No apologies

Yesterday saw the publication of the “Murphy Report”, or the Commission of Investigation Report into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin. The report deals with cases of clerical child abuse within the Dublin Archdiocese, ranging from 1975-2004. Specifically, it differs from the Ryan Report in that it deals with the way claims of abuse were handled by the church, the health boards, the Gardaí, and other authority figures at the time. It deals with 46 priests as a representative sample (of almost 200 priests named in complaints), and most of them have been given pseudonyms.

From the report – “Of the 46 priests in the representative sample, 11 are or were
members of religious orders. Four of these are dead; four are living within
their orders with restrictions on their ministry and activities; two are living
within their orders without restrictions and one has become estranged from
his order and is living without restriction in another diocese. One priest
belongs to a UK diocese and his whereabouts are unknown. Of the 34
priests from the Dublin Archdiocese, ten are dead, 20 are out of ministry and
four are in ministry. Of the 20 who are out of ministry, 11 are being financially
supported by the Archdiocese and are living under restrictions imposed by
Archbishop Martin; nine are laicised.

The report confirms, among other things, that the diocese were very aware that abuse was going on, and made active attempts to cover it up. As early as 1987, they arranged insurance against compensation claims from victims of such abuse. Many high ranking officials in the diocese were aware of the abuse. Despite a knowledge of both civil and canon law, the Archbishops in charge either chose to turn a blind eye (Archbishops Ryan and McNamara) or make token efforts to setting processes in motion, but not following through (Archbishop McQuaid). A total of two canonical trials took place over the 30 year period, initiated by Archbishop Connell (against strong opposition), which resulted in the defrocking of two priests.

In general, there was a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy with regard to the abuse. Complainants were told as little as possible, and the issues were never openly discussed by the Archbishop and his auxilliaries. The church failed to inform the Gardaí of reports of abuse, and it was against strong opposition (and breaking of canon law of secrecy) that Archbishop Connell allowed the Gardaí access to the files kept by the diocese. As problems emerged within the diocese, Archbishop Ryan assigned different people to deal with them, leading to a breakdown in coordination and communication.

Senior members of Gardaí dealt inappropriately with cases – handing them back to the diocese to be dealt with, for example. Many senior Gardaí felt that the priests were outside their remit, and so when people complained about abuse, instead of investigating, they reported it to the diocese and took no further action.

The second half of the report deals individually with the sample selection of priests, detailing (for each one) the allegations made, and the response (or lack thereof) of the church and the Gardaí. Regrettably, the response in most cases seems to have simply been to move the priest on, occasionally to send him to counselling, and to cover it up. The greatest concern, at all times, appears to have been that people would find out that the abuse had gone on, and not that lives would be crushed by the abuse.

You can read the report here, it’s in two parts:

Murphy Report part 1

Murphy Report part 2

I recommend that you do read it, and encourage others to. Not because it is easy, or interesting, as I can assure you, it is neither. It is as grim as the Ryan report, and as difficult to read. People were ignored in the most arrogant and disgusting way possible. Their trust was violated. And, for the most part, there still has been no apology.

I encourage you to read it because it is important that we stop ignoring what went on. It is important that we know what went on so that we can make sure it doesn’t happen again. And mostly, it is important because these people have been crying out for their whole lives, and it’s about time that we listened.

General Web Design & Development

Hello World

For some weeks now, I’ve been testing Google Wave. I was lucky enough to get a very early beta invite, and I have been playing with it (with varying levels of success) ever since. I thought that it was now time to give some first impressions, and to maybe try to answer the question that everyone keeps asking me – what exactly is Google Wave, anyway?

So, first and foremost, if you have the time and the inclination, I recommend you watch Google’s video, which explains all of the features they hope to implement, as well as some example uses of the technology. It’s a long video (1hr and 20 mins) but I found it interesting enough to want to apply for a beta invite. You can view the video and read some intro material on the Google Wave site.

