Monday, August 31, 2009

Better living through chemistry

Existing tests also may not be appropriate for diagnosing disorders like social anxiety and premenstrual dysphoria—the very types of chronic, fuzzily defined conditions that the drug industry started targeting in the '90s, when the placebo problem began escalating. The neurological foundation of these illnesses is still being debated, making it even harder for drug companies to come up with effective treatments.

What all of these disorders have in common, however, is that they engage the higher cortical centers that generate beliefs and expectations, interpret social cues, and anticipate rewards. So do chronic pain, sexual dysfunction, Parkinson's, and many other ailments that respond robustly to placebo treatment. To avoid investing in failure, researchers say, pharmaceutical companies will need to adopt new ways of vetting drugs that route around the brain's own centralized network for healing.

As reported in Wired, expensive drugs are failing in tests against placebo, an inexpensive non-drug. The pharmaceutical industry is in a panic. No wonder. For what these disorders have in common is that they were invented by the pharmaceutical industry in order to sell drugs. Social Anxiety Disorder used to be known as shyness, before it became a Disorder that required treatment with chemicals. It is curious that the Wired author notes that these targeting of these new disorders and the growth of the placebo problem both began at the same time, but fails to notice that a connexion might exist.

Hat-tip to Graeme Edgeler

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Questions for written answer

Not that I voted in the referendum: it was a silly question, so I refused to answer it.
Should a smack as part of good parental correction be a criminal offence in New Zealand?
Well, of course not: why should anything that is part of something good be a criminal offence? Stands to reason, doesn't it? But then again, what is good parental correction? And is a smack part of same? And are we talking about smacks exclusively, given that the No campaign's poster thugs included a man who repeatedly pushed his seven year-old son to the ground because the wee chap refused to go on to the rugby field, and a man who punched his son in Christchurch?

And how is it that the proponent of this referendum is the No campaign, that the answer they wanted you to give to the question they proposed is No? People who campaign for change usually want you to answer Yes. But this campaign had nothing to offer, except fear.

And how is it that the proponent of a referendum question is allowed to set that question? Rather than having us spend $9 million answering loaded and incoherent questions, somebody in Parliament could be given the job of making a neutral and sensible question. Should not a referendum question have a clear and present purpose, to discover whether the People want a law changed?

And how is it that Larry Ballcock thinks he has the nation on his side, despite only half that nation voting? No, don't bother answering that.

Athens is burning

From Contra Celsum (yes, really) , the blog where "Jerusalem and Athens are in irreconcilable conflict:"
We declare publicly that in our family we follow a policy of using smacking as a method of discipline of our children; we do it systematically and regularly and in a disciplined fashion; and we use it on those occasions when our children engage wilfully in repeated acts of disobedience, dishonesty, or disrespect.
It's not working then, is it? If you have to do the punishment thing systematically and regularly, then it clearly is not a very effective way of dealing with the problem.

Anyway, how can Athens and Jerusalem be in conflict? The very notion of the immortal soul comes from the Greeks (Plato: awful prig but had a way with words) and the New Testament is Hellenised through and through. Anyone who says otherwise deserves a good thrashing; because that is how problems are solved, with violence.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Home is so remote

This is not a sporting blog, but we should pause to congratulate Ingerland on winning the Ashes from Australia, thereby beating the Australians at their own game. In doing so we should also note that the Captain of England is called Strauss. This might cause some disquiet for the English, who won two World Wars and one World Cup, and for whom the wogs start at Calais. It might even induce a sense of umheimlich.

And another thing about the Germans, they have giant rabbits.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Nor shall his sword sleep in his hand

Former prime minister Helen Clark pressured her former ministerial colleague Margaret Shields not to accept the title "Dame".

But the former MP for Kapiti did not buckle, and this afternoon she will be invested as a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

You have to admire her principle and strength of character, holding out against relentless pressure from the former Prime Minister (note capitals) in the name of self-interest. Her story should be an inspiration to all of us in Ambitious New Zealand. It's all about going the extra mile, keeping your eyes on the goal, reaching for success.

On the other hand, what could one expect from a story with the title Helen Clark loses: ex-Labour MP takes title? Behold, the Herald crows because a former Labour Minister has accepted a free upgrade to Dame Class. The phrase "sad gits" comes to mind. But then, is there any more to That Nice Mr Key's policy to bring back titular honours than a petty urge to reverse a decision made by Helen Clerk, just to show that she's not the boss of him? Yes, of course there is. Behind this decision is a rich pageant of parochialism, sentiment, vainglory and ambition. We can be sure that Mr Key wants a knighthood for himself (in due course, of course). We can be sure that titles will be made available for the use of National's financial backers. We can be sure that they will also be handed out to various sportspeople, light entertainers and sundry celebrities. It is all about celebrating success and elevating the national mood. It is all about distracting the electorate with shiny things.

