Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Some Christmas Thoughts

1. God it's hot. (I was reminded that Christmas day 2004 in Brisbane was not all that hot. Unfortunately, this has been wiped from my mind in view of the other 9 stinking hot and humid Christmas Days in the last decade.)

2. I will not have a mid life crisis that involves become a caterer. Estimating the amount of food to be consumed by 15 adults and 4 children proved to be impossible.

4. This years game of "how long can we keep eating that ham" is currently on.

5. Giving ham skin to a dog might make it vomit.

6. I just remembered now - I forgot to put out the party poppers. (That's about number 20 on a list of things we forget to serve or do on Christmas day.)

7. I now have to join the rest of the world and read "The Da Vinci Code".

8. One of the local TV stations was so desperate for something to show on the Christmas Day evening news that they went to the international terminal at the airport and filmed people arriving and being hugged by their relatives.

9. Spa pools spend most of their time broken.

10. If they moved Christmas Day to 18 December, maybe most small businesses could close for 2 weeks instead of only one. Would suit me.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

More worrying news about Iran

Waiting for the rapture in Iran - Yahoo! News

Iran's president is a real worry. (See the Christian Science Monitor story above.)

Why oil rich countries can stay poor

The curse of oil | The paradox of plenty | Economist.com

An interesting article in the Economist (link above) on the "curse of oil". This kind of backgrounder is what this magazine does best.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

And you thought Qantas in flight service was bad...

In the Sydney Morning Herald:

"An off-duty pilot was sentenced to 14 years in jail today for killing Indonesia's top human rights activist in a crime judges said was politically motivated.

Judge Cicit Sutiarso did not say whether the court believed that Pollycarpus Budihari Priyanto was acting on someone else's orders when he placed a lethal dose of arsenic in food served to Munir Thalib on a Garuda airlines flight to Amsterdam on September 7, 2004."

What I want for Christmas

These are all from The Red Ferret Journal :

To quote: "Ladies, spoil the man in your life this year with the LBC (Laid Back Computing) 2000 computer rig. Your cuddly couch potato will thank you with tears in his eyes as he unpacks his slob prop and accessories, just watch his cute little love handles jiggle with joy. $1600.00 says ‘I adore you’ better than any cardiac arrest machine ever will."


A 3 foot flying model rocket with a little digital video camera in its nose. Every geek needs one.

And finally:

The sound proof microphone, perfect for karaoke practice!

Your very own Bio Dome Habitat for Christmas

SmithsonianStore.com - Bio Dome Habitat

Looks sort of cool, but a little too small. An evil boy could have fun putting one sort of animal in one part, and its food in another.

Scary thoughts before Christmas

The Officers' Club: The Top 20 Nuclear Close-Calls

From the interesting Officers' Club blog, the article linked above about the top 20 times the Earth nearly went "kaboom" makes for interesting, although not exactly Christmas-y, reading.

While talking death and destruction, I am still reading more about the possible dangers of the new CERN particle accelerator, and maybe can post about it soon. (It still doesn't look good to me.)

Some bits I like on the Sydney problem

The Australian: James Morrow: Self-loathing is the newest hate crime [December 19, 2005]

James Morrow's piece in yesterday's Australia on the Left's response to the Cronulla "race riots" (linked above) was good. I like the Germaine Greer teenager analogy very much.

Gerard Henderson covered much the same ground in the Sydney Morning Herald today, but with a bit of historical perspective too.

And more on Stephen Crittenden (Radio National) watch: I missed most of it this morning, but I heard the very start of an interview with (I think) a historian who was talking about certain Australian 19th century race riots, with Stephen making the observation that, contrary to what commentators are saying, the race riots in Cronulla are not unusual in a historical context. Yes, it's just as if Australian society is exactly the same as it was in 1860. (Insert teeth grinding noises here.)

Yesterday, Stephen had on someone from St Vincent De Paul Society about their research indicating that costs of living increases hit the poor disproportionately. Funnily enough, I could find no mention of this research on Google News; but I do recall that the Society's researcher on poverty has come up with some pretty contentious reports in the past.

The Society might not be wrong about this - I don't know. But I would like some balance in the reporting, and not just the lefties and anti Howard crowd getting a free and disproportionate run during the Radio National summer. (He did give Howard's friendly critic - and Sex Discrimination Commissioner - Pru Goward a run this morning; I think maybe Stephen was disappointed that she didn't have much of a go at the Federal government ignoring her warnings on most matters this year. )

Thursday, December 15, 2005

String theory query

New Scientist Nobel laureate admits string theory is in trouble - News

This snippet from New Scientist does not increase my confidence in the risk assessments of the new particle accelerator (see my post a few down on the possible risk to the Earth of running the new CERN facility.)

"Nature" says Wikipedia relatively accurate

Internet encyclopaedias go head to head : Nature

I found this story via Boing Boing. In short, in a blind review of articles by Britannica and Wikipedia by some scientist types, the Wiki was only marginally less accurate. Yay.

Sounds like a sorta fun gadget

The Fly Pentop Computer - How an educational toy became a hot holiday gadget. By Paul Boutin

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Deep and meaningful...and funny

A Lazy Layman's Guide to Quantum Physics

Readers may note that the internet is an endless source of distraction for me. If I find current affairs for the day dull, I may end up checking out interpretations of quantum physics, just to see if I have missed something.

Today, I stumbled across the page linked above, which is a succinct and humorous guide to the different interpretations of quantum physics.

(Actually, I think it misses a relatively recent one called the "many minds" interpretation, but I am having trouble making any real sense out of that one at all.)

Let's at least try to pretend, Stephen Crittenden

Each summer, it seems that the ABC's Radio National gives Stephen Crittenden (who normally does the Religion Report) a chance to run the Breakfast show for a few weeks. He always irritates, as he makes no pretence at all to objectivity or to disguise his strong disdain of the Howard government.

Yesterday, it was a reference to Howard's "dog whistle politics" as being at part to blame for the Sydney "race" problems. No using the disingenuous (but at least attempted) disclaimer of "some would allege that.."

This morning, it was a question about David Hicks (repeated both to his Marine lawyer and Hick's father) saying that "wouldn't the release of David now that he will get a British passport just confirm that the only thing keeping him in prison was the Howard government's sheer bloody mindedness?" (This is not a direct quote, but I am confident it is close enough.)

Look, most of his Radio National listeners would take no offence; I am sure it would attract more lefties than right wing inclined. But that's not the point; a national broadcaster has to make some attempt at neutrality. The Breakfast show is not it's host's editorial style show; it never has been. Someone should make an official complaint against Crittenden - unfortunately I do not currently have the time.

Monday, December 12, 2005

A post on not posting

Seasonal duties are making it harder for me to get around to blogging. It's also a little harder to find stories at this time of year worth commenting on. Parliament is finished; the more important commentators head off to their Christmas parties and don't return until January or February; to fill in time, part of the media get into the ungratifying business of talking about whether "Christmas" is under attack. The Brisbane weather has also been hot, humid and stormy, with the added "fun" of extended blackouts.

I can't even find anything useful to add to the Cronulla "race riots" of the weekend. (Except for the observation that NSW Premier Iemma is remarkably uncharismatic in his television appearances. I didn't think Bob Carr was that great a media performer either, but at least you didn't get the impression that he needed prodding to stay awake during interviews.)

I also am still looking at whether tiny black holes that might be created at CERN from 2007 might destroy the Earth. It deserves a longer post than my last one, and Zoe Brain has not entirely convinced me not to worry.

The Iraq elections may enliven me, but at the moment I should concentrate more on getting more work done so there is some money for Christmas.

Friday, December 09, 2005

I should not joke about particle accelerators

The Potential for Danger in Particle Collider Experiments

See the link above, for a fairly recent, and credible sounding, explanation of how the new CERN accelerator may really mean the end of the earth.

Why is this not attracting attention? Has anyone mentioned the Fermi Paradox in relation to this issue too?

UPDATE: interested readers should have a look at my long Jan 06 post on this here.

One of the more interesting news stories on "Narnia"

USATODAY.com - C.S. Lewis' stepson keeps 'Jack's' magic alive

A particle accelerator ate my planet

New Scientist SPACE - Breaking News - Astrophysicists weigh up risks of cosmic wipeout

You know, I am still a little worried about the use of new super big particle accelerators when it seems they don't really know what may turn up. (See the links at the side of the article.)

