Thursday, August 31, 2006

Move on, nothing to see here

Former weapons inspector disappointed with handling of concerns. 31/08/2006. ABC News Online

ABC's 7.30 Report and Lateline tonight both featured this story at some length. I see that Marion Wilkinson had the story in The Age this morning.

Former weapons inspector John Gee, who did not look all that well in the interview, resigned from the Iraq Survey Group in 2004 and wrote to the government saying that the search for WMD in Iraq (after the invasion) was not being well run, and that he did not think anything would be found.

Foreign Minister Downer met him at the time and said, "well let's wait and see." Gee says to him "I can assure you they won't find any."

Apparently, a subsequent sense of (relative) vindication by the ISG's report isn't enough for Gee. He now complains that his letter was not distributed outside of Foreign Affairs to the Defence Department.


What is significant about this story? Extremely little, it seems to me.

Researchers with too much time on their hands

ScienceDaily: Brain Scan Of Nuns Finds No Single 'God Spot' In The Brain, Study Finds

I'm sure I've commented before about the highly dubious priorities that neuroscience seems to have now, at least with regard to what they do with MRI scanners. This one for example:

Fifteen cloistered Carmelite nuns ranging from 23 to 64-years-old were subjected to an fMRI brain scan while asked to relive a mystical experience rather than actually try to achieve one. "I was obliged to do it this way seeing as the nuns are unable to call upon God at will," said Beauregard. This method was justified seeing as previous studies with actors asked to enter a particular emotional state activated the same brain regions as people actually living those emotions.

This study demonstrated that a dozen different regions of the brain are activated during a mystical experience. This type of research became very popular in the United States in the late 1990s. Some researchers went as far as suggesting the possibility of a specific brain region designed for communication with God. This latest research discredits such theories.

I find it hard to imagine that anyone would think that the essential nature of a mystical experience would be capable of being explained by watching such scans.

Psychologist Jerome Kagan was interviewed on ABC radio recently and made the point:

Well the brain is the foundation of all mental phenomenon but the vocabulary we use for the brain - neurons, circuits, transmitters - that's not the language of thought or feeling. And so mind got put in the background under the assumption that if - an assumption I disagree with - that if and when scientists can understand exactly what's going on in the brain then they'll be able to predict and know exactly what your thoughts, feelings and intentions are.

The rest of his interview, which covers quite a few areas of psychology, is interesting too.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

A bad sign for Democrats

The Democrats and religious voters. By Amy Sullivan - Slate Magazine

Just recently I posted about how the Catholic vote for Bush in 2004 was higher than I expected. (Well, the white Catholic vote, anyway.)

Further along these lines is the above interesting article on how, despite attempts by the Democrats to paint a friendlier image to the religious, they have lost substantial ground in this over the last couple of years:

The Pew Research Center's annual poll on religion and politics, released last week, shows that while 85 percent of voters say religion is important to them, only 26 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is "friendly" to religion. That's down from 40 percent in the summer of 2004 and 42 percent the year before that—in other words, a 16-point plunge over three years. The decline is especially troubling because it cuts across the political and religious spectra, encompassing liberals and conservatives, white and black evangelicals, mainline Protestants, Catholics, and Jews.

That seems a very bad sign indeed for the Democrats. Isn't it odd how, despite all the liberal fights in churches getting so much publicity, there still don't seem to be many (or enough) liberal churchgoers who can sway these figures more in favour of the Dems.

Newsweek on the new childlessness

Why More Married Couples Are Going Childless - Newsweek: International Editions -

Maybe it doesn't add much to what Mark Steyn's readers already knew, but it's interesting to see the topic being covered widely.

So that's why we elect people to parliament

MP attacked on suicide speech | Herald Sun

It's obvious, isn't it. We elect politicians so they can promote methods of suicide from Parliament.

From the above story:

AUSTRALIAN Democrats MP Sandra Kanck's use of parliamentary privilege today to detail ways of committing suicide, has been widely attacked as provocative and a stunt.

Ms Kanck detailed ways to commit suicide in a speech to South Australian parliament this evening aimed at provoking a clash with the federal government.

In an hour-long address, Ms Kanck, a supporter of voluntary euthanasia, used the protection of parliamentary privilege to catalogue ways in which people could take their own lives.

Ms Kanck, who earlier this year sparked controversy by telling parliament there was no evidence the drug ecstasy was dangerous, said she wanted her speech to highlight "odious" federal laws.

What a class act: a politician who not only promotes a drug that is widely believed to lead to depression, but is also happy to advise on preferred methods of suicide. Well thought out, Sandra.

Communist monk victory

The Japan Times Online - Monk with JCP fliers ruled not trespassing

This story highlights some odd things about Japan:

* Buddhist monks can be politically active (for the communist party)

* going into a condo complex to put flyers in letterboxes could be much more trouble than it is worth. (This monk was detained for 23 days for this, presumably after his arrest.)

* the lesson (especially for foreigners): try to avoid being arrested for anything in Japan!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Japan needs babies

Rural Japan | Where have all the young men gone? |

For more on the almost certain demographic decline of Japan, have a read of the above article.

An extract:

Over the next half century, demographers expect Japan's population to fall to from 128m to 100m. The process began last year, the first peacetime fall in population since records were kept. Yet in the countryside numbers have been falling for decades—and rural Japan will bear a disproportionate share of the future reduction in population. Already, more than two out of five people living in rural communities are 65 or over.

The only good thing I can see out of this is that maybe Japan has a built in way of reducing green house gas emissions over the next 50 years!

Ghosts in the Salon

Ghost world | Salon Books

Its politics are always predictable, but some of the reviews and cultural articles in Salon can be OK.

This article, a review of a book about the founders of the Society for Psychical Research (in England in the late 19th Century), is a good one.

Years ago, I read some other accounts of the Society and its early investigations, and have always felt that it is a story that could make good movie material. The founders of the society were well intentioned scientists and academics, and it was really the first attempt to take science to the issue.

The results were ambiguous, but I admire the open mindedness displayed. As for at least one Salon reader, his reaction to the review was:

What a crock of shit.

And that's just Laura Miller's writing. The SPR's particular brand of excrement deserves its own scatalogical label.

Please stop publishing intelligent interviews with people such as Michael Shermer if all you're going to do a few days later is "balance" fact with this pathetic fiction.

As a local sidenote: Many people know that Arthur Conan Doyle became a (rather loopy) believer in spiritualism and all things mystical. In fact, there is a spiritualist church in Brisbane that was opened by ACD during a visit here. This is recorded on a plaque on the church. (Perhaps he just laid the foundation stone, I can't remember for sure, and Google has come up a blank.)

Nuttiest theory ever?

CIA behind Bali attack: Bashir |

Indonesian Muslim cleric Bashir comes up with his very own theory as to what exactly blew up the Bali night club (and 202 people):

In an interview tonight on ABC television's Foreign Correspondent, Bashir claims the device that killed most people in the Bali attack was a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) "micro-nuclear" bomb.
"The micro-nuclear bomb that did so much damage was a CIA bomb, not Amrozi's bomb," Bashir told the ABC.

"The Bali bombing was actually masterminded by America. Well, not masterminded, but hijacked. They planned it, but their plan was hijacked by America."

Just nuts.

By the way: I just saw the Foreign Correspondent episode. This program is consistently interesting and enjoyable. Tonight's episode is typical of its eclectic mix of topics: the problems of Indonesian maid abuse in Malaysia; Star Trek fans who makes their own Star Trek shows, and then the nutty Bashir interview.

The Indonesian maid story was good. (A transcript and video of it will be up later.) Malaysia has 300,000 odd Indonesian maids. Filipino ones are protected by Filipino laws which mean that Malaysia must ensure that they are paid a basic wage and have one day off a week. Indonesia does not have such laws, and says they won't be coming soon, because there are too many maids already there, and it would cause too much trouble to force their salary up. Not only that, maids don't deserve a day off (said one Indonesia government figure.) Then there is the physical abuse many suffer.

What a life they have. And the big question is: Malaysia, what's to stop you making your own laws to improve the lot of your fellow Muslim maids?

About Lindzen

Seed: The Contrarian

An interesting story on Richard Lindzen, the global warming skeptic. (Although to what degree this remains a fair title remains a little unclear when you read the article.)

