Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Iraq optimism for real this time?


In all the kerfuffle within Australia about a certain Indian doctor, it may have gone unnoticed that there is some pretty serious revision of prospects of success in Iraq underway in American at the moment. Tigerhawk's post linked to above has extract from a New York Times article by a couple of Brookings Institute analysts who have been there recently. It's interesting reading.

In fact, even within The Guardian there have been a couple of cautiously optimistic reports from within Iraq in the last couple of weeks.

Problem is, car bombs against civilian targets are extremely hard to stop, and while ever you have a couple of them going off and killing scores of Iraqis every week or fortnight, it's hard to convince us in the West that things are improving overall in the country.

Still, it would be rather interesting politically for Australia if, by our Federal election, the belief in progress in Iraq as a result of the surge has actually caught on.

Why dutch?

From 'Dutch wives' to old wives | The Japan Times Online

The Japanese call sex dolls "dutch wives". The link above mentions a recent exhibition of this product in Japan.

As to why "Dutch wives", Wikipedia offers an explanation, but I am not sure it makes sense:
Silicone dolls are quite popular in Japan, where they are known as "Dutch Wives" ('datch waifu'). Their name originates from the term, possibly English, for the thick rattan or bamboo bolster, used to aid sleep in humid countries by keeping one's limbs lifted above sweaty sheets.
I just thought that maybe it was internationally recognized that the Dutch were the world's first perverts.

But back to the Japan Times link, talking about the exhibition in Japan:

A completely bald man with a cane, who appeared to be in his 70s, entered the gallery and, after fondling a fake female, chuckles and remarks, "Their hair's black — I like that. These days young women all dye their hair."

The gent fired a series of questions at the staff, apparently hoping they would ship a doll to him disassembled so he could sneak it into his house. The man was encouraged to visit Orient Industry's sales showroom in Ueno, but he settled onto a nearby couch and wistfully gazed at the dolls.

So, if you are in Japan and see some old codger bringing into his house what looks like a series of dismembered limbs, there may be a perfectly innocent explanation. (Depends how you define "innocent", too, I suppose.)

OK, now that I have brought this to your attention, you can go back to work.

So that's what Griff's been up to..

Travels with Griff Rhys Jones - Times Online

Only the other day I wondered what happened to the British comedian Griff Rhys Jones, who I used to find very funny.

Turns out he has done a bit of a Michael Palin and been doing travel shows and books. As far as I know, they haven't appeared here.

The article above contains some mildly amusing anecdotes, but overall, it seems to me not very well written.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Dr Haneef Part IV

Some more points I want to make about Dr Haneef's case:

1. Talk about not being able to win with journalists no matter what you do. This morning on Radio National Breakfast, The Age's Michelle Gratton said that Immigration Minister Andrew's suggestion that he may now be able to release the extra information on which he decided to revoke Haneef's visa raises the question of why he could not release it previously.

Bloody hell. At the press conference when he announced the revocation decision, the journalists were immediately asking him questions along the lines of "well, now that you've found him to be of bad character, how do you expect him to get a fair trial." You can imagine the journalistic outrage if he had actually gone into the extra information in detail at that press conference.

The difference, Michelle, is that the criminal case is now gone. Bleeding obvious that this may make a difference, isn't it?

I also heard mention on some other news report this morning that Peter Russo had indicated there may be a "legal problem" with the release of the additional information. Is this because the Federal Court case will still be heard?

2. As the doctor's 60 Minutes interview: I note that a Sky News poll on whether he should get his visa re-instated is close to a 50/50 split. I think that a Sunrise one this morning had a majority against.

Subject to my normal major reservations about such polls, it still seems that the interview did not overwhelmingly convince the Australian population that he should get his visa back.

I wonder whether this is to do with a cultural difficulty in judging the sincerity of Indians. Their politeness, body language and facial expressions are different from ours, and I think the end result can be uncertainty as to how to "read" them. I have found this in my professional dealings with people from the subcontinent. I don't raise it as any excuse for clear mistakes made by the Federal Police/DPP; it is simply an observation.

3. I was initially puzzled at the Minister's decision on Friday to let Haneef stay at "residential detention", which was clearly inconsistent with the earlier decision that he should go into Villawood (at least if he ever availed himself of the bail that had been granted.) However, the reasons now seem clear: Dr Haneef met with immigration and indicated he would be leaving the next day, after giving an interview with media. There simply was not much point in sending him to Sydney prior to his departure, given the timing.

4. Any lengthy inquiry into this case would seem rather a waste of time to me. Investigations into who leaked what when there are many possible sources (and there were hundreds of police involved in this) are not likely to come to any firm conclusion. Evidence of mistakes being caused by wrong information given to the Federal Police from the British would be interesting, and might go some way to partially restoring the Fed's image. However, I think it is already clear that the stuff up was shared by the Federal Police, the DPP and its barristers.

But all this talk of it creating a crisis of confidence in the ability to handle terror cases is just journalistic overkill.

At worst, some guy who deserved to have his connections to terrorism investigated was detained for a month, and released after a poorly considered charge had been laid but then quickly dropped.

You can go on about the political "interference" in the visa revocation decision, but again at the end of the day some non citizen has had a working visa lost in circumstances which many people think unfair. I would expect that a significant number of other people have been rejected for visas in circumstances that may also be considered unfair by half the population if you let them see the information on which the decision is based. It happens. It is not the worst form of injustice in the world, or indeed the country.

People should just keep what has happened in some perspective here.

I would even include terrorism law supporter Peter Faris in this: on Friday I heard him suggest on radio that Dr Haneef should be paid a million dollars in compensation! Just overkill.

5. As I have mentioned me before, what annoys me about journalists' role in this is that they do not acknowledge that they themselves are part of the problem when they choose to publish unsourced leaks from the Federal Police or elsewhere. The media is a willing party to the attempted public manipulation of events; they have the ability, yet not the ethics apparently, to chose not to publish information which they must know is being leaked to prejudice opinion in favour of the police.

Yet it seems to me that the media will not criticise its own for doing this. Instead, it will only seek to take credit for leaking the defence material in rebuttal of rumours the media should never have published in the first place.

Journalists deserve the low reputation they have.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Changing their tune on marijuana

Medical opinion comes full circle on cannabis dangers

You have probably read newspaper reports of this latest study, but the news@nature version linked to above (which, annoyingly, will likely disappear soon) makes this point which I have not seen elsewhere:
The finding, which comes from a new study that combines results from 35 previous surveys, represents a significant U-turn from previous suggestions that cannabis is harmless to mental health. The analysis is published in medical journal The Lancet, which in 1995 began one of its issues with the sentence: "The smoking of cannabis, even long term, is not harmful to health."
Now their tune has changed, with the latest study having this dire conclusion :
This suggests that 14% of all psychotic illness in Britain is caused by cannabis use.
Yes, how dare one question the Lancet on anything, hey.

