Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The ethics of prescribing placebos

Homeopathic medicine is no more effective than a placebo, but does it follow that it is unethical for a doctor to prescribe it?

Personally, I think homeopathy is ridiculous and I'd never use it, but I ask the question because homeopathic medicines are not the only drugs which doctors prescribe which only have a placebo effect.

Compare homeopathic medicines with anti-depressants. Homeopathic remedies will not cure you, but they are not toxic either, unlike anti-depressants, which can have unpleasant or harmful side-effects. In 2006 UK doctors issued 31 million prescriptions for anti-depressants, and 38 million in 2008, even after a meta-analysis study had showed that anti-depressants are no more effective than placebos, except in the most severe cases of depression (and even then the difference is "relatively small"). Is the number of prescriptions still rising?


Arguably, depression is a special case. If the patient's mood is lifted, does it really matter whether the effect is placebo or not? I'd argue that it does matter because of the drug's harmful side-effects; it would be better for GPs to prescribe a real placebo, that is something which has no effect at all -- like a homeopathic remedy perhaps?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

My UFO experience

The release of the UK UFO files has reminded me of my UFO experience twenty or so years ago.

I was travelling home from work in the early evening. When I stepped onto the platform at Peckham Rye I saw that all the other travellers were facing the same direction, staring into the sky. It looked like a scene from Close Encounters. Following their gaze I was mesmerised too, by a glowing, shimmering oval sitting next to the setting sun. One of my fellow travellers suggested it was a fire on the ground reflected in the clouds. That didn't seem very likely, but Londoners' cynicism triumphed, and I didn't hear anyone suggest that it was a flying saucer, even though it did actually look like a flying saucer.

I thought it was possibly a variant of the Northern Lights, or another weather phenomenon, so when I got home I looked up the phone number of the Met Office, so I could ask them about it. I picked up the phone to ring them, and then realised I'd sound like an eccentric reporting a UFO, so I didn't.

Thanks to Wikipedia, I now know it was a Sun Dog. They are quite common in Alberta where I live now.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Proving ID

I have two policies with Aviva, formerly Norwich Union. When I moved to Canada in '06 I sent a change of address notice to Aviva, but they only changed my address on one of the policies. Last year I tried again, and found myself involved in a ridiculous exchange of correspondence with them.

First, Aviva demanded I send them my passport to prove my identity. I wasn't going to do that because I don't trust them or Canada Post not to lose it. As Norwich Union they had a track record of not replying to my correspondence, and on one occasion had only taken note of my change of address after I'd headed my fifth letter to them in 20 pt bold type: SOMEBODY PLEASE READ THIS.

I pointed out that they had already altered my other policy with them to my Canada address. They promptly, and annoyingly, changed the address on that policy back to my UK address, but said I could send them a copy of my passport authorised by a solicitor or banker instead of the original. For security and my own convenience, I decided to do that when I was next visiting the UK. Aviva's response was a pompous letter saying they might not be able to carry out important transactions on my account in the meantime. Since the only transaction I care about is adding some bonus to my pension fund, which Aviva haven't done for about 10 years now, I wasn't bothered.

This week I took my passport into Lewes only to discover that solicitors won't authorise documents any more unless you are already their client and banks won't do it at all. So, I will have to wait until I'm back in Canada and get my solicitor there to do it. Of course, if I weren't living in Canada, I'd have to send them my passport by post.

I can't see how having lots of people's passports and other identity documents being posted to banks and finance companies helps combat identity theft or money laundering. Given that it increases the chances of villains intercepting identity documents, I would have thought it achieves the exact opposite.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Robin Hood Tax

I enjoyed the Robin Hood Tax video. Richard Curtis and Bill Nighy take credit, but who plays the "interviewer"? It sounds to me like the gorgeous voice of Anton Lesser.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Lack of affordable housing for architects

This is a social problem I didn't know existed. Apparently some architects can't afford houses in Bournemouth. Shelter has raised the alarm.