Loops, goons & wackaloons: A meaningless little popularity contest on Twitter gets ugly
Sunday January 31st 2010, 4:04 pm

If you use Twitter, you’ll hardly have been able to escape notice of the Shorty Awards over the last month. Billed as ‘the Oscars of Twitter,’ the Shortys invited Twitter users to vote for their favourite short-form commenters in a number of categories.

To prevent gaming the vote, the Shorty rules specified that votes had to come from Twitter accounts established before the 1 January 2010 beginning of the competition, disqualified votes from accounts used primarily for voting and those configured for ‘protected tweets’ where tweets were not visible on the users’ pages and also disqualified those where no reason was given for nominating a Twitterer. The voting was completely open; anyone can audit the votes- and even though the competition is now closed, votes can still be audited by the public. However, the totals displayed in categories which have gone through a final audit have been adjusted to exclude invalid votes

The competition in the Health category was astonishingly fierce. Twitter has attracted an unusual number of ‘alternative/natural medicine’ proponents who use the system to spam up evidence-free, unproven treatments and half-baked hypotheses on healthcare. About a week before the end of the competition, the Health category was being led by popular woowoo vendors Mike Adams of NaturalNews.com and Chicago-based ‘osteopathic physician’ Joseph Mercola of Mercola.com. Both of these characters promote or make a living selling myriad unproven ‘natural’ remedies, discredited cures like homeopathy as well as spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt about vaccination, the purported carcinogenic horrors of mobile phone use and mind-numbingly regularly blame imaginary ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracies and other shadowy powers for suppression of their kitchen-cupboard cures for all that ails. This lead did not go unnoticed by skeptics and proponents of evidence-based medicine and proper science.

Twittering skeptics thus nominated Sydney-based PhD microbiologist, heart disease researcher and commenter on the Australian Skeptics podcast, the Skeptic Zone, Dr. Rachael Dunlop, known on Twitter as @DrRachie, in the Shorty Awards’ Health category– and it was game on.

Despite the woo promoters’ repeated dismissals of the Shortys as ‘meaningless’ and ‘stupid,’ Adams and Mercola repeatedly exhorted their followers to vote for them via their websites, Facebook fan pages and Twitter. Mercola’s Facebook page alone lists more than 64,000 followers; he boasts some 17,000 followers on Twitter. Dunlop had a mere couple of hundred Twitter followers with a week remaining in the Shortys voting. A group of Australian skeptics got organised and shifted voting for Dunlop into overdrive, quickly outpacing both Adams and Mercola, marking @DrRachie in the top spot. With just a few days remaining in the vote, Dunlop had close to double the number of votes of then-second-placing woocrank Mike Adams.

Being that the voting was publicly auditable, Aussie skeptics did just that, revealing a huge percentage of rule-violating votes for ‘Health Ranger’ Mike Adams. My own audit of a portion of Adams’ then total of 530 votes found 104 out of 160 votes in my sample as invalid. Several skeps reported the irregularities to the Shorty Awards. As a result, the Shortys team disqualified Adams from the competition entirely. This rebuke prompted Adams’ to publish a completely spectacular sour grapes dummy-spit, in which he ‘exposed’ the Shorty Awards as ‘fraudulent’ and further went on to run a completely unsupportable and unreferenced diatribe in which he attacked ‘what skeptics believe,’ risking creating a black hole from the incredible density of strawmen he collected in one point in space.

Panic set in amongst snake oil hucksters, doubtless sensing a threat to their income models, which are based on sales of wackiness like ‘negative ion generating’ Himalayan pink salt lamps, tanning beds which so totally don’t cause melanoma and more assorted woowoo than could fit in a thousand orgone boxes. Unable to demonstrate replicatible evidence for causes and cures, Mercola ramped up ad-hominem attacks on Dunlop, with Mercola going so far as to try to discredit her as an “overweight non-physician“, “little known,” a “vaccination pusher” and an “Australian shill for drug companies.” The ‘little known’ bit might have been accurate before the Streisand effect multiplied the number of Dunlop’s Twitter followers by a factor of 10.

