Saturday, 23 August 2008

A nascent guide to talking to a vaccination denier.

(last updated 18 September)

Okay, it seems as though my next exercise in science education (while I should be educating myself in Defamation law as it relates to the media), is going to have to be the spurious "link" between vaccines and autism.

I got into a "discussion" at work with a support worker who made just about every error possible, from thinking that caring for a group of people gave him an insight into how they got that way, to thinking that a chronological coincidence between vaccination and onset of autism is evidence. From taking seriously to thinking that maintaining an open mind means something.

I felt my brain melting from the committed stupidity.

Unfortunately, although many, many bloggers with, you know, qualifications, have been talking about the issue, there does not seem to be any real definite collation of evidence, and of refutations to arguments, in the theme of How to talk to a climate change skeptic. Although the Autism Wiki looks promising. So, for my own use, I'm going to have to do it. Not spell out the science myself, I don't claim to have that thorough an understanding (at least not yet...) but just a list of resources.

It's going to have to grow quite a bit over the weeks in order to be useful, and short of time to do some deep digging, it'll grow as things appear or are suggested to me.

But, here it is, in roughly alphabetical order:

(P.S.: If the formatting of this is a little off, it's Blogger's fault for being different every time I come back to edit it).


Aluminum/Aluminium in vaccines:


Mitochondrial mutations:

The MMR (combined Measles, Mumps, Rubella) connection

The autism "epidemic":

Thimerosal (mercury based preservative):

Vaccines aren't necessary/don't do any good

Friday, 22 August 2008

IT Support, oh dear

Look, it's a real, real worry when someone with no formal training and only six months of actual professional experience, working part time (this would be me) appears to know more about providing IT support to an organisation than the actual IT Officer of said organisation does.

The latest wonderful fiasco:

While labouring away inside a 15-page document that had taken me a month of two-day weeks to build, Word 2007 decided to crash without warning. Not even a dialogue box saying "Ooops! This piece of shit is crashing now, there's nothing you can do about it but I thought you'd like to now!" Following which, my file had disappeared off the server. And I mean vanished. There wasn't even one of those usually very annoying temporary files that Word could use to rescue the file. In act, when I reopened Word it didn't even realise that something had gone wrong and that it needed to rescue the file.

So I lodge an IT request, and I get a file back off backups. From three weeks previously. With only 8 pages in it. A polite email later reveals that there were actually no backups between 24 July and 11 August, which happened to be the afternoon of the day in which my 15 pages of research disappeared. Hang on, I thought, aren't backups made every afternoon? Apparently, yes. Actually, apparently not. Was nobody checking this? Was nobody even slightly concerned that a server observed to have been a bit flaky in the past wasn't being backed up reliably?

On the other hand, thank the lord for web browser histories. Seeing no need to blank my history at work, I was able to dive back in and unearth the fantastic resources I had found and which I only had the links to within the original document. So there's something I need to change right there, then, along with making my own backups in future...

Thursday, 21 August 2008

This can't be good (Google)...

Since its inception, Google has had a reputation for bare, minimalist but supremely useful user interfaces (born, by the most delicious of irony, from the self-confessed fact that neither Sergei nor Larry knew HTML when they coded up the engine). And, although the word-count of the home page has grown over the years, and although things like Picasa Web and Blogger have been positively florid in comparison, this has remained - it's not generally, although on occasion true, too difficult to work out what your options are and how to get there.

But go and have a look at Google Analytics, at

It kind of
looks like a Google product, but on the other hand it also kind of looks like a hard sell to industry, and the nice and above all familiar box saying "sign in" is replaced by a button which reads "Access Analytics". Excuse me? Access? Isn't this corporate-speak for "I'm a wanker who uses long words when a diminutive one would do"?

It took me a few seconds to work out how to continue, and it left me with an oddly dirty feeling to be using it at all.

Me don't like, and me faintly worried by what they've done.

To be offensively offensive.

Consider, if you will, the two meanings of the word "offensive". Work out the slightly but significantly different pronunciations associated with each meaning.

Isn't it fascinating that two such seemingly disparate meanings can grow out of one word? To offend. To go on the offensive.

One meaning inherently aesthetic, one meaning inherently aggressive.

Does that mean that aggression is, inherently, aesthetically bad?

And does
that mean that the current trend, as exemplified by TV ratings schedules, to give the merest hint of sexuality a sterner eye than casual violence, is a modern thing and that the evolution of language has been in the other direction which is, I would suggest, a more hopeful sign?


Desktop search comes to Symbian

I, after a few moments of doubt, decided to give the beta (and therefore free) trial of T9 Nav a go. T9 Nav is made by the same company - Nuance Communications - as T9 predictive text itself, and starts there. It's essentially a desktop search tool, for those of you who are familiar with that notion, and what it does is give you fast access to (theoretically - caveats apply) all content on the phone, from the home screen. It handles the fast part by building an index of all applications, bookmarks, documents, media files etc. This sounds scarily as though it'll bog the phone down and make it run at a crawl, but only takes a few seconds while you watch.

