Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Two articles on Iraq

Christopher Hitchens still isn't showing any signs of jumping ship on the whole Iraq issue. From his latest Slate article:

I am glad that all previous demands for withdrawal or disengagement from Iraq were unheeded, because otherwise we would not be able to celebrate the arrest and trial of Saddam Hussein; the removal from the planet of his two sadistic kids and putative successors; the certified disarmament of a former WMD- and gangster-sponsoring rogue state; the recuperation of the marshes and their ecology and society; the introduction of a convertible currency; the autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan (currently advertising for investors and tourists on American television); the killing of al-Qaida's most dangerous and wicked leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and many of his associates; the opening of dozens of newspapers and radio and TV stations; the holding of elections for an assembly and to approve a constitution; and the introduction of the idea of federal democracy as the only solution for Iraq short of outright partition and/or civil war. If this cause is now to be considered defeated, by the sheer staggering persistence in murder and sabotage of the clerico-fascist forces and the sectarian militias, then it will always count as a noble one.

Meanwhile, Juan Cole, who Hitchens has ripped into before, writes what seems to be an unobjectional piece in Salon, explaining why the partitioning of Iraq is not really an option:

But aside from the selfish interests of all the political actors inside and outside Iraq, as a practical policy, partitioning Iraq is too risky. It would probably not reduce ethnic infighting. It might produce more. The mini-states that emerge from a partition will have plenty of reason to fight wars with one another, as India did with Pakistan in the 1940s and has done virtually ever since. Worse, it is likely that if the Sunni Arab mini-state commits an atrocity against the Shiites, it might well bring in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They in turn would be targeted by Saudi and Jordanian jihadi volunteers.

A break-up of Iraq might not stop at Iraq’s borders. The Sunni Arabs could be picked up by Syria, thus greatly increasing Syria’s fighting power. Or they could become a revolutionary force in Jordan. A wholesale renegotiation of national borders may ensue, according to some thinkers. Such profound changes in such a volatile part of the world cannot be depended on to occur without bloodshed.

Both articles are worth reading in full.

The crime fighting internet and further thoughts. (An adult post.)

This story in Slate is fascinating.

Turns out that one serious study on crime statistics indicates that internet access reduces the number of rapes (although mainly for teenage perpetrators).

So, all that lack of "mastery of domain" that the internet encourages in teenagers has at least one upside.

One downside, I am sure I have read somewhere in the past, is that widespread familiarity with the explicit porn around today had led many people - mainly men I guess - into having unrealistic expectations of what a sexual partner should be happy to try. This can have serious effects on what otherwise might have been a good relationship.

In fact, the whole issue of community attitudes to what is "acceptable" in terms of everyday sexual practices is pretty interesting, in that it seems to me underappreciated (especially by younger people, who have grown up in the current decadent period) how quickly it changes over time. This is not a subject I have spent much time researching, but as an example, I remember an SBS documentary in which an old gay American guy said that, prior to about the 1970's, gay culture was not at all fixated on anal sex as its predominant sexual practice. As I recall, he claimed that in the 1940's and 50's, gay men who wanted that were seen by most other gay men as being somewhat extreme. This, however, has now changed completely in the gay community. On the heterosexual side, I suspect that the equivalent change in the 20th century is in the attitude to oral sex. (Slate has previously run a story on the apparent very recent increase in oral sex amongst American teens in particular. Experience of heterosexual anal sex has had a big increase too, although I would be curious to know how often this is a matter of regular practice, rather than one off experiment.)

Of course, much of what I am relying on for my impressions is anecdotal evidence, but establishing in retrospect what were previous community attitudes has obvious problems. The type of studies that Kinsey did on this - which do indicate a wide variety of sexual practices earlier in the 20th century - are now considered very methodologically suspect.

Everyone knows, of course, that all sorts of sexual practices were illustrated by older cultures, as shown on Greek, Chinese and Hindu art. The fact that they were illustrated, however, tells us little about the average person's attitude towards those practices. It seems still very arguable as to what exactly was the average Greek man's attitude to homosexuality, for example.

Nor is it clear that relying on famous writer's views is necessarily a good guide to past communities' attitudes. Everyone knows at least a little about the great moral panic about masturbation in the West that ran for a couple of centuries or so, yet how likely were the mountains of pamphlets and books warning of its great dangers to influence the common man's view of it? Surely most father's experience of it as a youngster would have lent some sympathetic understanding of their own offspring's practice? Even Kant, who I generally admire, went completely overboard on this topic, writing:

The obstinate throwing away of one’s life as a burden is at least not a weak surrender to animal pleasure, but requires courage; and where there is courage, there is always respect for the humanity in one’s own person. On the other hand, when one abandons himself entirely to an animal inclination, he makes himself an object of unnatural gratification, i.e., a loathsome thing, and thus deprives himself of all self-respect.

So, there is at least something to admire in suicide, but masturbation is completely depraved?

This post is going no where, I guess, except to make the point that I feel it is important to recognize that attitudes to sexual practices are subject to cultural fashion and highly debatable intellectual analysis. I am not arguing that current Western laissez-faire attitudes are inherently an improvement over past attitudes, even though I have made my view of the moral panic over masturbation clear. Rather, I am suggesting that the current predominant Western attitudes deserve analysis and justification if they are to be any more than just another cultural fashion. My tendency, of course, is to support more conservative analysis, and in that respect I would hope Roger Scruton's approach is worthwhile, but I haven't read much by him about this yet.

I haven't even directly touched the whole current attitude to sexual identity either, which I think should be subjected to the same critical approach, but that is a post for another day.

Monday, October 30, 2006

Back soon

I've been away for the weekend, and work is going to slow down blogging for a day or two. Stay with me, vast international readership, for I shall return. (With cheese shop recommendations too!)

Friday, October 27, 2006

The value of flu shots

My elderly but very active mother has always been sceptical of the benefit of flu vaccination, and every winter takes pleasure in pointing out which of her family and acquaintances have succumbed to the "flu" despite having had the shot that year. (I continually point out that there is a difference between a heavy cold and the flu, but never get far with this argument.)

However, it seems that some doctors also question the value of the flu vaccination programs, and even the evidence for their value in the elderly is a bit all over the place:

Only among people who suffer bronchitis could he find good evidence that flu vaccination was worthwhile. In infants up to two, vaccination was no better than placebo and in older children there was little evidence of benefit.

Nor could he find enough evidence of benefit among people with chronic chest problems, asthma and cystic fibrosis.

In healthy adults the best evidence was that, on average, flu vaccination of a population would prevent 0.1 per cent of a working day lost.

Combined studies of the elderly showed a variation from no effect to a 60 per cent difference when "all cause mortality" was measured.

"These findings are both counter-intuitive and implausible as other causes of death are far more prevalent in older people," he writes.

Score one for my mother?

Disturbing things to do with dogs

"Shanghai Dogs implanted with chips" is the heading of a Science Daily story of no particular interest, except it made me think "well, better than being served with chips."

Such thoughts are encouraged by the fact that I currently work with 2 people who recently told me that they have both eaten dog and highly recommend it, taste wise. (In fact, one of them says he knows how to get it in Brisbane.) I have pointed out that if ever he is caught in a raid of a dog banquet at a Brisbane restuarant, it would get a spectacular amount of publicity which would hardly be good for his career.

I have also vowed never to let him order in a restaurant where I can't understand what is going on.

It is sort of interesting to note the difference in cultural attitudes to eating dog, and how it is hard to overcome the repulsion which you know a fair slab of the rest of the world just doesn't get.