Australian skeptics then audited Mercola’s tally, revealing significant numbers of invalid nominations and reported the findings to the Shortys team. With three days remaining in the competition, between 0300 and 0500 UT on 27 January, Mercola’s vote rate of around 20-30 per hour suddenly exploded to 650 per hour, boosting his total by 1300 to a sum of around 2700, pushing Dunlop into second place with about 1000. The voting rate for Mercola just as suddenly fell back to 20-30 per hour. Mercola attempted to explain away the spike by claiming to have emailed 2 million of his supporters, asking for votes. It’s as likely that the well-defined spike were automated votes from a script or ‘bot.’

With about 35 hours remaining in the competition, the Shortys team audited the Health category, deducting around 1600 votes from Mercola’s tally and about 350 from Dunlop’s, returning Dunlop to the top spot with a margin of about 200. The voting closed at 11:59:59pm US PST with Dunlop winning by a margin of 120. Another audit, post closure, deducted a further 24 votes from Mecola, pushing Dunlop’s winning margin to 144.

This vote in the Shortys is only the first round; a number of nominees who attracted strong popular votes will be selected by a panel to be entered in another round to determine the ultimate winners.

Woe unto woo.


Sunday January 17th 2010, 5:10 pm

toon by Dylan Horrocks


Mandatory internet censorship: James Riley @ ITWire says he ‘gets it’
Friday January 15th 2010, 6:07 am

James Riley has written a sycophantic piece of rubbish on ITWire, praising the merits of the Rudd Government’s mandatory internet censorship plan. Riley reckons that by mere merit of the existence of official censorship in Australia, which gives the government the power to send in the police to enforce suppression of film and literature that the government of the day finds distasteful, censorship is good, mkay, and we should have lots more of it, particularly on that big bad ol’ internet. I can think of no other reason for a bit this wrong other than Riley’s bucking for a job in Conroy’s DBDCE.

Riley demonstrates his Alice Springs mud-puddle depth throughout the piece, starting with his ad-hominem attack on filter opponents in the very title of the bit, dismissing them as ‘ferals,’ supporting his position with no more than the authority fallacy that he ‘works in the information business.’ Riley attacks straw-man after straw-man but never manages to get past ‘censorship’s not so bad.’

Yet, he ‘gets it.

It’s plain and obvious that Riley has never lived a moment in any society which does not have an official censor. Riley appears to think that without the firm hand of a benevolent dictator guiding the thoughts of the common man, he is likely to think bad things. I wonder how Riley reckons a nation like the United States, the constitution of which includes very specific limits on government power as regards its ability to limit freedom of expression, has survived without imploding.

Riley goes so far in this ill-considered drooling rant as to invent his very own censorship scheme, which he names ‘Filter Lite.’ Nowhere does he address the main fallacies of the Rudd government’s proposed censorship scam, those primarily being that it will stop children from accessing porn and paedophiles from trading kiddie porn- of which it will do neither.

Not only does Riley not ‘get it,’ he doesn’t even know what he’s supposed to be getting.


Senator Kate Lundy comes out against mandatory internet censorship
Wednesday January 13th 2010, 2:03 pm

Good going, Senator Lundy.

While ‘opt-out’ isn’t ideal, mainly because filtering won’t accomplish any of Conroy’s stated goals, it’s better than blanket mandatory filtering with no escape.

Labor Senator Kate Lundy speaks out against mandatory internet censorship

by James Whittaker (Crikey.com.au)

At least one member of the federal government stands opposed to mandatory internet censorship, with Senator Kate Lundy pushing the Minister for an “opt-out” alternative from the online blacklist.

But Lundy says she has “a job cut out for me” lobbying colleagues before legislation is introduced to parliament next month. The former Labor front-bencher and passionate advocate for open IT has told Crikey she believes “the majority of caucus” wants a mandatory filter in place.

Lundy has used her blog to vent over her “discomfort” in Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s push for mandatory ISP-level blocking of websites refused classification, defying the government’s commitment to the filter by outlining a “preferred approach” including more effective parental education, internet skills development and voluntary filters at the desktop.

