Saturday, March 31, 2007

On British comedy

Comedy ain’t what it used to be (but don’t tell foreigners)-Richard Morrison-TimesOnline

I'm not sure I totally agree with Morrison on his analysis, but he has some fun along the way:

...amazing though it may seem to those of us struggling joylessly to pay a huge mortgage for a tiny piece of this fractious isle, the world regards the Brits as the funniest nation on earth...

This anecdotal evidence is confirmed by a survey that Reader’s Digest did a couple of years ago. They asked 4,000 Europeans to rank each other’s nationalities according to traits such as bossiness (the Germans came top), efficiency (the Germans came top), and loveability (the Germans came last). The British ended up mid-table for everything except “sense of humour”, where we soared to the top. Oh, and “sexiness”, where we plunged to the bottom. (In every sense, if you went to a private school.)

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I came late to "Extras", but did find it very funny.

Generally, I don't find much British TV comedy worth watching anymore. I suspect that a large part is to do with the way it seems nearly all shows are written by just one or two writers, often the stars of the show. (Yes, I know, this was true of "Extras" too, yet I liked it.) But generally, what seems to be lacking is someone to tell the writers that a sketch has gone on long enough, and they need to cut it. This is especially the case with Little Britain, which loves to repeat or push an idea so far that it finally does become in offensively bad taste.

(Repetition can itself become part of the joke -"Get Smart" is the best example of that - but it has its limits.)

For me, I still count the finest and funniest sketch show writing ever to come of Britain to be Not the Nine O'Clock News. (It makes me feel old to think that anyone under about the age of 30 has probably not even seen it.)

The show had a whole raft of writers, as do most US Comedy talk shows that I like (Letterman and Conan O'Brien). I also think that few US sitcoms that have been successful have ever been sole writer effort.

If only there was currently such a talented team as that on Not the Nine O'Clock News. Here's a prime sketch:

A trip through Asia

Centauri Dreams - Emerging Asia

Science fiction author Gregory Benford has a post here about a recent trip through Asia. There's a picture of him with a rather frail Arthur C Clarke.

By the way, Gregory Benford looks to me a lot of that writer on David Letterman who seemed to have left the show a year or more ago (Letterman interviewed him as a farewell), but seems to be back doing bit parts now. Don't know his name, sorry.

Cold fusion still under consideration

Cold fusion is back at the American Chemical Society

The story above about cold fusion from news@nature is interesting for what it says about the open-mindedness of science. Some extracts:

After an 18-year hiatus, the American Chemical Society (ACS) seems to be warming to cold fusion. Today that society is holding a symposium at their national meeting in Chicago, Illinois, on 'low-energy nuclear reactions', the official name for cold fusion....

Mosier-Boss presented her team's latest results with a technique called co-deposition, where they electrochemically deposit palladium onto a cathode in the presence of deuterium — a heavy isotope of hydrogen. During their electrochemical reactions they have seen mini explosions, evidence for neutron and tritium production, and a warming of the cell that can't be accounted for by normal chemistry, they say — although they are careful to avoid the 'CF' words.

"We have shown it's possible to stimulate nuclear reactions by electrochemical methods," says Gordon. Others say this conclusion is premature. But they have published some 16 papers over the past 18 years, including one earlier this year1.

Miles is also careful to avoid using the words 'cold fusion'. "There are code names you can use," he says. In 2004 Miles and colleagues were granted a US patent for a palladium material doped with boron for use in low-energy nuclear reactions, but if the patent application contained the CF words it would never have been granted, Miles says. "We kind of disguised what we did."

There was also a 2004 review by the Department of Energy that was inconclusive.

It puzzles me that some scientists are so sceptical about this. If there are experiments still showing inconclusive results, aren't they curious to get to the bottom of what is causing the anomalies?

The path of science is not immune from the influence of the personalities who conduct it, but I feel there are many who don't like to admit this.

Alan Ramsey breaks a story - mark your calendar

Stop the presses: the story Rudd tried to kill - Opinion -

It's a remarkable day when Alan Ramsey uses his Saturday column to actually tell us a story we did not know before. (As opposed to his usual schtick of cutting and pasting enormous tracts of other peoples words.)

Well, this is sort of a new story. Or at least, it's the insider journalist's background to a story we already knew. As told to him by another journalist....

Anyway, anyway...

The point is that there is actual insight to be gained into Kevin Rudd and his adviser's attitudes and character in today's column, and you must read it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Bad career moves of Gillian

More X-rated than X Files-Arts & Entertainment-Film-TimesOnline

Aw, it's so disappointing to read interviews with stars when they reveal themselves to have none of the charms of their most famous character. Case in point: this interview with Gillian Anderson. She also seems to have strange tastes in selecting movies to advance her career:

In a tiny trailer, in a clearing in a cold and wet Worcestershire forest, Gillian Anderson is swearing like a docker. “Movies should be whatever the f*** they are!” says the 38-year-old actress and one-time TV icon from The X Files. “If they are f****** disturbing, then let them be f***** disturbing!”....

The movie, about a young urban couple, Alice (Anderson) and Adam (Danny Dyer), who are brutalised by a gang of country yokels before extracting even more gruesome revenge, will not be everyone’s cup of tea. “It’s dark, but it’s brilliantly dark,” Anderson says about a movie in which gang rape, torture and the near lethal intrusion of a rusty gun barrel into the rectum of a major character are key features. “We can’t pretend that there isn’t violence in the world, that it doesn’t f****** happen!”.....

“Look, I swear a lot normally,” she admits, before shifting the blame on to her co-star, the notoriously potty-mouthed Dyer. “But working with Danny exacerbated it. I mean, we all absorbed the word c*** into our vocabulary thanks to him.”

She sounds like a natural for that very amusing "Extras" show, I reckon.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Imagining Iraq

Lies and memories: When stories read a little too good. - By Jack Shafer - Slate Magazine

Read the Slate article above about how the New York Times reported on one woman's complete fabrication about suffering while in Iraq. Fascinating.

Eat up all your isotopes, kids

Research suggests fortified food could help resist ageing

This has to be one of the oddest ideas I have ever heard:

Fortifying food with specially developed proteins could make our bodies more resistant to the ageing process, according to a former Oxford University scientist.

Steaks and chicken fillets laced with rare, heavy forms of elements - "isotope-enhanced" proteins - could strengthen cells and protect them against oxidation, caused by highly-reactive particles, free radicals, that are released in the body as a by-product of biological processes in our cells. Many researchers believe free-radical oxidation is a major cause of ageing.

In small-scale studies, Mikhail Shchepinov found nematode worms - used extensively in ageing research - lived 10% longer when fed nutrients enriched with a heavy isotope of hydrogen, deuterium.


Cancer and the Left

White House spokesman faces new battle with cancer - International Herald Tribune

Tony Snow, the Fox News host who moved to the White House as the press secretary not so long ago, now has liver cancer too.

I wonder why liver cancer is so difficult (or impossible?) to treat.

As you might expect, there are some on the left who see this as fitting example of karma. There's a column at Huffington Post
which seems to run the line "I really don't wish him ill, but part of me still feels he deserves it." That's left wing compassion for you.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Cute, furry, smart, animal time

Like Goldilocks, mice know a bed that's 'just right' - New Scientist

It seems like every day there is a study indicating that lowly mammals (and birds) are smarter than we thought. Mind you, I am not entirely sure if discovering what some rodents seem to understand has all that much point, really. For example:

Just like Goldilocks, mice have an innate sense of what makes a good bed: a specific group of cells in their brains becomes active when they see a potential nesting spot – but only if it perfectly matches their size...

The researchers say that the findings demonstrate that rodents can understand some abstract concepts, such as the idea of a "bed" that is independent from specific nesting bowls.