Adams and Masters talk about sex, presumably

Phillip Adams had Chris Masters on his radio show last night but I missed it. It will be repeated today at 4pm, but I will probably miss that too. The show is available on line, but no transcript.. This should be interesting, given Adams' previous column about Jones which I criticised here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Pelican Lector

Breaking news: a pelican goes mad in London and (wait for it) - eats a pigeon! The gruesome details in The Times, complete with slightly suspicious looking photo.

Snide Masters

The piece in the Australian this morning by Tim Barton, a person who gets a mention in Chris Masters' work of pseudo-freudian journalism on Alan Jones, is worth reading. This section sums up the case against Masters perfectly:

Masters justifies his exploration of Jones's sexuality on the basis that he couldn't ignore the elephant in the room, that "the masking" of Jones's "apparent homosexuality is a defining feature of the Jones persona" and that Jones's "concealment of his sexuality" preserves "a dishonest power base".

I suppose any proponent of this apparently Freudian approach to journalism could argue that a person's sexuality is a defining feature of persona. Perhaps Masters's own sexuality or sex life, whatever that may be, along with his relationship with his mother and his feelings towards his father, are relevant to his persona, including his public role as a journalist.

But even if drawing such a long bow made sense, does that legitimise the dumping of conventions of privacy and fairness? I don't think so. On Masters's analysis, any person with a power base who chooses not to talk about their sex life is somehow dishonest and therefore fair game. Forget that no wrongdoing is involved and forget that the allegations are speculative.

What's also amusing is how Masters snidely draws Tim Barton into the picture he wants to paint of Jones.

Even I am caught in the crossfire of Masters's calculated and facile innuendo. Jonestown's first reference to me describes a "slim, artistic youth". Good gracious, I wondered, was my persona about to be deconstructed or did Masters simply think the shirt I wore on the only occasion we have met was particularly snazzy? Who knows what constitutes his definition of artistic? But, arguably, Masters's curious adjectives are sufficiently charged to send certain readers' minds in particular directions.

Thanks, Chris. Not.

More seriously, Barton then cites a clear factual matter where Masters is wrong in the book, and despite Barton having clearly told him the correct version.

I wonder if Masters if feeling the pressure about all this, or is he just laughing all the way to the bank? His credibility is suffering.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The "one planet" lifestyle

The Guardian also notes this from the World Wildlife Fund:

The world's ecosystems are being degraded at an unprecedented rate, and by 2050 humans will need at least two planets' worth of natural resources to live as they do now, the conservation group WWF warned today.

If everyone lived as Britons did, three planets would be needed to sustain the world's population, the group said....

"A commitment to one-planet living must include a commitment by the UK government to adopt ecological footprint as a sustainable development indicator and set targets for year-on-year reduction.

"Otherwise, one-planet living is at risk of becoming just another overused soundbite with no teeth."

Hey, who said we could never use other planets' resources? Start with putting an big sail on an asteroid and bring it to near earth permanent orbit. Go to the moon and see how humans like it there. (Would at least be a great sports venue.) Try terraforming Venus, no one else is using it. (Probably won't work for a million years, but will be fun watching what happens.)

Not enough imagination at the WWF.

New male contraceptive

The Guardian reports on early research linking excessive mobile phone use to lower sperm counts and quality in men. Someone should now do an international comparison between mobile phone use and infertility in different countries. Would be interesting, even if completely inconclusive.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

The balanced ABC

Phillip Adams does the predictable and hyperventilates today about a renewed attempt to make the ABC more politically balanced:

Focusing on perhaps 5 per cent of its output, critics will conduct frenzied attacks on the organisation and a handful of individuals within it, demanding balance and accountability.

I am curious as to where he gets the 5% figure from.

I've said before that local ABC radio (at least the Brisbane version of it) displays little in the way of political bias. In other States it is different: Sydney has Richard Glover, used to have John Doyle (I think), and Melbourne still has Jon Faine: all broadcasters with clear Labor leaning sympathies. But Radio National, Phillip's own treasured turf, displays balance by this line up of presenters:

Phillip Adams: I understand he made his riches via the most readily criticise-able aspect of modern capitalism (advertising). Now devotes much of his 4 hours of radio each week to left-ish commentators who are critical of capitalism. Also gets to recycle his views in the feverishly unbalanced News Limited media. Like much of Radio National, also has an international audience via Radio Australia and the WWW. (Some voice in the wilderness, hey). Often tells us lately how successful his podcasting is going. Doesn't write books about how stupid belief in God is, just brings it up directly or indirectly in his newspaper columns about once a month. (Hey, it's a guess, but maybe as accurate as his 5% figure.)

Terry Lane: seems to have had an hour a week forever to spout his Phillip Adams-esque views on life. Also a strident atheist who writes books about how silly belief in God is. Also is straining to be heard because of a weekly newspaper column in The Age.

Robyn Williams: 20 year fixture as host of The Science Show. Athiest. Writes books showing why religion is stupid.

Stephen Crittenden: runs the Religion Report, and seems to have spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue of gays in the church. Googling him tonight seems to have confirmed that he is openly gay. (Not that there is anything wrong with that, at least if you are a political conservative.)

Geraldine Doogue: been a floating fixture around the ABC on TV and radio forever and a day. A Catholic, but, I suspect, one with very liberal leanings. Can't find much to confirm that yet, but I am sure the evidence is out there!

Paul Collins: frequent commentator on religion. Ex Catholic priest who now worries a lot about ecology.

Fran Kelly: adequate enough host of morning show, but not as good at keeping bias in check as previous host Peter Thompson.

Radio National identities in whom I have not really identified anything clearly indicating a left wing bias: Norman Swan and Alan Saunders.

Radio National presenters with clear conservative-ish reputation: Michael Duffy. (Maybe he is just more of a general contrarian.) Has one hour a week. The show has been on for about a year.

Get the picture here?

A Lefty can still be a good broadcaster; and clearly it doesn't stop me listening to their shows. But there is nothing evenly vaguely resembling a fair range of political and social opinion in the staff of taxpayer funded Radio National, and further moves to balance this up can only be good.

Oh no

ABC broadcaster Maxine McKew won't be with the ABC much longer. I've always liked her as an interviewer and current affairs host. Despite the fact that she's been living with (now married to, apparently) senior Labor figure Bob Hogg, she has always seemed to me to be a more balanced interviewer than Kerry O'Brien or Tony Jones.

I am surprised that she is 53. She wears it well. Here's a photo of her from 2003:

The SMH profile of her from which that photo is taken was very interesting. In fact, I was only telling someone last week how this snippet from that story had stuck in my mind:

During the hungry years of her early career, McKew's private life was not good "There were a lot of Heathcliffs. A lot of 'bad, mad and dangerous to know'.' Hogg was a revelation. He was "a lovely grown-up".

"I had never met a man who had milk in the fridge that hadn't passed the use-by date, or a clean bathroom or fresh flowers on the mantelpiece. It was the way he looked after himself. It was grown-up."

I remembered this because I found it hard to imagine her going out with "bad men". (It also makes Bob Hogg sound like a big girl, which is kind of funny too.)

I hope I remember to watch her last Lateline, whenever that may be.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Appleyard blogs

I discovered over the weekend that Bryan Appleyard has a blog.

He is a bit of an odd character, and can come across as fairly pompous, but his 1992 book "Understanding the Present" impressed me, even though it suffered by a sudden infusion of Wittgenstein at the end.

Anyway, his views seem never to be entirely predictable, which makes him an interesting read.

