Thursday, May 24, 2018

On Roth

I haven't read a thing by Philip Roth, and the descriptions of his work and style in this article in Slate doesn't really encourage me to try him, either.   I don't know - the whole intense American Jewish introspection thing just doesn't appeal to me. 

I was struck by this paragraph regarding his most infamous book:
What you can’t really feel anymore is the shock, or the funniness. Portnoy’s problem is that it was too successful: It remade the culture in its own smutty image. Today the bawdy set pieces—crude masturbation jokes involving raw liver—seem as American as American Pie. What remains, under the antic comedy, is the familial sadness of the Portnoys, so much love leading to so much misery, and the hectoring voice that would carry so much of Roth’s subsequent work.
Yeah, thanks for nothing, Mr Roth...

Edging towards modernity

From NPR:
The Philippines, where roughly 80 percent of the population is Roman Catholic, is one of only two countries in the world where divorce remains illegal (with exemptions for the roughly 5 percent of the population that's Muslim). The only other country where divorce remains illegal is Vatican City.
I guess there's not that much need for divorces within Vatican City.

Anyway, change may be on the way in the Philippines:
But a bill passed in March by the Philippines House of Representatives is giving hope to proponents of divorce. It would allow divorce for a variety of reasons, including irreconcilable differences, abuse, infidelity and abandonment....

To become law, the bill needs to be passed by the Senate and approved by the president. But the House bill, which passed by a vote of 134 to 57, is significant since no divorce legislation has ever made it this far in the Philippines, says sociologist Jayeel Cornelio of Manila's Ateneo University. He calls the bill "unprecedented," but also logical in a country where a recent survey showed more than half of Filipinos are in favor of allowing divorce "for irreconcilably separated couples."

"The influence of the Catholic Church, when it comes to political matters and private moral affairs, is becoming weaker and weaker in the country," Cornelio says. "The resistance of the Catholic Church to the divorce bill is increasingly seen as not in the interests of the public but only the interests of the Catholic Church."

Cornelio says a divorce bill is a sensible, and even "inevitable" next step after the passage of the country's reproductive health law in 2013, which allowed poorer Filipinos in particular access to birth control. Many municipalities have been slow in implementing the reproductive health law, which took more than a decade to pass — evidence of how much power the Church still enjoys.
Still, there is an unusual level of bipartisan support for the divorce bill — a matter of concern for the Catholic Church.

China and children

Good post at The Interpreter:  Will China finally end its one child policy?

It makes the point that China has two clear demographic problems - not enough workers and not enough women:
By 2050, one in four people in China will be a retiree. This will definitely put an incredible strain on China’s one-child generation, who will have the 4-2-1 problem of taking care of kids and elderly parents, with but a nascent social safety net for support. With fewer workers paying into the system and more pensioners drawing from it, China’s pension shortfall could by 2050 reach trillions, according to a Deutsche Bank estimate.

There are, of course, other countries with greying populations. Japan takes the lead, but it has a far smaller population and a per capita GDP four times larger than China’s. That is why there’s the common saying in China, “We’ll get old before we get rich”.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that China shot itself in the foot demographically with the one-child policy. From having five people to support one retiree, the country will soon have 1.5 workers per retiree. Its bachelors need brides, its elderly need caretakers, yet its women were reduced by the one-child policy. Coupled together with a long-standing cultural preference for sons, this has led to a shortage of 40–60 million females.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Reform already finished?

The modernisation of Saudi Arabia has hit a road bump.  (Or, perhaps more accurately, the government car of modernisation has swerved to deliberately hit a few women who were cheering it on to go faster.)
For months, Saudi Arabia had been enjoying a public-relations windfall. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, or MbS, the kingdom’s charismatic future leader, seduced the world with his vision for a new, modern nation. There have been live concerts, and cinemas are opening, with many more planned. Women can attend soccer games. Last September, MbS announced a bold promise to overturn the country’s ban on women driving, a change that is set to go into effect on June 24.

Then, late on Friday, it all came crashing down: Reports emerged that the women activists who pressed for the policy change had been arrested and imprisoned. As of this morning, 13 are reported to have been arrested; most are women. Apart from the driving issue, they have campaigned against so-called guardianship rules which require Saudi women to receive permission from a male relative before making many life decisions, like traveling. One of those detained was Loujain al-Hathloul, who was photographed at the 2016 One Young World Summit with none other than Meghan Markle, who married Britain’s Prince Harry on Saturday.
The same article notes a widely told story about the modern prince:
One anecdote about MbS that seemingly every ambassador in Riyadh tells is the “bullet story.” When MbS was 22 (roughly 10 years ago), he wanted to build a business career. On one occasion, he needed a Saudi judge to sign off on a deal. But there was a problem with the contract, so the judge declined. MbS, the story goes, pulled a bullet out of his pocket and put it on the man’s desk. “You will sign or this is for you,” he said. The man signed the contract, but complained to then-King Abdullah, who banned MbS from the royal court.

I won't be booking my holiday visa to Riyadh anytime soon.   

Under pressure

I never would have thought that the concept of "pressure" would apply to the inside of a proton, but apparently it does.  And it's very, very high.  The abstract of a Nature paper just published (my bold):

The proton, one of the components of atomic nuclei, is composed of fundamental particles called quarks and gluons. Gluons are the carriers of the force that binds quarks together, and free quarks are never found in isolation—that is, they are confined within the composite particles in which they reside. The origin of quark confinement is one of the most important questions in modern particle and nuclear physics because confinement is at the core of what makes the proton a stable particle and thus provides stability to the Universe. The internal quark structure of the proton is revealed by deeply virtual Compton scattering1,2, a process in which electrons are scattered off quarks inside the protons, which  subsequently emit high-energy photons, which are detected in coincidence with the scattered electrons and recoil protons. Here we report a measurement of the pressure distribution experienced by the quarks in the proton. We find a strong repulsive pressure near the centre of the proton (up to 0.6 femtometres) and a binding pressure at greater distances. The average peak pressure near the centre is about 1035 pascals, which exceeds the pressure estimated for the most densely packed known objects in the Universe, neutron stars3. This work opens up a new area of research on the fundamental gravitational properties of protons, neutrons and nuclei, which can provide access to their physical radii, the internal shear forces acting on the quarks and their pressure distributions.