With the marketing spin out of the way, I can get into my own experience with Google Wave. The technology itself is in very early beta. Many of the bots that were developed in the initial sandbox phase (and that you’ll see in the video above) didn’t work when I initially started testing wave. Truth be told, when I started using Wave, the first thing I realised was that I couldn’t really test it properly, because almost no one I knew was also part of the beta phase! As the days and weeks have gone on, new bots have been brought on stream, and Google are implementing more of the features demonstrated in the video. Also, they’ve provided invite nominations to users, meaning that you can bring your circle of friends into Wave too. This has solved a lot of the initial problems (i.e. being in a Wave all by yourself, without even bots to play with!).

I know that many people don’t see what all of the fuss is about, or how the tool is an improvement on email, but I can see massive potential. I’m involved in several groups (training, gaming, etc.) and this usually means that I’m involved in the event organisation to a certain degree. For organising club and group events, I think that Wave offers several advantages over email, and I’ll try to explain below.

  • Default “Reply All” – A common problem when sending out a group email to my committee members is the “bittiness” of the responses that you get back. Some people remember to reply all, and some don’t. What that means is that information gets lost, and then doesn’t make sense when it arrives, out of context, because someone else has “replied all” to an email that contained some non-reply all content. All in all, it’s a bit messy.
  • Like grouped with like – Occasionally, you don’t want to reply all in a mail, because you really do just want this one person to know what you have to say. With email, once you break off into a personal conversation, there’s no guarantee that that email will be grouped with the others, or grouped coherently into the time line. It’s likely that you’ll end up with another conversation grouping, or that your individual conversation will be broken up by group emails. With Wave, I can break off and make my individual comments within the context of the wave. The comments are stored in the same grouping, and kept in context with everything else.
  • Repetition, repetition, repetition – As a function of the reply and reply all options in email, you end up with a lot of messy, duplicated data. Scrolling down through an email conversation with a group of people can be pretty tiresome, as in between each relevant bit of new information, there is the inevitable glut of previously emailed info, signatures, auto-inserted legal disclaimers, etc. In Wave, you reply, and your reply is there, without having everything else tagging along.
  • Consistency is king – While it would be nice if all of my group members used gmail, I’m sorry to say that they don’t. This means that, while I have all of the group mails (mostly) bunched together in my inbox in an expandable conversation, they don’t. And as a result, emails get missed, get lost, get ignored, etc. Using Wave for the group interaction brings a consistency to it. Everyone will see each blip in the wave the same way, and everyone will have all the information grouped together in context. No more lost emails, missing info, etc.
  • There’s a plugin for that! – Organising group events can be tricky, and there are usually a few hurdles that you’ll have to clear regardless of the event type. The main issues are usually 1) getting the information out to people consistently, 2) getting and managing rsvp information, and 3) giving directions. Thankfully, Wave addresses the above. There’s a simple Yes, No, Maybe plugin that will allow people to click on a button to rsvp. You can embed google maps with location information so no one gets lost, and as already addressed above, you know that everyone will receive the information consistently.
  • Early bird gets the worm – But luckily, in Wave, the late bird can catch up. Rather than needing a separate email chain to catch a latecomer up, or having to forward several email conversations, you just add them to the Wave. All the information is there, in context, and complete. If they want a more comprehensive run through, they can use the playback feature, which gives them a blip-by-blip playback of the wave from the first message.
  • Too many cooks – getting feedback on event information is hard enough – getting feedback on event paraphernalia is almost impossible. Rather than emailing an attachment (a poster in a Word document, for example) I can add it to the wave. From there people can view it, and make changes as necessary. The group is more involved in the creation process, and the work can be shared more evenly among the group.

I have only been using Wave a short time, and I can already see huge potential for organising various club and group events, sharing plans and documents, and generally helping things to run smoothly. I’m glad to be part of the beta, and I can’t wait until it’s ready to roll out fully.

