Monday, 28 November 2011

Horizon: Are you good or evil?

I love the Horizon series and while this one is certainly thought and discussion provoking it doesn't sit so well with me. My first problem with the programme is the initial, outright use of the word evil. Are we really heading back to Biblical times with this one? Is there a psychological trait called evil? No, of course not. Throwing around words like evil in the 21st century is just ridiculous and we need to park evil at the door and let it be until the next time we want to have a witch hunt.

Secondly the word psychopath is bandied about with ease as the programmers know that the word is a very emotive one that will conjure up images of serial killers and chainsaw massacres. While psychopaths are disproportionately responsible for violent crime, most psychopaths are rarely psychotic. In fact most psychopaths are what the contributors to the show referred to as 'Successful Psychopaths', often business people, thrill seekers, political leaders. Successful psychopaths make good leaders, have a natural tendancy to be charming – and can intellectually understand emotion without the baggage of actually feeling someone’s pain.

Consider the Virtual Reality experiment with adult human guinea pigs who had control of an elevator to an art gallery. Five (stick) people were on the top floor; One person on the ground floor. A red person with something in its hand is let up to the top by the guinea pig and then, all hell breaks loose! The red person starts shooting everyone on the top floor. The guinea pig's reaction is to freeze or thumble around with the control, trying to put the serial killer red man on the ground floor where only one would die instead of five. However the delay usually ends in tragedy with many stick people dead. Now,what would happen if a security guard was the guinea pig? I presume they'd react quicker and save lives because of their training. What if a psychopath were tested? Well, they would should no emotion and will not freeze under pressure with result that fewer lives would be taken. Who is more dangerous to society in this situation? The average person who freezes or a psychopath? I'd choose the average person. We need some psychopaths in society I'm afraid...

A similar experiment was done with toddlers on the Horizon episode. It involved watching a puppet show and then picking out either the good cuddly toy who gave the ball back or the bad cuddly toy who ran away with the ball. Seventy per cent of the babies went with the good guy, suggesting that we're born with some kind of moral instinct. That's nice. Now this leaves thirty percent who didn't go with the good guy. Does this mean these babies are psychopaths? Not necessarily. Some of the babies fell asleep and some of them got distracted, some of them probably liked the colour of the bad puppet. No doubt there was possibly one little Kevin that we may or may not need to talk about. But on the whole it was inconclusive and I felt not really necessary to the show.

What was much more interesting was the work of Professor Jim Fallon – a neuroscientist who discovered he could identify psychopaths from brain scans – and that all had a variant of a gene which predisposed them to violent behaviour, the warrior gene. On testing his family he discovered that one person had both the brain pattern and the genetic make up of a psychopath and could be categorise as “high risk”. And yes – it was him. However, what Fallon established from the fact that he was not a killer, was that nurture – a good upbringing – could override the “natural” predisposition to violence. And that many psychopathic killers had suffered horrendous abuse as children.

This could have been an excellent episode but instead it was mediocre at best due in particular to dumbing down complicated issues and hamming up the narrative with questions such as “Are babies born evil?”. Your common sense will probably have given you the answer before you’re informed of the scenic route our friends in white lab coats took to get there: you can have the wrong genes, the wrong chemicals and bits of your brain scan the wrong colour, but unless you also had the wrong childhood, the wrong marriage or fought in the wrong war, things will probably turn out okay for you. Nature, nurture, free will, what side of the bed you got out of this morning - there’s just too much fuzzy greyness for black-and-white science to deal with in matters related to the mind..

Friday, 18 November 2011

Pizza is a vegetable now!

"The US Congress has deemed that pizza is a vegetable. The bizarre move, which was decided in a vote on the annual spending bill for the Department of Agriculture, happened for purely political reasons.The crucial bill had oversight over subsidised school meals, and the department was seeking to restrict pizza, chips and starchy vegetables from the menu for school children in a bid to combat child obesity. Politicians had been lobbied heavily by the frozen food industry who didn’t want to see a major revenue stream cut off given how often pizza is found on the menus of school canteens in the US. After some debate, Congress voted that anything containing two tablespoons of tomato sauce can be labelled a vegetable, putting pizza into the vegetable category."

So let me wrap my head around this one. It had apparently been decided that to combat child obesity that state sponsored school dinners should contain more fruits and vegetables presumably and less junk food. But due to lobbying by the frozen food industry Congress have decided that anything containing two tablespoons of tomato sauce is a vegetable. The mind boggles. Not to mention that the tomato is actually a fruit in its raw state! But that's not the issue obviously. Tomato sauce is not and should never be classed as a vegetable or fruit. It is NOT one of your five a day no matter what Pizza Hut says. It's worrying that the Americans may just end up eating five pizzas a day to catch up but on the bright side the next generation are all going to be too fat to invade anywhere. The US has the highest rate of obesity in the world and they seem to think they can cure this by just classifying whatever they want as vegetables. They should just put two tablespoonfuls of tomato sauce on every congress member who voted this in and let the kids eat them instead.