Antibiotic harm

Prescribing of antibiotics to children still at a level to cause drug resistance, warn experts

From the article:
A paper published in 1999 reported that over half (55%) of children aged 0-5 years in the UK (the group of patients who receive most antibiotics in the community) receive an average of 2.2 prescriptions for a ß-lactam antibiotic like amoxicillin from their general practitioner each year.

Although a reduction in prescribing (and the strategy of recommending a 24-48 hour delay before filling antibiotic prescriptions) has probably resulted in about a 40% fall in consumption since then, unpublished data suggest that community antibiotic prescribing is again rising, they say.
I would be curious to know how much Australian prescriptions have dropped over the last decade.

How to make space tourists nervous

Three die in Branson's space tourism rocket tests

This could be one of the shortest commercial tourism ventures ever.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Continuing the rat theme...

Lefties like to call our PM "the rodent, " as if that is an insult. But really, have a look at this video of an endearing rat:

One disturbing thing I have noticed while looking around Youtube rodent related videos are some showing snakes being fed live mice or rats. There is even an extremely gross video of a giant ugly pet frog eating live mice. (I am no fan of frogs at the best of times.) I will not link to it.

I really wonder about people who keep snakes and such like that (apparently) need to be fed live animals. You can't tell me that a snake, lizard or frog can respond to their human keepers in the way even a rat can, so I suppose they are kept mainly due to some sort of appreciation of their looks, or more likely, just for novelty value. But when such a pet involves the owner regularly feeding them other live animals, it just seems that it must involve some desensitising to cruelty.

The Grim Purrer

Oscar the cat 'predicts deaths' - World - smh.com.au

From the report:

Oscar the cat seems to have an uncanny knack for predicting when nursing home patients are going to die, by curling up next to them during their final hours.

His accuracy, observed in 25 cases, has led the staff to call family members once he has chosen someone. It usually means they have less than four hours to live.

"He doesn't make too many mistakes. He seems to understand when patients are about to die," said Dr David Dosa in an interview. He describes the phenomenon in a poignant essay in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Yes, Oscar is a clever cat, but dogs are more useful in that they can detect cancer before you die from it, you know.

Teenagers of all species a worry

Adolescent rats enjoy cannabis more than their elders - health - 25 July 2007 - New Scientist


Renewable energy could 'rape' nature - earth - 25 July 2007 - New Scientist Environment

Ramping up the use of renewable energy would lead to the "rape of nature", meaning nuclear power should be developed instead. So argues noted conservation biologist and climate change researcher Jesse Ausubel in an opinion piece based on his and others' research.

Save it for the gin and tonic

Lemon douche is a cervical cancer risk

From the report:
Lead researcher Dr Atiene Sagay, from Jos University in Nigeria, told the International AIDS Society conference in Sydney that women douched to avoid infection but it was totally ineffective.

"People suggested it could be a microbicide (but) we know much better than that now," Dr Sagay said.

He said the practice was not an effective contraceptive measure either, as semen kills the citric acid.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Dr Haneef, part III

New English PM Gordon Brown is proposing doubling that country's current limit for detaining terror suspects without charge from 28 to 56 days:
Mr Brown said an extended detention limit was necessary to sift through the volume of evidence needed in terrorism cases...

Mr Brown said that extensions beyond 28 days would be subject to scrutiny by a high court and by parliament in specific cases.
Quite the contrast to Australia, where a frenzy of complaint erupted in certain quarters over Dr Haneef being kept in custody for a fortnight, and only then with the apparent reluctance of the court, which was only approving extensions for days, not weeks, at a time.

The Australian terrorism detention laws may have no set time limit for total detention. But in practice, as it is supervised by a court from the start, there is no realistic prospect of it being endless. To think otherwise means you have to be paranoid enough to believe that the Federal government could control a State appointed Magistrate.

The DPP today advised that it would review the evidence relating to the criminal charge against Dr Haneef. Even if the charge is dropped soon, as many suspect it will, it should be no reason to question the reasonableness of our pre-charge detention laws, which the British example indicates are far from draconian by international standards.

Dr Haneef's lawyer Peter Russo says that, apart from the issue of reviewing the criminal charge, the immediate issue is getting his client out of custody. I saw Dr Haneef's cousin, here to visit him, confirming on TV tonight that the doctor is being kept alone in his cell for 23 hours a day.

I will say it again: as far as I can tell, if Dr Haneef had arranged for the $10,000 bail surety to be paid (and even members of the public were offering to do this, although I am not sure if that is acceptable to the court), he could have avoided being in a cell in a real jail for 23 hours a day, and been kept in the much more relaxed form of detention in the immigration detention centre in Sydney, where he could mix with people who are not criminals and have had access to many recreational facilities not given to any type of prisoner.

If he is stressing out over the kind of detention he is being kept in now, it appears to be his own decision, and one that makes less and less sense the longer the review/trial process goes on.

All you wanted to know about bonobos

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Swingers: Reporting & Essays: The New Yorker

This is a long (12 page!) article from the New Yorker about bonobos, the (supposedly) sex-loving hippy apes of the Congo.

As you may expect, all is not what it seems. The first page of the article is very amusing, pointing out the seriously weird attitude that some people have of bonobos as societal role models. At a fund raiser for bonobo conservation, the writer meets "Wind":
I spoke to a tall man in his forties who went by the single name Wind, and who had driven from his home in North Carolina to sing at the event. He was a musician and a former practitioner of “metaphysical counselling,” which he also referred to as clairvoyance. He said that he had encountered bonobos a few years ago at Georgia State University, at the invitation of Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, a primatologist known for experiments that test the language-learning abilities of bonobos. (During one of Wind’s several visits to G.S.U., Peter Gabriel, the British pop star, was also there; Gabriel played a keyboard, another keyboard was put in front of a bonobo, and Wind played flutes and a small drum.) Bonobos are remarkable, Wind told me, for being capable of “unconditional love.” They were “tolerant, patient, forgiving, and supportive of one another.”...

It was Wind’s turn to perform. “Help Gaia and Gaia will help you,” he chanted into a microphone, in a booming voice that made people jump. “Help bonobo and bonobo will help you.”
Yes, no doubt, if we all lived like bonobos, there would be no global warming.

The problem is, a lot of bonobo research was based on captive groups:
Captivity can have a striking impact on animal behavior. As Craig Stanford, a primatologist at the University of Southern California, recently put it, “Stuck together, bored out of their minds—what is there to do except eat and have sex?”
Bonobos in the wild are not always nice. For that matter, nor are bonobos in zoos:
“I once saw five female bonobos attack a male in Apenheul, in Holland,” he said. “They were gnawing on his toes. I’d already seen bonobos with digits missing, but I’d thought they would have been bitten off like a dog would bite. But they really chew. There was flesh between their teeth. Now, that’s something to counter the idea of”—Stevens used a high, mocking voice—“ ‘Oh, I’m a bonobo, and I love everyone.’ ”
Stevens went on to recall a bonobo in the Stuttgart Zoo whose penis had been bitten off by a female.
I'll stick with the humans for the moment.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

An insight into Hawking

Not Even Wrong - My Life With Stephen

Peter Woit's blog (Not Even Wrong) has a very interesting post summarising some of the memoirs of Jane Hawking, the ex-wife of Stephen Hawking. Go read.

