Friday, April 4, 2014

Bigot steps down

I heard that Mozilla's new CEO (Brendan Eich) was a right-wing anti-gay Republican fundamentalist Christian bigot and because he hates equality and human rights, he must be fired. Yesterday, he was.

I read Mozilla Executive Chairwoman (why not 'chairperson'?) Mitchell Baker's announcement about Eich stepping down. I was puzzled and confused - based on this announcement, it sounds like somebody has been revealed as pedophile or something really horrible. The announcement was full of what I perceived as empty rhetoric about core values, understanding the community and so on. What was going on? Why did the CEO resign? What is the anger she talks about? Had they really unearthed something much more sinister than the claimed donation to a campaign?

Turns out, they hadn't.
Netscape Navigator 2.0 - the first browser that contained Eich's JavaScript interpreter

What happened

Two weeks ago, Mozilla Corporation hired their CTO Brendan Eich as their new CEO. Mozilla Corporation is the corporate arm of Mozilla Organization which also operates Mozilla Foundation, so it is not a typical Silicon Valley company. Eich was one of the founders of Mozilla Organization, inventor of JavaScript and was one of 25 people Mozilla vetted for the job.

In 2008, California ballot referendum commonly called Prop 8 was held. seeking to define marriage as an institution of a man and a woman, blocking same-sex unions in the state. Of the over 17 million voters, 52 % were in favor and the proposition was passed, only to be overturned by a federal court soon thereafter. The full list of over 110,000 individual donors to the opponents and proponents of Prop 8 is public information. Of these, 35,000 people donated in favor of Prop 8, and one of them was Brendan Eich.

Even though the referendum was six years ago and Eich's donation was public information, the real storm started only recently, in addition to the usual Twitter storm, OkCupid asked its users to boycott Mozilla Firefox. Apparently that rage - justified or not - was enough for Mozilla and Eich to arrive to certain conclusions.

Context

This happened in United States, where CEO (or anyone else, it seems) can be fired for any reason, any time. Mozilla and Eich certainly thought it is best for Mozilla if he resigns, and that part is very much business as usual in USA. However, there are many details about this storm that are very problematic.

Apparently Eich's conduct was spotless, according to the Mozilla chairwoman. Eich explicitely vowed to uphold Mozilla's values of inclusiveness and not let his personal opinions affect his job. He has not and did not elaborate on his political, religious or other stances. This was specifically for the fact that we know he was for Prop 8.

He donated one thousand dollars to the campaign. Other donors include hundreds of employees from several universities and big technology companies such as Boeing and Microsoft. The proposition was passed, and it was backed by national organizations and top politicians such as John McCain, who was also a presidential candidate that year. In my opinion, his conduct was not very exceptional in United States, though I am very surprised that if he really was in favor of Prop 8, why he didn't donate more, 50,000 dollars for example.

I didn't like Prop 8 and I like the American approach to same-sex marriage: it is a constitutional issue about equality. European countries are taking a much more complicated road, and it also means there are lots of different opinions and changes are opposed for many procedural reasons as well.

Among the millions of voters, we know how these 110,000 people (probably) voted, and we can use this against them, and kick them out of their jobs because they were on the wrong side in this part of political process, right? Or, perhaps, Eich was in such a special position that his political views six years ago were a good enough justification to end his brief CEO tenure, and this is implied but not explicitely said in the announcement.

Failures

Mozilla should have realized that it is risky to to give a promotion from CTO to CEO to a guy who is in a public list of donations to a controversial campaign (even if it was supported by a majority of Californian voters). They also shouldn't (and didn't) hire other people who might have been pereceived as somehow improper or inadequate, even if they were otherwise perfect for the job, because that's how business is in America. I fear this might be why there have been so few female CEOs in tech companies. Or female presidents. A risky choice.

Eich seems to have given categorical responses. He is the CEO and vows to uphold Mozilla's values (he was one of the founders, after all), and his personal opinions are not relevant. I think they shouldn't be, especially as the only thing we know about them is a single donation. However, this need not matter in a storm. For the rest of the world, he's not CEO but the King of Mozilla whose personal (real or assumed) traits represent success and failure in what he represents. LZ Granderson wrote about this for CNN.

