Friday, September 29, 2006

Odd court case of the day

How two Roman soldiers 'did battle' in bath house - Britain - Times Online

Maybe too much emphasis on asteroids

Impact from the Deep -- Strangling heat and gases emanating from the earth and sea, not asteroids, most likely caused several ancient mass extinctions. Could the same killer-greenhouse conditions build once again?

Well you get the picture of what this Scientific American article is about, don't you. As to whether humans could build up CO2 to such high levels as to cause extreme extinctions, we have a little way to go yet:

Although estimates of the rates at which carbon dioxide entered the atmosphere during each of the ancient extinctions are still uncertain, the ultimate levels at which the mass deaths took place are known. The so-called thermal extinction at the end of the Paleocene began when atmospheric CO2 was just under 1,000 parts per million (ppm). At the end of the Triassic, CO2 was just above 1,000 ppm. Today with CO2 around 385 ppm, it seems we are still safe. But with atmospheric carbon climbing at an annual rate of 2 ppm and expected to accelerate to 3 ppm, levels could approach 900 ppm by the end of the next century, and conditions that bring about the beginnings of ocean anoxia may be in place. How soon after that could there be a new greenhouse extinction? That is something our society should never find out.

Yes, well, saving life from massive extinctions does seem a pretty good reason for trying to keep levels fairly well below 1000 ppm.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

About that NIE report


TigerHawk short take on the leaked NIE report makes is very good. He's a smart commentator.

I would add this: surely most voters would guess that with intelligence assessments (especially when they are dealing with a general level of threat, such as the report in question) they are likely to be rubbery and rather subjective. It's inherent in the nature of the intelligence business that it is not a precise science.

Sometimes leaders have to make a call on intelligence material anyway (such as in the decision to invade Iraq) and the fact that such decisions involve a degree of uncertainty is what makes them hard decisions.

For opposition parties to crow about this current report may be expected, but (in my opinion) it does not really endear them much to the sensible swinging voter.

UPDATE: Michael Costello's column about the report is also good, and not entirely supportive of his mate Kim Beazley's take (as evidenced in the previous link.) This paragraph by Costello is very apt:

The NIE states: "We assess that the Iraq conflict has become the cause celebre for jihadists." Well, let's assume that's correct. My question is: And? What follows from that assessment? Israel is also a cause celebre for jihadists. Does that mean we should abandon it? If the answer is: "No, that's a ridiculous proposition", then it is logically equally ridiculous in the case of Iraq.

Painters beware

ScienceDaily: Solvent Exposure Linked To Birth Defects In Babies Of Male Painters

From the above report:

The study focused on questionnaires filled out by a random sample of 398 painters exposed to a mixture of chemicals present in organic solvents and 302 carpenters with little or no exposure, in the period of three months before the last pregnancy. Workers employed as painters three months before their partners became pregnant were on average six times more likely than the carpenters to father congenitally malformed babies (e.g. defects of cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, urogenital and central nervous systems.)

In addition, the painters exposed to the chemicals were 50 to 100 per cent more likely to produce low birth-weight babies, depending on the level of exposure, compared to unexposed carpenters....

Of particular concern, said Dr. Burstyn, is that all of the levels of exposure to solvents investigated in the study were well within Dutch regulations and occupational exposure limits established in the United States and Canada. Therefore, they had previously been considered safe.

Office work has its upside.

About drugs policy in Sweden Gotcha Blog

This is an interesting story on the relative success of Sweden in dealing with illicit drugs:

...Sweden moved down the path of enforcement and rehabilitation with the aim of not just lowering drug abuse, but eliminating it. Legislation removed the discretion from prosecutors to decide whether to press charges, unless the amount of drugs such as cannabis or speed claimed to be for personal use could not be subdivided. Charges for possession of heroin, morphine, opium or cocaine were virtually never waived. Penalties for possession of drugs were increased, with one year minimum jail sentences.

At the same time Sweden poured extra funding into social programs for those most at risk of drugs. Social welfare authorities were also given the legal power to force users into six-month long detox and rehabilitation programs.

The result was a dramatic decline in illicit drug usage. The number of 15-16 year olds saying they had tried drugs at least once fell from 15 per cent in 1971 to three per cent in 1989. The number reporting they had used drugs in the previous month fell from five per cent to 0.5 per cent over the same period.

Always pleasing to see (relatively) conservative approaches working...

This is a worry

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Organ sales 'thriving' in China

This article is about buying transplant organs in China. Note that at the right hand side of the article, there is a link to another BBC story in March which says China was to ban the sale of transplant organs by July. Evidently did not happen.

I may have overlooked posting about the recent investigation into Falun Gong claims that they in particular are being harvested for organs. Lateline had a good interview about this in August.

It would seem that this story is rather hard to keep the public interested in. Startling claims are made, governments talk about the need for independent investigation and seek re-assurances that it is not happening, and then it slips off the radar. However, maybe an unintended conseqence of the Olympic Games coming up is that there is good reason for the media to keep doing stories about human rights in China.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Flying and greenhouse gas

Is flying really evil? from Guardian Unlimited: Travelog

There is a bit of a push going on, especially in Europe, to make flying much more expensive as a way to reduce greenhouse gases.

(I wonder if modern day Zeppelins would be more fuel efficient. There is a theory, although Wikipedia tells me it is highly controversial, that a large part of the Hindenburg's flammability was to do with the construction materials, not so much the hydrogen. I suspect that helium might be too expensive and rare to seriously use on a large scale. Also, surely modern materials could increase airship's carrying capacity mightily. Just a thought...)

Anyway, the writer of the above article notes this:

Reading the papers you would think that air travel is the single biggest cause of global warming. In fact, air travel accounts for less than 5% of carbon dioxide emissions. We must look to every sector to reduce emissions, but if we really want to target the biggest culprits then we need to look at homes, which account for nearer 25% of emissions, and power stations, the UK's largest coal-fired version of which wastes two-thirds of the energy it generates.

We've shown before how a few simple changes made in your home can save double the carbon emissions of a return flight to Egypt. In seeking to reduce our emissions we need to examine our entire lifestyles, not just our flying habits. The trouble is that it's sexier to write about planes than lagging your loft.


The second comment to the article is also interesting:

The aviation industry has always, and continues to work extremely hard to be good 'climate citizens'. Aircraft designs produce HALF the CO2 emissions that they did forty years ago. Current research and new aircraft aim to produce 50% less CO2 per aircraft by 2020. That is a massively ambitious target, and billions of UK, EU and US funding is being spent to reach this goal. Not only that but an 80% reduction in NOx and 50% reduction in noise are other targets.

This represents a doubling of the rate of improvement in environmental performance, i.e. achieving what previously took 40 years in 20 years (targets are relative to 2000).

I may still be able to take a holiday in 15 years time, then.

On swearing in Japanese

The Japan Times Online - Be warned: we're talking rather rude Japanese

As you can see from the above article, swearing in Japanese seems sort of complicated, depending very much on the context of when and where an expression is used.

(I have had troubles myself in explaining the relatively simple Australian concept of "swear words" to Japanese people. Now I understand why a bit better.)

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Freakonomics looks at doctors handwashing

Selling Soap - New York Times

A fun read from the NYT about the famous Cedars-Sinai Medical Centres efforts to increase doctors' hand washing habits.

Amongst other measures:

They started a Hand Hygiene Safety Posse that roamed the wards and let it be known that this posse preferred using carrots to sticks: rather than searching for doctors who weren’t compliant, they’d try to “catch” a doctor who was washing up, giving him a $10 Starbucks card as reward. You might think that the highest earners in a hospital wouldn’t much care about a $10 incentive — “but none of them turned down the card,” Silka says.

They then moved onto doing an agar plate culture of some doctors' hands after lunch:

The resulting images, Silka says, “were disgusting and striking, with gobs of colonies of bacteria.”

The administration then decided to harness the power of such a disgusting image. One photograph was made into a screen saver that haunted every computer in Cedars-Sinai.

A nicely creative approach.

Jim Holt on the problems of string theory

The New Yorker: The Critics: A Critic At Large

Jim Holt is an excellent science writer. (His old articles in Slate are well worth looking up.)

