Sunday 28 March 2021


                                            Essential Equipment for Dowsing

What are we to make of the phenomenon, that is dowsing? Is it to be tossed into the bin of 'irrational 'technologies', or does it warrant serious consideration as a legitimate natural phenomenon?

I'm sure my readership is familiar with the art of dowsing. Is it possible to frame a scientifically valid causal hypothesis concerning dowsing's mode of action? Classical dowsing is concerned with the detection of flowing underground water. Could water flow cause the formation of a detectable electromagnetic field? Tis at least worthy of scientific scrutiny. Thusly, flowing water interacting with a subterranean substrate, may induce a fluctuating electric field, that in principle, could be detected by a sensitive and simple, hand held device such as a 'dowsing wand'. Of course, adherents often claim much more, such as, the ability to detect oil reserves, gold deposits, and even buried ancient man made structures. Oil and mineral prospecting companies have been known to employ dowsers in an effort to detect untold wealth. The general public are apt to lend a positive ear and are surprisingly receptive to dowsing. Indeed, 40% of the US population are staunch believers. But then again, 40% of the US population also believe in creationism as opposed to evolution- tis enough to make a rational bonce revolve 180 degrees. Nuff said (arse). 

The dowsing device can vary from a simple forked branch, to metal rods allowed to independently rotate, to cunningly fashioned black boxes containing electronics and knobs. So, as said, there may be a perfectly plausible scientific reason explaining dowsing's effectiveness. This would constitute a valid hypothesis. A possible scientific explanation, before any scientific investigation is performed, is termed, 'the hypothesis'. Before a hypothesis can earn the exalted status of a theory, positive experimental evidence is required. And this is where our posited hypothesis flounders (wet fish). Simply stated: numerous researchers have failed to come up with any hard scientific evidence supporting the efficacy of dowsing as a real natural process for detecting underground water, or anything for that matter. When controlled experiments have been conducted, the detection of hidden objects, by dowsing devices, has been found to be no more than chance. Therefore, the hypothesis has been found wanting and consequently dowsing is not a viable technique for the detection, of anything. Hard nosed dowsers seem unconcerned that science has not been able to uncover a causal mechanism. For them the technique works. And it does appear that dowsers do experience involuntary muscular movements that cause dowsing rods to move. This in no way demonstrates that dowsing is effective, but is likely due to 'ideomotor movements'. This is fancy psychology jargon for 'it is all in the mind' and is under subconscious mind control. This is a similar effect observed when gullible folk play around with the Ouija board. 

I would like to introduce 'The James Randi Educational Foundation' and its 1 million dollar challenge. If someone can produce real evidence, under rigorous scientific conditions, that demonstrates paranormal abilities, then the foundation will award the individual with the princely sum of 1 million dollars. Since the challenge was put in place, hundreds of applications have been submitted to the foundation for testing. Interestingly, 80% of  the applications are about dowsing ability. And guess what? The reward awaits to be claimed.        

Dowsing is very popular amongst the 'New Age' crowd. They are also keen on other dubious pseudoscientific beliefs, such as crystals and alternative medicine- see earlier postings. Fringe groups are notoriously anti-science and take great delight in disregarding true scientific principles and replacing them with utter gobblygook and sundry bollocks.

To conclude: dowsing clearly comes under the umbrella of pseudoscience and should be treated in the same way we would treat astrology and a belief in ghosts. All that can be considered without evidence, can be dismissed, without evidence.   

“We must accept dowsing as fact.  It is useless to work experiments to prove its existence. It exists.  What is needed is its development.” 

The above was expressed by a prominent dowser, Charles Richet. This really sums up the anti-scientific stance typical of the 'pseudoscience brigade'.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Huzzle Puzzle

I'm not a fella who endorses products on this blog, but on this occasion I'm driven to make an exception. Specifically I'm writing about a puzzle company based in Japan, called Hanayama. The company manufacturer's cast metal puzzles. The puzzles themselves are defined works of art and fashioned in cunning array. They are engineered with precision that defies reason and technology. Often they are composed of just several metal pieces. However, their structural simplicity belies a complexity that is both devilish and beguiling in equal measure. The puzzles come in six levels of difficulty. Level six encompasses a level of sophistication and exquisite intricacy that is designed to send an insane man, sane.

