Thursday, November 30, 2006

Teachers and The Age

It's a match made in heaven, lefty teachers and The Age. Big union rallies are being held today, to what end I don't know. It's about a year from a Federal election, and there is no way rallies of whatever size are going to persuade the Howard government to retract its IR legislation after it just had its constitutional right to create it confirmed by the High Court. (Maybe that is the reason for the rallies, a pointless whinge about losing a High Court case.)

So, teachers today in many States are taking the day off to attend these rallies. Here's their justification from The Age letters today:

... I am obligated to stop work so that, hopefully, students at my school do not have to join a workforce where there is no job security, no basic rights and no collective agreements.

I look into my classroom each day and see a class full of students who have hopes, ambitions and dreams which would not be fulfilled under a Howard Government.

Maybe teenagers have changed since I was one, but I somehow doubt they dream all day of the fantastic collective bargaining agreement their union will win for them.

And from a teacher sympathiser:

WHEN teachers took strike action I would always keep my child at home. His absence note would explain that I kept my child at home because I did not want my child surrounded by teachers who were so selfish that they would not surrender a day's pay to fight against injustice or so dull that they could not comprehend the importance of fighting injustice. I encourage all parents to send such messages to schools and to John Howard.

Ohh..we don't want our child contaminated by all those unjust or dumb teachers who happen to take a different view of where the balance should lie in industrial relations, do we?

Look, I'm not saying people don't have a right to disagree with the Howard government's policies on IR and to fight tooth and nail to do the only thing that will change it - elect a Kevin Rudd government. (Beazley has only got to make one more slip of the tongue in the next 6 weeks and he is gone.) But what irritates me is the preciousness of the arguments on display here, that suggest the issue is so dire and immediate that teachers must attend (even when they are not personally affected, as no public sector teacher would be) and that the rallies are going to achieve something.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The lonely job of being anti-Dunlop

I still don't get why Tim Dunlop, now blogging courtesy of News Limited, is not attracting much negative attention from the Right.

JF Beck has ripped into Blogocracy , and I added my comment of support. But why is there so little challenge of Dunlop on his site?

For anyone who cares, I am the lonely "Steve from Brisbane" who has been posting critical comments at Blogocracy. Here are some examples of matters Dunlop has been excited about recently:

1. Ex SAS officer Tinley criticises the government's decision to go into Iraq in what was obviously a highly politically motivated attack. Tim Dunlop can hardly contain himself:

Can all the pretending stop now? Have we finally reached a tipping point? Will comments today by war hero and former SAS officer Peter Tinley, finally give people across Australia—others in the military, the media, members of the Government—the courage to call the bluff on the prime minister’s discredited defence of the war in Iraq?....

Could there be a more devasting assessment from someone so intimately involved and so obviously dedicated to the military and to the defence of his country?

When it turns out within a couple of days that Tinley is a long time member of the ALP who has been in discussions about preselection, Dunlop can't see why people take the view that it was cynical media manipulation to make this attack without disclosing his personal incentive. Even long time Dunlop supporter Aussie Bob could see the point, I reckon, just that he thought it was funny that The Australian was sucked in.

2. Dunlop has been carrying on like a pork chop about how talk of challenge to the leadership of Kim Beazley is to a major degree the fault of the media, and News Limited in particular. His mate Aussie Bob posts at tedious length about how the media misreads polling all the time (conveniently forgetting how good the Liberals have been at gaining ground during Federal election campaigns). Today, Mark at Lavartus Prodeo agrees whole-heartedly; it's a regular Beazley support group.

Boys, boys, if the ABC and Fairfax press are running with leadership speculation too, doesn't this suggest the primary source of the problem is within the Labor party itself? Tonight The Age reports:

Supporters of a change have resolved to make no move before next week to maximise the focus on rallies against workplace laws being held today. But they rate the prospect of an approach to Mr Beazley to step down, or even a challenge by Kevin Rudd as "50-50".

No, no, the media should just ignore talk like that.

3. This one surprises me most: Dunlop posted a YouTube video purporting to show "White House manipulation" of video when it had been thoroughly debunked by Michelle Malkin and others weeks ago. When commentors point this out to him, he posts a not overly obvious semi-retraction at the bottom of the post as an "update", but leaves the offending video in its star position at the top. Tim Blair, you must be following Blogocracy, and if had happened on some other lefty blog I imagine you would have lept on this blunder with enthusiasm. (I remember Tim D let Tim B temporary host his blog while Blair had technical problems. Has this led to a reluctance to criticise him?)

4. Blogocracy has really become an exact clone of the old Road to Surfdom, including now the use of the "Howard's funny face" at the top of some posts. What's more, he posts about how the Left is so much more successful in blogging than the Right, citing Tim Blair as the only successful right wing blogger. Again, I would have expected some response from Blair, but none. Here's what I posted about this at Blogocracy:

Yes Tim, blogs such as yours add so much to current debate when you post a YouTube “White House manipulation” story as if it hadn’t been thoroughly debunked 3 weeks ago. (By the way, your semi-retraction at the bottom of that post is pretty half arsed. If you want people to really know that you think there probably is nothing to that video, why not put an update at the top of the post where people will clearly see it. Or do you think it isn’t conclusively debunked?)

The other interesting thing about that YouTube video is how it has about 213,000 views, compared to the debunking YouTube effort (as linked to by Malkin) has had about 1/7 of that. There is no doubt at all that the Left wing blogshphere is better at constructing an echo chamber, but I don’t see that as something to be proud of.

(I also reckon that the Left’s natural constituancy - students, academics, public servants, and the underemployed - simply have more [time] to spend on listening to the echo chamber than those on the Right.)

As for Blogocracy, it is rapidly going the way of SMH’s Webdiary. I reckon those who disagree are not bothering posting much because it is clear that the site has its own cheersquad that is never going to change its mind on issues surrounding this Howard government. This is not a healthy sign, and frankly I can’t see why News Limited would be thinking it was worthwhile to do a virtual transplant of Surfdom to here. (I would say the same if any other currently free website was transplanted here too.) In fact, I don’t get the whole “every columnist is now a blogger” thing either, unless readers are going to have to pay for the privilege sometime in the future.

To say something positive: Tim D obviously maintains a level of civility at his blogs, allowed in my increasingly critical posts, and is not exactly the "mad" Left.

But: there are many, many issues on which he is impervious to persuasion, and his anti-Howard schtick runs into the juvenile. If News Ltd wants to be part of blogging because it sees it as an interactive medium to promote discussion amongst its readership, why would it pick a private blog like Surfdom, which had clearly not been attracting much in the way of dissenting discussion, and let it be cloned?

It is just all puzzling to me. (As is the fact that Tim Blair has linked to posts here a couple of times over the last year, but there is no sign that I will ever be added to his blogroll!)

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Latest Slate Hitchens

From Hitchen's latest column in Slate comes this key paragraph:

The objectionable thing about the proposed Baker-Hamilton "talks" is not that they are talks but that they give the impression of looking for someone to whom to surrender. And they have, apparently, no preconditions. It would be an excellent thing to have direct negotiations with Iran, for instance, with all matters on the table. But if the mullahs did not have to sacrifice their ongoing nuclear deception in order to get to that table, then all the efforts of the Europeans, the United Nations, and the International Atomic Energy Agency to get them to do so would have been shown to be risible. With Syria, there is an even more intelligible precondition to be announced. Most people are unaware of this fact, but Damascus has always refused to recognize Lebanon as an independent state. There is no Syrian Embassy in Beirut. Implicitly and explicitly, this suggests that the country is regarded as an actual or potential part of a "Greater Syria." Is it really too much to demand that Syria acknowledge the self-determination, or "right to exist," of a fellow member of the Arab League? Without this line of demarcation, for one thing, the "withdrawal" of Syrian soldiers and police is a merely tactical thing; a retreat over the horizon while the Assad dynasty waits for better days. These "better" days may well not be long in coming.