In the New Yorker, he has a long review of the 2 anti string theory books out recently, and it is very good reading. (Peter Woit, who wrote one of the books, likes this review much better than the one in Slate that I mentioned some posts back.)

The difficulties of anti drug programs

A White House drug deal gone bad. By Ryan Grim - Slate Magazine

Better late than never. I missed this a few weeks ago, but the article talks about the contradictory effects of anti drug programs in America. (They either don't work or actually seem to result in more use.)

I had heard of such research before, but have never gone looking for more information. It does cross my mind often, however, especially when I take calls at my office from the some group seeking donations to help its anti-drugs educational program in schools here. (I think the police visit and distribute an anti-drugs booklet.) They probably would not appreciate me advising them that their efforts may well be counterproductive.

Controlling the behaviour of people is such tricky business, isn't it?

Poor rats

Future Mars astronauts have radiation on their minds - space - 25 September 2006 - New Scientist Space

The likely serious problems with cosmic radiation on the long trip to Mars is, by my reckoning, good reason to be concentrating on settling the Moon underground first. (Provided that the effect of low lunar gravity can be shown to be less serious than radiation effects.)

Some rats are already being irradiated to see what happens:

These are more difficult to shield against than lighter elements, and Rabin's studies suggest that they are more potent in affecting the brain. The team beams heavy particles into the brains of rats using particle accelerators, then tests the rats to see how the radiation affects their cognitive abilities.

Rats whose brains have been exposed to heavy particle radiation perform more poorly in navigating mazes and have a harder time learning to press a button to get a food pellet. They also are more easily distracted and experience more anxiety in stressful situations.

Maybe in the future, snobby earthlings will deride the intelligence of space settlers in much the same way jokes are made here about settlers inbreeding in remote areas.

As I have mentioned before, one of the first things I want to see done back on the moon is a breeding colony of rats to see how the low gravity affects their offspring.

Bad news for Iran?

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Israel 'holds secret Saudi talks'

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has held an unprecedented meeting with a senior member of the Saudi royal family, Israeli officials say.

The meeting 12 days ago has not been confirmed by Saudi Arabia, which has no official contacts with Israel.

Israeli media say they discussed Iran's nuclear programme and a Saudi peace plan adopted by Arab states in 2002.

Barry Cohen's lunch with Mark Latham

Barry Cohen: Prepare to be blessed with a new Marksism fantasy | Opinion | The Australian

Don't you love it when former supporters of Latham tell personal anecdotes of Mark's behaviour? For the amusement of the nation, Latham should continue with this self defeating series of books at the rate of one a year.

From Cohen's column:

I was alerted that I had been given a spray in The Latham Diaries when it was released late last year. As a friend and supporter for many years, guest speaker at a dinner in his honour and having been publicly thanked by him for urging him to run for the leadership, one would expect nothing less.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Stadiums and storms

News in Science - Sports stadiums may focus lightning damage - 20/09/2006

Some time ago I promised my story of stupid behaviour in storms. It's still on its way.

Fiddling with the atmosphere

Fake volcanoes could combat global warming | COSMOS magazine

When it says "fake volcanoes" I'm not sure exactly what mechanism it suggests to get the sulfates into the high atmosphere. (I have suggested before nuking volcanoes that no one wants, but no one pays any attention to me!)

Anyway, the idea of deliberately polluting the high atmosphere to help fight global warming must horrify Greenies.

Stephen Hayes on Saddam & al Qaeda

How Bad Is the Senate
Intelligence Report?

See above for a very lengthy and detailed Stephen Hayes article criticising the Senate report which claimed no connection between Saddam and al Qaeda.

Mark Steyn on the UN follies

U.N. shows why it's incapable of reform

An amusing and interesting Steyn column on recent appearances at the UN.

A funny line about Chomsky:

He [Chavez] denounced Bush as an "imperialist, fascist, assassin, genocidal" and also "the devil," he held up a copy of some unreadable Noam Chomsky book, gave it a big plug and subsequently regretted that he couldn't meet with the late Professor Chomsky. Chomsky isn't late, he's alive and well. Granted, it's easy to get the impression he's been dead for 30 years, since he hasn't had a new idea since the early '70s.

Skepticism on Netroots The Netroots Hit Their Limits -- Oct. 2, 2006 -- Page 1

This article expressing scepticism on how far the Netroots movement in the States can go is interesting.

The oddest part is this:

...Markos Moulitsas, who runs Daily Kos, is talking about building real, bricks-and-mortar gathering halls where progressives can meet and organize political activities in person.

There's a shortage of "gathering halls" in America? Or is it that netroots need dedicated halls that are unsullied by too many people of other ideologies having met there in the past? Some further checking about this would be interesting, but no time right now.

For those with an interest in the 60's

For Pete's sake - Sunday Times - Times Online

This is an extract from a new book by the former wife of English comedian Peter Cook.

Lots of name dropping of 1960's famous people. Lots of easy sex with men that left the women sad and feeling exploited. (Given how often that is acknowledged now it's amazing it took the fast women of that time a decade or so to realise it.)

But for me the most surprising thing is that the former Mrs Cook suspects that there was a brief fling between Jackie Kennedy (while still with the President, it seems) and Peter Cook!

I find it hard to imagine an odder coupling.

The Sun goes quiet?

The Observer | UK News | Cooling Sun brings relief to sweltering Earth

Slattsnews has already spotted this article. I meant to post about the topic last week, when the New Scientist paper edition carried an article about it. (It was only available on line to subscribers.)

Anyway, the point is that it is believed by several credible scientists that the Sun is about to go into one of its quieter periods, which means few sunspots, and although the exact mechanism is not certain (more cosmic rays causing more clouds is the main theory,) this seems to coincide with periods of global cooling.

The great advantage is that, just when the earth may be starting to heat up from greenhouse gases, the sun may give us 50 to 100 years of cooler weather to get our low emission technology on line. (To ignore greenhouse gases in that period could be a big mistake, as the sunspots and "normal" weather will return sooner or later.)

Over at Real Climate, they seem to rather downplay the importance of this, as evidenced by this recent post. However, if we have the Thames freezing over again within 5 years, the public will be paying a lot of attention!

Mark Latham's wit and wisedom - Phwaw

Look out, toss-bags, Latham's back - National -

From the above article about Lathams new book:

Conga Line is revealing for what its choice of material tells us about Labor's fallen idol. Latham has a particular fixation with Richard Nixon and this shows in the frequency of entries for the Watergate president.

And under "Women" there are five entries, two belittling the female brain, one extolling a woman's place in the home and two reminding us of the origins of the phrases "damned whores" and "God's police", used by the feminist Anne Summers as the title of her watershed book.

I hope Julia Gillard is rushing out to buy a copy. (Maybe Mark sent her one as a gift.)

Mark himself is given a column in the SMH this morning, in which he says:

Even the title of this book is under attack. Writing in one of Rupert Murdoch's American rags earlier this year, the neo-conservative Christian commentator Paul Gray described "a conga line of suckholes" as "possibly the ugliest expression used by an Australian MP". Poor, prissy Paul had better not read the rest of this book. It has too many dinky-di, ridgy-didge Australian expressions for this politically correct petal to absorb.

It's probably not the ugliest expression ever used by an MP, at least in private. It would, however, have to be right up there with anything used by an Australian MP in Parliament.

A Latham Prime Ministership would have been rather like having Sir Les Patterson as leader.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Steyn (and me) on the 9/11 conspiracies | Culture | Books | Call me crazy. I blame terrorists.

I missed Mark Steyn's column a few weeks ago about this. I had not realised that the theories had become quite as loopy as those he cites.

The apparent popularity of the 9/11 conspiracies should, I think, be of greater concern to Western governments than it apparently is.

That many in the Islamic world should refuse to believe the "official version" is one thing; after all, there the ongoing promotion of centuries old conspiracy theories against the Jews is a solid groundwork for disbelief of any government that supports Israel.

But for Western nations to have a substantial proportion of its own citizens preferring fantasy over reality is surely corrosive to those nations' democracy. Moreover, Islamic conspiracy believers would doubtless take encouragement from this too.

My feeling is that this is serious enough that it should not be simply ignored, or left to the private market to deal with the matter. (Such as the worthwhile work Popular Mechanics has put into this.) I think there is a justifiable role for government in this, to support publicly the work of anti-conspiracists, and to make plain statements that conspiracy theorists are causing harm, whatever their intentions may be.