The problem with stem cells

Nature has a story that explains the problems with attempted stem cell treatment of Parkinson's Disease, which always seems to be the disease most mentioned as being potentially curable by such treatment.

The problem is cancer caused as a side effect.

I also saw most of an SBS Insight program about therapeutic cloning and stem cell research a few weeks ago. It was interesting to see at least some medical experts expressing scepticism of stem cell treatment:

JENNY BROCKIE: Jack Martin, you're former director of St Vincent's Institute of Medical Research. Do you share this optimism about stem cell research?

JACK MARTIN, FMR. PROF. OF MEDICINE, MELBOURNE UNIVERSITY: No, I have to say I don't. And I would take issue with quite a number of things that Elizabeth Finkel has just said. She's implied that there has been proof of concept of efficacy of embryonic stem cell therapy in a number of diseases and mentioned Parkinson's disease, spinal cord injury and diabetes, and that is absolutely untrue. There are temporary and partial improvements in chemically induced Parkinson's disease in rodents and in a couple of monkey studies, and in no case has this been prolonged and in no case has it been a long enough.. It's either been associated with a serious complication of cancer teratoma formation or it's not been carried out for long enough to determine whether that's been avoided or not.

Of course, there were others present who were much more optimistic than this.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Not a happy picture

This lengthy essay on the recent history of the Middle East in the Economist is pretty good reading. The article argues that all of the "threats to global order" that have come from there in the last 60 years have one thing in common:

They have all been, in essence, resistance movements, inspired by a seemingly unquenchable popular urge to challenge the dominant perceived injustice of the day, whether it be European colonialism, Zionism, American hegemonism or the grip of local governments charged with selling out to the West.

The most reliable populist cry today remains “resistance”. Sudan's strongman, Omar al-Bashir, blasts the proposed deployment of UN troops in Darfur as the spearhead of a new Western crusade. The Shias and Sunnis in Iraq may be fighting each other for dominance, but the call to “resist” the American occupiers and the weak (though elected) government they sponsor wins passionate followers to both camps. Hizbullah rouses region-wide cheers for bloodying Israel's nose. Clearly, although times have changed, this dynamic has not.

What has changed is that the call to resist now inspires unprecedented enthusiasm, galvanising many disparate political streams at once, secular and nationalist as well as Islamist. The religious element, boosted by the great revival that has swept Muslim societies across the globe, adds a scriptural drumbeat to the call. And lately the impulse to resist has also been strengthened by the failing prestige of traditional countervailing forces—America, the moderate governments in the region and the liberal-minded minority of their citizens.

Generally, my feeling is that the essay is too fast to point the finger at the USA and Israel, at the expense of any substantial mention of the social and political dynamic within the countries that has resulted in a group of nations with vast material resources having such unhappy citizens. Still, worth reading.


Serial sleeping driver George Michael sings the praises of marijuana. Problem solved for the advertising executives trying to come up with the next anti-drugs campaign.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

In space, no one can hear you scream...(except for fellow astronauts)

An interesting article in New Scientist about "etiquette" recommendations to future space tourists. Much of it is obvious (be tidy to help prevent tensions with the other astronauts), but this risk of motion sickness drugs I had not heard before:

Space sickness will likely be a big issue for novice space flyers – even highly trained test pilots still get queasy in the new environment of microgravity. Buckey says medication will probably be part of the solution.

When NASA scientists started giving anti-motion sickness drugs to students who flew experiments on the C-9 aircraft that simulates weightlessness, they noticed a much lower rate of motion sickness than in students who had not taken the drug.

But the drug they inject to quell space sickness, promethazine – sold under the brand name Phenergan, has its own set of problems. In space, Phenergan has been linked to urinary retention. Four crew members have had to have catheters inserted into their bladders during spaceflights.

On the odd medical front

Slate's Human Nature column has two surprising stories in it at the moment:

1. A medical journal article cited refers to the complications of tongue piercing as having included brain abscess, heart infection, tetanus, dental damage. OK, so I knew about the dental damage before, but brain abscess and heart infection!

2. There are some cases of pre-schoolers hitting puberty. As Slate summarises it:

Suspected factors: 1) Adult use of Andro, testosterone skin creams, and "prohormone" sprays that are passed to kids by contact; 2) estrogen in cosmetics; 3) shampoos with estrogen or placental extract; 4) industrial byproducts in food made from contaminated animals. Internet sales pitch: Buy our cream, and we'll guarantee your erections. Fine print: And we'll throw in a few more for your first-grader.

Hey, I wonder if Zoe Brain has ruled out a change in shampoo as being the cause for her transformation. :)

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pressure in the biosphere

Wired has a short interview with Jane Poynter, who was one of the 7 people who locked themselves up in Biosphere 2 in the 1990's.

Apparently they stayed there for nearly 2 years, which is longer than I recall. I don't remember this aspect of the experiment getting much publicity:

Throughout their stay, short tempers, depression and even the specter of insanity kept life interesting for the "biospherians." In her new book, The Human Experiment: Two Years and Twenty Minutes Inside Biosphere 2, Poynter gives an insider's view of the famous experiment.

It might be a fun read, just to hear about the psychological effects.

Daniel Pipes on modern war

Daniel Pipes' column here is quite interesting about how the world has changed. An extract:

....the solidarity and consensus of old have unraveled. This process has been underway for just over a century now (starting with the British side of the Boer War in 1899-1902). As I wrote in 2005: "The notion of loyalty has fundamentally changed. Traditionally, a person was assumed faithful to his natal community. A Spaniard or Swede was loyal to his monarch, a Frenchman to his republic, an American to his constitution. That assumption is now obsolete, replaced by a loyalty to one's political community - socialism, liberalism, conservatism, or Islamism, to name some options. Geographical and social ties matter much less than of old."

Sounds about right to me.

Mysterious weapons still around?

The Guardian revives the issue of whether some new weapon is being used by Israel on Palestinians in Gaza. I posted about this some months ago, expressing considerable scepticism at the time.

This new article adds a little:

"Bodies arrived severely fragmented, melted and disfigured," said Jumaa Saqa'a, a doctor at the Shifa hospital, in Gaza City. "We found internal burning of organs, while externally there were minute pieces of shrapnel. When we opened many of the injured people we found dusting on their internal organs."

It is not clear whether the injuries come from a new weapon. The Israeli military declined to detail the weapons in its arsenal, but denied reports that the injuries came from a Dense Inert Metal Explosive (Dime), an experimental weapon.

Aljazeera.net has a version of the story too.

Both articles say that a Dime is in fact intended to have a small blast area, thereby reducing the collateral (human) damage. If it does in fact do that, it's a good thing, isn't it?

Anyway, the Guardian quotes some Israeli figures as denying that there is any new weapon at all. Some Italian journalists are sending off some material from wounds for testing. I guess we should know sooner or later if there is any hard evidence about this one way or another.

Hold the caffeine, mother to be

A surprising finding reported in Nature, that even low doses of caffeine taken by pregnant mothers seem to have a developmental effect on their kids, at least in rats:

To see how the cellular changes were affecting behaviour, the Michigan team took baby rats whose mothers had been caffeined-up and ran them through a series of behavioural tests. Nunez says that the animals showed no cognitive defects, but were more active and less inhibited than those whose mothers had not received caffeine.

The rats were more willing to explore new environments, for example. When placed in a small dark space with an opening into a larger lit area, it took control animals around 4 minutes on average to emerge. But the caffeine rats left after an average of just 25 seconds.