UPDATE: readers interested should check my much longer post on micro black holes (from January 06) here.

It's not just Tony

The Australian: Renate Klein: Abortion drug not the safest method [December 09, 2005]

Interesting article in the Australian today (see above) from someone who sounds ideologically a million miles from Tony Abbott, yet she sets out her reasons for opposing the early abortion drug RU486. The way she describes it the process of using the drug does sound unpleasant, and she makes a good point that, even if warned of the possible risk of infection, women may have trouble recognising the symptoms.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Aborting little criminals not so likely after all

Economics focus | Oops-onomics | Economist.com

Interesting story in the Economist on how the claimed link between easier abortion in the US and lower crime rates is looking very shaky now.

So you thought greenhouse gases were a worry...

Science & Technology at Scientific American.com: Geologists Link the "Great Dying" to Volcanism

A short article in Scientific American (above) makes it perfectly clear just how unfriendly the earth's environment can be (even before nasty people came on the scene to ruin the Garden of Eden.) To quote:

"Roughly 252 million years ago, life on the earth nearly ceased to exist--as much as 90 percent of marine life and 70 percent of terrestrial life died out. At around the same time, a vast up swelling of magma covered between one million and four million cubic kilometers of what is now Siberia. The eruption continued off and on for about a million years, with basalt lava and poisonous gases seeping up through cracks in Siberia's mantle....

The researchers argue that the deadly gases of the Siberian eruption killed vegetation across the globe, just as much smaller modern eruptions have produced acid rain and other plant-killing phenomena. Without roots to hold the soil in place, rivers and streams washed most of the dead vegetation to the sea where it then blocked the sun's light and sucked up all the oxygen. "What began on land ended in the sea," Visscher says. "It seems there was no place to hide at this time of great dying."

And when could it happen again?- Any time now.

On the demise of Margo

Some random thoughts:

* Where will artist in residence Robert Bosler now find an outlet for his impenetrable prose?

* Those with the biggest attachment to Webdiary only have themselves to blame. They displayed no respect for the conservative voice, and made the site into their own lefty Howard Derangement Syndrome echo chamber. Conservatives mainly visited the site to laugh at it.

* I remain a little puzzled about Margo herself. In her TV appearances (especially on Sky News in the last election run up) she used to present as significantly less mad than she does in her written pieces. I mean, she could smile and laugh a little, something you get no sense of at all when she writes. But since Howard won the last election, she has been so overwrought over the "death of democracy" under Howard (who is so evil he can present a false face of benevolence to the public) for so long it was getting clear that she was living on the edge. And her "community" only encouraged her belief system.

* After going independent, I think I heard her on Radio National's Friday morning forum once , and have been surprised she did not find a regular gig somewhere there. Also, why did she stop appearing on Late Night Live? Was it a full blown falling out with Phillip Adams?

Oh well, I am sure it will do her good to stop thinking about politics.

Some modern Chinese history

FrontPage magazine.com :: Leftwing Monster: Mao Zedong by Steve Mosher

Article above is lengthy (I haven't finished it yet) but it seems an interesting short history of Mao's nasty rule over China. (Seems short on actual figures for people killed during various government initiatives, but I am sure estimates are available elsewhere.)

Can't trust forests to get anything right

Study: Temperate Forests Could Worsen Global Warming

So cutting down temperate forests would reduce global warming?

Secular vs religious government in Iraq

More Iraqis look to vote secular Dec. 15 | csmonitor.com

Link above is to a story in the Christian Science Monitor of interest about the upcoming Iraqi election.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Miscellaneous thoughts

On Australian politics: how much will the Gerard appointment scandal be hurting Peter Costello in 6 month's time? Not a bit. Gerard's gone, and it is one of those issues that intensely interests political journalists, but not the general public, especially at this time of year. (And those who do take an interest also remember the Labor government's appointment of mates to the Reserve Bank).

On movies:

"King Kong": I find it extremely difficult to see why a silly 1930's semi-fantasy should have any resonances with today's adult audience, and this version is also so long as to put it out of reach of a very young audience. I predict only moderate success.

"Narnia": despite my fondness for CS Lewis, I only read these books as an adult, and so do not hold them in the same affection as do many who read them as children. Still, the shorts of the movie look impressive, and early reviews of the movie are positive. I will see this one.

"Brokeback Mountain": it might be a good movie with good performances, but you have to wonder how big the potential audience is for a serious gay cowboy movie.

"Munich": Currency Lad is sweating this one a bit too much, I think. Spielberg is a liberal, of course, but I don't think you can find any evidence of moral relativism in his films. Given his jewish heritage and support by way of things such as the establishment of Shoah Foundation, it seems hard to believe he is going to leave much room for criticism of the Israeli take on the events. My biggest concern is the screen writer is Tony Kushner, the gay writer of "Angels In America", which just tried too hard to be deep and meaningful, in my opinion.

On alcohol: (the only drug endorsed by Opinion Dominion,) more good news, sort of.

All you want to know about the coming Iran problem

Excellent post here (The Officers Club) on what would be involved if Israel tried to take out Iran's nuclear capacity.

All a bit of a worry, to put it mildly.

Scott Ritter plays to small house

Margo Kingston's Webdiary: On democracy and war with Scott Ritter

The link is to a Webdiary post on Scott Ritter's Victoria visit. Seems he may not be attracting much in the way of an audience:

"A small group of us huddled together in the middle of the Basement Lecture Theatre, Sidney Myer Asia Centre, at Melbourne University. I thought our international guest would have been playing to a packed house. To my amazement, hardly anyone turned up. Embarrassed audience members speculated during question time as to the reasons for the poor attendance."

Must have been small if the number is not even mentioned.

Scott claims to have paid a personal price for speaking out:

"During questions Ritter admitted to having paid huge personal costs for his speaking out. Not only himself, but also his family. He worried about his two children.....

Ritter admitted to having passed through a period of terrible depression, but that he had now come out of that and his personal future, his well being and happiness, looked good."

Did anyone ask him whether being caught chatting up underage girls on the internet might have had something to do with his depression? Nice to know he had kids while doing that too.

Koko's special interest

Lawsuit Over Koko the Gorilla's Nipple Fetish Resolved

From the above link:

"Two former caretakers who refused to bare their breasts to a 300-pound (136-kilogram), sign-language-speaking gorilla named Koko have settled a lawsuit against the Gorilla Foundation.

Nancy Alperin and Kendra Keller claimed they were fired after they refused to expose their bosoms to the primate, and after reporting sanitary problems at Koko's home in Woodside, an upscale town south of San Francisco.

The pair claimed they were threatened that if they “did not indulge Koko's nipple fetish, their employment with the Gorilla Foundation would suffer,” the lawsuit alleged.

Alperin and Keller claimed that Francine “Penny” Patterson, the gorilla's longtime caretaker and president of the Gorilla Foundation, pressured them to expose their breasts as a way to bond with the 33-year-old female simian.

“On one such occasion,” the lawsuit said, “Patterson said, 'Koko, you see my nipples all the time. You are probably bored with my nipples. You need to see new nipples.” "

Make up your own comments!

More news on the marxism front

China plans to update Marxism - World - theage.com.au

According to the story above, China plans on just re-defining away any conflict between its marxist theory and the government's actual practice. This will presumably mean that no one will take marxism seriously any more, just as liberalising churches find that their congregations don't bother taking them seriously. (They don't bother attending church.)

Who will take over from Kim Jong il?

End of the line for a North Korean dynasty - Opinion - smh.com.au

Reprinted for the LA Times, the Sydney Morning Herald (link above) runs an interesting piece today on what will happen succession wise when Kim Jong-il kicks the bucket. I like this bit:

"In Seoul, a South Korean national security official likened Kim Jong Il's predicament to that of an emperor in the waning years of a dynasty. "He wants to create a three-generation dynasty, but he knows the people would not like it," said the official. "Besides, he spoiled all of his sons. They like Michael Jordan and computer games. They went to Swiss schools. … They are too Westernised to be dictators."

Let's hope that is true.

Gerard Henderson on "fascism"

The rise of fascism as an easy insult - Opinion - smh.com.au

Gerard Henderson writes well today on the ridiculous misuse of "fascist" as a lefty insult to the Howard government. (Link above.)

Speaking for all his profession...