But, you might say, this no time to be churlish; we should applaud these men and women. After all, it is not easy becoming a knight. Look what Sir Douglas Graham had to go through to get his:

I was elected to Parliament in 1984 and spent the first six years in Opposition. I was paid the independently set going rate which was less than half my previous earnings.

I was given an allowance towards the rent of a flat and lived alone in a number of rather run down flats the last of which was a garage in Wadestown infested with slaters.

The years of struggle; the sense of entitlement. Without his shiny bangle on its ribbon, Sir Douglas would have nothing but his pension and his free air travel.

As for the others, those who accepted the free upgrade, we can be sure they did not do it for themselves. Sir Colin "don't call me Sir Colin" Meades did it for Te Kiuti and for Rugby. Of course, he could have avoided being called Sir Colin by turning down the offer, but that would have let down the people.

And look, there is Sir Peter Snell, who has come all the way from Dallas (where he has lived for decades, thus showing his ambition for New Zealand) because he needs to be recognised. Now, we all know that sportspeople are needy, whiny, self-obsessed egoists at the best of times, but this is really rather sad. Whilst he is here, Sir Peter also will be unveiling a statue of himself.

Moving right along, here is pantomime Dame Jenny Shipley: "Role models are important in today's society and I hope that in some small way this honour creates that for other young women." Yes, girls; if you want to pauperise thousands of New Zealanders, cripple the health services and stab your party leader in the back, here is your role model.

The rest of them are hardly worth talking about. Of course there is a yachtsman, who showed his patriotism by scuttling off to a better-paying team. And of course there is a bunch of lawyers and businessmen, who served their own interests for years and now are being further rewarded for their efforts.

And there's nothing like a dame, nothing in this world, like an academic or an educationalist (count 'em) who accepts a shiny thing from a Prime Minister who is dismantling the public education system day by day.

In case you are wondering, the music for the knighting event included Jerusalem: "and did those feet in ancient times, walk upon England's mountains green", etc; just in case you were wondering what kind of a New Zealand it is for which Mr Key is ambitious.

Bunny rabbits, Satan, Cheese and Milk (explanation here; downloads here)

Revised version

Following my previous and callous post about Madeleine McCann, I have given the matter due consideration and revised my position.

This mystery woman, the one with the Australian accent, probably was not Australian at all. She probably came from anywhere but Australia. She probably approached the random British tourist and said to him "the dingo ate my baby" in a mock Australian accent. People do that sort of thing all the time, just like Elaine did in that Seinfeld episode at the party in Long Island.

The English tourist, being English and a member of the banking community, had no sense of humour but a head full of tabloid stories. So he thought he heard an Australian saying something about a baby arriving, and everyone took him at his word. Now Australia is full of English private detectives trying to find a glamourous Australian with a baby-butch haircut. Their considerable expenses are being paid by all those folk who made donations to the McCann fund or who bought the t-shirt. People say the funniest things, don't they?

A short post about killing

Breaking news: killing your relative is alright, so long as it is done with love and superstition. But then we knew already that religious manslaughter has a special status.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Something stupid this way comes

I suppose it had to happen eventually. Here in the happy isles of Oceania, we think ourselves safe from the viruses and manias of the Northern Hemisphere, but we delude ourselves. They reach us sooner or later. So, we can be hardly be surprised that the Mystery Cult of Madeleine McCann has reached Australia. Looking back, we might realise that our lives for the last two years have been like those of the characters in Neville Shute's On the Beach, who knew the end would come but carried on their normal and unexceptional lives.

I need not bore you, gentle reader, with the details of the Madeleine McCann story; I am sure it will be have been drilled into your head so often that you cannot remember a time when you did not know it. In any case, should any tiny incident escape your memory for but a moment, you can always rely on Wikipedia to put you right.

If you are a member of the Mystery Cult, however, you would not be in need of any such advice. You will know every incident of the case and every possible hypothesis that has been offered to explain it. Probably you will have a few of your own, as well. The essential qualification for membership of the Mystery Cult is not knowledge, however, but belief. The adherent must hold two beliefs: that Madeleine McCann was not murdered and that her parents had nothing to do with her disappearance.

The Mystery Cult, of course, is the work of Madeleine McCann's parents, whose efforts to persuade everybody in Europe to look for their daughter have left no celebrity unturned. It is a collective effort of extraordinary proportions, which aims to make the case a moral obligation for all right-thinking people:

There is no law enforcement agency actively looking for Madeleine or the person who took her. As such, Madeleine and possibly other children are dependent on good and moral ‘everyday’ people to help them. We kindly ask you to share this responsibility with us.