Just to rule out the possibility that they actually run the universe, perhaps someone should sit a few mice in front of a TV flashing "E= mc2" and other basic equations, and see if their brain cells click away in recognition. (I like to think that I cover all possibilities.)

Population woes?

No one is willing to address the accelerating growth in the world's population | Comment | The Observer

This article appeared last week, but it's worth reading, including the comments.

The basic argument is that, even with low birth rates in the richer West, the UN predicts population increases to add perhaps another 2-3 billion to the planet by mid century. The writer thinks this a problem for controlling greenhouse gases. The first comment, however, makes this point:

World population was estimated at 2.5 billion in 1950. Between 2000 and 2050, the population is expected to triple in Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Chad, the Congos, East Timor, Guinea-Buissau, Liberia, Mali, Niger and Uganda.
However, half of the global increase of 2.5 billion to 2050 will be concentrated in these countries, ranked from most to least : India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh, DR Congo, Uganda [ assuming HIV epidemic is ameliorated ], the USA, Ethopia and China.

The article conflates two differing problems : environmental impact and economic development/ social impact. The greatest environmental impact of world population will occur in China and America. The 13 countries I have listed which will have the most rapid population rises, are actually some of the world's poorest. Each inhabitant here has a minimal environmental impact with respect to CO2 etc. It is not clear whether any of the countries whose population is expected to triple by 2050 will actually be functioning, governable states because of the diminishing per capita resources.

Tim Worstoll points out that the IPPC and Stern have already taken into account possible increases in population.

It also appears from the comments that some population forecasts expect a rapid growth to 9 billion, but then a rapid decline due to the falling birthrates back to 6 billion or less by the end of the century.

Certainly, the already dramatically low birthrate is going to affect many countries well before 2050:

The detailed projections for individual countries show 33 countries with smaller populations in 2050 than today. Japan is expected to be 14 per cent smaller; Italy 22 per cent; and a slew of eastern European countries, including Russia and Ukraine, will see their populations crash by between 30 and 50 per cent.

Population dynamics are going to be weird over the next century.

Take your pills

Angioplasty no better than drugs for pre-heart attack patients, study finds - Los Angeles Times

It's pretty fascinating how a new medical procedure seems to take off in popularity with doctors, well before the studies are in that properly compare it with other treatments. The story above is a fine example.

I was also surprised to see just how much money in the stent business:

The findings deal another significant blow to the stent industry, which sells an estimated $3.2-billion worth of stents each year in the United States. As many as 65% of the estimated 1 million stenting procedures performed each year occur in such patients at a cost of about $40,000 per surgery.

That's a lot of money on bits of metal that don't seem so effective (at least for pre-heart attack patients) after all.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Rowan frets again

Archbishop urges church to consider slavery reparations | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

The Archbishop of Canterbury seems well intentioned, but as I noted in an earlier post, gets far too much enjoyment from waffling on to excess. From the story above:

The Bishop of Exeter and three business colleagues were paid nearly £13,000 to compensate them for the loss of 665 slaves in 1833.

Dr Williams told BBC Radio 4's Trade Roots programme organisations that received compensation in the 1830s were still "living off the historical legacy" of slavery.

However, he added: "While it sounds simple to say ... we should pass on the reparation that was received, exactly to whom?

"Exactly where does it go? And exactly how does it differ from the various ways in which we try to interact now with the effects of that in terms of aid and development and so forth?

"So I haven't got a quick solution to that. I think we need to be asking the question and working at it. That, I think, we're beginning to do."

By the way, if you think John Howard lets his eyebrows get too big, check out the fierce competition he faces from the Archbishop. It's a sin against grooming, I say.


The Comment is Free section of The Guardian website is always worth checking. Today I liked this article by Francis Fukuyama about Japan and its difficulties in facing up to its past.

(There is also a photo of him. Can't recall ever seeing him before.)

Friday, March 23, 2007


I probably can't post for a few days. Don't forget to come back!

Meanwhile, here's a very amateur video done to a 20 year old They Might be Giants song that ended their first album. It's not exciting, but has a certain charm of watching some happy youngsters amusing themselves. Cheers.

Future eaters from the ALP

I find it rather puzzling politics that Rudd should want to use income from the future fund to pay for something that, on the face of it, is capable of being paid for from the "normal" current budget surplus. Not only that, he says on 7.30 Report that he may do it again for things that are needed.

Fran Kelly on Radio National this morning seemed to be pressing the line that Rudd is leaving himself wide open for attack on economic credentials here; Michelle Gratton seemed to think it was too early to tell if the public will notice.

A good summary of the issues, and the hypocrisy of the ALP on this, is at Niner Charlie.

Here some of my own points on this:

1. I would like to know how rubbery are the figures thrown about for how faster broadband will result in greater productivity and a stronger economy. I mean, businesses that really need faster broadband don't set up in an area with fast broadband access problems, do they? Faster broadband seems to me to mainly the concern of domestic users, with the big problem being the "black spots" that currently exist even in urban areas.

2. Predictions that the Future Fund is ahead of schedule, or won't be called on as soon as earlier predicted, seem rather dangerous. No one seems to be factoring in the possibility of major world economic problems (I assume stemming from a dramatic collapse in China) within the next decade or so.

3. Is this costing for the project accurate or rubbery? The Age, as one might expect, thinks it is a great idea, and mentions Singapore spending $5 billion to get optical fibre to every user. I know the Australian plan would not be the same, but still the cost sounds low to me.

Interesting days ahead.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The gods of bodily function

Gold poop | The Japan Times Online

This somewhat interesting article starts by examining the story behind a novelty charm from Japan (yes, a gold poo), but Shinto gods get a mention too:

...there is a long history of poo-related worship in Japan, according to Mitsuhashi.

"There are more gods in the Shinto religion than it is possible to count, and they reside just about everywhere, inhabiting natural things like trees, rocks and waterfalls," he said. "Bodily functions are very important -- think what a problem it would be if a person couldn't defecate or urinate properly -- so it's natural that people worshipped deities linked to these functions."

The earliest recorded example is a god called Haniyasu, who is mentioned in the Nihon Shoki, an eighth-century text that is one of the most important records of ancient beliefs and practices. Haniyasu is still worshipped at Haruna Jinja, a well-known shrine in Gunma Prefecture. And until fairly recently, it was common to worship deities known collectively as benjo-gami (privy gods) by placing religious figures in or under the privy.

Mitsuhashi, who is in his 60s, remembers his parents burying a pair of god figures, one male and one female, under the privy in his childhood home.

Well, how does one become a god associated with poo? The Encyclopaedia of Shinto notes:

The name haniyasu is thought to mean "to knead earth so as to make it soft." Kojiki relates that the two kami Haniyasubiko no kami and Haniyasubime no kami were produced from Izanami's feces.

Talk about an inauspicious start to a career as a divinity...

Warts and all

Here's a story about a study on the best way to get rid of warts. (Duct tape verses freezing.)

As a sufferer of the occasional persistent knee or hand wart as a child, I still recommend the tried and true method of rubbing it with a small piece of meat and burying it. As the meat rots, the wart will go.

I have long felt that there is a possible scientific explanation for this. I don't think it is very common knowledge that hypnotism has been medically studied and proven as often being an effective treatment for warts. (In fact, in one study the patient was hypnotised and told to reduce the warts on one side of their body only - and it worked!)

This report of success is of particular interest because:

Of note is the fact that she had low expectations regarding the benefit to be derived from hypnosis and did not at first appear to be highly hypnotizable.

So, the rotting meat method, as well as other folk remedies, are just a subtle form of subconscious suggestion that can work even if your rational mind thinks "this is ridiculous".

That hypnotism should work at all on warts is, I reckon, pretty amazing.

It also seems odd that, as far as I know, the visualisation methods for assisting cancer treatment are now not believed to be effective, yet one would have thought that the hypnotism warts analogy would suggest it could.