However, the biggest failure of all, in my opinion, was the announcement. If this was indeed such a big issue, this public apology whould have been much more explicit. What is she apologizing for? How was Eich's conduct wrong? They also mention freedom of speech. How is that related? Eich didn't even say anything, just wrote one check to a campaign. She repeats how Mozilla respects everybody's religious, political and other views, but they just fired their CEO over one political donation. Why does she not say what is allowed, what should have happened, what went wrong? Why does she call this a freedom of speech issue? She says "you" are angry. Well, not everybody are. The free software community is global and apparently not everyone agreed with the rage. She says she understands it, but I don't, because I don't think she tells us what it is.

She says Eich had to go because Mozilla is committed to the certain values - that Eich vowed to uphold. If he did, as nobody has said he didn't, why did he have to go?

There are probably answers, and Eich was, in the end, probably the wrong choice, and much (but not all) of the rage was unfair and unwarranted. But why are there questions? I care a lot about equality and good conduct of companies, and to defend those, Mozilla should have made a strong and clear statement about the facts. Now they are only catering to similar-minded folks who got what they wanted, perhaps hoping that big corporation PR maneuvers let them evade tough questions.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Why and how to lose weight - and why not

Obesity is a real problem in most of the Western world. At the same time, "healthy", "nutritional" and "weight-loss" products are an enormous business and magazines are full of stories about how and why to lose weight. I try to ignore them, but once I tried to lose weight, too. I don't claim my experience is generalizable, but then again, why would other people's stories be?

Reality of "fatties"

Just today, it emerged that some guy had written an "inspirational" post about a "Fatty" he saw in the park running. He thought it was rockin' that this "Fatty" ran and tried to lose some fat, even if it was really difficult, and how awesome it was that "Fatty" was "paying off the debt of another midnight snack, another dessert, another beer". The runner had a very different story to tell. This is yet another example of generalization related to weight loss and exercise and yet another story of arrogance and unfounded assumptions. Mr. Posnanski explained well his motivations well, but whatever his motivations for running were, why make stupid guesses?

You might think that personal health is such an important issue that magazines would double check all claims they publish. However, much of what is reported about weight loss is actually just myths, and even if it wasn't, personal motivations, results and methods vary a lot and too often this is forgotten.

My experience

I have almost always been above average in size. I remember two times when I lost weight, though neither time it was my intention. In the spring of 1998, I was a poor student and basically ate too modestly. I weighed 72 kg in May - I had been over 10 kg heavier one year before. In January, 2003, I lost lots of weight. I was very busy with organizing an event and I have only vague memories of the whole month - except that I was also really short of money and didn't get much sleep. I recall losing 15 kg (from 114 to 99 kg) but I think I should blame the scale for that - it sounds implausible that I would have really lost 15 kg in one month. Later I gained weight and achieved 125 kg by the spring of 2008.

In online discussions and elsewhere, people claimed the following:
  • It is physically impossible not to enjoy exercise because of endorphins associated with it.
  • Losing weight is really hard.
  • Wii Fit is a toy and can't help you lose weight.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, you will notice it immediately.
  • If you lose weight, you will sleep better.
  • If you lose weight, you will feel much better and happier and gain self-confidence.
  • If you lose weight, everybody will notice it.
  • If you lose weight, everything you do will feel different, lighter, better.
  • If you lose weight even a bit, your general health will improve significantly.
  • Obesity means very bad blood levels.
  • Eating more healthily is really good because vegetarian food is so much better.
  • Eating less means that you feel better because you don't feel full all the time.
  • If you stop exercising, you will gain all the weight back (and then some more).
Sure, it makes sense to lose weight because there are also real health benefits. Still, the real reason why I finally tried to lose weight was none of these - it was mostly because I didn't have any reason not to, and didn't feel any pressure. In June 2008, I bought the Wii Fit game for Nintendo Wii and set a random goal of -15 kg in three months.

The first goal achieved
By September, I had gone from 124 to 109 kg. I also ate less and more healthily, and at the office cafeteria I mostly had salad lunches. Wii Fit was a nice game and I played it almost every evening for one hour. I didn't consider it as exercise - it was a game, after all. I got scores and improved on them, and noticed that I was actually pretty good at some of the moves. Apparently I had quite a good coordination skill and balance, even if I wasn't that fit. I decided to set another goal, to lose another 15 kg by January.