More rat facts

Smart, Curious, Ticklish. Rats? - New York Times

It is the ongoing duty of this blog to point out the positive features of rats. This New York Times article summarises some things that have been mentioned here before (eg, rats can be tickled) but contains some information that's new to me:

When it comes to sex, the analogies between rats and humans are “profound,” said James G. Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal. “It’s not simply instinctual for them,” he said. “Rats know what good sex is and what bad sex is. And when they have reason to anticipate great sex, they give you every indication they’re looking forward to it.”

They wiggle and paw at their ears, hop and dart, stop and flash a come-hither look backward. “We imbue our desire with words and meaning, they show us through actions,” he said. “The good thing about rats is, they don’t lie.”

I wonder how you give a rat "reason to anticipate great sex", as opposed to perfunctory sex with a partner they don't even like.

Anyway, there's more:
Rats have personalities, and they can be glum or cheerful depending on their upbringing and circumstances. One study showed that rats accustomed to good times tend to be optimists, while those reared in unstable conditions become pessimists. Both rats will learn to associate one sound with a good event — a gift of food — and another sound with no food, but when exposed to an ambiguous sound, the optimist will run over expecting to be fed and the pessimist will grumble and skulk away, expecting nothing.
I wonder if a glum rat can still be tickled to help cheer him up.

Monbiot making some sense

Ethical shopping is just another way of showing how rich you are

George Monbiot may be one of the biggest doomsayers about global warming, but at least he calls a spade a spade when it comes to eco-consumerism. Here's an extract from his column above:

Dozens of new books seem to provide an answer: we can save the world by embracing "better, greener lifestyles". Last week, for instance, the Guardian published an extract from A Slice of Organic Life, the book by Sheherazade Goldsmith - married to the very rich environmentalist Zac - in which she teaches us "to live within nature's limits". It's easy. Just make your own bread, butter, cheese, jam, chutneys and pickles, keep a milking cow, a few pigs, goats, geese, ducks, chickens, beehives, gardens and orchards. Well, what are you waiting for?

Her book contains plenty of useful advice, and she comes across as modest, sincere and well-informed. But of lobbying for political change, there is not a word. You can save the planet from your own kitchen - if you have endless time and plenty of land. When I was reading it on the train, another passenger asked me if he could take a look. He flicked through it for a moment, and then summed up the problem in seven words: "This is for people who don't work."...

Green consumerism is becoming a pox on the planet. If it merely swapped the damaging goods we buy for less damaging ones, I would champion it. But two parallel markets are developing - one for unethical products and one for ethical products, and the expansion of the second does little to hinder the growth of the first. I am now drowning in a tide of ecojunk....
And this line:
Ethical shopping is in danger of becoming another signifier of social status.
He is being too polite when he says it is "in danger of becoming". I thought it was pretty clear that it's already here.

Go read all of his column, he gives many examples of silly eco-consumerism.

40% achieved

Hey, I know it's all statistically irrelevant when you consider a margin of error, but psychologically it is encouraging to see a poll where the the primary vote for the Coalition is back up to 40%. That "4" looks a lot better than a "3".

Monday, July 23, 2007

Pity the "Unnamed Family Member"

I stumbled across some Muslim blogs on the 'net today, and found this one: "A Muslim Wife". She lives in Florida, has not been married long, and wears the niqaab. I can't actually tell if she is an American convert to Islam, but given some of her expressions, I think that's likely.

She sounds a like a lively enough woman who really, really loves being a serious Muslim. From this post of a few months ago, she talks about how much she enjoys her friendship with the wife of one of her husbands friends:
I am especially fond of this couple; the brother is one of hubby's best friends and his new wife is also a niqaabi. It felt so good to be with someone - go out with someone, get ready with someone, talk with someone, walk with someone - who I can really relate to. Just the small things like knowing to talk in a whisper when the hubbies are around. Or when in public, to go out of our way so we don't have to walk near a man, or serving our husbands first, etc. Just all the little things that matter so much, that have become second nature to us, that are apparently FOREIGN to other sisters.
Hmm, yes I suppose wearing a niqaab in the stifling humidity of Florida is not enough to convince any man in the street that you are definitely off limits. You also have to go out of your way to cross the street to get away from them. Excuse me while I roll my eyes.

But, spare a thought for her relatives. This post caught my attention. Called "Private Conversations," she relates some snippets of conversation with a family member who (by the sounds of it) is not a Muslim at all (or is one who doesn't worry about what angels think of dogs):
Dog: bark! bark!
Me: "So we talked last time about your dog, I see you didn't get rid of it yet?"

Another Unnamed Family Member: "Nope, I didn't. I can't have him killed."
Dog: bark! bark! bark!
Me: "(laughing) No one said kill him, just get rid of him. Give him to a shelter or something."

Another Unnamed Family Member: "I can't (the baby) is so attached to him, he'll be sad."

Me: "Oh. Well you know the hadith I mentioned last time, about the angels not entering your home and the loss of mountains of good deeds for every day you keep him."

Another Unnamed Family Member: "(looking over my shoulder into the distance at anything more interesting than me) Mmm hmm. "

(followed by cold shoulder for the remaining of the week).
Oh dear. I say give the "Unnamed Family Member" a medal for keeping the response to "mmm hmm" and a cold shoulder for a week.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Karen Armstrong and the Deathly Religion

Karen Armstrong has a peculiar sense of priorities. In her latest "Comment is Free" article, she notes the several absurd inconsistencies in modern Islam, starting with the surprising finding that although she was invited by the government of Malaysia to give public lectures there, she found on arrival that three of her books had been banned.

Yet she is always keen to try to show that the West also has "double standards":
For Muslims to protest against the Danish cartoonists' depiction of the prophet as a terrorist, while carrying placards that threatened another 7/7 atrocity on London, represented a nihilistic failure of integrity.

But equally the cartoonists and their publishers, who seemed impervious to Muslim sensibilities, failed to live up to their own liberal values, since the principle of free speech implies respect for the opinions of others. Islamophobia should be as unacceptable as any other form of prejudice. When 255,000 members of the so-called "Christian community" signed a petition to prevent the building of a large mosque in Abbey Mills, east London, they sent a grim message to the Muslim world: Western freedom of worship did not, apparently, apply to Islam.
She made a pretty fundamental mistake there when she argued that free speech implies "respect" for the opinion of others. As several comments note, it only implies toleration of the expression of different opinion. No one has to "respect" the opinions of holocaust denier or 7/11 conspiracy theorist.