Other tests showed similar, if less pronounced, changes. The rats were more likely to explore exposed environments, and spent more time interacting with other animals.

"You have an animal that doesn't know when to stop," says Nunez.

Anyone thinking ADHD in human kids?

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Is it politics or theology - or both

A pretty pessimistic article from TCS Daily argues that Islamic fueled terrorism is both politically and theologically motivated, and that means there is not that much the West can do to settle down the troubles any time soon. It's a good review of the different sides of this debate, anyway.

Adams lies

Of course Phillip Adams could be expected to be all giddy over the Lancet's highly disputed estimate of fatalities in Iraq. However, what doubt can there be that he is an outright liar when it comes to repeating this line:

Three thousand Americans die on 9/11 and an incoherent Bush blames Baghdad.

This is complete and utter dishonesty.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Why Richard Dawkins is no fun

Recently, Richard Dawkins was interviewed in Salon, promoting his new anti-religion book.

There is nothing terribly surprising in it, but this section is intriguing:

[Salon]: But it seems to me the big "why" questions are, why are we here? And what is our purpose in life?

[Dawkins]: It's not a question that deserves an answer.

Well, I think most people would say those questions are central to the way we think about our lives. Those are the big existential questions, but they are also questions that go beyond science.

If you mean, what is the purpose of the existence of the universe, then I'm saying that is quite simply begging the question. If you happen to be religious, you think that's a meaningful question. But the mere fact that you can phrase it as an English sentence doesn't mean it deserves an answer. Those of us who don't believe in a god will say that is as illegitimate as the question, why are unicorns hollow? It just shouldn't be put. It's not a proper question to put. It doesn't deserve an answer.

I don't understand that. Doesn't every person wonder about that? Isn't that a core question, what are we doing in this world? Doesn't everyone struggle with that?

There are core questions like, how did the universe begin? Where do the laws of physics come from? Where does life come from? Why, after billions of years, did life originate on this planet and then start evolving? Those are all perfectly legitimate questions to which science can give answers, if not now, then we hope in the future. There may be some very, very deep questions, perhaps even where do the laws of physics come from, that science will never answer. That is perfectly possible. I am hopeful, along with some physicists, that science will one day answer that question. But even if it doesn't -- even if there are some supremely deep questions to which science can never answer -- what on earth makes you think that religion can answer those questions?

On reflection, this is probably just a statement of some version of positivist philosophy, which is nothing new. However, hearing it stated this way seems to unintentionally make it sound like, at best, a terribly dull philosophy, and at worst, a heartless and almost dehumanising one.

Actually, reading the sequence of questions makes me think that maybe Dawkins has oversimplified the question (when he says "if you mean, what is the purpose for the existence of the universe..") into such a form that he can claim it to be a nonsense question. But in doing so he seems have dismissed a personal concern for purpose in one's own life as being just as illegitimate as demanding that the universe as a whole have a purpose.

Does he really believe that? If he does, the interviewer was right to express some astonishment.

Anyway, even if he is not as dry a positivist as this interview makes him sound and he allows some legitimacy to the question of how people may find purpose in their life, his dismissal of the relevance of purpose to the universe does not sit well with modern discussion of the anthropic principle in cosmology. It is the apparent co-incidences of the physical constants of our universe that lead to such speculation. Yet Dawkin's attitude would seem to deny that this is a fair question to even ask. At the very least, thinking about ideas like the anthropic principle and the possible multiverse strikes me as intellectual fun, yet it would seem Dawkins attitude seems rather a wet blanket on the issue.

Maybe it would just annoy Dawkins too much if it turned out that the religious impulse had intuited a truth about the universe that science took a few thousand years to confirm, so he just dismisses that as a possibility out of hand.

For the record: I am actually only lukewarm on the anthropic principle and have not really followed the intelligent design argument with much care. I don't think ID in terms of biological evolution is a valid science topic in a school science curriculum, but am happy for the anthropic principle to be covered if any high school science spends much time on cosmology now.

I also know how atheists go on about not needing God to have a sense or awe and wonder from the scientific understanding and observation of the universe. No one need point out to me that Dawkins would say this. Being thrilled by nature is probably a natural impulse that is shared by everyone. The issue of how humans are valued and treated within nature is the more interesting point where materialists and the religious can start to wildly diverge.

Getting off drugs

Theodore Dalrymple has been going on about his quite contrarian views about illicit drugs for a few months now; I think I have not previously mentioned it.

This article gives a summary of his idea: that addiction to drugs (heroin in particular) has been long romanticised, and that the modern assumption that it can only be overcome with medical treatment is wrong:

When, unbeknown to them, I have observed addicts before they entered my office, they were cheerful; in my office, they doubled up in pain and claimed never to have experienced suffering like it, threatening suicide unless I gave them what they wanted. When refused, they often turned abusive, but a few laughed and confessed that it had been worth a try. Somehow, doctors—most of whom have had similar experiences— never draw the appropriate conclusion from all of this. Insofar as there is a causative relation between criminality and opiate addiction, it is more likely that a criminal tendency causes addiction than that addiction causes criminality.

Furthermore, I discovered in the prison in which I worked that 67% of heroin addicts had been imprisoned before they ever took heroin. Since only one in 20 crimes in Britain leads to a conviction, and since most first-time prisoners have been convicted 10 times before they are ever imprisoned, it is safe to assume that most heroin addicts were confirmed and habitual criminals before they ever took heroin. In other words, whatever caused them to commit crimes in all probability caused them also to take heroin: perhaps an adversarial stance to the world caused by the emotional, spiritual, cultural and intellectual vacuity of their lives.

He goes on to defend his position in this article.

It is certainly a controversial view, and an interesting one from someone who seems so conservative on this point but who is not personally religious. He was interviewed by The Brussels Journal recently, and it is well worth reading.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Moving up in life

Why should only Islam be getting all the bad publicity? It's good to see some attention being given to this aspect of Hinduism:

Like tens of thousands of other untouchables — or dalits — across India yesterday, Mr Cherlaguda ritually converted to Buddhism to escape his low-caste status....

"Untouchability" was abolished under India's constitution in 1950, but the practice remains a degrading part of everyday life in villages.

Dalits in rural areas are often bullied and assigned menial jobs such as removing human waste and dead animals.

The sometimes intense violence against them has led to a migration to the cities, where caste is easier to submerge.

At yesterday's mass conversion of dalits — almost 200,000 changed religion — they all repeated 22 oaths, including never worshipping Hindu gods and never drinking alcohol.

So, you have to give up alcohol to get out of being on the bottom of the social scale. Must be a hard choice for some.

This was from The Age, taken from The Guardian.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Rudd's first hand experience

Kevin Rudd's first hand experiences with North Korea make for very interesting reading in today's Australian. Jasper Becker's background piece is good too.

Japan's economic sanctions have been decided:

Japan's measures include a ban on all North Korean ships entering Japanese ports, a ban on North Korean imports, and barring entry by North Korean nationals other than those living in Japan.

I wonder how this is going to go over in Pyongyang.

The corkscrew into Baghdad

Air and Space Magazine seems to have a lot of its content online. From their website comes this description of the corkscrew approach aircraft landing at Baghdad still use:

Once the plane arrives at about 18,000 feet—still safely beyond the range of weapons like the SA-7 shoulder-fired missile—the pilot banks sharply and descends toward the runway in a slow, tight circle, like someone walking down a spiral staircase. During the spiral the crew keeps an eye out for other air traffic, and for anything coming at them from the ground. After several turns, the pilot pulls out of the rotation with careful timing, straightens out, and lands. The whole thing takes seven to 10 minutes, roughly the same as a regular approach, but it all takes place directly overhead, instead of beginning 20 miles from the runway....