By January, I had lost another 15 kg and was now 94 kg - about 25 % less than half a year before. The weight had gone down completely consistently at around 1 kg per week and even Christmas didn't make make a dent to the downward graph. Then I stopped.

Reflection

Per my experience, how many of the claims about weight loss were correct? Zero.

I didn't and still don't enjoy the physical feeling of exercise, regardless of the type. The physical part always feels bad, even when (very rarely) the experience otherwise would be satisfying. I only like "exercise" when it is primarily about something else, like playing a video game or going to places (cycling). Maybe it isn't fun, and never will be, but it can be tolerable.

During those six months, I had to tighten my belt by seven notches (and also make two new notches), so my waist really got smaller. This meant that I had to buy new clothes, and new clothes cost money. Aside from that, I didn't really notice anything different, and I don't think many other people noticed either. I wasn't any happier, didn't sleep better, didn't enjoy food any more. Salads were bland (though not that bad). My health didn't improve at all - I was already very healthy. Even my blood levels didn't improve. I can't say I expected any of those improvements, but any of them would have been nice. 

Did something go wrong? Weren't those claims supposed to motivate and inspire me to lose weight? Perhaps I just didn't care about those claims and that is precisely why finally ended up trying to lose weight - and managed to do it. No amount of fat-shaming would have made me to even try. Still, it seems that dubious claims about obesity and weight loss are everywhere, and are touted by both the media and individuals. These claims (whether true or not - but often not) aren't making the situation better for those who might benefit from weight loss. Don't lose weight because of dubious claims but regardless of them (if you feel like it).

I'm sure that in my case there were some benefits as well, but not in the form of happier life or daily compliments on my "new" slimmer look. Regarding the weight coming back: even though I didn't play Wii Fit or eat that healthily after January, 2009, the fat didn't return. In August, 2010, just before I moved to USA, I weighed about 99 kg, which is 5 kg more than 1.5 years earlier.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Introducing mating rituals to bookstores

Bars and night clubs are known for their role in human mating rituals. In addition to just going out with friends and maybe dancing and drinking, people do and are even expected to look for company, either long-term or just one-night stands. While many young adults enjoy this, there are many who do not, and they may even prefer reading books, and going to bookstores instead of bars. Nice, huh?
One proposal to extend mating rituals to bookstores
This is, of course, a fine opportunity for me to rant about extending mating rituals to improper places.

The image above is from Facebook page Word Porn. I doubt it is the original author of this idea, but it doesn't mention any source. It has been shared all over the social media for a while, and this specific image has about 130,000 likes and 80,000 shares, two days of its original posting on this page.

The good: There's nothing wrong in going to bookstores instead of bars, and a bookstore isn't a bad place to meet people, either. It would be nice if people would understand this, and perhaps book fans (geeks? nerds? outcasts?!) should find it easier to find new people, even mates.

Mates... like in a mating ritual? That's right. The idea proposes extending the heteronormative mating rituals to bookstores. It specifically refers to certain expectations placed upon people in bars. I have been told by several people (both women and men) and witnessed it myself, that men offering to buy drinks for women is often perceived as a mating ritual, and it is a way for a man to show he is interested, has money and maybe has knowledge of different alcoholic drinks. It is also a good way to get the woman intoxicated - and as part of this ritual (or just a social ritual?), many men expect women to have sex with them after having received so many free drinks.

It doesn't always play like this, but there are norms and expectations, just like in this idea. At the same time, bars are social spaces for having fun with friends (and others), dancing, drinking and so on. Bookstores are retail stores selling books (though they can still be very nice places, and maybe you can read there as well!).

In any retail store (books, groceries, hardware), it would be very awkward if there was an expectation for me to buy something for strangers, or for others to buy something for me. I wasn't really aware that there was this kind of expectation at bars, either, but apparently some people think there is.

There's also the issue of books being very expensive in contrast to alcoholic drinks...

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lennon and other dreamers of 'Imagine'

John Lennon's 1971 hit single 'Imagine' has inspired people for decades. It is a song about a dream that humankind should live at peace, without divisive barriers. Lennon lists three major barriers: religion, nationalism and possessions. In the lyrics, he envisions 'brotherhood of man' with 'nothing to kill or die for'.