It's also pretty facile to argue that objection to a large mosque (seating up to 12,000) in London is an actual "attack" on freedom to worship in a Western country. The decision whether to let it be built is presumably going to be decided on planning laws, and one suspects that regardless of the motivation of the petitioners, "Islamophobia" will not be what actually decides the matter.

Contrast this to the actual situation on "freedom of worship" in countries with an even moderate version of Islam like Malaysia. Reuters reported last year that Malaysia was having a spate of Christian churches being actually demolished on flimsy grounds. Perhaps even more importantly, the article claimed this:
The issue of religion has also been controversial for Muslims. They are not allowed to formally renounce Islam, and apostates are sent for counselling and, ultimately, fined or jailed if they do not desist.

Lina Joy, a Muslim by birth who converted to Christianity, recently lost a six-year battle to have the word "Islam" removed from her identity card.
Karen Armstrong typically ended her article with this:
When Gallup asked what the west could do to improve relations, most Muslims replied unhesitatingly that western countries must show greater respect for Islam, placing this ahead of economic aid and non-interference in their domestic affairs. Our inability to tolerate Islam not only contradicts our western values; it could also become a major security risk.
The thing which Armstrong seems to never want to admit, even in an article like this one where she does criticise Islamic governments, is that the Western "lack of respect" is not institutionalised and is actually very minor when compared to legally enforced intolerance to freedom of religion that is evident in even moderate Islamic countries.

PS: That very last line of her article is quite a doozy too, isn't it? The clear meaning seems to be that the West had better learn to tolerate the (by her own admission) rather intolerant Islam, otherwise it will be its own fault if it is subject to terror attacks for showing such lack of respect.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Dr Haneef Part II

If the criminal case against Dr Haneef is as weak as media reporting is tending to suggest (but bearing in mind that there may be some evidence about which we have heard nothing yet,) then the proper thing his lawyers ought to be doing is making submissions as soon as possible to the DPP to consider not proceeding with the charge.

The DPP (and indeed the Federal Police, although having come up with the charge they cannot be the ones seen to make the decision to withdraw it) would surely have some sensitivity to their ongoing credibility if the case is one with a high likelihood of crashing and burning in a spectacular fashion.

If the charge is withdrawn, the main party that I see losing face would be the Federal Police. That would be no bad thing in its way; it would make them more careful and more cautious in future. It may make whoever it is who seems to have leaked wrong information to re-consider the tactic in future. It doesn't hurt for the Police to get a slap down, every now and then.

Meanwhile, I continue to see no substantial advantage to the refusal of the surety being paid so as to allow Haneef to be released on bail and held in Villawood in Sydney instead of as a terrorist on remand in Brisbane. I do not think the issue of getting instructions and providing him with legal advice in Sydney is that big an issue. There would appear to be little extra that Haneef can currently add to his Federal Court appeal, and the cost of getting instructions on the criminal case (even if it involved a personal visit for a day to Sydney) would surely not be huge.

Instead, it seems pretty clear that keeping him in Brisbane in normal remand is a matyrdom tactic of his own lawyers, who want political pressure to come to play on the visa revocation issue. In my view, Haneef would be better served by having lawyers who refused to play the media/political game, and took a quieter approach to ending quickly the incarceration of their client.

If the DPP did pull the criminal charge, then the astute thing for Minister Andrews to do would be to say that he has reviewed the case, and be more explicit as to whether it is the "secret" evidence alone which is sufficient to justify his decision to revoke the visa. If it is, then it's goodbye Dr Haneef and he can be deported. He has no inherent right to be here, and he would presumably be glad to be gone.

My current opinion remains that it is the Federal Police and Haneef's lawyers who have both played games here, with the media acting like a cheerleader to both sides of a game. (First half spent gee-ing up the crowd for the Federal Police, second half crossing over to the other team.) Of course the media has a job to do in reporting on justice issues, but I get peeved when they act as if it is a particularly noble role.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The history of losing your head

Earlier this week, I noted how I was enjoying reading "Across the Nightingale Floor", a story set in medieval Japan. I also said it would make a good movie.

I have now finished the novel, and I can see the difficulties of making this into a movie. (In fact, in the last 1/3, the whole story becomes very Japanese, in that most major characters want to kill themselves!) I don't want to give the plot away entirely but:


a pretty crucial plot point happens when a major sympathetic character gets beheaded in a way which was, apparently, not unknown in medieval Japan, but it was quite shocking for me with my Western sensitivities. It's not the technical means of the beheading as such, it's the circumstances.

I have always felt particularly repelled by the idea of watching a beheading, even a fictional one in the movies. The novel was written before the recent spate of Islamic beheadings in Iraq, and this renewed appearance of the activity in the real world is unfortunate timing for someone having the film rights to a book in which this act plays a central role.

This made me wonder whether someone has written about beheadings as a cultural issue, and indeed Wikipedia has a gruesomely interesting entry for "decapitation". (In fact, it is this entry which makes me think that what happens in the novel sounds culturally and historically plausible.)

Maybe it is modern Western urban sensibilities that find it so appalling as an act: I imagine that people who live in countries where the open slaughter of animals by throat cutting is commonplace find the idea of killing people the same way not so extraordinary. (My witnessing the killing of some chickens as a young child hasn't desensitised me, though. I don't clearly remember the chopping, but do remember my mother cleaning out the entrails. The not completely formed eggs were interesting.)

Still, I don't like thinking about the act, and wish all heads to be kept firmly in place in novels and movies.

Howard, Costello, etc

The 7.30 Report - ABC

It seems to me that the media, and the ABC in particular, is disproportionately salivating over the issue of just how much Costello and Howard like/dislike each other.

The bottom line is this: Costello has felt hard done by for years, and we already knew that. But, for whatever reason, Costello polls very poorly in preferred PM stakes compared to Howard. No one in their right mind, including Costello, would think that means its a good idea to do a leadership swap now.

The only issue of relevance to the election is Howard being put under pressure to declare that he will really hand over the leadership in the next term. But, surely this time, that's a given anyway.

So Kerry, Tony, Michelle, that's about it really. Go have a Bex and a good lie down and find something else to talk about.

Unfortunate positioning

Quake-hit atomic plant sits atop a fault line | The Japan Times Online

From the article:
The fault along which Monday's magnitude-6.8 earthquake occurred appears to extend right beneath Niigata Prefecture's Kashiwazaki-Kariwa nuclear plant, the world's largest atomic power complex, an analysis of aftershock data by the Meteorological Agency showed Wednesday.
Seems to me to be a good argument for the modular, smaller Pebble Bed Reactor. To get a big power station, you just string a half dozen of them together, and the modular design (I imagine) would mean less risk of all of them being taken out at once in one earthquake or other disaster.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Dr Haneef

There's a couple of things about this case that I haven't noticed being said yet:

1. One of the consequences of Dr H deciding to fight the Commonwealth's decision to revoke his visa is that the surety has not been paid and he is spending the next few weeks in remand in Brisbane instead of at Villawood Detention Centre in Sydney (where people undergoing immigration detention are kept.) The detention in Brisbane is described in The Age as follows:

Queensland Corrective Services Minister Judy Spence said Haneef would face a different regime to other prisoners.