Sure, such an active government role would be cited by some as further evidence of the conspiracy. But one would hope that the government explaining its reasons for getting involved in the argument (to the help preserve and better serve the very democracy under which the conspiracy theorists live) would persuade most. In any event, I find it hard to believe that active government role would cause more people to fall under the sway of conspiracy theorists than exist already.

UPDATE: I have just read this excellent and thought provoking article from Tech Central Station about why conspiracy theories are so popular. It's quite long, but well worth reading in full.

Here's the final couple of paragraphs, if you don't have time to look at it all:

I would suggest, then, that the post-Enlightenment pretense of hostility to authority, tradition, and common sense as such, and especially the extreme form of it represented by the likes of Marx and Nietzsche, is what really underlies the popularity of conspiracy theories, particularly those involving 9/11. The absurd idea that to be intelligent, scientific, and intellectually honest requires a distrust for all authority per se and a contempt for the opinions of the average person, has so deeply permeated the modern Western consciousness that conspiratorial thinking has for many people come to seem the rational default position. And it also explains why even mainstream outlets like Time and Vanity Fair, while by no means endorsing the views of the conspiracy theorists, have tended to treat them with kid gloves, as if they were harmless and well-meaning eccentrics instead of shrill and hate-filled crackpots. The belief that extremism in the attack on authority is no vice has a powerful appeal even for suit-wearing journalists and media executives (especially if they are liberals), even if they have too much sense to follow it out consistently.

Yet no civilization can be healthy which nurtures such delusions, for they strike at the very heart of a society's core institutions - family, religion, schools, political institutions, and so forth - and replace the (sometimes critical) allegiance we should feel for them with a corrosive skepticism. Conspiracy theories are only the most extreme symptom of this disease. Less dramatic, but in the long run more dangerous, is the relentless tendency of the Western intelligentsia to denigrate the Western past and present, massively exaggerating the vices of their own civilization and the virtues of its competitors, and putting the worst possible spin on the motives and policies of its current leaders while minimizing or excusing the crimes of its enemies. This would be dangerous under the best of circumstances. It is doubly so while we are at war with enemies who know no such self-doubt and self-hatred.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Why micro black holes might be safe, but I am not relaxed and comfortable yet - Despite Rumors, Black Hole Factory Will Not Destroy Earth

Greg Landsberg, a physicist who actually did bother corresponding with James Blodgett (who runs the "Risk Evaluation Forum" that got me interested in possible danger from micro black holes) gives this recent explanation as to why he thinks any MBH created at CERN will not be any danger to the Earth:

"Still, let's assume that even if Hawking is a genius, he's wrong, and that such black holes are more stable," Landsberg said. Nearly all of the black holes will be traveling fast enough from the accelerator to escape Earth's gravity. "Even if you produced 10 million black holes a year, only 10 would basically get trapped, orbiting around its center," Landsberg said.

However, such trapped black holes are so tiny, they could pass through a block of iron the distance from the Earth to the Moon and not hit anything. They would each take about 100 hours to gobble up one proton.

At that rate, even if one did not take into account the fact that each black hole would slow down every time it gobbled up a proton, and thus suck down matter at an even slower rate, "about 100 protons would be destroyed every year by such a black hole, so it would take much more than the age of universe to destroy even one milligram of Earth material," Landsberg concluded. "It's quite hard to destroy the Earth."

These figures sound good, but I tend to worry that they may be made on a set of expected results (regarding, for example, the number that would have earth escaping velocity, the exact dimensions and behaviour of MBH, the conditions inside the Earth where the slow ones stay, and possible interactions with each other) which are far from worst possible estimates.

Given that its the fate of the earth at issue, it seems to me that some calculations should be done on worst case scenarios to be confident of the outcome.

I suppose it is possible that Landsberg has done that, but I am somewhat suspicious that he hasn't. After all, he really believes there is no reason to doubt Hawking Radiation will take care of the problem, so this further exercise is perhaps done on the basis that you don't really have to take it too seriously.

One thing I also don't understand is why it takes an estimated 100 hours for a MBH to absorb a proton.

Maybe it irritates physicists to have a lay person doubting their figures, but I feel it is worth pressing on with the issue none the less.

The fact that there is a lot of uncertainty about the expected precise behaviour of MBH can easily be seen by the number of papers that show up on an arxiv search for "black holes".

On the loss of will in Europe

Confronted by the Islamist threat on all sides, Europe pathetically caves in - Comment - Times Online

It could almost have been written by Mark Steyn, but this column about European "loss of will" is good stuff.

In relation to the Pope, I like this paragraph:

I actually heard a senior member of the British Government chide the Pope this week for what he described as his unhelpful comments. This minister went on to say that the Pope should keep quiet about Islamic violence because of the Crusades.

It was a jaw-dropping observation. If it was meant seriously its import is that, because of violence perpetrated in the name of Christ 900 years ago, today’s Church, and presumably today’s European governments (who, after all, were eager participants in the Crusades) should forever hold their peace on the subject of religious fanaticism. In this view the Church’s repeated apologies for the sins committed in its name apparently are not enough. The Pope has no right, even in a lengthy disquisition on the complexities of faith and reason, to say anything about the religious role in Islamic terrorism.

Well worth reading all of it.

Conflict and Islam

A few weeks ago, prior to the Pope's recent speech, there was an interview on ABC Religion Report with an Australian Catholic priest who lives in Pakistan. The transcript is here.

The whole interview was very interesting. This priest believes that the conflict between Sunni and Shia branches of Islam is going to be a major issue in future, as is evident within Iraq (and also Pakistan.) Also, the issue of the use of the Koran in relation to violence gets an airing:

Stephen Crittenden: I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say about the comments that George Pell made recently, saying 'As an exercise I read through the Qu'ran and I put it down eventually, page after page after page of exhortation to violence.' He's right, isn't he?

Robert McCulloch: Well if you look in Sura 5 , you've got the statement the Muslim take neither Christian nor Jew for friend. Now we can see that certainly as Christians in the Bible there are similar sort of conflictual statements, especially in the Old Testament, but we can put them within the context of when the text was written and exegeses accordingly. But when you have fundamentalist preachers picking up this text, as they do in Karachi, one hears it every Friday in the preaching, in the afternoon. They hear the text, well if these people can't be your friends, it means they're your enemies. If they're your enemies, they must be God's enemies, and if they're God's enemies, well what must we do with them?

That of course is not what all Muslims hold, but I mean one hears it. It's part of the dynamic of threat, fear, which seeps in as you asked right at the beginning, that seeps into the fabric of the society. And I wouldn't like to say because there's violence there, I wouldn't like to be giving the impression that this is a horrible place to live. I've lived there for 28 years, and I look forward to going back there. It's a place of blessing as well, it's a place of violence but it's a place of blessing.

As someone who has lived there for 28 years, he would seem a very credible voice to listen to.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Neo-neocon on Chavez

neo-neocon: A psychiatrist for Chavez:

An amusing post by neo-neocon on that Chavez speech in the UN.

New nuclear reactors, again

Popular Mechanics - The Next Atomic Age

Found via Pajama Media, this Popular Mechanics article talks about new nuclear reactor designs, including my favourite, the Pebble Bed.

How not to get ahead in broadcasting

CBC head quits after defecation, bestiality remarks

More detail from the Calgary Sun:

Fournier incorrectly claimed in a magazine article that men in Lebanon are permitted to have sex with animals "as long as they are female. Doing the same thing with male beasts can result in the death penalty."

The erroneous suggestion sparked outrage in Montreal's Lebanese community.

During an interview aired on a popular Radio-Canada television show last Sunday, Fournier sang the praises of a good "poop." He said the pleasure of a bowel movement is longer-lasting and more frequent than sex.

Weird parole decision

Secret crimes of sex-swap killer |

I'm not normally one to double guess sentencing or parole decisions based on media reporting. However, this case really makes you wonder about the risk the parole board is prepared to take, and well deserves public attention.

More about his/her case is here.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Guardian loses the plot

Of course it's a left-ish paper, but even by its standards The Guardian has had a remarkable run this week on opinion pieces attacking the Pope for his recent speech.