Late last month Lundy wrote Conroy’s proposal left “little room to move”, but she suggested allowing ISPs to offer adult customers an “opt-out” from the filter. This week she has begun canvassing support for the option among Labor colleagues.

“My feeling is I’ve got a tough job ahead of me,” she says. Conroy has vowed to introduce legislation when parliament resumes on February 2.

Lundy acknowledges the flaws in her own plan: there will be a stigma attached to requesting access to an unfiltered internet, and she admits it may “lead to interest by the authorities, even though individuals may simply want to ensure they are not having legitimate content filtered”.

But for Lundy it’s the least-worst option. It “respects people can make an informed choice” while upholding a policy Labor took to the last election (she says she was against it then, too).

Lundy backs Conroy and the process he has gone through in testing filtering technology while boosting funding for cyber crime enforcement. She never believed a filter was feasible but she says the government’s testing has proven that false and she will support the final legislative outcome. But, as she has admitted on her blog, “many mechanisms used by criminal networks will not be stopped through a filtering mechanism”.

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA), a not-for-profit group leading the campaign against the filter, certainly agrees. Campaign manager Peter Black calls the opt-out compromise a “significant improvement”, but the group is dedicated to a public campaign rejecting any filter altogether.

EFA is investing all its funds in Black, a senior law lecturer specialising in new media at the Queensland University of Technology who will drive the campaign at least for the next three months. New branding and a website (“a hub of campaign activity for all the different individuals and organisations” against the filter) will launch soon to “shift the focus away from the ‘no clean feed’ slogan to a more positive message not only on the flaws in the proposed filter but also provides solutions to the Australian public”.

For Lundy, this is a hobbyhorse. She is a former shadow minister of information technology, a stalwart of Senate inquiries into the subject (she claims not to have missed one in 14 years) and has been a long-time advocate for harnessing IT since working as a communications officer in the union movement. The internet, she says, “really inspired me as a tool for empowerment”.

The ACT Senator says the public has not been properly educated on net safety and filtering technology since the Howard government first put forward censorship plans; the net filter has “never really been tested” as an issue in the community.

In her maiden speech to parliament in 1996, Lundy spoke of the “rewards that come from investing” in IT. She said: “The importance of public policy relating to the use and control of credible information sources and its increasingly complex delivery technologies cannot be underestimated if we are serious about equitable and affordable access.”

From outside, the Labor ministry she has spearheaded the government’s 2.0 online public participation initiative and led public forums on policy development. Last April, Lundy took on IT consultant and open source software advocate Pia Waugh as a full-time adviser on technology policy.

Here we go again… art vs porn in NSW
Sunday January 10th 2010, 12:34 pm

Not porn, get over it

The most read items on mgk, by a huge margin, have to do with photographer Bill Henson and his nude and seminude male and female adolescent subjects:

Censorship, self-censorship and the chilling effect

Paedophilic pornography paranoia

Merits mention that no Henson image has ever received an ACMA rating more restrictive than PG, including the one illustrating this post. Why? Because simple nudity isn’t pornography. If it were, there’d be a lot of stained glass featuring nude cherubs being seized from churches. For an image to be pornographic under Australian law, there must be sexualisation. Simple nudity just doesn’t get there.

Anti-porn wowsers have been stamping around in impotent rage ever since the ill-informed raid on the Roslyn Oxley9 art gallery resulted in red-faced NSW Police sheepishly having to drop plans to charge Henson and the gallery and return the Henson works they seized.

So, what do the self-appointed censors do? Lobby to have the law changed to suit them, against all reasonable community standards… as if that will magically make Henson’s images pornographic.



Mobile phones & brain cancer: teh expertz are at it again
Tuesday January 05th 2010, 5:51 am

Modern news reporters have some very strange ideas about incorporating ‘balance’ in their stories. Seems that when writing on any given topic, reporters scurry off to teh internetz to look for dissenting views to include in the story. Doesn’t actually matter whether the dissenting view has any validity- but by gum, that dissent has gotta be there or some estoot reader will hold their feet to the coals for supporting some conspiracy to suppress teh troof.

We won’t consider News Ltd, simply because their reportage is so absolutely predictably bent to jerk the knees of the lowest common denominator at roughly Mach III into the underside of the nearest table- a lost cause if there ever was one. However, we might expect better of The Sydney Morning Herald.

