Archive for April, 2008

New Celebrity endorsement for antioxidants

April 21, 2008


The anti-ageing effects of antioxidant vitamin supplements were yesterday extolled by legendary film star and bon viveur, Count Dracula.

The Romanian aristocrat turned actor and personality explained that without his tailored regime of antioxidants he would never be able to sustain his punishing round-the-clock lifestyle. Count Dracula joins other celebrities, like Sir Cliff Richard, Gloria Hunniford, actress Jenny Seagrove and Carole Caplin, who have spoken out to defend supplements after recent medical studies suggested that antioxidant supplements did not benefit those taking them, and might even be harmful.

“Of course that’s complete rubbish”, says the astoundingly youthful-looking Count emphatically. “I take vitamins A, B, C D, and E every day, as well as Beta-Carotene and N-acetylcysteine by the bottle-load, and I absolutely swear by them all”.

The one antioxidant Dracula doesn’t take is Selenium. “It makes your breath smell of garlic he says. “I’ve simply never been able to abide garlic – dreadful stuff.”

Dracula’s supplement regime certainly seems to be working – he hardly looks a day over forty, though persistent rumours place his birthday somewhere in the 15th century. The star is understandably coy about his exact age, admitting only that he has “seen a few centuries come and go”.

Dracula looks especially well for a man who admits that he had been laid up only a couple of days before with a bad stomach. “I must have eaten someone that disagreed with me” he quips. He thinks perhaps the meal that laid him low probably contained too many chemical food additives.

“I do try to stay strictly organic”, he says ”but when you’re on the move so much it’s hard to find really good food, and you never really know where it’s come from. Often it says it’s organic, or vegetarian, but how can you be sure?”

Dracula also has a special dietary problem – his unusual diet is rich in iron and protein, but missing the fruit and vegetables that normally supply phytochemical (plant-derived) antioxidants.

That, he says, is where the antioxidant supplements help.

“Yes, it’s partly a detox thing” he says. “As a Haemo-tarian, I take in really incredible amounts of iron. It gives me bags of energy, of course, but I do worry about getting iron_overload. Of course, all that iron means my system is under a really tremendous amount of oxidative stress, and that’s where the antioxidants come in. Without the vitamin C and vitamin E, and the N-acetyl-cysteine, I think I would be in real trouble”

He is scornful of the recent science suggesting antioxidants don’t help people stay healthy.

“How can they just mix all those different trials in together and get a sensible answer? People are individuals. I don’t know anyone else who eats the sort of diet I do, so how can these scientists possibly say the supplements aren’t going to help me? And of course these so-called scientists have to say that so that the drug companies can make money, don’t they? They don’t want people getting healthy on their own without their pills Personally I’ve never taken so much as an aspirin.”

The Transylvanian-born star certainly seems ultra-healthy, not to mention in splendid form – “call me Vlad” he says, with that famous toothy grin. Our interview takes place at 4 am, but he looks as if he is just getting ready to go out for a night on the town. He does admit to being “an unapologetic 100% night person”.

Given his nocturnal hours and hectic schedule, simply finding the time for a sit-down meal can be a problem.

“Being awake at odd hours, as I am, simply plays havoc with your normal eating habits” he laments. “You can’t always just grab a quick snack on the run, especially if it’s hard to catch. I try to eat regularly and not snack in between, but sometimes I do get the most terrible cravings.”

When he does succumb to the need for a snack, Dracula know what he likes.

“I simply adore traditional black_pudding as a quick bite” he confides “but I can’t eat it too often. I worry about all the nitrate preservatives they put in it, you know”.


Enigma, Bletchley, and ordinary heroes

April 11, 2008

In early April BBC Radio 4 carried a radio programme – part of the series “The Reunion” – that anyone who uses computers or calculators, or who has any interest in codes and ciphers, really should have listened to. (Unfortunately it is no longer up on the BBC’s Listen Again site – if it is lurking somewhere else on the web, esp. as an MP3, I would be grateful for info on where).