Cars for the future

The Race to 100 MPG - Popular Science

See the article above for a few ideas about how to make cars that can do 100 miles per gallon (to go back to Imperial for the moment.)

Interestingly, the X Prize people are going to get involved in this too:

The race should heat up further when the X Prize FoundationĂ‚—the group that kick-started the space-tourism industry with its $10-million competition to produce a reusable private spacecraftĂ‚—announces in the next few months a competition for the first car to break 100 miles per gallon and sell a yet-to-be-decided number of units. The prize money hadn'’t been finalized at press time, but X Prize officials are discussing figures in the $25-million range as an appropriate incentive. They hope the prize will urge people to completely reconsider what a car should look like and how it should function. '“We need a paradigm shift,'” says Mark Goodstein, the executive director for the automotive X Prize. '“We need to change the way people think about automobiles.'”

The photo of a prototype super lightweight and aerodynamic car at the top of the article gives an idea of how odd such a vehicle may look. One thing that crosses my mind as soon as I see that picture is how it looks like it could double as a pizza oven if it was parked in the Brisbane summer sun for more than 5 minutes. Look at that big oblique windscreen that seems designed to let as much heat as possible.

Don't forget such obvious practicalities, bug car designers...

Monday, August 28, 2006

Plame case continues to shrink into insignificance

Eat The Press | David Corn: The Meaning of the Armitage Leak News (from the Book I Co-Wrote) | The Huffington Post

David Corn, who is no shrinking violet when it comes to criticism of Bush, explains how it appears very clear now that the initial leak in the Plame case was almost certainly an accident ( my words, not Corn's.)

I recall that there was speculation along these lines from some calmer parts of the press at the time.

Corn still manages to criticise the White House for taking advantage of the leak (see his post for details.) However, the fundamental character of the initial leak appears vastly different from what Bush critics expected.

Not a good sign

From the above article about Iran in USA Today:

Until recently, Ahmadinejad's hard-line ideology had little impact upon Iranians' daily existence. The tight social strictures imposed in the early days of Iran's Islamic revolution, when morals police roamed the streets chastising women for insufficiently modest clothing, have long since eased. Iranians, especially in cities, take for granted the ability to hear Western music, read foreign news on the Internet and dress with a little flair.

In recent weeks, though, officials began confiscating home satellite dishes, which Iranians use to watch the British Broadcasting Corp. and Western entertainment. The sudden enforcement of this long-ignored regulation has been coupled with a heavy hand on the media and intellectuals.

Men and fidelity

Spare us men's natural urges - Comment - Times Online

Caitlin Moore's commentary on a new book on the (alleged) impossibility of men being faithful to one partner is pretty funny, and accurate.

Some examples:

On how the author is hardly qualified to write about successful relationships:

His parents were locked in a loveless marriage, which he was able to observe only during the summer holidays from his boarding school.

Subsequently, when Blews attained his majority, his first lover became so agonised in the final stages of her multiple sclerosis that she blew her head off with a shotgun. In any other age, Blews would probably have abandoned any further attempt at trying to deal with human relationships. He would simply have become a sad-eyed and slightly bitter monk, tending a vat of hyssop liqueur and kicking the priory’s chickens out of the way.

However, in the 21st century, the coping mechanism of the troubled middle classes is slightly different: they come up with a theory about how awful people are and then get a publishing deal. And, so, here we are with Marriage & How To Avoid It, which some cultural commentators (primarily the men’s magazines Nuts and Zoo, albeit that their commentary consists predominantly of “phwoar!”), have hailed as a great truth.

Steyn attack

Warrior of the Right | Herald Sun

Oh dear, lefty favourites Jill Singer and Jon Faine "stared at each other with incredulity" after interviewing Mark Steyn on his recent Australian visit.

Singer tries to put the boot into Steyn in her article above, and I don't have time to do a full "fisk" as it thoroughly deserves.

The fact that Steyn can use humour in his commentary upsets them. Funny how the Left worried so much that anti terrorism legislation might make satire illegal. The importance of the "right" to use humour only exists when the "Right" is the target, obviously.

Singer criticises Steyn for "exaggerating" the Muslim population of the town of Malmo in Sweden. She claims his source is a 2 year old Fox News report, which put it at 25%. She does not say what Sweden's "official statistics department" says the current figure is. One suspects it must be between 25 and 40% by now.

Anyway, Singer suggests that Steyn's main source is the right leaning Fox News. A quick Google of "Malmo Muslim population" shows that the bad situation in that town has been the subject of stories by the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and other far from right wing sources. Furthermore, the 2004 Washington Post story notes:

About 40 percent of Malmo's population is foreign-born or has at least one foreign-born parent. The bulk of foreign-born people come from the former Yugoslavia, Iran, Iraq and the Horn of Africa.

As I said, this suggests to me the correct figure is probably between 25 and 40% Muslim. Steyn's website published a letter questioning this figure, to which Steyn replies:

As to the 40 per cent, that'’s the figure I was given by the late Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh in 2003. I don'’t know whether she was talking about the '“greater Malmo'” area, or adding in non-Swedish Muslims plus Swedish Muslims. But certainly the youth population in Malmo is already 50-50.

Does it matter much how accurate this figure is? Whether it is 25 or 40%, the more important issue is what effect this is having on the town itself, and Steyn is big enough to publish a letter that even questions that. (It's the same one that questions the 40%). Looking at the ways the mainstream press has covered this story, it is not a trivial issue.

Singer then claims that:

Now, I am as scared as Steyn is about Islamist terrorists, but a faith-based US President also scares the bejesus out of me.

This is based on Bruce Bartlett's analysis that Bush thinks "he is on a mission from God." Someone else can analyse Bartlett's views, I don't have time right now. But the point is not whether someone thinks that they are trying to do God's will, but whether they are crazy enough to think that they are infallible in understanding God's will. Is there convincing evidence that Bush thinks he is infallible on religious grounds? Maybe some would argue that he is overconfident. Can't any politician suffer from this?

Let's face it, for Faine and Singer, any right wing politician of serious religious inclination is always going to be criticised because of the possible role of their religion in helping form their views. As I have written before, there are so many involved in the American political system that I find it hard to believe that any megalomaniacanic President with delusions of infallibility will ever get to push the red button.

With a system such as that in Iran, for example, you could hardly have the same confidence.

Finally, of course I can concede that Steyn may not always have every fact correct. It's also fair enough to not agree 100% with all of his opinions. But this sort of snide criticism of him from the Left misses the mark by a country mile.

UPDATE: I previously forgot to link to the Steyn on line mailbox for the letter about Malmo. (You have to scroll down to find it.) And welcome all Mark Steyn readers; it's somewhat of a surprise to find he's linked to this post.

Time for colour

Not sure that it was worth the effort, but this is done from a photo with some "painter" style software that came with a cheap tablet. (Graphics tablets are a lot of fun if you enjoy doodling.)

I just like to add some colour here occasionally anyway.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Oh great...

Iran takes new nuclear step - Sunday Times - Times Online

From The Times story:

IN A show of defiance against western efforts to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad inaugurated the new phase of a heavy water reactor project yesterday, prompting an Israeli warning that Tehran had taken another step towards producing a bomb.

The Arak plant in central Iran can now make eight tons of heavy water a year, with output expected to rise tenfold.

Heavy water aids nuclear fission and the plutonium by- product could be used to make warheads. But the reactor to produce plutonium is still under construction. ...

Arak’s construction was kept secret until the opposition National Council of Resistance of Iran revealed its existence along with the Natanz uranium enrichment facility in 2002.

An Iranian nuclear official claimed there was no need for the International Atomic Energy Agency to supervise Arak as it did not have a military purpose. But experts warned plutonium production could pose a greater threat than uranium enrichment.

“With uranium it’s much easier to put in safeguards to monitor the atmosphere and instruments,” said Paul Ingram, a nuclear analyst with the British American Security Information Council. Arak could produce enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons a year.

For a look at this facility, see here. It appears to be an easy target. I therefore wouldn't be bragging about such advances if I were the Iranian President.

Hard to believe

The Observer | UK News | Offset your carbon emissions with a text

This short story from the Guardian relates a very hard to believe scheme:

Mobile phone users will be able to offset their carbon emissions by sending a text message using a scheme launched by conservation charity the World Land Trust.