Law Council of Australia - Media Release - 4/Dec/2005 - Law Council Launches Final Assault on Counter-Terror Laws

I have noticed the current Law Council of Australia President (one John North) hyperventilating a lot on the news lately against the new anti-terror laws. I think it might be where Beazley got the idea to compare us to North Korea and Cuba.

The Law Council's latest release it at the link above. He makes much of the fact that the Council "speaks for the legal profession." Well, only in the sense that those in the legal profession generally belong to State law societies, which are constituent bodies to the Council. While lawyers can vote for their State law society president, they have (as far as I know) no vote for president of the national body. I would guess that the great majority of lawyers take no particular interest in what the Law Council of Australia is doing.

I can assure all readers that neither the Council (nor the State societies) invite voting on, or poll their members about, what their position should be on various political issues. Those lawyers who have a particular act to grind on some area (especially where law reform may remove a field of work, or publicity will help their practice) take an active interest; the rest just get on with work.

So don't think that John North actually knows in any quantitative sense whether the majority of Australian lawyers agree with the Council's position on this. He has made no attempt to establish this, and as opinon polling is indicating wide public support for the laws, it would be surprising if there was not at least a substantial minority of lawyers who were comfortable with the laws.

I don't mind if a "representative" body doesn't bother its members all the time for their opinions; but at the same time they should not speak as if they have detailed knowledge of the extent to which their members agree with a policy position.

Monday, December 05, 2005

The Guardian Vs Aslan

The Guardian seems to be spending a lot of time on attacking the CS Lewis Narnia stories before the movie is even released. Polly Toynbee's article ("Narnia Represents everything that is most hateful about Christianity") is not quite as "anti" as the headline suggests, but it's bad enough.

The last paragraph:

"Children are supposed to fall in love with the hypnotic Aslan, though he is not a character: he is pure, raw, awesome power. He is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can. We need no holy guide books, only a very human moral compass. Everyone needs ghosts, spirits, marvels and poetic imaginings, but we can do well without an Aslan."

Funny, but I thought that the basic point of Christianity was that people do have to take responsibility for how they "treat their neighbour" because that is the basis on which you will be judged.

As for the suggestion that the world would be better off working out our earthly problems with no sense of divine guidence, a pretty good argument can be made that it was precisely this attitude that was behind the murderous plague of communisim and facsism that blighted the 20th century.

(OK, maybe the Crusaders and the Inquisition might have killed more if they had modern technology too, but then again modern communications might also have ended these trends faster too. Islamofacsism is a danger, but luckily it would seem the aggressive interpretation of their holy book is a small, though dangerous, minority.)

Of course, having a religious faith is not a guarantee of living a moral life, and the major faiths also have not been an impediment to wars being raged. On the other hand, I think the degree to which atheists have been inclined to blame faith for human suffering has been greatly exaggerated. And this particular line of attack on Christianity (that it removes an idea of personal responsibility) is well off the mark.

Vodkapundit on terror

I've been forgetting to drop in on Vodkapundit lately, but here's a post of his that is well worth a read. (It's about taking the jihadist terror threat seriously, even if Bin Laden never has the same number of devotees that communism had.)

Update: I see that Pajamas Media has referred to this already. Maybe I should add PM to my blogroll, but will it survive?

Now there's an idea..

The ABC reports tonight that Saddam and his lawyers threw another tantrum today:

When the defence threatened to walk out the judge replied that the court would then appoint substitutes.

This brought a moment of high drama with Saddam on his feet shouting: "This is Iraq, we will not accept state officials defending us. They're American stooges."

As the lawyers walked out, Saddam's half-brother Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti - who is also among the accused - shouted: "Why don't you just execute us?"

Please explain..

New Views of the Universe: The Kavli Inaugural Symposium in honor of David Schramm (2005), Preliminary Program

Cosmology interests me, even though it is a difficult field to understand. But then, with an abstract like this for a talk to be given at conference in Chicago later this month, who can blame me?:

"The large number of vacua in the stringy landscape may lead to interesting new cosmology. First, tunneling between from one vacuum to another (e.g. tunneling through a series of minima in a tilted cosine potential) provides a new mechanism for inflation: Chain Inflation. Second, a dynamical solution to the cosmological constant problem may be provided by a field with the same potential but without tunneling. After inflation, the universe reheats, and different regions of the universe fall into different minima of the potential. Domain walls shove aside higher energy vacua in favor of lower energy ones, but it is shown that this process stops before the universe can fall into very negative energy vacua. Gravitation itself provides a cutoff at a minimum vacuum energy, thereby leaving the universe with a small cosmological constant comparable in magnitude to the current vacuum energy."

Hard to find news on child poverty rates

Child poverty rates

The link above is a relatively optimistic story on research into child poverty in the USA. It is relevant to Australia because the Federal government's welfare law reform which will encourage mothers to work.

It's also interesting to note how hard it was to find this story.

I found the article via the EurekaAlert news site, and even its link to the article did not work. Searching Google and Google News did not locate anything. By visiting the Cornell News site and doing a search, it was finally found.

Good news does not travel well.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Could they be modified to take needle-sharp poison tips too?

USB Powered Air Darts - Marks & Spencer

See link above for a very cool Xmas gift, found via Boing Boing (link at side).

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Some thoughts on Asian drug laws

If you want to see the detail of just how tough the Singaporean drugs laws are, have a look at the website for its Central Narcotics Bureau. More than 500g of cannabis - death. Same with more than 15 g of heroin. Talk about tough.

The Nguyen and "Bali Nine" cases have made me think about arriving in Asian airports and seeing the warning posters about the death penalty for drugs. As far as I can recall, these posters are not done with the intention of giving a drug carrier any last minute chance of "declaring" the drugs before they enter the country. (In fact, I am not sure whether they are put up before or after customs.) There is no equivalent of the 'fruit bin', and even if you wanted to thrown out the drugs strapped to your body, removing them discretely may be somewhat of a challenge. There may be a possibility of going to the toilets before going through customs to remove and flush the drugs, but I am not sure that all airports have toilets accessable in that part. Or if they do, perhaps the airport authorities take a special interest in what goes on in there.

My point is, if as a country such as Singapore is going to insist on a death penalty for "trafficking" in drugs, why not give the potential trafficker a last minute opportunity to avoid death by declaring the possession? This would be particularly fair for any drugs smuggler who claims (as have some of the Bali Nine) that they have been forced into it under threat of harm to them or their family.

Such declarations should, as an absolute minimum, guarantee that the person will not be executed, but I would propose that the consequence be a relatively short period of jail - say a month or two- with assistance provided to ensure a safe return to the country of residence. (You would have to have some jail to dissuade people from getting free flights home by carrying drugs into the airport. However, it is much cheaper for the country to pay a $2000 plane ticket than to keep them in jail for any length of time.) Of course, the Australian could then have a life ban on entry into Singapore (I will use these countries as the example.) Perhaps the 'free flight' home could also be conditional on an interview with the Federal Police, and their being satisfied that the person has provided as much information as they can on anyone connected with the deal in Australia.

I presume that there could be no prosecution in Australia for the possession in the foreign country. Perhaps some other administrative punishment could be imposed.

The result would be that the drugs never get through customs to harm Singaporeans; the person gets enough jail so that there is no attraction to "take advantage" of the system; they can never return to Singapore in future; no drugs are returned to Australia; and perhaps some information is obtained to track any drugs bosses in Australia. Sounds like win/win for all concerned to me.

Now, for all I know, maybe the Singaporean courts might be a little softer on those who "declare" drugs at the airport, at least if the quantity is not such that it carries a compulsory death sentence. (I presume that must happen occasionally, although the death penalty posters may make it less likely.) However, if the sign before customs said "declare illegal drugs now and you will not hang in this country" maybe it would happen more often.

It would be an additional argument for Singapore for the "fairness" of the death penalty for those who fail to take advantage of this last minute reprieve. (Although I want to be clear that I do not support the death penalty for drugs, ever.)

Someone in Singapore agrees with this idea (which I had been thinking about before I found their post.)

As for the Nguyen case itself, I still find it terribly sad for all concerned. There has been over-reaction by some on both sides of the debate here, and the executioner himself should be retired immediately as a result of his appallingly insensitive comments to the media.