I own seven of these puzzles in the hardest category. The pleasure involved in their disassembly is difficult to define. However, the real test makes itself apparent when it comes to reassembly. I suggest you sequester yourself away from every day mundane distractions, mayhap on a wet Saturday afternoon, and focus intensely on the task in hand.

I can't  mention this topic without a foray into the past. My father fought with distinction in the last Great War. I recall a singular incident when I was about eight whilst playing with my Airfix plastic soldiers. On this particular occasion I had a box featuring Japanese soldiery. I don't recall any Japanese snipers in the fold. My father was none too pleased and I remember his reaction, very distinctly. He took up the cardboard box and spat upon its surface. I admit, this action made an impression on my young soul especially as my father was not prone to dramatic or florid acts. Mayhap it had something to do with my father's brother, uncle Charlie- remember him? I've posted about him before and insinuated that he had a passing resemblance to the Dali Llama. Anyway, uncle Charlie fought in the Burma campaign. Perhaps, my uncle's experience had a dramatic impact on my dad's psyche. Forgive and forget is the watchword, however we still must be on guard for itinerant Japanese snipers still on active service in the West Midland environs.

I've strayed from my original theme. Anyway, to conclude, I commend these puzzles to my readership. However, and regardless, we should always be vigilant and prepared to root out lurking, and near sighted Japanese snipers, within our midst. The Tipton Japanese snipers are particularly active, currently. Arse, big fat, arse.

Sunday 21 March 2021

Education III

In my last two posts on this topic I mentioned some of the problems associated with higher education. Universities have become big business where teaching is often viewed as a vehicle for making money. And therefore, teaching is performed as cheaply as possible and there is little motivation for maintaining an up to date syllabus. Too many students attend higher education, and colleges are well aware of high drop out rates especially amongst those who performed poorly at high school. To support the 'big business model' of undergraduate and post-graduate teaching, colleges give false hopes of high employment rates, in traditional graduate professions. Figures  are massaged to promote an unrealistic appreciation of employment prospects. A student graduating in gender studies is qualified for what? I contend that they are fit only for teaching gender studies and bugger all else.

Colleges are also misleading when they state that over a work lifetime, graduates will earn substantially more than non-graduates. Whilst this may have been true 45 years ago, this statistic is no longer viable. When tuition fees are factored in together with lost earnings over a four year period, or even longer, the economic argument appears less attractive. This is particularly true when compared with 'blue collar', skilled trades such as electricians. A shortage of skilled workers makes the roles of plumbers, electricians and builders, highly attractive in terms of pay. Therefore, trade apprenticeships are of considerable merit. During training you get paid and the college education, often day release, is funded by the employer. And I'm sure an electrician is eminently more  useful to society, than a liberal farts graduate.  

I'm not advocating that everyone is better off skipping college years. Of course, if  you are considering a vocational profession, such as a doctor or lawyer, higher education is mandatory. Likewise, if you are interested in perusing a life of academic research then college is for you- assuming that you are endowed with the necessary academic wherewithal. Similarly, perusing STEM studies is usually a good option, as long as you manage to graduate. 

Society has pushed the program that to 'get on in life' a college degree is essential. This perspective is also promulgated by governments who are fervent promoters of higher ed. Also, well meaning parents have their role to play in chanting the education mantra. Undoubtedly, 'boomer' parents benefited from the wider availability of  a college education in the post-war years, however, as previously mentioned, only 5% of the population took advantage of this societal windfall. When half the population takes a bite from the ' educational apple' then don't be surprised if the maggot of despond raises its half eaten head (steady, Flaxen). When everyone is a graduate; when everyone is the same, how is the individual to stand out from the crowd. One way to step forward is to engage in post-graduate studies. Thus, debt is compounded (?compound interest) and the reward in terms of career promotion is, often, not forthcoming. 

As an aside, nay digression, the drone effect, that is, everyone is the same, is often apparent on prospective employee's CVs and resumes. As an employer, how is it possible to choose, when everyone is: 'a team player'; 'highly motivated' and 'able to think outside the box'. Wouldn't it be wonderful if the candidate, actually 'thought outside the box', and placed an original thought on paper. If I see, 'another hackneyed cliché, such as, 'proactive',  I swear I will burn, or at least lightly singe, an orphan child. Enough ranting, for now.