Apart from Karen Armstrong, whose piece I discussed a few posts ago, there has been Madeleine Bunting saying this:

In his remarks last week, the Pope re-awoke the most entrenched and self-serving of western prejudices - that Muslims have a unique proclivity to violence - a claim that has no basis in history or in current world events, a fact that still eludes too many westerners.

Does she think the word "uniquely" let's her make this claim? If so, why do we have thousands of books on all the non-Muslim violence of recent history - the legacies of Mao and Stalin, the Holocaust and Pol Pot. (Not to mention the concern about North Korea at the moment.) I think the West has a pretty good grip on the idea that it doesn't require being a Muslim nation to have tyranny and violence.

However, there is one aspect of Muslim violent behaviour that is pretty unique at the moment, namely the default riot mode for perceived criticism or insult.

Along similar lines to Bunting was the piece by Jonathan Freedland, in which he notes:

...he [the Pope] should have known, given who he is, that it would have the most calamitous results.

That's not because Muslims are somehow, as their accusers have written, uniquely touchy.


What makes me shudder about the Pope's Regensburg lecture is that he appears to join Osama bin Laden in this effort to cast the current conflict as a clash of civilizations. Complicatedly, and dense in footnotes, he is, at bottom, trying to establish the superiority of one faith over another. His argument is that reason is intrinsic to Christianity, yet merely a contingent part of Islam. ..

There can be no happy medium in matters of core belief: Muslims cannot meet Christians halfway on their belief that God spoke to Muhammad, just as Christians cannot compromise on Jesus's status as the son of God. Most religious leaders have long recognised that, and agreed to tiptoe politely around each other, offering a warm, soapy bath of rhetoric about "shared values" and "interfaith dialogue". Of course they have known that, if pushed, they would be obliged to say their own faiths are better than the others, but they have avoided doing so. Now this Pope has broken that compact - and who knows what havoc he has unleashed.

This is moral cowardice of a high order, and just rubbish.

The upside of this is that many readers comments at the Guardian are attacking these columns with some vigor.

The euthanasia debate, again

Legal safeguards can make euthanasia a legitimate option - Opinion

Peter Singer's pal Leslie Cannold, the pro-choice and pro euthanasia ethicist, has a pro euthanasia article in The Age today.

(By the way, I am a little cynical about any "ethicist" who is exclusively on one side or the other of the big moral "life and death" issues. This is not just a comment against Cannold; it also applies to Australian Nick Tonti-Fillipini, who can always be relied on to present the Catholic view of bioethics on any matter. If you approach ethics from entrenched philosophical positions, your ethical judgments are almost entirely predictable, and paying such a person to be a professional "ethicist" seems rather a waste of money unless he or she is going to come up with something surprising now and then.)

Anyway, Cannold uses this evidence from Oregon as support:

Data from Oregon suggests that the most frequently given reasons for choosing physician-assisted suicide by the approximately 30 people who die this way every year are "loss of autonomy" (87 per cent ), "loss of dignity" (80 per cent) and "loss of the ability to enjoy the activities that make life worth living" (84 per cent). This data, which suggests that mental rather than physical suffering is the main driver of decisions to die, undermines the assertion of anti-euthanasia forces that the effectiveness of modern-day palliative methods obviates the need for legal reform.

But this emphasis on mental suffering is surely a double edged sword, especially that last category "loss of the ability to enjoy the activities that make life worth living". Just which activities do we consider important enough for people to make valid decisions that they should kill themselves? In the case of Nancy Crick, it always seemed clear that she was wildly exaggerating how bad her quality of life was.

In another highly publicised case, Dr Nitschke had no major qualms about helping guide a healthy 79 year old to top herself, just because she was bored with life.

For a conservative, an emphasis on mental suffering being the main reason the people in Oregon wanted assistance to die is probably more of a reason to be against euthanasia, because such suffering would presumably in many cases be amenable to counseling and additional support. (No doubt many -or all - of them had physical suffering too, so I am not suggesting that their cases were as bad as Crick's.)

Just as no sensible person encourages a healthy friend with suicidal ideation to let their mental suffering guide them to action, it seems a dangerous path to say that something as malleable as loss of enjoyment of a certain activity should guide sick people to euthanasia.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

All about the Shebaa Farms

TCS Daily - Down on the Farms

This is a good read about the background to the issue of who own the Shebaa Farms.

The article makes a good case that the issue is being manipulated by Syria and Hezbollah to justify the continued presence of Hezbollah in Lebanon. (And the UN recent security resolution hasn't helped at all.)

First blog updated from Space?

Anousheh Ansari Space Blog

Rich space tourist Anousheh Ansari promises to update her blog from space. Hasn't happened yet.

From her previous posts, it seems she signs off "live long and prosper" (from Star Trek.) She's a rich space tourist nerd!

Neuhaus on the Pope

FIRST THINGS: On the Square

Well worth reading, especially the extracts of Benedict's earlier addresses relating to Islam.

Gerard Henderson and the SMH on the Pope's comments

A reaction 'contrary to God's nature' - Gerard Henderson - Opinion -

More calm commentary on the Pope's comments from Gerard Henderson.

I note that elsewhere in the Sydney Morning Herald, Cardinal Pell's comments on the reaction by a couple of Australian Muslim figures is impliedly criticised:

THE Archbishop of Sydney has drawn a link between Islamists and violence in a strident attempt to defend the Pope - just as the pontiff tries to hose down the flames of Muslim anger around the world.

From a patently silly sounding introduction like that, you don't really have to read the article to see what the link is:

Cardinal George Pell says "the violent reactions in many parts of the Islamic world" to a speech by Pope Benedict justified one of the very fears expressed in that address. "They showed the link for many Islamists between religion and violence, their refusal to respond to criticism with rational arguments, but only with demonstrations, threats and actual violence," Cardinal Pell said in a statement yesterday....

But Cardinal Pell added: "Today Westerners often link genuine religious expression with peace and tolerance. Today most Muslims identify genuine religion with submission (Islam) to the commands of the Koran. They are proud of the spectacular military expansion across continents especially in the decades after the prophet's death. This is seen as a sign of God's blessing. Friends of Islam in Australia have genuine questions, which need to be addressed, not regularly avoided. We are grateful for those moderate Muslims who have spoken publicly."

I heard someone on ABC radio this morning questioning whether it is fair to characterise Muslims as being "proud" of this. Fair question, but I expect that Pell, who obviously has done some dialogue with Muslim figures (see the previous post) may have some justification for describing it this way.

[NOTE: first version of this post left out a quote which did directly relate to violence and Islam.]

Matt Price quote the day

Nice smile, shame about the policies | Matt Price | The Australian

From his column from a few days ago (I was in a tent at the time):

IT'S now official. Policy is hugely overrated. Leadership and personality are what matter and deliver rewards in politics. We have a living, breathing example of this in Queensland, where Peter Beattie's main policies appeared to be: buggering up the health system, running down public utilities, and apologising.

Against this, the Premier possesses a nice smile, a cute dog and, unlike the alternatives, manages to string sentences together without making a complete knucklehead of himself. Ergo, Labor wins in another landslide.

Pell gets involved

George Pell: Talk while we can | Opinion | The Australian

I can't see anything particularly objectionable in the archbishop's Pell's column today. Worth reading.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Context time

See what happens when I take a couple of days off from blogging? A new Crusade gets going and I miss it.

The right wing blogosphere is all over the story like a...well, you supply your own metaphor, because if I use an ill-advised one I may be in trouble. (If only I was that popular!)

By comparison it's pretty much the sound of crickets coming from the Left-ish side. You try it for yourself, but the search terms I have used on Technorati are coming up pretty empty handed on "progressive" commentary.

(I have found a "pox on both your houses" style comment on Anonymous Lefty, but that's about it. And by the way, I don't think he does a fair job in the extracts he takes from the Pope's speech. The parts he selects may seemingly be designed to be putting it in fuller context, but it does not go far enough.)

What do I think of the Pope's use of the comments? Captain's Quarters has an analysis that I agree with. My shorter version:

The Pope clearly says the old quote is a "starting point" for his review of the role of reason in religion over the centuries. The emphasis is on the argument about whether reason can dictate that religion can be made compulsory through violence, not on the part of the quote about Mohammed having only brought things "evil and inhuman." In context, it is clear that this was not the point of the quote at all.