Bletchley Park

The programme re-united several people who had taken part, in their early 20s, in perhaps the greatest ever piece of “Signals Intelligence” work, and certainly the greatest feat of sustained codebreaking, ever. This was the top secret work at Bletchley_Park, outside London, during WW2. In total secrecy, a core of mathematicians, boffins, military codebreakers and bright young Oxbridge types, and a much larger staff of mostly female assistants, cracked the codes the Germans used for all top secret communications. These codes were mostly based on the fearsome Enigma cipher machine, which the Germans regarded as uncrackable. It remains questionable whether the Allies would have been able to defeat Nazi Germany without the information derived from the Enigma decrypts, and the work is widely viewed as having shortened the war by two to four years. The computation machines built to attack the Enigma ciphers, including the Colossus, were among the key forerunners of modern computers.

With typically British-ness, after the war the British government mandated the “sanitizing” of anything at BP that would tell people what had gone on there, right down to dismantling all the equipment down to individual components. The site became a training college for telephone engineers. As all the people who had worked at Bletchley had signed the Official Secrets Act, it took nearly 30 years – until 1974 – for the first hints of the Bletchley codebreaking story to emerge, and even longer until accurate accounts appeared. Luckily many of the buildings were saved from the bulldozers (just) in 1992 and are now preserved as a museum. The piece de resistance is a reconstructed, and fully working, Colossus computer.

Bletchley Park and its work is now more widely known through fictionalized portrayals, such as Robert Harris’ novel Enigma and the 2001 film derived from it. The book is a good starting point for the Bletchley story. The list_of_people that worked at, or for, the real Bletchley Park includes a remarkable gemisch of British mathematicians, academics, (not just scientists), a couple of chess champions, and even a future Chancellor of the Exchequer.

The computing machines built at Bletchley used pre-transistor valve technology. When I visited the Bletchley Museum a decade or so back I remember being struck by this since my father, who I went with, was a teenage radio geek in his time and a whizz with valves (he subsequently studied physics). One of my abiding childhood memories of my dad is of him with his head buried in some old radio, or TV set, or other electronic thingummy, which he would be trying to mend. If not there he would be under the car, or washing machine, trying to fix that.

Anyway, walking round Bletchley I was struck by how people not that many years older than my father was then, and with the same sort of skills (radio, and electromechanical tinkering, and physics know-how) had built the machines from scratch. Although the electrical engineers like Tommy_Flowers never got quite the recognition of the mathematicians and codebreakers like Alan Turing, they were indispensable too. Perhaps this is a reminder that while in science you need geniuses and visionaries, you also need people who can turn the visionary ideas into real experiments, or techniques, or machines.

When my dad and I visited BP in the 90s some of the volunteer helpers were people who had actually worked there during the war, while electronics enthusiasts of similar vintage were busy reconstructing the Colossus. The word I would use to describe these people, then in at least their mid 70s and now well into their 80s, is “formidable”. Or even better, “indomitable”. I had the same feeling again listening to the Radio 4 show. Anyway, a tremendous piece of living history, and a fitting testament to peoples’ ingenuity and ability to meet challenges.

Brain Gym loses its trousers (figuratively)

April 8, 2008

The Bad Science firmament has a new star.

Step forward… Charlie Brooker

Today in the Guardian Charlie Brooker gave the laughable Brain Gym one of the funniest and most comprehensive rhetorical flayings I have ever read. It brightened up a dull Monday.

It is also, I confidently predict, the only time Charlie Brooker’s column is ever likely to mention the British Neuroscience Association, or the Physiological Society.

I should say that Brain Gym, or more accurately Brain Gym® is (in case there is anyone left who hasn’t heard of it) a series of “ fun exercises” for schoolchildren to do in class. It has been widely used in UK schools over the last few years.

Well, what’s wrong with that, I hear you ask? Anyone who ever revised for a load of exams will probably remember the advice to get up and walk round the room, or stretch, every 30 minutes or so. So why not little exercises for the kids?

Well, there are a couple of answers.

The first is that Brain Gym® comes equipped with a ludicrous set of pseudo-babble explanations. And posts from anonymous teachers back when BadScience discussed Brain Gym suggested that they were made, on pain of dressing down and even disciplinary measures from the Head, to buy into these explanations in their Brain Gym® training sessions.

