SciBlogs

Archive October 2009

Interphone – is the mobile industry in for a nasty shock? Peter Griffin Oct 26

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The long-awaited final report of the 10 year-long, 20 million pound Interphone study into whether mobile phone use can cause brain cancer is set to be published before the end of the year, according to reports from the UK over the weekend.

The results are expected to cause some concern for the mobile industry and the world’s four billion mobile phone users because they are expected to indicated that long-term, heavy mobile phone usage leads to an increased risk of developing brain tumours. But the picture isn’t as clear as that, which may well make the publication of the Interphone study in a peer-reviewed journal in the coming weeks one of the more controversial science stories of the year.

Sunday Mirror

Sunday Mirror

New Zealand participated in Interphone, which is a series of “multi-national case-control studies to assess whether radio-frequency exposure from mobile phones is associated with cancer risk” organised by the World Health Organisation. The study is already controversial – this Economist article outlines the reasons for that, but essentially there have been many questions raised about the methodology the study used and a preliminary release of data seems to have caused widespread confusion on the issue. This from the Economist in September last year, when the final report was due to be released, on the subject of ‘recall bias’ and the Interphone study.

“Recall bias happened because the study was retrospective rather than prospective. In other words it looked at what people had done in the past rather than following their behaviour into the future. In practice, that meant asking them about past behaviour, and relying on the accuracy of their memories.

“Even a healthy person would probably have difficulty recalling exactly how often he used his mobile phone a decade ago, and which ear he routinely held it to. Someone
subsequently diagnosed with a brain tumour might easily be biased, consciously or unconsciously, to exaggerate the former and misstate the latter.”

Of the 13 single-country studies undertaken as part of Interphone, the results from nine of them have been released – with several reporting an increased risk of brain tumours among mobile phone users after ten years of mobile use. Working through the impact of the recall bias is one reason given for the lengthy delays in publishing the Interphone study. There has also been, the Economist alleges, intense disagreement between the scientists involved in the study.

“The Interphone researchers are split into three camps. One believes any increased incidence of tumours shown in the study is purely the result of the biases. Another
thinks it really has found increased risks of certain tumours and wants to call for precautionary measures. A third group is just keeping quiet. One person who knows
many of the scientists, but prefers not to be named, describes the relations between members of the three groups as ’strained’–harsh language in the world of scientific
research.”

Some scientists are already saying that its impossible to reply on any data in the study that draws a direct link between mobile phone usage and brain tumours.But others are calling for Governments to issue public health warnings, particularly to warn parents not to let young children use mobile phones for extended periods of time. Already, there are calls in the UK press for action on the issue. This from The Sunday Mirror’s editorial:

“Young children should not have them at all while older ones ought to text rather than call and never sleep with them under the pillow. And everyone should use a hands-free connection rather than hold the phone to their ear. These simple measures could save countless lives. Phone companies should agree to print prominent health warnings on all packaging and the Government should launch a major education campaign. Too much time has been lost pretending that there is no risk in using mobiles.”

How the final version of the Interphone study is received by the scientific community is going to be crucial to what impact the research has on government regulations, industry standards and consumer behaviour.

The implications for the mobile industry are huge. In New Zealand, mobile phone penetration is over 100 per cent – some of us have more than one active mobile connection. Two new mobile networks have been built here in the last couple of years. Mobile chipsets are increasingly being built into laptops and netbooks to give people the convenience of accessing the internet on the move. Mobile phone companies have encouraged people to drop their fixed landline in favour of all-mobile alternatives like Vodafone At Home.

Mobile use is such a pervasive part of our lives in the age of the iPhone and text messaging that some clear conclusions leading to clear guidelines are needed on the safety of mobile use. The World Health Organisation will have to take some clear leadership here in the next few months in conjunction with governments around the world.

Interphone may also raise other questions for which conclusive answers require more long-term research:

- Are there any risks from long-term, heavy use of other wireless technologies (different frequencies) such as Wifi, Bluetooth, WiMAX, DECT. Many of us will be coming up on ten years usage of Wifi soon – all of my internet usage at home and in the office takes place over Wifi connections.

- Are there any risks posed by cell sites, especially as cell base stations are increasingly being placed at street level in inner-city areas to fill in coverage zones.