For each text received, the WLT will offset 140kg of C02 through various reforestation projects worldwide. This is the equivalent of the amount of C02 produced by a return flight from London to Paris, 16 people sitting down for a restaurant meal, eight nights in a hotel, two nights on a cruise ship or 120 school runs in a 4x4.

The texts will cost £1.50 plus network charges.

Something is wrong with those figures, surely!

Grumpy parenting advice

Booze, boys and other headaches - Opinion -

Parents and teenagers today, I dunno. The article above (from The Age) relates a mother's attempt to "do the right thing" in the way she manages her daughter's party for a bunch of 15 year olds (some 14).

Maybe I will regret some of these comments when the time comes that my children are teenagers, but at the moment, here's how I feel:

1. There are 57 year nine students invited to this party. Seems quite a lot of invitees, doesn't it? Why do school kids, or their parents hosting, want to have a party at which (surely) they don't know a significant proportion of the invitees very well at all? A smaller party is a more controllable party, and 60 people over is pushing the limits.

2. The mother gives up on the idea of banning alcohol entirely, because she has learnt from experience that it will be smuggled in anyway. (And the effort to police a ban is too overbearing.) The end result was allowing each guest to bring "2 or 3" drinks.

She seems well intentioned, but isn't this attitude just waving the white flag of parental responsibility way too early? There are 14 year olds at this party. What parent should care that a 14 or 15 year old resents going to an alcohol free party? What 14 year old should expect to be able to drink at a party?

3. The limited alcohol option fails anyway, with a few impostors getting drunk, a fight (apparently not alcohol related) and some damage to the house.

What is it with this teenage party gatecrashing phenomena? It puzzles me in several respects. What's the typical reason the gatecrashers want "in"? Because they were not invited and they want to prove a point? What sort of point would that be usually - fail to invite me and I'll come and smash up your house (or your friends)? Is it that they don't want to go to the party at all, but are just out to pick fights with someone they know there? Or is it that it is because some parties are alcohol free-for-alls that is the attraction?

Anyway, it's a disturbing thing that parents these days live in fear of gatecrashing teens. I expect, however, that parents allowing consumption of alcohol is not the way to reduce the likelihood of it happening.

Teenagers: you don't run the world. You have decades ahead of you to drink. You can wait.

Parents: when did you start letting teenagers set the rules? You don't have to be buddies with them. Make yourself unpopular for a change.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Pull the other one, Tim

Braving the cold for a talk on warming | Science & nature | The Australian

Environmentalist and global warming author Tim Flannery spoke at the Melbourne Writers Festival and claims this:

"Writers' festivals are a really good opportunity to talk to a great number of people who might not usually be exposed to this issue, and this kind of discussion," said Dr Flannery, who won this year's NSW Premier's Book of the Year award.

Oh come on. As if the typical person who attends a writers' festival would not be interested and well versed in this already.

Caroline does Cuba

Caroline Overington: Land of rum and rumba blighted by communism | Opinion | The Australian

Pamela Bone used to write for the age, as did Caroline Overington. Funny how they now appear in The Australia, both sounding rather right wing.

Caroline short article on how bad she found Cuba just a couple of years ago is worth a read.

Friday, August 25, 2006

US Catholics not so wussy after all

GOP dips in religion poll - Yahoo! News

This snippet from the above report is interesting:

Bush got 78 percent of the white evangelical vote and 56 percent of the white Catholic vote in 2004, according to exit polls.

I kind of expected the Catholic vote to be significantly less than that for Bush in 2004. Certainly, the liberal side of the church is the one that gets all the publicity.

Next year's Survivor format predicted

NYC officials want new 'Survivor' pulled - Yahoo! News

Not that I have ever watched it for more than 10 minutes, but it's interesting to note that a decision by the makers of "Survivor" to use racially based competing teams is controversial.

Of course, if they really want controversy, next year's teams will be based on religion/philosophy: The Muslims, Christians, Jews, Buddhist, and Hindu teams.

I would then have a few secular humanists to be added into the teams at random. Have one of them gay, and watch the tension in the first episode as they draw straws for who will get into the Muslim team.

I could go on, but readers can supply their own fantasies of this scenario.

Some interpretation needed

This paper on arxiv seems important. (It talks about the very nature of space, gravity, black holes and dark matter.) Beyond sensing its possible importance (and that it is not written by a complete nutter, unless they are still allowed in the physics department of Flinders University,) it is otherwise very difficult to understand.

I need a science journalist to do an interpretation of it.

UPDATE: OK, here's a page that explains more about what Cahill is on about. Can't say I have heard about "process physics" before.

Pamela goes right

Pamela Bone: Muslim sisters need our help | Opinion | The Australian

Pamela Bone writes on the Western feminists' general silence on the plight of Muslim women in Iran and other rabidly Islamic nations. Good reading.

Drink your tea

BBC NEWS | Health | Tea 'healthier' drink than water

More research (even if it is paid for by the "Tea Council") seems to show how tea is very good for you.

On a personal note, by working with a Chinese guy who is very fond of good quality green tea, my green tea consumption for many years now has been perhaps 2 cups a day average. This should ensure I live to 110.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

A strange China story

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | China acts on funeral strippers

More fun via the BBC:

Five people have been detained in China for running striptease send-offs at funerals, state media say....

"Striptease used to be a common practice at funerals in Donghai's rural areas to allure viewers," Xinhua agency said.

"Local villagers believe that the more people who attend the funeral, the more the dead person is honoured."

As well as ordering an end to the practice, officials have also said residents can report "funeral misdeeds" on a hotline, earning a reward for information.

If I had a readership, I would invite nominations for the worst "funeral misdeed" you would have liked to be able to report.

And that would be a bad thing?

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Syria warns over UN peacekeepers

From the link:

Syria has reportedly threatened to close its border with Lebanon if UN peacekeepers are deployed there.

Finland's foreign minister made the claim after meeting his Syrian counterpart in Helsinki.

"They will close their borders for all traffic in the event that UN troops are deployed..." Erkki Tuomioja said.

Earlier, the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, said the stationing of UN troops in the border area of Lebanon would be a hostile move against Syria.

"This is an infringement on Lebanese sovereignty and a hostile position," President Bashar Assad told Arab TV.

Go Nuclear

The Nuclear Option

See above for a lengthy, optimistic, article on the expansion of nuclear power as a way of helping reduce CO2.

My favourite under-discussed type of reactor, the Pebble bed, gets a favourable mention too:

The pebble-bed modular reactor introduces the interesting prospect of modular nuclear plants. Instead of building a massive 1,000-megawatt plant, modules each producing around 100 megawatts can be built. This approach may be particularly attractive, both in developing countries and in deregulated industrial countries, because of the much lower capital costs involved. The traditional large plants do have the advantage of economy of scale, most likely resulting in lower cost per kilowatt of capacity, but this edge could be challenged if efficient factory-style production of large numbers of modules could be implemented. South Africa is scheduled to begin construction of a 110-megawatt demonstration pebble-bed plant in 2007, to be completed by 2011, with commercial modules of about 165 megawatts planned for 2013. The hope is to sell modules internationally, in particular throughout Africa.

(By comparison, here's a list of Queensland power stations giving their generating capacity. It's clear that an indivdual module generating 165 megawatts is fairly modest in size, but it looks as if the big power stations here are comprised of smaller units anyway - eg Tarong's power is listed as 4 x 360 MW. I guess if there is a natural limit to the size of a pebble bed module, you just add more modules on site as required.)

Anyway, the whole article is good and interesting as a review of where nuclear power is likely to go. The problems are not ignored, but if Greenies want us to believe the worst global warming scenarios, then they should also figure that they are making nuclear look more attractive as part of the solution.

The happiest mice on Earth

ScienceDaily: Ever-happy Mice May Hold Key To New Treatment Of Depression

Interesting story on genetic manipulation leading to very happy mice.

As usual, I wonder about this:

Mice without the TREK-1 gene ('knock-out' mice) were created and bred in collaboration with Dr. Michel Lazdunski, co-author of the research, in his laboratory at the University of Nice, France. "These 'knock-out' mice were then tested using separate behavioral, electrophysiological and biochemical measures known to gauge 'depression' in animals," says Dr. Debonnel. "The results really surprised us; our 'knock-out' mice acted as if they had been treated with antidepressants for at least three weeks."

Just how closely does depression in a mouse represent depression in a human?

