New Zealand Election 2017: Fake News Makes an Appearance

The current state of play in New Zealand’s general election is radically different from two months ago. Then Labour Party leader Andrew Little valiantly stepped aside in favour of the charming and articulate Jacinda Ardern who has done well to communicate a raft of popular policies. The public has responded in turn, Labour has now led the National Party for two successive One News/Colmar Brunton opinion polls.

Where there’s strong Labour polling, desperate National party dirty tricks follow. This week, finance minister Steven Joyce claimed that Labour had failed to account for $11.7 billion of announced spending. This claim has widely been regarded as false, even by right-wing economists. Much of the spending will in fact be paid for from operating expenses. Humourously, it has also been revealed that Joyce failed 8 economics papers at university (which he attended for free). The events of this week have demonstrated that he is unfit to serve as finance minister.

Even though swathes of analysts have dismissed Joyce’s claim, the fact that the media reported it in the first place has the potential to cause unwarranted damage to Labour’s electoral fortune. The only person who has piped up in agreement with Joyce was Prime Minister Bill English. As a Catholic, it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t have a problem accepting falsehoods.

So let’s tentatively say the fake news budget hole backfired on the Tories. More fake news was ready to take its place. This time it’s from the obscure Down syndrome advocacy group Saving Downs who have taken issue with Ardern’s pledge to decriminalise abortion. Saving Downs doesn’t like this stance and decided to extract sympathy for their position by fabricating an image to make it look like Labour’s policy was more extreme and would allow abortions up until birth.

By plying fake news about Labour Party policy, Saving Downs has played into the hands of anti-choice interests. The anti-choice viewpoint is generally dishonest and morally inconsistent (try it for yourself). We should respect the bodily autonomy of pregnant people who should be able to choose to terminate their pregnancy for any reason at any time. Those reasons include results from (optional) medical tests that suggest the quality of life of the resulting person may be compromised.

The Labour Party is to be commended for putting forward a strong economic vision that rightfully makes wealthy property owners, resource extractors and polluters pay more tax. At the same time, Labour is committing to spending on initiatives that will provide more opportunities for the public. Similarly, Jacinda Ardern should be commended for front-footing New Zealand’s shameful criminalisation of abortion by advocating for the rights of pregnant people. Conversely, fake news purveyors such as Steven Joyce and Saving Downs must be condemned by the mainstream media in the strongest terms possible. Our democracy must be protected from the manipulation of the populace that fake news seeks to achieve. I can only hope that future polling (and the election result) shows that Kiwi voters see straight through these deplorable tactics.

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Let’s Make Magic Water Again!

Previously, I wrote about Te Kiri Gold, an extortionately priced product whose desperate users were told could cure cancer and suchlike. The product in question is no more than electrolysed salt water. I sardonically mused that such a product could be made from the reject stream of the reverse osmosis brine electrodialysis process, such as the one used in a chlor-alkali process designed by a team that I was involved with for an undergraduate project. Because of the low production cost and the attractive pricing, our generic Te Kiri Gold would generate a tremendous amount of revenue!

Recently Stuff.co.nz shared an article about another type of magic water, sold here in good ol’ New Zealand under the label of NZ Water Purifier Ltd. This magic water is different; while TKG was a solution of sodium hypochorite, NZ Water Purifier Ltd is a solution of dissolved chlorine dioxide. Chlorine dioxide should not be consumed by humans, let alone anything living. Funnily enough, it can also be produced by the chlor-alkali process!

During my undergrad project, another team also designed a chlor-alkali plant. They targeted it for use in the pulp and paper industry. A Kraft pulping plant is the perfect companion for a chlor-alkali plant since both the chlorine and NaOH are consumed on-site. Sodium hydroxide is used during the cooking and bleaching operations, while the chlorine is reacted with NaOH to produce sodium chlorate (famous for causing trousers to explode), which is reacted with hydrochloric acid to produce chlorine dioxide, which is the bleaching agent used.  Judging from the leading photo in the article (higher res at the original article at Newsroom.co.nz), sodium chlorite and HCl are sold in separate bottles* to mix together at home, or you can buy it pre-mixed for convenience.