The crisis in Hollywood

A long article in The Independent (found via Pajamas Media) talks about the current decline of Hollywood. There is nothing to disagree with here. We have been going through a lean period for enjoyable, quality Hollywood fare for some years now, and it is not clear when it will end.

A secret harvesting of eggs ?

This article about how medical research may be getting eggs for use in stem cell research is interesting. It would seem that supporters of the recent Bill about this do not understand all of the possibilities it may allow.

Ms Patterson has claimed her Bill permits only the creation of cloned embryos, never sperm-egg in-vitro fertilisation embryos, for research. But her Bill does indeed permit the IVF creation of a sperm-egg embryo using an egg from an aborted fetus and an adult male's sperm. This hidden provision to create fertilised embryos for research using ova from an aborted fetus was directly addressed by the Senate inquiry.

Ms Skene, for the Lockhart committee, acknowledged: "The committee's recommendations envisaged that an embryo could be created for use in this way." And no, she said, the committee had not canvassed public attitudes to such a practice.

Hard to imagine

This must be "male contraception week" in the British media. Following my recent post on vasectomy, The Guardian discusses some ideas for male contraception under investigation. This includes one idea which might be a hard sell:

There are several at various stages of development, with the latest a single-dose pill that produces a "dry orgasm", the slightly eye-watering notion that the man experiences sexual pleasure, but does not produce any semen. ...

Under normal conditions, rhythmic movement of muscles running lengthways along the vas deferens and circular rings of muscle around the tube propel sperm during an ejaculation. But the two drugs [a schizophrenia and blood pressure drug] have the side-effect of shutting down the lengthways muscles. "They relax it," says Amobi. That means the sperm don't go anywhere. Usefully, the effect wears off 12 to 24 hours after taking the pills.

Um, I guess you kind of don't know if it has worked until it is too late. And if it had to be used with a condom for that reason (or for safe sex reasons,) there would be no point in using it at all.

Women in Afghanistan

The Guardian has a fairly long article about the continuing plight of women in Afghanistan. Although it opens as if its sole point is to criticise the failure of Western intervention to help maintain early improvements to women's status, it does acknowledge that women are still far better off than they were under Taliban rule, and no one thinks it would be good for the West to leave.

Some specific examples of spectacularly bad treatment of women there:

Human Rights Watch says that a third of districts in Afghanistan are now without girls' schools, due to attacks on teachers and students by the Taliban and other anti-government elements; and traditional practices such as child marriage and baad, in which women are exchanged like objects in tribal disputes, still continue unchallenged. ...

Joya talks like this to me, furiously, for more than an hour, almost weeping as she catalogues the crimes against women that still keep them in a state of fear: from Safia Ama Jan, the leading women's rights campaigner assassinated in Kandahar earlier this year, to Nadia Anjuman, a poet murdered in Herat last year; from Amina, a married woman who was stoned to death in Badakhshan in 2005, to Sanobar, an 11-year-old girl who was raped and exchanged for a dog in a reported dispute among warlords in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan last month.

She is desperate for people to take account of the silent women whose voices we never hear. "Afghan women are killing themselves now," she says, "there is no liberation for them." This is not just rhetoric: the Afghan Human Rights Commission recently began to document the numbers of Afghan women who are burning themselves to death because they cannot escape abuse in their families.

Makes worrying about the glass ceiling in the West seem a bit of an indulgence.

Monday, November 27, 2006

An unappealing concept

Apropos of nothing, I just stumbled across a (literally) "high concept" business on the Internet:

A unique event meant for anyone who wishes to transform an ordinary meal or meeting into a magical moment that will leave a lasting impression on their guests!

Dinner in the Sky takes place at a table suspended at a height of 50 metres by a team of professionals. Benji Fun, our partner in this event, is the worldwide leader for this type of activities.

This is what it looks like:

My attitude to heights might be little unusual. I like flying, and I enjoy it more on a small aircraft than a huge one. (I feel it is more "natural" for a Cessna to fly than a 747.) But when it comes to buildings, I can get a little nervous standing on an apartment balcony if it is any more than a few stories up.

Maybe it's the tilted angle of that photo, but for some reason it makes me feel queasy just thinking about trying to enjoy food while strapped into a seat with 50 m of air between my backside and the ground.

(By the way, it seems Boing Boing has not posted on this one yet, even though it is right up their alley.)

The pain that only men can feel

For those male readers contemplating having a vasectomy, The Times has an article on the uncomfortable issue of long lasting pain. The solution for some men sounds rather radical:

Dr Black says: “I’ve seen a handful of cases in which pain has continued beyond nine months after the operation.” He suggests that the debate about longer-term post-vasectomy pain exists because of the industry that has sprung up around it. “Some urologists, especially in the US, are making money by removing the epididymis or even the testicles of men in post-vasectomy pain, promising that the pain will disappear,” he says. “But I’ve never seen anyone who really needed this.”

Well, removal of testicles should completely remove the fear of the loose ends rejoining, as is known to happen from time to time.

The problem with this type of issue is that it is very easy for doctors to think it's all in the mind. However, if a specialist himself suffers it, well that's different:

Dr Andrew Dawson, of the Hartlepool Vasectomy Reverse Clinic, is not so sure. He, too, has suffered post-vasectomy pain: “My own problems made me realise that this was something we needed to take seriously. I’ve come across men whose pain has taken over their lives. We’ve performed vasectomy reversals (re-joining the cut tubes) for them, which have been 100 per cent effective and eliminates the pain.”

What might be causing the pain?:

He believes that he can explain what is happening. “Vasectomy is pretty crude really; it just traps sperm in the epididymis. In some, often highly sexed, men this can cause the epididymis to become swollen. Eventually it can rupture — Americans call this a blowout — which will solve the problem naturally but can be very painful. A vasectomy reversal can reduce the pressure.”

I remember asking someone - I forget who - years ago about what happened to sperm that could not get out after a vasectomy. The vague suggestion was something like "the body just absorbs it." Maybe in most people it does, as we don't hear of "blowouts" all that often. Still, it's good to know that my puzzlement about this was in fact a good question.

By the way, this was all dealt with in detail in an episode of ABC's Health Report in 1997! I wonder if there is adequate warning of this possible complication being given now?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Red, white and blue butterfly

I spotted this particularly attractive butterfly in the yard today and took this pic. (The butterfly itself is exactly how the camera caught it; but the background has been smudged and blurred by me with an image editor program and my little tablet.) It looks very good if you view it full size.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

From the annals of useless commentary...

Alan Ramsay in the SMH today:

Our Prime Minister lately is behaving and sounding very much like the Paul Keating of old in the ebullience of his arrogance.

Keating in Labor's 13th year of office was insufferable, however mellow the memory. Howard nearing his 12th displays much the same underlying contempt, only differently.

And in The Australian, Phillip Adams continues his one man campaign to "out" every gay (or bisexual?) man he has ever met or heard about.

Phillip, all of this will be received without criticism when the authorised biography with full details of all your indiscretions is available.

Friday, November 24, 2006

When in doubt, parachute in the historians

From the International Herald Tribune:

Last week, Kofi Annan gave the Middle East a history assignment. Speaking in Istanbul, the UN secretary general identified the competing historical narratives of Palestinians and Israelis as central to the Middle East crisis and the alleged clash of civilizations between Muslim and Western worlds...

To bridge this gap in public perceptions, the [UN] report recommends the drafting of a white paper analyzing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dispassionately and objectively, giving voice to competing narratives on both sides. In recommending historical research as a precondition to political dialogue, the UN report has identified a core problem that dates back to the spring of 1919 when three politicians, Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George and Georges Clemenceau, disregarded history in favor of political expediency. Since then, political leaders have grappled vainly with the consequences of this "peace to end all peace" in the Middle East.

By acknowledging the importance of history and seeking to engage historians in the peace process, Annan is creating an opportunity for new approaches to resolving this seemingly intractable conflict.