So the teachers are told by the trainer, and may even pass on to the kids, idiotic stuff like:

“Rubbing these [Positive Points] above each eye with the fingertips of each hand… brings blood flow to the frontal bits of your brain where rational thought occurs.”

The charity Sense About Science, in the person of our own Frank the science punk, has now got some neuroscientists together to do a comprehensive debunking job on all this. For instance, referring to the explanation just give, they quote Professor David Attwell FRS:

“Rational thought does not just occur in the frontal lobes, and there is no evidence that touching these points can alter blood flow within the brain.”

…More of this here, where you can see all of the Brain Gym® explanations and a list of simple (but scientific) reasons why they are nonsense.

Yep, the Brain Gym® explanations are what noted educationalist the late Ted Wragg used to call, to put it in technical language, “World Class Bollocks”.

Basically, everything that comes with Brain Gym® is pseudo-babble. Even the name of Brain Gym®’s UK supplier carries the Pseudo-babble taint – step forward UK Educational Kinesiology (sic).

And would you believe it, the “UK Educational Kinesiology Trust”, actually admits on the very first page of their website that Brain Gym®’s explanations are made up:

“The UK Educational Kinesiology Trust makes no claims to understand the neuroscience of Brain Gym®. The author has advised that the simple explanations in the Brain Gym Teachers Edition about how the movements work are hypothetical and based on advice from a neurobiologist at the time the books were written.”

Hmm… “hypothetical” …“based on advice from a neurobiologist”.

Allow me to translate:

The author, when he was dreaming up all this out in Southern California, took one neurobiologist he vaguely knew out to lunch. After a good meal and a few glasses of wine, he asked: ”Can you think of any sort of hypothetical mechanism that anyone has ever suggested for how any of this stuff might work? But something that wouldn’t sounds too science-y? Sort of like any theories there are of how massage or stuff like that might work? Anything?”

Having half-remembered whatever vague hum-ing and hah-ing the anonymous neurobiologist came up with, the author then gave it a sort of New Age-y coating and… bingo:

A Global Phenomenon was born.

Which brings us to the second thing I dislike about Brain Gym®. It is A Commercial Product, and is sold to schools. The schools pay to have an “authorized Brain Gym® Trainer” come in and teach the teachers – who have almost certainly been ordered to give up their time to be there – to “use” Brain Gym®. The whole package costs.

As the Americans like to say, “Your tax money at work”

So to sum up:

What can we say for, and against, Brain Gym®?

Sort of for: the children do little exercises to break the routine of class, which might – depending on the teacher’s command of the class – be sort of helpful

Against: the explanations teachers are sold are complete and utter bollocks. Anti-science. Nonsensical explanations with no basis in reality.

Also against: someone is making money off all this. And the fact that it is being paid for will almost certainly ensure that its use is being “mandated”, and pushed. And the money that has paid for this is yours, the public’s, and could have paid for more books, or teachers, or sports equipment.

Also against: coming back to the explanations, we are mingling reality and unreality, and basically giving children the steer that there is no meaningful difference between one and the other. As Charlie Brooker puts it:

fantasy and reality [are] both …great in isolation, but, like chalk and cheese or church and state, are best kept separate.”

And if we start them with nonsense young, why are we surprised when people grow up unable to distinguish sense and nonsense?

On which topic, the last word should go to Brooker, who puts it much better than me:

“If we mistrust the real world so much that we’re prepared to fill the next generation’s heads with a load of gibbering crap about “brain buttons”, why stop there? Why not spice up maths by telling kids the number five was born in Greece and invented biscuits? Replace history lessons with screenings of the Star Wars trilogy? Teach them how to whistle in French? Let’s just issue the kids with blinkers.

Because we, the adults, don’t just gleefully pull the wool over our own eyes – we knit permanent blindfolds. We’ve decided we hate facts. Hate, hate, hate them. Everywhere you look, we’re down on our knees, gleefully lapping up neckful after neckful of steaming, cloddish bullshit in all its forms. From crackpot conspiracy theories to fairytale nutritional advice, from alternative medicine to energy yawns – we just can’t get enough of that musky, mudlike taste. Brain Gym is just one small tile in an immense and frightening mosaic of fantasy.”

Tell it like it is, brother. And roll on the next column.