Economically, how does this compare to TKG? We can’t use electrodialysis dilutate to produce NZ Water Purifier Ltd because the membrane cell requires highly concentrated brine (250 g/L as opposed to 32 g/L). So instead, lets just dump it back into the ocean and re-purpose the plant to make chlorine dioxide.

I’m not exactly sure about the amount of chlorine dixoide that can be produced, but from a crude analysis of the molar ratios in the chemical reaction equations I think there is a 2:1 ratio of sodium chlorate:chlorine. Thus we are limited by the amount of NaOH produced. There is then a 1:1 ratio of Chlorate:chlorine dioxide. Let’s say that from 90,000 t/y of NaOH, we can make 152,000 t/y of chlorine dioxide. (Note that I’ve ignored the production of HCl, which could be achieved from the remaining chlorine that isn’t used to make sodium chlorate. It becomes chlorine again during the reaction to produce chlorine dioxide anyway). Let’s assume we sell the solution at 25 wt%, then we are making 608,000 t/y of solution. Assuming a density of 1 kg/m³, and $190/L, we have a revenue of $116 million/y. Thus, we can conclude that a plant making Te Kiri Gold was a much better investment at $260 million/y in revenue.

Unlike TKG, this is not a kiwi product. In fact, NZ Water Purifier Ltd is already so infamous, that it has it’s own RationalWiki page (under the name, MMS). Consuming chlorine dioxide is a terrible idea, with some very unpleasant health effects. Beyond the usual aspirations of curing cancer, MMS has lately been marketed to parents of autistic children as a way to “detoxify” them. This is no doubt connected to the anti-vaccination movement, which has demonised autistic people as being “damaged” by vaccines. The level of ableist prejudice among the anti-vaccination and alternative medicine communities is outrageous. It only serves to increase the contempt that I have for them.

Fortunately, Medsafe has issued a warning over the product. Even better, the government has introduced the Natural Health and Supplementary Products Bill, which regulates the manufacture, sale, and export of “natural” health products and creates new offences for deceptive behaviour and harming human health. It’s currently at the committee stage prior to the third reading. Let’s get the bill passed and close NZ Water Purifier Ltd down.

*The concentrations of sodium chlorite and HCl are unclear. Are they weight percent, or per weight of water? Either way, it looks like sodium chlorite is in excess when the solutions are mixed. The pre-mix is given as 3000 ppm, is this weight, volume or molar? What  a bunch of scientifically illiterate bastards.

Another Great Kiwi Invention to not be Proud of

In my final year of undergraduate study, I worked in a group of 4 people to design a chlor-alkali process plant. One of the interesting parts of this process is that you produce chlorine and sodium hydroxide. We needed to make sure that our process was positioned such that there was sufficient demand for both the chlorine and the sodium hydroxide.We obviously went for a membrane cell design because the other main types (mercury and diaphragm) use mercury and asbestos respectively. Sad!

After the usual jokes about supplying chemical weapons to dubious customers (which doesn’t sound so funny anymore), we settled on Australia. We would sell the chlorine to a PVC manufacturer in Victoria, the NaOH to the mining industry for bauxite processing and we would use the reject stream from a reverse osmosis desalination plant. Concentrating the brine solution was one of the trickiest parts, so it seemed helpful to have the hard work done for us, and it would reduce the damage done to the environment by the desalination plant.

However, it wasn’t that simple. The RO brine wasn’t concentrated enough! Thus, we opted to bump up the feed concentration using electrodialysis (I believe the recycle brine stream was concentrated using multi-effect evapouration). Such an approach was used with a plant in Kuwait (now called Al Kout Industrial Projects Company).

Despite using an innovative and efficient set-up, the profitability was very sensitive to the price of NaOH. If the price is too low, you may as well not bother.

I was thrilled to discover that there was another application for the chlor-alkali process: Te Kiri Gold magic water of course! You don’t even need to worry about concentrating up the feed solution, just dunk your electrodes in and go! Then approach vulnerable people, who will believe that it will solve their problems. Even better, get some rugby has-been to endorse it. Then charge $100 for 2 litres.

