Category Archives: diversity

The first victim!

It is well established that the first victim in war is truth. Mind you the dispatch of truth usually comes well before the shooting starts.

I have a personal interest in Ukraine and the dispatch of truth occurred for me straight after the February 21st agreement signed by the then President, the opposition leaders and representatives of the European Union. The very next day there was a coup, the opposition leaders came to power and they (together with the EU politicians) immediately abandoned the agreement – before the ink was dry!

A real pity, as they had signed up to consitutional reform involving the whole country before elections later this year. Seems to me consitutional reform is exactly what the country is crying out for. Instead we have had Orwellian doublespeak and cynical geopolitical maneuvering by the major powers, as well as the Ukrainian politicians while the people have been ignored.

Well, not quite ignored because now the acting president has taken to calling protesters “terrorists.” (This is a guy who was put into power by a coup precipitated by violent protesters in Kiev). You can understand the reaction of people to this – if not have a look at this video. Here local people protesting at the Karamtorsk airstrip in eastern Ukraine captured by military units from Kiev argue with Uranian Gen. Vasily Krutov who was attempting to defend the “anti-terrorist” action.

They ask – “Who is the terrorist here?”

via На Краматорском аэродроме высадился десант. “Генерал” дает интервью – YouTube.

Yes, it sounds mad for a president, even just an acting president, to describe his people as terrorists. But there is a cynical logic here. Appa=rently by law the Ukrainian military cannot be used against protestors unless a state of emergency is declared – or protester are redefined as terrorists, I guess.

Mind you – it’s not only the politicians who have dispatched with truth. Seems to me that many of the journalists on the ground are also distorting the situation. Compare these Twitter reports from Ilya Azsar at the airfield with the evidence of the video! This from the Pro-Kiev  The Interpreter.

Screenshot-2014-04-16-11.32

I can understand the anger of people in eastern Ukraine being described this way. However, I myself also feel violated by the misrepresentations that seems to count for news in the midst of such conflicts. I feel I am being denied my right to information and treated like an idiot.

See also: Tensions Boil Over on Camera in Ukraine’s East and West for more on the above incident and also the mob attack on Oleg Tsarov - one of the candidates in the planned presidential elections – who spoke up for the  east Ukrainians.

An outdated tax anomaly – charitable status of relgion

Here is a New Zealand Kickstarter project well worth supporting – a film which sets out to answer the questions:

  • Why do religions pay few taxes?
  • Why do companies owned by religions also avoid tax?
  • With more non-believers than ever – is this fair?

Pennies from Heaven – A Documentary about religion and tax. by Toby Ricketts — Kickstarter.

The tax-free and rates-free  charitable status of religions in this day and age is an anomaly which will eventually need resolving.  As the proposal says:

Despite this huge rise in the number of non-believers and increased focus on the importance of separation of church and state, most ‘secular’ governments continue to subsidise religious organisations; providing them with broad tax immunity (including any companies or corporations that they own), local rates exemptions and other entitlements. While the public expectation is that all religions are behaving as charities in the traditional sense (working to relieve poverty and advance the public good, etc.), the reality is that some churches are behaving more like corporations; stockpiling cash and buying external investments (putting aside for the moment the mansions, sports cars and diamond rings sported by bishops and ministers). The result of this tax break for the religious is that there is less money for education, healthcare, conservation and other core state functions that would benefit a nation as a whole.”

The problem is highlighted in this report - Religious financial privileges in New Zealand.

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International cooperation in space serving humanity

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Photo credit: SENTINEL-1 LIFTS OFF

This morning I watched the launch of the Sentinel 1A satellite. The launch was perfect and the coverage on Spaceflight Now excellent with plenty of explanation along the way.

The satellite was launched aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket from the European Space Agency (ESA) launch pad Kourou near the town of Sinnamary, French Guiana, on South America’s northern Atlantic coastline. Sentinel 1A was built by Thales Alenia Space of France and Italy. The satellite is now being managed from a mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

International cooperation important

Viewing this event I couldn’t help noticing the programme is a result of cooperation between several countries. First of all, countries in the European Commission and ESA, but also Russia which provided the launcher and whose companies were involved in the launch. That cooperation is obvious from the fact that English, French, German, Italian and Russian languages were being used.