All along we have been told that mobile phone use, wifi use, cell towers pose no health risk to people. If Interphone provides compelling evidence to the contrary the mobile industry could be faced with a threat to its business akin to the disastrous Europe spectrum auctions that opened the millenium.

Glimpses of a world without the Internet Peter Griffin Oct 23

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Something humourless for the eve of the long weekend. Just my favourites from a collection of pictures imagining the world the day after the internet was taken away.

adult video

letter

Serious cash up for grabs in PM’s science prizes Peter Griffin Oct 23

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Details just in on the Prime Minister’s newly established science prizes. Check out the website devoted to the prizes here.

The jewel in the crown is the Prime Minister’s Science Prize itself – its worth $500,000 – to an individual or team undertaking breakthrough research in New Zealand. $100,000 goes to the individual or team itself, while $400,000 goes towards their future research programme.

Now let’s put that in perspective – the money involved is sort of like winning the Nobel Prize, considering that most Nobel prizes in the sciences are won by three people these days who spilt the US$1 million between them.  Given the exchange rate at the moment, its like the equivalent of a one-third share in a Nobel – with the big difference being you have to spend the bulk of the cash on future research whereas the Nobel prize winners can spend the money however they want to.

The MacDiarmid Young Scientist prize remains – John Watt from Victoria University strikes gold – he picks up the inaugural prize worth $150,000. He wouldn’t even have known that was available when he applied for the award. He must be beaming today!

Full details below – also good to see a sizeable ($150,000) going towards a science media communication prize…

There will be five categories of prizes:

  • The Prime Minister’s Science Prize – $500,000
  • The Prime Minister’s MacDiarmid Young Scientist of the Year Prize – $150,000
  • The Prime Minister’s Future Scientist Prize – $50,000
  • The Prime Minister’s Science Teacher Prize – $50,000 to the teacher and $100,000 to their school
  • The Prime Minister’s Science Media Communications Prize – $150,000

Is a replacement for the dumped R&D tax credits on the cards? Peter Griffin Oct 23

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As Sciblogger Shaun Hendy has pointed out, the Ministry of Research, Science and Technology has issued a feedback document on its priorities for science and technology and called for submissions on how to make the science system deliver more for New Zealand.

In the introduction to the paper, Science Minister Wayne Mapp wastes no time in pointing out a fact that many consider the reason for our comparative lack of economic growth relative to other OECD nations.

“The total government RS&T expenditure in New Zealand is 0.51 percent of GDP. While this is significant, it is less than in other countries. As a small country we have to make the most efficient use of our resources. We need to extend our knowledge base, stimulate scientific activity and harness the results to improve our economy and our society.”

We underinvest in R&D relative to other developed countries and R&D in the private sector is also relatively low. An attempt to stimulate the level of private R&D going on in New Zealand came from the former Labour Government, which introduced a 15 per cent in the dollar tax credit on R&D spend in private companies. That plan was scrapped when National came to power. But so far nothing has been offered as a replacement. But according to an NZBio report released this week, there’s an essential need for a replacement scheme to be introduced to stimulate investment in R&D. It recommended:

“By 2010, develop an alternative to the repealed R&D tax credit to stimulate investment by industry into innovative bioscience enterprises. Such a credit should take account of the needs of firms at various stages of their development and support the requirements of small, start-up organisations as well as larger firms. (e.g Boston Model — Massachusetts offers a tax incentive for research and development investment for both manufacturers and R&D companies.)”

The Independent noted this week the ambitious aims of other countries in the area of R&D:

When it comes to investment in R&D New Zealand lags well behind its OECD peers. In the United States the Obama administration has targeted 3 per cent of GDP as the necessary spend on R&D, while the Australian Government announced a A$42.4b ($52.2b) investment in innovation in this year’s budget. Innovation Waikato chairman Andy West, says New Zealand’s investment in R&D remained at around 1 per cent between 1980 and 2008; private sector input is a lowly one-third of the OECD average, while government investment is four-fifths. The graph below from the Independent illustrates our position compared to other countries:

rand d graph

The MoRST document doesn’t pay any specific attention to the R&D tax credit issue but the ministry has kicked off an initiative to look at ways of boosting private sector R&D and has a fairly tight timeframe for reporting back:

“The second initiative is looking at ways that business R&D investment can be lifted. This will examine ways to encourage businesses to engage in innovation, and how research organisations such as universities and CRIs can reach out to businesses more effectively and earlier. Recommendations on this will also be made before the end of the year.”