'Imagine' is a song and in general, lyrics to songs should not be taken too seriously. It's poetry, and as a dreamer, Lennon wanted to convey his feelings that there should be peace instead of war and divisiveness. Still, he said he advocated socialism and atheism (albeit not in forms that, for example, Soviet Union represented), and there have been varying interpretations of what he actually meant or how literally the lyrics should be taken, or whether they are just a dream with no real connections or something we should actually strive for.

Stanley's comic

In 2013, artist Pablo Stanley produced a comic version of the song, which can also be purchased as a poster, and he included six examples of other 'dreamers'. On his website, he also has a small disclaimer about how he is aware of some unamicable qualities of Lennon and how the examples do not actually fit Lennon's ideal.

Excerpt from Stanley's comic
Albert Einstein - despite being a pacifist - advocated research of nuclear weapons and his letter to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt was a key influence that led to the Manhattan Project. His groundbreaking work in physics made the nuclear bomb possible, and the next 50 years of Cold War were marked with constant fear of global annihilation by (accidental) nuclear war.

Bob Marley was a legendary guitarist who was known for his Rastafarian faith. He spoke of how important religion is in his life and how he sees Haile Selassie, Emperor of Ethiopia, as messiah. His music is known for its religious themes.

Harvey Milk, before his career as a city administrator and an activist, was a professional soldier and an officer in the United States Navy during the Korean War. There have even been calls to name a U.S. warship as USS Harvey Milk in his honor.

Martin Luther King was a Baptist priest and a religious scholar (he held a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University). In his own words, he based his activism on teachings of Jesus Christ.

Anna Politkovskaya was a journalist and human rights activist who - like Milk, King and Gandhi in this list - was murdered. She wasn't known for opposing possessions or nationalism per se (but was a known critic or Russian political leadership), and was apparently Orthodox Christian, like a major part of Russians are.

Mahatma Gandhi was the father of the independent India and a legendary nationalist who advocated non-violent resistance against colonial oppressors. Still, he worked as an army recruiter during WWI. He was also known for his religious views - he was Hindu and was inspired by Jain, Christian and Muslim ideals.

Analysis

I think Stanley's comic was pretty good and he chose very distinguished individuals as his 'dreamers'. But would they be Lennon's co-dreamers? I think not. Much of these people's work and ideals go against Lennon's ideals. However, they all worked for a better world and - in Lennon's words just as Gandhi's - a 'brotherhood of man'.

In Stanley's comic, religious officials stay as religious officials, after settling their differences. There's a Muslim girl playing football. Perhaps Stanley doesn't take Lennon's song too literally - perhaps he goes against Lennon's ideals, as he was pretty radical.

Still, Lennon quite clearly says that in his dream world, there's nothing to kill or die for. To me, this sounds like an utopia where there are no important things to struggle for. Things are given for granted and people are not even willing to defend or challenge them.

You could take 'religion' as everything related to belief in supernatural, omnipotent and otherworldly entities and deities, and claim that it is all bad. Quite often this is how it is understood. However, religion itself could be seen, even by believers, as a man-made institution that often controls, subjugates and abuses its members and puts them against other people, and there exist fine examples of this type of religions. Is this what Lennon meant? Interestingly, Greg Graffin of the punk rock band Bad Religion has spoken about how their band's message is not anti-theist per se, but against institutions that divide and take away freedom, regardless of whether they are religious or not. In this sense, the 'anti-religious' sentiment of Imagine makes sense.

For Lennon, it seems countries are nationalist, artificial, political entities that justify violence. It would be interesting to see Lennon and Gandhi debate this. A national identity is important to people. Gaining independence is often a way out of oppression and violence, and it is a result of nationalism - the Finnish independence in 1917 is one example, the Indian independence in 1948 another. Can countries exist if there is 'brotherhood of man'?

Lennon composed this song using his super duper expensive Steinway & Sons piano, in his lavish house. Maybe he dreamed that these possessions would not matter. What would people play with, compose with, work with, build with, without possessions? Should there also be no ambition?

Interestingly, much of this dream of his resembles the Christian concept of Heaven.

Real dreamers

Stanley's examples of dreamers, as stated above, were very good. These three Americans, one Jamaican, one Russian and one Indian made the world a better place and advanced 'brotherhood of man', but I think not in the ways Lennon envisioned in his song, and direct analogies are naïve. Lennon describes a dream world but uses too specific examples of its features, and it throws me out of it, and distances me from it. There are and will be possessions, countries and religions, and I am not dreaming of a world without them, and neither did those six fine individuals.