The concentration should be on getting Singapore and other Asian countries to look seriously at whether the death penalty is working as a deterrent; the inherent injustice of having compulsory death sentences in particular; and why they think that an offence that may involve no harm to any other person should carry such a sentence. (With the small quantities involved for it to be deemed trafficking, it is entirely possible that some people have hung for being caught with their own drug supply.)

Frogmouths, I believe

Picture taken on recent holiday. Actually there were 4 of these frogmouths sitting low in the same tree. A family, I wonder?

Stupid Beazley (sedition again)

Kim Beazley seems to think that making silly statements will endear him to all those comedians, cartoonists and Margo Kingston readers who fret that they will be locked up soon because the government is updating sedition laws that have been around for, oh, nearly a century.

Says Kim:

"I do not know why the government insists that we should lower ourselves to the standard of North Korea, Syria and Cuba."

Kim, there's a reason we don't let comedians and cartoonists run the country, so there's no need to encourage their (in the main) stupidly ill-founded worries. (As Piers Ackerman says today, it appears that most of the cartoony critics have not read the Bill, as they ignore the fact that the offence is being updated to make it clear that it has to involve urging violence, and there is a good faith defence.)

I have posted previously that the new laws are not perfect and probably do need some changes (but that related mainly to the issue of prohibited organisations, for which there is a definition of "seditious intent" that is actually unrelated to the offence of "sedition" itself.) But that said, most of the criticism (see this 7.30 Report story for example,) has been completely misguided.

As Phil Ruddock has made pretty obvious, although he agrees to a review next year, he wants the laws in now to give mad jihadists who want to encourage violence something to think about. Big Kim doesn't care though, he's just trying to score points for ridiculous overstatement, it would seem.

If you are a real glutton for punishment, and already know how long each Robert Bosler post to Margo Kingston's site can be, you can look at his co-authored entry on this. Here's his opening paragraphs:

"There is an extremely powerful but subtle effect hidden in these sedition laws. This subtle effect operates on the same silent convention that has, for instance, abused women returning again and again to the man who does it, or a person returning again and again to self-destructive behaviour. It works because, even whilst a person knows something is bad for them, there is a chimerical comfort, a strange sense of security in the situation.

It works like a private running commentary behind a person's thoughts, urging that person to return to that chimerical comfort, that strange restraining sense of safety, while their front-of-mind thoughts attempt to move out, move forward and to grow."

And on it goes for another gazillon words of deep and meaningful psycho-babble about how the laws will subconcsious bring fear to the heart of the nation (or some such guff.)

Get a grip! Or change hands, one or the other.

Stupid headline

Cannabis could reverse psychosis - National - theage.com.au

Headlines are often misleading, but when it comes to questions of the public understanding of the risks of a drug, you would think they would take more care.

The Age obviously doesn't worry about that. The headline of the article (linked above) - "Cannabis could reverse psychosis" is completely misleading. The article itself points out that cannabis is now widely believed to cause psychosis, but the interesting thing that has been discovered is that it appears that one chemical - when given alone to mice - appears to help "drug induced behavourial disturbances." In other words, while there is one psychosis inducing chemical in cannabis, there also might be once which is an "antipsychotic." The researchers are not saying that the "good" part wins out in this brain tussle when you use cannabis.

But you have to read the article to understand that. Kids who don't read past headlines may well be comforted to continue their habit. (Although my prejudices also make me think not too many pot smoking youths read The Age anyway!)

Reasons to be skeptical of $100 laptops for the poor

Waiting for That $100 Laptop? - Don't hold your breath. By Cyrus Farivar

The Slate article above expresses some common sense about the proposed $100 crank-powered laptop idea for poor countries. Other attempts to introduce cheap computers to the rural poor in developing countries haven't got far:

"In 2001, a group of computer scientists in Bangalore, India, developed the Simputer. It was supposed to be a cheap (around $200), robust computer for India's rural poor. But according to the Associated Press, the brains behind the Simputer have sold only 4,000 of an expected 50,000 units in 2004 and 2005. In addition, only about 10 percent of Simputer buyers live in rural areas. Why? Probably because they have more important things to do than write e-mail.

There's no reason to think that Negroponte's computer will win wider acceptance in the Third World. The fact that each laptop comes with a built-in WiFi card won't be of much use if there isn't a WiFi access point nearby. How many access points do you think there are in rural Egypt?"

More possibly worrying - but who really knows? - news on global warming - or is that cooling?

New Scientist Breaking News - Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age

Reported everywhere today is research that the deep Atlantic currents do seem to have changed significantly in the last few decades, with the worry being that it could be the start of dramatically cooler weather for Europe.

But, there is plenty of room for uncertainty, because (as the New Scientist article linked above mentions) average temperatures in Europe have been on the way up, not down.

Give it another 4 years or so before anyone can really tell.

I also get sick of reports of this stuff referring to "The Day After Tomorrow". (Even news@nature does this.) I linked to the New Scientist version of the story because it does not mention it.

A short history of Limbo

Lose limbo, but salvage purgatory - Opinion - smh.com.au

For those with any interest in curious Catholic beliefs, Paul Collins gives a brief history of Limbo in the Sydney Morning Herald today (link above.)

I remember being told about this by Catholic nuns in primary school, but it was never given much emphasis.

Paul ends with a mention of purgatory. I think it can be cut out safely by just revisioning it as being on the outer edges of Hell, which is not (at least until the end of the world) permanently sealed. I think that is how CS Lewis thought of it, and (I stand to be corrected) Dante. Certainly, I have read the entertaining Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle science fiction-y reworking of Dante's Inferno (called "Inferno") from a couple of decades ago.


Here's something a little odd I wonder about. Some time ago I lightheartedly posted a small pic from a science fiction movie and named the image file I uploaded "big head", to reflect the fact that the character has, well, a big head. Since then, my site meter indicates that there are a ridiculous amount of people in the world who search for "big head" on google or other search engines. What's more, sometimes people who come here via that search actually do seem to stay a little while, looking at a few pages.

This is odd. Of course, I could delete that file from the post, but do I want the drop off in my hit rate?

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Hotting up?

FuturePundit: Ice Core Climate Record Extended To 650,000 Years

Futurepundit (link above) has a not bad post on the meaning of the recent report about older ice core studies showing that there definitely is a significant amount of additional CO2 in the atmosphere now compared to any time in the last 650,000 years.

The article notes that there have been several ice ages over this time, and the interglacial periods have ranged from between 10,000 and about 20,000 years. As the current warm spell has lasted 10,000, let's all hope there is another few thousand years left in the current balmy conditions.

It also points out that the cycle of ice ages is believed to be caused by changes in the earth's orbit. How well is this really established, I wonder? How well do they understand the current status of earth's orbit? I need to do more reading on that.

Another useful lesson that the article notes about climate is this:

".....if you have had fairly stable climate for a few centuries then best you start expecting a big shift. The climate is just not stable for many centuries running."

Sad case

7.30 Report - 28/11/2005: A miracle needed to save Nguyen

Just to put the (terribly sad) Nguyen case into perspective from the Singaporean point of view, the link above is to a recent 7.30 Report story on a Singaporean man hanged for being caught with a kilogram of cannabis on him at the Malaysian border.

Is it any wonder that the Singaporean government has a lot of face to lose if it does deals on Nguyen, caught with a substantial amount of a potentially much deadlier drug?

By way of comparison, in Queensland, it appears that possession of up to 500g can be dealt with in the Magistrates Court, with an absolute maximum of 2 years jail (although presumably that would never be imposed for a first offence.)

I haven't been able to quickly find the maximum penalty for possession of a kilo in Queensland...

Things on the up in the Middle East?

Arab world, Iraq and al-Qaeda | Unfamiliar questions in the Arab air | Economist.com

The Economist is vaguely optimisitic that the whole of the Arab world is getting sick of violence in the name of resistance. Well worth reading. A key paragraph:

"Arab governments used to treat local terrorism as something that dented their prestige and should be covered up. Now they eagerly exploit the images of suffering to justify their policies. The way such events are reported in the press no longer hints at a reflexive blaming of external forces. The Arab commentariat, much of which had promoted sympathy with the Iraqi insurgency, and focused on perceived western hostility to Islam as the cause of global jihadism, has grown vocal in condemning violence. Jihad al-Khazen, the editor of al-Hayat, a highbrow Saudi daily, is a frequent and mordant critic of western policy. Yet his response to the Amman tragedy was an unequivocal call for global co-operation to combat what he blasted as the enemies of life, of joy, and of the light of day."