He would be allowed no contact with other inmates and would be given an hour a day to exercise. Ms Spence said Haneef would be managed as a terror prisoner under terrorism legislation.

"Anyone who is charged under terrorist legislation is obviously seen as a greater threat to the good order of our society than other type of prisoners," she said. "A terrorist prisoner is required to be held apart from the mainstream prison population, so he will be held in a segregated environment."

It seems certain that the Villawood detention centre would have conditions nothing like this, as he would be bailed on the criminal charge and simply be there as a visa-less person awaiting his ticket overseas after the trial on the Brisbane charge.

I wonder whether his lawyers have made this clear to him, as spending a few more weeks in custody as a terrorist subject is a serious issue. (There is also the issue of the ease with which he can get access to lawyers when in Villawood. However, it's not like Sydney is a million miles from Brisbane, and I expect telephone contact is readily available. Who is paying for his representation anyway? That has never been made clear to me.)

2. I am curious as to what people think about this hypothetical: if the doctor were lodging his visa application today, after the attempted attacks in England by the relatives he has obviously been close to, should the government approve his visa? What would the media reaction be if it was disclosed that he had been approved to come here, despite the family connections, and sharing the same profession?

Should the government in that circumstance simply accept the applicant's claim that he knew nothing of his relative's plans, and only ever had "innocent" association with them?

If you think that the government in that hypothetical situation should not approve the visa application, acting on a precautionary principle, then how could you really complain about the government revoking his visa now?

There is too much hot air blowing around this case, mainly from lawyers. I don't like the media and other's role too (whoever was leaking before the barrister did too.) It's reflecting badly on both sides if you ask me, but I still don't think the government is going to (or should) lose on the issue of deporting him.

How England became England

New Scientist reports how the English Channel appears to have been carved out in a giant "mega flood".

Such stories of spectacular geological events are always interesting. The English Channel event was about 500,000 years ago, though. The flooding of the Black Sea is more interesting due to its affecting people.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The famous playwright

Dazzled again by Stoppard's big ideas

I wish Tom Stoppard plays were produced more often in this country. He seems to be the only English playwright of the last 30 years who deserves fame for having such a combination of wit and intellect.

But he's turning 70! I don't know that there is really anyone on the horizon who is likely to replace him.

From the "only in Japan" files

Sex seems to be the topic of quite a few posts here so far this week, and it's not even spring yet. Still, who can resist looking at some highly amusing packaging for Japanese condoms? (I think I may have seen some of these around the web before, but here they are together with some funny commentary.)

Found via the entertaining Japundit.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Questioning everything about CO2

In a series of posts late last year, I explained that the effect of increasing ocean acidification from the rapid rise in CO2 levels over the next century was enough for me to drop scepticism about the worthiness of programs to seriously reduce CO2 emissions. The benefit of this approach means you don't really have to continue worrying about who is right in terms of how much the temperature will increase, and what effect it will have on climate generally.

Still, it is interesting to see that arxiv has published last week a very lengthy article arguing that the physics of CO2 warming is completely wrong. (Maybe this argument has already been discredited, as I haven't followed all of the skeptics arguments all that closely over the years. It is hard to believe that thousands of other scientists are wrong.)

In any event, it would be nice if we didn't get as hot as predicted because of misunderstood atmospheric physics.

On marriage

Madeleine Bunting has an interesting column in The Guardian about the political response in England to high rates of family break up.

I don't agree with her conclusion (politicians should just give up on trying to promote marriage, and just make sure that there are plenty of services to ease the effect of separation on children.) Still, there is interesting information in the article, such as:
Relationship breakdown is not caused simply by poverty and inequality - they may contribute as a stress factor, but something else is going on too. Some of the world's highest separation rates are in Scandinavia, yet countries such as Sweden and Denmark are among the most equal and have the lowest rates of poverty. Other commentators attribute relationship breakdown to increasing working hours and the pressures of employment, but most Scandinavian working cultures are genuinely family friendly.
Just remember that when the ACTU and Labor party go on about Workchoices being bad for families!

She does allow that some deeper cultural issues are probably at play:
What's also involved is that a set of cultural assumptions about how to conduct long-term relationships, and what can be expected of them, have gone seriously askew - as one thirtysomething father said ruefully after the break-up of his relationship, "our generation just can't do it". The right likes to call this moral breakdown, but it's more tragic than that - often it's a kind of lack of emotional capability.
To which I quite liked this response from commenter simonx:
Why on earth are Guardian writers so loathe to praise and support the institution of marriage?

.....today, we have Ms Bunting blaming the break-up of relationships on a ' lack of emotional capability.' Yet loyalty itself should not be dependent, surely, on the whims of emotion. Instead, it is founded on the solemn promises and commitments couples make to each other when children become part of their relationship. There's nothing which underlines these vows better, surely, than the symbolism of marriage.

For the record

I really don't like The Australian's new website design. (What is it about News Limited: I have never learned to like the last re-design of the The Times website either.)

Monday, July 16, 2007

The blue pill that's good for the economy

The widespread use of Viagra seems to be causing significant problems, according to a long article in The Times. Some young idiots find it necessary to counter the effects of ecstacy:
Hayley, a 24-year-old fast-track civil servant, said men in her social circle take Viagra because it counters the effect of cocaine and ecstasy, which raise lust but cause impotence. “By about 3am you might have run out of everything else, so you might get two girls and a guy, or maybe a bigger group, taking Viagra and going off to have sex for the next three hours. With Viagra, guys can do it again and again.
So it would seem, according to a young man who gets it from a mate who fools his GP into giving him scripts:
“With Viagra you can do it four or five times in a row,” says Olly. “I’m sure I wouldn’t be completely crap at sex without it, but it puts your mind at rest that you’ll be able to perform.”
Even at the lust filled age of 24, there is something seriously wrong with wanting to "do it four or five times in a row", isn't there? I presume that the other recreational drugs might have something to do with the desire, as Hayley said.

The article goes on to explain that Vaigra use, and the husband's subsequent pressuring of the wife to have sex, is being increasing cited in divorce cases. Sounds plausible.

Yet there are doctors who won't have any of this talk of a downside:
John Dean, a doctor specialising in sexual medicine in London who took part in the original trials of Viagra, insists that its use has brought happiness to millions of couples, saved the cost of treating epidemics of depression and other illnesses linked to mental health, and allowed many men to increase their economic productiveness.
Finally, the key to never ending economic growth. I like this part too:
Pfizer is trying to persuade the Department of Health to allow routine NHS prescription of the drug, and it is developing a programme to help GPs recognise erectile dysfunction.
"Hullo, hullo, hullo. What's this we've got here? Erectile dysfunction I do believe. Wouldn't have recognized that unless Pfizer told me what to look for.."

All very interesting.