Of these, Mahatma Gandhi is probably the closest of Lennon's ideal. He understood religious and ethnic groups, discussed with people and brought understanding and was prepared to take extreme non-violent actions - and died for his country. He built a nation.

There are numerous other individuals that would be in a list of real dreamers, to continue Stanley's list. Billionaires, soldiers, politicians, priests, and others who have made a contribution to advance peace and understanding. Mother Theresa, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Andrei Sakharov, Tenzin Gyatso (14th Dalai Lama), Malala Yousafzai, maybe even Bill Gates (even though I don't like Microsoft, Gates himself deserves praise for many things). I don't recognize them from Lennon's 'Imagine'.

Of course, these 'dreamers' are not a matter of imagination - they have lived, worked, and some still work in an imperfect world, as imperfect people, but not towards a utopia because the brotherhood of man cannot be one.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Americans for prison rape

A Canadian teenager was arrested in United States due to alleged (but disputed) driving under influence and speeding. The teenager spent one night in county jail in Florida. Meanwhile, social media was ripe with comments and jokes about how this teenager ought to be raped while detained - by a black man.

This teenager was, of course, the 19-year-old singer and pop star Justin Bieber.

I blurred the face of the inmate - he is not accused of raping Justin Bieber
On Thursday evening (Jan 23, 2014), the Wisconsin radio station 95.7 The Rock posted this image on their Facebook and Twitter profiles. It shows Bieber's official mugshot combined with an unknown inmate's picture, with caption humorously suggesting that Bieber is going to get raped by this fierce-looking black inmate.

The picture has been "liked" by roughly 400,000 people and shared close to 150,000 times on Facebook. In the comments section thousands of individuals expressed happiness about how gangs of black men will now rape the pop star and how he deserves it. Many of the commenters also uploaded manipulated images featuring black men raping Justin Bieber.

Assorted comments

There are about 17,000 comments to this image. Here's a very small selection of them.

  • Matteo Paola: "I still wish that  upon him. He is one of the worst human beings ever. And he gets away with it all because of his stupid idiotic fanbase."
  • Jeremy Sxe Jagoda: "who cares its still funny"
  • Fernando Chali posted an image showing Justin Bieber pregnant after said prison rape.
  • Rhys Chalmers posted a picture suggesting that the rapist will not use lubricant, thus causing more pain.
  • Jordan McElhinney, among others, posted pictures suggesting that big black men tell Bieber to drop the soap before raping him.
  • Eru Electroboy: "respect this comment, hes gona get raped in jail"

Several people also suggested that Bieber deserves to get sexually abused because a girl committed suicide after Bieber had taunted her publicly. This story is, of course, a hoax.

Several commenters also said that others should not call for raping and mutilating other people just because they don't like them. Brian Klipp answered  "Found the butthurt Biebs fan" - and many others said "Welcome to the Internet", suggesting that on the Internet it is customary and permissible to say anything. Sorry guys, that is 4chan, not the whole Internet.

You are on Facebook, showing your real names and photos of you smiling with your kids, with your professors and friends, saying how happy you are that another person gets raped in prison. By a black man.

Rape shame

Of course, we know that rape is mostly not about sexual intercourse - it is about shame, humiliation, degradation. That is why it was so common during the French revolution in 1792 and Soviet occupation of Berlin in 1945, for example. Even though Bieber is a popular recording artists, his music and image irritate many so much that they want him to suffer the ultimate humiliation. Which, to many, is being raped by a black man in prison.

Now, in many cultures, homosexual intercourse is a shame by itself. A true man will only show his worth by having sex with women, and others are "faggots". Even worse is being raped, because then a man is lowered into a "bitch". This is precisely the situation where so many individuals want Justin Bieber to be.

Feminist activists often mention "rape culture" - idea that quiet acceptance of sexual abuse, humiliation and harassment is integrated to the society so much that we don't even recognize when we support abuse of women. While I don't agree with the prevalence of this type of "culture", the idea still makes sense on some level. However, I do not often see people openly claiming that some certain woman (celebrity or not) should be raped, to "teach her a lesson" or to just to humiliate her. I didn't see it even when Paris Hilton or Britney Spears were jailed, even though they were also disliked by many. Yet now I can see thousands of people publicly fantasizing about sexually abusing Justin Bieber. Is this rape culture? Or just light-hearted Internet humor?