Maybe it doesn't pay to be too sceptical about anything that could possibly help in the Middle East. But really, I imagine one side having much greater difficulty than the other in being persuaded by historians' white papers. (Here's a hint: it's not the side that has trouble accepting the extent of the Holocaust, and does nothing to stop theProtocols of the Elders of Zion being re-hashed as truth.)

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Dawkins' declaration of war

Richard Dawkins 's book "The God Delusion" and his vigorous campaign to get other atheistic scientists to actively repudiate all forms of religious belief is attracting a lot of attention.

(For those who haven't been following this: Dawkins won't even tolerate those who tolerate religious moderates. In his view, giving comfort to any form of supernatural belief means you are also giving comfort to the fundamentalists.)

For a good backgrounder on this campaign, the lengthy Wired article from last month was pretty good. More recently, a New York Times article talks about a conference where Dawkins sought to rally the troops against religion.

Well written anti-Dawkins material can be found in the reviews of Terry Eagleton and Marilynne Robinson. Criticism about how Dawkins treats Stalinism and Nazi Germany so as to try to paint them as not really the product of atheism is well dealt with in Dinesh D'Souza's article here. Even those who are generally sympathetic to his cause often express concern that he is far too stroppy in his rhetoric and is actually hurting the cause he promotes.

He refuses to accept even the "non overlapping magisteria" argument (the view that religion and science are fundamentally about different things, and therefore can co-exist peacefully.)

One of the stupidest comments about all this I found being made by a physicist blogger Sean Carroll over at Cosmic Variance:

Scientists who do try to point out that walking on water isn’t consistent with the laws of physics, and that there’s no reason to believe in an afterlife, etc., are often told that this is a bad strategic move — we’ll never win over the average person on the street to the cause of science and rationality if we tell them that it conflicts with their religion. Which is a legitimate way to think, if you’re a politician or a marketing firm. But as scientists, our first duty should be to tell the truth. The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine. In the long run, being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy.

Does this guy, who knows so much about dark energy and cosmology, know so little of religion that he does not even understand the definition of a miracle? Fortunately, some of the comments following this post did make the point:

It seems to me a little absurd to criticize scientist for not jumping on things like virging [sic] birth or walking on water. The whole point of these miracles is that they are, precisely, miracles. They are once in a lifetime occurances that take place by divine intervention. I don’t think science has anything to say about that: a non-reproducible, one time event that is by definition outside the natural realm. Evolution is an entirely different game, as it concerns the development of species in a natural way. It can (and has) been tested.

The other point I want to make about is all this is the irritating way atheists like Dawkins talk up the "inspirational" aspects of science and nature. Look at this from an interview with Dawkins:

QUESTION: Professor Dawkins, at the start of your talk, you said that the traditional religions were not only false but also failed to provide a deeper meaning than science and in that sense were not more soulful. I agree with that, to the extent that they attempt to provide an explanation, but another thing that the religions do is give comfort to people if they lose people in car accidents or to cancer and so on, and as far as I've experienced it, the scientific view cannot give people this kind of comfort. So in that sense the religions, even if they're false, are more soulful. And I wonder how you would respond to that.

Dawkins: ....although science may not be able to console you in the particular case of a bereavement from a car accident, it's not at all clear that science can't console you in other respects. So, for example, when we contemplate our own mortality, when we recognize that we're not here forever and that we're going to go into nothingness when we die, I find great consolation in the feeling that as long as I'm here I'm going to occupy my mind as fully as possible in understanding why I was ever born in the first place. And that seems to me to be consoling in another sense, perhaps a rather grander sense. It is of course somewhat depressing sometimes to feel that one can't go on understanding the universe; it would be nice to be able to be here in 500 years to see what people have discovered by then. But we do have the privilege of living in the 20th and very soon in the 21st century, when not only is more known than in any past century, but hugely more than in any past century. We are amazingly privileged to be living now, to be living in a time when the origin of the cosmos is getting close to being understood, the size of the universe is understood, the nature of life in a very large number of particulars is understood. This is a great privilege; to me it's an enormous consolation, and it's still a consolation even though it's for each one of us individually finite and going to come to an end. So I'm enormously grateful to be alive, and let me take up what Steve was talking about, the question of how you can bear to get up in the mornings. To me it makes it all the more worthwhile to get up in the mornings -- we haven't got that much time, let's get up in the morning and really use our brief time to understand why we're here and what it's all about. That to me is real consolation.

Or as Physicist Steven Weinberg has said:

...the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless...


Though aware that there is nothing in the universe that suggests any purpose for humanity, one way that we can find a purpose is to study the universe by the methods of science, without consoling ourselves with fairy tales about its future, or about our own.

Isn't this at heart an extremely elitist view? Fine if you are a scientist, or an autodidact, but what about people who don't have that intrinsic interest or the ability to learn much about, or contribute to, the advance of science?

Maybe it is easy to overstate the importance of religion in the West today, as apart from declining church numbers, we all know people who more or less successfully avoid the "big issues" for most of their lives. But Dawkins and his pals are keen to destroy even any subconscious level of optimism that people may have absorbed from religion (namely, that there is meaning and purpose to the universe, and each person is intrinsically valued not just because other humans deem it so, but because it is true at the transcendent level.)

An outbreak of common sense at The Guardian? (And I get to talk about airships)

If the figures in this article in the Guardian are correct, it really does make all the European panic about flying and greenhouse gases sound rather ridiculous:

UN scientists from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimate aviation's contribution to global carbon emissions to be just 2%. To put things in perspective, road traffic contributes 18% globally, while the fossil fuels used to generate heat and power contribute 35%.

"But you are growing uncontrollably," is the usual retort. Our industry is growing at between 5 and 6% per year because people want to travel. The biggest growth is in rapidly developing economies, such as China, India and eastern Europe. Their hard-earned wealth is helping them to travel the world. This is balanced by slower growth in more mature markets. And the net impact - estimated by the IPCC - is that aviation's contribution may grow to 3% by 2050.

And further down:

...I am not arguing that aviation should be left alone to pollute as it sees fit. Consume less fuel and you emit less carbon. Aeroplane manufacturers understand. Over the past 40 years - starting long before Kyoto - fuel efficiency improved 70%. And the next generation of aircraft will have a fuel efficiency of just three litres per 100 passenger kilometres. That is much better than any hybrid car on the market.

Airlines have also understood. In the past two years, fuel efficiency has improved 5%. They are doing everything from making spoons lighter, to optimising the amount of water in toilets.

Our own association's efforts to straighten routes, reduce congestion and eliminate delays slashed carbon emissions by more than 12m tonnes in 2005 - equivalent to removing 3m cars from Britain's roads.

Damn. One of the cooler things I wanted to see come out of an anti greenhouse gas campaign was a return of the large scale passenger airship. Sounds like it is hardly necessary.

Of course, airships are inherently lovely anyway, and there always seems to be some company hoping to be about to revive the giant airship. Popular Mechanics ran this article recently about "hybrid airships" which are an interesting idea:

Hybrid airships use gas to generate 30 to 80 percent of the lift they need to get off the ground, and depend on aerodynamic lift--the flow of air over wings or fuselage--for the rest. That means that when hybrids stop moving through the air, they sink. The advantage? Once on the ground, they stay put. A major problem for conventional airships is the difficulty in handling them on the ground. Large and buoyant, they're always eager to fly away on the slightest breeze. The Goodyear blimp requires 17 handlers; the zeppelins of the '20s and '30s employed hundreds.

Defence in the US had paid money (under its nicely named but defunct "Walrus" program) to investigate these heavy lift airship-ish things, but whether a large scale one will ever be built seems unclear. Companies that like to talk up airships often come up with nice graphics and concept illustrations. Aeros Corporation's is worth looking at.