I think the reason I’m so excited is because I’ve realised what it’s about. If you’re just going to use it to chat to a friend, then you’re right. It’s not much different than using email or chat, and you could be forgiven for thinking that all the fuss is about nothing. If you look at the larger scope, and see it as a project collaboration tool, I think it’ll make you smile.

So there you have it, my first impressions of Google Wave. Feel free to add your own (or dispute mine!) below.

General Science

A Second Birth

This week has seen some interesting news with regard to Rom Houben, a man who appears to have been suffering from Locked In Syndrome for over 20 years. A while ago, he made headlines when it seemed that he had been misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state, when in fact he had been minimally conscious and “locked in” all these years. While the diagnosis was made in 2006, it is only recently that a paper detailing the case was published, which is, in turn, what has driven media attention to the man.

At first glance, the story seems to be pretty miraculous. A man is left in a permanent vegetative state after an accident, and remains that way for 23 years. He is assessed for signs of brain activity again, by a new doctor (and at the behest of his family) and it is seen that there is brain activity. And now, 3 years later, he is giving interviews on tv, through the medium of Facilitated Communication. He is eloquent, optimistic, and smart. The case must shine out like a beacon to any who have previously questioned the notion of removing life support from people in long term comas or vegetative states, or to people who are perhaps now hoping that their loved one will awaken from their coma and return to the person they once were.

At first glance, I’d be almost inclined to agree, but the scientist in me wanted more than a newspaper article, so I looked a little deeper into it. I found the paper published by (among others) Stephen Laureys, who is the doctor that is being credited with discovering that  Houben was in a minimally conscious state (MCS) rather than a persistant vegetative state (VS). The paper can be viewed freely here and I’ve also grabbed the PDF, lest that link disappear in the future. I also did some investigating into Facilitated Communication, as watching some of the videos featuring Houben (and his facilitator) left me questioning the validity of the method. (One such video is featured here Houben interview)

To my mind, anyone believing that the story will signal a mass re-diagnosis of all comatose patients should read the original paper. It’s linked above, and is freely available (and I applaud the authors for allowing the paper to be open access online, it is a refreshing and welcome change from the norm). At first glance, one of the points made in the conclusion leaps out at me – “Despite the importance of diagnostic accuracy, the rate of misdiagnosis of VS has not substantially changed in the past 15 years.” While misdiagnosis of VS has always occurred, the rate of misdiagnosis has not changed. People are not being diagnosed with VS in order to be shelved, or because doctors don’t have time for them. They are being diagnosed based on a set of criteria that has proven to be reasonably reliable over time. I hope that this article does not bring renewed, dashed hope for many people.

I’ve also looked into facilitated communication, and having done so, I have my doubts about its legitimacy, and it’s efficacy. In some cases, people have moved from facilitated communication to independent communication, but these do seem to be the exception, rather than the rule. The alleged goal of facilitated communication is not to be there to facilitate for the rest of the person’s life, but to allow them to further develop so that they can communicate themselves. Where this has worked has been, for example, cases where the facilitator now need only hold a keyboard while the person uses it, or where the facilitator helped to train the person in the use of a communication device. I don’t see this in the case of Houben.

I understand that learning to use a new communication tool can take some time. I can imagine it would be very difficult. But if Houben’s FC is still communicating for him after 3 years, isn’t there a failure in technique there? After 3 years, shouldn’t he be able to use a device by himself, or at least more independently than to have a facilitator actually moving his finger? Also, as has been pointed out by several articles, it seems remarkable that a man, essentially trapped in solitary confinement for 23 years, should have no psychological problems evident. There appears to be no mental damage, as a result of the accident, or, as a result of the prolonged isolation. It seems to me that someone who has been removed from society, institutionalised, and isolated, for such a long time, really shouldn’t be so well adjusted.