Even Newsweek criticises the Democrats

Panic Is Not the Solution - Newsweek: International Editions - MSNBC.com

See the link above to a sensible opinion piece in Newsweek (obviously not from an overly Bush friendly editor) on the ridiculous rush by some Democrats towards isolationism. It's a good read.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Who's a pretty bird?

As promised, here's a photo from my holiday of something other than flowers. I don't know exactly what it is, but assume it is a kingfisher of some description. (Kookaburra shape and size, but colouring is different.)

Steyn on leaving Iraq

Mark's column last week in The Australian was his usual entertaining and good read. This paragraph (on the current kerfuffle in America about whether to just leave Iraq) stands out:

"Taking your ball and going home is a seductive argument in a paradoxical superpower whose inclinations on the Right have a strong isolationist streak and on the Left a strong transnational streak, which is isolationism with a sappy face and biennial black-tie banquets in European Union capitals. Transnationalism means poseur solutions, the Kyotification of foreign policy."

Science notes

Here's a few science news items of interest:

* Is string theory all that it's cracked up to be? A Slate review of a new book by Lawrence Krauss notes that the author, a real live physicist himself, criticises all of the hope vested in string theory because no one has yet come up with any way to test it. It's a pretty good point, really. As the reviewer notes:

'When I asked physicists like Nobel Prize-winner Frank Wilczek and string theory superstar Edward Witten for ideas about how to prove string theory, they typically began with scenarios like, "Let's say we had a particle accelerator the size of the Milky Way …" '

* So you thought a new Blu Ray DVD burner would be pretty cool. Well, just around the corner may be the faster and bigger holographic disc burner. New Scientist says it can hold up to 300
GB, and burn faster too.

I am really beginning to wonder, just how much storage on a single disk does the world really need?

* But then if you want to get into the mind boggling prospect of quantum computing, (which I only barely understand), New Scientist reports (in an article that needs to be paid for on its website, but available for free via this page in Eureka News) on a new idea for how to build a super quantum computer before they have even worked out how to build a "normal" one. The summary:

"As futuristic as quantum computers seem, what with all those qubits and entangled atoms, here is an idea that promises to make atom-based quantum computers look passé even before anyone has built a full-sized version.

It seems that bubbles of electrons lined up in ultracold liquid helium could be used to build a quantum computer capable of carrying out a staggering 1030 simultaneous calculations."

Actually, as the article ends with this:

Because each qubit carries two values, a quantum computer with two qubits could carry out four parallel calculations, one with three qubits eight calculations, and so on. "I see no major technical obstacles to the system I envisage working with 100 qubits," says Yao. "That means it could do 1000 billion billion billion operations all at once."

the reference to "1030" presumably is meant to be "10 to the power of 30" (10 followed by 30 zeros).

Has anyone worked out how you would use that computing power in practice?

While I was away...

Staying in a new place with a couple of little kids (with their tendency to wake up a bit more often in a strange place) and fairly noisy airconditioning doesn't help much with sleep patterns. Drinking more wine than usual, falling asleep at 9 pm while putting the kids to bed and waking up again at 11 or 12 pm doesn't either. Anyway, it meant a lot of stupid dreams were interrupted. The dreaming mind really carries on with some crap, doesn't it? The silliest dream I remember involved my starting a new career as a used car salesman, and my having arguments with my new boss about how I would do things differently. I have no idea why I would be dreaming about this. Becoming a car salesman is only marginally above my becoming a test cricketer in the probability stakes.

The other shorter dream I remember was one no doubt influenced by seeing a War of the Worlds DVD on sale. I was somewhere in public (like a bus or train station) and on a TV screen a newsreader was saying that there were reports of a UFO attacking the White House with lightning bolts. The scary part of the dream was the silence in the public space while people were listening. It was a very realistic "I can't believe this could be really happening like in science fiction movies" feeling. Creepy. Then I woke up.

Back at work today and catching up with the blogosphere today/tomorrow.

Tim Blair's still wandering the highways of the USA I see. He seems to keep it a secret how long he will be away.

Currency Lad has returned and seems to be posting at a rapid rate. Hope it's permanent.

There are some things I want to post about, but they will probably have to wait until this evening.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Holiday time

Off for a week. Probably no posting in that time. I'll try to post pics of something other than flowers when I get back!

A New Yorker review on CS Lewis

The New Yorker: The Critics: A Critic At Large

It's been a few weeks since I have recommended a New Yorker book review, but the link above is to a good one on CS Lewis. As usual, the "review" is really just an essay on the subject of a recent book, but it is interesting and detailed.

CS Lewis is already getting lot of renewed attention due to the forthcoming release of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" in the cinema, and from what I can gather there is a generally good "vibe" about it. I just don't get Tolkien at all, but am quite fond of some of the Narnia books.

I think I have read every major book by Lewis, except for his couple of purely academic ones. When I occasionally dip into his work again, I am usually pleasantly surprised by his clear and engaging prose, and how some of the points he made on the state of Christian faith are still very relevant today despite it being 60 years since his earliest books.

I don't agree with every point made in the review, but it is a good read anyway.

Getting cold and catching a cold

Feeling cold linked to developing a cold. 14/11/2005. ABC News Online

I made a comment in an earlier recent post how common sense sometimes points towards the truth faster than science does.

Many years ago, a friend used to ridicule me for insisting on my belief that there was a likely relationship between marijuana use and schizophrenia, because all of the studies at that time (as mentioned on that highly authoritative source Radio Station JJJ) insisted there wasn't. My hunch was based on family experience, the reported experience of other families, and a skepticism towards the "self medication" explanation that was sometimes invoked to explain higher rates of schizophrenia amongst marijuana users.

Of course, medical opinion did swing around eventually to support my hunch, and a causative relationship seems now well established. (Maybe mainly with those who were susceptible to develop mental illness anyway, but if you would not have developed it without the use of marijuana, that is sufficient causation for most legal and common sense purposes.)

The other topic of argument with my friend was a connection between getting "chilled" and developing a cold. Based on a couple of camping experiences, where I had cold feet all night quickly followed by a heavy cold within the next 30 hours or so, I was always inclined to believe there was a connection, despite some studies which indicated otherwise.

Anyway, once again there is finally a study (see link at the top) that seems to vindicate my common sense assessment. In fact, the mechanism suggested in this article was exactly what I suggested years ago (namely, a chill could sufficiently weaken resistence to a virus already lurking on you.)

More people should just listen to me and learn that I am usually right. (Just kidding folks!)

Just for some colour

Not sure what they are ...

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Someone please arrest Tony Kevin - it's the only way he'll be satisfied

Over at Margo Kingston's site, Tony Kevin remains a frequent contributor, and he's been going on for some time now about the "new" sedition laws and how he will act in defiance of them, even at risk of arrest.

As I have never noticed Tony calling for an armed or violent resistence against this government, despite his frequent claim that John Howard has just about created a fascist state, I fail to see how it is possible that he could be at risk of a sedition charge. I don't think he has read the legislation, but that seems pretty common in the anti sedition laws media commentary lately. He likes to get carried away, though:

"For fascism is almost with us now. The experience of 20th century fascism in Europe reminds us of the apparent normality of life, for most people most of the time, under the fascist regimes before they went to war. Outside the minority communities being scapegoated, life under the German and Italian fascists was pretty much like life under John Howard here now."


It's like walking down a street minding your own business and having a stranger come up to you saying over and over "I have my rights, don't hit me!" Although you may never have had any such intention of doing so at first, you really do want to hit him after a while 'cos he is so annoying.

(There is a similar bit in Monty Python somewhere, I am sure, but it won't come clearly to mind.)

More on Iraq and WMD

FrontPage magazine.com :: Where the WMDs Went by Jamie Glazov

See the link for an interesting interview with someone with direct experience in Iraq on the the WMD issue both before and after the war.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Silly science

Seasonal depression may affect hamsters

My questions: 1. how do you tell that hamster is depressed?

2. Why does it matter? (Yeah, yeah, may provide some insight into human seasonal affective disorder. Not much, I bet.)

Lefty Francophile upset by Aussie media coverage

Bronwyn Winter argues the Australian press has used the French crisis to push a little local propaganda. - On Line Opinion - 11/11/2005

See link above for a long article that definitely deserves a fisking - but no time for me to do it now.