I think there are two important points about this cooperation in our modern world:

  1. International cooperation is vital to the success of these scientifically important projects. They are just too big and complex to be handled by single nations.
  2. Scientific success is not an end in itself – is the basis for humanitarian success. international cooperation is vital for solving environmental, economic and security problems all countries face today.

So, alongside this good news of the Sentinel 1A success I am concerned about the bad news that NASA is to take part in the politically initiated sanctions against Russia. Yesterday, NASA released this statement:

Given Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, NASA is suspending the majority of its ongoing engagements with the Russian Federation. NASA and Roscosmos will, however, continue to work together to maintain safe and continuous operation of the International Space Station. NASA is laser focused on a plan to return human spaceflight launches to American soil, and end our reliance on Russia to get into space. This has been a top priority of the Obama Administration’s for the past five years, and had our plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year. With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017. The choice here is between fully funding the plan to bring space launches back to America or continuing to send millions of dollars to the Russians. It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

Any long-term operation of these sanctions, despite the exclusion of the International Space Station work, will inevitable have a negative effect on international scientific cooperation. And will inevitably retard humanity’s work on alleviating our environmental, economic and security problems.

Frankly I think these sanction are cynical measures resulting from inevitable geopolitical frictions and should only have a relatively short lifetime.

Let us hope so.

Copernicus and Sentinel 1A

Sentinel 1A is the first of 17 satellites to be launched over the next decade in the Copernicus programme – described as “the largest Earth-observation program in history.”

“When all of the Sentinel satellites have been launched, they will form a network tasked with gathering an unprecedented amount of data regarding the planet. . . Using a wide variety of instrumentation, the Copernicus program will be able to provide scientists, government agencies and other parties with the necessary data to precisely determine the exact current state of the planet. Moreover, the data will also be useful in creating simulations and predictions of future climate and weather trends.”

Have a look at this infographic for a summary of the Copernicus programme and the satellites involved.

airbus_infographic

Click on image to enlarge

An overview of the Copernicus programme describes it this way:

“Copernicus provides a unified system through which vast amounts of data, acquired from space and from a multitude of in situ sensors, are fed into a range of thematic information services designed to benefit the environment, the way we live, humanitarian needs and support effective policy-making for a more sustainable future.

These services fall into six main categories: land management, the marine environment, atmosphere, emergency response, security and climate change.

In essence, Copernicus will help shape the future of our planet for the benefit of all. ESA is contributing by providing a proven framework for the development of operational systems on behalf of the user community, paving the way for investment in future generation systems. ESA is exploiting its 30 years of expertise in space programme development and management to contribute to the success of Copernicus.”

See also: European Earth observing craft prepared for launch.

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Scientific cooperation despite political posturing

I find it heartening scientific cooperation continues (so far) despite all the political posturing going on down here over the Ukraine political crisis.

Here we see the arrival of Russian cosmonauts Alexander Skvortsov and Oleg Artemyev and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson at the  International Space Station (ISS). This brings the ISS to its full capacity of six people. The arriving astronauts were welcomed by three astronauts on board the ISS, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) astronaut Koichi Wakata, NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin.

Soyuz docks succesfully, astronauts meet

What makes something right or wrong?

Here is another of the  4 animated videos produced by the British Humanist Association. They are all narrated by Stephen Fry.

This one deals with aspects of morality – an important subject where the voice of non-theists is often ignored.

“What makes something right or wrong?” Narrated by Stephen Fry 

See: That’s Humanism: Four animated videos about Humanism narrated by Stephen Fry

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Terry Pratchett making sense

photo TP

False balance and straw clutching on fluoridation

The alignment of the poster above with a “balanced” duo of opinion pieces on fluoridation in the recent issue of the Journal of primary healthcare is just too good not to comment on.

The articles are:

Looks a bit uneven, doesn’t it? A Professor of  Dental Epidemiology and Public Health “balanced” against a political  activist? Worse, Atkin’s organisation is an astroturf one set up by the Fluoride Action Network of NZ (FANNZ). Rather clumsily, I add, as they use the same office address! (See Anti-fluoridationist astro-turfing and media manipulation).