Other folk remedies for warts are around, but I like the earthy nature of the rotting meat method. It makes sense to me that my subconscious should believe it. (I mean, rubbing a coin on it and burying it, why should that work?)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Peter Singer and intuition

Reason with yourself | Guardian daily comment | Guardian Unlimited

See the link above for an interesting article by Peter Singer in the Guardian. Given my general dislike of his work, it is gratifying to see that the great majority of reader comments are critical of his argument.

The article is about moral intuitions, and research that indicates how cross-cultural they are. Singer argues:

...the fact that our moral intuitions are universal and part of our human nature does not mean that they are right. On the contrary, these findings should make us more sceptical about relying on our intuitions. There is, after all, no ethical significance in the fact that one method of harming others has existed for most of our evolutionary history, and the other is relatively new. Blowing up people with bombs is no better than clubbing them to death. And the death of one person is a lesser tragedy than the death of five, no matter how that death is brought about. So we should think for ourselves, not just listen to our intuitions.

While it would be wrong to say that reason has no place in moral decision making, it seems to me that Singer's point is exactly the opposite lesson that one should learn from modern history.

The great warning from the 20th century is surely that rational and logical arguments can be extremely successful in convincing large numbers of people to act in a way that is appallingly immoral and contrary to moral intuition. If anything, the remedy for the genocides, political pogroms and ideologically induced famines would have been an emphasis on moral intuition, not scepticism of it.

Singer's article deals with a philosopher's hypothetical dilemma involving a runaway rail trolley and how to think about the most moral action to take, given that all outcomes will involve at least some loss of life. For those who know Singer's controversial views on the disabled, this comment by "Shrover" following the Guardian article is pretty funny:

Prof Singer omitted his preferred scenario, where you can push a disabled person in front of the trolley and save five lives without costing one.

The best simple explanation of the main objection to Singer's utilitarian approach is given by "Calgacus" further down in the comments:

Singer is obviously a utilitarian. Utilitarianism is very limited on its own and leads to many obviously wrong actions - only a combination of utilitarianism with deontological principles can give a good guide to moral choices.

In other words a result which e.g saves one more life than it costs is not necessarily right if it involves murdering someone. We should do what avoids suffering/produces happiness for the greatest number of people provided that we don't do anything clearly wrong in the process (e.g stealing food from someone who has more than they need may be moral if you're starving but murdering someone never is).

My distrust of Singer is further reinforced.

UPDATE: by coincidence (I think), there are a couple of stories relating to the "runaway train" moral dilemma at news@nature and Scientific American. The news @nature story puts it this way:

A runaway train is speeding down the tracks towards five workmen. You and a stranger are standing on a bridge over the track. The only way to save the five is to push the stranger in front of the train to his death, and his body will stop it from reaching them.

Do you push him?

Most people answer that they could not personally push a stranger to his death, even though more lives would be saved than lost. But a new study published online in Nature finds that people with damage to a particular part of the frontal lobe reach the opposite — alarmingly utilitarian — conclusion.

I like the phrase "alarmingly utilitarian"! My sentiments exactly.

Over at the Scientific American report, though, comes this quote, indicating a much more "scientific" attitude to the meaning of the study (emphasis mine):

"The decisions of VMPC patients are not amoral," says senior study author Antonio Damasio, formerly a University of Iowa neurologist and now director of the University of Southern California Brain and Creativity Institute. "They are just different from the decisions of other subjects." He adds that these subjects seem to lack the human conflict between emotion and reason. "Because of their brain damage, they have abnormal social emotions in real life," says Ralph Adolphs, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology. "They lack empathy and compassion."

Funny how scientists often don't like to use the word "amoral", which goes back to my original point about Singer's article.

Nazi Skinheads of Russia

Foreign Correspondent - 20/03/2007: Russia - Hate Crimes

Foreign Correspondent last night had a fascinating and disturbing account of the rise of neo-Nazi skinheads in St Petersburg, of all places. I would not have expected thugs with stylised swastikas on their shirts to be in Russia, but there you go.

They like to bash the non Slavic types (or even those who are just unlucky enough to look ethnic) and have killed many.

The 2 thugs who let themselves be interviewed no doubt got off on the publicity (with lots of shots of them walking the streets looking intimidating and giving the odd Nazi salute to no one in particular,) but the stories of the children attacked by such groups were particularly upsetting. (As was the fact that the police, courts and politicians don't seem to be taking the problem too seriously.)

I expect the story will be available on video soon on the Foreign Correspondent site linked above. It is well worth watching.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

No going back

So, Mr. Hitchens, weren't you wrong about Iraq? - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Christopher Hitchens comes outs swinging against any suggestion that he should admit the Iraq invasion was a mistake. Good argument well made, in my opinion.

Scepticism on the EU and CO2

Comment is free: High hopes

Bjorn Lomborg's comment piece on the recent EU announcements about CO2 cuts is well worth reading. A few key extracts:

Man-made climate change is, of course, real, and constitutes a serious problem. Yet the current cut-emissions-now-before-it-is-too-late mindset neglects the fact that the world has no sensible short-term solutions.

This seems to be why we focus on feel-good approaches like the Kyoto Protocol, whose fundamental problem has always been that it is simultaneously impossibly ambitious, environmentally inconsequential, and inordinately expensive. It required such big reductions that only few countries could live up to it. ...

We will not be able to solve global warming over the next decades, but only the next half or full century. We need to find a viable, long-term strategy that is smart, equitable, and doesn't require inordinate sacrifice for trivial benefits. Fortunately, there is such a strategy: research and development. Investing in R&D of non-carbon-emitting energy technologies would leave future generations able to make serious and yet economically feasible and advantageous cuts. A new global warming treaty should mandate spending 0.05% of GDP on R&D in the future. It would be much cheaper, yet do much more good in the long run.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Get a grip

Lateline tonight is reporting that Newspoll tomorrow will show a 2 party preferred vote of 61% to Labor and 39% to the Libs.

A few weeks ago, Kevin Rudd said that he intended "playing with" John Howard's mind.

I reckon that the electorate has decided to get in first. In my opinion, there's no way the current polling results show a real intention to abandon Howard in such a decisive way. They're just toying with him.

Andrew Bolt seemed unusually pessimistic on Insiders this week too. But I did agree with Matt Price's Saturday column that argued that Abbott's "character attack" on Rudd was nothing spectacular as far as these things go. I liked this paragraph (referring to Abbott's atack):

All right, a little nasty (mud level: medium) but Julia Gillard must have been struck with severe temporary amnesia when she ripped into Abbott for sinking to "a new low in Australian politics". Hyperbole, for sure, especially when you remember Gillard's fondness for Mark Latham included qualified admiration for his diaries (mud level: mayday, mayday, everybody's drowwwnninn ...)

I don't find Swan, Gillard and Rudd's media performances of late particularly impressive. In fact, the "tired and arrogant" government message (which was obviously promoted as their message for the week) strikes me as particularly fake. For example, one of the major issues that seems to be working against the government is the perception of its IR laws, but these are clearly a case of a reforming step too far, and not a problem arising from a lack of ideas. The Keating government, on the other hand, really did seem to have hit the a wall as far as policy innovation was concerned.

So, people of Australia, get a grip and stop toying with the PM. Wait for real policy details from Labor, at least.

Where the deer and the pygmy rabbits play

20 pygmy rabbits released in Washington - Los Angeles Times

It's cute furry animal day here today, obviously. Have a look at the photo in the story above. It's a very cute rabbit. (Can you tickle them, I wonder?) According to the article:

They are the smallest rabbits in the United States and one of only two types in North America that dig their own burrows. Adults weigh about a pound, and measure a foot long

In the US, they are releasing them into the wild to revive a very small natural population.

It strikes me as a little odd that in some countries rabbits can live without causing environmental havoc, yet in Australia they became a devastating plague. (And Queensland is still so paranoid about them that you still can't even own one as a pet.)