(It goes without saying that there should no question that the Pope does not need to apologise for holding the view that conversion by the sword is against both reason and divine law.)

The most for which he can be criticised is for leaving open the possibility that the he also agrees with the "evil and inhuman" assessment of Mohammed. While Googling for the Benedict's past statements today is only bringing up links to this recent controversy, I find it hard to believe that he has made previous comments showing an intention to vilify Mohammed.

Should the Pope have apologised for causing offence that was not intended? People normally do, but in this case it is very close to the line where the careless reading and/or an insulting lack of goodwill on the part of the complainant renders an apology unnecessary and, if given, somewhat demeaning.

UPDATE: Chief apologist for all things Muslim, Karen Armstrong, writes in The Guardian about this in quite extraordinary terms. (The Pope is just reflecting Western bigotry against Islam that dates back to the Crusades.) She says:

Coming on the heels of the Danish cartoon crisis, his remarks were extremely dangerous. They will convince more Muslims that the west is incurably Islamophobic and engaged in a new crusade.

We simply cannot afford this type of bigotry. The trouble is that too many people in the western world unconsciously share this prejudice, convinced that Islam and the Qur'an are addicted to violence. The 9/11 terrorists, who in fact violated essential Islamic principles, have confirmed this deep-rooted western perception and are seen as typical Muslims instead of the deviants they really were.

With disturbing regularity, this medieval conviction surfaces every time there is trouble in the Middle East. Yet until the 20th century, Islam was a far more tolerant and peaceful faith than Christianity.

This article deserves a very thorough Fisking. Again, I don't have time to do this, except I will note one or areas where she should be criticised.

She argues that the West is wrong to think that Islam spread its faith by the sword:

The early conquests in Persia and Byzantium after the Prophet's death were inspired by political rather than religious aspirations.

Assume for the sake of the argument that she is correct. Fine. After all most people only have a vague knowledge of the era, but everyone knows that the deliberate conflating of religious and political motives was extremely common throughout history.

Yet why does she not apply the same standards to today's Muslims who will believe the Pope's words mean that the West is "engaged in a new crusade" (see quote above)? I agree that this is a dangerous view, and what's more it is one that should be easier to correct, dealing as it does with current affairs, and as such does not depend so much on judging which historian is interpreting past events correctly.

But she doesn't spend time telling them that they are wrong. (I presume she agrees that it is an incorrect view. If not, she is not worth taking seriously at all.) No, Armstrong would rather spend time castigating the West for inflaming the Islamists who are not following the dictates of the "religion of peace".

He entire article is a vilification of the Western role in the Crusades, bringing in Christianity's ill treatment of Jews to boot. (It is remarkable that she spends time on pointing out that it was originally Christians who believed the "blood libel" of the Jews, when today it is primarily within Muslim nations that rampant anti-Semitism still repeats the libel to its children. If this upsets her, it doesn't show. The West gets no "brownie points" for repudiating it, only criticism for believing it first.)

Armstrong writes as if everyone in the West still thinks the Crusades were a black and white series of conflicts, with the Christians entirely in the right and the Muslims entirely evil. But doesn't every sensible person assume that both sides acted out of mixed political and religious motivation, and in the course of the conflict committed what we would today (rightly) consider atrocities?

I maintain that you do not have to know much at all about the history to be able to tell simply from her one-sided style that she is not to be trusted on her interpretation of Islam past or present.

[And finally: one point on which I will concede. My original post assumed that Muslims were taking take insult from the quote because of its reference to Mohammed bringing "evil and inhumane" things; in other words, that it was seen as an insult against Mohammed personally. Armstrong and others point out that the insult some Muslims see is against the religion as a whole (ie. that Islam is an inherently violent religion.)

If anything, it seemed to me that the Pope was hinting at Muslims should be able to use reason to endorse its "religion of peace" aspects over those passages which are taken by some as justifying violence. In other words, it can be plausibly implied from the speech that he agrees with Armstrong: that those who believe in violent Jihad are those who have the wrong interpretation of Islam.

So there is that positive way of looking at it. But, as with the Jihadists, Armstrong would rather assume the worst possible interpretation.

Moreover, it seems to me that Karen Armstrong's idea of "projection of guilt" (which she alleges is why we in the West are all Islamophobic) more plausibly works the other way around. Even moderate Muslims know full well why the West is worried about Islam, hence their over-reaction to anything raising the issue of violence in their religion. ]

UPDATE 2: Back on the issue of Left leaning non-commentary about this, prominent Australian blogger Tim Dunlop simply refers to Anonymous Lefty's snide anti-religion post. Lavartus Prodeo so far only links to one other blog on it, which takes the view that the Pope is clearly insulting Muslims, but at least argues that Muslims should ignore the provocation.

Why this reluctance to discuss this case in detail, and to look at whether it is fair to read the alleged insult into the speech or not?

I think the instinctive reaction of most progressives would be to criticise the Pope, but given the reaction of some Muslims, they can hardly be seen to be encouraging that side either. Hence Muslim violence, both real and threatened, gets downplayed by the Left again, (or in the case of Armstrong, is seemingly blamed on the West itself.) The consequence is that once again voters are left with the feeling that at least the Right takes the issue, including its national security implications, seriously.

UPDATE 3: At last there is a detailed post on Lavartus Prodeo by Mark which is pretty reasonable. (His additions in the comments also have some useful background links too.) What a nice surprise.

NOTE: I have fiddled with this post on and off throughout the day, so don't be surprised if even my first post reads a little differently from earlier. This is not a "journal of record", as I often post quickly, then re-read it, find errors, and go back to correct things or add further argument. Major changes to argument are, however, acknowledged in clear updates rather than secret revision.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Marriage in India

Child brides may declare marriage void- The Times of India

One can easily forget how different the rest of the world can be. From the above story:

The practice of child marriage, linked to poverty and societal attitudes, has been prevalent in the country for decades. According to the 2001 Census, there are nearly 3 lakh girls under 15 who have given birth to at least one child. Nearly 35% of women in India are married between 15-18 years of age.

However, some progress has been made:

Discussions on the evils of child marriage had begun as early as last century, but the current law was introduced only in 1929.

In fact, the Indian political class woke up to the reality when Census 1921 reported that there were 600 brides between the ages of one and 12 months.

I suppose rusks were served at the wedding reception.

Hanging by a thread

String theory is claptrap. By Gregg Easterbrook - Slate Magazine

This is a good review of one of two recent books that point out the trouble with string theory. Namely, it can hardly be called science at all until it comes up with some plausible way to test it. Perhaps the killer quote is this:

Today if a professor at Princeton claims there are 11 unobservable dimensions about which he can speak with great confidence despite an utter lack of supporting evidence, that professor is praised for incredible sophistication. If another person in the same place asserted there exists one unobservable dimension, the plane of the spirit, he would be hooted down as a superstitious crank.

The book in question is by Lee Smolin, a physicist of considerable standing. The other book out is by Peter Woit, who runs the "Not Even Wrong" blog (see my blogroll.) His blog is dedicated to deriding string theory, and I think he does a pretty good job. I suspect Smolin's book might be the better read, though.

Not Even Wrong is definitely the site to go to if you want evidence against the idea that scientists are idealists who are above career politics and catfighting. Some posts are particularly funny, such as this one about the fight with Lubos Motl (a pro-string theory scientist) over Amazon reviews of the anti string theory books.

Can't we get a movie out of this?

Spears fly over 'cannibal' expedition - National -

The pathetic behaviour of our rival low brow evening current affairs programs would surely make a good comedy movie. Sure, the genre was covered well on TV by "Frontline" in the 1990's, but this latest story of (alleged) dirty tactics makes me think there must be scope for a full length movie in this.

Some ideas:

* journalists from the opposing shows start a secret relationship; (probably been done well before, but I can't think where)

* the ex-spouses of opposing journalists start a relationship and sabotage their ex's shows;

* as a sub plot: youngish network head with interest in a fringe religion tries to get current affairs show to give the religion good PR.

Mind you, movie treatments of television shows often feel very unauthentic in the way they show a TV studio. It's a hard genre to do well. I've always liked "Broadcast News" though.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Shuttle sightings

Human Space Flight (HSF) - Sightings

The link above is to the list of shuttle/space station sightings for Brisbane over the next few days. Monday night at 6.19 should be a particularly long and good view.