Black man, the rapist

People openly fantasize about what kind of sexual violence they would like Justin Bieber to experience while detained. All of these fantasies have one thing in common: the rapist being a black man.

So, it's not just that people claim they want Justin Bieber to get raped, the idea is that the rapist is the worst of all - a big, mean, dumb black man, who is apparently the lowest of all lowly creatures. Somebody who has no value, and will probably be executed soon anyway. He probably doesn't even have a name, or if he does, it's "Bubba".

I don't exactly like calling all stupidity "racist" but this consistent use of black men as stereotypical prison rapists is getting a little racist.

It's humor, right? The idea that a rich pop star would be raped by another man is funny because it plays with taboos and shame. It is so funny that almost half a million people have "liked" this joke - probably more than any other picture I have ever seen on Facebook. It must be the funniest joke ever! If the rapist was a white guy, or a female guard, it wouldn't be that funny any more.

Sexual abuse in prisons

According to Just Detention International, estimated 200,000 inmates are sexually abused every year in United States alone while in detention. Only a very small minority of the cases is reported to authorities, and of them only a small number leads to disciplinary action.

From their website: "For its victims, prisoner rape is a nightmare that does not end. Most survivors are sexually abused again and again. Abusive staff and inmates target people they see as most vulnerable, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender detainees and those who survived sexual abuse prior to being detained."

Prisoners, those lowly rats. Criminals who deserve to be humiliated for their crimes and never forgiven?

Sometimes there is news about prisoners complaining about abusive guards, lack of protection and violations of their legally stipulated rights. In the social media you see commentary saying that they deserve whatever they get in prison because they are criminals and this is their punishment. In the case of people convicted of violent crimes, especially sexual and especially committed against children, there are even calls for lynching. I've seen people say guards should be encouraged to beat up, mutilate, rape and even kill these prisoners.

Oh, and suspects are the same thing. Some years ago there was a Finnish Facebook group distributing personal information of people who are or have been suspected or convicted of rape or violent crimes against children. This group was public and there were hundreds of ordinary-looking citizens there. The group had many photos of (alleged) rapists and scans of court documents. The comments in the photos were very much like what the Justin Bieber picture had - people fantasizing about what kind of sexual violence the alleged criminal should experience while detained. Some commenters said they would personally want to commit these acts of abuse, as a revenge and humiliation that the (alleged) criminal deserves, and invited others to join their manhunt to kill these people. These were ordinary mothers and fathers, posting their comments with their real names for the world to see.

Thanks, Justin

Thanks to Justin Bieber we have once again witnessed the rage of the Internets. Bieber is, of course, a celebrity and icon instead of a person to Internet commenters - just like a black man in prison uniform is a symbol of crime and sexual violence to these commenters. Combining these is almost innocent - and natural, and if you don't understand this, then you are a butthurt Bieber fan, like Brian Klipp said.

If these are normal and natural expressions of (justified?) rage, then perhaps calls for lynching and killing alleged rapists and other criminals are, too. You can always say that it was a joke - on the Internet - and you didn't really want to kill that guy, even though you said you wanted, and you offered your help, with your own name, to kill somebody, and even described how you would do it.

Just yesterday I saw a Finnish far-right political activist post an image of two female politicians of the Left Alliance on Facebook, with the comment "leftist lesbians should be shot". That was, of course, just a funny joke, suggesting that he does not approve of their political views, right? Just as innocent as saying that because you do not like the music he makes, Justin Bieber should be raped. By a black man.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Ronald McNair, astronaut

It was announced today that several old, previously unpublished photos of the space shuttle Challenger disaster had been found and put online. I have always been interested in spaceflight and astronomy and STS-51-L - among other fateful flights - remains in my mind as a great engineering failure and terrible loss of brave astronauts and scientists, and a reminder of how modern technology sometimes fails us. Inspired by the surfaced photos, I took a new look at the Wikipedia article about the disaster.

