Saturday, 23 July 2011


Amy Winehouse was found dead at her home this afternoon. She was 27. She modelled her work on singers like Frank Sinatra and Dinah Washington, but had success with songs she wrote. Here's an old standard:

Amy is one of a long line of musicians who died at the age of 27. There's a myth that some people need addictions to be creative. Survivors tell us this isn't so. Stephen King overcame his drinking and drug taking and continued to write well.

Tony Bennett comments on a recent experience of recording a duet with Amy and his great respect for her talent as a jazz singer. He hints at one of the possible reasons that she drank and took drugs: nervousness.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Elvis found and destroyed

Here's an example of a useful concept that lacked impact because it was delivered without a visual aid:

'There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that we now know that we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns; there are things we do not know we don't know.'

—Former United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld

The JoHari Window comes from cognitive psychology and expresses a similar idea, but in relation to the self:

It's a useful way of sifting degrees of knowledge.

The most frequent comment I make on student assignments is:

'What's the evidence for this assertion?'

Occasionally a student will complain that it's not possible for me to check their evidence and that it's a waste of time providing it.

I use the question because I think it's a way of looking at the world that can serve us well. We've lived through decades of government pronouncements based on little or no evidence:

We were told that radiation was not dangerous to people working with radium or living in areas where atomic weapons were tested.

Thalidomide was certified as a safe drug for use during pregnancy.

Often we are told something is safe or good for us when there is no data on long term use.

I have written about dietary guidelines given by Western governments and mounting evidence for the link between these and obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other troubling illnesses.

In the UK many ordinary people who held private pensions with Equitable Life were assured that their savings were safe when the company had problems meeting its obligations from 1980 onwards. It is alleged that Members of Parliament were reimbursed for their holdings, but ordinary people lost their pensions. Successive governments have dismissed their claims or procrastinated on giving compensation, knowing that increasing numbers of policy holders will die before they receive any money. Politicians have tried to imply that ELAS holders are independently wealthy and can survive the loss. The facts are very different and governments have eroded pensions and encouraged individuals to contribute to private pension schemes to enhance and protect their pensions.

We are currently informed that there is no evidence that genetically modified organisms are harmful to human health. We are also told that organic food has not been proven to be healthier for us, although research has not specified pesticide and herbicide residues as the focus for study.

Here's a recent example of a government media presentation (from the USA). We are asked to take the government announcement on trust, even though we only have film of a housing complex and US politicians in the White House Situation Room reacting to something they see on a tv screen.

If we turned the sound down, we could make an equal case for the notion that Elvis has finally been found. The compound shown could be the place where the hideously disfigured singer has been hiding since his recovery from a horrible accident. The audience react to the terrible shoot out between the star and his rescuers, later explaining that his body was too damaged to be shown to the public.

Apart from the issue of whether Elvis was still alive or not (which is a question also raised in many quarters about bin Laden for the last few years), this is as plausible as the official version, indicating that further evidence is required.

There are inconsistencies in official statements about events. It is easy to dismiss contrary views by labelling them conspiracy theories.

The Big Lie has been used as a technique for a very long time. There is a notion that the more outrageous the lie, the easier it is to convince people. Some attribute this idea to Hitler, others to Stalin. I bet there are examples that go back further in history.

George Orwell used it effectively in his novel '1984' and demonstrated the importance of keeping the brain switched on at all times to guard against it.

Back to my question:

Where's the evidence?


Postscript May 2015:

Seymour Hersh has written an interesting piece about the killing of Osama bin Laden.  It is much disputed officially and he is criticised for always citing 'a retired military/intelligence senior official' in his investigative journalism.  Nevertheless it's as plausible as the 'official' version.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Drunk on sweetness

Dr Robert Lustig and colleagues have done robust research on insulin levels and obesity. He has also highlighted the similarity between alcohol and fructose in the way they are metabolised by the liver (as well as their addictive quality).

Here he ponders the question of how to reduce the huge consumption of sugar in the USA and its direct link to the rise in obesity.

There's a tension between the idea that the individual is responsible for their own health and the development, over decades, of government interventions to shield people from harm.

In the West we have controls on ingredients of household substances, such as lead in paint. There are restrictions on the exposure to radiation, since research has demonstrated that even low level exposure from X-rays may be harmful. New laws enforce the wearing of seat belts in the front and back of vehicles and there are measures to prevent people from driving a motor vehicle when intoxicated. Governments enforce controls on the advertising and sale of tobacco, including health messages on packaging and restrictions on smoking in the workplace. This change evolved slowly and there notable examples of government reassurances on safety before evidence made them change their stance.

We also have restrictions on the marketing and sale of alcohol. Sponsorship of sport by tobacco and alcohol companies is discouraged. It used to be commonplace to see snooker players smoking during play. Sadly, Alex Higgins suffered the effects of the habit.