I guess it all something to do with natural predators, and delicate balances, etc. I don't know, I sort of regret that squirrels were never imported here.

(I didn't so biology as a separate subject in high school. Can you tell?)

It couldn't happen to a better class..

BA sorry for first class body mishap.

From the above ABC story:

British Airways has issued an apology after cabin crew put the body of a woman who died on a flight to India in a vacant first class seat....

After she died, crew members moved her from an economy seat into a vacant first class seat where they strapped her in with a seatbelt and propped up the body with pillows.

Can't say that I had ever thought before about what they would do with a dead body on a flight.

How to tickle a rat

What Happens When You Tickle a Lab Rat? See for Yourself - TierneyLab - Science - New York Times Blog

This New York Times story above links to a video showing rats being tickled. At first I thought that maybe the squeaking sound they make (only made audible by electronics) might actually indicate annoyance or something else. But when you see then chasing the tickling hand in a manner that looks playful, that seems very unlikely.

What a fun job: investigating how to give rats pleasure.

All about Moon dust

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Lunar dust 'may harm astronauts'

This is an interesting, fairly lengthy article about the problems moon dust may cause for astronaut's health. Same thing may apply on Mars too, I think I have read elsewhere.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A surprising survey

Iraqis: life is getting better-News-World-Iraq-TimesOnline

I wouldn't have expected this:

One in four Iraqis has had a family member murdered, says the poll by Opinion Research Business. In Baghdad, the capital, one in four has had a relative kidnapped and one in three said members of their family had fled abroad. But when asked whether they preferred life under Saddam, the dictator who was executed last December, or under Nouri al-Maliki, the prime minister, most replied that things were better for them today.

Only 27% think there is a civil war in Iraq, compared with 61% who do not, according to the survey carried out last month.

Yet in the next paragraph, it says:

By a majority of two to one, Iraqis believe military operations now under way will disarm all militias. More than half say security will improve after a withdrawal of multinational forces.

I guess what it doesn't answer is when the locals want the multinational forces to leave. But it is a bit odd that the survey indicates support for the current security operations, but that they also want the main troops doing it to leave.

What is going on in Spain?

Large Iraq war protests across Spain | International | Reuters

Don't they have anything better to do other than making very sexually explicit art house films and protesting against a war they no longer have any part in? They are even protesting against sending troops in to support Afghanistan. Just how many socialists want to see the Taliban back in power?

Friday, March 16, 2007

Happy music time

This deliberately educational song, as covered by They Might be Giants, never fails to makes me feel happy. (The video, made be someone at home, is nothing special; I post this just so you can listen to the music.)

If you want to hear what the 1959 original version of this sounded like, there is a short clip of a young looking Sting lip-syncing it. It looks like it is from a TV show, and I think he was trying to be funny.

Boys for the boys

Making male babies for gay men. - Slate Magazine

As if the world was in need of more men (when sex selecting abortion practices in India and China mean that there will soon be hundreds of millions more men than women,) it appears that gay men in America who want to make their own kiddies usually choose boys too (at least if the choice is available).

Sex selection should be banned for everyone, everywhere.

It's not the beer, it's the soap

ScienceDaily: Obesity In Men Linked To Common Chemical Found In Plastic And Soap

From the above article:

Phthalates have been widely used for more than 50 years, but only recently implicated as a possible health risk in people. Animal studies have shown consistently that phthalates depress testosterone levels. Recent human studies have found that phthalates are associated with poor semen quality in men and subtle changes in the reproductive organs in boy babies. This connection between phthalates and testosterone helped to establish a basis for the study, Stahlhut said.

Stahlhut's group hypothesized that phthalates might have a direct link to obesity, since low testosterone appears to cause increased belly fat and pre-diabetes in men....

The analysis found that, as expected, several phthalate metabolites showed a positive correlation with abdominal obesity. Indeed, men with the highest levels of phthalates in their urine had more belly fat and insulin resistance. Researchers adjusted for other factors that could influence the results, such as the mens' age, race, food intake, physical activity levels and smoking.

Pretty surprising, hey?

I'm ready for my close up..

ScienceDaily: Videotaped Confessions Can Create Bias Against A Suspect

For those with an interest in law enforcement, this story indicates that the way suspects are videotaped affects a jury's perception of a confession:

In videotaped confessions, many law enforcement agencies focus the camera on only the suspect. Lassiter’s research shows that this practice creates what he calls a camera-perspective bias that leads trial participants to view the confessions as voluntary, regardless of how interrogators obtained them.

That sort of makes sense to me, and it's easily fixed. Good to see some very useful psychological work being done.

More on the big ideas

Could Crazy Technology Save the Planet?

This article starts off with a bad metaphor for the geo-engineering style proposals for reducing CO2:

"Of course it's desperation," said Stanford University professor Stephen Schneider. "It's planetary methadone for our planetary heroin addiction. It does come out of the pessimism of any realist that says this planet can't be trusted to do the right thing."

Well I wouldn't trust this planet to ever be well behaved. It's spent a hell of a lot of its time covered in ice, and by that I mean the real thing, not the crazy homeless man with bugs under his skin type.

Anyway, the article is worth reading. I didn't realise another test of fertilising the oceans with iron was about to begin.

A dark energy solution?

0703364.pdf (application/pdf Object)

The link is to a paper on arxiv in which a couple of guys claim to have sorted out what causes dark energy. Not that I can understand it properly, but they say their solution is a relatively simple one, which cuts out the need for a lot of the more complicated stuff in other proposals. It's also testable (unlike string theory.)

Good luck guys. If their solution turns out to be correct, remember that I may one of the first bloggers in the world to have posted about it.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bad medical practices of the world

Unneeded cure spreads a deadly killer - International Herald Tribune

Oh good. The "Blog This" feature on Blogger works now on the new version of Blogger. I find it very handy.

Anyway, back to the point. The story above is about a medical treatment issue I had never heard of before: the use of unnecessary blood transfusions in Russia, Asia and Eastern Europe, and its role in spreading HIV.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Keep Gran alive for Christmas

Phillip Adams once wrote somewhere about how intense hatred of a politician can be a powerful incentive to stay alive, in the hope of seeing said politician fail.

Further confirmation of this idea, and a lot of excitement amongst the left generally, is currently being generated by the strong Labor polling. Have a look at the comments to this post at Road to Surfdom. Some extracts:

I was talking to an old mate yesterday who is eighty six and not in good health, we talked about things generally and he said suddenly, “Lang, I’d like to live just a little while longer, I want to see Howard voted out and most of the people he controls, I fought in the second war, as you know, and the friends and family that died in that war would be most upset that this fellow has been in a position that he should never have been allowed to obtain and the disgrace he has brought on this country.”

And how about this piece of calm political commentary:

The point is that the current Canberra Mafioso absolutely HAS to disintegrate into oblivion, and soon. History will eventually write down Howard’s band of loony freaks as just that: a marauding abberation that unfortunately reigned upon the nice land of Australia simultaneously with the uprising of the worst ghostly shadows of Hitler and Stalin: e.g. Bush, Blair and the chronically addicted liar and dangerous warmonger extraordinaire: John W. Howard of Australia....

Only a snail who has lived in a darkened hole for the last ten years would think that John Howard and his Gestapo militia of stinking jackbooted thugs has brought benefit and honesty to this country....

If Howard’s Nazis aren’t thrown out soon, then we won’t have a home. Or an environment. Or a future.

I suppose this means that if there is a Labor win later this year, there will be a sudden surge in deaths caused by all those frail or terminally ill people who have been hanging on just to see Howard's defeat.

If you want to have your aged relative here for Christmas, I say vote Howard.

I want a can

Japundit has a story about a new insect spray that works by freezing the bug. Sounds cool (boom boom.)