Why I am skeptical of Nassim Taleb

I look at Nassim Taleb's twitter feed from time to time, and sometimes read other stuff about his ideas.

I think he has a touch of the Jordan Peterson's about him - he does a very hard, overly self-confident, sell of his own ideas using somewhat opaque or idiosyncratic terminology, and some people are very impressed by that.  Both seem readily overcome by emotions - Peterson can be weepy and sound distraught by Lefty ideology; Taleb is surely one of the angriest, and most arrogant sounding,  Tweeters on the planet.  (I reckon he would deny being emotional, though, and claim all of his angry sounding outbursts are purely intellectually driven.)

I pretty much have to rely on what other people explain as his positions, and here is a useful one by Arnold Kling on Taleb's recent book about "Skin in the Game".   One part:
In his latest book, Skin in the Game, Nassim Taleb offers an approach to social and political philosophy that he believes will encourage socially constructive change and increased freedom. He starts with "double-negative utilitarianism," which means to minimize harm. This leads to a focus on the proper management of risk.

Taleb argues that only when people are, themselves, exposed to the adverse consequences of their choices do they take risks that are constructive for society. When they do not have "skin in the game," they take risks that are harmful and dangerous. This leads Taleb to advocate libertarianism, in which decentralized entrepreneurs are heroes, while those who impose centralized decisions are villains.
Hmmm.  "Decentralised entrepreneurs are heros" sounds a bit Randian to me.  You know how much I like Randian capitalist hero-worship.  [Sarc].

But you know what makes me most skeptical - Taleb spends a lot of time on Twitter fretting about GMO food and Monsanto (a topic on which I have some interest, as I have long thought it plain that some GMO ideas - food crops that allow for more and more herbicide to used on them - are dubious long term propositions that people ought to be skeptical of), but he seems to spend no time on climate change, which is clearly the most important global medium to long term risk of all.

As far as I can tell, Taleb is not a climate change skeptic; or at least, he has argued strongly for a precautionary approach to climate policy.   But Arnold Kling is a skeptic, and I reckon he and other libertarians like Taleb because he is part of the libertarian "do nothing" club - he manages to find (more or less) politically tribal reasons to not be concerned about politicians who deny or want to do nothing about climate change.   So, for such enlightened liberations who are not so crass to want to be aligned with Monckton, Singer or other loser and nutty sounding denialists, they can shrug their shoulders and say "no, of course I believe in climate change.  But meh, what can you do?  Now those bicycle helmet laws, anti-vaping regulation, and lower taxes - now that's what really gets me perturbed."    

Readfearn Fisks Bolt

Graham Readfearn does a rather excellent job at detailing how Andrew Bolt's editorial piece on Peter Ridd (which was likely only viewed by his small echo chamber of viewers anyway) was wrong in all key aspects.

(Incidentally, haven't had the chance to use the verb "to Fisk" for a long time.   Whatever happened to Fisk anyway.  I see he still does some reporting, but he is much more ignored than he ever used to be...)

More Peterson skepticism

A Slate article:   Jordan Peterson seems like a terrible therapist.

I think he might deny that what he was doing in these Skype sessions was therapy.  But the more I read about him, the nuttier he seems. 

In other denialists news

Wingnutty climate change denialists are fools easily parted from their money - whether it be for laying out for echo chamber denialist tomes published by the IPA, or an academic wanting hundreds of thousands of dollars for legal fees for a case which, I strongly suspect, he's going to lose.   (That really is a very large amount for legal fees for an employment dispute case, by the way.)

Denialists don't have the best track record when it comes to litigation.

Climate change denialists in trouble

Climate change denialists were motivated right from the start of the disastrous South East Queensland floods of 2011 to try to find humans to blame for the exceptional scenes of mayhem which led to many deaths in a type of sudden flood we just hadn't really seen in this region before.

Hence, apart from dam management, they latched onto one family's ground works as being the cause of deaths, and ran with it in a way that has led to a defamation action that anyone objective would have to say is not going well for Alan Jones and Nick Cater.


Probably nothing to it

Lots of news about some German researchers finding that that the likely explanation for the EM drive engine producing some tiny apparent thrust is the test apparatus interacting with the Earth's magnetic field.  

I was skeptical about this being a breakthrough from the start.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Teenagers, guns and mental health

They a very good, detailed and somewhat depressing explanation in The Atlantic about how you can never expect to have a system that catches all potential teenage gun killers in the US before they act.   It gives examples of the pre-killing behaviour of some of the guys (it's virtually always guys) who have been notorious mass shooters.  

It's always tedious hearing Right wingnuts saying that the problem is someone should have done something before the killing, when less than 10 States have "red flag" laws that might, in some cases, work to remove their guns.  And besides, for killers too young to own their own gun, they often just use their parents.

The article also notes that there has been a clear decrease in mental health beds available for those who need a lengthy and proper assessment.  And there are other complications too:
A parent of a child 14 or younger can legally commit him to a mental-health facility without an overt act—but generally, only for three days. And here, there is a practical problem: scarcity of treatment. Liza Long says that after Eric put a knife to her throat, he was taken to the emergency room, where they administered a drug to calm him down. Then the hospital informed her they had no beds for him in the psychiatric hospital. In fact, Eric’s social worker told her the only way to get Eric the mental-health services he needed was to press criminal charges against him. “So those were my options,” she says. “‘We have no idea what’s wrong with your kid. We think he needs a psychiatric bed, but there’s nothing available. Here’s a drug that will knock him out.’” She took him home with a prescription for an antipsychotic drug called Zyprexa.

Caldwell hears this all the time. “Twenty-five years ago,” he says, “if you had insurance, you could probably get the kid put into a psychiatric unit for 30 days for an evaluation and try to get a handle on what's going on. Those beds have just disappeared.”