As the timeline featured in the MoRST feedback document suggests, the Government is looking to get the ball rolling on its strategy for changing the science sector quickly, with proposals scheduled to go to cabinet in January.

morst timeline

Windows 7: It’s good, it’s what Vista might have been Peter Griffin Oct 22

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It’s perhaps a virtue of Windows 7 that you soon forget you are working in the environment of Microsoft’s newest operating system and just get on with the computing tasks at hand.

windows7If you’re upgrading from Vista, the changes can probably best be described as cleverly subtle. There’s nothing radical here – no game-changing technologies that signal the future of desktop computing. For a company the size of Microsoft that’s potentially quite alarming – what are all those people doing? But after the botched birth of Vista and a disappointing experience for many with Windows ME, the focus on executing the basics is admirable.

Installation

If you are upgrading to Windows 7 from Vista you’re in for a relatively smooth, if potentially lengthy ride. Make sure you run Windows 7 Upgrade Advisor before you start, to see if there are any potential incompatibilities you’ll have to deal with and if your computer has the grunt to run the new operating system.

My machine, a Dell XPS M1330 with 4GB of RAM was deemed to have plenty of power to cope with it. However, when I went to install Windows 7, I was told that I couldn’t proceed with the installation until I upgraded the computer’s BIOS. Now the BIOS is a pretty integral piece of software that governs a lot of functions on your computer, so I was a little bit nervous about the upgrade, but I quickly located the latest BIOS software on the Dell site, crossed by fingers and flashed the BIOS. Windows rebooted and loaded smoothly paving the way for the install. Now, that install was a very hands-off process, but it did take the best part of 2.5 hours as the 2.5GB of files were installed, expanded, settings checked and transferred.

Overall however, I have to say that installation was a smooth run – unlike with Vista where I found myself running a new operating system that wasn’t compatible with numerous device drivers on my computer.

XP users making the upgrade – and there’s a good chance this is the majority of people who will be moving to Windows 7 have a slightly more complicated task ahead of them and if the Windows 7 upgrade process falls over anywhere, it is likely to be here. Moving from XP to Windows 7 is a clean install – it will wipe all your files off the computer, so you will need to create copies of them on an external hard drive, CD or DVD and transfer them once Windows 7 is safely bedded in.

A feature of XP called Windows Easy Transfer will help make the process easier and Computerworld has some useful tips on undertaking an XP to Windows 7 upgrade here. Make sure before you do the Windows 7 installation that you have the program installation discs for all the various software packages and applications you’ll want to reinstall on the computer once Windows 7 is onboard – and double check your files have successfully transferred to your external back-up source before pushing the button on the upgrade.

Performance

I haven’t done any scientific tests to prove it yet, but Windows 7 seems to run processes slightly faster on the XPS. Boot up time is similar to that of Vista, but the occasional lags I used to experience in running multiple applications or waiting for results to populate in the Windows search bar appear greatly reduced. PC World has some good tips on how to optimise performance in Windows 7.

There are numerous reports that Windows 7 is more energy efficient – using less processing power and therefore less battery power, giving laptop users more computing time between charges. I’m not convinced about this in terms of the XPS. I’m still averaging a fairly modest two hours of battery life.

Look and feel

windows7front

Vista users won’t notice anything too extreme in the looks department – the toolbar is slightly fatter and icons display differently. The fonts, icons and colour scheme have all been refreshed, as has the log-in screen and the graphics displayed during boot-up. However, Windows 7 is much more useful in how it displays windows and applications. For instance, you can hover over the Internet Explorer (or Firefox) image in the task bar to bring up a pop-up window that will show you the most recent sites you have visited. Returning to one of those sites simply requires you to click on the desired link.