The PM article, and this website, talk about hybrid airships with a load capacity of up to 500 tons. How that compare to airplanes? According to this article, a new variant of the 747 will carry 154 tons of freight. A 500 ton capacity Walrus derived airship could therefore presumably carry a lot of people. I guess you would only need build one a fraction of that size.

I would have thought that their use around Europe would have been most appropriate. The distances make for more reasonable travel times, with lots of nice scenery to look at .

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An interesting snippet

From the PM's commission's report on the feasibility of nuclear power in Australia:

Compared with other non-combustion
technologies, such as solar and wind power,
nuclear power requires a much smaller footprint
for equivalent power generation. A current 900 MW
nuclear power plant, with a footprint of less than
1 km2, would produce as much electricity in a year
as 70 km2 of solar photovoltaic panels, or about
1000 wind turbines, taking into account the
efficiencies, availabilities and capacity factors.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

If it's good for the goose ...

If these Imams had read my earlier post here, they would know that demonstrative praying on airplanes is just not a way to make your fellow passengers feel relaxed and comfortable. (My post in September was about a Jewish fellow who was asked to leave an airplane for praying while seated and "lurching back and forth" in the Jewish manner. By the way, is there a reason for that custom?)

The Imams style of prayer was a little more obvious:

Three of them stood and said their normal evening prayers together on the plane, as 1.7 billion Muslims around the world do every day, Shahin said. He attributed any concerns by passengers or crew to ignorance about Islam.

Well I assume those 1.7 billion don't include people like pilots on final approach to landing. There is an exemption allowed for not being in an appropriate situation to say your prayers openly, isn't there?

The 6 Imams were asked to leave:

A passenger initially raised concerns about the group through a note passed to a flight attendant, according to Andrea Rader, a spokeswoman for US Airways. She said police were called after the captain and airport security workers asked the men to leave the plane and the men refused.

Maybe, for the hard of learning, airports need to put large signs at boarding gates: "Kindly refrain from praying in an obvious manner while on board the aircraft, to ensure there are no misunderstandings, delays or arrests."

Hitchens on Baker

Hitchen's latest article in Slate hits out at the rise of James Baker and "realism" as the possible solution to the Iraq problem. On the idea of negotiating with Syria and Iran, Hitchens makes the valid enough point:

Given that these two regimes have recently succeeded in destroying the other most hopeful democratic experiment in the region—the brief emergence of a self-determined Lebanon that was free of foreign occupation—and are busily engaged in promoting their own version of sectarian mayhem there, through the trusty medium of Hezbollah, it looks as if a distinctly unsentimental process is under way.

This will present few difficulties to Baker, who supported the Syrian near-annexation of Lebanon. In order to recruit the Baathist regime of Hafez Assad to his coalition of the cynical against Saddam in the Kuwait war, Baker and Bush senior both acquiesced in the obliteration of Lebanese sovereignty. "I believe in talking to your enemies," said Baker last month—invoking what is certainly a principle of diplomacy. In this instance, however, it will surely seem to him to be more like talking to old friends—who just happen to be supplying the sinews of war to those who kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. Is it likely that they will stop doing this once they become convinced that an American withdrawal is only a matter of time?

It's also hard for America to deal with Iran when its nutty president (Iran's I mean!) is feeling so cock-a-hoop about appearing to have the US over a barrel with regard to its nuclear program.

UPDATE: Kind of unusual to find the New Yorker running a commentary piece that is in complete agreement with Hitchen's take on Iraq. But there it is.

Breathe deeply

Just an interesting short article in New Scientist:

Alzheimer's disease has a range of disparate risk factors, but researchers may now have found one underlying cause that links them all: a lack of oxygen.

Previous studies have shown that diabetes, stroke, clogged arteries and ageing all increase the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Only 5% of cases appear to have been strongly influenced by genetic factors. Now evidence has emerged that lack of oxygen may be the ultimate cause.

Weihong Song at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, and colleagues took mice engineered to develop Alzheimer’s-like plaques and put them in a hypoxia chamber, which limits the amount of available oxygen. For 16 hours per day, for one month, the mice received less than 40% of the oxygen they normally use.

Six months later, the oxygen-deprived mice had developed twice as many beta-amyloid plaques – the hallmark of Alzheimer’s disease – compared with similar mice kept in normal conditions. The hypoxic mice also performed worse on memory tests.

I guess it would account for why exercise helps prevent it too?

Reactors to think about

An interesting call in the SMH this morning for the government to think about innovative type of reactors if they are going to go nuclear. This article advocates "accelerator-driven" thorium reactors, about which I have read little. They sound promising in several respects:

The beauty of this approach is that the reaction and energy production is only sustained as long as the proton beam is on.

With this type of thorium reactor there is no possibility of fission continuing when the proton beam is off. This means that thorium reactors are sub-critical devices which cannot maintain a self-sustaining chain reaction, and hence there is no chance of Chernobyl-style meltdown.

Australia has abundant supplies of thorium. Unlike uranium, thorium doesn't need significant enriching because it is more than 500 times more abundant in nature than uranium, which should make it cheaper to extract and process.

Thorium reactors produce lower volumes of shorter-lived waste products than conventional reactors. Accelerator-driven thorium reactors do not produce significant quantities of plutonium-239 or U-235 either, so the technology could be supplied to countries such as North Korea and Iran in the knowledge that it could not be used to produce nuclear weapons.

A pretty detailed article from Cosmos magazine gives some more information. It all sounds promising, although I wonder about the reliability of the accelerators that would be needed. If it breaks down, you have no power by the sounds.

Maybe I have to switch allegiance to this type of reactor instead of the Pebble Bed. (Mind you, it sounds to me like Pebble Bed reactors are a lot closer to real testing and commercial application.)

I do think that if nuclear power stations are to be built in Australia, they really ought to go with the most modern concepts, and not simply build an existing model.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Hard to know what title to use for this one...

From the Jerusalem Post, a story on the big difference between infant mortality rates between Jews and Muslim Arabs in Israel:

The gap in infant mortality rates between the Jewish and Arab sector declined last year compared to 2004, with deaths in Jewish infants remaining the same at 3.2 per 1,000 live births and a drop from 8.9 to 8.0 among Muslim Arabs.

The death rate among Christian Arabs is only slightly higher than the Jewish rate.

The reason, stated in a matter-of-fact way that indicates there might not be any medical controversy about this, is given as follows:

The significantly higher infant mortality rate among Muslim infants is largely due to consanguinity (inbreeding or marriage of first cousins) that causes congenital defects and metabolic disorders. The lower socio-economic level of Muslim Israelis also explains the excess of infant deaths compared to Jewish babies.

Arabs giving birth in Israel, however, enjoy much better odds than their brethren in neighboring Middle East countries. In Syria the infant mortality rate stands at 28.61 deaths per 1,000 births; in Jordan 16.76; in Iran 40.3; in Egypt 31.33; in Iraq 48.64 and in Lebanon 23.72.

The ministry report said the figures require primary prevention of infant mortality among the whole population, with a focus on the Muslim population, especially Beduins in the south. More intensive efforts should be made to discourage consanguinity), improving genetic counseling and prenatal diagnosis and boosting the use of folic acid in women of childbearing age, the report said.

One would have thought that this would be taken more seriously as a reason against marrying cousins in Muslim countries.

Tidying up for the Second Coming

According to one report in the English press, Jesus and Mary are making appearances to the devout in a church in Cannes (of all places). This is not the type of apparition that sounds worth having:

Church-goer Rita Gomez, who helps run the prayer group, said: "The visions usually begin with the whole building trembling in the middle of a prayer meeting.

"Then various worshippers will fall off their seats shaking violently or being sick. When they come round a few minutes later, they say Christ or the Holy Virgin has appeared and spoken to them."

One 14-year-old girl had fits and began smashing windows, then began bleeding 'pinkish-yellow' blood, Miss Gomez said.

She added: "This might sound like the work of the devil rather than God, but everyone who experiences a vision says it was Jesus and Mary that appeared to them."