Aside from the practical, legal, and emotional barriers—after all, who wants to commit their child?—parents have another incentive to keep their secret close, as Nancy Lanza did: fear of losing her other children. Several specialists and parents told me that social workers often believe that a child’s erratic behavior stems from abuse in the home. One woman with a violent daughter described how the local Child Protective Services department accused her and her husband of beating their daughter and depriving her of food. The agency threatened to take away their other children and investigated the parents for a year before determining there was no abuse. For her part, Liza Long lost custody of her two younger children after she published a heartfelt blog post headined “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” After the essay spread online, the judge granted her ex-husband full custody of the two children if she insisted on raising Eric. “Why won’t families talk about this?” Long asks. “That’s why.”
And finally, the obvious:
One study tracked school shootings in three dozen countries—incidents in which two or more people died. Half of those shooting incidents occurred in the United States. Given that, according to some studies, Americans are no more emotionally troubled than people in Europe and Canada, the stark difference is guns. Children outside the U.S. “don’t have access to AR-15s or Glocks or other weapons that our kids have access to,” says Dewey Cornell. “That’s a huge glaring obvious problem. It’s obvious to scholars in the field. It’s obvious to folks in other countries. For some reason it’s not obvious to our politicians.”

Peterson attacked

I wrote in my last post that I suspected there was less to Jordan Peterson than met the eye, and this quite effective piece looking at some of his waffley thoughts certainly indicates I was right.

It starts:
If you want to appear very profound and convince people to take you seriously, but have nothing of value to say, there is a tried and tested method. First, take some extremely obvious platitude or truism. Make sure it actually does contain some insight, though it can be rather vague. Something like “if you’re too conciliatory, you will sometimes get taken advantage of” or “many moral values are similar across human societies.” Then, try to restate your platitude using as many words as possible, as unintelligibly as possible, while never repeating yourself exactly. Use highly technical language drawn from many different academic disciplines, so that no one person will ever have adequate training to fully evaluate your work. Construct elaborate theories with many parts. Draw diagrams. Use italics liberally to indicate that you are using words in a highly specific and idiosyncratic sense. Never say anything too specific, and if you do, qualify it heavily so that you can always insist you meant the opposite. Then evangelize: speak as confidently as possible, as if you are sharing God’s own truth. Accept no criticisms: insist that any skeptic has either misinterpreted you or has actually already admitted that you are correct. Talk as much as possible and listen as little as possible. Follow these steps, and your success will be assured. (It does help if you are male and Caucasian.) 

Jordan Peterson appears very profound and has convinced many people to take him seriously. Yet he has almost nothing of value to say. This should be obvious to anyone who has spent even a few moments critically examining his writings and speeches, which are comically befuddled, pompous, and ignorant. They are half nonsense, half banality. In a reasonable world, Peterson would be seen as the kind of tedious crackpot that one hopes not to get seated next to on a train. 

Monday, May 21, 2018

A really bad idea

I've never spoken about Rick and Morty.

I have Netflix,  a son just turned 18, and a general fondness for science fiction comedy - of course I've watched it.   But I'm not a huge fan.   Anyone who knows my tastes in pop culture could probably understand why.

Nihilistic or dark comedy has never done it for me in a big way.  Short bursts of it can be OK, but I don't think anyone should dwell on it as being a meaningful reflection on life - that's corrosive to the soul and society.

There are occasions in the show where the joke genuinely surprise me and gives me a good laugh, but to be honest, it's not that often.   And thematically, with its use of the multiverse as a continual basis for its stories (as well as its own type of dysfunctional family), I thought the show had pretty much run its course at the end of the third season.

So why do I write this now?   It's because of the news that its been renewed for 70 episodes!  

This is surely a bad idea for it creatively.  At a time when it seems universally acknowledged that The Simpsons should have ended more than a decade ago, we have another creative team thinking they can keep milking a comedy set up for, what?  another 8 to 10 years? 

The truth is, any comedy show has trouble maintaining quality for more than about (I reckon) 7 seasons.   Some die faster than others.   I just think it is obvious that Rick and Morty cannot maintain its output with the same "quality" that fans like for that amount of time.

Update:   quite separately from this, I was thinking recently when scrolling through Spotify, is 7 also the accurate number for "great albums any one band is ever likely to produce"  before diminishing returns set in?

Sunday, May 20, 2018

A few comments about the wedding

I really don't pay much attention to Royal family news, but when one of them marries it's a spectacle that is pretty interesting even if only to admire all of the organisational skills at work.   And besides, they are the only weddings where you really get to see the bride and groom's faces in close detail in real time - it's a unique worldwide invasion of privacy that has pretty irresistible curiosity value.   Of course, you have to ignore much of the commentary, which can be gushing and claim inside knowledge of emotions with no reliability at all.

Harry and Meghan (I just had to check how to spell her name, that's how little I have read about her) played it pretty cool, though, and it was an entertaining event for the most part.  The missing teeth of one of the page boys as his face was caught in an open mouth grin behind the bride was a particularly funny and cute image.

And what about Teilhard de Chardin getting a mention?  That impressed me (although, to be honest, I was doing some quick tidying up in the kitchen during most of the black bishop's speech, which did seem to go on too long.)   I think de Chardin showed the way forward for modern Christianity, and he's gradually being rehabilitated within the Catholic Church, so I quite like him being mentioned anywhere.

The thing is, I reckon that if anyone remembers their own wedding service with fondness and emotion, it's hard not to like watching the wedding of any couple who look to be undertaking it with both solemnity and pleasure.   Hence, I enjoyed it. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Random observations

*   I do find Annabel Crabb a very likeable TV presence, but she does sometimes really lay on the anachronistic 50's feminine cos-play look a bit too thick, I reckon:

Please ignore the woman to the right.  She's like the polar opposite of Crabb's fashion sense.

*  Richard Ayoade is pretty entertaining in most things he does, except for the woeful The Crystal Maze which has been showing on SBS.   Apparently, it's an update of an old, popular(?) show, but just like the truly charmless quiz show Pointless, there sometimes is just no accounting for British viewing tastes.  (Not that we can talk, I suppose - I find watching people watching TV the least interesting concept ever devised.)  

*  Bitcoin, which seems only to be a parlour game for tech nerds, is using up a quite large amount of energy.   More governments should just ban it, I say.