Monday Miscellany

There's a few things which I have read lately but haven't yet mentioned:

* It's been there for a couple of weeks, but there's an interesting interview in The Observer with an American author of a book comparing international attitudes to adultery. She points out that different countries have different "scripts" that most people expect to be followed in the course of adultery:
The key points of the American script resonate so strongly, it's almost tedious. For example - the first rule of infidelity in the US and the UK is that it becomes understandable, borderline-permissible even, if the prospective cheat says they're unhappy in their marriage. 'And of course,' says Druckerman, 'everyone has flaws in their marriages, things that aren't quite perfect... but here and the US, you start complaining about your marriage, and that way, you're not some lousy guy who cheats on his wife because he wants sex, you're a puppy dog who's looking for love.' Which might sound so trite that it hardly merits comment - until you consider the Japanese script, in which a cheating man praises his wife to his girlfriend, to demonstrate that he's a good husband.
I read a short novel about an Englishman having an affair in Japan a couple of years ago. He didn't mention his wife to his girlfriend, but then again, he was English. One thing the novel did point out, though, was that one of the hazzards of breaking up with a lover in Japan was the risk that she would commit suicide. The whole issue of the cultural attitude to adultery in Japan is an interesting topic. (A purely theoretical interest on my part, I hasten to add!)

* Speaking of Japan, I am currently reading "Across the Nightingale Floor", the first of a series of fairly popular novels set in a semi-fictionalised medieval Japan by Australian author Lian Hearn.

I am very impressed so far. The genre is a little hard to describe, as it contains a fantasy element, but it is really just a case of some characters having psychic abilities. (Sort of like psychic ninja, in a way.) I don't feel that the introduction of that alone means "fantasy" is an appropriate description for what I am reading.

I can say that the novel really has a very authentic sense of place. (I have spent my fair share of time around old Japanese temples, historical villages and castles.) The writing style is not overly ornate, but it has a very visual or "cinematic" quality to it, and it is a pleasure to read. I think it would be very easy material to convert to a screenplay.

I see from Hearn's website that Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy (who have produced many films with Spielberg, and generally have a good track record) have acquired the film rights. I reckon it would make a great movie, except one would hope they use Japanese actors instead of Chinese, as in Memoirs of a Geisha. (That was one spectacularly good looking film, by the way, but the story only so-so.)

* Nick Cohen talks about the odd fact that, once Middle East terrorists really became a serious threat to the West, Hollywood stopped making films about them. He points out that the BBC drama "Spooks" went even one better:
The 2006 series of Spooks, for example, showed Islamist suicide bombers taking over the Saudi Arabian embassy. Nothing too far-fetched in that; real MI5 agents are running themselves ragged as they try to close down terror cells. The BBC's novel twist was that its fictional MI5 agents discovered that the Islamists weren't Islamists at all, just Mossad agents in disguise engaged in the perennial Jewish conspiracy.
An interesting read as usual.

* The Guardian has a "Comment is Free" article by a prominent gay activist who complains that, despite vast improvements in their legal position, homosexuals still have to put up with a lot of prejudice and hate, and suggests that in fact the title "gay" should be given up. (He suggests that bisexuality, or simply fluid sexuality, is more prominent than people realise.)

The odd thing about his argument is that he starts with a (I think) jokey thought that inadvertently shows why "gay" has an image problem:
I had a gratifyingly zeitgeist moment the other day in one of London's smarter clubs. It had met with a spot of bother; people were going into the loo cubicles together to share lines of coke. So now the loo doors brandish a strict sign: 'Any two people found in this cubicle using drugs will be ejected from the club.' And I just thought of a member of staff knocking on the door when a boyfriend and I were over-amorously engaged therein and being able to say: 'Don't worry we're just having sex,' and the doorman saying: 'OK. Carry on.'
It seems very odd to me that he doesn't realise that he is encouraging an image of gay men which he is seemingly arguing against in the rest of the article. If you want to "normalise" an image of sexuality, you don't do it by suggesting that toilets are appropriate place for sex, whether gay, straight or some other colour. Similarly, hasn't the concept of a gay Mardi Gras outlived its overall political usefulness? If you truly want to blend into a society and not be treated differently, why run a parade which has such an "in your face" approach to its participant's sexuality? As with sex in a toilet, it is far from dignified, and (I would argue) counterproductive in terms of changing the minds of those who may already either hate, dislike, or just be sceptical of, the whole modern Western concept of gay identity.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Something you didn't know

If you want some esoteric information to share around the dinner table tonight, try this. The keeping of rats as pets (in England, at least) seems to have started with Jack Black, who Wikipedia describes as:
...rat-catcher and mole destroyer by appointment to Her Majesty Queen Victoria during the middle of the Nineteenth Century. Black cut a striking figure in his self-made "uniform" of scarlet topcoat, waistcoat, and breeches, with a huge leather belt inset with cast-iron rats.
The title "mole destroyer" has a certain ring to it, don't you think? As Wikipedia goes on to explain:
When he caught any unusually coloured rats, he bred them, to establish new colour varieties. He would sell his home-bred domesticated coloured rats as pets, mainly, as Black observed, "...to well-bred young ladies to keep in squirrel cages." Beatrix Potter is believed to have been one of his customers, and she dedicated the book Samuel Whiskers to her rat of the same name. The more sophisticated ladies of court kept their rats in dainty gilded cages, and even Queen Victoria herself kept a rat or two.
How would you all manage without me providing such vital information?

Not common knowledge

Christopher Pearson's column in The Australian today talks about the "noble savage" view of aboriginal society, and mentions some extracts from Louis Nowra's recent book "Bad Dreaming".

While most people have probably heard of the traditional custom of female "child brides" in some aboriginal groups (as it is indeed still an issue today), I for one had not heard before of the customary pederasty in some aboriginal groups:
Nowra notes evidence of "boy-wife arrangements that are known to have existed late into the end of the 19th century", citing the work of Carl Strehlow. "Pederasty is a recognised custom among the Arunta and has a name, kwalanga. It prevails especially among the Western Loritja and tribes north of the MacDonnell Range, the Katitja, Ilpara, Warramunga, etc. Commonly a man, who is fully initiated but not yet married, takes a boy 10 or 12 years old, who lives with him for several years."...

Nowra comments: "Boys in a boy-wife arrangement were called chookadoo (about age five) or mullawongah (ages five to seven). Some boys could remain in such a marriage up until the age of 11 ... Even into the 1930s, there was evidence of homosexuality (among) the Kimberley Aborigines. The youths of 17 or 18 who were still unmarried would take boys of 10 or 11 as lovers.

"The women did not regard it as shameful and considered the practice a temporary substitute for marriage."