So what is the solution? Because you have an interest in philosophy doesn't warrant spending the next four years learning about Descartes and Plato. You could satisfy your curiosity by utilising free online resources, or by attending the local night school/community college, or equivalent. The question that needs to be asked, is: how will this degree help in obtaining worthwhile employment commensurate with my education? We all have interests, but don't expect employers to pay good money for your hobbies. Not everyone is academically inclined, and even those who are intellectually gifted might want to consider a different career, apart from higher education, as preparation for the modern workforce.  

Although I have eked out a sound career as a biologist, I suspect if I had my time again I would have chosen a different  pathway. It has often been said, that if a biologist was good at maths he would be a physicist. Actually my mathematics ability was very sound. I elected to take an intermediate calculus course in the first year of  university and passed with flying colours. This was the same course undertaken by engineering and physics majors. With hindsight I should have taken a physics degree. Although physics was not my first love (that was Cindy Macintosh), I suspect my options and career prospects would have multiplied ten fold and my coffers would have been overflowing with gelt.

So the above is my final thoughts on the education process. I would ask my readership what they think of the whole 'higher education circus'. Would you do things differently if given the opportunity to begin again? Would you have drunken deep from the chalice that is higher education, or would you have been content to quaff but small drafts of academic wisdom or mayhap eschew the expensive 'fruits' contained in the flagon of scholarship altogether? Or maybe Flaxen has finally teetered into the abyss that is frank insanity and would profit from an increase in his medication, especially the green and red capsules? Let me know in the comments.   


Saturday 13 March 2021

The Cure for Cancer


In 1971, the then president of the United States, Richard Nixon (remember him?), declared ‘war on cancer’ and the National Cancer Act of 1971 became enshrined in law. The objective appeared deceptively simple. By injecting billions dollars into cancer research, cancer as a disease, would be no more. If this could be achieved it would be a significant contribution toward combatting a major cause of mortality in the US. In hindsight, this objective, although noble (nay, exalted), has turned out to be unimaginatively difficult, if not impossible. Politicians are prone to simplistic sound bites to capture and fire up the imagination of the US citizenry. Wise heads in government and the medical profession knew better. Researchers realised that this was a great opportunity to secure extensive funds for solid fundamental research. Their goals were essentially modest as the biological processes involved in normal cell division and cancer were poorly understood at that time.

While folks in ‘the know’ were under no illusions as to the scientific and medical possibilities, the population, for the most part, really thought that a 'cure’ would be the likely outcome after pouring vast amounts of money into the project(s). It is to be remembered that this was an optimistic era as far as the potential of technology and science was concerned. Just two years prior, the US had landed the first men on the moon. After untold billions the almost impossible had been achieved, surely using similar funding the cure for cancer would be just a snip. This misconception was ultimately based on an oversimplification of the problems faced. Placing a man on the moon at the time was a well defined engineering, technical and scientific problem. Although difficult, it was clearly within the realm and wit of man. But curing cancer was, and is, an issue that is immensely more complex than space travel. For instance, cancer is not one disease, but a host of different diseases. If they have one thing in common it is the underlying cause is genetic. In addition, cancer cells don’t differ markedly from normal cells in terms of biochemistry. Slight genetic changes affecting metabolism and cell division can profoundly alter cell proliferation to the detriment of the host. Cancer would not be ‘beaten’ within a decade of intense work. In fact, progress was always going to be painfully slow and episodic.

So after 50 years, what are the fruits of this expensive/extensive endeavour? Has there been a definitive cure of any particular cancer? If we couch the question is these terms the answer is an unequivocal, no. We certainly understand how cancers develop and in some instances we have come close to a 'cure' for a minority of cancers. Over the last twenty years we have developed an advanced array of cancer modifying drugs that attack the problem at the root source, the gene. These drugs have changed the prognosis of some cancers, such as chronic myeloid leukaemia from a virtual death sentence, usually within four years, to a survival rate stretching unto decades. This brings up a very salient and important point. These new wonder drugs come at a cost. Often treatments range in the 100,000s of dollars per patient per year, and can even stretch into the millions. How can these drugs have a wide impact on cancer if we are unable to dispense to all, due to the high cost of treatment? Many of the treatments used to treat cancer today have remained remarkably unchanged after 50 years. Thus, radiation and chemotherapy still remain the first line treatment and mainstay for a surprisingly large number of cancers. This rather crude treatment has had some solid success with individual cancers. Acute lymphocytic leukaemia in children was a death sentence 60 years ago. Today, using a combination of radiation and chemotherapy 80% of patients remain long term disease free..