Her basic idea: the media here thinks the Australian economy and assimilation of migrants would be something of a lesson for France. But not so - things are pretty appalling for everyone here too. Just that we don't know it.

But her ending is a bit of a worry - and a good way to lose any possible sympathy:

"Perhaps the editors of the Sydney Morning Herald and The Australian would do well to consider what a fragile glass house Australia has become. And right now, there are plenty of us clutching sharp stones in our hands. "

The author is "Dr Bronywn Winter is a senior lecturer at the University of Sydney, School of Languages and Cultures, Deptartment of French Studies." Perhaps her boss deserves a letter.

On WMD in Iraq

Although it seems to have attracted little media attention in Australia, The Guardian has been extracting bits of a book by former British Ambassador to the US, Sir Christopher Meyer. The book looks at the run up to the Iraq war, and while Meyer thought the war was justified, his book is apparently highly critical of Tony Blair for being too compliant with American wishes.

However, he still defends the government on the issue of WMD and the danger of Saddam Hussein, and indeed the character of George W Bush:

"With hindsight, of course, there were no weapons of mass destruction, one of the prime justifications for the war, at least in Britain. "This is one of history's loose ends, which may yet be tied," he suggests defensively. But he denies that the government suspected all along that Saddam was less of a threat than was being claimed in public. "I do not know anyone of any stature in 2002 who was going around saying they don't have this stuff."

The US Iraq survey team, sent in after the war, failed to find any WMD after one of the most intensive hunts in history. Sir Christopher suggests they could have been "spirited out of the country into Syria or maybe even Iran. That is a possibility". To the Americans, though, Sir Christopher says, the war was always about regime change, not WMD. "One of the things that came to me when writing was how political the war was. This wasn't just a war, it was a political war." The US, he says, wanted to "replace a bad government with a good government". It was, he says, the "neo-con vision".

US officials who planned the war, such as deputy defence secretary Paul Wolfowitz, "thought it was possible to bring not perfect democracy but start with a fairly rough and ready version that would be the basis from which you could move on to higher things".

"Put it like that and it doesn't sound so loony," he says.

And despite the current situation in Iraq, Sir Christopher remains an admirer of Mr Bush. "I have got to declare an interest: I like George W Bush. In public, on the whole, he doesn't do himself justice, at least for a European audience. In private, from the very first time I met him, I found him articulate and interesting. He did do detail. You can argue, millions will, that what he did with those details and the policies he created out of them are not to our liking. But the portrait of an ideological, religious simpleton is wildly off-beam."

Unusual - but very interesting - link of the day

The Old Bailey, of course, the criminal court in London that has been around for centuries.

You can now visit their site to search the complete record of proceedings there from 1674 to 1834!

This is of particular interest to Australians, since many of the original Aussies ended up here via that court.

For example, if you look at the link to "On this day in 1786" for today, and then click on the "see original" link at the side, you will see that the fate of one Christopher Hornsby, charged with stealing a silk hankerchief, was transportation for 7 years!

I must search my family name and see what pops up. Fascinating.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Two perspectives on France

Gerard Henderson's column today on the French and their riots is interesting. The key argument:

"France practises integration with respect to its ethnic minorities, from North Africa and Arab nations, in the sense that the French do not formally recognise their existence....

Anyone who has residence in France is expected to act like the French. There is no public recognition that immigrants to France - or their children or grandchildren - might like to preserve part of their ethnic culture or native language or that this might benefit France. There is no French equivalent of SBS and there are few government sponsored organisations for inter-ethnic dialogue. It's a case of when in France do as the French do."

Australia, on the other hand, is successfully multicultural, because it acknowledges that migrants might want to preserve part of their heritage:

"The fact is that multiculturalism has worked well in Australia and has contributed to an accepting society. The tests? Well, inter-marriage rates between ethnic groups are relatively high. And the level of ethnic motivated crime is relatively low. France's contemporary social problems have nothing to do with multiculturalism but, rather, much to do with its absence."

Mark Steyn's latest on Europe advances a not too dissimilar line, in that he points out that most European countries are bi-cultural (with one culture being Muslim.) Using the situation in Fiji as an example, he points out that this is inherently more unstable (at least when the minority starts to become the not so minority due to population growth) than multicultural countries, like the US and Australia. As he wittily puts it:

"One way to avoid it would be to go genuinely multicultural, to broaden the Continent's sources of immigration beyond the Muslim world. But a talented ambitious Chinese or Indian or Chilean has zero reason to emigrate to France, unless he is consumed by a perverse fantasy of living in a segregated society that artificially constrains his economic opportunities yet imposes confiscatory taxation on him in order to support an ancien regime of indolent geriatrics."

God, he can write!

Whitlam and Saddam

Shame, Whitlam, shame - Tony Parkinson - Opinion - theage.com.au

See the link for a Tony Parkinson story on how Whitlam sought substantial money from Saddam Hussein to support the Labor Party election campaign in 1975. I don't recall this story at all, but it's a great one.

Doco recommendation

The first part of a 2 part documentary "The Cult of the Suicide Bomber" was on the ABC tonight at 8.30. A British Channel 4 production, it was very good. If you missed it, you can at least see the next part next Monday.

It gave much insight into how Islamist suicide bombers started in Iran in the Iran/Iraq war. Most worrying was how it showed that such martyrdom is still admired today, even by those parents whose 13 or 15 yr old sons strapped explosives to themselves 20 years ago.

It really makes you wonder how such a mindset can be changed. Depressing, in a way.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Panic! Global warming to affect wine!

This PhD research noted on the ABC website would have to be one of the most trivial bits of global warming related research I have seen.

"Connoisseurs of Australian wine may have to learn to love a less tasty drop as climate change takes its toll on grape growing regions, a greenhouse conference will hear.

Leanne Webb, a PhD student with CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research says based on her modelling Australia's wine growing regions will become warmer and in almost all cases drier.

The bad news is that the flavour and aroma of grapes may suffer, resulting in poorer quality, less complex wines."


'"In most regions bud burst will be earlier ... and harvest day in all cases will be earlier," she says.

For example, in South Australia's Riverland, Australia's warmest and largest wine producing region, bud burst will occur four days earlier and harvesting will take place eleven days earlier by 2030.'

Panic! Maybe this will convince Howard to ratify Kyoto. He likes wine doesn't he? But wait a minute, there is something good to come from it:

"According to her model, by 2030 Riverina grape growers in New South Wales will need an extra 1500 to 8500 megalitres of water a year to irrigate their crops.

But what growers lose through irrigation they may gain in increased yield, she says.

"When it's warmer you tend to be able to produce more grapes per hectare," she says.'

So it's more wine but of less quality. Since most of the bottles I currently drink are under $10, I can live with this.

Gerard Henderson fighting the good fight

The World Today - Anti-terrorism laws: safety measure or political gameplay?

On Friday I heard The World Today on Radio National, in which there was a good stoush between the always cool, rational (and conservative) Gerard Henderson and Robert Toner (a New South Wales barrister on the side of the over-cautious civil libertarians) on the Federal government's anti terror legislation.

Things did get a bit heated as these extracts show:

"GERARD HENDERSON: Yeah, but the error you're making is, and many barristers make, you don't have to take…

ROBERT TONER: We're the ones that deal with it day in, day out.

GERARD HENDERSON: Yeah, but just a minute… is that you're talking about criminality, and I think… can I just finish? I think you underplay the significance of the threat. Let's just talk about Britain.

ROBERT TONER: What, of mass murder? Why should we?

GERARD HENDERSON: Could I just finish? If we just talk about Britain, not talk about Australia. What we're dealing here with is not criminals, so much as revolutionaries. Revolutionaries who come up with ideological doctrines deserve to be taken seriously.

If someone says to me they want to destroy our society, I have the good sense to take them seriously until proven otherwise. This is a revolutionary force at a new time of war. We are not dealing with normal acts of criminality for which barristers have dealt for many years."

And then:

"GERARD HENDERSON: All I'm saying is that if every State Premier, if every Territory leader, if the Prime Minister and the Opposition leader, the Federal Police, and all the State Police say something needs to be done, I don't think it's… I mean, it's very easy for someone for the Bar to say they're all wrong.