*  Oh for goodness sake:   South Koreans apparently share fully in the Chinese belief that certain foods are particularly good in all sorts of "woo" ways  - dog stew is supposed to make men more virile:
Many foods in Korea, such as dog meat stew (bosintang), are deemed to be “good for men.” From everyday foods, such as garlic or chives, to eel soup and gaebul—“penis fish,” a species of marine worm that resembles the male appendage—these ingredients are recommended for their ability to enhance male sexual performance. Bbeolddok-ju, or “erection wine,” is a rice-based wine that’s made with fruits, and comes with a phallus-shaped cap bearing a smiley face.
 Leave the dogs alone - they aren't going to help in the bedroom.

*  American Right wing media has fully constructed an alternative reality that, it seems, will not start to be deconstructed until the rich, old, male money behind it (Rupert Murdoch, Koch Brothers, and others) are dead.   I think it is indisputable that the globe will be a far, far better, safer and saner place when Rupert dies.  

The obvious problem with self driving taxis

The issue that I mused about a couple of years ago gets a lengthy column at Slate: 

The Dirty Truth Coming for Self-Driving Cars:   Trash. Odors. Bodily fluids. 

Will autonomous rideshares be ready for our mess?

Why I am disinclined to see Deadpool movies

From the NPR review:
No one can deny that Deadpool 2, like its predecessor, is filling a hole in the cinematic-superhero marketplace. Its graphic, gleefully gratuitous and mystifyingly mean-spirited R-rated violence is there for a rigorously focus-grouped reason. The mainstream Marvel movies — your Avengers, your Doctors Strange, your Ants-Men — are happy to maintain their white-knuckle grip on a PG-13 rating, the better to maximize their prospective audience. But that means their violence must remain assiduously entrail-free. They're eye-popping, just not literally. Visuals, not viscera.

Maybe Deadpool 2, with its merry fusillade of lopped-off body parts and mangled torsos and arterial spray, is just being more honest about what the world would look like, if superheroes truly existed. Either that, or it's just cynically indulging the bloodlust of viewers who regard badassiness as the only meaningful superhero currency, because they grew up reading the blithely violent (and not for nothing, hilariously awful) '90s comics that birthed Deadpool and many of this film's co-stars.
My simple rule:  maiming should not be condoned for entertainment purposes.

Why have so many people moved past that proposition, in the space of 30 years or so?

Update:   and more commentary I suspect I would agree with, if only I saw the movies, from the NYT review:
 What drives this franchise is the same force that drives so much culture and politics right now: the self-pity of a white man with a relentless need to be the center of attention. He is angry, violent, disrespectful to everyone and everything, and at the same time thoroughly nontoxic and totally cool.

Sure. Great. But there is something ever so slightly dishonest about this character, something false about the boundaries drawn around his sadism and his rage. “Deadpool 2” dabbles in ugliness and transgression, but takes no real creative risks.
I strongly suspect that take on the matter will upset you, Jason!

Kant and the Avengers

I quite like David Robert's article talking about Kant and utilitarianism and Avengers: Infinity War.

He's got one of the most entertaining twitter feeds around, too.  (In one series of tweets, he explained that he has been using pot recreationally since about 14.  He now has teen sons of his own - I was kind of interested what he tells them about it, as surely he is smart enough to know that suing it from  such a young age is now widely regarded as a risky thing for possible development of schizophrenia.)  

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Climate change denialism is gradually dying out - literally

I see that Fred Singer (and the Wall Street Journal) is copping a pasting for his column denying sea level rise could be a problem, which sounds so obviously amateurish, and kinda dumb, that people are really surprised it would be published, even by the WSJ.

Singer has been around forever, so I had to check his age.  He's 93! 

Richard Lindzin, the only AGW skeptic scientist who I think has been credited with at least being wrong in an interesting way, is now 78.

Ian Plimer, who's just a geologist gadfly, is 72.  (Pity, I thought he was probably a bit older than that.)

Curry is 63 or 65 - accounts seem to differ - but she looks a bit old for her age.  Monckton is 66, but could pass for older too.   I can't see how old John Christy is, but he was married for 39 years, which would indicate he is likely at least 60.  White haired Roy Spencer is 62.

I'm not sure it's possible to find a climate scientist who counts as a skeptic/lukewarmer who is under 60.   

So, I guess a few of them will be with us for a while yet, but time will eventually remove climate change denialism.   

More Malaysian weirdness

Anwar Ibrahim sure got his pardon quickly.   But I was surprised to see he is aged 70!   I think his hair might be died, but still, in my mind he was probably in his 50's, and he looks (like his pardoner) remarkably fit and youthful for his age.   Is there some mysterious key to eternal youth in Malaysian politicians?  Wannabe youthful vampire Peter Thiel should be looking into that, I reckon.

I also see details via Jason Soon of a Chinese planned (and part constructed) superdevelopment at Johor Bahru, just across the bridge from Singapore.  

What's happening with China (as far as I can make out) is pretty weird, and novel:   mega firms operating with close connections to an ostensibly communist government are engaging in something that we'd probably call rapacious global capitalism if it was coming out of America.  Or, to put it another way,  dubious developments are getting foisted onto poorer countries keen to see any economic activity at all because there seems to be a combination of too much idle money in China and a government that sees its way to global security and domination by, well, building nice things. 

I don't think anyone saw that coming.

And by the way, that Johor Bahru development seems dubiously close to the ocean waterline.   Malaysia, and the Chinese developer, seem to not be planning enough for even 100 years into the future.

As it happens, I've booked a holiday at the end of the year for Singapore, and catching the bus up to Malacca for a few nights as well.  High end hotels in Malacca are ridiculously cheap.  Yet, when I checked whether staying at Johor Bahru was cheap enough to make the commute into Singapore worthwhile, it wasn't.   Johor Bahru also seems to have a lack of interesting things in its own right, although it does have a Legoland which is presumably there to attract visitors from Singapore.   Anyway, I'll be interested to look out the window at the city on the way to Malacca.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Winter is coming

I'll be busy for a couple of days, by the way...

Monday, May 14, 2018

Dear Entertainment industry: please, stop shooting people in the head for entertainment

It's not just the This is America clip which has brought this to a head (no pun intended.)

I had been noticing over the last couple of months how incredibly ubiquitous the Hollywood/TV/entertainment industry use of "gun shot to one part of the head, blood sprayed out the other side" has become.

