naked, rape, prostitute.

Draw your own conclusions.