Hovering over an application in the task bar, displays a nice large preview screen of the application. Mac users are already treated to such user-friendly features so it is good to see them appear in Windows. Personalising Windows seems to be easier – themes and desktop backgrounds are easier to apply and the gadget bar which used to run down the right side of the screen in Vista can now be pulled apart and scattered around the desktop. These gadgets are potentially very useful – I’ve got RSS feeds, weather and a Twitter client going, so even with no web browser window open, I’m receiving a regular stream of information straight to the desktop.

New features

Again, it is mainly subtle improvements to existing features that form the bulk of Window’s 7 overhaul – but already I’m coming to appreciate these changes. A redesign of how files and folders are organised allows you to bundle folders from across your computer in one location. So all the folders containing music cna be grouped together and in fact Windows will even doing this for you automatically. This is highly valuable if, for instance, you have music spread across multiple folders. Any sort of grouping can be configured making browsing for files so much easier and avoiding the confusion that sometimes arose in Windows between public and personal folders.

Home Group makes it much easier to share files across multiple computers and devices connected to the home network. Incidentally, allowing streaming in Windows 7 simply required it being enabled in Windows Media Player, a one click process, and I was quickly able to stream music and videos to my Playstation 3 console. WMP also allowed me to quickly authenticate my Windows Live ID so I can stream content over the internet from my home computer to another computer.

One click access to wi-fi networks is now possible thanks to a revamped wireless connections interface.

A few new interface features make navigation on the desktop easier. Aero Peek is a little sliver of the task bar you can click to clear the clutter of applications and browser windows from the screen to show you your clean desktop. Snap lets you push an application window to the side of the screen to snap it shut or towards the top of the screen to maximise it. You can also display two windows side by side. Shake allows you to grab a window with your mouse pointer, click and shake it slightly to minimise all other windows. It is very useful for those of us who end up with 10 – 20 windows of one sort or another open at one time.

Security

While Vista was lauded for beefing up security and closing off many of the exploits that plagued Windows XP, especially prior to the application of Service Pack 2, many complained at the pop-up screens Vista would throw at you asking for permission everytime you sought to install an application or change a setting. I’ve already had a couple of pop-up screens but they are a lot less frequent. Experts suggest Windows 7 may well be the safest Windows operating system yet.  There’s also built-in encryption now for external hard drives and flash drives, which is a nice feature as we are using so many of these types of devices to back-up our digital lives and make data portable.

Pricing

Chris Keall has the details here, but as he points out its a disappointing price range being offered by the big retailers. There are no major discounts on offer for those upgrading unlike in the US and Europe.

Windows 7 Home Premium (32-bit edition) is selling for around $190 across numerous retailers advertising on Pricespy, Professional (32-bit) around $260 and Ultimate (32-bit) $340. So there is obviously some discounting going on at the discretion of online retailers.

Verdict

This is what Vista should have been back when it launched in 2007. If XP users can get over the slightly trickier upgrade process, this should be a resounding success for Microsoft. It’s an interesting factor that since upgrading to Windows 7 I’ve become more engaged with Windows features I’ve ignored for years, such as the Media Centre software, which is actually quite good. I’m also tempted to increasingly check out Microsoft’s Windows Live suite of online services, though there’s no particularly exciting integration between desktop OS and the cloud delivered here. Maybe that’s a missed opportunity or a determined attempt to keep the desktop focused on running PC-based applications. You can’t really argue with that as a mission statement.

Google Wave: Yet to prove its real usefulness Peter Griffin Oct 20

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I’ve spent a couple of weeks experimenting with Google Wave – Google’s new real-time communication tool, but am yet to be convinced that for the majority of users it will prove a more useful communication suite than the compelling combination of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Chat and Google Talk.

What is Wave? It is part email, instant messaging, wiki editor and social networking platform. Users create “waves” – open templates for communication that can include plain text, documents, photos and real-time instant messages – and I mean real time. In Google Wave you see people typing the messages letter by letter – great for revealing the scatty typing habits and jumbled logic of your friends and colleagues.