Anyway, apart from the drug development implications, it does raise the question as to whether "designer babies" in the future could be tailored to never suffer depression. What unknown effects would this have on personality or culture if it ever became widespread? Just wondering.

Slow blogging

Work busy, staff on holidays, children sick, now father sick. All reasons why blogging has slowed to a crawl. Sorry.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A strange Japan story

The Japan Times Online - Straight girls look to gays for a little fun

According to this article (perhaps of dubious reliability), some straight Japanese women are spending time in gay bars to "buy" male prostitutes ("urisen"). Isn't there something wrong with this picture?:

"My husband thinks it's OK to buy these urisen boys," she tells the other women, after explaining that the couple has an open and very liberal relationship.

And why the preference for young gay men, instead of, say, hosts? "Because hosts reek of alcohol and their skin is leathery," she giggles.

More importantly, though, she appreciates the more laid-back style of gay bars as opposed to host bars. "I was surprised when I first went to an urisen bar. Although there were a lot of guys, none of them were trying to push themselves onto me."

The expression "duh" comes to mind.

Italians and TV

BBC NEWS | Europe | Too sexy for Italian television

A couple of odd things from this story about Italian TV: until recently, the weather report was done by military forecasters. (Scroll down the report to see a picture.) More surprisingly, Italians may be getting tired of the gratuitously semi-dressed female form popping up on TV all the time:

Men in many countries would surely be more than happy to see so much flesh on show on their screens - but why do Italian channels offer so much more than those in other countries?

There are two reasons, according to Professor Michele Sorice, who teaches History of Radio and Television at Rome's main university.

"On one hand the TV variety programmes come largely from Italy's show tradition, which has always featured half-naked dancers," he said.

"On the other hand it comes from a terrible lack of ideas," he added.

But things could soon start to change.

Mr Sorice believes viewers are already sick of these programmes. Surveys show they watch, but criticise them harshly.

"I think even Italians are a bit bored with always seeing undressed women on the television," Mr Sorice said.

"The proof of this is in the fact that the biggest hits on Italian TV in recent months have actually been the period dramas."

Speaking of such things, has anyone else noticed how the most sexually explicit European cinema (by far) now seems to come from Spain? Yet they still have a low birthrate. Strange world.

Copycat death

A sad history of life — and death — imitating art - Opinion

This is an interesting commentary piece from The Age about the history of copycat suicides (that follow fictional ones.) I did not know that this had such a well established history.

The story is in reponse to the call for a new Australian film, about teenage angst, to have its "R" rating reduced. (I guess because some adults think that teens undergoing teen angst really want to watch other teens having the same problems. Well, that's a little unfair, I suppose they think it has an educative effect. But isn't it a fair bet that the great majority of teenagers who would be interested in seeing it would be the type who are already sympathetic to the type of issues portrayed and don't need to learn more about it?)

Sheehan on Einfeld

The Einfeld Follies: a study in ego - Opinion -

Einfeld does not come out smelling of roses, as you may expect when Sheehan is getting stuck into a lawyer.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

This won't hurt a bit

The case for genital mutilation. By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

I've mentioned before the weird zealotry and obsessiveness that is on display in most of the anti-circumcision websites. "Foreskin restoration" strikes me as just about the funniest thing that could have a support group.

The Slate article above gives a good survey of it all, including the somewhat uncomfortable fact (for the anti-cutting movement) that widespread use of circumcision in Africa would have helped a lot of people (and not just men) avoid HIV.

Anywhere near Uranus?

Hey, a juvenile pun for a title is well deserved when you see what some people spend their time thinking about:

"...I’m writing an article on what I’m calling “spaces of utopia”. I’ve been thinking about festivals, dance parties, raves, protests, political marches/parties like Mardis Gras as the sorts of spaces that have a certain potential to embody the lived experience of a different social order. I think time has a lot to do with this, because like sacralised time, the experience of time at events like this is somewhat out of the ordinary, and their effects are felt throughout ordinary time as well."

Yeah, well, here's my potted version of the article (I recommend hearing it in the voice of Neil from "The Young Ones"):

"Some people, usually young, think that it would be really, really cool if their whole life was just one big rave/ dance party/ political march/protest. Sometimes they find time seems to pass really slooowly at these events, 'cos of the drugs and drinks that they took, either that or the speech that Kim Beazley just gave. But suddenly it's time to go home, grow up and have kids. Or not, in which case they will soon be too old for raves and dance parties, unless they start a movement for raves for the over 50's (wow, what an idea). But remember, you can never be too old or strange for a protest march."

That's about it, really.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Too good to be true

Steorn’s Free Energy Technology Challenge | Technology News Daily

Sort of hard to see what benefit nutters would have in advertising in The Economist about this. Influx of capital? A desire to see your name bandied about a lot?

Anyway, everyone should allow a little, tiny hope somewhere in their brain that a "free energy" device may be true.

UPDATE: The Guardian has a story on this. Very curious indeed.

Depressing stories from Lebanon

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Stand alongside Hizbullah, Lebanon's army tells troops

It would appear from the above story that the Lebanese army will effectively turn a blind eye to Hezbollah weapons that remain in Southern Lebanon:

An internal Lebanese army statement, circulated among forces in the past week, has called for troops to stand "alongside your resistance and your people who astonished the world with its steadfastness and destroyed the prestige of the so-called invincible army after it was defeated".

The circular has alarmed ministers in the Lebanese cabinet who had been calling for the army to disarm Hizbullah.

It will also fuel the concerns of Israel, the US and the UN security council that the Lebanese army is incapable of securing the south of the country, adding increased urgency to the calls for a multinational force to be swiftly deployed.

What of the multinational force? Europe is not exactly rushing to help, and other offers are (rightly) viewed with some scepticism:

"France - leadership and 200 troops
Bangladesh - two battalions (up to 2,000 troops)
Malaysia - one battalion (up to 1,000 troops)
Indonesia - one battalion, an engineering company
Nepal - one battalion
Denmark - at least two ships
Germany - maritime and border patrols"

...Israeli UN envoy Dan Gillerman said it would be "difficult if not inconceivable" to accept nations that did not recognise its right to exist.

Mr Gillerman said Israel would be "very happy" to accept troops from Muslim countries they have friendly relations with.

"But to expect countries who don't even recognise Israel to guard Israel's safety I think would be a bit naive," he said.

Malaysia said Israel should have no say in the make-up of the force.

It is so hard to see the possibility of any good resolutions for the various problems in the Middle East at the moment.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Christians and contraception

OpinionJournal - Taste

See the link for an interesting short article on the two camps within evangelical Christianity on the issue of contraception. An extract:

Anti-contraception evangelicals assert that birth control inappropriately wrests control of the body from the body's creator. Interestingly, the opposite argument is being made by evangelicals in the sexual-abstinence movement, according to my study of church-based virginity-pledge programs. Such evangelicals adopt the feminist argument of "my body, my choice" to curb teenage sexual activity. They believe that our hypersexualized culture--including the condom-in-the-schools crowd--wrongly implies that there is no choice.

Both the anti-contraception and the abstinence movements offer rewards: great sex in marriage for abstinent teens and the blessing of children for anti-contraception couples. But what reward is there for the 40-year-old virgin or the infertile couple? The rhetoric of sacrifice, it seems, has lost its sizzle.

OK, interesting to me, maybe not to many of my readers.

What did you expect?

news @ Against abstinence-only - Bill Clinton joins the opposition to the United States' stance on AIDS education.

Mark Steyn at his best

Mark Steyn: It's breeding obvious, mate | Opinion | The Australian

You've heard him on the topic generally before, but his lengthy review of the Western world and its woes is excellent reading.

Left leaning blogs love to make snide remarks about Steyn. What they don't seem to do is spend any time pointing out where he is wrong in his demographic disaster argument.

Steyn's conservative critique of the psychology of the West also seems spot on.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Stupidest history idea (and we're off to see the Wizard)

PM leaving history students stranded in the past - Opinion -

Les Terry (apparently, the current "Chair of Australian studies at Tokyo University") writing in the Age this morning has the usual moan of academics about the Howard government trying to impose a conservative agenda on the teaching of history:

As with the referendum for the republic in 1999, the agenda has been firmly established to achieve the desired result of returning the nation to an imaginary glorious past, a time when facts and stories about great men ruled the land.... Taken together, these initiatives represent the Federal Government's intention to impose on the country an old-style nationalist program.... It seems that John Howard and some of his ministers are intent on translating their own personal values, rather than the broad policies on which they were elected, into policy prescriptions.