The Challenger accident happened when I was only 8 years old. I remember looking at the famous group photo of the crew and thinking that they looked very "American": of the seven crew members only three were white men - there were also two women, one Japanese-American and one African-American man. Also, one of the women was not a career astronaut but a school teacher. In this sense, the crew looked very much like the United States I knew. I also thought Judith Resnik's large hairdo was very typical for Americans in the 1980s!

The crew of STS-51-L in November, 1985
Ellison Onizuka (in the photo the first from the left in the second row) was the first Asian American in space (he had flown to space before), and apparently also the first Buddhist. Christa McAuliffe was also probably the first astronaut of Lebanese roots.

Ronald McNair was the second African American in space (he had flown before, too), if Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez of Cuba doesn't count. He would probably have been the third, if Robert Lawrence had not been killed in an aviation accident in 1967.

It turns out that my university (University of Illinois) has a minority student scholar program named after Ronald McNair. I did notice the familiar name when I visited the Turner Student Services Building the first time two years ago, but the people at the program office I talked to were not sure if it had been named after the astronaut or somebody else.

Dr. Ronald E. McNair, NASA astronaut
When I was a kid, I remember thinking that McNair looked very "American". In 1986, I had not yet met any non-white people but I recognized many African American politicians, athletes, actors and musicians. McNair's wide smile somehow reminded me of some people I knew, but I didn't research the crew's biographies much further. I did remember the smile, though.

Today, I read out the Wikipedia article about him and it looks like that he died younger than I am now - he was only 35 at the time of the Challenger disaster. He had received a PhD degree from MIT when he was 26, becoming a known expert in laser physics. By the time of his death, he already received three honorary doctorates. He was also the first astronaut of the Bahá'í faith, and quite possibly the first saxophonist in space. Jean-Michel Jarre's The Last Rendez-Vous (Ron's Piece) is dedicated to him - McNair was expected to record the solo for this track in space, and later perform it live at Jarre's concert in Houston in April, 1986.



In United States, there seems to be an obsession to name everything after famous people (military heroes, politicians, rich donors, astronauts). Often it feels unnecessary, sometimes even ridiculous, but sometimes it makes you think about and reflect on stories behind renowned, accomplished and exceptional individuals.

It's interesting to think that in 1986 I noticed McNair not because he seemed different but because in the diverse crew of STS-51-L, he did not seem different. The days of all-male, all-white and all-military crews of Gemini and Apollo programs were long gone - it was now time for all-American crews.

The shuttle flights resumed in 1989 and increasing international cooperation was notable in flight crews - astronauts from Canada, Germany, Russia, Japan and other countries flew on Shuttle flights before the program ended in 2011 - including the first (enrolled) member of an aboriginal tribe in space, John Herrington (of Chickasaw First Nation).

Sure, my observations of the STS-51-L crew in 1986 were somewhat naíve but I'm only happy that my belief (or hope) in space belonging to a more diverse group of travellers than just American and Soviet/Russian fighter pilots did become true.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why alternative treatments are not accepted by science

It is public knowledge that alternative treatments such as homeopathy and acupuncture (and many others) are not accepted by the scientific community as having effectiveness distinguishable from placebo. It is said that these treatments do not fulfill the criteria for medicine - which is often along the lines of double-blind clinical trials (or other trials of similar level of rigor).

This is easy to say - you just check what the dictionary says about science and check what kind of results previous research has yielded, and hope that the scientific method had worked and researchers and peer reviewers haven't been too dishonest.

But what kind of explanations and ideas do practitioners of alternative treatments have about this? After all, they think their treatments work - their customers' experiences usually support this - and many would like to have their discipline recognized better, even as part of the contemporary medicine, taught at universities.
Fourteen meridians in a Chinese acupuncture chart from the 1340s (source: Wikipedia)

Can the effectiveness be confirmed?

From books, interviews and generally on the Internet I have heard and read many opinions about the position of acupuncture and homeopathy in regards to what they call "school medicine". I'm sharing some of them here.