So our Victorian chlor-alkali plant used 5.9 million t/y of RO brine . Of that, 5.2 million t/y of that was electrodialysis dilutate, with a NaCl concentration of 32 g/L which I presume was dumped back into the sea. Instead of doing this and have to pay some kind of dumping fee (which we didn’t consider in the cashflow analysis) let’s make some magic water! As a volume, that is 5.2 million L/y. Given that no separation is required, the only operating cost is that of the electricity. At $50 per litre, the plant could make $260 million/y in revenue from magic water alone! The revenue from the chlorine and NaOH was only $160 million/y, and these were also much more expensive to produce.

There are a few issues to consider. First is demand; while there are enough people to defraud to make it worth the while of the shareholders, there aren’t enough people to defraud on such an industrial scale. The second is efficacy: MAGIC WATER DOESN’T FUCKING WORK! The third is ethics: could you live with yourself if you knowingly sold ineffective products that were giving people false hope? The dumbarse who manufactures this product doesn’t have this problem as his knowledge is woefully deficient. His claims of wanting to help people would be more believable if he wasn’t charging such an extortionate amount for it. Maybe he’s just that bad at business and that is what he needs to do to cover his costs.

I’m disappointed by the media coverage. The Stuff.co.nz articles are clearly aimed at the already sceptical, who will read the first few lines and snort with laughter. However the more easily misled may not pick that up. The expert criticism of the product only features at the end of the article where it’s less likely to be read. The Herald is worse, their “investigation” is a one-on-one chat with the manufacturer whose incorrect answers to the reporter’s questions go unchallenged. One Herald “article” is nothing more than an anecdote from one of the scam victims. The media has a responsibility to protect the public and needs to take a stronger view against Te Kiri Gold, which should be shut down immediately.

Academia Milestones: My First Invite from a Predatory Conference

At the moment I’m in the depths of my PhD. My days are spent agonising over reviewer comments, simulations that don’t work (and some that do!) and tutoring undergraduate students.

But after all that, it’s nice to get noticed and receive the recognition that I deserve. Today I was invited to speak at the 2nd World Biodiesel Congress & Expo (Theme: An innovative approach towards the green fuel). It was refreshing that my expertise has finally been acknowledged as shown by the high praise I have been given:

You are the person with significant experience in this field to deliver a speech of touchstones which ignite young minds to overcome the challenges in the field of Bioenergy.

It truly is a measure of my inescapable brilliance that I have significant experience in the field of bioenergy even though I have no experience in the field of bioenergy!\sarc

At this stage I was already suspicious because of the unsolicited nature of the email, the poor grammar and the fact that my private email server had highlighted it as spam. I thought I would have a look at the conference website. Looks science-y enough. At this point I am amused that it is organised by ConferenceSeries LLC. By adding LLC to the end of an organisation’s name makes them instantly sound untrustworthy (e.g. imagine Toastmasters International LLC).

About once a month, I find myself browsing the Retraction Watch blog. It makes me feel better about myself because while my progress may be slow, at least I haven’t resorted to scientific misconduct. It means that I’ve also become quite familiar with some of the unsavoury aspects of scientific publishing in the neoliberal era. The most unpleasant aspect would have to be predatory publishing. Predatory publishing is where open-access journals charge authors exorbitant fees to have an article published while not performing the necessary services associated with real journals (the Wikipedia article frequently cite Jeffrey Beall whose articles now redirect to “page not found” following the disappearance of Beall’s list in January).

A quick google search for ConferenceSeries shows “conferenceseries predatory” as the first predicted search term. ConferenceSeries is part of the spaghetti umbrella of brands that make up the OMICS corporation which has been sued by the US Federal Trade Commission for deceiving researchers.

