Westlife Promote Cigarettes – Or Is That Bollocks?

Westlife‘s tour of the Philippines is being sponsored by a Philip Morris cigarette brand – or so someone on the Joe Duffy radio show assured us yesterday. Overflowing with outrage, I drew out my trusty keyboard.

Then I paused, and actually checked the story.

Basically, I can find damn all to damn them with. There’s that picture there, of the band and the brand on one billboard, and then there’s… Ehm… There was a comment posted on the Irish Cancer Society‘s Facebook page – quoted here by Broadsheet.ie – but it no longer appears to be there. Maybe they too noticed there was very little to go on.

The tour promoter’s blog has a positively effusive list of sponsors. Some – Fox for example – perhaps not paradigms of ethical behaviour. One, rather bizarrely, a brand of herbal sleeping aid. (Westlife fans need that?) But none of them the brand in question, or any other known cigarette. See footnote for full list.¹

It all hangs on whether that really is a single poster on the Manila billboard, or two posters next to each other. The continuous strip across the bottom seems to unify the two halves, but we can’t be completely sure it’s not a message about how to advertise in this space or something. Futzing in Photoshop doesn’t make it much clearer, and I can’t find any version of the image that’s larger, brighter or less badly compressed. Indeed I can’t find where it came from originally – no one seems to be crediting it. I’d call that suspicious, except I don’t know what to suspect. A campaign of vilification against a boy band just seems too petty.

One thing – The brand in question, Clas Mild, is not made by Philip Morris. It’s a Philippine state-owned brand (rumoured to explode, interestingly). For all I know its appearance on concert posters is mandatory. Not likely, but we really have no idea what’s going on. Some clarification from the band or their management would be nice. I realise I’m effectively asking them to prove their own innocence there, but I expect they’ll be only too eager to distance themselves from an industry so absolutely evil it makes arms manufacture look like a charity for homeless kittens.

 

  1. “Westlife Live in Manila is brought to you by DAYLY Entertainment in cooperation with the following major sponsors: SMART, FOX, Star World, Sleepasil, Accessorize, Calliope, Mossimo Music, Skin Food and Terranova, and Official Residence-Edsa Shangri-La Hotel. This is also supported by the following media partners, Official TV Network-ABS-CBN, Official Music Channel-MYX, Asap Rocks, Philippine Star, The Manila Bulletin, The Manila Times, Business World, Business Mirror, People’s Journal, Bands, Official Radio Partner-Love Radio 90.7, Magic 89.9, Baranggay LS FM 97.1, Yes FM 101.1, Tambayan 101.9, Energy FM 106.7, Manila Conert Scene, Philippineconcerts.com, Atthewomb.com, OrangeTVMagazine.com, and Digipost. Special thanks to Le Ching Tea House, Astro Plus, Odyssey”

Norris Is In

After an astonishing roller coaster ride of a campaign that saw him first bow out and then bow to pressure to return, David Norris will be on the Presidential ballot paper. And what a paper. Nominations are not yet closed, but the line-up is looking to be:

Now that is a Presidential race. Suck it, USA.

Harnessing The Hive Mind

Foldit
I think this is a level boss

This is truly a scientific breakthrough. Though what has been discovered is pretty darn important – it could help prevent AIDS – even that pales compared to the significance of how it was discovered. There has never been anything like this.

There have admittedly been things that sound like it. SETI@Home for example was a way people all over the world could contribute to a scientific endeavour – in that case, searching space for signs of intelligent life. All you had to do was download a program that acted like a screensaver, and whenever your computer was not being used it would contribute its processing power to the task of analysing millions of signals picked up by radio telescopes. It was the sort of work that government and universities couldn’t really justify funding, but volunteers were happy to take on.

They call it distributed computing, and the same idea has been brought to bear on other, perhaps more immediate, goals. Folding@home was a project dedicated to discovering how proteins are folded into their countless possible shapes. Why is that important? Because the cells of our bodies work by molecular mechanics, and these are the moving parts. The exact shape of every single piece and how they all fit together is the real nuts-and-bolts of life; understanding it has stupendous implications for medicine and genetics.

These proteins are deceptively simple chains of atoms, but the chemical attractions between the various parts of the chain mean they spontaneously fold themselves into the shape required to perform their function. It’s amazingly subtle and complex, and understanding it requires a lot of analysis. Folding@home has harnessed a spectacular amount of processing power to the task. In 2007, it surpassed all records set by old-fashioned in-a-room machines to become the most powerful computing system every constructed.

For some things though, even that is not enough. Yes, they’re unbeatable for number-crunching, but the problem-solving abilities of even Intel‘s finest are minuscule compared to nature’s most advanced hardware – the human brain. The meaty microprocessor is custom-built for understanding and manipulating real objects in 3D space, ideal talents to bring to bear on this problem. But how can you harness the distributed power of thousands and thousands of brains?

Simple – make it into a game.

Foldit gets the mind focused on solving molecular puzzles by presenting them as puzzles. The hard bit is just getting these molecules represented accurately in 3D graphics. From there you can leave the analysis and ingenuity – as well as the competitiveness and fun – up to human nature. We love this stuff. And nothing in the known universe is better at it.