....for passengers, particularly those making their first landing in Baghdad, the corkscrew can be intimidating. “You have no forward-looking vision,” notes Neuenschwander, “so if you’re looking out the side windows, you’re seeing either the sky or the ground. A lot of people tense up, especially if they don’t have much flying experience.” Flying into Baghdad on an Air Serv aircraft, journalist Betsy Hiel recalls “a woman across the aisle gritting her teeth so hard that she snapped one tooth off.”


Friday, October 13, 2006

A spoon full of sugar

Hmm, this is just one of those days where I find little on my scan of the WWW that seems worth blogging about.

Here's a couple of minor things barely worth mentioning:

* a review of a biography of "Mary Poppins" author PL Travers notes that she was not that nice a person (and a real pest for the Disney company, even though they made her rich):

Travers was hardly all sweetness and light. She could be imperious and dictatorial - she bullied illustrator Mary Shepard when they worked together - and was notoriously tough to interview. She would blithely lie about her age and upbringing (she liked to claim her dad owned a sugar plantation). Like her famous creation, she boasted that she "never explained" anything.

...Travers's troubled relationship with her adopted son, Camillus, is more hinted at than detailed. (She failed to adopt his twin brother and then never told him that he was adopted or had a twin. The twins found each other by chance in a pub when they were 17.)....

After long coveting the rights to "Mary Poppins," Disney finally got what he wanted. The deal made Travers a millionaire, but she was deeply conflicted about the movie. She harangued Disney and the writers with pages of notes about items she felt were untrue to the spirit of her books. At the première (which she attended, although not at Disney's invitation), the 65-year-old Travers wept.

* The Departed, Scorsese's return to gangster territory, gets rave reviews, except (oddly) from Margaret on At The Movies. She comments:

It's so violent, it's so vile in the language, you know, particularly the sexual language.

Generally, I have always felt Scorsese is over-rated. I used to think maybe I had to be older to appreciate him, in the same way I came to like some of Woody Allen as I aged. But it hasn't really happened for me. He is obviously very knowledgeable of cinema history, and seems basically a nice enough man, but I find it hard to warm to his subject matter.

* In the Baldwin family, there is no middle ground. Salon reports that Stephen Baldwin is the complete opposite of evil brother Alec, in that he is a born again Christian (of a particularly nutty variety, it would seem) with the ear of the White House. (Well, if you can believe Salon on that sort of thing.) Very odd.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Cats control the population

Long time readers know of my interest in the ongoing research into the weird effects of toxoplasma infection.

Now it turns out that it seems to affect the gender balance of offspring from infected mothers!:

The parasite, toxoplasma, infects around 15% of Britons, but up to 80% of the population in some countries. It is spread by contaminated cat faeces, but also lurks in uncooked pork and beef.

Researchers in the Czech Republic collected medical records from 1,803 newborn babies between 1996 and 2004 and checked them for information on the mothers and babies including gender, the number of previous pregnancies, and the mother's levels of toxoplasma antibodies.

They discovered that women whose antibody count was high - suggesting a substantial infection - had a much higher chance of having baby boys. In most populations the birth rate is around 51% boys, but women infected with toxoplasma had up to a 72% chance of a boy. Toxoplasma causes congenital defects in newborns and can trigger miscarriages, but a link with the gender of newborns has never been identified before.

What other surprises about this bug are out there yet to be discovered?

By the way, this fairly recent study, if I read it right, implicates strong maternal toxoplasma infection with schizophrenia in their adult children. I believe men are much more likely to get schizophrenia than women. Does the discovery that the maternal infection favours boy babies account for this higher rate in men?

Repeat after me: cats really are evil.

About the Iraqi death figures

It's interesting to compare the BBC's report on the latest survey with the report in Nature.

According to the BBC, the latest estimate of 600,000 odd dead:

...is vigorously disputed by supporters of the war in Iraq, including US President George W Bush.

True, but wording it that way gives the impression that it is only supporters of the war who are disputing. Later in the article it makes mention of "critics" and never gives any indication of who they are.

Nature, on the other hand, gives a clear indication that there are critics who are unlikely to be considered "war supporters":

"I doubt it is large as they say," says Jon Pedersen, a social scientist at Fafo, an independent research centre is Oslo, Norway. Pedersen helped run a United Nations study that concluded between 18,000 and 29,000 people died as a result of violence between the start of the war and May 2004.

He says that violence has become more frequent since his study, but doubts whether the real number can be so much bigger than media reports suggest. Iraq Body Count, a website that collates mortality figures from media sources, puts the current figure at around 45,000.

"We are told about at least 30 to 40 deaths per day just from news reports," says Pedersen. "But 500 per day is very different."

Pederson also points out that the pre-invasion death rate recorded by the Al Mustansiriya team is very low. Figures from the United Nations Children's' Fund from before the war put the number at around 13 deaths per thousand per year. If correct, this suggests almost no increase that can be attributed to the conflict.

Further down, the report notes:

Debarati Guha-Sapir, director of the Centre for Research on the Epidemiology of Disasters in Brussels, says that Burnham's team have published "inflated" numbers that "discredit" the process of estimating death counts.

Of course, Tim Lambert's unerring faith in statistics, how they are collected (and the objectivity of scientists) leads him him to support the study to the hilt. Funny how a science person can seem to lose all sense of common sense skepticism of their own field. (Can't say he ever shows a sense of humour, or any other likeable characteristics either.)

Here's one thing that strikes me as a bit fishy: the Lancet authors say that the deaths claimed by the families were backed up by death certificates in 92% percent of cases (according to Nature.) Given the poor infrastructure in Iraq since the war, what is the reliability of the information in death certificates? Frankly, I am a little surprised that there were even that many death certificates issued. Is there a financial incentive for relatives to falsely claim a death in the family?

Also, who is responsible for burying the dead in Iraq? Is there the equivalent of an undertaker's profession there? Or do Mosques have a role in this? Is this survey method really the best way they think they can up with to estimate deaths?

Just saying...

A suggestion about STD's

Bad news today on the increasing rate of new sexually transmitted diseases in Australia, including HIV.

Whenever figures like this come out, the experts say that safe sex (at least as far as HIV is concerned) has probably decreased because everyone knows that being HIV positive is more or less treatable now. This sounds very plausible, but the same doctors usually say that the treatment for HIV is not easy, and there are often significant side effects, so people have no reason to be complacent. (Especially when some drug resistance is starting to become more evident, a recent Melbourne study said.) A quick Google search brings up this site with a very long list of articles dealing with various side effects. Doesn't sound like a walk in the park in many people.

So, isn't the issue of the possible unpleasantness and uncertain success of treatment of HIV infection the thing that they ought to be advertising now to discourage people from taking the risk of contracting it in the first place? Maybe they do conduct campaigns of that sort in gay targetted media, but I have my doubts. If they don't, I wonder if it is out of concern for depressing people who are just diagnosed.

It might be the same for chlamydia, in that it is relatively easy to treat but still carries risks of infertility. It's the side effect that should be emphasised then.

A free Big Mac for Peter Singer

For once, Peter Singer says something that I don't object to:

The Princeton University professor - whose book, Animal Liberation, sparked the animal rights movement 30 years ago - told The Guardian he would choose McDonald's over a small independent takeaway because "a big chain has a national and international reputation to protect".

"I see big corporations following what consumers will buy," Professor Singer said.