ROBERT TONER: Because they're spooked by the polls, they're spooked by the editorial writers of the Daily Telegraph.

GERARD HENDERSON: Oh are they? So they don't believe what they're doing? They're just spooked by people, they're just scared. I mean…

ROBERT TONER: Well, hang on a minute, this is out of balance.

GERARD HENDERSON: That is a ridiculous proposition. As a barrister you should be able to do better than that.

ELEANOR HALL: Now, I just need to intervene here."

Of course, I rate Henderson as the winner.

Foil hat warning

I strongly suggest Tony Kevin should read this.

(Everyone else should read it too; my posts have been too serious lately.)

The Dead in Iraq

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Flaws in the calculations of Iraqi war dead

There has been some renewed criticism lately of the media's alleged downplaying of the controversial Lancet study that put the number of war dead at a likely 100,000.

George Monbiot had an article in The Guardian about it last week. It drew a letter in response linked to at the top of this post from one Gil Elliot.

Strangely enough, the book which he wrote ("The 20th Century Book of the Dead") is one which I bought out of vague curiosity in a second hand shop in (I think) the early 1980's. It explains the numbers of deaths caused by humans (through war, deliberately induced famine, etc) throughout the 20th century, and it cautiously details the uncertainties and methods by which the numbers had been calculated. It certainly alerted me while relatively young to the fact that Stalin killed many, many more millions of his own subjects than Hitler ever did. (Being a point still not a matter of common knowledge in the West, in my opinion.)

Anyway, I have not followed the argument about the Lancet study as closely as I could. My reaction still remains the same: while the survey method might well work in some societies, I doubt that it would work so well in the, umm, highly excitable society that seems to be in place in Iraq. In other words, if ever there were a place where I would have cause to doubt the accuracy of answers to a survey on how many deaths you knew of, it would be Iraq. And bearing in mind that their study gave a possible (though very unlikely) minimum of 8,000 deaths, I would think that it is entirely justifiable to take a figure well within the lower range of possibilities in the study as being more accurate than the 100,000 "most likely" figure, given other information out of the country.

The authors of the study and their defenders complain that the Western leaders didn't question their methodology when used in other conflicts. Well, maybe they should have, but in any case when they rush their study into print in a highly politicised way, they should expect some pretty careful scrutiny and skepticism. The fact that they are professionals at this work doesn't cut much ice with me. Sometimes common sense points you in the right direction faster than science does.

John Howard's secrets of success

In The Australian today, an opinion piece with a (sympathetic) analysis of John Howard's success is an interesting read. This part stood out to me, because it is diametrically opposed to the view that some on the Left take on Howard's methods:

"For one thing, contrary to accepted wisdom, he's allowed backbenchers a greater policy role than probably any other Liberal leader. Howard, remember, saw first-hand the difficulty that Malcolm Fraser had in managing a large party room of ambitious MPs, and he's adopted a strategy the opposite of his predecessor's. Instead of attempting to restrict party dissent, Howard has tolerated it, and sometimes even encouraged it. No fewer than three policy journals are now published by Liberal MPs -- covering everything from vouchers for education to uranium mining. On the new anti-terror laws, Howard has genuinely listened to backbenchers such as Petro Georgiou and Malcolm Turnbull and taken their views into account -- even if he disagrees with them."

This made me think, the Labor Party can similarly be said to be a "broad church", but it causes it more grief than benefit. The reason, I suppose, would have to be the rigidity of the faction system, which presumably makes inter-faction compromises on policy much harder to achieve.

Identity crisis and terrorism

Greg Sheridan's article in the Saturday Australian was good, and Tim Blair has already quoted from one part of it with approval.

But I think another part of the article is also worth noting:

"There is really no common denominator among terrorists. They can be rich or poor, highly religious or not religious at all. The only common factor among many seems to be a crisis of identity that then runs into an identity entrepreneur, in the shape of a charismatic religious teacher or cell leader.

The identity entrepreneur solves the identity crisis for the young men. He instructs them on their identity. They are warriors in jihad, avenging the countless crimes of the infidel against Islam.

This is the sense in which the riots in France can have a connection with terrorism. It is not that the rioters have adopted terrorist ideology. But their nihilistic rage bespeaks a crisis of identity that is bound to find some of them falling into the hands of the identity entrepreneurs of radical jihad. "

Sounds very plausible to me.

Ruddock to the rescue

There is no threat to freedom of speech - Opinion - smh.com.au

I have posted before about how much of the commentary on the sedition laws appears to have been based on an major misunderstanding in relation to the definition of "seditious intention"

Phillip Ruddock in the Sydney Morning Herald today (link above) confirms I was right. See this:

"One source of misunderstanding is that people have taken the term "seditious intention" to be an offence.

Seditious intention, for the purpose of this bill, is a definition - not an offence. Although it contains reference to things such as disaffection against the government, you cannot be charged with "seditious intention". The section of the act that mentions seditious intention is part of a wider provision setting out the requirements for declaring an association "unlawful",and in that context, it does not apply to individuals."

However, possibly this bit of the article is a little misleading:

"The existing and proposed laws allow for free speech by making sure people can call upon a good faith defence."

This is true for individuals, but I think that even the final bill does not make allowances for associations to make comment "in good faith". If so this is probably a legitimate ground for complaint against the provisions. The risk of leaving the legislation as it is more theoretical than practical, though, when one considers that the AG would have to convince a Federal Court judge to declare an association as unlawful.

Anyway, it is good to see the government finally speaking against the mistaken impression given in the media about what the sedition laws were covering.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

Terry Lane on this week's events

No more beating about the bogeyman - Opinion - theage.com.au

Terry's Age article this week (link above) is a real dog's breakfast. Long suffering from Howard Derangement Syndrome, he of course cannot let go of the idea that the police raids this week were probably just part of some diversionary tactic directed by the PM:

"Let's be generous here. Let's assume, for the sake of argument, that the happy coincidence of the Man of Steel's need for a bogeyman and the arrest of 17 "terrorists" has genuinely foiled a bomb plot. And let's assume too that the police who have benefited from extra money and power are not cynically rewarding their political master.

....Just suppose that for once we are not being deceived by self-serving opportunists; what should we make of events?"

However, he then swings over (via a fairly gratuitous swipe at ASIO's history) to making a point I can probably agree with. Namely, despite the government having an interest in repeatedly saying that the new anti terror legislation is not aimed at Muslims, in the present situation of course it is Muslims who will be being watched most closely. To quote:

"If the secret police are any good at their jobs they will target Muslim organisations. If there is any threat at all, we know that is where it comes from. In which case, let's stop beating about the bush and get it out in the open. The issue is not resolved when some Muslim puts his hand on his heart and tells us that "Islam means peace". We know that it doesn't. Right now we are not frightened of Baptists or Presbyterians."

And then his final paragraph is interesting, although completely devoid of practical suggestion as to how it is to be achieved:

"Putting a few ratbags behind bars will not solve the problem of an unsettling alien presence in the nation. The most urgent requirement is the assimilation of Muslims and the secularisation of Islam. The Man of Steel should tell us what he has in mind along those lines. We need an Ataturk."

[For any international readers, "Man of Steel" is his sarcastic nick for PM John Howard.]

Terry is famously athiestic, and it is his strong anti-religion views that have swung him away from the more "traditional" left wing view of multiculuralism, where it is deemed impolite to actually say that another culture's religious beliefs should be reformed or abandoned (while having no compunction about rubbishing your own country's Christian inheritance.)

So Terry has actually got himself into a position on Islam which is probably shared by many on the right side of politics, even the far right.

What do I think? Well, I am still reading bits and pieces about Islam and don't feel I have a solid basis for a detailed opinion yet. I don't know enough about the different branches of Islam and its history to have any good idea as to how it could be reformed. But of course, I have no issue with the question of assimilation. Clearly, other migrant groups have taken to assimilation in this country quite well, and I think one of the major ways of achieving this is through the younger generation's inter-marriage with Australian citizens. It is not clear to me how much the younger generation of Muslim immigrants to Australia are intermarrying. The publicity surrounding the gang rapes in Sydney suggest that there is not a hell of a lot of respect for Western women amongst some Muslim groups, which would also presumably mean little intermarriage.