About time

Robson and crew arrested in Indonesia - TV & Radio - Entertainment -

It couldn't have happened to a more deserving bunch of quasi-journos.

The report says:

The head of the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, Imron Cotan, confirmed five Australian journalists were being held in the Papuan capital and would be deported as soon as possible.

Can't the Australia government to send a top priority two word cable the Indonesians: "No hurry"?

Christians: Embrace uranium

The Religion Report - 13September2006 - Ian Hore-Lacy

Hmm, how did this happen? A book that criticises the "irresponsible romanticism" that is the basis of much of the Green (and Christian) environmentalist movements gets a fair hearing by Stephen Crittenden on his "Religion Report" show.

From the transcript above, the author comments:

The basic motivation of the book is to really challenge some of the Green Christian stuff which has been written over the last 15 years and suggest that a Christian approach should not only respect God's handiwork in creation, that is to focus on Green and aesthetic aspects, but also encompass a practical understanding of the earth's resources, which are no less his handiwork, and that's an important point. And furthermore of course, those resources are needed to give all the six billion inhabitants a standard of living comparable with ours. And Christians seem to just lose sight of that whole second aspect altogether, and that has increasingly worried me....
Stephen Crittenden: Your book's full of wonderful pithy sentences like the following: 'Nuclear energy is a fascinating area for Christian reflection.' How is it a fascinating area for Christian reflection?

Ian Hore-Lacy: Well because it's a resource which is timely. It's a resource which requires a particular technology which has been developed over the last 50 years, and which is now available when we actually need it quite badly to replace fossil fuels, both for the reasons we've mentioned in respect to oil, and similarly with gas, and also because of concerns about global warming. And so when these concerns are at a peak, here is the technology that is available. And what's more it isn't a very abundant resource, not simply in the amount of uranium you can quantify right now, and divide by the annual rate of usage right now, that gives you a fairly false or misleading sort of answer, but also because with another step in technology, which is fairly well proven, we can get about 50 or 60 times as much energy out of that resource. Now you can't do that with any fossil fuels.

Just like the miracle with the loaves and fishes, isn't it?

[Previous line not intended to sound sarcastic; more designed to annoy Christian greenies.]

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

No prayers please

Canada: Orthodox Jew forced off plane | Jerusalem Post

I missed this story from last week, about an Orthdox Jewish man asked to leave an Air Canada aircraft for praying quietly and "lurching back and forth":

The action didn't seem to bother anyone, Faguy said, but a flight attendant approached the man and told him his praying was making other passengers nervous.

"The attendant actually recognized out loud that he wasn't a Muslim and that she was sorry for the situation but they had to ask him to leave," Faguy said.

Some left leaning commentators got all uptight about recent incidents where Muslim passengers were off loaded from aircraft. (You know, "poor Muslims being singled out" etc.)

This incident is evidence to show that concerns about behaviour on aircraft is non-sectarian after all.

Albrechtsen on the effect of 9/11

Janet Albrechtsen: Human rights not sacrosanct | News | The Australian

The first part of this column is particularly good, where Albrechtsen notes how no one complains about anti domestic violence advertising being targetted to men, because it reflects reality. Yet some complain that all anti terrorism action seems to be directed againt Muslims.

Lawrence Wright on the Master Plan

The New Yorker: Fact

Lawrence Wright was the author of the book reviewed in Salon and mentioned in my last post.

In the New Yorker he has a long article about Al Qaeda and its plans. Good reading.

Support from Salon

The road to 9/11 and beyond | Salon Books

When you dig past the weekly articles expressing the writers' ongoing horror of all things Bush, you occasionally find within a Salon article that a bit of support for the President somehow slips through.

For example, there is this week a review of a new book on the background to the 9/11 attacks which contains this line:

Today, from Bush and Cheney speeches to the nation's Op-Ed pages, we continue to be bombarded with declarations about whether the al-Qaida faithful hate America for its freedoms or for its policies. Wright's work reveals that the answer, clearly, is both.

Well, that seems close enough to count as support for the Bush "they hate us for our freedoms" speech of 20 September 2001. How nice of Salon.

You should read the review to see why the author argues this. It is interesting.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Hitchens on fear

Remembering Ari Fleischer's reign of terror. By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Christopher Hitchens' latest Slate piece destroys a relatively small bit of ongoing anti-Bush administration mythology. Still, this type of lazy and careless journalism that this case highlights seems so common now. All rather reminiscent of the non plastic turkey.

Hitchens was on Lateline last night, but I missed most of it. Quite a pity, given this extract posted over at Tim Blair.

And to round up all recent things Hitchens (he has been busy), there was this one at Opinion Journal if anyone missed it.

Meteor boom in New Zealand

Readers report: Sonic boom in Christchurch - 12 Sep 2006 - National News

Reports are just coming in about a meteor over New Zealand causing a very loud "boom". First hand reports are at the link above.

No word yet on whether part of it hit the ground.

Funny Price

Matt Price: All sides cop a flegging | News | The Australian

Matt Price's column on the Queensland election is really very funny. The funniest line (out of many) is this one about weird independent Bob Katter:

To steal from Winston Churchill, the ex-Nat turned Queensland independent is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma swallowed by a joke covered in bananas sprinkled with peanuts dipped in ethanol.

If this is a bit puzzling to an overseas reader, well, you have to know a bit about Queensland to understand.

Monday, September 11, 2006

About that Senate report

Power Line: Smiling Phases

I expect Hitchens will eventually write on this topic too, as he has already talked a lot about al Qaeda figures in Iraq. I'm sure there must a lot more on the internet about this, but I have not yet gone looking for it.

Christopher Hitchens on the anniversary

Never again: America's new mantra - World -

Worth reading.

He was also interviewed on Radio National this morning. From the parts I heard, his points were generally along the lines contained in the article above. It should be available here later today.

Devils Tower has a birthday

'Close Encounters' rock prepares for centennial - United States - North America

So, the alien landing site celebrates 100 years as a National Monument. Congratulations.

North of Brisbane, Mt Coonowrin in the Glasshouse Mountains could substitute as a less symmetrical landing beacon. Just a little bit of blasting might create a nice flat top to give it added appeal.

A brief guide to EMP

How to survive global warming. By David Shenk - Slate Magazine

From Slate's odd, and barely useful, guide on how to survive various disasters, the entry about electro magnetic pulse is at least a bit informative in a general way.

I would also like to remind any new readers that I have previously discussed the possible use of EMP attack on Iranian nuclear facilities (not necessarily via nuclear weapons, but using the mooted "e bombs".)

The Queensland election

John Quiggin - The end of the Nats

Oddly enough, this short post by John Quiggin is about the only thing I care to link to about the Queensland State election on Saturday.

It is hard to imagine how a worse run campaign could have been run by the conservatives. Springborg has never appealed to me, but then again no Nationals leader has for decades now. His campaign was also interrupted by family tragedy (his father-in-law's suicide.) I doubt that the vote would have been any different had this not happened, though.

Bruce Flegg for the Liberals clearly needed an intensive week long course on media management, and a new haircut. He came across as a goofy looking, charmless, grumpy character, with nothing very specific to say about how to fix the Health portfolio. I had heard him sometimes before he was elected leader, and I thought he came across OK. I just don't know how he let it fall apart so quickly once the election was called.

Both should be replaced, and quickly.

There has been a lack of charisma on display in the State conservative parties for so long that it seems to have become self perpetuating. I mean, what new blood wants to get involved with such a bunch of losers?

Apart from that, they seemed to have no money for advertisements, and to be pretty much policy free. (The only thing I can remember is a vague aim to have no stamp duty within 5 years. This certainly did not sound financially very sound, and even if it was done and did result in a flood of investment and people to Queensland, voters probably wondered where the water to build the new suburbs would come from.)

Ah well, I suppose the one good thing is that uniform Labor State governments helps the Liberals keep power in Canberra.

Pamela Bone on 9/11

Pamela Bone: The folly of blaming ourselves | News | The Australian

There will be many good columns on the anniversary of 9/11. Pamela Bone's one in The Australian today is fairly short but good.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Terry Lane and I agree on Australian cinema?