But... wouldn't an accidental spray to the eye with that be a lot more dangerous than what happens with your average can of insecticide? Paging litigation lawyers...

Under the knife not good for the brain (and a rant against cosmetic surgery)

It seems to me that there is still a lot that is not understood about the possible consequences of modern anaesthetics. A story in Nature points out:

Exposure to widely used anaesthetic drugs increases production of a brain protein thought to cause Alzheimer's disease, a study of mice has shown. The research feeds concern that general anaesthesia may be linked to dementia in humans.

Inhaled doses of halothane, one of a class of drugs called volatile anaesthetics, increase the amount of a protein called amyloid beta in mouse brains, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia have found.

Some 60 million people worldwide are given volatile anaesthetics each year. The drugs are known to cause 'post-operative cognitive decline' in many cases, which can last for days, weeks or years.

If these drugs boost production of amyloid beta, they may also be linked to long-term dementias such as Alzheimer's. The brains of Alzheimer's patients contain high levels of amyloid beta, although the molecule's links with disease are still unknown.

Clearly, being put under for an operation always carries some risks, and what puzzles me is that the cosmetic surgery industry seems to be booming despite this. Just how clearly are the risks of the anaesthetics alone explained to someone who is undergoing a voluntary operation for something as mundane an increase in bra size?

Four Corners had a good show about the industry in Australia last year, and I am not sure whether I had an earlier post about it. In any event, here's the link.

If there is one area where I have a sort of socialist urge to kill off a profession for ideological reasons, the cosmetic surgery industry is it. At a time when there are not enough doctors for everyday illnesses, it seems scandalous to me that so many should be diverting off into the world of facelifts, breast implants and tummy tucks. The TV shows that are devoted to cosmetic surgery "makeover" stories are just awful in the way they promote such surgery as crucial to self esteem. I say ban those shows! Only allow plastic surgery for those who are disfigured as a result of illness or accident. Liposuction should be illegal!

People will say that it is market forces at work. True, but we also regulate and restrict lots of things that, arguably, the market wants. Prostitution comes to mind. It can be regulated in such a way that it minimises harm, but we don't want brothels all over the place, and restrict the way it can be advertised. Also, there is no real argument as to the valuable resources it is diverting from an area of employment for which there is an urgent shortage. Most prostitutes aren't there because they don't want to use their degree (partly paid for by the government) for a more socially beneficial job.

So, cosmetic surgery is arguably in need of greater restriction.

I have no idea how it should be done, but if I were Australian Dictator, ordering doctors out of that industry and into a field of practice that is actually socially useful would be one of my first actions.

Note: revised considerably since first posted a couple of hours ago. The thing is, I often post first when I am busy and then re-read it an hour later and see mistakes or a better way of wording it. Provided I don't change my basic argument, I just revise it and don't bother telling people. Usually, only a few people would have read the first version by that time anyway.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

An odd comment

Ronald Dworkin has a short comment piece in The Guardian in which he sets high standards for "genuine" democracy:

In a new book I argue that the conditions of genuine democracy are far from met in the US, the UK and other mature self-styled democracies. These conditions can easily be set out in very abstract terms. Government must respect human rights, it must respect religious freedom and other forms of freedom of conscience, it must distribute its wealth so as to give everyone a fair stake in its economy and, above all, it must conduct its elections and other political procedures argumentatively so that each citizen is treated as someone worth convincing not just outvoting.

In the comments that follow, I found this one, which starts off as if it is written by a normal intelligent person, but then suddenly ends with such aggression that it made me laugh in surprise:

I live in America.
I know I live in a democracy. I serve on my local town's water board, and on a county hospital board. Two of my friends are county supervisors. We argue our cases before our voters, the state, and the federal government. We've failed in some things but been successful at others and got funding to improve our hospital, our water system, our infrastructure. We've made a difference.
I discuss religion, politics, and economics on forums and blogs like this one before an audience of millions. My voice is heard. I get a fair hearing.
Because of this I know Ronald Dworkin is a sub-human, lying moron not fit to write advertising for toilet paper. He belongs in a sewage treatment plant where he can be converted to useful fertilizer.

You have to remember to take your pills before commenting, you know.

Fun in the diplomatic life

An ambassador is caught out having just a bit too much fun in the Embassy:

Israel has recalled its ambassador to El Salvador after he was found drunk and naked apart from bondage gear.

Reports say he was able to identify himself to police only after a rubber ball had been removed from his mouth.

I just hope our likely future ambassador Amanda Vanstone doesn't get any ideas...

Slowing down the universe

It is possible that the current accelerating expansion of the universe will slow down and stop. There's a recent arxiv paper about it here, in which it seems to be argued that a natural process may lead to deceleration.

On the other hand, Frank Tipler believes that expanding intelligence in the universe will cause its slowing and eventual collapse. (But with the happy ending of the Omega Point, which is the equivalent of eternal heaven.) I like the idea; it's good to know there is useful work to be done until the end of time.

As I mentioned in a previous post, Frank Tipler is writing a book in which he maintains that the most important miracles of Christianity can be explained by the same mechanism to be used to stop the universe expanding. Here's a sample of his ideas:

It is this mechanism of baryon annihilation via electroweak tunnelling that could have been used to accomplish ALL of the miracles described in the Gospels, in particular the Resurrection. I point out in my book [1] that Jesus' resurrection body, as described in the Gospels, has all the essential properties of the computer emulation resurrection bodies we all will have in the far future. The property most difficult to duplicate at the lowest level of implementation is the sudden dematerialization (vanishing from the appearance of His disciples) and re-materialization (suddenly appearing inside a locked room). De-materialization can be accomplished by electroweak quantum tunneling, which violates baryon number and lepton number conservation. The key reaction would be proton plus electron goes to neutrino plus antineutrino. This would convert all the matter in Jesus' body into neutrinos, which interact so weakly with matter that a person in a room with Jesus would see only Jesus appear to vanish. (If the matter of a human body were converted into photons rather than neutrinos, this would be equivalent to the detonation of a 1,000-megaton H-bomb, assuming Jesus weighed 178 pounds ([27], p. 2). The people of Judea would notice this, though the disciples would not, since they would be vaporized.) Materialization apparently out of nothing could be carried out by reversing the process . The Resurrection is then merely an example of first de-materialization of Jesus' dead body, followed by the materialization of a living body. The Resurrection, in other words, is a profoundly different process than the mere resuscitation of a corpse.

I must admit that I have not even read all of that article. It is very long, and deals with the Virgin Birth, Turin Shroud and even original sin. All are explained in a quasi scientific way (to the satisfaction of Tipler's mind, anyway.)

I don't think he is mad; he's a physicist/cosmologist who seems to have done good work for many years. However, I reckon his views are going to be taken as so eccentric and on the fringe that his book might not even be reviewed by the science community.

There is more I want to say about miracles, but don't have time today.

Metaphors on the march

In 2004, the SMH's Alan Ramsey went on and on about Latham being a Mack truck looming behind John Howard. (Handy list of links is at Tim Blair's.) Today, Phillip Adams writes:

There’s a hurricane called Kevin bearing down on John Howard.

I think there may be some law that silly metaphors doom a candidature, so conservatives can stop being quite so worried about those poll results now.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Clinton character question

Captain's Quarters has a post about the latest evidence of Hillary Clinton's tendency to either confabulate or lie about her past. Some other examples were helpfully listed by Dick Morris in his Lateline interview here.

Such people make me uncomfortable in real life, as social politeness often prevents any correction to false recollections told to a group. Not every politician has to be personally likeable to achieve good things, but a repeated history of telling falsehoods about your past does reflect poorly on character, and on reliability of judgement in all aspects of your life.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

On Kurdistan

I forget to mention last week that the always absorbing Foreign Correspondent on ABC had an interesting story on Kurdistan. You can watch it on streaming video via this page.