I am not sure that there is any biblical basis for believing that divine apparitions would make you feel sick. Epilepsy, on the other hand...

Anyway, what are the messages that some say they are getting?:

Worshipper Emmanuel Duchamp, 38, said he saw Christ 'standing before him' in the church.

He added: "I wasn't ill, but I was overcome with a very warm feeling. Then Jesus started talking and I began writing down everything he told me. It was about cleaning my house and cleaning the homes of others to prepare for the coming of the Lord."

This would have to be one of most mundane messages ever received from an apparition.

(Reminds me too of the part in Pratchett and Gaiman's "Good Omens" about how a character's ability to see into the future was like looking down a long narrow tube, with snippets of information being picked up without context, and accordingly hard to interpret. For example, one message from the 1970's had been "don't buy Betamax". I hope I am remembering this correctly.)

Why I don't invest in properties with ocean views

(Well, apart from the fact that I have no spare money, that is.)

This article missed my attention last week, but it's a good one from the New York Times, about research into the question of whether ocean hitting asteroids have caused gigantic tsunamis within very recent times (the last 10,000 years.) The story opens:

At the southern end of Madagascar lie four enormous wedge-shaped sediment deposits, called chevrons, that are composed of material from the ocean floor. Each covers twice the area of Manhattan with sediment as deep as the Chrysler Building is high.

On close inspection, the chevron deposits contain deep ocean microfossils that are fused with a medley of metals typically formed by cosmic impacts. And all of them point in the same direction — toward the middle of the Indian Ocean where a newly discovered crater, 18 miles in diameter, lies 12,500 feet below the surface.

The explanation is obvious to some scientists. A large asteroid or comet, the kind that could kill a quarter of the world’s population, smashed into the Indian Ocean 4,800 years ago, producing a tsunami at least 600 feet high, about 13 times as big as the one that inundated Indonesia nearly two years ago. The wave carried the huge deposits of sediment to land.

For those who like thinking about global disasters, there are lots of links about tsunamis generally, including asteroid generated ones, here. For example, there is a link to an article abstract about evidence for 3 tsunamis in the last 10,000 years in the Shetland Islands in Scotland:

Coastal fen- and lake deposits enclose sand layers that record at least three Holocene tsunamis at the Shetland Islands. The oldest is the well-known Storegga tsunami (ca 8100 cal yr BP), which at the Shetlands invaded coastal lakes and ran up peaty hillsides where it deposited sand layers up to 9.2 m above present high tide level. Because sea level at ca 8100 cal yr BP was at least 10–15 m below present day sea level, the runup exceeded 20 m. In two lakes, we also found deposits from a younger tsunami dated to ca 5500 cal yr BP. The sediment facies are similar to those of the Storegga tsunami—rip-up clasts, sand layers, re-deposited material and marine diatoms. Runup was probably more than 10 m. Yet another sand layer in peat outcrops dates to ca 1500 cal yr BP. This sand layer thins and fines inland and was found at two sites 40 km apart and traced to ca 5–6 m above present high tide. The oldest tsunami was generated by the Storegga slide on the Norwegian continental slope. We do not know what triggered the two younger events.

My personal contingency plan if an asteroid hits the Pacific is to get to Toowoomba. It's less than an hour from where I live (at high speed), assuming of course that thousands of cars are not jammed on the 4 lane highway with the same idea.

(By the way: Firefox got stuck while I was typing this and had to be shut down. But I am happy to find that the "restore session" feature of Firefox 2 means my half finished entry had also been saved. Great!)

Target Iran

The Los Angeles Times runs an opinion piece on why Bush should bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, and in the near future.

I would have thought that the alternative scenario set out in Commentary (and mentioned before here) makes more sense, with the only downside being that a long quarantine type campaign of that type allows lots of time for diplomacy to rally against it. As to my idea of use of non-nuclear E bombs, it seems I may have forgotten to link to this site before, which explains the idea in some detail. (One problem - it seems unclear the extent to which such weapons have been tested.) Still, as far as I can tell, their effects on structures may be fairly minimal.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Hard to believe..

From The Australian today:

Israel is using nanotechnology to create a robot no bigger than a hornet that would be able to chase, photograph and kill its targets.

The flying robot, nicknamed the "bionic hornet", would be able to navigate its way down narrow alleyways to target otherwise unreachable enemies, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported yesterday.

I'll believe it when I see it.

Mystery disease

Labor leader Kim Beazley's latest example of befuddlement again raises the question as to whether he has suffered neurologically as a result of his illness in 2004.

This was widely reported as being Schaltenbrand's syndrome. What is most surprising about this condition is how infrequently it appears in a Google or any other search I have tried. I can't be the only person who has tried to find medical stuff on this condition, but as it attracts only 3 pages on Google, and most of those links are to storied on Kim Beazley, it must be an extremely rare condition. Either that or it is generally called something else.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Odd science and medicine

* In the New Scientist blog recently there was mention of the surprising long term memories of ... pigeons. Apparently they can memorise around 1,000 pictures. Who'd have thought? Sounds like pretty tedious research to do for the lab technician, though.

* From Slate, a short piece on the increasing need for plastic surgery to make "deflated" obese people look half decent again by removing all the baggy skin and flattened breasts left over after large weight loss. If you really want to see how bad some of the deflated look, you can go here. But not during breakfast, perhaps.

* I've recently been recommending Scott Adam's Dilbert blog. Apart from the humour, it's been interesting to read that he recently re-gained his normal voice, after losing it about 18 months ago. The condition he suffered, Spasmodic Dysphonia, first affected his hand years ago. When he suddenly lost his voice, and several doctors could not diagnose the reason, Adams used Google to find that it was related to the same neurological condition. The story is told by Adams in two posts here and here. This Washington Post story from 2005 talks about the problem in his hand, and has a picture of Adams too. It's a very interesting story, well worth reading.

Recommended reading from the New Yorker

This week's New Yorker has an Anthony Lane review of the new James Bond. Lane seems to have become the most consistently witty and amusing reviewer. For example, writing of star Daniel Craig:

I cannot prove it, but I suspect that God may have designed Craig during a slightly ham-fisted attempt at woodworking. His head is a rough cube, sawed and sanded, with the blue eyes hammered in like nail heads. He could beat a man’s brains out with his brow. That suits the Bond of “Casino Royale,” who has only lately acquired his license to kill, and, like a kid who’s just passed his driving test, is eager to step on the gas. He will slay anyone, if he so wishes, and the news is that he does so wish, and that he worries about the wishing—not enough to stop the killing, although at one point he tenders his resignation to M (Judi Dench), but enough to make him wonder if he’s fit for anything else.

(I like Mark Steyn's reviews too, but his actual taste in movies is perhaps a little different to mine.)

The book review/essay deals with Descartes. Interestingly, one of the author's claims that Descartes is quite misunderstood, and his idea of the dualism of mind and body is not as emphatic as it seemed. (Another explains how Pope John Paul II rather unfairly blames Descartes for starting philosophy's movement away from God.)

Descartes certainly appears to have had an odd and fairly unsettled life. He fathered one daughter to a maid, but she died at 5 of scarlet fever.

[As an aside, it interests me, reading such accounts, to understand how people coped with the death of a loved child in centuries past when child mortality was so high. In the modern world, the death of a child is often seen as one of the biggest challenges to faith for the religious. Certainly, from the a couple of examples I know of - Lincoln's wife (who plunged into depression after a favourite son died) and Darwin (whose loss of faith was apparently more to do with the death of a daughter) - by the 19th century such deaths could come as a big shock. But going back further, did high child mortality lead to low expectations of survival into adulthood, and therefore less trauma for many parents if at least one or two of their kids died? I have heard before that the Victorian era in England sort of romanticised childhood in a way it hadn't been before, and maybe that had some effect too? Or is it just one of those cases where it is hard to find much in the way of detailed records of bereavement feelings the further back you go?]