Predatory conferences have false editorial boards and organising committees that list reputable academics who did not consent or may not even be aware that they are listed. Registration fees are excessively high and non-refundable (the motive of the organisers becomes a lot more clear). There are also huge numbers of conferences scheduled all over the world (e.g. let’s catch up at ICAMAME 2030: 32nd International Conference on Aerospace, Mechanical, Automotive and Materials Engineering in Penang, Malaysia! \sarc)

This is all bad for science. Emerging researchers are mislead into paying for low quality conferences that may be more harmful their reputation than doing nothing. Low quality work enters the public sphere where it can be seized upon by members of the public unaware of the swindle going on, especially considering that these “papers” are open-access, while real papers may be only accessible by purchase or subscription*. This could be a disaster for public policy where politicians rely on flawed information to make decisions (I’m surprised climate change denialists haven’t picked up on this and started sending papers to OMICS, after all they’ve got the money to do so)!

Researchers have long made a sport out of trolling predatory publishers and conferences with absurd papers from SCIgen, chicken chicken chicken, iOS autocomplete and my personal favourite: get me off your fucking mailing list. What sort of abstract should I send in? Here are some of my ideas:

  • A criticism of Northern Ireland’s Renewable Heat Incentive which quickly descends into an anti-unionist rant.
  • Argue that bioenergy is unethical from a plant rights perspective.
  • String together some Donald Trump/Deepak Chopra tweets (“The quantum consciousness of the biofuel, quantum, is so very tremendous. It’s just great”).
  • Ignore it and get back to doing my work.

When low quality papers are in circulation, public confidence in science is eroded, governments cut science funding and life gets harder for scientists producing quality research. Science is already broken with the obsession over researcher metrics and the publish or perish mantra. The inevitable result is easy submissions to fake journals, which only breaks science even further.

What a shame. The open-access model is great in principle, but has been cynically abused by greedy corporations like OMICS. I think the answer may lie in unconditional taxpayer funding of scientists whose work is exclusively published in government research repositories  which are freely accessible to citizens and businesses. Quality of work would still be monitored by blind peer-review and funding would be allocated for replication studies. Science is far too valuable to be left at the mercy of the merciless private sector. All the best to the US FTC as they hopefully grind OMICS into the ground.

*(hint: never pay for a paper, find a uni student to download it for you or use the interloan service that university libraries provide)

Justin Trudeau Made Me Sad :'(

Reading NZ political blogs has been a mixed experience for me. Everywhere you look, there are bound to be right-wing gloaters. They are incredibly tedious, they spin everything in favour of their governing party, deride anything remotely left-wing and blithely use the appeal to popularity fallacy. This is why I find Canadian politics interesting. It’s refreshing to see right-wingers impotently venting into online comment spaces, outraged that the left is making things better.

Unfortunately, the new-ish Liberal government led by Justin Trudeau does not seem to be as progressive as I would like. Namely cash-for-access and not doing enough to shift the economy away from oil exports. Now, I hear that the Canadian government is not going to follow up on the promise to replace the abhorrent FPP voting system with a better alternative. The Guardian reports that this followed the appointment of a new Minister for Democratic Institutions who did not seem to regard electoral reform as a priority.

This is a classic example about why government led electoral reform hardly ever works out. Why would a governing party want to change a system that bought it to power? In the case of FPP, the governing party gets more for less, i.e. an absolute majority in Parliament with 40% of the vote. Electoral reform needs to be led by the public, the government will only change when not doing anything becomes too unpopular.

This is short-sighted behaviour from the Liberals. They should remember that the Harper government was able to govern with less than 40% of the vote, all because of FPP. In a proportional system, there would never be a Conservative government in Canada ever again. A Liberal-NDP (plus Bloc and Green if needed) coalition would outnumber them by a massive margin. Perhaps the Liberals are selfish and unwilling to share power with other left parties, such that they are prepared to subject Canada to the disastrous prospect of Conservative governments in the future.

As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, New Zealand is an instructive example. Following some cases where the second-placed party got to form the government by themselves, a popular movement developed. Ironically, the Lange government promised and failed to deliver electoral reform, which the National party took advantage of in order to win the 1990 election. They then gave us a referendum in 1992. Perhaps inaction by Trudeau’s government will further strengthen the move to proportional representation in Canada!