I think I can blame Stanley Kubrick, who was the first I remember to show a gun suicide up close with brain spatter on the wall behind the victim, back in Full Metal Jacket.   At least that was, at the time, an R rated movie.   Now, a similar technical device (or perhaps, post production effects?) is used in a widely popular Youtube music video?   Sensitivities have changed incredibly in the space of a few decades.

Other shows which have featured it:   Mindhunter (more a head explosion, in the first 5 minutes);  Mr Robot (Dark Army operatives in particular);  Dirk Gently (Netflix version);  Babylon Berlin (second episode.)

Honest to God, it seems I can't watch a series made for adults which does not feature in pretty close up detail the old gun shot to the head, splatter out the other side.

Is it a case of technology leading art?   Do directors think "we can make this look pretty realistic with Acme Company's patented "Head Splatter for Hollywood" explosive kit.  So let's do it!"

Now, despite my complaint, readers will know I have not stopped watching these shows because of this (with the except on Mindhunter, which was awful in other ways) - I'm not curling up in a corner  worried. 

But I do object to it on both moral and aesthetic grounds and I WISH HOLLYWOOD AND TV WOULD STOP DOING IT.

Here's the moral reasoning:

* surely it's unpleasant for those who have been touched by gun violence, be they ex military with PTSD, the relatives of those recently shot (of whom there must be many in the US, but we have our gunshot murder-suicides in this country too), or police.   And children - surely children who have not yet had the deadening effect of too much exposure to fictional violence feel an unpleasant impact from first seeing this portrayal.  Yes, they shouldn't be watching such adult shows anyway, but still we know they do.  Even free to air TV has incredibly looser censorship standards than it ever did before.

*   surely for the not-quite-mentally-right, it could play into murderous fantasy.  Mind you, I strongly suspect video games with their repeated head and body splattering violence are worse.

*  there's something just "off" about the casualisation of violence when it gets to the extent of comprising on screen maiming for entertainment.   I've never had a problem with a fist fight in entertainment - and I don't think the Three Stooges led to moral decay.    But violence when it depicts bodily maiming - it reaches a line where I just can't see it as something that people should want to see. 

Here's the aesthetic reasoning (although some may argue I've already crossed over to it in my last point):

* it never used to be necessary to made a gun shot a realistic one to make it have emotional impact as part of a story.   In fact, there's a recent example of that in the tense movie 10 Cloverfield Lane.   There is an off screen killing of someone by a sudden shot obviously aimed at his head - and it has more impact than many of the shots complained about above.  Strangely, just because you can show something in fiction that apparently looks realistic, it doesn't necessarily mean you get the most impact by showing it that way.

I've made this point here before, as it was one that occurred to me right back to the suicide scene in Full Metal Jacket:   technically accomplished, overly explicit violence can easily be enough to pull people out of the fictional story, because it heightens your awareness that it is fiction - there's not a guy really being killed for your entertainment - and you can start to wonder about how it feels to the actor to have a explosive with a bag of red jam go off on the back of their head. Why even let part of the audience start to think that way?

Now, anyone reading this will notice that my arguments seem contradictory - if the aesthetic argument is true, shouldn't I be less concerned that the images are disturbing to people who have been touched by gun violence?  

No, I'm not going to concede that:   I don't think that my feeling of being sometimes being distanced from the impact of depicted fictional shooting is a reliable guide to the feeling of those who have lived with the images they have seen or imagined of real people with gunshot wounds to the head.

I just wish there was some sort of revival of moral argument against the depictions of violence from the entertainment industry, but it seems so far from happening....

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Wonder Woman Watched

Given that it seems to me that no critics have much liked most DC comic hero movies for many years, and I have trouble taking Batman in any incarnation seriously, I had little interest in seeing Wonder Woman at the cinema, despite the good reviews.  But I caught it on Netflix last night.

I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked it.   

First, I wasn't really expecting it to look so good.   Sure, the island of whatever that the Amazons lived on was your typical CGI conglomerate of waterfalls and mountains (still looking more realistic than Lord of the Rings, to my eye), but I was more impressed with the recreations of World War I London and Europe.   It looked like a lot of money had been spent on it, with lots of extras who I don't think were CGI.

Second, I didn't know there would be quite as much "fish out of water" humour of the titular heroine trying to make sense of the human world.   Remember, I do demand a fair amount of humour in my superhero movies, and this one had just enough.

Third, the actors were pretty good.  Gadot is a beauty, and while Pine is an actor who never appears in much that impresses me, he was suitably charming in this role.  I felt a bit sorry for whoever it was who played the mad Scotsman.  Horrendous haircut and a role that only called for him to look daft and crazy eyed in every scene.  Oh well, it's a living I guess.

Anyway, maybe it was also the novelty of a superhero movie set in an era where they normally do not appear, but I thought it was pretty good.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Money, money, money

What an interesting article, explaining about a new high security vault building just outside of Melbourne which is home to all new Australian banknotes.

Sounds like the security measures would be worthy of a Mission Impossible style attack.

The beer you have when not having a beer, I suppose...

Noted at Japan Today:  Suntory to release clear, no-alcohol, plastic-bottled beer.

Here's what it looks like:

To Berlin

For those on Netflix - I've started watching the well reviewed German series Babylon Berlin, and it's a pretty remarkable show.   Based on some crime and corruption novels set in 1929 Berlin, it's apparently the most expensive German TV series ever made, and after two episodes, I can say it sure looks like it.   It looks terrific.

Lots of emphasis on sexual and other decadence in a setting that I suppose is like a supercharged version of Cabaret minus - thus far - the Nazis.   (I'm guessing here - as it happens, I've never watched that movie.)   I'm a bit curious about the accuracy of the dancing in the extended nightclub scene in episode 2 - did the audiences teach themselves to dance together in such a choreographed looking way during popular songs?    I think that's possible, but its nothing like audience behaviour these days.  I also see that some on Reddit think the song and dancing is completely wrong for the period.  It may be, since I have no knowledge of whether such an avant garde style (almost techno sounding, some Redditers say) would have ever turned up in a Weimar cabaret, but the whole scene is so well staged, eccentric and striking that I enjoyed it anyway.

I see when I Google it that the first season (I think there are only going to be two) has a "shocking" ending.   I'm pretty sure it has me hooked.   Perhaps the sordid aspects might start to grind me down, but we'll see.