Blah, blah, blah, we've heard it all before. (And anyway, what did that last sentence even mean?)

But the stupidest suggestion was this:

The historians' manifesto from today's summit should resist making history compulsory, and instead demand that the Federal Government initiate projects of national significance, such as a national online database that contains model curriculums and teaching materials for teachers to draw on. Imagine being able to beam historical characters in their virtual form into the classroom and interview them about their lives and the times in which they lived? Who knows, it might be possible for students of the future to even download a virtual John Howard and ask him why he was so opposed to the new Australian republic in which they now proudly reside.

What?? Our Les might have been spending too much time in hi tech loving Japan. Unless he thinks that the future holographic John Howard will actually have the PM's mind uploaded into it, can you imagine a better method for disguising an interpretation of history as actual source material? Or does he propose the virtual PM only using the PM's words? If so, why not just watch the video of the real PM saying it?

Looking at dramatic historical stories may be a way of kicking off an interest in a period, and should always be accompanied by an analysis of any historical errors or inadequacies. That's about the natural limit of the use of dramatisations in teaching history.

But wait: here's an idea, if you want silly use of technology. When the Republican referendum was on, there was a lot of discussion of who would be "Head of State." My idea: it should be, literally, a giant holographic head, floating in the sky above Parliament House, something like the Wizard of Oz on a bigger scale. (See my profile drawing to get an idea of how it would look.) The facial features could one of those computer blends of photos, as submitted by any Australian citizens who wanted to literally be part of the Head of State.

How would the Head decide important matters? Well, let's face it, in the Australian system, the Governor General and/or Queen only make really important decisions maybe once or twice a century. I think a random number generator, or a Wise Governance algorithms programmed by Google would be all that is really needed. Otherwise, the Head of State could just float in the sky, looking wise and reassuring.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Blogger confusion

That was confusing. My blogger account seemed to change to a beta version or something (without my asking) and it forgot my password. Requests for emails to make sure I was using correct password did not arrive either. Finally a way around this was found. Normal blogging may resume soon, I hope.

Monday, August 14, 2006

For future reference

Stephen Morris: It is Islamic fascism | Opinion | The Australian

Tim Blair has already recommended it, but this piece in the Australian was really good, and I mention it here so I can more easily find it myself in future.

By the way, I was reminded today (by Keith Suter on the radio) of one really important point against the involvement of the US military in action against Iran: with 100,000 or so troops still there for the foreseeable future, it would be extremely dangerous to attack Iran and risk a Shia uprising against the US military presence in Iraq. Given that the recent London arrests (and Israel not having the best result out its Hezbollah war) has given an increased sense of inevitability about a military confrontation of Iran, this is an important point to remember.

Slow progress on the robot front

Stone: Japan's Love Affair with Androids - Newsweek Brad Stone -

Who would have thought, say, 50 years ago, that making more life-like robots would be so difficult. (Well, let's assume the person in 1956 at least liked science or science fiction and thought about this from time to time.)

Young men don't read this

Libido lags for ladies in luck | Health | The Australian

From the above article:

THE female sex drive starts sputtering to a halt as soon as a woman has got her man, according to a new study.

Researchers have found that women's libido plummets so rapidly when they believe they are in a secure relationship that after just four years the proportion of 30-year-old women wanting regular sex falls below 50 percent.

There are few things that appear able to keep a woman sexually interested, the study found, but living apart for extended periods can help.

(But - surely living apart for extended periods must also run a much increased risk of infidelity, which tends not to help the sex life back at home.)

Back to the story:

The findings for women contrast with those for men, whose sexual appetite hardly flagged at all up to 40 years after marriage.

"Male motivation remains constant regardless of the duration of the partnership." Dr Klusmann questioned more than 500 people about their sex lives in order to measure changes in their libido.

He found that within a year of a relationship starting, female libido moved into steep decline.

While 60 per cent of 30-year-old women reported wanting sex "often" at the start of a relationship, the figure fell to below 50per cent within four years and to about 20 per cent after 20 years.

Today's fantasy article from The Age

Israel must forge new relationship with neighbours - Opinion -

Amin Saikal in the Age thinks that Israel will have to get used to not being able to win every war within six days now. (He doesn't mention that this is because the enemy this time is acting completely outside of the laws of war by taking shelter in civilian communities.)

Amin says this:

If Israel wants to have a peaceful, secure and normal life in the region, its leadership should seize on the UN resolution to engage in bridge building with its neighbours. As a central component of this it must address urgently the Palestinian problem on the basis of the internationally backed two-state solution.

While Egypt, Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organisation have already made peace with and recognised Israel, the remaining Arab countries offered Israel full recognition in 2002 in return for such a development. A comprehensive peace would also delegitimise the causes on which such groups as Hezbollah and Hamas have drawn to justify their violent actions.

This is a bit rich, isn't it? The solution to the "Palestinian problem" according to Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria is to drive the Jews into the sea. How exactly does he propose that Israel "build bridges" with those entities that make it clear that they never intend recognizing Israel at all. (And whose populations are brain washed by government consent into believing that Jews are the source of all evil?)

The process by which Egypt and Jordan made their peace with Israel is surely completely different by the dynamic in the Middle East at the moment.

All a worry

Ideals become casualties of war - Paul Sheehan - Opinion -

Paul Sheehan definitely stirs the pot today about Muslim immigration, especially in Sydney.

For a Brisbane person, who only reads about the rape trials and the Cronulla riots in Sydney, it is hard to know what to make of this. I guess whenever any migrant group starts to settle mainly in one suburb or area, the old time residents resent it and can feel uncomfortable. However, Sheehan paints a picture of aggressive action by the new Muslim residents to scare out the old timers (or the permissive young).

It must be a difficult to report on, as it is obviously open to cheap tabloid sensationalism, as well as possibly attracting anti-vilification action in some jurisdictions. It's probably the sort of thing that is best understood (as Sheehand indicates) by knowing many local residents, which those outside of Sydney don't have much hope of doing.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

The economic woes of Iran

Guardian Unlimited | Guardian daily comment | Nuclear row boosts 'failing' Iranian president

This Guardian report paints a very gloomy picture of the Iranian economy:

The economy is coming under increasing public scrutiny despite official controls on newspapers and restricted access to the internet. An estimated 80% of all economic activity is under direct government control or managed through cooperatives known as bonyads, often dominated by well-connected clerics. In contrast, 80% of the population works in the private sector.

Critics say US sanctions, which have discouraged foreign investment and technology transfers, cannot be wholly blamed for Iran's economic backwardness. There are also complaints that taxpayers' money allegedly being sent to Hizbullah in Lebanon would be better spent at home.

Particular concern is focusing on oil-rich Iran's lack of refining capacity. It has a petrol shortfall of 30m litres a day, which is made up by expensive imports. Critics also note its failure to keep up with IT and e-commerce developments. A recent UN report ranked Iran 98th in the world in e-government.

This part also surprised me:

Ali, a graduate in part-time employment, said it was very difficult for young people to find good jobs in a country where two-thirds of the 70 million population are under 30.

Of course I knew that all Muslim populations are increasing rapidly (especially compared to the West), but that population ratio still seems extraordinarily high.

I still don't really understand why Muslim populations, even those now in Western nations, want to procreate at such a rapid rate. According to this Guardian article (which is a fun read because of its general disucssion of Islamic views on specific sexual activities) there is no general prohibition on contraception.

Increased wealth and material comfort makes people want fewer children. But can it be that Muslim populations in Western countries having sighificantly higer unemployment rates leads them to having more kids? Seems there must be more to it than that.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Reaction to the arrests

The first step towards defeating the terrorists: stop blaming ourselves - Comment - Times Online

Worth reading, especially when you see how Daily Kos readers and their ilk respond to terrorist plot arrests.

For those planning on visiting nearby stars

0511180.pdf (application/pdf Object)

This lengthy article is called "Astrobiologically Interesting Stars within 10 parsecs of the Sun". They come up with 13 relatively nearby stars most likely to have life.

Handy if you have just finished building your own faster than light starship. (Or if you are writing science fiction.)

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Some more serious news from the BBC

BBC NEWS | UK | 'Plot to blow up planes' foiled

Of course, the big terrorism news is about the sudden escalation in airport security in Britain.