Somewhere Jamie Oliver is crying into his pesto!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Oh Chuck...

Remember how great we all thought Chuck Norris was? Remember all the jokes and posters? Remember how we laughed that "Chuck Norris is so tough that..."

Well it turns out that it's all a big sham and Chuck Norris appears to have been beaten around the head and left bruised and bloodied by the Andrew Wakefield stupidity stick. In his column for the 'Human Events' website which boasts "More powerful conservative voices" Norris seems determined to drag up the link between vaccinations and autism yet again. Despite the fact that it has been over ten years since this idea first hit the headlines. Despite the fact that Andrew Wakefield was found guilty of serious misconduct and using un-scientific methods in his findings and struck off the medical register. Many people still believe that there is a strong link between the MMR (or all) childhood vaccinations and the onset of autism. It begins to feel a bit like Groundhog day every time some celebrity who doesn't have two brain cells to rub together weighs in.

I'm not saying people shouldn't be questioning and sceptical about what they or their children are being vaccinated with. I'm the complete opposite I think a good dose of healthy scepticism would keep people on the right track. What I have a problem with is someone taking Chuck Norris' word over people who are qualified to to their jobs and reams and reams of data from experts in cell biology, biochemistry or toxicology. Chuck Norris may be a master in martial arts but he is no doctor. A wise man once said "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing" and Norris, like Jenny McCarthy has just enough knowledge to be very dangerous. Norris maintains that Mercury in Thimerisol used in vaccines is what can cause disorders on the autism spectrum. I'm not going to go in to the ins and outs of why this is not the case. Even if it were many states in the US have removed Thimerisol from their vaccinations and yet instances of autism continue to rise.
This is scaremongering to a most dangerous degree. With every medical procedure we have to take a risk however big or small. If you have a tooth pulled there's a chance that your jaw may get broken, if you have an anaesthetic you risk nerve damage and if you have a vaccination the same stands there's risks involved. BUT with every medical procedure we weigh up the minuscule chance of something bad happening versus the good that will come of getting the procedure done. In the case of MMR the child has a small, completely unproven risk of developing autism or has the much bigger and more dangerous risk of developing a lethal disease. The current generation has little experience with disease because the majority were vaccinated in the eighties. In the last number of years diseases like measles, mumps and rubella are on the rise in a big way. The way we have obliterated many of the world's diseases is through vaccine and now it looks as if some people want to bring them back again.

As I said a healthy dose of critical thinking and scepticism is a good thing but I would prefer if people looked to legitimate sources rather than a self professed "Martial arts master, actor, and concerned citizen" with no medical training whatsoever.

The Chuck Norris article is here: and for further reading on the MMR/Wakefield/autism debate, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure by Paul Offit.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Wearing of the Poppy

So it's that time of year again when some people will wear a poppy and get flack for being a West-Brit, some people won't wear a poppy and get flack for living in the past and some people won't care too much one way or the other and will just let the whole thing pass them by (what are we commemorating anyway?).

This is still a time and place in Ireland where every Barstool Republican will vilify poppy wearers in mostly anti-English terms. And there are still people who legitimately argue that the money raised from the sales of poppies went to give aid to those who were in the infamous Black and Tans, those who perpetrated Bloody Sunday etc. Nowadays people argue that poppy wearing supports those in Iraq or Afghanistan - yet no army ever picked their battleground. Even in Britain itself the wearing or not wearing of the poppy can be very controversial. The rule that was enforced by the BBC that all presenters must wear one takes away from people's choice. Dara O'Briain didn't don a poppy one year  and said his hate mail was so vast that he wore it the following year, which meant he merely replaced British hate mail with Irish hate mail. Robert Fisk in an excellent article for the Independent recalls his father (who had fought in the Great War) eventually stopped wearing the poppy because he felt it was a war that had been fought on lies and it sickened him to see "so many damn fools" wearing it to look patriotic, or to fit in when they had no idea of what it was like. (article here and well worth a read

I doubt there is a person in Ireland that doesn't have some ancestor who fought or died in either of the World Wars for the British Army. Indeed in the case of WWI all of our Irish ancestors were technically British. I know in my own family I have two great-uncles who were killed in action in WWI and my grandfather fought in WWII. And there are many whose relations are still fighting and dying in that same army.