And just in case anyone hasn't realised it - if the English dubbed version bothers you (as it does me), the settings in Netflix let you watch it in German with English subtitles.   Much better.

Update:    Oh!  Here's a good article at The Guardian explaining how the dance hall featured in the series is indeed based on a real life one that was pretty exotic.   No S&M brothel in the basement, though.   Interesting.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Talking prostates

In the last couple of years, there has been a sudden outbreak of people I know (including three that I am related to) who have had prostate problems - three cases of prostate cancer with surgical prostate removal, one case of some sort of prostate problem that still required surgery.  Admittedly, these are (with one exception) all in men who are about 6 - 7 years older than me, but it does tend to give one the gloomy feeling that such an unpleasant, and medically controversial, disease is likely looking to hit me too.   (I mean, the way every site assures us that virtually all men over 80 who haven't had it removed die with some form of prostate cancer cells helps give that impression too.)

But what are the figures for the number of men who do need to end up having the operation?

A review article from 2008 perhaps gives reason to feel a bit less foreboding:
The probability of developing prostate cancer increases from 0.005% in men younger than 39 years to 2.2% in men between 40 and 59 years and 13.7% in men between 60 and 79 years.57 The current lifetime risk of developing prostate cancer is 16.7% (1 in 6 men). The probability of developing histological evidence of prostate cancer is even higher. Carter and colleagues8 showed that 50% of men between 70 and 80 years of age showed histological evidence of malignancy. A lifetime risk of 42% for developing histological evidence of prostate cancer in 50-year-old men has been calculated.8,9 In men at this age, however, the risk of developing clinically significant disease is only 9.5%, and the risk of dying from prostate cancer is only 2.9%.9
Doesn't actually tell me how many have the operation, but still...

A more recent article notes:
Worldwide, more than 1 million men are diagnosed with prostate cancer each year and more than 300,000 die of the disease1. Current U.S. statistics show that either 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during their lifetime. With such a high incidence, should we be alarmed? What is a reasonable response to a risk of cancer as high as 1:5?
 One in five is pretty high, I guess - but the odds are still in favour of not ever getting a diagnosis.

But - yes, I have a brother who had it, so that makes things worse for me, risk wise:
  • Men with a brother who had prostate cancer had twice as high a risk of being diagnosed as the general population. They had about a 30% risk of being diagnosed before age 75, compared with about 13% among men with no family history.
  • Men with a brother who had prostate cancer had about a 9% risk of getting an aggressive type of prostate cancer by age 75, compared with about 5% among other men.
 Well, the odds are still in my favour of not getting it by 75.  

Too much information?

Despite George Monbiot feeling upbeat about what seems to have been a good outcome for his prostate cancer surgery, the unpleasant details he provides about complications he suffered still probably makes for worrying reading for any man about to undergo the surgery.   (I'm not sure I needed to know he is also back to - approximately, and chemically aided - full sexual functioning, but I guess he is providing some hope by telling that part.)

Nice work if you can get it

It's unclear whether (or, probably more accurately, to what extent) Trump or his administration are going to be damaged by the money to Cohen allegations, but it sure stinks of some sort of corruption (and, no, is nothing like open payments made to the Clinton Foundation.)   And what about this (via NPR):
Swiss pharma giant Novartis, which is named in the Avenatti document, confirmed to NPR that it had hired the same shell company created by Cohen to pay Daniels, Essential Consultants.

Spokeswoman Sofina Mirza-Reid said in a statement that Novartis signed a one-year agreement with Cohen and Essential Consultants in February of 2017, after Trump's inauguration. After one meeting, Mirza-Reid said, Novartis concluded that Cohen could not "provide the services that Novartis had anticipated."

Even so, because the contract "could only be terminated for cause," the pharmaceutical conglomerate continued paying Cohen a total of about $1.2 million. In short, it paid him $100,000 per month over the following year even though he was doing no work.

According to an account in the medicine and pharma trade journal Stat, Novartis company officials feared that if they tried to cancel their payments to Cohen, even though they apparently weren't getting anything from them, that might anger Trump.

The company acknowledged it has given information to Mueller's team.
Yeah, swamp really drained, wingnuts.

Don't believe the wingnuts

An article at The Atlantic notes that, despite the best efforts of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh and the rest of wingnut media, American public support for the Mueller investigation is actually pretty strong:
A Washington Post survey asked: “A special counsel at the U.S. Justice Department, Robert Mueller, has been investigating possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russian govt to influence the 2016 election. Do you support or oppose Mueller investigating this issue?” Sixty-nine percent said they supported the probe as of last month.

The same Post survey asked: “Do you support or oppose Mueller investigating Trump’s business activities?” And 64 percent of Americans said that they supported that.

Fox News found something similar: “About two-thirds, 67 percent in the latest Fox News poll, say it is at least somewhat important the investigation continues, and 56 percent think it’s likely that Mueller’s probe will find Donald Trump committed criminal or impeachable offenses.”
A Harvard CAPS/Harris Poll got like results.

But you’d never know any of that from the Rush Limbaugh Show, which portrays the Mueller investigation as an outrageous, undemocratic usurpation of the people’s will.
It's good to be reminded that not all of the US has gone nuts - only about 25-30% of them, and about 95% of Republican politicians.

Some of the weirdest politics in the world

I'm talking about Malaysia, not just because of a 92 year old winning, but because of the deal whereby he will let the protege he had framed and jailed for sodomy take over the leadership from him.  Talk about your hard ways to reach the Prime Ministership:
As part of his agreement with Pakatan Harapan, Mahathir will only be prime minister for two years, and then will cede power to Anwar Ibrahim.

Anwar, who was also once Mahathir’s protege, is currently in jail serving a second sentence for sodomy.

Mahathir and Anwar fell out publicly in 1999 and Mahathir was responsible for jailing Anwar, but the pair put aside their differences in their united desire to take down Najib.

The plan now is for Mahathir to have Anwar pardoned so he can take office. “He’ll be released in June,” said Mahathir. “Once he’s pardoned, he’s eligible to be PM again.” Mahathir also announced after his win he would apoint Wan Azizah, Anwar’s wife, as his deputy prime minister.
I heard of this deal in a discussion on the radio last week, but I hadn't realised Anwar was still in jail when the deal was reached.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Does Putin want US in or out of Iran deal?