No carry on baggage at all. Nothing in your pockets. All carry on bags to go in with checked baggage.

This would be enormously inconvenient for people with bottles of alcohol or fragile gifts in carry on bags. (I recently, somewhat foolishly, flew with a bottle of alcohol in a checked in suitcase. It did not survive, but to my surprise, Campari does not stain clothes. By the way, it's my wife's drink.)

My second thought is: just how confident would you feel that there is not a bomb in the checked in baggage. Presumably there is much less chance of an explosion in the hold causing the plane to go down, but it's not something you want to be on board to test.

Even rats are more useful than cats

Gambian rodents risk death for bananas - World -

OK this is not a new story. The link above is an article a year old about how mine clearance rats were being trained in Africa.

The reason for the post is that on the BBC news site there is currently a video showing the mine clearing rats in action. (I can't link directly to the video window, it seems, so you just have to look for it on the video link.)

Have a look at the size of the rats. They are huge! Still sort of cute, although I guess at some size that adjective becomes inappropriate.

Some good news for Howard

Howard hails falling jobless figures. 10/08/2006. ABC News Online

The PM's comments on this seem apt:

The July job figures have surged beyond analysts expectations with the creation of 50,700 jobs in the month, well ahead of forecasts of just 7,500.

It has taken the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate down a notch to 4.8 per cent.

The rise in employment was almost equally shared between full-time and part-time jobs, while the participation rate - or number of people looking for work - also increased....

He [PM Howard] says it would be premature to say the laws are responsible for the extra jobs but the figure is enough to disprove claims that jobs would be lost.

"It is not however too early to refute completely, on the basis of these figures, the outrageous claims that were made by the Labor Party at the time, and by the unions at the time, that this new legislation would lead to mass sackings," he said.

About Muslims in Western countries

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | What young British Muslims say can be shocking - some of it is also true

This article suggests that maybe Muslims have a point in their complaint about some aspects of Western society (in this case, British society in particular):

Particularly among younger Brits in urban areas, which is where most British Muslims live, we drink more alcohol faster, sleep around more, live less in long-lasting, two-parent families, and worship less, than almost anyone in the world. It's clear from what young British Muslims themselves say that part of their reaction is against this kind of secular, hedonistic, anomic lifestyle. If women are reduced to sex-objects, young Muslim women say, I would rather cover up. Theirs is almost a kind of conservative feminism. Certainly, it's a socially conservative critique of some aspects of British society, particularly visible in their generation, in the urban neighbourhoods where they live.

And the critique is nuanced. Half those asked for the Channel 4 programme thought Muslim girls should make up their own minds whether to wear the hijab to school. Nearly a third of female respondents felt there was some truth in the idea that Islam treats women as second-class citizens. (The men just couldn't see it. Now I wonder why ... ) And a majority said that British society treats women with respect.....

The idea that these young British Muslims might actually be putting their fingers on some things that are wrong with our modern, progressive, liberal, secular society; the idea that rational persons might freely choose to live in a different, outwardly more restricted way; these hardly feature in everyday progressive discourse. But they should.

A fair enough point really, although of course one has to be careful not to let this argument turn into an excuse for militancy and murder within a society which (after all) they themselves chose to move to.

The ironic thing is that commentators who most vigourously promote understanding of the Muslim perspective are usually of the Western Left, which (at least in its current form) is the side most likely to promote the social issues like gay rights and laissez faire feminism which would most offend the conservative Muslims.

It may be difficult for conservative parties to make political mileage out of it (because they don't want to be seen as bending to a Muslim agenda), but there is an argument that voting conservative in Western countries is more likely to lead to less alienated Muslims within that country.

(OK - maybe that doesn't work in the US, because Republicans went into Iraq and are currently identified more closely with Israel than under the Democrats. And in Australia and Britain, conservative parties are not so socially conservative anymore. At least some of them draw a line at gay marriage, I suppose, and take a more pragmatic view of feminism. The difference is perhaps only marginal, but I still think it has some validity.)

Member for silly stunts

From stately sentiments to bird-brained burlesque | Matt Price | The Australian

Matt Price does not think highly of a silly stunt by Labor MPs in Parliament yesterday:

Yesterday, though, the mischief turned downright moronic. When Costello rose during question time, a bright-orange fluffy toy bird magically appeared on the desk of Labor MP Bernie Ripoll. You'll never ever be able to guess what it was. Starts with C? Ends with "icken"?

While most Labor MPs thought it all brilliantly funny, several cringed in undisguised embarrassment. Only the day before, Ripoll was recorded in Hansard accusing Alexander Downer of being an "evil little shit" so I guess we're lucky he didn't turn up waving a giant fluffy brown turd.

Speaker David Hawker was furious, and in the ensuing mayhem Ripoll and frontbench colleague Gavan O'Connor were both ejected. O'Connor feigned kissing the toy, then performed a lame chicken jig exiting the chamber. Hilarious, non?

While we are on this topic, some readers would have noticed the large billboards around town showing Kim Beazley literally tearing in half a mock up "Workplace Relations Act". ("Kim Beazley will repeal the unfair workplace relations law" goes the caption, or words to that effect.) It looks so (for want of a better word) "stagey" that I find it rather silly. I can't be the only one who thinks this.

I also think I may never have gotten around to complaining about the annoying way they were obviously told that whenever they mention the Workplace Relations Act, they all must use the identical phrase (what was it - "this extreme Workplace Relations law" ?)

Made them all sound like PR automatons rather than people who could come up with their own rhetoric.

Low marks for whoever is doing their PR advice, I reckon.

Slate on the Lieberman defeat

Why Lamont's victory spells Democratic disaster. By Jacob Weisberg

This analysis of what the Lieberman defeat means for the Democrats overall (in short, disaster) makes a lot of sense. Go read it.

Japanese work

Western values 'are causing mental illness' - World - Times Online

From the short article above:

Statistics indicate that 60 per cent of workers suffer from “high anxiety” and that 65 per cent of companies report soaring levels of mental illness.

Meanwhile, the size of the Japanese population is shrinking, and for the first time the Government has acknowledged that the falling birth rate is linked to job-related factors. Directors of the Japanese Mental Health Institute blame the same factors for rising levels of depression among workers and the country’s suicide rate, which remains the highest among rich nations.

Merit-based pay and promotion are of particular concern because they are at odds with the traditional system, built on seniority, that has reigned supreme in corporate Japan. In the harsh new atmosphere of cut-throat rivalry between workers, the Institute for Population and Social Security argues, young people do not feel financially stable enough to start families.

I can think of some other reasons why workers may be depressed (based on some personal observations):

* a common expectation that anyone who wants to get ahead will work a 10 to 12 hour day, and then socialise after hours as well;

* an inability of most workers to have any more than a week's holiday per year (although they do get quite a few public holidays as well). Of course, some men who want to get ahead will take no holidays (apart from public holidays) for decades at a time;

* a traditional culture that is still inclined to view mental illness as a character failing or weakness. (A friend who works in Japan, supervising english teachers from all over the world, tells me that he has had calls from the police saying to come get a teacher who is in trouble before the teacher is sent into a psychiatric care. Apparently, everyone knows that if you are committed to a psych ward in Japan, it may be a very long time indeed before you are ever seen again.) The young are more open to seeking psychiatric help, I think, but the effect of this old cultural view is still strong.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Beware of the fish tapeworm

Tale of the Tapeworm (Squeamish Readers Stop Here) - New York Times

Fish tapeworm can make you sick (and it is hard to diagnose). I wonder if there are any Australian cases?

To boldly go where no cockroach has gone before

news @ hotel gets a check-up - Inflated craft is holding up, but fate of guests remains uncertain.

This is funny: the small prototype inflatable space hotel has got cockroaches already:

The cockroaches were last seen alive on 16 June, when they were loaded in mesh-covered boxes into the craft. They were left in captivity, dining on water and dried dog kibble, until the delayed launch on 12 July subjected them to vibrations and acceleration. They were then in a vacuum for a few minutes before the Genesis I craft was deployed and inflated.

That would be enough to kill many creatures, but not necessarily the hardy cockroach, which can survive many weeks without food. Charles Cockell, now a professor at the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute of Open University, UK, once studied how well cockroaches can withstand a drop in atmospheric pressure. At 100 millibars — one-tenth of normal atmospheric pressure - the bugs actively pumped air into their abdomens to survive, he found, swelling themselves up in the process to about one and a half times the normal size. "It's pretty gross actually," says Cockell.