"If you have sufficiently educated consumers, you can get ethical food from big corporations."

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Some suggestions about how to deal with North Korea

These are from another interesting blog I just found, In From the Cold. He suggests various ideas about how to deal with North Korea. Guess we will find out soon enough what the US and China actually will do.

Very cool space station pictures

Found via Futurismic (a blog newly added to my roll) is this site by a guy who takes photos and movies (through his telescope) of the international space station transiting the moon and sun.

I didn't know your amateur telescope could show so much detail of a thing 260 miles away. Very interesting.

Economic growth good for the environment

This short article from Seed would be good to wave around at the next Greens conference. An extract:

The root of the deforestation problem is social and economic. Rather than creating a conflict over resources, economic growth has given the Dominican Republic the opportunity to protect its wild places and to plan its development around them. The Dominican Republic has national parks, and eco-tourists enjoy a wide range of wild areas and the native plants and animals they support. This is due in large part to development—as measured in roads built, high wages, and industrial production. The existence of a stable government encouraged this sort of long-term thinking and has made the ongoing protection of forests possible.

Makes sense really.

Now there's a poison you don't hear about much

Botulism toxin in carrot juice has poisoned a couple of people in Canada.

For some reason, I remember an old episode of Quincy in which some bad chilli was sucked up in a hose left near a public water fountain. People drinking from the fountain got botulism poisoning that way.

Why I remember that episode in particular is not at all clear.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

More on defending Islam

Karen Armstrong's continuing "crusade" in defence of Islam was the subject of a long post here on 18 September.

The next day there was a much more detailed criticism of her Guardian article from someone who actually does know a lot more Islamic and Crusades history. It's a very good read, seemingly confirming most of my suspicions about the (un) reliability of Armstrong on this topic.

The writer, Robert Spencer, also has a more recent article on the criticism of Jack Straw's very mild comments against the veil. It's also well worth reading.

Your iPod understands you

Guardian Unlimited Arts | Arts special reports | Steven Levy on the secrets of the iPod shuffle

See above for an interesting article about randomness, meaning and iPods.

A backgrounder on North Korea

The New Yorker: The Critics: Books

I have posted about this lengthy review of a couple of books on North Korea before, but Blogger search seems to no longer work properly here.

Anyway, it is worth remembering just how crazy North Korea is when thinking about what to do with a (possibly) nuclear armed North Korea.

Also, a few months back I heard Phillip Adams interview one of the very, very few academic semi-apologists for modern North Korea. That's how I read the conversation with Gavan McCormack anyway. Unfortunately, no transcript is available. However, look at what he writes in this article:

It scarcely needs to be said that the main victims of the DPRK state are, and have always been, the people of North Korea. There is general agreement on the basic facts. Approximately 200,000 people—just under 1 per cent of a population of around 23 million—are thought to be held in labour camps. Between one and two million—5 to 10 per cent—are estimated to have died of starvation, and hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled, mostly to China. Although the DPRK’s peculiar blend of terror, mobilization and seclusion has been slowly losing its coherence since the end of the Cold War, the system still stands, held together by the absolute authority of the ‘Dear Leader’, Kim Jong Il.

Yet set in a historical context, North Korea’s record on this score pales before the sum of suffering inflicted by Japan and the superpowers—not least the US—on the Korean people.

But : the difference is the current nightmare of North Korea is self imposed. It makes little sense to "put in context" a vicious and cruel government that lets ideology lead to mass starvation (see the New Yorker article above) by talking about how much it has suffered under Japan decades ago.

But he does criticise the USA, and that is always enough for someone to be a guest on Adam's show.

UPDATE: this commentary piece from The Times seems pretty well argued to me.

It's not just sharks, snakes, crocodiles, spiders and stingrays

Boy's fight for life after octopus encounter | NEWS.com.au

This happened just north of Brisbane. It's been a while since someone was killed by a blue ringed octopus, but I remember one adult was when I was a child.

Yuck 2

Guardian Unlimited | Science | Stem cell experts seek licence to create human-rabbit embryo

It's hard to keep up with stem cell research issues, but is it any wonder that people do bring up the animal/human embryo issue with headlines like this?

I still have my hunch that, like the "war on cancer" from the 1970's, stem cell research will go on for decades without any sense that it has lived up to its hype.

Not all killer asteroids found yet

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | UK to join 'killer' asteroid hunt

I wonder whether people are starting to feel that most major asteroids with potential to hit the earth are already identified, given that every couple of years there is mention of one that might hit the earth sometime in the future. (With later calculations often showing it shouldn't happen after all.)

The story above warns that in fact there is a lot of small rubbish still not spotted:

"The current generation of search telescopes are designed for the objects about 1km across and larger, because if one of those hits, it could cause instant global climate change," said Alan Fitzsimmons, a professor of astronomy at Queen's University Belfast.

"The smaller objects need a larger telescope and a more efficient camera system - they're the kinds of objects Pan-Starrs has been designed to detect.

"Even though they're smaller and don't cause as much damage, there are more of them and they hit more frequently."

Although sub-1km asteroids might not cause devastation on a global scale, they could cause death and destruction at a local and regional level, potentially wiping out millions of lives.

The last significant event like this occurred in 1908, when an asteroid or comet exploded above the Tunguska region of Siberia. The area was sparsely populated and, as a result, did not cause extensive loss of life.

Learning to love the maggot

Pour on 'maggot juice' to help heal wounds - tech - 09 October 2006 - New Scientist Tech

From the story:

Bandages containing fluids secreted by maggots could help accelerate the body's healing process, research suggests.

Live maggots are sometimes applied to chronic wounds because they eat dead tissue, but leave healthy tissue alone, boosting healing. But now it has been demonstrated that the fluids produced by maggots also contain enzymes that actually accelerate tissue repair.

Armed with the new findings, researchers in the UK hope to produce wound-dressings impregnated with the active maggot components. The idea is that, as well as protecting the wound, the dressings will speed up healing without the "yuk factor" involved with using live maggots.

I thought "yuk" was spelt "yuck".

Monday, October 09, 2006

Progressives need their space

The Corner on National Review Online

I noted a couple of weeks ago that Time mentioned in passing that Marko Moulitas (of Daily Kos fame) is talking of building "meeting halls" for thousands of his pals to, well, meet in. (The critical lack of big venues for people with political interests to gather in is something that had previously escaped anyone's attention.)

This weird sounding plan now gets a mention at The Corner (see above). The idea is as nutty as it first sounds:

...he'll turn to building communities in the real world, a chain of giant meeting places "replicating megachurches for the left" – complete with cafés and child care. Moulitsas has shown he can harness people's enthusiasm, but he says he doesn't want a leadership role in these "democracy centers"...

...he plans to embark next year on building real-world destinations for progressives and liberals throughout the Midwest, "cultural outposts" designed to attract thousands of like-minded liberals. "Each one of these would have a vast left-wing conspiracy component," he says, like leadership training or discussions on progressive issues.

I'ld like to see how the fund raising for this is going to go. I can just see Markos turning up on TV at 3am running the Markos Moulitas Salvation Show, with lots and lots of invitations to donate.

For people who are really into rice

The Japan Times Online - Go with the grain at Kokoromai

I've been to the beach for a couple of days, and oddly enough can't find anything much to blog about from the news over the weekend.

Instead, the link is to a story that illustrates Japan's food culture, where they care a great deal about their rice.

It's a review of restaurant that specialises in rice:

This simple yet chic little restaurant...features rice the way other places specialize in, say, chicken, eel or beef tongue. Instead of relegating it to a bit part, an afterthought to round off the meal, Kokoromai elevates it to the starring role.