Besides shaming people into joining its ranks, the Cult's other purpose is to find people to blame. The relevant authorities in both Portugal and Britain have all been the subjects of the Cult's scorn: police, coroners, forensic scientists and so on. But the Cult also seeks individuals to claim as the perpetrator of the foul deed, such as the man who lived with his mother. The Cult also encourages sightings, of which there have been many. The most notorious was the one which suggested that blonde Madeleine had been abducted by people of a more dusky hue. The Cult is an act of collective consciousness, a product of the imaginations of many people and many media outlets: not surprisingly, it does not point its collective finger at those who might be to blame, but at the Other of its subconscious, whether that be a mummy's boy or a black woman.

Hence the Cult coming to our little corner of the Hemisphere. As the Daily Mirror puts it: Maddie yacht owners found and they're worth 250 Million. Ladies and gentlemen, behold the latest suspect: a rich colonial woman. She is the daughter of a socialite; New Money. She looks like Posh Spice, the most detested woman in Britain. She is probably barren. She is probably a Lesbian. Probably she is keeping Madeleine in a turret of her mansion, where the playroom will be filled with every toy a child could want, but no Love.

The evidence against this woman is damning. Her luxury powerboat, all 105 feet of it, was in Barcelona only three days after Madeleine disappeared from a resort in Portugal, which is not far away at all when you think about it: just the other side of the Iberian Peninsula. Only hours later a woman approached a bank executive and asked "are you here to deliver my daughter?" She spoke with an Australian (or possibly New Zealand) accent. The rich woman's family, of course, deny she was involved; but they would, wouldn't they? The evidence is clear: Madeleine McCann was kidnapped by Cruella de Vil.

But, lest we be too quick to judge, consider this: the case against one Judith Aron, who speaks Spanish. But then again, look at that e-fit picture again. Do you hold the key? Do you know this woman? Could it be this woman?

Monday, August 10, 2009

Spot the giant shrimp

Grace sent me this. I fail at this type of contest. As usual, I could not see any of the things in the picture. Maybe the pen was in the way (I would have thought a conspiracy theorist would have a more professional pointing device than a pen; but then, perhaps he wanted to give an air of informality). See if you can do better.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

In the dreamlife, you need a rubber soul

That was the week that was; the week in which we learned (as if we did not know it already) what a nasty little prick is that nice Mr Key. And how do we know this? We know it because a film actress dared to ask to speak to Mr Key on behalf of the organisation she represents about the single most important issue facing the Pacific and the planet. And Mr Key responds by telling her she should make a submission to Nick "Mad" Smith, the Minister with special responsibility for evading Climate Change Issues.

And then he makes a joke of it, to a bunch of his own kind, a gathering of business people (mostly men, we can safely assume). And doubtless he received a gale of forced laughter from his expense account audience. It's the way he tells them: the little lady should "stick to acting." I wonder if he told them about the lobby correspondent who is known as the Whale Rider, for her activities with a blubbery member of his caucus. I guess not: it is all about timing.

But now he is prepared to see Ms Castle-Hughes, at some time. You see, it is all about perception. When he is making sneering comments to an audience of fellow fat-cats, Ms Castle-Hughes is just a nuisance. But when the local media pick up the story, Mr Key is Mr Nice Guy once more. It is a tricky business, politics, but one that is safe in the hands of one as tricky as Mr Key.

It is much the same with the expenses. Now Mr Key and his kind doubtless are accustomed to taking whatever is there for the taking: it is all about expenses and bonuses and options. Mr Key, remember, did not get where he is today by risking any of his own money: he became a multi-millionaire while remaining an employee. But, unfortunately, Mr English got a taste for public money, which is not the same thing.

You see, that nice Mr Key and the recently-married Dr Smith released the details of how much Mr English and his chums were receiving from the public purse, as Ministers of the Crown. Of course, Mr Key is very rich and so does not need to claim anything. But Mr English and his chums were not as rich as they thought they should be, so they had arranged for the rules to be changed to allow them to claim more. Mr English, having had the good fortune to become Finance Minister, had seen a new source of Finance. He arranged for Ministerial Services to lease his home, but also to let him continue living in it. That way he could claim an allowance for an Official Residence without having to leave home. So, rather than the paltry allowance of $24, 000 which the grubby backbenchers receive, he could get $42,000. There is more to it than that, as Gordon Campbell explains.

When he was found out, he did what any Tory would do when his back is up against the wall: he blamed everybody else. He claimed that he was just looking after his family and that he had taken the advice of the pen-pushers in Ministerial Services, who said everything would be alright. Then he got the wobblies and paid back a large chunk of his ill-gotten gains. Even when he was writing the cheque (and thus sealing his fate) Mr English talked as if this were an abstract issue with which he had no personal concern. He spoke of perceptions: having the very important job of Finance Minister, he had to lead by example and show that everything is above board. Presumably, if he were Minister for Racing (note to overseas readers: I am not making this up - we really do have a Minister for Racing) it would matter less. It was all rather sad, really.

