Fake bomb detector leads to deaths
One of the main reasons for the success Al Qaeda has had in getting bombs past checkpoints in Iraq is that the main device used to detect explosives is a uselss fake (NZ Herald, 24 July).
The Iraqi government paid large sums for the detector, originally produced in Britain by a company whose managing director, Jim McCormick, has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. Export of the device, formally known as the ADE-651 but called a ‘sonar’ in Iraq, has now been banned.
The detector, a black plastic grip with a silver-coloured wand out the front, supposedly receives its power from the operator, who shuffles his feet to generate static electricity. If explosives or firearms are present, the wand is meant to incline towards them, like a water diviner’s rod.
The only electronic component is a small disc, similar to that attached to clothes in shops to stop people taking them without paying. Although each device costs US$50 ($68) to make, Iraq spent US$85 million on them in 2008 and 2009.
An Iraqi police chief said privately the police knew the detectors did not work but went on using them because they were ordered to. The presumption is that somebody was paid a bribe to buy them and does not want to admit they are junk. They remain in use today.
According to the Times Online (January 22), McCormick believes a lot of the opposition to the device is driven by its rather primitive appearance. “We are working on a new model that has flashing lights,” he said.
‘Lady Luck’ has no favourites
Sports writer and poker devotee Ian Anderson had some very refreshing things to say about luck in his Waikato Times column (28 August).
“Many people will tell you,” he writes, “that great teams create their own luck. Many people, of course, are idiots. Luck doesn’t get created – it’s a random act of variance – and it doesn’t favour one team or the other, be they great, woeful or middling.”
The All Blacks, in the middle of an unprecedented run of test match victories, had just squeaked home against the Springboks in Johannesburg, thanks to a try which the referee, on another day, might not have given. If it hadn’t been awarded, the All Blacks would have been left licking their wounds – much as they were in the 2007 World Cup when the critical refereeing decisions went the other way.
Sports fans have very selective memories, Anderson says. While people tend to focus on incidents that happen late in a game, a wrongly awarded try in the sixth minute carries as much weight as one in the 76th.
“We can also instantly recall any gross misfortune that has befallen our favourite sides but struggle to dredge up any memories of decisions that go in our favour.”
The same applies to poker players, who without exception think they’re better at the game than they are, and who sincerely believe most losses are the result of incredibly bad luck while victories come simply through outplaying their opponents in the hand.
“Yet a trawl through hand histories will glaringly reveal that each player… receives his fair share of bad beats and fortunate suck-outs.” Presumably these are technical poker terms.
UFO ‘Trick of the light’
A famous UFO filmed in the Australian desert in 1964 has been explained in recently released British Ministry of Defence (MOD) files as a trick of the light (Stuff, 5 August).
When footage of the Blue Streak rocket tests at Woomera were broadcast by the BBC, television viewers were “shocked” to see what appeared to be a flying saucer near the launch pad. Many wrote to the MOD asking for an explanation.
Then, when documentary maker Jenny Randles went to investigate the footage she found it was missing from the National Archives. An MP who saw the documentary then launched an inquiry. The newly released files, however, show that the people who made the film at the time were clear that the ‘UFO’ was an internal camera fault. The ‘missing’ canister of film had been stored at the Imperial War Museum, rather than the National Archives.
The incident is just one of thousands of UFO sightings investigated by the MOD. The latest bunch of files covers more than 5000 pages of correspondence on them.
David Clarke, author of The UFO Files and a senior lecturer in journalism at Sheffield Hallam University, said people who believe in UFOs were unlikely to be convinced.
“The truth is that people see things in the sky that they can’t explain, but the vast majority have got simple explanations. That is the truth, but they won’t accept that.”
Massey to study NDEs
If you’ve ever had a Near Death Experience, Massey University researchers would like to talk to you (Dominion Post, 27 August).
Psychologist Natasha Tassell and sociologist Mary Murray are carrying out New Zealand’s first large-scale study of the phenomenon. They estimate up to a quarter of those who have come close to dying may recall a form of near-death experience. “It’s a known phenomenon, but we don’t know how it occurs and exactly how prevalent it is,” Dr Tassell said.
They also wanted to know what variations existed and whether there were cultural dimensions. About 15 people had already shared their experiences, but they were hoping to attract about 100 participants 21 years and older for the two-year study.
Dr Tassell’s interest was sparked after an experience of her own, when she lay down after feeling unwell, and recalled travelling down a tunnel with a bright light at the end.
Alt med scrutinised
It was good to see Victoria University’s Professor Shaun Holt giving a public lecture on the potential dangers of alternative cancer therapies recently (Dominion Post, 1 September).
Chiropractors were good at helping people with bad backs but would not help cancer, reiki was “chanting mumbo jumbo”, reflexology was “absolute nonsense”, and colonic irrigation was dangerous, he said.
Professor Holt was however reported as stating that yoga could be effective for breast cancer patients, though the article didn’t say how. Taking ginger was as effective as pharmaceutical drugs for patients experiencing nausea and vomiting.
He also said acupuncture, massage therapy, aromatherapy and art therapy could help alleviate symptoms such as stress, anxiety, pain and depression. He might perhaps have mentioned that it doesn’t matter where you stick the needles to get a response from acupuncture – it’s more about stimulating endorphin release than directing energy flows.
Toxic slugs create panic
Reports of toxic sea slugs on beaches around Auckland are taking on an almost hysterical flavour with news items about them and their ‘spread’ appearing almost daily (eg TV3 News, 3 September, NZ Herald, 9 September, Radio New Zealand News, 25 September).
The animal in question, Pleurobranchaea maculata, is perhaps the most common and widespread sea slug in the country. It is found all around the coast, in many habitats from low tide to a depth of 250 metres. It gained notoriety in 2009 after some dogs on an Auckland beach were poisoned after eating some that had washed up.
It has always been known that the slugs are toxic – that’s how they can survive without a shell – but it’s since been learned that the toxicity is due to tetrodotoxin, which is originally produced by bacteria, and known from several marine animals including fugu (Japanese puffer fish) and blue-ringed octopus.
It appears that the toxicity levels vary in different areas, and there’s now quite a bit of work going on to learn more about these fascinating animals (Rodney Times, 28 September). It’s a pity it appears to take a certain level of hype to get some basic research done on even the most common of the animals that live in and around this country.