We should all get the Foldit program. That way the next time you’re caught playing a game on your computer, you can honestly say that it’s not what it looks like, and in fact you are finding a cure for cancer. Or whatever your boss is most scared of.

Download:

(Be aware that all versions of this program are still in beta. See site for more details.)

Faster Than Light

Tachyon visualization
What something travelling faster than light would look like, if you could see it

But it’s not only in a Galway coroner’s court that the laws of nature have been suspended. They’re just as dysfunctional at the world’s most advanced scientific establishment – CERN.

Europe’s premier physics lab has measured particles travelling faster than light. Fancy that. This is a little troubling to them though, because for a physicist, matter moving faster than light makes about as much sense as God knocking on the door, presenting you with an iguana wrapped in newspaper, saying “Call me Susan, I have no legs for hosepipe” and turning into a forest of lemon trees. It doesn’t happen, it can’t happen, it won’t happen.

So as they make their lemonade, the boys and girls at CERN have to try to figure out where things went awry. Those particles can’t really have gone faster than light, can they? They have mass – which is a technical way of saying they weigh something – and a thing with mass can’t travel even as fast as light, never mind faster. This is because…

Well, this is because the world is a lot freakin’ weirder than it looks. You may not have noticed this – actually you couldn’t possibly – but the faster you move, the heavier you get. It isn’t detectable at the speeds even spacecraft travel at, but the effect gets more pronounced as you approach the speed of light. So pronounced in fact that if you ever travelled at the speed of light, you’d weigh an infinite amount. Which can’t be pleasant.

To make it worse, as you go faster you shrink in the direction of travel. (So much for the symbolism of the sports car then.) At the speed of light, your length front-to-back would be zero. Something with no length at all but which weighs more than the whole universe isn’t really a possible thing, so matter never can go as fast as light. The only reason light itself can manage is that it has no mass and no length to change.

Another way to think of it: The speed of light is the infinity of speed. Saying “faster than light” is like saying “more than infinity”, it’s a meaningless statement. So if this experiment showed particles of matter going from A to B in less time than light could, you’re forced to conclude that, well, perhaps A isn’t as far from B as you thought. Or maybe the particles found some sort of short cut. Or… the universe just shrunk or… something.

Those are actually genuine suggestions. Most modern theories of the universe tend to have a few extra spatial dimensions lying around; not just the Up-Down, Forward-Back and Left-Right we know, but also Hoo-Hah, Abba-Dabba and Hosni-Mubarak. Say. Maybe those extra dimensions form hidden spaces that the particles (called neutrinos) can cut through.

Or maybe not. Frankly no one knows. Any theory that accounts for a deviation from such a fundamental law has to be so darn theoretical that it may as well just be a particularly pretty form of hand-waving. Most likely explanation? They’ve simply made a mistake. They are some of the most intelligent people on the planet, they have the best lab in the world, and they’ve spent the last six months re-checking their results, but still the best explanation is that they put a decimal point in the wrong place somewhere. Almost anything is more likely than that their results are actually right.

I have a theory of my own. Of course.

CERN is headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. That’s good, we expect things to be done with precision there. But in order to measure such high speeds, the neutrinos have to be sent to a target that’s some distance away. Quite a distance actually. Further than Switzerland is big. In Italy in fact.

Italy. Of course they’re getting figures that don’t reflect reality. Berlusconi is probably pocketing some of those neutrinos himself.

Spontaneous Human Combustion

The alleged SHC victims is almost always alone, even in fictional accounts like this one of Dickens'. How come?

West Galway coroner Dr. Ciaran MacLoughlin has ruled the death of a pensioner to be Spontaneous Human Combustion. This follows his finding of a 2009 murder-suicide to be the action of “shape-shifting beings of intelligent energy”, his 2005 decision that a local man’s disappearance was caused by him being “simply pulled down into Hell”, and his opinion that the 1998 death of a lorry driver was caused by something that “mortal man wots naught therof”.

OK I made those up, but they really are no more silly than a verdict of spontaneous human combustion, a thing not recognised by science to actually f***ing exist. A coroner has entered, as the official cause of death, that a person… burst into flames.

Let’s get this clear:

Spontaneous combustion is a real – and quite ordinary – thing. It simply means that substances can catch light without any flame being introduced. This can happen in a variety of ways, heat generated by decomposition in compost heaps being a common example.

Human combustion is a real thing too. Human bodies can burn; we cremate them all the time. Though we aren’t exactly highly inflammable, it doesn’t take a terribly big fire to entirely consume a body. Our Neolithic ancestors would do it with simple pyres of wood.

Spontaneous human combustion is when a human bursts into flame without any external cause, and this… just doesn’t happen. It’s been a thing of legend for some time, and has been popularised in fiction – most significantly, Charles DickensBleak House. The theory, perhaps “legend” would be a better word, is that some strange chemical change in the body causes it to catch light all by itself. Nobody has ever managed to recreate such a chemical reaction though.