Bigelow Aerospace tested a number of different cockroaches and found that the Madagascar hissing roach, which can grow to more than 7.5 centimetres long and can weigh as much as 24 grams, proved that they had the right stuff by enduring more than 2 hours in a vacuum. "After 20 to 30 minutes they came back to life and we thought 'Oh my gosh, they deserve to go to space'," says Bigelow.

Let's hope that space radiation doesn't turn them into super mutuant cockroaches who return to earth to create havoc. (I like to consider all possibilities.)

Pump in the gas

ScienceDaily: Deep-sea Sediments Could Safely Store Man-made Carbon Dioxide

Some optimistic researchers say that pumping CO2 into deep ocean sediments could be the way to go:

Schrag and his colleagues say an ideal storage method could be the injection of carbon dioxide into ocean sediments hundreds of meters thick. The combination of low temperature and high pressure at ocean depths of 3,000 meters turns carbon dioxide into a liquid denser than the surrounding water, removing the possibility of escape and ensuring virtually permanent storage.

Injecting carbon dioxide into seafloor sediments rather than squirting it directly into the ocean traps the gas, minimizing damage to marine life while ensuring that the gas will not eventually escape to the atmosphere via the mixing action of ocean currents. At sufficiently extreme deep-sea temperatures and pressures, carbon dioxide moves beyond its liquid phase to form solid and immobile hydrate crystals, further boosting the system's stability. The scientists say that thus stored, the gas would be secure enough to withstand even the most severe earthquakes or other geomechanical upheaval.

Interesting commentary on Lebanon

Stopping the battle would not mean stopping the war on Israel - Opinion

The above piece is from The Age today, and takes a sceptical line on the calls for Israel to stop when there is no permanent solution in the pipeworks.

The article makes many good points. I like this one in particular:

The conventional wisdom holds that any military action is counterproductive. The doves point out that the Israeli counteroffensive has boosted Hezbollah's standing in the Arab world.

Well, sure. But Hezbollah's prestige was also boosted by Israel's 2000 withdrawal from Lebanon. If aggressive Israeli actions boost Hezbollah, and conciliatory Israeli actions boost Hezbollah, then maybe Israel's actions aren't really the prime mover here. Maybe Hezbollah has figured out that it can become the champion of the Arab world by putting itself forward as Israel's chief antagonist.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

It will all end in tears

Softbank Capital invests $5 mln in Huffington Post | Politics News |

Hard to believe, hey? Huffington Post is a mile wide but an inch deep. Its political analysis and commentary is only marginally above that of Daily Kos, and confirms that most celebrity figures are only good at repeating other people's lines.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Kids movies recently seen

Having children of primary and sub-primary age means that most of the movies I get to see are not exactly Citizen Kane. But, good movies for children can be enjoyable for adults, especially in the animated field, where the writers now spend much effort on adult oriented jokes. Some movies I have seen recently on DVD or the cinema:

Over the Hedge: not bad, not great. But (speaking of Citizen Kane) any movie which has an opossum (voiced by William Shatner) ending a prolonged fake death scene by saying "Rosebud" has got something going for it.

Madagascar: good. Some quite eccentric characters and good voice work made this quite enjoyable.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow: A slightly weird exercise in over-the-top art deco/pulp science fiction style. Very watchable for its remarkable computer generated looks, it could have been much better if everything in it was not on such a ridiculously gargantuan scale. Checking Rotten Tomatoes, I had forgotten that it got quite a good overall rating, although even the good reviews had to admit the plot and script were lacking. (As one reviewer there says, "The only thing keeping it from greatness is a good story.") However, it went on to be a box office failure (well, $37 million). I suspect one of the reasons is that audiences don't care much for movies which seem to be in an alternative history setting. Also, even though I can quite like her on screen, Gwyneth Paltrow's line delivery seemed somewhat "off" here.

Wallace & Grommit - The Curse of the Were-Rabbit: While never over-excited by the W& G shorts, this movie was (to my surprise) funnier and more charming than the previous incarnations, and did not suffer at all from being extended to movie length. The rabbits are cute for the kids, the lampooning of English society works well for the adults, and Grommit continues his stoic ways.

Steyn interview on your ABC

Counterpoint - 7August 2006 - Mark Steyn, Dorothy Fields and Global Conflict

I am guessing he won't be appearing on Phillip Adam's Late Night Live, but Mark Steyn was interviewed by Michael Duffy on Counterpoint today. The link will take you to the audio. (I haven't listened to it yet.)

Some useful suggestions on the Middle East?

A tale of two failed Mideast states |

From the above article:

Washington should, accordingly, not take a passive "wait and see" approach to the increasing violence being exported from both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, and the increasing lawlessness in those areas, but should rather act forcefully in order to make it clear that it will not allow Gaza and Lebanon to remain failed states.

This requires that the US and the international community: a) actively pressure Syria to end its involvement in Lebanon and its continued undermining of Lebanese sovereignty (despite its ostensible "withdrawal" from Lebanon last year); b) actively pressure the Lebanese government to deploy its Army in the south and to disarm Hizbullah (if necessary with the assistance of a multinational force); and c) move toward the establishment of some type of international trusteeship over the Gaza Strip, which will involve the deployment of multinational forces, possibly including Egyptian forces, to disarm militants in Gaza and stabilize the political, economic, and security situation there.

Israeli actions alone will not bring stability to these failed states and are likely to only temporarily weaken Hamas and other Palestinian factions, as well as the Lebanese Hizbullah. This is a problem of global dimensions, and only the world's sole superpower can take the lead in addressing it.

Seems to me the problem would be be with getting international co-operation in any multinational forces, and in particulare getting an Islamic country on board. (Will Egypt really want to be involved?)

Free storage space

AOL using Xdrive to offer free space - Los Angeles Business from bizjournals:

A couple of years ago, I tried using a free online storage service. It worked OK, but uploads were fairly slow (which probably says more about Australia's pathetically slow internet services than the storage service itself.) The free service I tried was soon stopped and became subscription only.

AOL is now to offer 5 GB free to everyone. How nice. Will it last?

Lightning and stupidity

NOAA News Online (Story 2676)

Opinion Dominion has strong views on how stupid people can be about lightning. A future post will detail one particularly good example of this from first hand experience. In the meantime, the NOAA (see link) warns people not to be stupid. It won't work.

Carbon offsets offset

Carbon offsets | Sins of emission |

The short piece from the Economist about carbon offset problems is worth a look. Mind you, The Economist still thinks that in general they are a good idea in theory. The problem is in the implementation.

Further co-operation from Iran

Defiant Iran threatens to use 'oil weapon' against sanctions - World - Times Online

From the above:

In a blunt response to international concern about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Ali Larijani, the chief negotiator on atomic issues, said that Tehran was ready for a showdown with world powers when the matter was taken up by the UN Security Council this month.

“We will expand nuclear technology at whatever stage it may be necessary and all of Iran’s nuclear technology including the [centrifuge] cascades will be expanded,” he said in Tehran.

The announcement was regarded not simply as another rhetorical outburst from Tehran but rather the precursor of a formal reply to the West which will be delivered in full on August 22....

Mr Larijani said yesterday that Iran had a right under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) to build a civilian nuclear programme. He said Iran was planning to expand its operations at the heavily-guarded Natanz facility in central Iran, where the authorities hope to have 3,000 centrifuges — which enrich uranium by spinning it at supersonic speeds — operating by the end of this year. “We will expand nuclear activities where required. It includes all nuclear technology including the string of centrifuges,” he said. ”We won’t accept suspension.”

Why not just set up a big football field sized poster saying "Bomb me now (or as soon as you finish up in Lebanon)" ?

Europe still thinking about making travel expensive

MPs call for VAT on flights as greenhouse gas emissions soar - Britain - Times Online

By the way, what is the "Green" way to travel within Europe? Is it by train, ship or what? Is it time to bring back airships? (Hey, I just think they look cool.)

Saturday, August 05, 2006

"But I'm not dead yet!"

New Scientist News - Not brain-dead, but ripe for transplant

Interesting article on doctors reconsidering when to treat patients as dead.