Anyway, Descartes died at 53 and then his body suffered this fate:

He was buried in Sweden under a simple wooden monument that was allowed to rot. Seventeen years later, his remains were exhumed and taken on a six-month journey to France, except for his right forefinger, which the French Ambassador to Sweden was allowed to keep, and his head, which was removed by a captain in the Swedish guards. In France, his body was exhumed and reburied three more times before coming to rest in a former Benedictine monastery in Saint-Germain-des-Près. The Musée de l’Homme, in the Palais de Chaillot, near the Eiffel Tower, claims to have Descartes’s skull, but the claim is weak. It seems that the great dualist’s head is still missing.


Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Borat over exposed

Am I the only person in the world who is puzzled by the incredible over-exposure Sacha Baron Cohen's comedy attracts? For God's sake, even Christopher Hitchens devotes a column to him in Slate (although admittedly for the worthy point of correcting lefties who take the Borat movie as some sort of genuine indictment of American culture.)

I have just never found him all that funny.

Humour time

Now for some light relief. Scott Adams continues to amuse me over at the Dilbert blog.

For example, talking about the recent US elections:

I read that President Bush’s approval rating is less than 1 in 3. Nancy Pelosi, the incoming majority leader for the opposition party is in the same range. In other words, two-thirds of the citizens of the United States believe our leadership could improve if Bush drove his Segway into the majority leader and then over a cliff, assuming Cheney saw it happen and died of a heart attack.

And from his post about intelligence:

After college, I got my first job as a bank teller in the San Francisco financial district. My typical customers were titans of industry. They seemed pretty smart. I wondered how smart I was compared to them. Sure, I earned excellent grades in my tiny high school and small college, but how would I stack up in the real world? Was I smart enough to become a titan of industry?

I decided to take an I.Q. test administered by Mensa, the organization of geniuses. If you score in the top 2% of people who take that same test, you get to call yourself a “genius” and optionally join the group. I squeaked in and immediately joined so I could hang out with the other geniuses and do genius things. I even volunteered to host some meetings at my apartment.

Then, the horror.

It turns out that the people who join Mensa and attend meetings are, on average, not successful titans of industry. They are instead – and I say this with great affection – huge losers. I was making $735 per month and I was like frickin’ Goldfinger in this crowd. We had a guy who was some sort of poet who hoped to one day start “writing some of them down.” We had people who were literally too smart to hold a job. The rest of the group dressed too much like street people to ever get past security for a job interview. And everyone was always available for meetings on weekend nights.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Now I'm a believer

I’m officially ceasing my sitting on the fence about greenhouse gases, but want to make a few things clear.

It is right to worry about greenhouse gases, and to worry quite a lot. For me, the most convincing reason for this is actually not directly the issue of global warming, which still carries uncertainty about its likely extent and its full consequences, but rather ocean acidification.

The recent Scientific American article I posted about here gives good reason to worry about the global situation if CO2 levels ever reach 1000 ppm. (Short explanation: if oceans or seas become sufficiently lacking in oxygen and warm enough, hydrogen sulphide producing bacteria might make enough gas to cause enormous deadly gas bubbles that could wipe out life on nearby land.) The problem is, as noted in my recent post here, the world could get up to 700 ppm by the end of this century, and despite what the Scientific American article says, it would seem it need not take another century beyond that to crack 1,000ppm.

Going back and looking at other articles on ocean acidification, it seems to me that the environmental effects of that are relatively easy to test and accurately predict. (It doesn’t take much to set up a large tank and change the Ph and see what it does to plankton or coral shells.)
As plankton plays a significant role as a CO2 sink in the deep oceans, surface acidification to an extent that would cause a decrease in plankton would also seem to be a major worry for accelerating the rate of increase of atmospheric CO2.

The other issue that gives me concern is that letting CO2 levels get close to 1000 ppm may make it extremely easy for some uncontrollable event to lead to a sudden disastrous global increase. (For example, a supervolcano system suddenly springing to life, or an asteroid hit or two. If I understand it correctly, anything that kicks up a lot of dust would initially cool the earth, but the greater greenhouse gases would eventually kick in.)

That’s my reasoning for deciding that there is not much point in nitpicking over the arguments about how much hotter increased CO2 levels may make the world. Seriously bad effects on the oceans seem certain with sufficiently high CO2 levels anyway.

Of course, Phillip Adams and his ilk are in full gloating “told you so” mode about the fact that politicians on the the Right are starting to sound more serious about the issue. (It seems to me that Adams is wanting to take far more credit for early recognition of the issue than his published columns indicate he deserves.) My impression is that ocean acidification issue has really only started attracting a lot of attention in the last couple of years anyway.

Also, to be clear about my position, there are several things related to global warming of which I remain either dismissive or at least very sceptical:

1. the Kyoto Treaty;

2. wind power;

3. Carbon offset schemes which involve growing trees, especially if they are in areas where bushfires are a distinct possibility. (It is my suspicion that many companies promoting carbon offset schemes are selling snake oil when it comes to their long term effect.)

4. Environmentalists and politicians who claim Pacific Islands are already disappearing from increasing sea levels caused by global warming. (In another 30 years or so, maybe. But hey, just how viable is any 2 metre high island nation built in the middle of the ocean anyway.)

5. Politicians who resist nuclear power on principle.

6. Dismissal of the sun’s role as being possibly significant for temperatures over the next century.

7. Believing that the current Australian drought is necessarily related to global warming.

8. Arguing that current short bouts of surprising cooler weather are a sign that global warming is not true, and that greenhouse gases are not worth worrying about. (Sorry Tim Blair, they are funny, but I think no serious climate scientist is concerned about them disproving the theory.)

9. “The Day after Tomorrow” scenarios to do with the sudden “switching off” of the Atlantic ocean conveyor current. (Real Climate recently chided The Guardian for getting reporting of recent research on this completely wrong.)

10. The more excitable predictions about the number of birds, frogs, spiders, polar bears etc likely to be lost as a result of global warming.

The fact that Rupert Murdoch and me have suddenly reached the same conclusion is, of course, simply a sign that great minds think alike. He's a sharp old codger, isn't he?

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Planning for the year 12,000 and beyond

This article, from a publication of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, talks about the fairly silly sounding lengths that the US is forced to go to in its planning for the safe storage of spent nuclear fuel. The Yucca Mountain waste depository is forced by the EPA to met certain standards of exposure in 10,000 years time! And the report even suggested that there was no reason to stick to a nominal period, and "recommended that assessment be performed out to the time of peak risk to a maximally exposed individual, which may be several hundred thousand years in the future." !!

I would like to think that humans will still be around in recognizable form in 10,000 years time, but isn't there a fair chance they will be half robot hybrids who would like to sip on a radioactive spritzer instead of a vodka cocktail? Also, even if the entire planet is one big nuclear waste dump, won't there be somewhere else to live by then?

CO2 on the up and up

Recently I have had a few posts about CO2 levels, and how bad the situation looked for anyone interested in seeing that atmospheric concentrations level out.

Here's a story from Nature that confirms this. (As News@Nature articles tend not to be accessible for long, here's a New Scientist version, but it is not as good.)

From the Nature story:

Global carbon emissions are now growing by 3.2% a year, according to results presented at an Earth science conference in Beijing on 9 November. That's four times higher than the average annual growth of 0.8% from 1990-99.

"We are not on any of the stabilization paths," says Michael Raupach, a carbon-cycle scientist with Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) in Canberra, who presented the Global Carbon Project results. ...

"What's really striking is the rate of growth in places like China," says Raupach. According to Chinese figures, China currently contributes some 16% to global emissions, but accounts for 40% of the growth in world emissions.

China's vice premier Hui Liangyu yesterday told the meeting that China, like all countries, suffers from severe weather events that are in part a result of global warming. "The Chinese government attaches great important to global environmental change and actively copes with the related problems," he wrote in a letter to the meeting delegates.