These instant messages are threaded like posts in the comment section of some blogs, so there is some organisation to them. An interesting feature also allows you to play back how a wave was formed, with content appearing in the order it was added in real-time. That’s a great project management tool for teams working collaboratively on documents – you can easily go back and see where your project went off the rails, but does it have any application in the real world for everyday users of web services?

google wave image

Early incarnation – needs work

One of the Google-generated examples of a wave is a weekend barbeque invite. All the invitees participate in the wave, RSVPing to the invite, adding notes, letting everyone know what food they’ll be bringing. I can think of a whole host of uses for this for planning things like weddings and social club outings. Email is just too clunky for this type of interaction with everyone these days struggling with mail overload. So Wave has a ready market there. You can easily add documents and photos – the latter can be viewed back in a nice slide show format launched from within Wave. So more nice features there.

But its the interaction of the wiki creator, instant messaging and the absence integration of email that I have a problem with. When I initially heard about Wave it was being pitched as the next big thing in electronic communication. But I assumed it would be built around Gmail, Google’s hugely successful webmail programme. However, Google Wave doesn’t integrate Gmail and its implementation of instant messaging isn’t as sophisticated as Google Chat. I was hoping that Gmail would sit within Wave and I would be able to drag email messages and attachments I want to share from the Gmail client straight across into a Wave – drag and drop functionality between email inbox and wiki editor, in other words.

That’s not the case and it doesn’t seem as though you can email a message to a wave, in the same way for instance, you can email messages and contact details to the web-based CRM package Highrise. The lack of email integration effectively limits the audience to Wave users – you have to be in the Google Wave world to participate in the conversation, which means that it is unlikely to tear us away from email. I never wanted that to happen, I perfectly like my Gmail inbox/calendar/tasks/docs/chat, which I use to pretty much organise my entire life. It seems an opportunity to make email more useful and flexible has been passed over here. There’s even a public wave on whether Wave’s incompatibility with email is a problem – so other people are finding the same limitation.

Wave apps may be the saviour

All of this may be solved by the plug-ins that are likely to become available for Google Wave. At the moment the line-up of apps is limited to emoticons and Google Maps implementations although Graphy apparently allows real-time collaboration on graphs and flow charts which could be very useful. A company called 6rounds has developed an interesting video conferencing plug-in which looks promising. The developer community is likely to get onboard here quickly so the number of apps will grow.

Elsewhere, Wave still seems to be a little clunky – often there’s a lag in loading Waves and some of the navigation features could be streamlined. When you check out the large number of public waves that already exist in Google Wave, you see pretty quickly that there is a huge appetite for public, real-time discussion, collaboration and interaction. There’s some appeal in that, but outside of planning the weekend barbeque or working on a document with colleagues spread around the country – or the world, I can’t see the email-killing potential of Google Wave just yet…

Pros:

Google Wave is free (or will be on its public release)

Collaboration tools are user-friendly

Open-source, so support for iGoogle apps and good potential for API interaction

Cons:

Email integration is lacking – Gmail functionality not available in Wave

Instant messaging client lack’s Google Chat’s sophistication

Sluggish response times and poor navigation and menu design

Herald columnist’s denial bothers readers Peter Griffin Oct 18

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Last week again revealed one of the worst traits of the New Zealand media in its approach to covering climate change – giving people prime real estate to mouth off about climate-science realted subjects they are ill-equipped to comment on.

Luckily, Herald readers aren’t as meek and gullible as Garth George estimates, as the letters from the Weekend Herald listed below reveal.

I’m embarrassed for the Herald. Or rather,  I’m embarrassed for my former colleagues there who regularly cringe at some of the columns its contributors and guest columnists are regularly able to get into print. More on this from Sciblogger Gareth Renowden

climate letter 2climate letter 3climate letter 1

Eureka – Times launches science magazine Peter Griffin Oct 15

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The Times of London is ramping up its science coverage with a monthly magazine on science and the environment called Eureka.

eurekaThe magazine will be included in the Times for UK readers and luckily for the rest of us is being made available in a rather nice e-zine format. The Times has a long tradition of science coverage, appointing its first journalist to cover the beat in 1911.

As the paper points out here, it has covered some of the big scientific discoveries of all time – from a letter by Alfred Nobel explaining the properties of nitro-glycerine published in the Times in 1867 to a Times exclusive on Marconi’s first trans-Atlantic telegraph transmission in 1902.

But as strong as the Times has been in science and environment reporting, its rival The Guardian which has established a reputation as the leading newspaper for science and environment coverage. The launch of Eureka seems to be an attack on that mantle.