Still, I want to comment on the chemical arguments used by Atkin. He is effectively clutching at straws, using very naive interpretations of the chemistry of fluorosilicates and fluoride. As a chemist I find such opportunist distortion of chemistry offensive. Problem is, his and similar arguments are often presented by anti-fluoridation activists and lapped up by their supporters.

Fluorosilicic acid and sodium fluorosilicate are common fluoridating chemicals. When diluted in water the fluorosilicate decomposes to form silica and the fluoride anion. Some anti-fluoridation activists, including Mark Atkin, deny this becuase they wish to deny the relevance of studies showing the safety of fluoride at concentrations used in fluoridating drinking water. So they advance the bogey of  an especially toxic fluorosilicate species. Atkins condenses two of their arguments in this succinct statement:

“Silicofluorides do not fully dissociate to form free fluoride ions in aqueous solution and revert to the silicofluoride ion in acid stomach conditions.”

Hydrolysis of fluorosilicate.

There is some straw clutching going on here in the discussion of the chemistry of fluorosilicates and fluoride which distorts the real chemistry.

The Nuclear Magnetic Resonance work of Finney et al (2006)  (“Reexamination of hexafluorosilicate hydrolysis by 19F NMR and pH measurement”) showed complete decomposition of fluorosilicate species at neutral pH values on dilution. They also showed the presence of surviving fluorosilicate species at low pH values (3 and below) – which is of course irrelevant for water treatment. No one is going to produce drinking water at such acidic values.

Anti-fluoride people are using the observation at low pH values to claim that fluorosilicate species remain in solution at neutral pH values. They sometimes also rely on studies where authors have expressed their results with an indication of precision. For example, Atkin’s activist organisation (the NZ Fluoridation Information Service) claims fluorosilicates:

“do not completely break down into Fluoride ions. This was shown by Crosby in 1969.”

But Crosby (1969) (“Equilibria of fluorosilicate solutions with special reference to the fluoridation of public water supplies”) actually reported:

“sodium fluorosilicate, at the concentration normally present in public water supplies, is dissociated to at least 95%.”

Atkins and his organisation are clutching at a very weak straw there.

Let us be clear – the research indicates that within experimental precision the deocmposition of fluorosilicates is complete and, as expressed by Urbansky (2002), (“Fate of fluorosilicate drinking water additives”):

“equilibrium should have been achieved by the time the water reaches the coinsumer’s tap  if not by the time it leaves the waterworks plant.”

Reversion of fluoride to fluorosilicate?

Atkin’s claim of reversion of fluoride to fluorosilicate “in acid stomach conditions” is also incorrect. He is relying on a simplistic misunderstanding of the nature of “dissociation” of fluorosilicate on dilution.

It is important to recognise the “dissociation” of fluorosilicate species into fluoride and silica at neutral pH values is, in effect, a decomposition. Because of the polymerisation of the silica, and the olation and oxolation reactions involved, the equilibrium is driven to completion – in effect the silica is removed from the reaction. (While it may remain in “solution” or “suspension” for a time it is effectively inert – due to olation – as far as the equilibrium is concerned).

What do I mean by olation? While monomolecular Si(OH)4 is formed on dissociation of the fluorisilicate it rapidly undergoes reactions which lead to exclusion of water and the transformation of Si-OH bonds to Si-O-Si bonds.

(HO)3Si-OH + OH-Si(OH)3

↓ Olation

(HO)3Si-OH-Si(OH)3 + OH

 Oxolation

(HO)3Si-O-Si(OH)3 + H2O

Eventually this leads to formation of colloidal and solid silica. But even while in solution olation and oxolation reduces the reactivity of the silica species.

Just as fluorosilicate species do not reform in your tap water, they do not reform in your stomach. Even if the silica is still in suspension it is no longer present as mono-molecular Si(OH)4 and is effectively inert. So despite the low pH there is no simple equilibrium. Remember too, your drinking water will contain silica derived from other sources besides fluorosilicate (which is probably a minor contributor).