Which brings us back to the poppy. The poppy was chosen as the symbol to commemorate the sacrifice made by they young men in WWI because of its blood red colour and the fact that it was the only flower that deigned to grow on the fields of the Somme. It has been immortalised in many poems following the Great War. As a symbol, the poppy has ancient origins, much of which focus on the narcotic properties of the flower.Although the poppies of Flanders do not contain opium, the association with narcosis remains. This association is especially important in the ritual of remembrance, helping to console the bereaved. Another aspect that makes the poppy important is its very commonness. Poppies grow virtually anywhere, and because the poppy is found in such large numbers, it is fitting that it is a symbol strongly associated with the first major industrialised war, where everything was done on a large scale: bombardments, attacks, battles, casualty lists. Here poppies can be used to symbolise the masses of soldiers who fell in battle. Poppies, like those who enlisted in the army, are also easily obtained, due to their very availability. Indeed, the throngs of men standing to enlist outside army recruiting offices seen in many photographs from the initial stages of the First World War, can be likened to masses of poppies found on the battlefield. Poppies need no preening or cultivating, they grow, unlike the finer rose, without having to be trained or tended. Poppies are a short-lived flower - it symbolises well the soldiers - the life expectancy of the front line troops was also very brief.

And this brings us back again to the young men that fought and often gave their lives. Over the past couple of days I've been researching and trying to get my head around our abhorrence to commemorating our war dead in some way. It doesn't have to be with a poppy but surely there could be some way of venerating the sacrifice made by so many young men of this country. More men from Ireland were killed in battle during the Great War than were during any other conflict, more men were killed in WWI than were killed during all the troubles in Northern Ireland. Those who weren't killed were effectively ostracised from their communities on their return from war. Let us not forget those men, who died either because they had been peddled the great lie that independence was just around the corner once they fought first, the lie that was peddled by the Irish alongside the British. Let us not forget men for whom times were so hard that they would take the King's shilling so long as it put food on their family's table. Those men who have been whitewashed from our history with an efficiency Stalin would have envied.

So wear a poppy or not - it's up to you and if you have personal and or political reasons for not or doing so then your wishes should be respected. Ultimately it is an expression of personal freedom and wasn't that what the soldiers in the Great war and WWII (and could be argued the Irish war of Independence) fighting for. Whatever you do cast an occasional thought to those young boys who died for us to get to where we are today. The dead of the 1914-1918 War are to some just names on paper but to others they represent the generation which lost its youth as brave young men went to War in a cause which was to unite families in grief. For too long we pushed to one side their memory forgetting that bravery wears many uniforms. Their life sacrifices must always be a constant reminder to us of how our neighbours suffered, why our neighbours grieved and why their dead must always be remembered.

In memory of Lance-Corporal Patrick Flynn killed in action 14th September 1916  and his brother Private Christopher Flynn killed in action 28th July 1917 

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

What the hell guys?

Honestly I can't leave the country to you for five flipping days. I feel like a parent returning home to my teenage children's den of inequity to clean up! 
Monday last I'm flying out in typical, Irish weather, a few hours later having landed in Spain I check the news to find someone forgot to switch the tap off when I was gone and you managed to convert most of Dublin into a swimming pool. You also let some X-Factor dude announce Irish tour dates.
Tuesday I find out you're shipping bikes from the "Bike to Work" Scheme to Africa because apparently you're too lazy to use them (mind you they'd want to be fitted with life rafts given what happened on Monday). But we can't afford to have those modifications because we're going to have to pay for the fire safety rejigging at Priory Hall. You also let Martin McGuinness look good by slam dunking Sean "Fianna Fail bagman" Gallagher over payments received.
Wednesday there's a fall in profits for Amazon - I knew I bumped up their balance sheets alright, but seriously three days out of the country and they start losing money.
Thursday you went to the polls and I'll give you a reprieve on choosing the least bad of the not so magnificent seven. As I settle down with my final nights bottle of beer I'm just hoping you won't feckin' elect Dana. My mother sends me a funny but not so family friendly text message giving a run down of some of the choice candidates (something about McGuiness blowing the head off you, Dana giving you all kinds of everything and...well I'll leave the Norris one up to your own imagination)
Friday I return home to good old wind and rain again. I sit for two hours in the bloody traffic because I'd forgotten the Bank Holiday (that must be Linda's English influence rubbing off on me ;)). And now I'm just having a look around to see what other damage you've caused. In future when I go away I'll have to get a babysitter. Probably my mother - she did manage to feed himself for nearly a week and that's no mean feat!