The first issue of Eureka looks great – the writing, design and overall presentation is of very high quality. I’ll look forward to reading it each month.

Would a monthly science magazine, folded into one of the country’s major newspapers, work here in New Zealand? Somehow I doubt it. There seems to be little appetite among a struggling print media here to expand specialist sections. I tried for years to interest the Herald in launching a dedicated technology magazine that could be folded into the Herald when I was technology editor on the paper.

There were plenty of similar tabloid-sized tech supplements successfully running in Australian papers at the time, and tech was a sitter for grabbing advertising from consumer electronics and IT vendors, but the Herald wasn’t interested. I doubt the proposition would be any more attractive when it comes to science, sadly.

Eureka’s maiden editorial, which essentially suggests we have two choices in our approach to using science to help tackle the world’s problems in the next few decades, is worth a read:

“The first option, a self denying one, takes us backwards, a retreat from technology and the wealth that has come from it. The second, more uncertain, path marches forward into a world saved by science. The success of this choice depends on the brains of our scientists, the will of our politicians and the hearts of our citizens”.

Wellington earthquake in real time Peter Griffin Oct 10

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Well that certainly wasn’t the wind! Five minutes ago I’m sitting at my computer doing some work and my desk starts to jiggle. The water in the glass of water beside me is trembling. My apartment seems to lurch slightly like someone has backed a car into it. And that’s it, another quake felt in the shaky city.

So the first thing I do, within a minute of feeling the tremor, is exactly what  you do in the age of Twitter – search under “#Wellington” and “#earthquake” to see if any Twitter users have felt it too.   I wasn’t disappointed…

earthquake

And that’s all within a minute of it happening. This is the most fascinating aspect of Twitter – the usefulness of it in crowdsourcing confirmation of events in real-time. Now if only the Geonet website was that responsive! As it happens, the Geonet website refreshed with the latest data at 6.17pm – revealing seismographs in the Wellington region showing a magnitude 5 quake….

earthquake2

All of this just serves as another reminder that I need to get my act together on some emergency preparedness here at home on the Terrace – the centre of the faultline cutting through Wellington. After some prodding from staff at work I finally bought a survival pack for the office. But my survival pack at home consists of a few motley cans of fruit and vegetables – no torch, no medical supplies, no matches.

I’ve experienced two what I would consider reasonably-sized earthquakes in my life. The first was in 2001, courtesy of the San Andreas faultline – in San Jose, California. I was about 30 floors up in the Hilton Hotel filing a story to the Herald on my visit to the Intel chip fab plant. The tall, thin building started to sway. I sat there and did nothing until the building stopped swaying. My instinct for danger wasn’t any better a couple of years later in Tokyo when I was lying in bed late one night watching TV and the building started to sway, and kept swaying. Car alarms went off. Someone screamed in the hallway outside. What did I do? Stayed in bed!

Anyway, some interesting reading here on the angry events of the Ring of Fire in the last couple of weeks and some speculation on whether these events are related.

TVNZ psychic move: A ‘new low’ for the industry Peter Griffin Oct 10

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We’ve already seen this week proof in an UMR Research study that the public believes the media is inaccurate, biased and unwilling to own up to its mistakes.

If those who answered that way in the UMR survey needed any more evidence to confirm their views they got it this week with two shameful examples from our TV networks.

TV3 60 Minutes producers failed to front on Russell Brown’s Media7 show to answer criticism from the Neurological Foundation and scientist Dr Bronwen Connor about a piece they ran about an experimental stem cell treatment that proved to be less than accurate and balanced.

nzh pollThen we had TVNZ’s decision to impose on the grief and confusion of a family whose daughter has vanished, by introducing to them Sensing Murder psychic Deb Webber. Herald readers this week made clear what they thought of that (see graphic)

And Michael Stevens seemed to represent their views when he wrote in a letter to the editor published in today’s Weekend Herald:

“Television New Zealand’s decision to exploit the suffering of the Symes family by bringing a charlatan, sorry a psychic, into their lives, and one who has worked for TVNZ, is disgusting and displays a lack of judgement and an absence of ethics from those involved.

“This was nothing more than a cynical attempt to exploit a family’s tragedy for TVNZ’s gain. This must be a new low for the industry.”

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