Heterosexual abuse gets a mention too:
Nowra's evidence of heterosexual abuse is just as compelling. For example, he says that "when a nine or 10-year-old girl was handed over to her husband, there was generally no sexual intercourse (until) after puberty" but notes anthropologist Phyllis Kaberry's caveat that "sexual intercourse without penetration did take place but infrequently".
Anthropology has never been a huge interest for me, but common sense has always suggested that it is one of the "softest" sciences in which political and personal prejudices of academics in the field have played a huge role. It seems to me that such prejudices are behind the lack of common knowledge of the harshness of sexual and other aspects of many traditional aboriginal societies.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Too much

It's reaching the bottom of the barrel when I post about Rosie O'Donnell, but some days the regular news just doesn't inspire me much.

In case you have never seen it, Rosie O'Donnell maintains a blog (of sorts) which regularly features video addresses to her admirers. Her girlfriend/partner and kids feature sometimes too.

This is a good example of one of her video entries. Go have a look and see if you agree with my observations:

a. Without make up, a hair do and studio lighting, she becomes startlingly unattractive.

b. The way she interacts with her girlfriend/partner makes it seem like a relationship dominated by Ms O'Donnell.

c. She is currently on one of her gay family cruises, alone, as her partner has had a neck operation. If Rosie has a shipboard romance, would she blog about it? Probably. This sort of exposure of a happy domestic life just feels like a set up for a spectacular fall. (It's like couples who renew marriage vows. Don't do it! It will make you look much more of a goose than necessary when one of you has an affair within a year.)

Hitting the jackpot while spending a penny

Money flows free in men's toilets in Japan - ABC News

That heading was too hard to resist, sorry.

Anyhow, the story is that visiting a public toilet can be very profitable for some in Japan:

The suburban sprawl of Saitama, north of Tokyo, does not make the news that often. But it is not everyday that someone visiting the toilet finds a box of 10,000 yen notes - each worth $A100, each wrapped in a traditional Japanese paper envelope.

Reports of the find in the Saitama local government headquarters flushed out similar incidents across the country...

The first case now seems to have been in September 2006, in Shizuoka prefecture in central Japan. Similar events have been reported in 18 of Japan's 47 prefectures, from Hokkaido in the north to Okinawa in the south.

National broadcaster NHK has tallied up the figures and believes around 400 envelopes have been found - the equivalent of $40,000.

Galactic geeks for science

Found via New Scientist: there's a potential contribution to science that you can make by looking at and categorising galaxies.

It's not just letting your computer grind away in the background on processing radio signals for alien contact, or working out how proteins fold; you have to use your own brain. As the site explains:

Welcome to GalaxyZoo , the project which harnesses the power of the internet - and your brain - to classify a million galaxies. By taking part, you'll not only be contributing to scientific research, but you'll view parts of the Universe that literally no-one has ever seen before and get a sense of the glorious diversity of galaxies that pepper the sky.

Why do we need you?
The simple answer is that the human brain is much better at recognising patterns than a computer can ever be. Any computer program we write to sort our galaxies into categories would do a reasonable job, but it would also inevitably throw out the unusual, the weird and the wonderful. To rescue these interesting systems which have a story to tell, we need you.

Go have a look. The inner Geek in me finds this very appealing, and I'm very tempted to sign up.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Star rock's cot noping?

According to the Courier Mail:
Mr Garrett yesterday refused to say when he last took a drag on a joint but stood by an earlier statement saying it wasn't with Daniel Johns and it was a long time ago.

The rock star-cum-political wunderkind fronted the media yesterday after a speech on global warming and the tourism industry but the one burning question was about his own hazy past.

Even those observing his speech to the Tourism and Transport Forum could have been forgiven for thinking he was a touch out of it.

At one point he said he would "brief speakly" about part of the issue before criticising the Federal Government's funding cuts to heritage protection. Unfortunately he referred to them as "cunding futs", which briefly alarmed many in the audience.

It's all relative

Report: Iranian adulterer stoned to death

From the article:
A man convicted of adultery was stoned to death last week in a village in northern Iran, a judiciary spokesman said Tuesday, the first time in years that the country has confirmed such an execution....

Death sentences are carried out in Iran after they are upheld by the Supreme Court. Under Iran’s Islamic law, adultery is punishable by stoning...

Under Islamic rulings, a man is usually buried up to his waist, while a woman is buried up to her neck with her hands also buried. Those carrying out the verdict then throw stones until the condemned dies.

Capital offenses in Iran include murder, rape, armed robbery, apostasy, blasphemy, serious drug trafficking, adultery or prostitution, treason and espionage.
Meanwhile, in Australia, civil rights types are griping that anti-terrorism laws don't have an automatic time limit on detention:
Terrorism law experts and civil libertarians called for a limit on the time a suspect can be held without charge under the Anti-Terrorism Act, while Dr Haneef's lawyer, Peter Russo, said his client had fewer rights than someone charged with a criminal offence, as he couldn't even apply for bail.

"That's the craziness in the legislation," Mr Russo said. "There should be a mechanism for review. We need to put some balance in the system that has got some accountability."
This despite the fact that extensions have to be approved by a court, which has already not been granting the length of extensions sought by the police. (The stoned Iranian adulterer, by the way, had spent 11 years in custody before he was killed.)

Call me when the Magistrate starts granting 3 months extensions, rather than 48 hour ones, and then I might care.

A completely expected answer

Rudd stone cold on marijuana - National - theage.com.au

The least likely man in the universe to have ever tried marijuana confirms he has never smoked marijuana. (Nor have I, so I don't criticise politicians who haven't. Still, isn't it sort of funny to think that anyone might even bother asking supernerd Kevin this question?)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Polling day

It seems that there is a relatively subdued response in the left leaning blogosphere to the Newspoll out today that is still good news for Labor. Not much crowing at all compared to previous months.

I suspect that this is because, despite it not reflecting in voting intentions yet, the general feeling is still there (even amongst Labor supporters) that Howard's decisive action in the aboriginal crisis, and the renewed discussion of terrorism within Australia, are issues which are going to work in the Coalition's favour, with yet another resurrection of Howard's electoral performance still very possible.

People have to remember that, while a 12 point TPP lead seems impressive (and would be on an election day!), it only takes a shift of 6 points to make them even again.

Oddly, though, Howard's performance was not that great in the last week, when he dissembled on "oil is why we are in Iraq" issue (a problem caused by Brendan Nelson really, who I can't stand) and seems to have made a mistake on the Indonesian terror warning.

On the other side of the fence, surely some people are starting to tire just a little bit of Rudd's very mannered way of speaking (once he gets a phrase going during a speech or interview, he can't let it go.) And is it possible that just a little mud might stick via the "Peter Garrett smoked pot with me and Bono" story by seriously strange musician Daniel Johns?

Interesting political times coming up in the second half of this year.

Life in a North Korean gulag

There's a horrifying story of the gulag system in North Korea at the IHT.

King Jong-Il cannot die soon enough for the long suffering people of that nation.

Monday, July 09, 2007

The ABC has an opinion

Has anyone else noticed how the ABC News website now has a fairly extensive Opinion section?

As far as I can tell, it's only been running since May.