Throughout this unfortunate episode, Mr Key has backed Mr English to the hilt, whilst allowing him to get shafted. Note especially his response to the question by Vernon Small about whether Mr English's good fortune was the result of a coincidence: "that is my understanding." A brilliant answer, which both shuns responsibility and paints a huge target marker on Mr English. This is the stuff of Restoration tragedies, and perhaps should be enjoyed as a sport. Mr Key did not get where he is today by being nice.

Of course, it is all about personal responsibility. Only the week before, the Minister for Social Development, Ms Paula Bennett, was showing two beneficiaries that they must take responsibility for speaking out of turn. The wolf in leopard-skin clothing did so by revealing the details of those women's benefits. And now Mr Key is showing Mr English that he must take responsibility for having opposed Dr Brash, by revealing Mr English's benefits.

Meanwhile, the clouds of perception rise up to obscure the shedding of blood. Mr Key promised us a national cycleway, to take our minds off the unemployment figures, but it did not quite work out as promised: now we are to have several "great rides," as if we are not having enough of these already. Mr Key has also brought back knights and dames, to people the merry pageant which is New Zealand and to take our minds off everything else. We are also promised car-crushing, as revenge on the young. Soon we might have the heroic deaths of our fine fighting men in Afghanistan. Mr Key, after all, is not only Prime Minister but also Minister for Tourism, and he knows how to put on a show. This is New Zealand's dreaming, a magical land of illusions and side-shows.

Yes, I know; it is not really very entertaining at all. In fact, it is horrible. The economy is going down the tubes and the Prime Minister has nothing to offer but illusions. The climate is going to places where it has never been before and he cannot quite make up his mind what to do, because he does not know who he can afford to disappoint. We are expected to wait for the revealing of our emissions target as if it were an Oscar nomination.

Fortunately for Mr Key, his opponent - Mr Goth - is about as useful as a one-legged man at an arse-kicking party. Which is just as well, since Labour is not much more than an arse-kicking party at the moment. The Greens, meanwhile, have gone ga-ga over the insulation scheme which Mr Key gave them, and so we leave them dancing round the mulberry bush. Te Maori Party simply have not got a clue. Mr Key has something of a window of opportunity. What he will do with it is anyone's guess, even his.

Oh well, at least we have The Clean. You can go here and download an excellent song from their new album. It will help ease the pain, I promise.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Three developments of concern for civilisation

1. The New York Stock Exchange is building a new datacenter, which will allow computers to trade against each other at faster rates than hitherto known.

2. The bears have worked out how to open the bear-proof jars.

3. Argentine Ants have created a global colony.

Doubtless there is a snowclone in each of these stories, which might distract us from the our collective sense of impending terror, albeit briefly.

Happy Tuesday.

With thanks to Tony Siu for the scary news about the NYSE.

The fallacy of hope

To judge from his performance last week, the inquiry's chairman is determined to pre-empt all the most obvious criticisms of his work. "The inquiry is not a court of law and nobody is on trial," he declared. "But I want to make something absolutely clear. This committee will not shy away from making criticism. If we find that mistakes were made, that there were issues which could have been dealt with better, we will say so frankly." The families of dead servicemen will be consulted, a technique of "victim justice" first deployed in the United States. This will also, in the spirit of the age, be a "wiki-inquiry", with a website inviting members of the public to chip in "if they think they have information relevant to our investigations".Many who take an interest in the Chilcot hearings and its eventual report will, I suspect, have one hope above all others: namely, that the committee will, finally, on behalf of the nation, the world, and the cosmos, nail Blair once and for all. It is never pleasant to dash anyone's dreams, but those who harbour such expectations should banish them now. Forget it: there is no way this lot are going to skewer the former Prime Minister.
I know, it must come as a disappointment, but Matthew d'Ancona surely is right; Blair will escape from the clutches of this inquiry, just as he did from the last one and just as he will from those that follow. I suppose we can hope for some compensation in the form of Sir John Chilcot, who clearly has fashioned himself as a Peter Cook characterisation of an Establishment figure ("But I want to make something absolutely clear. This committee will not shy away from making criticism.") and who, of course, is regarded as a safe pair of hands.

I suppose we might also assuage our melancholy by chipping in with information relevant to the inquiry's investigation. We might mention, for example, that everyone knew there were no Weapons of Mass Destruction and thus neither casus belli nor casus foederis. We might do so just in case the inquiry has forgotten that small point; these trifles are so easily lost with the passing of time. We might might mention that a senior MOD civil servant took his own life and many British servicepeople had theirs taken from them because of the outright lies perpetrated by Blair. I suppose it might make us feel a little better, for a while.

Or we could surrender to the rhythm of Miike Snow's Animal, to blot out the pain for a few minutes. Happy Monday.