The cool part is how it handles the access part. Simply start typing, using normal T9 rules, and voila! A list of all matching content will be displayed upon the screen. If you are dialling a number, simply ignore the results, finish the number and hit dial. It learns, too - just like a proper implementation of T9, the results you select most often become favoured and are put at the top of the list.

This works so well, it's amazing. I admit to skepticism to begin with, but colour me a convert. The first advantage will be obvious to anybody who has used an S60 phone - it bypasses a messy and faintly arbitrary menu structure and goes straight to your result. But it also taps into an existing (assuming you have it) skillset, using automated and therefore rapid text entry instead of a clunky menu-up-left etc. selection.

For example: To get to MobiReader in my heavily customised menu structure, I could enter Menu-down-select-down-select-select, and that can only be done smoothly through repetition. Or, I could type mob(662)-down-select. Now which one seems easier to you? Finding the unit converter, which I have used a couple of times lately but have no idea where it lives in the menus, would take of a fair few seconds and a bit of head-scratching (is it in the Office folder??), or I could just do conv(2668)-down-select.

It's brilliant.

Okay, it's not perfect. Yes, it is still in beta and it does have issues. Several commentators have mentioned that it doesn't seen to index the music player, but I have noticed that neither does it index Sync, nor index text files, such as this one, and I still have to go through a file browser (yes, I'm compiling this on the phone).

At this point, I have to admit that it's not unique, and that the company responsible for T9 doesn't even seem to have been the first to think of this implementation. If you want a program that isn't still in beta, try the ludicrously named SkyeQuiKey from SkyeStream. These people have obviously never struck upon the idea of product names that are easy to google for. SkyeQuiKey is not free - and I'm expecting that when T9 Nav comes out of beta it'll no longer be free either - and although there is a trial period, it's the amazingly useless 1 day.

I'm sticking with the free T9 Nav until it tries to charge me for it. At that point, I will be hard pressed indeed to not shell out for it.

Link to T9 Nav website
Link to SkyeQuiKey website

Dear eBay

For the love of whatever deity you care about, stop putting buttons into emails - just use links. If people are sensible enough to choose not to display images within html emails because, you know, it's a serious security risk and deeply annoying, the buttons don't work.
Thank you.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Battery "sulfation": An investigation into rip-off technology

For pretty much all of what I refer to as my self-guided education in science and skeptical thinking, I have been fascinated by medical and biological claims. After all, that's the reason I started - I needed to educate myself so that I could provide educated information to my clients.

Recently, I've looked more closely into climate change. But evolution, medicine and climate have been the most entertaining and interesting avenues of investigation.

Here's a little episode, however, which illustrates that investigative skills, a good grounding in science and common sense, along with a skeptical thinking toolkit which includes conspiracy-theory-spotting techniques, will stand you in good stead in almost any situation. I had originally written this in an email, but I resurrected it, dusted it off, expanded it and produced this for your interest, education and profit:

Almost a year ago now, I was involved (I started it) in a battery thread on a bike forum. The basic outcome was that I ended up knowing more than I used to: vis, that a battery can die sporadically and not all at once, which was the common knowledge around me at the time. However in this thread somebody, having demonstrated that they didn't know how to answer a question and couldn't be trusted to keep track of what's going on, mentioned that people should buy a particular brand of trickle-charger which uses rapidly alternating current to shake free sulfation on the battery plates and extends the life of the battery. I come back to this now because I have just seen similar claims from a motorbike website reviewing a product they didn't understand (by the way, this is called "parroting" not "journalism").

Now, I am not a physical chemist, engineer or anything of the sort. But I remember enough of chemistry and have, I hope, enough common sense knowledge of physics, for alarm bells to have gone off when I read this.

Rule Number One: What are they talking about?

I went off to look at the website for this fancy trickle-charger, and in the FAQs it explained that the build-up of sulfates on the plates kills batteries and that when they are "shaken free" they will dissolve back into solution.


Rule Number Two: Try and understand the science involved.

Point one: Energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only converted. In generators, mechanical energy is converted to electrical energy. In a lead-acid (and any other) "battery", chemical energy is converted into electrical energy. Specifically, you have lead plates with a solution of sulfuric acid surrounding them. This is an unstable situation, and at the negative plate the hydrogen sulfate ions in solution react with the lead to produce lead sulfate, hydrogen, and a couple of spare electrons which, you may gather, is where the electrical current comes from. The positive plate is more complicated, but the summary is that lead oxide on the plate combines with hydrogen sulfate, hydroxide ions and a couple of electrons to produce lead sulfate and water. To charge the battery, force electrons through it backwards and everything is reversed.

You will note that as a result of this, "sulfate" is deposited on both battery plates as a result of the battery working properly and is removed during recharging. Bear this in mind as we read on.