"Can be confirmed" / "Has been confirmed"

These are based on the idea, that the treatment "works" in the traditional sense and its effect can be confirmed and the treatment could probably be part of contemporary medicine.
  1. Effectiveness could be confirmed, but global conspiracy of Big Pharma corporations is controlling the industry and will not allow alternative practitioners to compete with their lucrative business. They are twisting and possibly sabotaging results of academic studies.
  2. Effectiveness could be confirmed, but due to the bad reputation  and "unscientific" background of the treatments, serious researchers will not attempt it, fearing that they lose their reputation.
  3. Effectiveness could be confirmed, but due to so many hoaxers and unreliable practitioners, it is next to impossible to produce reliable studies on the treatments.
  4. Effectiveness could be confirmed, but the process of doing so is very long and difficult, and it will take time before we can have conclusive results.
  5. Effectiveness has already been confirmed, but the scientific community (or Big Pharma) maintains the illusion that it has not.
  6. Effectiveness has already been confirmed: the placebo effect is the real effect, it has just been misunderstood.

"Cannot be confirmed"

Explanations in this category are based on the idea that for some reason, alternative treatments are fundamentally incompatible with what is usually called contemporary medicine or empirical science.
  1. Cannot be confirmed, because they are based on unknown interactions and laws of nature.
  2. Cannot be confirmed, because they are not based on laws of nature but a spiritual and/or unphysical connection of some kind, and by definition that is outside the reach of science.
  3. Cannot be confirmed, because they treat causes of conditions, not symptoms, and are thus outside the scope of contemporary medicine (which only deals with symptoms).
  4. Cannot be confirmed, because they are tailored for each person, and treatments of different people cannot be compared in a study.
  5. Cannot be confirmed, because they do not have a common methodology which could be evaluated.
  6. Cannot be confirmed, because they are only effective in a delicate, deep practitioner-patient relationship, which makes usual double blind and randomized controlled trials impossible.
  7. Cannot be confirmed, because medicine has distanced itself from natural treatment and spirituality so much that it is simply unable to detect the effectiveness.

"Confirmation is irrelevant"

There are some who abandon the whole idea of a treatment having an effect in the traditional sense.
  1. It is irrelevant whether it can be confirmed, because customers' (patients') own assessment of their own condition is the only possible criteria of effectiveness.
Regardless of the actual effectiveness of acupuncture, homeopathy and others, I think it would be constructive to think about these explanations instead. Some of them are actually not that implausible.

It is my understanding that patients of alternative treatments practitioners are generally (very) happy with their care. They have appointments with a private practitioner who has plenty of time to discuss with the customer, ask about background of the condition, and propose different options, unlike your usual doctor at the health center who will spend the 20 minutes by picking a diagnosis from the ICD-10 manual (or ICD-9 if you are American, I'm sorry) and write a prescription of antibiotics. Thus, general happiness about the experience should not be seen as any kind of evidence about effectiveness of the treatment, even if the harsh public health experience might act as a "nocebo" - making the drug's effect lesser.

Alternative or not?

Assuming that some alternative treatments actually work - and it is apparent that most do not - it would be incredibly useful to find out which ones have potential to be studied more and possibly be introduced to the realm of contemporary medicine. However, it has been noted that there are many ways of doing acupuncture, some of them not using needles at all, so studying one practitioner might not give any insight into how others do it. Homeopathy, on the other hand, is manifested by diluted "drugs" that have consistently been shown to contain no active ingredients (which is not in contrary to the principles of homeopathy), and would be easier to study, however in homeopathy as well it has been stressed that the treatment cannot be distanced from the delicate practitioner-patient dynamic.

Meanwhile, some ordinary health products have been misleadingly labelled as homeopathic to make them more attractive to consumers - these may be a case of products that can be shown to be effective, but as they are not true homeopathic products, they do not add to the knowledge of alternative treatments.

Homeopathy has been studied at various universities (including my alma mater, University of Michigan, which even had a dedicated department for it). Many trained physicians still allege that homeopathy is about medicine in traditional sense, and can be empirically studied and its effectiveness confirmed, thus making it a "non-alternative treatment". At the same time, explanations for how homeopathy might function have been proposed (memory of water), but even if homeopathy was effective (which I doubt), its underlying mechanism would still be unknown. Some also claim that the effectiveness of homeopathy has already been confirmed many times over, but for some reason the credible results are not taken seriously.

Supporters of alternative treatments do not always seem to grasp the breadth of ideas - among the practitioners and supporters - about what the real problem is. For some, whether acupuncture of homeopathy works is just a matter of empirical science. For others, it is a spiritual matter. Thus, homeopathy, acupuncture and others thus present themselves as ambiguous, fuzzy ooze around certain misguided concepts, which explains much of the trouble they have with contemporary medicine.