Rats know what they don't know

An interesting story at Science Daily about evidence for rats being capable of "metacognition".

Maybe this means rats can have failure dreams too?

Dreams of failure

Last night, I had one of those dreams of failure that I assume everyone has from time to time. It may be sitting down to an exam and realising that you know nothing about the topic whatsoever, or, in the case of my dream last night, trying to discuss a matter in dispute when it was clear my opponent knew everything about the topic, and I was totally unprepared. I have had missed deadline dreams too.

It occurred to me this morning that the consequences of failure of my job are no where near as spectacular as that in other, more dangerous professions. Does this mean that, for example, pilots dream of their plane taking a dive towards the ground because they forget to check the fuel before takeoff? Do surgeons dream of patients dying on the table in front of them for some really silly oversight? And, I wonder, do nuclear reactor operators dream of missing an obvious warning that leads to a meltdown.

Of course, it might just be that I am more insecure than other people, and such dreams are not as common as I expect. If that is true, just ignore this post. Otherwise, I would be curious to hear the nature of any other reader's failure dreams.

Make some comment, vast international readership!

An odd weekend

It seems a bit of an odd weekend when The Australian is getting pessimistic about John Howard, but on the Fairfax side it has a column criticising Labor's lack of policy decisiveness in The Age, and an SMH exclusive indicating that Rudd may be a bit too much into self-mythologising.

On the News Limited side, George Megalogenis warns that "Howard is in serious trouble", and draws comparisons to the 1969 election swing to Labor despite full employment at the time. (There's one big difference that comes to mind: conscription for an unpopular war.)

The Age column makes the point that Labor is still fuzzy on specifics in quite a few policy areas which it has had a long time to consider.

The SMH story on Rudd the Younger is here.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

That's just not right...

For one of the most unusual clips from Japanese TV I have ever seen, have a look at this:

Found via Japundit, which also gives the explanation of what it's about.

Update: For an even more disturbing octopus related video, you can always view extremely fresh octopi bits being eaten here. (I found this posted at the brainiac site Cosmic Variance, OK?; I don't go out deliberately looking for grossness, you know.)

Friday, March 09, 2007

Death at the ABC

What is it about the supposedly religious themed Compass that makes it keep coming back to stories about euthanasia? Last Sunday, we had the story of a New Zealand woman who was looking after her dying mother at home, and killed her by morphine and putting a pillow over her face. She was not charged originally, but then she decided to press her luck by publishing a book about it. End result: 6 months in prison. Of course, international death hound Philip Nitschke was there offering his support, and the whole documentary was done in a way that was meant to elicit sympathy.

Only problem was, I didn't find the daughter very likeable at all. (Admittedly, she was put in a terrible situation, and the medical system didn't work as it should; but still, smothering relatives with pillows is something I think few people want to see encouraged.)

Then this Sunday coming, I see Compass is about a woman with a terminal illness giving a party before she heads off to Holland to hopefully [sic] be legally put down. Again, I am expecting nothing less than an emotional appeal for legalised euthanasia to be the main aim of the documentary.

The thing about this is that it would seem palliative care specialists are usually against euthanasia and insistent that the right sort of care can mean a relatively "good" death for most people. (OK, there will be always be exceptions. Nothing's perfect.) Yet the views of such practical experts rarely seem to get an airing. To my surprise, and to his credit, Norman Swan's Health Report on Radio National recently did devote a show to one such doctor. The transcript is here. I am guessing, though, that the audience was not large.

In a way, I don't like talking about this topic because it feels too much like tempting fate. No one who speaks against euthanasia wants to be personally tested in their attitudes by watching a close relative slowly die, or having a painful terminal illness themselves. Still, the pro-euthanasia lobby seems to get a pretty much unfettered run when it comes to the print media and television documentaries, and that bugs me.

UPDATE: I started to watch last night's Compass program (the one about the woman holding a party before heading off to Holland.) Unfortunately, I didn't get far past the first five minutes, then woke up as the end credits rolled. (I should not lie down on the sofa past 10 pm.) From the introduction, it seemed that maybe the party process made her change her mind about euthanasia, but I am not sure. People who are all for it don't often seem to be the type to change their mind. If anyone saw it, perhaps you could enlighten me? The show's transcript is not up yet.

On a general point, Compass is generally a pretty dull show these days. Maybe there is a lack of good religious themed documentary being made by anyone, which is a pity.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Russian roulette

Yet more poisoning in Russia:

A physician well-known in Los Angeles' Russian community and her adult daughter were poisoned during a trip to Moscow last month, U.S. Embassy officials confirmed today, the latest in a string of Russian poisoning cases that have sparked international intrigue.

Officials said Marina Kovalevsky, 49, and her daughter Yana, 26, were poisoned with thallium, an odorless, colorless toxin originally suspected in the death of a former Russian spy in London last year.

I like this part of the report:

They had been staying at one of Moscow's fanciest hotels.

"I think it's an accident because I can't imagine anything else. It's really bizarre," said Tabarovskaya, a chiropractor who works in the same West Hollywood office as her cousin.

How on earth do you have an accidental thallium poisoning while you are staying at one of the "fanciest hotels" in Moscow? Are Council health inspectors there always having to tell hotel kitchen staff not to keep the shaker of dissident poison next to the salt and pepper?

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Stuck on Iraq

Tigerhawk is sticking to his pro-Iraq war guns.

Of course, overnight there is news of more large scale killings of Shiite pilgrims. One thing that I still don't understand about the situation there is this: Shiites have the control of the government, and (presumably) are the great majority of the armed forces. They would not have a supply line problem if there was a full scale civil war of the type that it is said the Sunni's suicide bombers are trying to promote. But where do the Sunnis expect to get their weapons supply with which to fight a full blown war?

Also, so much of this killing is being done by suicide bombers targeting civilians. Would it be so hard for Muslim clerics to declare repeatedly the moral judgement that we in the West find easy: namely, that suicide bombing against civilians is a depraved and essentially cowardly act. (It is, after all, an entirely one sided form of combat. A suicidal attack against an armed target that might get you first if they see you coming is different; there is scope for acknowledging a type of bravery there. But blow yourself up in a civilian street? Just obscene murder.)

I know that some clerics have condemned repeatedly the violence generally; but what I am getting at here is specific condemnation of this particular tactic. I am not sure whether that has been done.

More on carbon offsets

More sceptical views on carbon offsets are in this TCS Daily article. A key paragraph:

If you want to fight carbon emissions, then join the Pigou Club and push for taxes on bad energy. If you want to fight carbon emissions at a personal level, then act as if there were a high tax on your use of energy from carbon-emitting sources, and reduce your use of that energy. If you are not really all that worried about carbon emissions, but you get pleasure from making empty, self-righteous gestures, then do what Al Gore does -- buy carbon offsets.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Double guessing the past

David Aaronovitch's column in The Times about the fantasies about what would have happened if Gore had been President is well worth reading.

Some political predictions

Today's polling in The Australian (showing Labor still strongly ahead) is nothing to panic about for the Liberals. As Gerard Henderson writes today, the main effect of last week's attack on Kevin Rudd was to show he is not a saint. (Indeed, if you saw last night's tough grilling of him on The 7.30 Report, you would know that Rudd can be as evasive about his specific memory as any politician.) As others have also noted, the other thing about last week is that Kevin Rudd suddenly revealed an inclination to initially go to water when surprised by an attack. This reaction is of most interest to those in the government doing the tactical plotting against him.

On the other hand, there is no doubt that unless someone who attended the meetings with Rudd and Burke suddenly comes out with damaging information about what was discussed, Howard and Costello will have to let the issue slip away soon, or else they will definitely look like they are over-reacting. The true benefit of the attack has been achieved already.