While Trumpkin conspiracy believers are always thinking that everything Trump does is part of his brilliant game of 4 (or 5 or 6) D chess (because they would rather believe that than Trump not having enough smarts to make decisions on any basis other than an egotistical whim),  when it comes to Putin such an argument (that his true aim is not the one he publicly advocates) seems more plausible.  

So, while Trumpkins are claiming that Trump's decision is proof that he's not in Putin's pocket (because the Kremlin had been urging the US to keep to the agreement),  some are saying that Trump's leaving serves a bigger purpose for Putin:
Michael McFaul, former US ambassador to Russia and author of the new memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace, has one more reason to keep the deal: Abandoning it would play right into Russian president Vladimir Putin’s narrative that the US is untrustworthy.

McFaul worked on the Iran deal under Barack Obama. In a phone interview with Quartz, he recalled the lengthy talks held between the Obama administration and the P5+1 (the five permanent UN security council members plus Germany, which allied to negotiate the deal with Iran) to create the deal. Based on the Trump administration’s current lack of “diplomatic enthusiasm” for renegotiation, McFaul predicts the US will walk away from its historic agreement.

“Russia will be fine with that because they will be on the side of the rest of the international community. We—the Trump administration and the United States—will look like the outliers; we will look like the non-cooperative ones and Russia will look they’re like part of international law and cooperation,” he said.
Or, as someone argues at Huffington Post:
As the U.S. puts more economic pressure on Iran, the Islamic republic will find it harder to acquire friends. That leaves Tehran with Moscow. Though the two are uneasy partners, they have cooperated to combat international initiatives that might challenge their own interests. In Syria, for instance, they fight side-by-side and present a united front in global organizations to defend their mutual friend Syrian President Bashar Assad. 

Hard-liners in Tehran want to deepen that relationship. In the process, they seek to boost the sense of righteous resistance to the West that keeps aggressive nationalism strong among their base and ensure that their country remains a Putin-style autocratic society, rather than gaining more exposure to the Western liberties that many ordinary Iranians have clamored for.

A more isolated and paranoid Iran means “the Russians gain geostrategically,” said Reza Marashi, the research director at the National Iranian American Council and a former State Department official.
The United States, he added, is helping reinforce a perception that the Russians want to strengthen: that today Washington may hold sway in the southern half of the Middle East, but the north ― including key areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey ― is under Moscow’s influence.

And that plays precisely into what Putin deeply desires ― to make Russia, 27 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, once again look like an equal to the U.S.

Sounds more or less plausible to me...

Update:  noticed this via Twitter -
Two Iranian airlines have signed deals to buy 40 passenger planes from Russia’s Sukhoi Civil Aircraft Company, amid slow progress with orders of western-built aircraft.
Aseman Airlines has agreed to buy 20 of the Sukhoi SuperJet 100 planes while Iran Air Tours, a subsidiary of national carrier Iran Air, has also ordered 20 of the planes. With an average list price of $50.5m each, the orders have a total value of just over $2bn.
 The article does note that Iran already has much bigger orders with Airbus and Boeing, but the planes are coming slowly.  If the US prevents Boeing completing its orders, it's potentially a further win for Russia, and possibly Airbus?

California and big government

Why don't "small government/low taxes always is best" advocates address the matter of how California now has the world's 5th largest economy?   This was in the news a lot last week.  The New York Times explains:
As the state has blossomed, outpacing many others, it has reinforced a liberal narrative about growth, that a state can have big government and a booming economy, too. (Texas is the conservatives’ counterexample: a big, fast-growing economy under laissez-faire government.)

California has strict environmental protections, a progressive tax system and an ascendant minimum wage, now $10.50 an hour and set to rise in stages to $15 in 2023. The state welcomes immigrants, celebrates ethnic and linguistic diversity, and actively tries to combat climate change. And with all that, its economy continues to soar.

“We have raised income taxes and imposed increasingly high fees to reduce greenhouse emissions,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. “None of that has overridden the attractiveness of this state for talent and innovation and entrepreneurship.”

California’s economic success underpins the state’s audacity and its defiance of President Trump. It is an invisible buttress when the governor and attorney general harangue the Trump administration, as they did recently at a news conference in Sacramento, for “basically going to war against the state of California.”
 Everyone acknowledges the state does have its problems too.   But one of the big ones (unfunded future liability for pensions) is apparently shared by many other, less liberal states.   

Out of Iran

Vox went and found one not entirely nutty expert who supports the Trump pull out of the Iran deal, but I have to say, I don't find his reasoning terribly convincing, and all of the objections the interviewer raises make more sense to me.

In other Trump pull out/not pulling out news, a lot of people on Twitter are finding very plausible the theory explained at length at the New York Magazine that Trump is the true beneficiary of a (much bigger than Stormy Daniels') affair silencing deal.   If that turns out to be true, I suspect it might be the personal scandal that would start undoing Trump's grip on the Presidency. 

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

What a suck up

A secular hymn

So, I'm slowly catching up with what the young'uns have long known about technology and music by paying for a family subscription to Spotify.   (It does seem ridiculously good value.)  I'd never used the app before until last weekend.

For someone of my vintage, it's remarkable to think how this digital world really makes previous decades of physically collecting recorded music largely redundant.   Not that I have ever collected much myself - listening to music probably plays a smaller role in my life than it does for the average person.   But still, I can retrospectively now deem my lack of interest in acquiring vinyl and cds as justified by technological changes that I never saw coming.

I say this by preamble of posting a song by Michael Nesmith which I hadn't listened to for years - Harmony Constant.   At the risk of sounding morbid, I've always felt that this would be a good one to play at a (my?) funeral service, as it definitely has a spiritual aspect and is rather uplifting.   I have found a good bit of commentary about the song here, calling it a secular hymn, which seems accurate.   

Update:  Hmmm.   While it's OK seeing Nesmith singing the song, his vocal in that version isn't that great.  I much prefer the album version which can be heard on the next clip, starting at 2min 55sec.   But you should listen to his cheering version of "Different Drum" at the start too.

Fantasy budget time again

David Leyonhjelm likes to do a fantasy libertarian budget every year, although it's hard to see why he bothers, since the details need never change when you're an ideologue who lives by simple rules (government is essentially bad; taxes must be absolutely minimal so that government must be tiny.)