Fifty years on from the 'cancer act', and after the expenditure of 100 billions of dollars by the federal government, the tax payer is bound to ask, has the effort been worth it? Certainly cancer has not been eradicated. I would argue that although we haven’t achieved the lofty goal so earnestly sought after, we have undoubtedly made prodigious scientific and medical progress. We have elucidated the genetic pathways involved in a large number of cancers and this has allowed the development of drugs that can control the genetic drivers responsible for unrestrained cell proliferation aka, cancer. The sequential development of cancer trials has enabled better and more efficient cancer treatments resulting in a reduction in mortality in a significant number of malignancies. In spite of our best efforts it is also true that some cancers, notably breast and lung cancer, have remained stubbornly resistant to our attempts to increase survivorship. Oncologists are not comfortable with the concept of 'cure' when it is applied to cancer. They find it more useful to consider five year survival rates as a true representation of treatment success. I can't explain the reasons why this is the case, in this post. Perhaps at a later date if the muse so takes me......

To be honest the optimism of 1971 was misplaced and only politicians waxed verily of the ‘magic bullet’; the general public was misled and deceived. Doctors and scientists were grateful (and continue to be so) for the extra funds to pursue their research. Thusly, they rolled up their sleeves and got to work on perhaps the hardest and most intractable problem humankind has ever had to face. In 1998, for the first time in decades, cancer rates in the US experienced a decline. However, this reduction was primarily due to smoking cessation rates. Since 1964, it has been officially known that tobacco smoking was a a leading cause of cancer, not only of the lung but of other organs as well. In 1964 42% of the US population smoked but by 1998 the smoking rate had dipped to 24%.

Let us be clear, we have made highly significant progress in understanding the cancer process and cancer treatments have benefitted accordingly. However, as stated at the beginning of this post, cancer is not a single disease but a multitude of very different disorders manifesting ultimately at the genetic level. It will be a hard slog to identify the important mutations involved in every malignancy. I can’t overemphasise the complexity of the problem enough. Any particular cancer is not the result of one mutated and wayward gene. There is a cascade process involving oncogenes, numerous. As the cancer progresses it promotes further genetic mutation. Not all these genetic mutations are involved in disease progression but are an expression of secondary 'genetic noise'. Identifying the relevant and important mutations from secondary clutter is a worthwhile but difficult task. Unravelling the genetic complexity that is cancer will no doubt occupy the best scientific minds for generations to come.

And finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the dread word, metastasis Many cancers spread from their site of origin, only a minority of cancers exhibit the tendency to stay put. Once cancer spreads by the lymphatic and circulatory system to parts distant the prognosis is invariably poor. More research is necessary to understand this poorly understood process. Metastatic cancer is cancer that is diagnosed too late. Highly aggressive cancers spread so quickly that the patient can succumb within months if not weeks. Is the answer, early and extensive screening? This can be a blessing and a curse, and therefore, needs to be addressed in a future post. Stay tuned

Thursday 4 March 2021

Observations and Thoughts on Higher Education: Part II


This is the second post in my much vaunted series on higher education. This series of bespoke posts are part of a prestigious sequence, otherwise known as: ‘A Trilogy in Four Parts’. I consider myself eminently qualified to wax wondrous on this topic due to my prolonged dalliance with institutions, various, dispensing learning, if not wisdom. Herein find perspicacity and intense longing, tinged with a tincture of justified insanity as befits my current hiatus in my medication cycle.