Keating coming out in defence of Rudd only helps the government, despite the unbounded joy his nasty style of attack gives his old admirers. (As an aside, that link is to a post by the person who gets my vote for the most consistently irritating style of any current contributor to any political blog in Australia: Aussie Bob at Road to Surfdom. It's not even a contest.)

Today's polling shows other dangers for Labor. Australians are warming to the idea of nuclear power. Widespread scepticism about the initial reactions to global warming, such as carbon offset schemes, seems to be developing strongly over recent weeks, and I expect that it will continue to grow. This will mean an increased emphasis on emissions free power, and the limits of the use of windpower and solar for base load electricity will also be increasingly recognised.

I therefore expect that nuclear power for Australia will increasingly be seen by the public as a real alternative if you are serious about CO2, and the Liberals are the only party who will even contemplate it. As I suggested last week, if they were to grab the chance to run with new, inherently safer nuclear designs, they may gain extra credibility.

Other issues of danger for the Howard government - the trial of Hicks, progress in Iraq, the state of play in Timor, are all in too much of a state of flux to make firm predictions. Actually, there seems to be some reason to be vaguely optimistic on the "surge" in Iraq, despite the ease with which bombings can still take place. So I am not necessarily writing Iraq off as a clear detriment to the Liberals yet.

My final prediction: Brendan Nelson will remain a goose. He should be cut free.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Keeping them cool for baby

It's interesting to see that a study confirms that some men's sperm count is seriously affected by having hot baths.

The idea that heat is bad for sperm is well known, of course, but it surprises me that no one seems to have done studies on this in the one country where very hot baths are a really popular past time - Japan.

If hot baths can kill off a normal male's fertility, I would expect there to be at least a seasonal drop in conception in Japan during the winter months for those men who regularly bathe. They like their baths hot, and newer houses have ones with a water heater that keeps the bath water at a constant temperature, which certainly encourages a long soak. Has anyone looked at that?

Comedy from Conan

Conan O'Brien is a weird looking man with very strange hair. His style is sometimes irritating, and I can't really imagine why NBC thinks he has a broad enough appeal to be the replacement for Tonight Show host Jay Leno. (Leno is more or less harmless, but his scripted material is just fair to middling and fairly low brow. Letterman is much sharper and smarter, and the touch of crankiness appeals to me.)

But for my taste, Conan's show often has the best scripted eccentric comedy bits around. Have a look at this recent YouTube clip of him and Jim Carrey (who I really don't like) talking about quantum physics (sort of).

Update: bad link has been fixed.

Burning rhetoric

The IHT yesterday had a small article that, to this Australian at least, reads as somewhat overblown:

This summer, Australia feels like a war zone. Cities and towns across the country are enveloped in a perpetual smoke haze, and the braying of fire sirens is as commonplace as birdsong. Every evening television commentators deliver grim-faced reports from the front lines.

Tired farmers look dazedly into the camera. Firemen with soot-smeared clothes and chili-red eyes shake their heads and mumble that they have never known anything like it.

As with every modern war report, helicopters make a ubiquitous backdrop. They dip down in front of shrinking reservoirs, then stagger toward the fire front, their water pouches swaying marsupial-like underneath their bellies.

Look, I know that it was an early and harsh fire season in the South, and Melbourne had a lot of smoke haze. But still, writing like this is more for dramatic effect than reflecting most Australians' experience.

So who is the writer? It's Professor Iain McCalman from ANU, a historian of sorts. If he writes up current day events like this, I am curious as to the accuracy of the "colour" that he may add to his histories.

He certainly knows how to talk the academic talk to the right audience. This is from what seems to be an address in 2000:

Deeply imbued with deconstructionist theories and methods, New Historicists tend to juxtapose some aspect of a canonical text with a seemingly unrelated fragment of contemporary culture in order to demonstrate the multiple flux of meanings within. Their mission is to expose textual silences, elisions and contradictions, and to show that both text and context are fragmentary and incomplete, riddled with contradiction and uncertainty.

By contrast we historians are trained habitually to connect and construct, to seek out unitary as well as differential meanings, and to track similarities across our sources over time. When we work to recover lost or suppressed historical voices, it is usually to make normative claims, to argue for the value and dignity of those peoples and traditions that have suffered posterity’s enormous condescension.

I have read worse examples, but it still could do with a dose of de-jargonisation. Interesting view he has of the aim of many historians, too. (See the section in bold.)

In the same address, the Professor makes the following claim:

Let me finish by taking us closer to home by referring to one specific example of a cultural narrative that is still gripping most of us today—the harrowing story of the ‘stolen generation’. Here surely is one of the most powerful narratives to emerge out of the sorry history of Australian European–Aboriginal contact, and it is a story that will not go away. If John Howard thinks that he can argue it out of existence by statistical and semantic cheeseparing about what percentage of people constitutes a ‘generation’ or by claims that Aboriginal children were not ‘stolen’ but borrowed for their own good, he is yapping in the wind. This story obtains its emotional power not only from a mosaic of individual tragedies enacted over successive epochs, but also because it crystallizes our deepest guilts as European Australians and taps our deepest mythic memories as western moderns. ...

Our formative early reading and film viewing has been steeped in stories about stolen generations of children: whether it is the lost boys of Peter Pan, the stolen children in Pinocchio, the street waifs of Victorian England snared by Fagin, the abducted young girls of Parisian bordellos, or the lost generation of young men blasted out of existence on the beaches of Gallipoli. All these prior traces feed the cultural purchase and power of cultural narrative that has become, and will long remain, European Australia’s brand of shame.

Nice theory, Professor, but hands up any Australian readers who think the "stolen generation narrative" is actually politically significant today? The problems in Aboriginal communities are severe and extremely difficult to remedy regardless of whether the "stolen generation" is true or not, and which political party is trying to address them. I reckon the flurry of sympathy the stolen generation story got from a segment of white Australia has more or less burnt itself out, and the Professor didn't seem to see that coming.

Despite this, his bio states:

In February 2005, he was appointed to the Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council. He chaired an inquiry into Creativity and the Innovation Economy, presenting the report to Prime Minister and Cabinet in December 2005.

I guess the pool of potential appointees for such inquiries isn't all that big here.

Missed it by that much...

According to a report in The Guardian, the UK's reduced CO2 target will be missed by, oh, only 30 years or so:

An independent scientific audit of the UK's climate change policies predicts that the government will fall well below its target of a 30% reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2020 - which means that the country will not reach its 2020 milestone until 2050.

Anyway, I plan to be living on the Moon by then in my transhumanist engineered robo-body. Either that, or in a retirement village close to the sea (which by then, will mean in Toowoomba.) This is assuming that CERN hasn't ended the universe beforehand.

I remain a "glass is half full" sort of guy.

Unimportant disasters

Some languages are dying out. Some people who make a living by studying them take this very seriously:

Humans speak more than 6,000 languages. Nearly all of them could be extinct in the next two centuries.

So what?

University of Alaska Fairbanks professor emeritus Michael Krauss addressed that question during his presentation at the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting, which begins today in San Francisco.

"I claim that it is catastrophic for the future of mankind," Krauss said. "It should be as scary as losing 90 percent of the biological species."

I have no idea how to judge how scary that would be. Given nature's particular fondness for insects, I am guessing you could get close to 90% before even reaching the creatures we actually like. And if a significant number of the blood sucking, disease carrying ones went away, I may not be too worried at all. (Yes, I am half joking here. It's all very complicated, this inter species diversity stuff, so I am told. Still, I am not entirely sure what irreplaceable benefit to the ecosystem are, say, the malaria carrying mosquitoes.)

But back to languages:

Humanity became human in a complex system of languages that interacted with each other.

"That is somehow interdependent such that we lose sections of it at the same peril that we lose sections of the biosphere," Krauss said. "Every time we lose (a language), we lose that much also of our adaptability and our diversity that gives us our strength and our ability to survive."