Many detractors of Facilitated Communication say that the words that are spoken are really those of the facilitator, whether it be intentional or unintentional. I would have expected that selecting letters on a full qwerty keyboard, one by one, with only small hand movements to direct you, would be hard, and slow going. In the video above, and many others, the facilitator is moving his hand around with remarkable speed. If he has the muscle tone and strength to move so significantly that he can direct her at that speed, can he not now move toward independent communication?

Or is this all just giving false hope to people? Houben was found to be in a MCS by new technology. This is another matter for dispute, should it interest anyone. However, being in a minimally conscious state is not the same thing as being awake, and nor does it necessarily mean that you will have the physical ability to communicate.

I would hope, for the sake of his family, that Houben really is communicating and feeling alive after his second birth. As with many such things, I find the evidence rather thin, and until such time as I can find something more substantial, I’m forced to conclude that this story is potentially damaging to anyone in the unpleasant position of caring for a comatose loved one. I think it will serve to raise hopes only to dash them sharply again.

And I wish that this had been considered before the media declared him a miracle coma man.


Superfoods article is a super joke

And the effort to categorise all foods into arbitrary “good” and “evil” groups continues, with this stunning example of a completely useless article, which contains overall less nutritional value than the “superfoods” it recommends (or poo-poos).

The term “superfoods” has come into common usage quickly, and almost silently, and while some foods could certainly be described as pretty good (containing a high nutrient content while also containing little poor nutritional content) the amount of foods now carrying the “super” moniker has gone beyond a joke.

Superfoods is a term that continues to inspire debate among nutrition professionals (e.g. dieticians) as it has become little more than a marketing tool, used to promote foods as having health benefits which are in some case questionable, and in others, entirely fictitious.

Lets take the article linked above as an example of current “superfood” buzz. I particularly enjoyed reading this one, because it ticked not one, but two boxes on the “rubbish” checklist – not only did it contain a list of superfoods, but it actually contained a list of “bad” foods, reasons why they are actually “good”, and the vice-versa for “good” foods.

The article takes a number of “bad” foods, such as cheese, jam, chocolate, coffee, and lists health benefits which make it ok to eat them. Jam will cure cancer, bacon will prevent the artery clogging normally associated with fats, and ice cream and chocolate will cure your depression and solve all your problems from the first nibble.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a superfoods spectacular if they didn’t also include some “good” foods. What I particularly enjoyed here, though, is that they include these “good” foods simply so that they can rubbish them! Yes, that’s right – Tofu will make you sterile, orange juice will give you diabetes, and heaven forbid you should eat wholemeal bread…

I do hope that this is another article that no one will take any notice of, but I feel sure that that’s not likely to happen. Instead, it will be trotted out during discussions as a reason to avoid “good” foods, and indulge in “bad” foods instead.

This article, like others in the same vein, quietly promises that by eating foods you really like, you can be healthy (and that by avoiding foods you maybe don’t like, you’re really doing yourself a favour). I think this is because if anyone actually wrote a useful article about nutrition, it would never be published, because it’s not news.

The simple fact of the matter is that we have known for years how to have a healthy relationship with food, and the key isn’t loading your diet with “superfoods”, eating millions of berries or tomatoes, or kilos of chocolate to prevent cancers and render you superhuman. The key is, as it has always been, balance and moderation.

So, here’s my proposal for a new article, that I’m sure will blow people away with its new and exciting information. The key to living long and prospering is right here – Eat a balanced diet that doesn’t include too much sugar or fat. Eat a diet that includes a variety of foods. Eat when you’re hungry, and learn to stop when you are full. And hey, every now and again, indulge in a bit of vigorous activity.

Now then, where’s my phone – I’m sure it’s about to start ringing off the hook…

Web Design & Development

On being a web developer

While tweeting earlier, I began thinking about my job and my skillset. I have been a web developer professionally for a number of years now, and for many more years as an unpaid amateur. While in college, I did my best to keep up with trends in web design and ensure that I didn’t get left too far behind.