Against wind power

Matthew Stevens: The answer isn't blowing in the wind | News | The Australian

This is an interesting article explaining why wind power is not the great benefit that it would seem. For example:

...even in those states with the most ambitious renewables targets, South Australia and Victoria, the net effect of wind power on carbon dioxide emissions will be negligible, if not illusory. According to another recent study, if Victoria reaches its target of 1000 megawatts of renewable generation capacity by 2016 (the state currently boasts about 120MW of wind capacity), its share of national greenhouse gas emissions will fall from 32 per cent to 28 per cent by 2020.

But in raw numbers, Victoria's power plants will be pumping out 24 per cent more carbon dioxide by 2020 than they do in 2006 because, quite simply, Victorians will be using much more power.

I suppose it can still be argued that it is better to have some of that electricity produced by clean wind power than an alternative CO2 producing means, otherwise the total future CO2 output will be even higher than that already bad forecast.

But it would seem that the more important message is that, in reality, windpower is just fiddling around the edges of the problem. What's worse, such fiddling can give an impression of significance that is undeserved.

Friday, August 04, 2006

A long review article on mini black holes

What fun! Today I get to post about my two favourite subjects one after the other.

This link will lead you to a fairly lengthy review of issues around the possible production of black holes at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It's by physicist Greg Landsberg, to whom I give some credit for actually answering some emails sent to him by James Blodgett, the author of the Risk Evaluation Forum site (see link in my blogroll.) Blodgett's site got me interested in this whole topic.

Landsberg does not think there is anything to Blodgett's concerns, but at least he was respectful in his answers.

Anyway, Landsberg's article above is interesting in several respects:

1. He confirms clearly that Hawking Radiation is never going to be observed directly at astronomical distances (it is far too weak - see pages 8 to 9.)

2. The entire article makes it clear how many different ideas there are about what exactly would happen in the decay process of a micro black hole.

3. Landsberg notes this:

Given the current lower constraints on the fundamental Planck scale in the model with large extra dimensions of ≈ 1 TeV [8], the black holes that we may be able to study at colliders and in cosmic rays will be barely transplanckian. Hence, the unknown quantum corrections to their classical properties are expected to be large, and therefore it is reasonable to focus only on the most robust properties of these mini black holes that are expected to be affected the least by unknown quantum gravity corrections.

Later, he writes:

In quantum gravity, it is expected that there is a fourth, Planckian stage of black hole evaporation, which is reached when the mass of the evaporating black hole approaches the Planck scale. The details of the Planckian stage are completely unknown, as they are governed by the effects of quantum gravity, which should be dominant at such low black hole masses. Some authors speculate that the Planckian stage terminates with a formation of a stable or semi-stable black hole remnant with the mass ∼ MPl. Others argue that the evaporation proceeds until the entire mass of the black hole is radiated. The truth is that no predictions about the Planckian regime are possible, given our lack of knowledge of quantum gravity.

This has been said before: I just thought that it is nice to see such a blunt and direct statement of ignorance.

4. Despite this, Landsberg expresses no doubts at all about Hawking Radiation applying to micro black holes. (It is expected to occur before the black hole reaches Planckian scale and its behaviour becomes guesswork.)

5. Landsberg notes that it has been suggested that instead of (or as well as?) mini black holes, the LHC could create other things such as string balls (don't ask me) or this:

Another possibility is a production of higher-dimensional objects, e.g. black p-branes, rather than spherically symmetric black holes (p = 0) [48].

First time I have heard of that. Did the safety review of the LHC take these into account?

6. The article appears optimistic on the possibility of the by products of naturally occurring mini black holes being detected in neutrino telescopes being built. If this is confirmed, then any of my concerns about Hawking Radiation not occurring would be gone.

7. Landsberg raises one point in such a way that I cannot understand whether it is a potential danger to the LHC or not. This is heavy going, and I refer the interested reader to section 10 of the paper on page on page 27. It seems to me that he may be saying that, on some models, it may be possible for a mini black to evaporate quickly with the equivalent energy of a few hundred pound bomb. This sounds dangerous to me, but as I say, I could be misunderstanding him here. (I would be happy to hear what other reader's think he means.)

How cats control the world - Study: Cat Parasite Affects Human Culture

Regular readers know that this is a favourite topic here - the dreaded Toxoplasma gondii that may drive people mad.

This report suggests that it might also just make many of the infected (about half of the world's population!) neurotic, and this in turn might affect entire cultures:

...Lafferty wondered whether high rates of T. gondii infection in a culture could shift the average personality of its individuals.

"In populations where this parasite is very common, mass personality modification could result in cultural change," Lafferty said.

The distribution of T. gondii could explain differences in cultural aspects that relate to ego, money, material possessions, work and rules, Lafferty added. In some countries, infections by the cat parasite are very rare, while in others nearly all adults are infected.

To test his hypothesis, Lafferty looked at published data on cultural dimensions and average personalities for different countries. The countries examined also kept records of the prevalence of T. gondii antibodies in women of childbearing age. Countries with high prevalence of T. gondii infection also had higher average neuroticism scores.

"There could be a lot more to this story," Lafferty said. "Different responses to the parasite by men and women could lead to many additional cultural effects that are, as yet, difficult to analyze."

What I want to know is the rate of this infection in Muslim countries. Maybe the whole Middle East crisis is due to cats. (Just a theory.)

Things I don't understand about Iraq

Top generals see threat of Iraq civil war -

Of course, Iraq's slow burn civil war-ish thing is getting worse, but the political situation on the ground seems not to be attracting much in the way of commentary or analysis since Hezbollah decided to light up a front on Israel.

Here are some things I admit to not understanding about the situation in Iraq:

1. What are the ultimate goals of the warring Sunni/Shia factions? Does either of them think they can drive the other out of political power entirely, or (who knows?) out of the country entirely? Given that each group is sizeable, the entire removal of the other isn't an option seriously believed, is it?

2. I heard once on Phillip Adams radio show that there is a high degree of intermarriage between Sunni and Shite in Iraq, and this was believed by some commentators to be a major reason why there would not be a "full blown" civil war. Sounds like a good theory, but why is it not working to curb the terrible fighting even at these current levels (about 100 people a day)?

3. Last night, I saw a report on a bombing of a group of school boys (I forget which faction they were in, but they were just in a park at the time.) What sort of point does any faction think it is achieving by killing unarmed civilians, especially children? And if the intermarriage point mentioned above is true, surely attacks like that only hurt both Sunni and Shite when the families are mixed.

4. Seemingly, it remains impossible to disarm militias in Baghdad. Why exactly is that the case?

I am sure there are more points I could ask, but I need to do other things right now.

Michael Costello: Israel is not the bully here | Opinion | The Australian

Michael Costello: Israel is not the bully here | Opinion | The Australian

Conservative Laborite Costello defends Israel, and good on him.

Actually, if Labor has any internal tension over support for Israel at the moment (which I am sure they would), it is being kept well under wraps.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

How quickly could Iran go nuclear?

The New Yorker: Online Only: Content

The New Yorker, not known for being a right wing panic merchant, runs an interview this week with (journalist?) Steve Coll that is worth reading.

Mr Coll notes that on the question of how quickly Iran could have a nuke:

John Negroponte, the director of National Intelligence, has said, in his most recent public assessment, that the American intelligence community believes that Iran may acquire a nuclear capacity some time in the next decade, meaning from 2010 or 2011 onward. From my reporting, I gather that in private briefings the Bush Administration’s intelligence analysts focus on a five-to-seven-year window, although they emphasize that there’s a fair amount of uncertainty about this estimate. I think the one assertion that the intelligence community seems comfortable with is that it’s not this year or next year and probably not the year after that. However, the more that is discovered about Iran’s research, the more some analysts wonder whether Iran might be able to move faster than the official forecast indicates.

It gets worse, though:

[Interviewer] Once the centrifuges are working, how long will it take to make enough material for a bomb?

It depends on how many centrifuges you put into your plant. The math is fairly straightforward: a cascade of a hundred and sixty-four centrifuges can produce so many grams of highly enriched uranium in so much time if the centrifuges are operating around the clock. Iran has said that it intends to install three thousand of these centrifuges by the end of this year. That seems like an ambitious goal, but let’s assume the Iranians could achieve it. If they did, they could manufacture enough highly enriched uranium for a couple of bombs within a year if they operated those centrifuges around the clock. Most people don’t think they can pull that off, but that’s the scale of their operation at this point.