Rice, of course, is not a singular noun in Japan. Dozens of different strains exist, with climate and geography determining the flavor and character just as terroir does for grapes and their resulting wine. Kokoromai serves eight varieties of plain white rice, each identified by the prefecture of its origin and even the name of the farmer who grew it.

OK, maybe this is only marginally interesting to most readers, but like I said my mind is still in holiday mode.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

The humourless Council

And the gays went in two by two . . . - Britain - Times Online

This sounds like a silly beat up and I would have doubted that the Councillors really had been offended, except for the fact that Times has extensive direct quotes from the utterly humourless Liberal Democrats Councillors in question.

Yay for Fox

Fox News: Enraging Liberals for 10 Years - Los Angeles Times

How nice: the LA Times runs an opinion piece that praises the success of Fox News.

The decline of the rocket belt

The men who want to fly. By Larry Smith - Slate Magazine

This is a nice, but too short, article about a recent "rocket belt" convention in the States. I wonder if younger readers know that the rocket man one made flying appearances at the RNA show in Australia during (I think) the 1960's.

Sadly, there is no mention of the much needed research into the development of better personal flying devices. If only I ran the world...

Islam and chastity (of women)

Comment is free: Chastity and choice

This is an interesting personal article from The Guardian about one woman's views on Muslim over-concern about their daughters' chastity.

That Muslims value chastity is not really the issue at all. It is the extent to which they go to "protect" their daughters from the world. I also think it is a demeaning view of young men to believe that none of them can ever be trusted to be alone with a girl, even in public. As an adult male, when I see a Muslim wife covered head to toe, I feel insulted that either she (or, more likely, her husband) seem to feel that even if see her face I am going to immediately lust after her.

Of course, there are degrees of common sense in this; I feel as many do that a lot of Western parents have gone too far in the other direction of not wanting to interfere at all in their teenager's behaviour. I don't particularly like dress that is obviously sexualising, especially in young girls, even though this is a bit of a tricky subject in that different parts of the body can be the object of particular sexual interest in different cultures. However, in my opinion covering the face is over the top for any culture, as it practically removes all human identity from the person. Maybe that is not the intention, but it is the effect, I reckon.

Europe to Iran: tell us if you want to stop talking about it

BBC NEWS | Middle East | EU warns Iran 'time running out'

Some very decisive action from the European Union:

Mr Solana has had a number of meetings with Iran's top nuclear negotiator since Tehran refused a 31 August deadline from the UN to halt enrichment.

The US and key EU powers now say they will seek a fresh UN resolution imposing sanctions.

Mr Solana told parliament: "This dialogue I am maintaining cannot last forever.

"It is up to the Iranians now to decide whether this time has come to an end."

Limbo into history

Limbo to be put out of its misery | World Wide Weird | The Australian

It looks like the Catholic idea of Limbo is to be given the boot. The reasons given in this article are interesting:

The evidence suggests Benedict XVI never believed in limbo anyway. But in the evangelisation zones of Africa and Asia, the Pope - an authority on all things Islamic - is aware Muslims believe the souls of stillborn babies go straight to heaven.

Looking to spread the faith in countries with high infant mortality, now is a good time to make it clear the stillborn babies of Christian mothers go to heaven, too...

Christians hold that heaven is a state of union with God, while hell is separation from God. But they have long wrestled with the fate of unbaptised children, and what happened to those who lived a "good life" but died before the time of Jesus.

Next of the list of possible revisions might be the idea of Purgatory. Personally, I've always favoured the idea that CS Lewis liked, (that Purgatory was just really a part of Hell, with all souls being able to end their self imposed time there, at least until the return of Christ to Earth when the gates would be shut forever.) It's a kinder, gentler Hell. Sort of.

Irony, I think

Jim Nolan: Howard kinder to conservative leaders than history | Opinion | The Australian

Jim Nolan, one of the few Labor identities to strongly support the Iraq war, argues in this article how it was those on the Left side of politics who were originally pushing the Right in the US to "do the right thing" in the Middle East and elsewhere in the 1980's and 90's. He therefore is upset that it is the Right that is now claiming to have the moral high ground in removing dictators, preventing genocide, etc.

But his final point is his best:

Of course this would be all the more nausea-inducing were it not for the fact that just at the crucial moment of Bush Jr's conversion, the broad Left, which had been so morally indignant at Saddam's brutality through the '80s, went missing and has remained in a quagmire of irresolution and defeatism since.

It sticks in the craw that the intellectual Left has become so debased that a Tory Prime Minister can make a telling point at their expense by quoting the words of socialist intellectual George Orwell. They have become the Bourbons of modern politics, having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Be prepared for a fright

Cindy Sheehan Blog

Click on the link above if you really want a fright.

(I thought I had seen all of Cindy Sheehan's web sites before. Maybe the awful picture has been up there for ages, but if so I have missed it until now.)

Dead at last

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Australian 'Labor tree' poisoned

The BBC reports that the Australian "Tree of Knowledge" is officially dead.

The apparent poisoning was reported earlier this year, and it has always puzzled me as to the motive of the poisoner. That the Labor Party likes to create a quasi-religious aura around the people, and even the inanimate objects, which were on hand at the time of its creation seems to me a matter of wry amusement, but it is hardly something that a normal conservative would want to put an end to by poisoning. Furthermore, if conservatives are more inclined to be the business owners in any small town, it seems they would not be interested in killing a tourist attraction.

Maybe it was just a nut.

A George Monbiot article of interest

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | I'm pleased the case against this ranting homophobe was dropped

Monbiot complains that legislation brought in under Labor in England is flawed and being misused. He is happy that charges have been dropped against anti-gay campaigner Stephen Green:

Green had been handing out leaflets to the revellers at the Mardi Gras gay and lesbian festival in Cardiff at the beginning of September. By his standards they were pretty mild. They quoted Leviticus and Romans, compared homosexuality to incest and claimed that "by faith in Jesus it is even possible to be healed of homosexual desires ... you do have a choice as to whether you continue in a lifestyle which leads to hell, or whether you decide to put yourself right with God through belief in the Lord Jesus Christ."

He was arrested and charged under the Public Order Act 1986 with using "threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby". On Thursday, however, the Crown Prosecution Service decided to drop the case.

It is not clear why the CPS let him go, but it is probably because it knew the prosecution would fail. Green's leaflets, though offensive to gays and lesbians, used no threatening or abusive words, and he did nothing but seek to persuade people to take them. So it was dim of the police to have thrown the Public Order Act at him.


As an aside, he mentions that Green has threatened to sue Channel 4 "over its plans to screen Gunther von Hagens' (admittedly pointless and stupid) crucifixion of a corpse." !!

von Hagens is the crazy looking character who makes a living from flaying dead people, (including perhaps dead convicts from China) "plasticising" the bodies and then touring them around the world. He also seems to have a more or less permanent gig on Channel 4 doing televised autopsies. (His first turned up recently on SBS in Australia, to no media attention at all as far as I can see.)

That his "work" and motives no longer attract that much attention says a lot about the modern Western world, and none of it very good.