I have heard this sort of argument before, and never found it convincing. I would have thought that the evolution of language was something that just happened, and government intervention could only slow the inevitable. Furthermore, the idea used to be that a universal language would help promote world peace and understanding; but now that forecasts of ecological disaster are culturally popular, by analogy a loss of languages will also be a catastrophe.

How can any linguist really prove that losing a language is a detriment to society overall? What he is spruiking here does not even sound like real science to me.

If this line of argument is the best they can come up with, I will remain a firm non-believer.

Global warming and Europe

Tigerhawk has an interesting post up suggesting a possible explanation for why Europeans seem to take global warming more seriously as an issue than Americans.

China problems

A couple of weeks ago, I heard a (ABC Radio National) Counterpoint interview with George Friedman from Strategic Forecasting about the future of China. He made out a pretty convincing sounding case for possibly quite severe economic troubles ahead. A transcript is now available.

This seemed to be a crucial point:

George Friedman: The conservative count of non-performing loans is $600 billion in non-performing loans. A more realistic estimate that comes from companies like Ernst & Young are $900 billion in non-performing loans. There are some who say that non-performing loans are in the $1.2 to $1.3 trillion range. However you look at it, we're talking about somewhere between 30% and 60% of the Chinese GDP being bound up in bad loans. To benchmark it, when Japan reached about 15% non-performing loans of GDP it began its severe generation-long recession.

When East Asia, particularly South Korea, for example, reached about 20%, 22% it began to tumble.

The news today that China is expanding its military spending was in line with what Friedman said here:

China is not that difficult a country to blockade, and the Chinese regard the Americans as highly unpredictable, not fully rational, and that makes them very nervous. So one of the things we've seen the Chinese do, we saw a Chinese submarine penetrate an American carrier battle group a few months ago which is a pretty aggressive and unusual move. We've seen them in space use lasers to try to blind American satellites, and we've seen them demonstrate an anti-satellite system.

So the Chinese are moving fairly aggressively in the high-tech side of things to develop counters to American power, and quite frankly they've got people in Washington quite concerned because they seem to be very good at it.

You really should read the whole interview.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

A very trivial post

The Japan Times has a travel story about the extremely busy Shinjuku area in Tokyo. (You should read it if you are going to be in Tokyo soon.) Maybe I am easily amused, but the name of this old association struck me as very funny:

Outbreaks of cholera and eventual deterioration of the wooden Tamagawa conduits brought about the Shinjuku-based Yodobashi Purification Plant in 1892. Impressed with the plant's engineering, the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association of London presented Shinjuku with a ponderous commemorative fountain, which today sits just outside the east exit of Shinjuku Station.

I'm also not sure if these are official or unofficial names:

The claustrophobia-inducing underpass toward the west side of Shinjuku Station feeds into a web of yokocho (side alleys) with a postwar patina. The names of some alleys, shomben (urine) and gokiburi (cockroach) might be better lost in translation, but the Lilliputian yakitori and drinking joints are fully packed by 5 p.m. every night.

I think I have a photo of me in one of those.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Charles on the Moon

Well what d'ya know. I didn't realise that likeable conservative Charles Krauthammer was such a space nut. He has a nice column today about why going to the Moon is a Good Thing.

As he notes, a lot of the criticism of human space exploration comes from those on the left of politics, because of some crazy idea they have that human society on Earth is perfectable if only you spend enough money on it. As Charles says:

I find this objection incomprehensible. When will we stop having problems here on earth? In a fallen world of endless troubles, that does not stop us from allocating resources to endeavors we find beautiful, exciting and elevating -- opera, alpine skiing, feature films -- yet solve no social problems.

Well said, Charles, although he then hastens to add there is good science to be done on the Moon anyway.

Not only does he love space, we agree on priorities:

Sure, Mars would be better. It holds open the possibility of life and might even have water on its surface today. But the best should not be the enemy of the good. Mars is simply too far, too dangerous, too difficult, too expensive. We won't go there for a hundred years.

Given the disinclination of lefties to want to be in on colonizing anything (even barren rocks currently devoid of life), it would seem a fair bet that the politics of future space colonies might of the rather conservative, or perhaps libertarian, bent. (By the way, I have increasingly felt that the later novels of Robert Heinlein, with their libertarian societies and all kinds of marriage and sexual arrangements, have actually turned out to be more prophetic, and at much greater speed, than I ever expected when I read them in the 1980's. I still can't get over how quickly Western society has swung in its acceptance of gay marriage as a concept, for example.)

Anyway, I doubt there are going to be any socialists on the Moon, even if there will be a high degree of interdependence amongst the residents in small colonies.

Kevin Rudd - needs practice

I reckon the damaging thing about Kevin Rudd's performance under pressure yesterday and today is his psychological reaction - the glum face, the look of a good boy who knows he really does deserve the scolding, the extra blinking on his Sunrise appearance this morning, the depressed sounding voice etc.

People criticise John Howard often for taking a "best form of defence is offence" approach, but I still think it may be taken by the public as showing a greater resilience to pressure than the Rudd approach.

(Mind you, admitting to and apologising for mistakes is something that Peter Beatty in Queensland has elevated to an art form, and it did him no harm in the last election. The big difference, though, is that there is no credible alternative government in the present opposition in Queensland.)

Just half a glass of wine a day... all it may take to get its life extending health benefits. I would be happy to have a glass every night with dinner, except that if I am tired already it will usually send me off to sleep on the sofa earlier than I like.

Doctors and death

An article/book review in Slate takes an interesting look at the issue of how doctors, or at least American doctors, deal with death. Here's a point I have never heard before (highlighted by me):

In fact, doctors aren't bad at handling the details of dying. We know how to ease pain, promote comfort, and arrange the medical particulars. But we are disasters when it comes to death itself, just like the rest of the human species. (Morticians often have the same problem.) I admire Chen's and Stein's pep-club optimism, but they might have integrated Ernest Becker's seminal Denial of Death into their discussions. Becker's basic point is that all of human behavior can be traced to our inability to accept our own mortality. Cowards that we are, we not only refuse to consider our own inevitable death, but our patients', too: We duck the tough discussions, flinch and flutter and order another test, and finally leave it to a (usually much younger) colleague to sit down with the family. We don't slink away because we are bad people; we slink away because we are people.

I had never really thought before about how morticians cope with death in their own family.

By the way, I also had a conversation recently with someone with a lot of insider knowledge of the medical business world, who assured me that being a retail pharmacist with your own business in Australia is one of the most lucrative jobs around.

It doesn't seem particularly stressful, either. Is it too late for me to become one?

Thursday, March 01, 2007

The enforcers

There have been too many words here lately.

Following the recent popularity of a YouTube video of a rabbit chasing off a snake, there's now a good one of chickens doing an extremely convincing impersonation of a couple of cops:

Why do these chickens care about 2 rabbits fighting?

The cat who loves Chavez

Ha! George Galloway (whose creepy cat act on Big Brother is forever preserved here) writes a comment piece in The Guardian strongly supporting the "so called" dictator Chavez.

As one commenter notes:

"So-called 'dictator'":

He rules by decree. What more does one need to be labeled a dictator?

This comment further down by MalachiConstant is amusing (be sure to read it to the end):

I must admit I have had a hard time making up my mind about Chavez. I like some of his policies very much, however he does seem a trifle ham-handed, autocratic, and a bit of a clown who is more concerned with scoring points on the world stage than sorting out the real problems of Venezuela (should he really be giving the people of London half-priced bus rides while the people of most Venezuelan towns use buses that would have been scrapped in the UK twenty years ago, all to buy friendship with a leftwing UK fringe of very limited influence?). However now that I know he is good buddies with George all doubts are put to rest - any friend of George's is certainly an authoritarian scum and to be opposed on all points. Thanks for sorting me out on that George.