When I left college, I first worked for a web design company, who did websites for a number of different clients. Because the requirements were so varied, I had to keep up with changes. I used several languages and technologies on a day to day basis, because some were better suited to the tasks than others.

Now I’m in a different position. I am a web developer working for a pharmaceutical company. The scope of what I do is huge, and the development list is ever growing. But due to existing frameworks, existing platforms, etc., I find that I’m always developing in the same languages (namely Caché, and Java [J2EE], some jsp). While I continue to boost my skill level in Caché, I have noticed myself that I have less time to experiment with other languages.

In particular, I read about web conferences, and different tweets and blogs about friends and colleagues who are in web development companies (or are freelancing) and I wonder if I’ve made the right decision, or if I’m being left behind.

I’m sure that I could pick up these new languages and frameworks quickly, as I have had no trouble doing so in the past. I had no Caché experience when I started this job and was able to reach a level of proficiency quite quickly. But I do wonder if there will come a point where there is simply too much to catch up on.

And then, of course, we come to a decision I have debated myself a hundred times over – is it better to be a generalist, or a specialist? I could be a Caché specialist, but then, I don’t think there’s a very big market for that. I could be a generalist, but surely there is a point where one is stretched too thin in trying to have a hand in everything?

What do you think? Is it better to be a specialist or a generalist? And is it better to do in-house web design, or to work for a web design company?

Answers on a postcard…


Homeopathy 101

A blog that I quite enjoyed reading can be found here:

I have always been fairly skeptical of homeopathy, and some of my recent reading material (Bad Science, Trick or Treatment, Suckers) has really served to reaffirm my beliefs and to provide me with a wealth of evidence to back them up.

To my mind, it is clear that homeopathy does make some people better, but for different reasons than they would assert. Varying degrees of the placebo affect, the feeling of being more cared for, the comfort of a “diagnosis”, etc., will all, I believe, make a person feel better if they have been suffering from some vague malaise.

In this case, I don’t begrudge them. If you really believe that taking a drop of Rescue Remedy before an exam will help you succeed, then who am I to burst your bubble? Largely, this kind of thing doesn’t harm anyone, and while you are essentially buying into something I don’t believe in, I have seen what positive thought and belief can do to, and for, people.

I have to draw the line, however, when it comes to real, problematic diseases and conditions. There have been far too many cases where people have died of easily preventable and/or treatable conditions because, rather than take medicine, they opted for “natural” medicine, or homeopathy. Once such example particularly offended me recently – the case of Thomas, Manju, and Gloria Sam. This article will give you more details, but in summary – the child (Gloria) suffered from severe eczema, and the parents refused conventional treatments, instead opting to provide homeopathic drops and other remedies. They also flew the child to India to receive further homeopathic treatment. When Gloria was eventually brought home and to a hospital, with an eye infection so severe that her corneas were melting, there was little the professionals could do. Her body was literally worn out from fighting the various infections that her compromised skin could not keep out of her body. She died of septicaemia.

The child in the above story suffered much more pain than she ever should have, simply because her parents refused conventional treatment. When cases like this come up, I think that removing all the homeopathic remedies from the shelf might not be such a bad idea.

I am aware that there are many plants that have important pharmaceutical properties, and that many of the drugs we now use today originally came from plants. However, most of these drugs are not produced from the original sources, because it is too difficult to control – by producing them artificially, dosage, strength, quality all can be controlled. I don’t believe that there is a big conspiracy on the part of the pharmaceutical companies to suppress “natural” remedies – many medical remedies come from “natural” sources. I genuinely believe that if there was a flower out there that could cure cancer, people would already be exploring its properties, cultivating it, and seeing how they could make it most effective, and also safe.

I think that when it comes to making healthcare decisions, you should look to the proof, not the spin, to decide. And to my mind, there is too little proof of efficacy in homeopathic remedies.