Sure, one can prepares solutions in the laboratory at pH values of 3 or less that contain fluorosilicate species – but once decompostion (involving loss of silica reactivity) occurs at neutral pH values the reaction  is not easily reversed. Especially considering the time lapsed between decomposition of the fluorosilicate and drinking water entering one’s stomach.

HF in stomach

But Atkin still has a fallback postion – if the fluorosilicate doesn’t get you the hydrofluoric acid will. He aserts:

“that 40% of ingested fluoride is absorbed through the stomach wall as molecular hydrofluoric acid (a known mutagen). This negates the ‘all fluoride ions are the same’ deception.”

Yes, in the acid conditions of your stomach F anions will exist in equilibrium with the protonated HF species.

H+ + F- ↔ HF

This is also true for other weakly acidic anions – even sulphate – that is just simple chemistry. But, the real danger of the solution in your stomach is that it is very acid, it has a low pH – a very high concentration of hydrogen ions. It is the hydrogen ions that are corrosive. (If anything, the presence of weakly acidic anions like fluoride will actually lower the acidity by removing some of the hydrogen ions). One does not put one’s hand, or any other sensitive tissues, into acidic solution like this. However the stomach is built to handle these conditions.

I understand the molecular species involved in the transfer of fluoride across the stomach wall cells into the blood stream is HF. (Once in the blood HF will convert to fluoride because of the higher pH). So clearly the low pH assists in uptake of F by the body. Don’t forget the concentrations of fluoride, and therefore HF, is actually very low. The protonated species in your stomach solution are not equivalent to the HF (or HCl and H2SO4) chemicals we are used to in their concentrated forms in the laboratory.

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Losing trust in religious leaders

I recently reported the data from our last census showing the decline of the numbers of Christians in New Zealand, and the associated increase in people declaring they have no religion (see Census 2013 – religious diversity). It’s interesting to consider the consequences if the trend continues. As the graph below shows, the”crossover point” (when the number of Christians = the number of No religion) will occur in 2016 – only 2 years away. Christianity itself will decline even further so that in about 20 years it will likely have only  20% of the census responses.

census-trend

I think most people now accept that secularisation in the modern pluralist, democratic societies is a fact. (Although Christian apologist WL Craig still clutches at straws to deny this – see Philosopher reveals his predictions for the future of Christianity in America). Only the reasons for this are debated.

Of course, there is not going to be just one factor – life is never that simple. But one that interests me is changes in the way we perceive the representatives of religion. In my younger years I was quite happy to respect religious leaders – and give to religious charities. Despite my rejection of their beliefs I still held a certain amount of trust in those leaders. But not any more – and I think I am not alone in this.

Gallup recently released results of their latest poll of American’s attitudes towards professions (see Honesty and Ethics Rating of Clergy Slides to New Low). The poll asks people to rate the honesty and ethics of people in different fields. Gallup reported:

“Americans’ rating of the honesty and ethics of the clergy has fallen to 47%, the first time this rating has dropped below 50% since Gallup first asked about the clergy in 1977. Clergy have historically ranked near the top among professions on this measure, hitting a high rating of 67% in 1985.”

The graph below demonstrates this decline of trust in clergy.

honesty

Again, the decline in rating of the honest and ethics of religious clergy will probably have multiple causes. Sex abuse in the church will be a significant cause. As will attempts to promote outdated and inhumane attitudes on moral issues.

For me another strong cause of declining trust is the way that prominent Christian leaders and their news media will flagrantly misrepresent science –  particularly evolutionary science .  I agree, those specific leaders  might not be representative of all Christians (who is), but these other Chrsitians seem unwilling  to criticise them.

How can one maintain trust in people who knowingly misrepresent well established scientific facts and ideas? And how can one maintain trust in their associates who remain silent about that misrepresentation?

Credit: The honesty of clergy, car salesmen, and politicians.

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All things bright and beautiful

Alan Turing receives royal pardon

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Photo credit: The Telegraph

Here is the official press release on the Royal Pardon for Alan Turing.


Pardon for WW2 Code-breaker Turing

By Jamie Grierson, Press Association Home Affairs Correspondent

Second World War code-breaker Alan Turing has been given a posthumous royal pardon for a 61-year-old conviction for homosexual activity. Dr Turing, who was pivotal in breaking the Enigma code, arguably shortening the Second World War by at least two years, was chemically castrated following his conviction in 1952.

His conviction for “gross indecency” led to the removal of his security clearance and meant he was no longer able to work for Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) where he had continued to work following service at Bletchley Park during the war.

Dr Turing, who died aged 41 in 1954 and is often described as the father of modern computing, has been granted a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy by the Queen following a request from Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. “Dr Alan Turing was an exceptional man with a brilliant mind,”

Mr Grayling said.

 “His brilliance was put into practice at Bletchley Park during the Second World War where he was pivotal to breaking the Enigma code, helping to end the war and save thousands of lives.

“His later life was overshadowed by his conviction for homosexual activity, a sentence we would now consider unjust and discriminatory and which has now been repealed.

“Dr Turing deserves to be remembered and recognised for his fantastic contribution to the war effort and his legacy to science. A pardon from the Queen is a fitting tribute to an exceptional man.”

Dr Turing died of cyanide poisoning and an inquest recorded a verdict of suicide, although his mother and others maintained his death was accidental.

There has been a long campaign to clear the mathematician’s name, including a well-supported e- petition and private member’s bill, along with support from leading scientists such as Sir Stephen Hawking.

The pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy will come into effect today. The Justice Secretary has the power to ask the Queen to grant a pardon under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, for civilians convicted in England and Wales.

A pardon is only normally granted when the person is innocent of the offence and where a request has been made by someone with a vested interest such as a family member. But on this occasion a pardon has been issued without either requirement being met.

In September 2009, then-prime minister Gordon Brown apologised to Dr Turing for prosecuting him as a homosexual after a petition calling for such a move.

An e-petiton – titled “Grant a pardon to Alan Turing” – received 37,404 signatures when it closed in November last year. The request was declined by Lord McNally on the grounds that Dr Turing was properly convicted of what at the time was a criminal offence.


S. Barry Cooper, a University of Leeds mathematician who has written about Turing’s work, added the comments below:

This is a historic event, coming just before the 60th anniversary of Alan Turing’s passing in Manchester on June 7th, 1954. The historic injustice can never be undone, but it is wonderful that the Government has officially restored Turing’s reputation, and removed the distraction from his amazing scientific and personal achievements.

There are still thousands of others whose lives were changed forever by the law ‘as it was at the time’. No doubt, having shown that we can be generous and do what is necessary regarding Turing, the situation of others will get more consideration.

All thanks must go to the host of wonderful people who have prepared the ground over the years – one hesitates to mention any names, because there were so many, including subscribers to this list.

But, … many thanks to Andrew Hodges for his truly marvellous biography of Turing – there have been others, with their own special qualities (such as being shorter!), but Andrew’s is one of the all-time great biographies, and has done much to help us understand both man and his thinking.

Both UK Government petitions raised the issue of the conviction. The first, initiated by John Graham-Cummings, leading to the Gordon Brown ‘apology’, was a break-through in our thinking, and brought over 30,000 people into the campaign.

The William Jones petition mentioned by Chris Grayling showed you could do it twice! and get even more signatures, building on John’s initiative and the excitement and world-wide reach of the 2012 centenary celebrations.

And then Lord Sharkey, with his private members bill, and John Leech MP carrying the bill forward to the Commons – and a whole spectrum of MPs from different parties, and other famous figures lending their support.

And finally, Chris Grayling cutting through the formalities with such decisive effect, and with such nice timing.

On the broader front there was a coming together of many different communities. The gay community, mathematicians, computer scientists and scientists from many areas, artists, musicians, creative thinkers and artists of all kinds, many for very personal reasons, some on the autistic spectrum empowered by the iconic example of Turing’s history.

And the international dimension has been fantastic, moving, exciting, generous, and totally engrossing in its variety and interest. And our friends in the media have been great too … the list is a long one.

See also: Enigma codebreaker Alan Turing receives royal pardon