The comment section was full of misinformation and sentimentality from individuals who like having a “local” MP. Of course, NZ gets bought up in these discussions since we have seen reason. However, one jackass insisted on saying that the NZ government was being held to ransom by minority interests and that MMP was unpopular. So, I created a Guardian profile* and set the record straight (you can read my comment here).

It’s disappointing to see left-wing heroes let us down by capitulating to the status quo. It means during times of left-government, we don’t get to relax in the exhilarating march towards progress and mock the right-wing losers. No, we need to make our opinions heard by those in power. Democracy should not just be representative, it should be participatory. Now is the time for reform-minded Canadians to participate.

*You can only create you pseudonymous username right after you’ve submitted your first comment (replies to other comments don’t count). I nearly gave away my identity in this process, so be aware!

Prime-time Dishonesty from Anti-Fluoride Group

I was shocked to discover that the anti-fluoride organisation Fluoride Free NZ had purchased advertising time on TV3 (one of the major NZ broadcasters) to promote their agenda against community water fluoridation (here’s the ad). They point out that local councils are purchasing hydorfluorosilicic acid for the purpose of fluoridation. They then claim that this hydorfluorosilicic acid is a “waste” product of the fertilizer industry and that it contains lots of “bad chemicals” responsible for serious health concerns. Oh, and to visit their website for some “facts”. Let’s look into what reality says:

Firstly, to suggest that “hydrofluorosilicic acid is commonly known as fluoride” is ludicrous. They are not the same thing. Given that water fluoridation has been found to be safe and effective, it makes sense that anti-fluoride campaigners have turned their aim onto hydrofluorosilic acid. While it is true to say that hydrofluorosilicic acid is a by-product of another chemical process (The NZIC have produced a document describing the production process of hydrofluorosilicic acid), what’s the matter? A molecule of an something is the same regardless of where,how or for what it was produced. To call hydrofluorosilic acid a waste product is no more than a matter of perspective. One could easily descirbe the production process as efficient and sustainable, since the by-products don’t need to be dumped and a whole new facility exclusively producing hydrofluorosilic acid doesn’t need to be built.

It’s not clear why they claim that hydrofluorosilic acid contains toxic elements. Of course, they also omit any information about the concentration of these materials (which are always going to be present in water in very small amounts). In terms of the dissolution of hydrofluorosilicic acid in water, Ken who runs the Open Parachute blog addresses the claims made by anti-fluoride campaigners. In short: hydrofluorosilicic acid is more convenient to use than sodium fluoride (which is found in toothpaste, just check the tube). Since both compounds dissolve in water to give fluoride ions, their effects are the same. The silicates that exist in solution are not any more highly concentrated compared to unfluoridated water and they are not capable of causing corrosion in pipes.

Be sure to check out some of Ken’s other posts regarding the matter of water fluoridation, he has written some excellent posts addressing the claims made by anti-fluoride groups and individuals over the past several years. In particular, his posts which cover the legal action taken by anti-fluoridation interests that was supported by Big Natural Health! (see here and here).

I find it supremely ironic that Fluoride Free NZ has the nerve to go on TV and imply that water fluoridation is part of some conspiracy by Big Business to shirk costs when  anti-fluoride action has been bankrolled by corporate interests! I’ll bet many people never imagined a concept such as Big Natural Health actually existed. After all aren’t they supposed to be the good guys? No, “natural health” products are made in factories from chemicals (gasp!) just like most other products these days. (John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight did a segment highlighting the power of the Natural Health industry).

So excuse me if I’m dismissive of Fluoride Free NZ and their attempt to mislead the public about water fluoridation. Given the track record of anti-fluoridation campaigners, it is not worth listening to them. It is disappointing that TV3 decided to broadcast this ad. It is my opinion that they have not lived up to their moral obligation to present their viewers with accurate information. Given the financial issues that TV3 has experienced in the past, it comes as no surprise to me that they would do anything for a few dollars.

We deserve better than Fluoride Free NZ and we deserve better from TV3.