One thing of interest, though, is how his libertarian policy is completely against government foreign aid (other than short term disaster aid), which presumably would mean leaving that field wide open to the big pockets of China - a country with internal policies which are pretty much the complete antithesis of what libertarians like that's actively seeking to spread its influence with foreign aid deals.  Way to step back and let China buy its way into favour with all of our near neighbours, Senator Blofeld.


A good idea, I think

It was only back in October last year that I wondered why it didn't make sense for governments (at least in sunny states, like Queensland) to make it compulsory for new house builds to have solar power and battery storage.

It seems I wasn't the only person thinking about it, as California is likely to go down that path (at least for the solar cells, if not the storage):
California may soon be the first state in the nation to require virtually every new home be fitted with solar panels.

The mandate, which would take effect in 2020, is expected to be approved by the California Energy Commission on Wednesday as part of the state’s ongoing push to move from fossil fuels to renewable power.

Under the proposal, all new homes and apartments three stories or less would be required to include solar installations. Exceptions would apply to houses built in shady areas or new structures that include other sources of renewable power.

The proposal is expected to raise the average home cost by nearly $500 annually over the term of a 30-year mortgage, according to state officials. However, homeowners are expected to save nearly $1,000 a year on their power bills, officials said.
I think that this idea would go over well in at least Queensland, New South Wales and the Northern Territory.   I'm not so sure about Victoria and South Australia, where cloudier, wetter winters than the northern  States enjoy probably make solar power seem of limited use for several months of the year. 

Monday, May 07, 2018

Time for more climate change whiplash

This article in Nature News:  Can the world kick its fossil fuel addiction fast enough is another in the long line of "climate change whiplash" reporting we've been seeing for a few years.  On the one hand, emissions are clearly still going up when the economy picks up; on the other, past estimates of the decreasing cost and increasing deployment of renewable energy were clearly underestimates, and a lot of renewable energy deployment is in the pipeline.

As to whether market based policy is going to work fast enough, there seems to be increasing doubt:
But politics can also help to bring about rapid change. While Trump is fighting on behalf of the fossil-fuel industry, leaders of other countries are moving in the opposite direction. The United Kingdom and France have both announced plans to ban the sale of petrol- and diesel-powered vehicles by 2040. And more than two dozen countries have committed to phasing out coal by as early as 2030.

These types of mandate are a sign that energy politics might be shifting towards more brute-force methods, says Michael Mehling, an energy and environmental-policy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Economists tend to favour market-based programmes, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading System, but Mehling says there is little evidence that such arrangements will drive the kind of rapid transformational change needed to meet global climate goals. Old-school government mandates might be the last resort, Mehling says. “If the decisions are made at a sufficiently high level,” he says, “they can change the landscape pretty much overnight”.
In any case, as I've been posting for some time, it's not as if those who are supposed to be the Right wing proponents of small government and free market solutions (libertarians and so called "classical liberals") are actually interested in addressing climate change at all:  they are more interested in corporations making money now, and a gormless in principle belief that governments never doing anything is better than governments doing something, such that they will clasp any reason (ranging from entertaining outright denialists to a "it's too late now anyway" defeatism) so as to justify not endorsing any policy action.   They are worse than useless, and just need to be bypassed.  

And to be fair, the Left of politics needs to be criticised for a certain gullibility in the policies and advice they have promoted, too.   At least they are interested in solutions, which is the first step in the process.

But look at the revision now going on regarding the estimates of the social cost of climate change, just in the matter of agriculture.  From this paper's abstract:
Despite substantial advances in climate change impact research in recent years, the scientific basis for damage functions in economic models used to calculate the social cost of carbon (SCC) is either undocumented, difficult to trace, or based on a small number of dated studies. Here we present new damage functions based on the current scientific literature and introduce these into an integrated assessment model (IAM) in order to estimate a new SCC. We focus on the agricultural sector, use two methods for determining the yield impacts of warming, and the GTAP CGE model to calculate the economic consequences of yield shocks. These new damage functions reveal far more adverse agricultural impacts than currently represented in IAMs. Impacts in the agriculture increase from net benefits of $2.7 ton−1 CO2 to net costs of $8.5 ton−1, leading the total SCC to more than double.
That's some massive change to an input into an IAM, isn't it?

And further to my skepticism that IAMs could have adequately worked out the cost of intense rainfall and sea level rise, I note from a review of a new book on the latter (my bold):
Projections diverge on how fast the inundation will proceed if nations stay on a “business as usual” path in their greenhouse gas emissions. The most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects a maximum of about three feet by the year 2100; James Hansen and colleagues project several times that much over the same time frame; a recent research paper that recalculates the dissolution of Antarctic ice warns of five feet as a median estimate. Sea level rise on such a scale would submerge an area inhabited, just now, by 153 million people. For an indefinite number of decades or centuries after that, the rise would continue.

As former presidential science advisor John Holdren once pointed out, human beings have three options: reduce the amount of climate disruption they are causing, adapt as intelligently as possible to the change they can’t avoid, and suffer. “The question – the issue that’s up for grabs – is what the mix going forward is going to be,” Holdren has said.

Under a “work and hope” scenario – one in which the world cuts emissions with extreme speed and hopes that the more optimistic climate change projections are the accurate ones – sea level rise might be limited to something like two feet. But even that more modest figure would imply worldwide consequences exceeding our ability to comprehend them. “Staggering,” “catastrophic,” and other alarm words have lost much of their voltage. In these busy times, “trillions” are the new “millions” – and thus rather negligible. But two feet of sea level rise is, beyond question, coming.
So, have IAMs been worked out on the "best case" scenario of 2 feet by 2100, when it may be 2 1/2 times  that, and causing the re-location of 153 million people? 

But, again, why should this be taken as a licence to do nothing in terms of CO2 reduction?   Even if it takes 200 to 300 years (instead of 100 years) of increase to reach a 3 metre sea level rise, slowing down the rate surely buys time for (some) cities to respond.  

It's about time I revisited the matter of ocean acidification too.  That is a key area that, I believe, is not realistically amenable to to geoengineering, regardless of what techno-optimists may think can be done temperature wise.