Australian cinema to wreck havoc

Our sun, sand and surf image remade for Japan - Arts - Entertainment

This is a longish and not all that interesting story about a new attempt to get Japan interested in Australia as a place of arts and culture. It will include a "the largest collection of contemporary Australian art to ever travel to Japan". There's more:

The exhibition is the centerpiece of the Australia Festival, to be held in Tokyo throughout October. There will be performances by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and the Australian Dance Theatre ...

fine so far, but why do they have to ruin all that effort with:

... the first retrospective of Australian film in Japan for 30 years.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

A simple idea

Scientists create more efficient nuclear power fuel. 01/10/2006. ABC News Online

From the story above:

The scientists changed the shape of the fuel from solid cylinders to hollow tubes, adding surface area that allowed water to flow inside and outside the pellets, increasing heat transfer.

They claim new fuel design is also much safer because it reaches an operating temperature of about 700 degrees Celsius, much lower than 1,800 degrees for conventional fuel and further from the 2,840 degrees melting point for uranium fuel.

Dr Hejzlar, a principle research scientist in MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, said it could take up to 10 years to commercialise the new fuel concept.

Seems odd that such a simple idea had not been thought of before.

Jews in Iran

The limits of tolerance | Jerusalem Post

This is an interesting article on the Jewish community in Iran. It seems that they are pretty much left alone to observe their religion, apart from the occasional long term imprisonment for no good reason. (Well, that happened to 13 in 1988.)

Worth reading.

The things they litigate about in the US

Supreme court opens term, rejects appeal on sex toy

From the above story:

The U.S. Supreme Court began a new term on Monday in which it will rule on landmark social cases, and it rejected about 1,900 appeals that piled up during its summer recess including a constitutional challenge to a Texas law that bans the sale of sex toys....

In the sex toys case, an employee of an adult bookstore in El Paso was arrested in 2003 for selling a vibrator to undercover police officers. He was charged under the Texas law that bans the sale of an "obscene device" designed primarily "for the stimulation of human genital organs."

His attorney challenged the law as unconstitutional, claiming it violated the right to sexual privacy without government interference. The court, which rejected a challenge to a similar Alabama law last year, denied the appeal without any comment.

Surely this shows that:

* Southern legislators have too much time on their hands;

* the Texas police asked to enforce such laws must find it a big joke;

* the fact that it would result in litigation in an attempt to overturn the law shows the ridiculous lengths to which some Americans see the judiciary as the solution to sorting out issues that should be dealt with in the ballot box.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Dubious legal claim of the day

Independent Online Edition > Americas

Another passenger mistaken for a possible terrorist story.

Of course I feel sorry for the guy:

The drama unfolded less than an hour into the flight. As he settled down with a book and a ginger ale, the father-of-three was grabbed from behind and held in a head-lock.

"This guy just told me his name was Michael Wilk, that he was with the New York Police Department, that I'd been acting suspiciously and should stay calm. I could barely find my voice and couldn't believe it was happening," said Mr Stein.

"He went into my pocket and took out my passport and my iPod. All the other passengers were looking concerned." Eventually, cabin crew explained that the captain had run a security check on Mr Stein after being alerted by the policeman and that this had cleared him. The passenger had been asked to go back to his seat before he had restrained Mr Stein. When the plane arrived in New York, Mr Stein was met by apologetic police officers who offered to fast-track him out of the airport.

From an earlier part of the story:

He has since been told by airline staff he was targeted because he was using an iPod, had used the toilet when he got on the plane and that his tan made him appear "Arab".

But his reaction - to look at suing the airline for failing to protect him - seems a little silly. I mean, it sounds as if the "police officer" told the crew of his suspicions, and they did not want him to act. What should they have done, handcuffed him (the alleged police officer) to his seat? I imagine that might not have done much to ensure a trouble free flight, especially if he started yelling.

It's also interesting to note that Mr Stein is painted as somewhat of an interior design celebrity. I assume this happened in first or business class then. If so, I am guessing he was not humiliated in front of all of economy class. (Maybe it's a moot point as to which class it is worst to be humiliated in front of?)

Anyway, it is indeed a worry for arab looking people flying at the moment. I am not sure what can be done about it, though.

Possible pizza crisis looms

Millions of anchovies die on Spain beach

An odd feature of Congress

Rep. Mark Foley's Shocking Downfall - Newsweek National News - MSNBC.com

Over the weekend, a gay Republican resigns over some (apparently) explicit E flirting with a male teenage page.

From the Newsweek story:

Foley's sexual leanings were also well known, or at least suspected, by a particularly vulnerable group on Capitol Hill. Every year Congress hires about 100 pages, who can be seen in their distinctive blue uniforms scurrying through the halls, running errands for lawmakers. The pages have been embroiled in earlier sex scandals. In 1983, a pair of congressmen admitted to sexual relations with underage pages (one with a girl, one with a boy). After that, the pages were housed in a dormitory and fairly closely chaperoned. A former female page, who asked not to be identified to protect her privacy, told NEWSWEEK that she and other pages had regularly seen Foley stop and talk to pages on the House floor and in the cloakroom, lingering with them and asking them to describe their experiences in Congress. "We just gradually figured out he was flirting with the guys," said the page. "It made a lot of the guys uneasy. He was kind of creepy."

Why employ teenagers as pages anyway? Seems an odd feature of Congress to me, maybe more appropriate to an earlier era where kids did routinely go out to start making a living while a teenager.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

A lifestyle to envy

A couple of weekends ago we went camping not too far from Brisbane, just for one night, mainly as a "proof of concept" for my sceptical wife who had previously avoided the joys of nights under canvas since we married. (My tent is about 18 years old, but as far as I can tell, still waterproof.) As I expected, it was a big hit with the kids.

This mob of kangaroos hung around the campsite. It struck me while watching them that modern day kangaroos have a pretty easy life as far as wild animals go. An undemanding diet, no need for plenty of water, and a lack of significant predators apart from the odd dingo and the two legged variety of hunter. (A sign in the shower block said there were dingos in the area and to avoid them. I didn't see any.)

They really just spend the day nibbling and resting in the shade. Good work if you can get it.

Recycling aircraft

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Where old aeroplanes go to die

This is just a good article on what they do with old passenger aircraft. It's all interesting, just go and read it.

Probably my first post on sport

I don't talk about sport here because if it didn't exist, I don't think I would miss it.

That said, I am from Brisbane, was forced into playing rugby league at primary school, and so have some vague familiarity with the game. (It always seemed to me that the talent of throwing yourself at the ground with a ball in such a way that you had confidence that you would not hurt yourself was something that was already mysteriously evident by the age of 8. I never had that confidence. Is it like taking your first proper head-first dive into a swimming pool? Did those kids who would throw themselves on the thin August turf with abandon have fathers who taught them the trick of how to do it without breaking ribs? I don't recall it being a matter of coaching.)

Anyway, after paying no attention to the code for many years, I think I was in my 20's when I stumbled across a particularly close grand final match on TV one Sunday (I forget what year and which teams), but since then I have usually followed State of Origin games and grand finals, and maybe one or two other "crucial" matches a year. Maybe a total of 4 to 6 games a year, then.

The Brisbane Broncos have always been an easy team to like. As far as I can recall, they have always avoided the sleazy sex incidents (although for all I know that may be more by good fortune than good behaviour). Coach Wayne Bennett has huge popularity, but seems such a self effacing, fatherly character (with the well publicised background of having raised kids with serious disabilities) it is impossible not to like him.

(If anyone overseas is reading this and is interested in Bennett's personal story, the transcript of the 1999 ABC "Australia Story" is here.)

This is all preamble to explaining that tonight, the Broncos won the rugby league grand final in pretty convincing fashion, and it makes me, even with nearly as low an interest as you can get in sport, pretty happy.

I still don't think I am ever in danger of actually going to a stadium watch a match, though. Hearing the individuals in the crowd clearly may well put me off again.