Sunny Steve cut through the dismals - Opinion -

Most of time, I read Terry Lane because there is an excellent chance that he will say something I strongly disagree with, and the flaws in his arguments are sometimes easily picked. (Especially when he writes an entire column based on a made up story.)

This week his Age column is a kind of defence of Steve Irwin, but is most notable because of his take on the state of Australian cinema:

All this is by way of putting it on record that the Lanes will not be parting with any more of their hard-earned to watch dismal Australian films. We endured the grim masterpiece Somersault. We were depressed by Look Both Ways and were shocked by the parched, unrelieved violence of The Proposition. We left half-way through the incredibly ugly Jindabyne. We didn't find a lot to laugh at in Kenny with its relentless portrayal of human nature. And we had to tie ourselves to the seat to see Last Train to Freo to the end.

We passed on the several celluloid entertainments to do with drug addiction and teenage suicide. It is all enough to make you leave the cinema desperate for the sunny optimism of Steve Irwin.

Barry Jones once observed that the characters in Australian films are typically regressive - they never make things happen, things happen to them. When was the last time that you saw a local film in which the principal characters seized control of their lives and made some good things happen and finished the film ahead of where they started? Is this how our creative elites who control the disbursement of production money see us? Is a happy ending anathema to the funding wallahs?

Gosh, even lefty atheists can dislike Australian film on the same grounds as I do. This is indeed surprising, because, I have tended to blame lefty atheists as they seem to be the only people making Australian cinema.

It has long seemed to me that modern Australia movies (since its 1970's revival) have always reflected the strong secular materialist view of the world of the arts community in this country, with any religious aspect of life either treated with disdain (such as showing clerics as being hypocrites) or, more commonly, being ignored entirely.

Of course, Phillip Adams takes great pride in his role in establishing the modern Australian cinema, and indeed it seems like everyone in the cinema community shares his (and Lane's) strident atheism, or at least a high degree of cynicism towards religion.

For me, this has always meant that an air of shallowness pervades the whole body of Australian cinema. The only supernaturalism that occasionally gets a look in might be of the aboriginal variety. For me (and, I expect, most Australians), this does not have much resonance.

It's not that many Hollywood movies have ever been overtly religious in theme. However, they are still capable of having characters who take religion seriously, and are not held up for ridicule or written as dislikeable because of it. Ghost stories or supernatural comedies can be made there; never here. What's worse, gruesome nihilistic earth-bound horror is the new genre some young Australian fim makers are getting into.

Hollywood today is not exactly a hot bed for conservative religion, but there is a sense in which I think that Hollywood cinema still treats the "big themes" of life, death and meaning in much greater depth. (Even an agnostic like Woody Allen dealt with it well in a small scale film like "Crimes and Misdemeanors") I expect that this is probably to do with the predominantly Jewish background of the American industry, even if most are now either non religious Jews, or follow the most liberal parts of Judaism.

Of course, as a nation the United States is so much more religious than Australia, so one might argue that naturally there will be writers and movie makers there who are interested in such material. None the less, it still surprises me how consistently Australian films have had this dogged lack of interest in whether there is something beyond the materialist world.

I don't have time to set out the many examples from Australian cinema that could illustrate this, but I assume that someone else has noticed this too.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Slate's Weisberg gives Bush credit

We haven't been attacked since 9/11. Does Bush deserve the credit? By Jacob Weisberg - Slate Magazine

Surprisingly, for a Slate article, the answer pretty much is "yes". As you might expect, I don't agree with everything in it, but the basic arguments seem sound.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Atheists in America

Being an Atheist in America Isn't Easy - Newsweek Society -

This is a good read from Newsweek: a story about the new aggressive atheism promoted by new books by Dawkins and Sam Harris.

Some interesting extracts:

In a recent NEWSWEEK Poll, Americans said they believed in God by a margin of 92 to 6% —only 2 percent answered "don't know" —and only 37 percent said they'd be willing to vote for an atheist for president. (That's down from 49 percent in a 1999 Gallup poll —which also found that more Americans would vote for a homosexual than an atheist.)

Now that really puts things in perspective!

And further down:

It is not just extremists who earn the wrath of Dawkins and Harris. Their books are attacks on religious "moderates" as well, —indeed, the very idea of moderation. The West is not at war with "terrorism," Harris asserts in "The End of Faith"; it is at war with Islam, a religion whose holy book, "on almost every page ... prepares the ground for religious conflict." Christian fundamentalists, he says, have a better handle on the problem than moderates: "They know what it's like to really believe that their holy book is the word of God, and there's a paradise you can get to if you die in the right circumstances. They're not left wondering what is the 'real' cause of terrorism."

Sort of a backhand compliment to fundamentalist Christians, I suppose.

How about this for a silly suggestion:

On the science Web site, the astronomer Carolyn Porco offers the subversive suggestion that science itself should attempt to supplant God in Western culture, by providing the benefits and comforts people find in religion: community, ceremony and a sense of awe. "Imagine congregations raising their voices in tribute to gravity, the force that binds us all to the Earth, and the Earth to the Sun, and the Sun to the Milky Way," she writes.

Now that would be taking Nature worship to a level of meaninglessness I had never considered possible. (Surely the most ancient belief systems we know anything about at least had the good sense to praise or worship things believed to be sentient (such as the god or animating spirit behind all or part of Nature.) But praising a rock for being a rock doesn't seem a very "scientific" thing to do.

Maybe I will add more to this topic later..

Brian De Palma makes a good film again?

Independent Online Edition > Features

I have remarked before that Brian de Palma has had one of the most wildly uneven careers of any famous director. For the record, I think very highly of Blow Out, The Untouchables (which he is never likely to better) and Mission Impossible (silly, but so much fun.)

The Untouchables in particular was a stunningly good film, and even though I do not have a high tolerance for graphic violence, this was one of those few genuine cases where seeing it was "necessary for the story."

On the other hand, some of the scripts he has worked with have been very bad. I saw Snake Eyes in the cinema and had trouble staying awake. Mission to Mars had a bit of a hokey script, and spent quite a bit on special effects, except when it came to the alien at the end. (Although the title for "most unconvincing recent movie alien" was soon taken over by the man in a rubber suit in "Signs". I would actually like to write at length one day about how bad I thought "Signs" was.)

Anyway, let's hope this new movie is one of his better ones.

A useful brain scan for a change

Brain scan shows that vegetative patients can think - Britain - Times Online

I have recently criticised the type of research that MRI scans have used for (finding a "God spot" in the brain, for example.)

The story above shows a much more meaningful use - finding out whether a person in a vegatitive state has awareness or not.

Mind you, it may make withdrawal of life support decisions more difficult rather than less, but it's still worth looking into.

Clive leaps into the fray

Death becomes an excuse to savage 'elites' - now that's nasty - Opinion

The ruckus over Steve Irwin's status within the Australian psyche gets kicked along further by Clive Hamilton today.

Let's make it clear: my personal cringe factor about Irwin was pretty high, and I initially assumed (like just about everyone) that his on-screen persona was an act. However, over the years, there were so many people who had worked with him who said that he was really like that in private, that I found there was no reason to disbelieve them.

That he went on about conservation for crocodiles, when in fact they seem to have been conserved to excess in far north Australia for many years now, always struck me as a bit phoney. But the fact that he had a genuine affection for animals and a general concern for conservation of wild life habitat seems beyond doubt. His zoo is well run and seems to have a high level of comfort for the animals. (And unlike older style zoos, pushes the importance of conservation continually.) On the other hand, his attempted justification at taking his baby into a crocodile enclosure was hard to watch, and definitely the low point of his public life.

You get the picture: I don't idealise him by any stretch of the imagination. But the nature of the criticism by Greer, and Clive Hamilton, really is just over the top.

Clive, for example, thinks that Australians feel bad about his death because we feel guilty for encouraging him!:

But, if we are honest, the vitriolic attacks on Irwin's real and imagined critics are rooted in guilt. Whenever Irwin provoked a croc to open its jaws and lunge we were all excited by the prospect that the beast would get him, just as we watch car races anticipating a crash. The filmmakers understand that it is the frisson of danger that makes these shows popular. The close call is the money shot and any real injury would be replayed over and over.

Now Irwin has met the grisly end that excited us, we feel responsible.