What get labelled ‘spontaneous’ human combustion are cases where a body is found mostly or partially burned away without being on a pyre of any kind. It’s shocking, but should we really be surprised? We are partly inflammable bodies wrapped in often quite inflammable clothing. It’s perhaps surprising that we don’t catch fire more often.

There is no reason to believe that there was anything spontaneous about these conflagrations. Such bodies are often found in front of an open fire, very often the victim is a smoker. (It’s perhaps telling that reports of SHC begin only after the introduction of tobacco.) To my knowledge there has never been a case where an external source of ignition could be ruled out. Certainly not this one, where the victim was found near both matches and an open fire. (Investigators merely said that the fire did not spread from the hearth.)

Another telling thing that all these cases have in common: The victims are alone. Usually too they are very old or otherwise incapacitated (the victim in this case had type 2 diabetes, so coma is a possibility), and it seems likely that in many of these cases they are dead before the fire starts. Something sets their clothing (or the chair they are in) alight; perhaps the cigarette they were smoking, perhaps the heat of the open fire. Normally when things start to smoulder we react instinctively and quickly, but if the victim is dead or deeply unconscious and alone there is a small but real chance that smouldering can break into fire. It seems clothing fires can sometimes reach sufficient temperature to make the body’s own fats start to burn, whereupon it will to a greater or lesser extent consume itself. Animal fats make excellent fuels.

Why doesn’t the house burn down? Often it does, and so becomes another ordinary house fire caused by another ordinary stray cigarette. Just occasionally though the victim isn’t near anything the fire can spread to, and you get horrifying scenes like this.

Pathologist Professor Grace Callagy made the correct call – it was impossible to say the exact cause of death because too much of the body had been consumed by fire. We simply don’t know if he was already dead when the burning started. So for the coroner to return “spontaneous human combustion” as cause of death is quite simply ludicrous.

Prepared to be laughed at, fellow Galwegians. For this makes us look like a bunch of nineteenth-century bog goblins.

The Golden Age of Gold

Entrance stone with megalithic art.
Newgrange

At the National Museum today, where I haven’t been since I was twelve. But then, I was pretty much twelve again when I walked through the door. Caveman stuff!

Our whole visit went on simply taking in the main hall on the ground floor, which brings you from the Palaeolithic (beginning 3-400,000 years ago), to the end of the bronze age (about 500 BC). Quite a span – but actually the palaeolithic is a bit of a cheat. It’s not thought that people actually lived in Ireland then. This is the era when tools were no more than rocks broken to have sharp edges. At that level of technology people probably didn’t have clothes, so it seems highly unlikely that they could have survived here during an ice age… Nevertheless we have a couple of what appear to be palaeolithic stone tools. It’s just that we’re not sure how they got there. Theories range from them being carried here by receding glaciers, to being carried here by mischievous archaeologists. Well the display card didn’t actually say that, but I couldn’t help feeling it was the subtext.

From this perhaps weak beginning we skip straight to the action – nearly half a million years later. Things begin to get going around 7,000 years ago with the Mesolithic, when they finally had the idea of tying rocks to sticks. If you don’t think that’s a big difference, compare the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axe to the idea of trying to chop down a tree with an axehead. I shouldn’t talk as if they just suddenly thought of it though. It takes tools to make tools; the technology evolved in tiny gradations until a breakthrough was possible.

But these people were still nomads. It was the Neolithic that brought farming to Ireland, five or six thousand years ago, and with that the first lasting buildings, the great megalithic monuments like Newgrange, apparently part of an extraordinary culture that seems to have blossomed throughout north-western Europe for, well, for a few thousand years, and about which we now know almost nothing.

Now the stone tools were different. They were… beautiful. Some smooth, some ornately carved. These people had brought the art of banging rocks together to its apotheosis. One shocking example of their technological confidence was the Lurgan boat, the mother of dugout canoes. It’s basically a fifty-foot oak cut down, split, and hollowed out. Looked to have room for thirty people or more, a whole community.

But then bronze. The technological transition never seemed as dramatic to me as when I saw the new bronze swords and spearheads next to the old stone knives and axes. It must have been on a par with the invention of gunpowder. But it meant huge social change too. An isolated community can fashion stone tools. Bronze is made from raw materials you have to trade for.

And with this new metallurgy, gold. What ancient Irish smiths did with gold is nobody’s business. Work that could have been buried with Pharaohs has been dug out of bogs. Virtually all of it jewellery – after all, what else useful can you make from the stuff? The weird thing perhaps is that there were so few designs, speaking of a pretty unified culture. Just torcs, collars, clothing fasteners, bracelets, boss-headed “sunflower” pins and what are still known as “boxes”, though by current theory these were actually inserted in pierced ears much like the plates worn by some peoples in Africa. Except, you know, made out of gold. They were hollow and contained beads so that they’d rattle, which must have provided a constant pleasant reminder of just how rich you were. An illustration of an ancient leader decked out in all this stuff gave the distinct impression that he must have clanked like a Transformer.

And all this before history even started. Will definitely have to go back.