I would not have thought that Australia has any substantial barriers to Muslims economically integrating here (in the same way apparently France has,) but then again I don't know (for example) how many work places make a prayer room available for Muslim staff either. (I am sounding very small "l" liberal when I say that, but I was chatting to a Malaysian guy and he explained how all office workplaces there have a prayer room for the Muslim men. I asked if it was a cause of resentment that they went and had a few 20 minute prayer breaks every day, but the chinese seem to live with it. I am not sure if a Muslim man here has ever had an issue with his non- Muslim boss over the need for prayer breaks.)

So, assimilation is a good idea, but I would like Terry to give us his personal (and practical) ideas about how to achieve that, rather than just making implied criticism of Howard for not addressing it.

Capitalism for Peace

The Japan Times Online

See the link above for a short article on the idea being promoted by Erik Gartzke that capitalism is more important than democracy in ensuring world peace. Maybe this has been noted elsewhere on the Net, but if so I have missed it. The heart of the article is this:

"...Gartzke argues that "the 'democratic peace' is a mirage created by the overlap between economic and political freedom." That is, democracies typically have freer economies than do authoritarian states.

Thus, while "democracy is desirable for many reasons," he notes in a chapter in the latest volume of Economic Freedom in the World, created by the Fraser Institute, "representative governments are unlikely to contribute directly to international peace." Capitalism is by far the more important factor.

The shift from statist mercantilism to high-tech capitalism has transformed the economics behind war. Markets generate economic opportunities that make war less desirable. Territorial aggrandizement no longer provides the best path to riches.

Free flowing capital markets and other aspects of globalization simultaneously draw nations together and raise the economic price of military conflict. "

Sounds at least half plausible.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Links, anyone?

I had a bit of a spike in visits this week, so it seems appropriate to issue a gentle reminder that there seem to be very few people who link to me. If I didn't want people to read this, I would write it all in a paper diary kept under the bed, with my Fortean Times magazines.

If you are a blogger who likes this site, don't just visit via book marks or someone's else's link. Please consider adding me to your blog roll.

Important psychological research - not

I hope they weren't paid a government grant for this:

"Imagine two servings of ice cream, one featuring a five-ounce cup overfilled with seven ounces, the other a ten-ounce cup filled with only eight ounces. Objectively the under-filled serving is better, because it contains more. But a study conducted by Christopher Hsee found that unless these two servings are presented side by side, the seven-ounce serving is actually considered more valuable. Apparently, people do not base their judgment on the amount of ice cream available, which is difficult to evaluate in isolation. Instead, they rely on an easy-to-evaluate cue: whether the serving is overfilled or under-filled. Overfilling evokes positive feelings while under-filling evokes negative feelings, and these feelings dictate people's evaluations."

Emphasis is mine. Isn't that the reason for the result, and does it tells us anything valuable?

Who is lying about Iraq?


Tim Blair has already linked to it, as have many right wing blogs. Still, just in case you missed it, there's the link. Powerline also links to some further comment about it here.

France Fries Farmers

French hypocriscy (and stupidity) on its position on free trade is covered in a WSJ commentary piece. (The WSJ has been free for a week, so better link there soon if you want the whole article.) I will extract the key points:

"France's tirades have helped negotiators wake up to the fact that the 2003 reform was largely a shell game, shifting only a portion of European farm subsidies from the WTO's prohibited list of trade-distorting payments to its "acceptable" subsidy list. This was achieved primarily by "decoupling" subsidies from production, with the idea that this would discourage the overproduction of goods that has wreaked havoc on agricultural markets. At the end of the day, however, there was no change in support prices and subsidy levels, and hence no change in the overall level of European protection. As shown by an OECD study, this was a liberalization in name only, reducing the overall level of support by a meager two percentage points, from 57% to 55% -- nothing much to celebrate for Europe's WTO partners.

..... This means foreign access to European markets remains difficult, if not impossible -- even for producers from Europe's former colonies in the African, Caribbean and Pacific regions and other least developed countries that face no tariffs. .... These countries are shocked by the incredible cynicism of a position that preaches development, but practices market closure when it comes to developing countries' farm exports....

The French position is even less understandable when it is recalled that, on the whole, French agriculture is amongst the most efficient in Europe. French farmers seem not to realize that they will be the main beneficiaries of even the limited farm liberalization that the Doha round appears capable of delivering. Take domestic subsidies, for example. European subsidies spent in the most inefficient member states keep their farmers in operation, and thereby restrict the sales of more efficient farmers, be they from the rest of the world or from the rest of Europe. The CAP is the most implacable foe of the European single market in farm products, and it is particularly harmful for the most efficient European -- often French -- farmers.

If reason were to prevail, French farmers would be among those pushing for deeper reductions in European subsidies than those tabled by the Commission. They would clearly win from such an approach."

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Meanwhile, in Iraq

Found via the IWPR website (click on the press summary for 9 November - it is still incorrectly listed as "October"):

"Armed Elements Captured
Border guards arrested seven armed Syrians in the Sinjar area of Nineveh province, a source at the interior ministry said. He said security forces raided a house in the al-Qadisiya area where they arrested the seven men who shot at a police patrol there. The source said security forces also raided terrorists' dens in the al-Nahrawan area of Baghdad, where they arrested 13 armed men. In addition, 10 Iranians were arrested at Sirwan checkpoint.
(Al-Mada is issued daily by Al-Mada institution for Media, Culture and Arts.)"

Another reason to drink pinot noir

From Scientific American:

'"A chemical compound in wine reduces levels of a harmful molecule linked to Alzheimer's disease. In a recent study, resveratrol--one of several antioxidants found in wine--helped human cells break down the molecule, which contributes to the lesions found in the brains of Alzheimer's patients....

The pinot noir grape apparently boasts the most dietary resveratrol, but that may not be enough to fend off Alzheimer's. "It is difficult to know whether the anti-amyloidogenic effect of resveratrol observed in cell culture systems can support the beneficial effect of specific diets," Marambaud explains. "Resveratrol in grapes may never reach the concentrations required to obtain the effect observed in our studies."'

Still, that would be one medical research project that would be worth signing up for.

Stop that twittering

Bird calls may have meaning says an article here.

Well, it's pretty obvious some types of call do. But I have wondered recently, with the arrival of spring and its massive increase in bird noice around our house, what exactly is the point of the huge din that lorikeets and similar parrot-ish birds make of an evening as they fly into the trees?

I mean, you can sort of guess that morning calls may have something to do with, well, waking up and checking who's around you. But the evening racket they make? I mean, they don't talk about what they did today, do they? They're smart enough to know where their nest is without having to hear where the crowd is, aren't they?

Just wondering.

But I still want to see a "Kaboom"

From New Scientist, some NASA people think the easiest way to deflect an incoming asteroid is just to park a big spaceship near it and let gentle gravity do its work:

'For a 200-metre-wide asteroid, the spacecraft would need to weigh about 20 tonnes and lurk 50 metres from its target for about a year to change its velocity enough to knock it off course.

"This is hands down the best idea I have seen," says Erik Asphaug, a planetary scientist at the University of California at Santa Cruz. "This will work, but you need to put a large enough spacecraft out there at the right time."

Not even half the fun of an atomic explosion.

Anti anti Globalisation

From The Economist:

"In the past few weeks ..... a fairly bold American proposal for reducing its farm protection has been greeted by a much weaker response from the European Union and none at all from Japan. And ministers from Bastiat's own country, France, have vied with one another to denounce all talk of further reform to the EU's common agricultural policy. Europe must, they say, remain an “agricultural power” even at the expense of the taxpayer and the poor, and, according to President Jacques Chirac, must fight back “liberalism”. Whatever happened to Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité?....

The likeliest outcome both from the Hong Kong meeting and the eventual Doha agreement is a compromise—as always. The European position is feeble but not risible, for it has offered an overall average cut in its farm tariffs of 39%, up from 25% only a month ago, though with rather a lot of loopholes that could severely limit the benefits. France, and other European farm protectionists, may prove more flexible than they currently imply: this is hardly the first time they have promised to man the barricades shortly before striking a deal. ....

Although the case for reducing poverty by sending more aid to the poorest countries has some merit, the experience of China, South Korea, Chile and India shows that the much better and more powerful way to deal with poverty is to use the solution that worked in the past in America, western Europe and Japan: open, trading economies, exploiting the full infrastructure of capitalism (including financial services—see our survey on microfinance) amid a rule of law provided by government. In other words, globalisation."