Lustig argues that sugar and fructose (particularly in the form of high fructose corn syrup) is as dangerous to health as alcohol and should be discouraged. He cites an example of where lobbying scuppered one campaign in the USA. If Congress and Senate seats are at risk from companies involved in this area, then it may take other measures to produce the necessary change and legislation. In the UK we have a recurrent problem with science journalism and lack of rigour in presentation of findings which contribute to government policy.

Dr Lustig is notoriously unwilling to spend much time on popularising his work, preferring to do the research and influence his medical colleagues. I assume that the latest video may be an indication of his frustration and the difficulty of making a breakthrough without a groundswell of public opinion.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Out of sight, out of mind

We use increasing numbers of plastic bags and they disappear into the waste stream. However lots of them aren't biodegraded in industrial compost plants but end up in the natural environment. A huge amount of plastic ends up in the ocean and kills a lot of sea creatures.

Who cares? It doesn't affect human beings, apart from the tree huggers.

Plastic takes a long time to degrade. In the process it is shredded into smaller and smaller particles that get everywhere. We may ingest plastic when we eat seafood.

Do we want our natural environment to look like a landfill site?

Some people have made a start by making local towns free of plastic bags. Modbury in the UK and Coles Bay in the Tasmania are 2 examples where this has happened.

What else can have an impact on behaviour?

Legislation can affect the types of plastics used in manufacture. Here's a quote from a report by a company called Symphony Environmental Technologies PLC:

'The British Standards Institution published BS8472 on 20 June 2011, which provides tests for biodegration in soil and simulates the real-world behaviour of plastic products which get into the environment and cannot realistically be collected.....

The Commission also said “In the current practice, a packaging product is acknowledged to be biodegradable if it biodegrades in industrial composting facilities in controlled conditions. However, a product that is compostable in an industrial facility will not necessarily
biodegrade in natural conditions in the environment

The Commission made the important point that “Advertising a packaging product as biodegradable when in fact it will not biodegrade in natural conditions can be misleading for the consumer and can contribute to the proliferation of littering of products that will persist in the environment.” Symphony therefore expects that suppliers of compostable plastic will stop describing their product as “biodegradable.”

The Commission also said “The current legislative provisions do not allow for a clear distinction between biodegradability and compostability” - highlighting the need for a Standard for oxo-biodegradable plastic, which has now been published as BS8472.'

This was brought to my attention by a skilled City trader. He also noted that management described this as a material 'game changer' for the company, though this had not yet been reflected in the share price.

The United Arab Emirates have now switched to oxo-biodegradable plastics entirely and many other countries may follow.

What could help clean up our beaches and prevent further destruction of marine life?

Collapsing share prices of plastics manufacturers and loss of lucrative export markets.

That means MONEY.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

I'm not from here, nor from there......

Facundo Cabral, who was shot yesterday in Guatemala, was famous for this song in 1970 protesting about the military junta in Argentina.

After the death of his wife and daughter in a plane crash, nearly being blinded and crippled, surviving cancer he said:

'Siempre le pregunto a Dios, ¿por qué a mí tanto me diste? Me diste miseria, hambre, felicidad, lucha, luces... vi todo. Sé que hay cáncer, sífilis y primavera, y buñuelos de manzana' (I always ask God, why did you give me so much? You gave me misery, hunger, happiness, struggle, lights... I saw everything. I know there is cancer, syphilis and spring, and apple fritters).

How did folk music become part of a revolutionary movement?

People in many countries explored the roots of traditional music in their culture. Songs came from peasants and workers, telling of struggles and identities that were not typically represented in the media or government. In the USA songs were recorded by migrant farm workers and the sons and daughters of slaves. In Latin America, singers performed songs by indigenous peoples and those without access to basic education. This was a reminder that their roots were partly from groups of indians that belonged to the land, not just waves of Europeans who came to make their fortune in each country.

In Georgia jazz became a means of cultural transmission and a call to freedom. Stalin promoted traditional folk music, rather than banning it, because Russians mocked his background and he wanted to demonstrate the quality of Georgian culture. Instead of the usual small choirs, he insisted on large groups of singers.

In Chile when General Pinochet launched a military coup against Salvador Allende's democratically elected government, protestors were herded into the national stadium, including Victor Jara, folk musician. He continued to sing and play guitar during the imprisonment and torture. Finally his captors broke the bones in his hands and shot him. In death he became a potent symbol of resistance.

Facundo Cabral sings here about poverty and his boss.

Friday, 1 July 2011


Necessity is the mother of invention.

Here's an example from Beto (Alberto Perez), a Colombian dancer and fitness teacher. One day he left the music tape for an aerobics class at home. Instead of cancelling the class, he improvised with a mixture of music tapes from his car, which included salsa and merengue dance music, inventing some new moves to go with the music. The resulting blend was a big hit in Colombia and he took Zumba around the world.

Zumba is a big hit with dancers who have transitioned into personal training.

Here's an interview with Beto, which shows how he's extended the initial product: