08 January 2011

Didn't like it

From Jeannette Catsoulis' succinct 6 January 2011 NY Times review of Season of the Witch ("a 14th-century road movie with 21st-century cuss words") -
Tired of hacking infidels and pleasuring wenches, two deserters from the Crusades (...) agree to transport an accused witch (...) to a remote abbey to stand trial.

Accompanied by an uptight monk, a ringleted altar boy and a swindler (Stephen Graham, recently seen having much more fun as Al Capone on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire), our heroes traverse a wolf-infested forest, plague-stricken villages and a plot with more holes than a macramé plant holder. Around them, characters converse in period-appropriate dialogue ("We're gonna need more holy water"), while the cinematographer, Amir Mokri, conceals the magnificent Austrian Alps beneath a palette of sludge and fudge. The entire film seems to be happening on the other side of a dirty window — good news for the dreadful computer-generated effects, if not for our eyes.

07 January 2011

Bad Bernard

Bernard Herrmann on a bad day -
I always find difficult people [eg Orson Welles] easy. I only find glad-Harrys difficult and vacuous. Nice guys are difficult. It's because they're a bunch of empty-heads, that's why they're nice guys! They pretend to be nice guys, but it's a disguise. They're not nice. They're vicious, vindictive people who try to make sure that anything good hasn't got a chance!
From a 1971 Los Angeles Free Press interview quoted in A Heart At Fire's Center: The Life and Music of Bernard Herrmann (Berkeley: University of California Press 1991) by Stephen Smith.

06 January 2011

Paranoia and Fake News

Having finished reading Matthew Gray's Conspiracy Theories In The Arab World: Sources and Politics (London: Routledge 2010) last night I was delighted by two news items.

The first comes from the BBC, which reports that Saudi Arabia - sand, superstition, stoning of the unrighteous - has 'detained' a griffon vulture (Gyps Fulvus) on accusations of being a spy for Israel. The bird, as birds do, disregarded national borders (perhaps confused by Saudi non-recognition of Israel as a state) and visited the magic kingdom. That was apparently a very bad move, as it had been tagged with a GPS transmitter bearing the name of Tel Aviv University. Tagging owls, penguins, eagles and other avifauna (or creatures such as wombats, koalas and kangaroos) isn't unusual and does not indicate the involvement of Mossad, ASIS, the CIA or other denizens of the national security zoo.

Discovery of the vulture has, however, apparently prompted rumours that the unfortunate bird is part of a Zionist plot. Oh, those cunning Zionists, what will they think of next? Israeli wildlife officials are unsurprisingly reported as having dismissed the claims as ludicrous and expressed concern about the bird's fate. A bird specialist at Israel's Park & Nature Authority reportedly said "I hope they release the poor thing", explaining that the GPS device "does nothing more than receive and store basic data about the bird's whereabouts, and about his altitude and speed" - useful in building knowledge of the endangered species' behaviour.

I invite the vulture - in 007 mode or otherwise - to visit Building 6 and feast on the plentiful UC rabbits.

Closer to home, the British Medical Journal has reported that a 1998 study in The Lancet purportedly linking the MMR vaccine to autism was fraudulent. Paranoia about GPS-equipped vultures presumably results in the regrettable and wholly-unnecessary death of the bird. Perceptions that treatment for childhood measles, mumps and rubella cause autism are arguably more serious, because they dissuade parents from taking steps that protect children and - more broadly - feed the same denial of rationality evident in nonsense about homeopathy, witchcraft, parapsychology and other quackery.

An examination of data underlying the controversial article by MMR foe Andrew Wakefield and 12 co-authors (10 of whom have renounced the work) involved comparing reported diagnoses with hospital records. In that analysis by Brian Deer the BMJ reports that despite claim in the Wakefield article that the 12 children were normal until they had the MMR shot, five had previously documented developmental problems. Deer comments that all the cases were misrepresented.

BMJ editor Fiona Godlee characterised Wakefield's study as "an elaborate fraud", suggesting that his work in other journals should be examined to see if it should be retracted. Wakefield's right to practice medicine in Britain has been revoked.

The BMJ indicates that Wakefield grossed £435,643 plus expenses as part of work for a class action against the MMR vaccine manufacturers. The UK General Medical Council last May struck off Wakefield and John Walker-Smith from the medical register, with Wakefield being characterised as "dishonest", "unethical", and "callous". Walker-Smith, as senior clinician in the project, was found to have presided over "high risk" research without clinical indication or ethical approval. The BMJ notes that "developmentally challenged children of often vulnerable parents were discovered to have been treated like the doctors' guinea pigs".

The BMJ editorial comments that -
Authored by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others, the paper’s scientific limitations were clear when it appeared in 1998. As the ensuing vaccine scare took off, critics quickly pointed out that the paper was a small case series with no controls, linked three common conditions, and relied on parental recall and beliefs. Over the following decade, epidemiological studies consistently found no evidence of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism. By the time the paper was finally retracted 12 years later, after forensic dissection at the General Medical Council's (GMC) longest ever fitness to practise hearing, few people could deny that it was fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically. But it has taken the diligent scepticism of one man [ie Deer], standing outside medicine and science, to show that the paper was in fact an elaborate fraud. ...

Drawing on interviews, documents, and data made public at the GMC hearings, Deer shows how Wakefield altered numerous facts about the patients’ medical histories in order to support his claim to have identified a new syndrome; how his institution, the Royal Free Hospital and Medical School in London, supported him as he sought to exploit the ensuing MMR scare for financial gain; and how key players failed to investigate thoroughly in the public interest when Deer first raised his concerns. ...

Deer unearthed clear evidence of falsification. He found that not one of the 12 cases reported in the 1998 Lancet paper was free of misrepresentation or undisclosed alteration, and that in no single case could the medical records be fully reconciled with the descriptions, diagnoses, or histories published in the journal.

Who perpetrated this fraud? There is no doubt that it was Wakefield. Is it possible that he was wrong, but not dishonest: that he was so incompetent that he was unable to fairly describe the project, or to report even one of the 12 children’s cases accurately? No. A great deal of thought and effort must have gone into drafting the paper to achieve the results he wanted: the discrepancies all led in one direction; misreporting was gross. Moreover, although the scale of the GMC’s 217 day hearing precluded additional charges focused directly on the fraud, the panel found him guilty of dishonesty concerning the study’s admissions criteria, its funding by the Legal Aid Board, and his statements about it afterwards.

Furthermore, Wakefield has been given ample opportunity either to replicate the paper's findings, or to say he was mistaken. He has declined to do either. He refused to join 10 of his coauthors in retracting the paper’s interpretation in 2004, and has repeatedly denied doing anything wrong at all. Instead, although now disgraced and stripped of his clinical and academic credentials, he continues to push his views.

Meanwhile the damage to public health continues, fuelled by unbalanced media reporting and an ineffective response from government, researchers, journals, and the medical profession. ... Hundreds of thousands of children in the UK are currently unprotected as a result of the scare, and the battle to restore parents' trust in the vaccine is ongoing. .... But perhaps as important as the scare's effect on infectious disease is the energy, emotion, and money that have been diverted away from efforts to understand the real causes of autism and how to help children and families who live with it.
Wakefield responded by characterising Deer as a "hit man" for the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industries in what he claimed is "a ruthless pragmatic attempt to crush any investigation into valid vaccine safety concerns". That is consistent with promotion of his autobiography Callous Disregard: Autism and Vaccines: The Truth Behind a Tragedy (Skyhorse Publishing 2010) using the tagline -
Conspiracy - or ruthless pragmatism? How the vaccine apparatchiks and medical self-interest groups deal with dissent
Enthusiasts for notions of an "autism epidemic" (attributed to vaccines, mercury, television or otherwise) or conspiracies by Big Pharma will presumably not enjoy works such as Paul Offit's Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure (New York: Columbia University Press 2008).

02 January 2011

Body Parts

The 2010 Australia New Zealand Organ Donor Registry (ANZOD) report indicates that over 40% of the families of registered organ donors do not allow the organs of their loved ones to be donated once they die. That disregard of the donor's wishes - reflecting that the donor is no longer around to enforce his or her wishes - is based on the the requirement that the family of a registered organ donor must give the final consent "before the organs or tissue of a loved one" (or merely the person over whose body rights are being asserted) can be removed. [Reminder to my family: everything's donated!]

The report covers ANZOD activity for 2009. It indicates that during the year there were a mere 247 donors in Australia.
That is equivalent to 11.3 donors per million population [dpmp]. Donors provided 452 kidneys (including four double adult and two en bloc) to 446 recipients), 171 livers (to 185 recipients), 61 hearts (including two heart/lungs), 217 lungs (101 double, two heart/lungs and eleven single lungs) and 37 pancreas and nine pancreas islets. Additionally there were 188 corneas, 45 sets of heart valves and 18 bone donations from these donors.
The figures include six donors who went to the operating theatre but whose organs or tissues were not retrieved: four donors had disease of organs, one donor a suspected malignancy and one a definite malignancy.

The report notes that in the same period the waiting list for donations included 1310 people wanting a kidney, 148 a liver, 41 a heart, 96 a lung and 39 a pancreas.

How did the donations come about, and where from? The major cause of death in 48% of donors was cerebrovascular accident, with road trauma causing 13% of all donor deaths .In 2009 there were 42 donations after cardiac death. Seventeen of those donations occurred in Victoria, 15 in New South Wales, five in Queensland, three in South Australia and two in the Australian Capital Territory.

The highest donor rate was in South Australia, followed by the ACT, Victoria, Queensland, NSW, Tasmania, the NT and Western Australia. The mean age of donors was 45.9 years, median 48.3 years with a range of 0.5 - 80.6 years.

Authority for organ donation was sought in 62% of cases by the Intensive Care Clinician or Registrar, volunteered by the family in 90 (36%) and by the Donor Coordinator (1%) and nursing staff (1%). Coronial inquiries were required in 43% of all donors. The consent rate for specific organs were 100% of kidneys, 100% livers, 95% hearts, 98% lungs and 99.5% pancreas.

Donation of more than one organ occurred in 80% of donors, with the average number of organs transplanted per donor being 3.4.

From donors where organs had been retrieved, 99% of kidneys, 98% of livers, 86% of hearts, 100% of lungs and 42% of pancreas (37 pancreas and nine pancreas islets) were actually transplanted.

60% of the donors had a "known occupation", comprising "students, pre-school, white and blue collar, management, professional, small business owner, primary industry and tradesperson". An additional 13% were retired, 5% were engaged in home duties, 4% were unemployed, 4% had a disability and 14% were unknown.