Still on the manufacturer's website, I found this gem in the FAQ: it had "Why haven't I heard about Battery Life Saving technology?" and the answer was "The companies don't want you to know." Whoop! Whoop! Woo-alert! Paranoid conspiracy nut ahead! Abandon ship, abandon ship!

I can't stress this enough: That's not how the world works. Nobody is really competent enough to hide something like this when people are trying to sell you the technology. Physicists and chemists would be using them and recomending them to all their friends, for a start.


Rule Number Three: Look for supporting or rebutting evidence.

I Googled and found the same information repeated ad nauseum by retailers and by people attempting to offer "advice" by regurgitating what they had just read (it is a really, really bad idea to take the word of a manufacturer as gospel). Tellingly, not a lot of actual evidence turned up highly ranked on Google results - just anecdotal reports (which isn't evidence - trust me on this) and endlessly repeating "apparently"'s and "I've heard that" and "They say".

Ah, but also the Battery Performance Research Institute. Now, that name alone is highly worrying. Doesn't sound like an independent, objective body, does it? And no, they're a consultancy firm. But they do explain sulfation as: Large crystals of elad sulfate will grow on the lead plates, which ultimately prevents the chemical reaction necessary for the current by tying up the reactants and preventing the acid reaching the lead.

That's a little more believable. But what to do about it, and why doesn't charging the battery get rid of the crystals? And if it doesn't, what are you trying to do about it?

Rule Number Four: Keep looking

By tacking "evidence" onto the Google search for "battery sulfation" I managed to find a fascinating little thread in a battery newsgroup hosted by a university in the USA, where a poster (this was from 6 years ago, so fuck-off trying to sell "unique, innovative technology") quoted an electro chemist as not just shooting this "sulfation causes battery failure" theory down in flames but comprehensively burying it at a crossroads at midnight with a steak through its heart and its head on display in a a bowl of holy water in the next county. Well, I exaggerate a little.

Essentially, although the formation of large lead sulfate crystals is a worry, it's only number three or four on the list:

"...sulfation is, by definition, irreversible. Once lead sulfate crystalizes and sheds from the plates of a battery, there is no way, electrically, chemically, or otherwise, to return it to the plates. The sulfation represents irretrievably lost capacity in one or more cells."

And to save me time, I will copy and past the information quoted from the chemist, one Nawaz Quershi who, apparently, worked for a couple of different battery companies. At the end is the executive summary from the quoting poster:

-- begin quoted text --

1. Normally, batteries do not fail from sulfation. They fail from the positive grid corrosion, but primarily from the positive plate active material (lead dioxide) shedding. The loss of this material means loss of capacity.

2. The positive plate loses its integrity by cycling: the crystal structure gets destroyed, a little bit at a time, until the particles get so small that they float away from the plate forming the sludge at the bottom of the cell.

3. During charge, when the lead dioxide particles, floating around in the acid, touch the negative plate, they convert (plate out) into lead metal dendrites which grow towards the positive plate, eventually creating a short. This is also called mossing.

4. During discharge both of the electrodes (lead dioxide and spongy lead) convert to lead sulfate, reversing upon re-charge. So lead sulfate formation is a necessary condition for the battery to function.

5. If you let a battery sit for 6 months or more, the self discharge reactions occur very slowly, forming very large lead sulfate crystals. Since lead sulfate is an electronic insulator, they do not convert (recharge) easily. This rather pathological condition is called sulfation. Normal operation of the battery should not and does not cause this condition unless you operate your batteries in significantly undercharged condition (mismatched charger?).

-- end quoted text --

In short, unless you allow your batteries to sit unmaintained for many months at a stretch, or unless your charger's output is much too low, sulfation is not as much of a problem as it's made out to be. (This was news to me too. For many years I believed what I'd read -- that sulfation was the main cause of lost capacity.)

So, in other words:

No battery will last for ever, learn to accept that. On the other hand, not using a battery is bad for it. Don't let it drain too low, don't put the wrong charger on it, keep cycling it. There's not a lot you can do about gradual degradation except (maybe) buy a better quality battery to begin with, and get a charger which can do an "equalisation charge" which gets each individual cell to the same charge and prevents too much stress on any of them. In fact, the evidence is that any good work done by a "desulfater" is through an equalisation charge which is a side-effect of the way they operate.

Rule Number Five: Reality is usually more complicated than that - there are no simple answers.

What you can, therefore, do to keep your automotive batteries happy is to use them. There are chargers which will do equalisation charging and which will maintain battery life by slowly discharging and recharging if you leave them plugged in. Get one of those if you must but, purely on the theory of "don't encourage the bastards", don't buy a desulfater.

References and links:
The chemistry of lead-acid batteries from
The thread on the Tufts Institute of Cosmology, Tufts University mailing lists.
Battery Performance Institute "Desulfation"

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