I mentioned in my last post the rise in spurious colleges, and if not outright scams, they are at best, misleading. In this post I would like to ‘raise the cudgel’ against so-called, ‘colleges for profit’. Conventional colleges and universities are primarily concerned with imparting wisdom and the financial aspect is of secondary importance. This is not to say that these institutions are indifferent to financial matters, however, they are primarily devoted to impart genuine knowledge at a fair price and student fees evince this laudable ethos. This to be contrasted with ‘for profit’ colleges where the learning process is subordinate to the gathering of fees. Consequently, tuition fees are much higher than charged by conventional colleges and this reflects and supports their prime motivation to make money (oodles of cash).

Whilst a gaggle of these colleges have a physical brick and mortar institution, many run their courses exclusively online. However, you wouldn’t gather this from their glossy, professionally crafted brochures that depict smiling attractive students against a backdrop of a suitably regal edifice. Now there is nothing wrong with online learning. It facilitates easy access to knowledge and provides convenience in our hectic modern age. But not all colleges are the same and it is important to weed out the academic wheat from the chaff. 

So, what are the prime characteristics associated with 'for profit colleges'. Nota Bene. 

Firstly, these institutions are aggressively marketed. Their day time television adverts, at least in the US, are allied with typical trashy day time fare, such as, the ‘Jerry Springer’ show or ‘Maury’. This is a cynical ploy to target their designated audience. The typical demographic are the poor and uneducated. Those interested are encouraged to phone the college, ‘hot line’ and are forwarded to a ‘boiler room’ populated by high pressure sales people paid by commission. Once engaged the prospective student is bombarded (nay, regaled) with the importance of obtaining a college education and why the particular college in question is the best fit for the budding student.

Secondly, prior education, or lack of, is not a criteria for academic admission. A legit college will generally require a certain minimum degree of prior education and relevant qualifications suited to the course to be undertaken. However, 'for profit colleges' emphasise the importance of ‘life experience’ as an important factor required for admission. It seems that the most important entry qualification is the ability to pay the exorbitant admission and ongoing tuition fees. And of course they are willing to sign you up with a loan company, of their choosing, so you can obtain the necessary funds. What they wont do is mention the high interest rates involved and if the student expresses concern, they will quickly be reassured that this will not be a problem as, once they graduate, they will be able to seamlessly slide into a lucrative profession. All their financial woes will disappear and their idyllic future will be punctuated with abundant success and sweet meats (sweet meats incur additional fees).

Then there is the issue of accreditation. This is particularly pertinent to those perusing a vocational qualification tailored to a specific profession. Entry to a host of professions require a relevant and recognised qualification that needs be accredited by a respectable and officially recognised registering body for professional validation. In the brochure blurb accreditation is cunningly fashioned to allay student suspicion. Therefore, although accreditation is mentioned, the accreditation body concerned is not recognised at the national level and therefore once the student graduates his qualification for entry into the desired profession is null and void. Indeed, oftentimes the accreditation body has been manufactured by the institution itself. Woe unto the scholar! 

Likewise, those pursuing a degree of no professional provenance are equally fucked. A degree certificate from the college might look pretty but it carries no weight in a competitive work place. Employers are acutely aware of the issues attending 'for profit colleges' and act accordingly. Thus, graduates are treated with disdain and are unlikely to obtain an interview on the basis of their expensive ‘degree’.

And finally, the degree course itself lacks academic substance. Consider studying part time and achieving a degree after 18 months study. A degree, in the real world, in the US at least, stretches to four years of full time application. The course material often lacks intellectual content and is frequently out of date. Students are mislead by the implausible grades they achieve. All is geared toward success. The program is rigged so that the student continues to participate and therefore continues to pay the exorbitant fees.

The Aftermath: Finally, the ‘graduate’ has to face reality. As he/she enters the highly competitive work environment they are faced with a rude awakening as reality finally intrudes/impinges on the ‘student psyche’. Over and above the accreditation issue, the poor sods have to deal with the fact that employers are well aware that their ‘degree’ is worthless. Thus the erstwhile student is lumbered with massive debt, often in five figures, and are unable to gain employment commensurate with their 'degree' qualification. Ain’t dat the sad truth.

The phrase ‘caveat emptor’ should never be far from the mind of any consumer, regardless of the service or product. Sadly, there is a long queue of dubious folk willing to fleece the unwary, unschooled and frankly, stupid. Be careful out there in the big, wide world. Tis full of shysters of unprincipled intent. Arse akimbo.