In this turmoil of guilt and grief, what a relief it was to find a real target for bitterness in the form of Germaine Greer, whose only mistake was poor timing.

God Lord, how does anyone take Hamilton seriously.

Just maybe, Clive, people feel bad about attacks on him because absolutely everyone who had ever actually known him praised him as a nice guy, with a great enthusiasm for life, good intentions, and he leaves a young family behind.

On the other hand, Germaine (with, for example, her "I seek aboriginal consent whenever I want to return to Australia") presents as the genuine article when it comes to posturing dills.

UPDATE: Matt Price writes well about Irwin today. The Australian also talks about Irwin's land purchases here.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Australian art house puzzle

At the Movies: The Book of Revelation

That Margaret Pomeranz and David Stratton automatically increase any Australian movie's star rating by 1 is a given.

A further warning sign that a movie they review is not for me is when they start calling an art house style movie "challenging" or "brave". David Stratton's comments on the new film "The Book of Revelation" (which I was in no danger of rushing out to see anyway) are like a big warning sign saying "if you not an artiste, you will hate this":

DAVID: When I came out of this film I thought I've never seen a film like this before, a film that tackled these themes, a film that was so provocative, tantalising. And I was left in many ways puzzling, and I'm still in some ways puzzling, over what we were supposed to come away with from the film.

Margaret said:

I would have wished for just a little more grounding in reality in the look of the film, the power of the story comes from our ability to believe totally in Daniel’s journey, not as a dream, although that may be your ultimate interpretation.

What's it about?:

Daniel (Long) is a dancer who is kidnapped by three masked women. They chain him to a warehouse floor and sexually abuse him for roughly two weeks. This is graphically shown in the film and hence it’s R rating here in Australia.

The three women eventually release Daniel but the experience leaves him a changed man.

There would no odds given for my reaction being the same as this viewer's:

Generally, I thought this was convulated drivel.

Run away, people, run away!

Iron fertilization and global warming

ScienceDaily: Iron Critical To Ocean Productivity, Carbon Uptake

The story above notes:

A new study has found that large segments of the Pacific Ocean lack sufficient iron to trigger healthy phytoplankton growth and the absence of the mineral stresses these microscopic ocean plants, triggering them to produce additional pigments that make ocean productivity appear more robust than it really is.

As a result, past interpretations of satellite chlorophyll data may be inaccurate, the researchers say, and the tropical Pacific Ocean may photosynthesize 1-2 billion tons less atmospheric carbon dioxide than was previously thought. Global ocean carbon uptake is estimated at 50 billion tons, so the reduction in the estimate of the uptake is significant -- about 2 to 4 percent.

It doesn't talk directly about the idea of fertilizing the ocean with iron as a way of decreasing CO2 in the atmosphere, but surely this possible anti global warming method should start attracting more serious attention again soon.

I thought I mentioned this idea before here, but can't find the post now. Anyway, I have found a detailed Wikipedia entry about it which (while apparently written from the "pro" side) does explain some of the possible "cons" too.

Certainly sounds worth serious consideration (more so than shooting sulfur into the high atmosphere.)

UPDATE: Blogger search is obviously not working well at the moment, for some reason. Here's my earlier post where iron fertilization got a mention.

Drinking and flying

The Age Blogs: The Daily Truth / Terror on flight 555 Archives

If you enjoy stories about urgent needs to go to the toilet (and who doesn't?) then you should find this quite funny.

Yet another Google innovation

BBC NEWS | Business | Google opens up 200 years of news

Hey, their corporate behaviour may be problematic when it comes to dealing with China (and other regimes?), but for the most part it is quite a remarkable job they are doing for the world.

Conservatism and Islam, again

It's a culture guaranteed to cause a clash - Opinion -

Miranda Devine makes pretty much the same point as someone in The Guardian recently. (I posted about it here.)

That is, Muslim reluctance to "blend in" to Australian society may be partly put down to Australian values (in terms of sexual behaviour, especially amongst the young) taking somewhat of a dive in recent years.

Given my revulsion of all things "Big Brother" (and the puzzling idea of "raunch culture" as being some semi-legitimate form of feminism,) I have some sympathy to the argument.

As I said in the previous post, one would think that the political consequence could be that conservative parties get the Muslim vote. But the conservatives don't seem to play the politics of it the right way. (Or they simply figure the Muslim vote is not worth worrying about given the population size here.)

All very interesting.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Empire staggers on

The Japan Times Online - Princess Kiko gives birth to a boy

So, finally there is a male grandchild for the Emperor in the Japanese royal family, so the pressure is off Crown Princess Masako to have to have another child. (Her story of stress caused by marrying into a suffocating royal lifestyle is a bit like that of Princess Diana; apart from Masako being academically very smart, successful at a challenging career before marriage, and having a husband who supports her still. OK, almost no resemblance at all really.)

A brief history of the problems caused by having only male heirs to the emperor is set out in this article. Some extracts:

Emperor Meiji (1852-1912) had no male heir with his wife but had 15 children, including five males, with five concubines. Of the five, four died before reaching adulthood, and the one who survived became emperor.

Here's a photo of Meiji. Doesn't look too happy; maybe choosing which concubine to sleep over with gets you down. (Or maybe it's just that it wasn't fashionable in that century to smile for photos.)

Back to the article:

But Emperor Hirohito (1901-1989), known posthumously as Emperor Showa, refused to have a concubine, which led to the postwar abolition of the system. According to Otabe, Emperor Showa wanted to have a close family atmosphere such as might be found in a Western royal family.

And how's this for a let down in your status:

Soon after Japan's 1945 defeat in World War II, 11 families on the collateral line, which served as a safety net to produce male heirs for the Imperial family, lost their Imperial status and became ordinary citizens.

I wonder what happened to those families. Down to the unemployment office?

Cosmology time

ScienceDaily: Big Bang's Afterglow Fails Intergalactic 'Shadow' Test

Interesting story with unclear implications. Do other scientists think it is a measurement problem? If not, what could explain it?

Australian academics need not apply

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Iran's liberal lecturers targeted

From the above:

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for liberal and secular university lecturers to be removed.

He told a group of students that they should organise campaigns to demand that the liberal teachers be sacked.

Mr Ahmadinejad said it was difficult to alter secular influences that had been in place in Iran for 150 years, but added that such a change had begun.

The move echoes campaigns of the 1980s, when hundreds of liberal university teachers and students were sacked....

Last year, an ayatollah was appointed to run Tehran University, sparking protests by students.

Scaring the scientists

Scientists angered by telephone telepathy study - Britain - Times Online

A fascinating story from the Times about scientists being upset that pro telepathy research was presented at a science forum without adequate scepticism tagging along.

I like this bit in particular:

Sir Walter, a geneticist and cancer researcher, said: "I’m amazed that the BA has allowed it to happen in this way. You have got to be careful not to suppress ideas, even if they are beyond the pale, but it’s quite inappropriate to have a session like that without putting forward a more convincing view."

The "more convincing view" is presumably that telepathy is obviously impossible.

Read the article for details of the research. It's interesting.

More scepticism on emissions trading

Emissions trading is not the answer - Opinion -

Four Corners last week was all about this too, and there are many small "eco" companies in Australia making money out of trading schemes that critics say are of dubious efficiency.

As with wind power, I suspect that the true effect of such schemes is to give false confidence that something effective is being done.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

One question

BBC NEWS | Health | Autism risk linked to older dads

This article indicates that the rate of autism in children rises quite sharply when the father is over 40.

This seems an easily identified trend. Why is it only coming to attention now?

Some detail on the prisoners

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Who are the Mid-East prisoners?

I've been waiting some time for the details in this article. Surprisingly, there really are only a handful of Lebanese prisoners involved.

On conservation and conservatism

Niall Ferguson: Conservative Doesn't Mean Anti-Conservationist - Los Angeles Times

This column makes some valid points:

The idea that there is something fundamentally unconservative about protecting the environment is, of course, a canard. At the very core of British conservatism since the time of Benjamin Disraeli has been a romantic reverence for the land and a desire to mitigate the damage done by industrialization. It was Marx and Engels who sneered at "the idiocy of rural life." It was Lenin and Stalin whose mania for smoke-belching steelworks turned huge tracts of Russia into toxic wastelands.

It's worth reading it all.