China plans to reduce the amount of its 'energy intensity', defined as the emissions per person per unit of GDP, by 20% by 2010, although it has no official emissions targets.

Sea-level rise is also at the upper end of IPCC projections, adds John Church, who works at CSIRO Marine and Atmospheric Research in Hobart, Tasmania. Analyses published in 2006 have shown that sea level is currently rising at 1.5-2 mm per year, which is in the upper half of the IPCC value of 1-2 mm per year. The rate of the rise is accelerating.

This is expected to lead to an 88 cm rise in sea level by 2100. "We have to start acting soon — it's urgent," says Church. Raupach's results, he says, are "really striking". ...

Armstrong and the Prophet, again

"Muhammad: a prophet for our time" is the second Karen Armstrong biographical book on the founder of Islam. (Does she actually like wearing big "kick me" signs taped on her back?) It's been out for a couple of months but seems to have attracted little in the way of reviews.

This weekend, a review in The Tablet starts off seemingly well, but it doesn't last:

In her elegantly composed and absorbingly narrated story of Muhammad's life and achievements, Karen Armstrong aims at doing just this and even more. She sees Muhammad not only as "a moral exemplar" but also as no less than "Prophet [and not only a prophet] for our time". Her account is based partly on a straightforward and uncritical reading of the work of Muhammad's earliest biographers, taking the Qur'an as her main source of information.

....Armstrong arrives at what seems a contrived interpretation of Muhammad's life: "Muhammad literally sweated with the effort to bring peace to war-torn Arabia, and we need people who are prepared to do this today. His life is a tireless campaign against greed, injustice, and arrogance ... he wore himself out in the effort to evolve an entirely new solution."

For Armstrong, the violent phase in the career of Muhammad must not be taken as its climax: Muhammad "eventually abjured warfare and adopted a non-violent policy". This statement is bizarre and corresponds to no Muslim account. It is highly questionable also in the light of all the bloodshed during the early history of Islam, starting with the Medinan period of Muhammad's career. Is it really historically convincing to claim that the battles of Muhammad and his immediate successors "had no religious significance"? Or that the first four caliphs, the "rightly guided ones", "in expanding the Arab Islamic empire by diplomatic and military means", were "responding to a political opportunity ... rather than a Qur'anic imperative"? The Qur'an clearly indicates that Muhammad's first great victory, at Badr, was to be understood as an act of divine intervention, vindicating Muhammad in his struggle against the enemies.

Other anti-Armstrong reviews:

From a University of London academic Efraim Karsh (this was noted in LGF in September):

Ms. Armstrong goes out of her way to whitewash Muhammad's extermination of the Jewish presence in Medina, especially the beheading of the entire 600 to 800 male population of the Qurayzah tribe. "[T]he Qurayzah were not killed on religious or racial ground," she claims, adding that "Muhammad had no ideological quarrel with the Jewish people." This is of course a travesty of the truth. Muhammad might have had no ideological quarrel with "the Jewish people," but he was seething with anger at the Medina Jews, who had not only spurned his attempts to woo them into his incipient religion (for example, by adopting a number of religious Jewish practices and rituals) but had also become his fiercest critics. Reflecting this outrage, both the Qur'an and later biographical traditions of the prophet abound with negative depictions of Jews. In these works they are portrayed as a deceitful, evil, and treacherous people who in their insatiable urge for domination would readily betray an ally and swindle a non-Jew.

And from the Boston Globe:

Readers will find her style stilted: At her best, she makes use of her intellectual skills to explore the tension between the personal and the historical, presenting Muhammad as an average individual doubting his choices, a visionary testing the limitations of his epoch; at her worst, she's didactic, frequently making sermonizing comments about thinking critically about jihad that are a mere rhetorical device. For Armstrong isn't a savvy, inquisitive thinker: She tells rather than shows, assumes rather than explains.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Vague cause for optimism

While not arguing with Israel's right to take steps to stop the never ending random rocket attacks on its territory, shouldn't they be reconsidering the use of shelling (with its inherent risk of error) as an appropriate method? Sure, missile attacks from helicopters and drones kill passersby too, but their explosive force is usually must more limited than a shell coming through the roof of a house (or hitting a beach.)

That said, I continue to wonder why the Palestinians think their rocket attacks are worthwhile when they are (in comparison) causing few deaths but, as a terror tactic, make it impossible for any Israeli government to say to its citizens that they should just ignore it.

I see from this BBC report that at least some Palestinians seem to share this view:

An old man called Muhammad Hussein broke down as he talked of the deaths of his sister and other relatives.

"They were all killed - pieces!" he shouted as he wept. "Thrown in pieces. I saw them! I put them in a sack! Eighteen people - they were killed."

But he said there should be no retaliatory suicide bombings.

"I don't like it," he said. "I myself don't like it. I am more than 70 years old. I want to live in peace!"

A much younger man called Nasser Hamad agreed.

"Palestinians should think carefully," he said.

"Palestinians should go to the peace process. We should not stop negotiating with the Israelis because they are pressuring us to lose our control and do unjustified actions against them."

He described suicide bombings as an ineffective tool.

They are talking about suicide bombings, but I presume that they would not agree with the rocket attacks either. It's a start, although I imagine it is a little hard for grass roots peace movements to get going within Gaza.

The yearning Tracee

Tracee Hutchison's column in The Age today is easy to ridicule in part:

A COUPLE of weeks ago, Silverchair's lead singer Daniel Johns made a bold political statement with a spray can at the annual ARIA awards. Having paid homage to ARIA Hall of Fame inductees Midnight Oil with a powerful rendition of the Oils' 1981 anthem I Don't Wanna Be the One, 27-year-old Johns spray-painted "PG 4 PM" on a strategically placed piece of plasterboard.

It was a fascinating moment.

Maybe for those who pay attention to the political opinions of an overly sensitive, arty musician who was far too successful far too early for the good of his own mental health. (Well, you go read the transcript of the Enough Rope interview he gave. It made me feel very uncomfortable watching it.)

Talking about Midnight Oil, Hutchison writes:

In truth, there are probably more bands making political statements in their lyrics now than there were when the Oils were in their prime. It's just that the Oils were an extraordinary rock'n'roll band first and foremost and their powerfully persuasive lyrics came wrapped in wonderful melodies, so their message reached more people than most.

I may be a musical ignoramus, but I am very surprised at the suggestion that Midnight Oil were big on melody.

But I shouldn't be too tough on this Hutchison column, because she does express cynicism about the relevance of things like this:

Now, more than ever, young, and not so young, people are looking for something, someone, to show them the way.

How else can you explain U2 lead singer Bono's ability to persuade 50,000 fans at U2's Brisbane concert to send a text message to the Make Poverty History organisation while pointing their mobile phones at the moon?

Exactly how 50,000 texts to the ether helps anyone but the shareholders of the phone companies is a mystery...

Quite true. But Hutchison's only source of inspiration in politics today? :

Activist-turned-Greens leader Bob Brown aside, the absence of inspired political leadership in Australia has never been starker. And the need to give people something to believe has never been more crucial. As a twentysomething, Peter Garrett sang about not wanting to be the One. Maybe so. But we need more Garretts, Browns and Stott Despojas engaged in the political process and we need them being heard.

I don't know. It seems to me a large part of the problem is this: teenagers, as a general rule, have always thought they know more than their hopeless parents who are running the world. Nowadays, psychological teenage-hood often extends into the early 30's, and so the class of disaffected "youth" had accordingly increased. (And, if they are all convinced of coming global catastrophe, they will probably have fewer children and avoid the life lessons that child rearing often entails.)

There are issues with how Western youth and society as a whole now chose to find meaning in life. But just complaining that oldies don't listen to and don't know how to lead the disaffected youth is not exactly a helpful contribution.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Bush and a carbon tax?

While it seems to be based on pretty slim evidence, Timothy Noah in Slate speculates that maybe Bush will become a carbon tax convert. It would be some surprise...