Or at least we once did.

The SMH ran two stories on mobile phones yesterday; Dial-a-parent: kids get mobile and Push for cigarette-like warnings on mobiles. Both stories address ‘safety issues’ involved with using mobiles. Nevermind that no credible study anywhere on earth has ever found any actual health hazard related to the use of mobiles- in fact, quite the opposite, even in decades-long studies of mobile phone users.

In ‘kids get mobile,’ Dr Charlie Teo is consulted by the SMH for a dissenting opinion.

Sydney brain surgeon Dr Charles Teo said children’s thinner skulls might be an additional risk factor. ”Whatever the cause, surely the fact that the phone is closer to the brain is disturbing,” he said.

Never you mind that there’s no epidemics of brain cancer in children or adults, despite about 30 years of commercial sale of modern mobile phones. Strangely, no-one, not even Teo, has ever tried to implicate handheld ‘walkie talkies’ in brain cancers, despite their common use by police, fire, amateur radio and other services since the 1940s. So why is Teo concerned about radio transmitters that are used ‘close to the brain?’

But that’s not all- Teo is also concerned about the hazards presented by clock-radios and electric blankets, too:

“Even though the jury’s not in, just to err on the side of safety I would try and limit the amount of electromagnetic radiation that you’re exposed to,” he said.

“The American government, for example, recommend that all electrical appliances should be put at the foot of the bed and not the head of the bed.

“Electric blankets should be turned off before you get in bed and definitely wait for those five beeps before you open the microwave.

“With the mobile phone I encourage you to put it on loudspeaker and step outside rather than sticking it up to your brain.”

Dr Teo, who tackles tumours other surgeons deem inoperable, said some hair dyes, particularly red, could also cause brain cancer in people with a predisposition.

“The body needs some genetic predisposition. The hair dye, the mobile phone, they’re just catalysts but you probably need some sort of genetic aberration to get the cancer in the first place,” he said.

The jury’s not in on leopards hiding in public toilet stalls, either. By Teo’s logic, we should immediately place signage on public toilet stalls, warning users to ‘beware of the leopard.’ You never know, one of these days, some innocent looking to relieve themself is going to be attacked by a leopard… I have yet to find any reference whatsoever from ‘the American Government’ which makes any recommendation that electrical appliances be placed at the foot of one’s bed.  And by the way, the ‘hair dye’ link to cancer is oh-so-busted and has been since around 1980. And what exactly does Dr Teo think happens when mains power is disconnected from the magnetron (RF signal generator) in a microwave oven, either by the built-in timer or by the interlock switches connected to the door? Perhaps those sneaky microwaves are just bouncing around in there, like a leopard, ready to pounce on the unsuspecting? Rubbish!

The SMH further consults Dr Vini Khurana about the supposed hazards of mobile phones:

”This danger has far broader public health ramifications than asbestos and smoking, and directly concerns all of us, particularly the younger generation, including very young children,” he wrote in a paper, Mobile Phones and Brain Tumours.

Khurana’s ‘Mobile Phones’ paper is not peer reviewed and is not supported by any reliable medical research or evidence. It has no more validity than any claim damning vaccines made by pseudoscience-espousing anti-vaccination nutjob Meryl Dorey.

On to Maine Rep Andrea Boland’s concerns, as covered by the SMH. Boland is a reseller of vitamin supplements for an outfit called ‘Reliv International.’ Boland is convinced both of the efficacy of vitamins to relieve depression as well as the horrible harms of mobile phones, to the extent that she has previously introduced (fortunately failed) legislation to mandate state funding for vitamin supplements. No conflict of interest here, hey? There’s as just much evidence to support the use of vitamins to alleviate the things Boland thinks they alleviate as there is to support the warning labels Boland wants put on mobile phones- which is, of course, exactly zero. Which of course, merits the SMH running a frightening story about mobile phones.

Dear SMH, if you’re going to print scary stories, the very least you could do is research the ‘experts’ who you’re quoting- and be honest with your readers about just how reliable their ‘evidence’ happens to be.