The baby flap

I haven't posted anything about Japan for a while, but this article in the Japan Times caught my eye:

KUMAMOTO (Kyodo) A hospital here plans to create a drop box where parents can anonymously leave unwanted babies, hospital officials said Thursday.

Jikei Hospital said it will begin the work to create the drop box as soon as it obtains permission from local public health authorities. The hospital wants to set it up by the end of the year.

Drop boxes for abandoned babies have been introduced in Germany, where they are known as a "babyklappe" (baby flap) or "babyfenster" (baby window) in German. In Italy, they are called "culle per la vita" (cradle for life).

A Jikei Hospital official visited Germany, where they are usually set up at hospitals or social centers, in 2004.

Jikei Hospital said its baby drop box, called "konotori no yurikago" (cradle of storks), will be a boxlike chamber similar to an incubator, accessible from outside the hospital by opening a window. When a baby is dropped off, an alarm will alert nurses.

I had heard of this idea before, but did not know it was already well established in Europe.

It's a peculiar idea in some respects; and I find it odd that giving up a baby this way doesn't cause all sort of problems for the mother in explaining to neighbours and relatives what happened to the baby.

Further down in the article, the depressing figure of the number of abortions in Japan is mentioned:

According to the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, in fiscal 2004, the number of abortions in the prefecture stood at 5,619, while the nationwide figure came to 301,673. No figures were available on abandoned babies in Japan, which is struggling to find ways to stem a falling birthrate.

Just how big a difference to the population problem in Japan would a reduction in abortions mean? According to the BBC in August 2006:

Almost 550,000 births were registered in the six months from January to June, up by more than 11,600 from the same period last year.

So, that means (if this increase holds up), about 1,100,000 births a year. The number of deaths in 2005: about 1,077,000. (More people died in 2005 than were born.)

The point is, if they are going to insist on very low migration as a source of population growth, then halving the current abortion rate would stop the population slide by a substantial number.

UPDATE: by coincidence, I see that there is a recent Japundit post about the birth rate, and the strange attitude of Japanese to immigration.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Good news/bad news on greenhouse gases

Good news on the greenhouse gas front is rare to find (and not exactly over-reported.) But it turns out that atmospheric levels of methane, an important greenhouse gas due to it having a larger effect than CO2, has stopped increasing. From American Scientist:

This happy development wasn't entirely unanticipated, given that the rate of increase has been slowing for at least a quarter-century. Yet the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has predicated many of its conclusions on scenarios in which methane concentrations would continue growing for decades to come. Thus the recent stabilization of methane levels is something that some scientists are trying very hard to explain.

Edward J. Dlugokencky, an atmospheric chemist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), has tracked atmospheric methane for many years. He says that "even as the reduction was happening, people doing emission scenarios weren't accounting for it." Dlugokencky maintains that the evolution of methane levels in the atmosphere mostly just reflects the attainment of a chemical equilibrium, such that methane production is balanced by its destruction. In sum, he says, atmospheric methane "looks like a system approaching steady state."

But now for the bad news. Over at Real Climate, there is a recent post about how much additional CO2 in the atmosphere might be "safe".

As usual with their site, they don't believe in over-simplifying their explanations for easy understanding, but the figures suggested, although appearing fairly "back of the envelope" look pretty bad:

This is a bit of a guessing game, but 2°C has been proposed as a reasonable danger limit. This would be decidedly warmer than the Earth has been in millions of years, and warm enough to eventually raise sea level by tens of meters. A warming of 2° C could be accomplished by raising CO2 to 450 ppm and waiting a century or so, assuming a climate sensitivity of 3 °C for doubling CO2, a typical value from models and diagnosed from paleo-data. Of the 450 ppm, 170 ppm would be from fossil fuels (given an original natural pCO2 of 280 ppm). 170 ppm equals 340 Gton C, which divided by the peak airborne fraction of 60% yields a total emission slug of about 570 Gton C.

How much is 570 Gton C? We have already released about 300 Gton C, and the business-as-usual scenario projects 1600 Gton C total release by the year 2100. Avoiding dangerous climate change requires very deep cuts in CO2 emissions in the long term, something like 85% of business-as-usual averaged over the coming century. Put it this way and it sounds impossible. Another way to look at it, which doesn't seem quite as intractable, is to say that the 200 Gton C that can still be "safely" emitted is roughly equivalent to the remaining traditional reserves of oil and natural gas. We could burn those until they're gone, but declare an immediate moratorium on coal, and that would be OK, according to our defined danger limit of 2°C. A third perspective is that if we could limit emissions to 5 Gton C per year starting now, we could continue doing that for 250/5 = 50 years.

According to a chart that was part of my last post on CO2, the atmospheric level of CO2, on a "business as usual" basis, would be reached by about 2040. (We're already at about 380ppm.)

These figures are not good. However, the argument goes on in the comments section about whether Kyoto is a help or hinderance. Post number 105 comes up with some fairly imaginative ideas about reducing CO2 with self replicating robots and such like, and ends on this note, which neatly summarises conservative's concerns about Kyoto:

..many of the problems associated with CO2 is best solved with wealth. Indeed technology induced wealth solves both CO2-related problems AND all other sorts of nasty problems unrelated to CO2 such as poverty, disease, hunger, misery and disasters. By insisting on strangling economic growth, not only are you robbing the world of the best way to cope with climate change -- technology -- but also robbing the poor of the world the opportunity to cope with just about anything.

I haven't read the Stern report, or many of the articles criticising it yet, so I can't comment helpfully yet. But the main point of this post is just how bad the figures look for how hard it will be to keep that much carbon out of the atmophere.

Uncommon medical advice

I like stories about doctors who have gone mad, assuming no harm is done in the process:

A doctor at a family planning clinic told a patient that she needed an exorcism because there was something sinister moving around inside her stomach, a medical tribunal was told yesterday.

Joyce Pratt, 44, allegedly told the patient, who was seeking contraceptive advice, that she might be possessed by an evil spirit and needed religious rather than medical help.

She gave the woman crosses and trinkets to ward off black magic, allegedly told her that her mother was a witch, that she and her husband were trying to kill her, and suggested that she visit a Roman Catholic priest at Westminster Cathedral in London.

During the consultation at the Westside Contraceptive Clinic in Central London the doctor was said to have told the patient that she had black magic powers that could help to alleviate the problem.

I am sure Queensland Health could find a place for her in any event.

On the US elections

Complicated system, this having a separate executive from the legislature.

As far as Iraq is concerned, it's hard to see how a Democrat controlled house is going to help come up any time soon with a concrete change of plan in Iraq. The Guardian helpfully points out that important Democrat figures are all over the place:

....suggestions that Democrats have the answers on Iraq appear sadly misplaced. In the first place, they lack decisive power. Mr Bush remains arbiter-in-chief of America's foreign and security policy. More to the point, they have no coherent, collective view - and are scared of being accused of betraying frontline troops.

Hillary Clinton, the 2008 presidential hopeful, opposes an Iraq withdrawal timetable. John Kerry, beaten by Mr Bush in 2004, wants a firm deadline. John Murtha, who will control the House committee that appropriates cash for the Iraq war, has demanded an immediate pullout. Joe Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate foreign relations committee, is advocating a tripartite division of Iraq. And there are many other points of view. All that unifies them is criticism of Mr Bush's performance.

The paper also points out how new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has previously spoken of the President:

While the two have appeared together at some social functions, their relationship has been marked by mutual disdain.

"He is an incompetent leader. In fact, he is not a leader," she said in a 2004 interview. "He's a person who has no judgment, no experience and no knowledge of the subjects that he has to decide on." Bush, for his part, has painted Pelosi has a tax-loving Democrat, although during the midterm campaign he left the mud-slinging to party operatives who depicted her in political adverts as a stereotypical San Francisco liberal.

I have not paid attention to the nature of the Republican attacks, but I see that some say Fox News spent a lot of time on her.

Interesting times ahead.