This seems to be dangerous ground for the ABC to be attempting to cover, as surely the editorial selection of whose essays and opinion articles get published can easily lead to allegations of bias. In fact, just doing a quick read of the topics and authors of the articles that are already there, I am surprised that (as far as I know,) no commentator or politician has yet raised this.

I think that ABC News would be better off leaving this sort of stuff well alone.

This will be interesting..

We've got the Brimble cruise death inquest resuming, and this is the evidence that is going to be presented:
Counsel assisting the inquest, Ron Hoenig, has told Glebe Coroners Court that intercepted telephone calls between the eight men implicated in the mother of three's death have been secured by police.

The 42-year-old woman died from a drug overdose on board P&O's Pacific Sky cruise ship in September 2002....

Mr Hoenig told the court "a considerable volume of material" would be placed before the inquest comprising a large number of intercepted conversations between the persons of interest.

"These conversations relate specifically to this inquest, what occurred on board, and (how) they are to give their evidence and describe Mrs Brimble and their view of her conduct on board," Mr Hoenig said.

It seems extremely likely that this evidence is going to be very embarrassing for these guys, and given the stuff that has already come out of the inquest, it would very surprising if no prosecutions result.

That last link, by the way, was to a site called Cruise Bruise which seems purely dedicated to maximizing bad publicity about anything that can possibly go wrong on a cruise ship. (Who knows, its summary of the Brimble case might not be the most accurate one in the world, given the strange obsession that it must take to create a website like this.) Still, it looks like a perversely interesting site, even though I haven't had time to look around it for long.

Hadn't heard that one before

Madeleine Bunting has an interesting article in The Guardian's "Comment is Free" today, in which she discusses an (apparent) new seriousness within the British Muslim community to take home grown Islamist terrorism seriously. She opens it with this interesting snippet:
Two days after the 7/7 bombings in London two years ago, Muslim community leaders gathered at the London Muslim Centre to consider the impact of the attacks and who might have organised them. Many present refused to accept it might have been Muslims - the common refrain was that it could have been the French, because they had just lost the bid to host the Olympics.
The article goes on to say this:
In the past few days, key Muslim community activists have admitted to me that what worries them is how certain theological issues have not been properly clarified, and can be used to justify extremism. The most important is the age-old distinction between dar al-Islam (the land of Islam) and dar al-harb (the land of the other, of unbelief - or of war, according to the literal translation from the Arabic). This demonisation of all that is not Muslim is the "paradigmatic, instinctive response that people fall back on in a moment of crisis", I was told. Extremists such as Hizb ut-Tahrir use this dualism, as do jihadis, to justify their contempt for the rights - and lives - of the kufr, the unbeliever.
How long it will take to weed out the jihadist theology, though, is another question.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Revisiting the many worlds

There's a good article available for free from Nature on the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum physics.

The article has a footnoted link to a short biography of Hugh Everett, who came up with the interpretation. Interestingly, he believed one of the odder ideas that some argue is implicit in the "many-worlds" theory:
Everett firmly believed that his many-worlds theory guaranteed him immortality: His consciousness, he argued, is bound at each branching to follow whatever path does not lead to death —and so on ad infinitum. (Sadly, Everett's daughter Liz, in her later suicide note, said she was going to a parallel universe to be with her father.)
Stranger than fiction.


There's a fairly entertaining interview article in The Guardian about nutty Icelandic pop star Bjork. I liked this part:
I didn't expect Björk to be eccentric in the flesh, although oddness is an integral part of her public persona, of course. ... Oddness, kookiness and quirkiness have been as much a part of Björk's brand as her off-kilter, jarring, powerful sound. Björk, who wore a swan costume up the red carpet at the Oscars in 2001. Björk, who sewed pearls into her own skin for the video to 2001's 'Pagan Poetry'. Björk, who battered a television reporter at Don Muang airport in Bangkok, when she tried to talk to her son Sindri, then 10. Björk, who was rumoured to have been so unhappy while filming a role in Lars von Trier's Dancer In The Dark that she ate her own cardigan.
Sadly, the interviewer does not actually establish whether the clothes eating incident was true.

UPDATE: Here's the link I forgot to add. Actually, the article was from The Observer, via the Guardian Unlimited site.

What's happened to Terry Lane?

Terry Lane's column in The Age today, about Howard's response to the aboriginal situation, is very, very surprising. There is virtually no criticism of Howard at all, and contains statements like this:
We may be as sentimental as we like about indigenous culture, but it is simply incompatible with real life and must change or be changed.

You can see how a can-do chap like Howard would eschew the pussy-footing and send in the army. The inquiry's message is inescapable — left to their own devices, the condition of Aboriginal life will go on getting worse until they disappear....

Realistically, there is no alternative to assimilation. Missions, protectors, citizenship, land rights, equal pay, affirmative action and self-determination haven't worked.
Such sentiments seem extremely out of character for the consistently left wing, and (I think it fair to say) Howard-hating Lane. In fact, I am worried he has had a bump to the head and the injury is not being treated yet.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Vindication 23 years later

The Internet is quite the tool for vindication, even if it comes decades later.

This week, science fiction author Fred Saberhagen died. This reminded me of an incident from 1984. I can be quite certain of the year, because of the place I was working at the time.

I shared an office with a guy who was reasonably well read in science fiction, as was I at that time. I mentioned to him that, although I had never read Saberhagen, I had been surprised while browsing in a bookstore to find that he had a novel which seemed to have references to Queensland.

My office friend managed to convince me that I must have imagined it. The memory (from probably a couple of years before this conversation) was vague. I think I actually said that my recollection was so vague, that maybe I had dreamt it.

However, a quick Google now reveals that one of Saberhagen's books has this plot:
The berserkers have chosen to focus their latest attack upon one individual. Their target, King Ay of Queensland.
Yes, well, maybe it has nothing to do with Queensland the Australian State, but finally there is proof that I did not completely imagine the connection.

If, in the afterlife, there is a super Google that lets you review the equivalent of Youtube clips of arguments had years ago, perhaps some souls spend years just watching it and keeping score of how many times they are vindicated. (Maybe that is why tests involving souls communicating secret messages back through mediums are usually failures.) Anyway, I can imagine that sort of afterlife activity keeping Paul Keating going for decades.

Way to attract tourists, Malaysia

Malaysian band detained after singer's top reveals bare skin | The Guardian

From the article:
Religious police in Malaysia have detained a Muslim singer and her band, accusing her of baring too much flesh during a recent performance at a nightclub.

Siti Noor Idayu Abd Moin's sleeveless white top exposed a triangle of skin on her back, prompting officials to charge her with "revealing her body" and "promoting vice".

The artist, who plans to contest the allegations, was released on £145 bail and ordered to appear before the sharia court in the northern town of Ipoh early next month. But Noor Idayu, 24, was bemused by the charge that her top was too skimpy and said it was a style she would feel comfortable wearing in public during the day.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Any gluttons for punishment out there?

At the Movies: West

When David Stratton says this about an Australian movie, you know it must be unpleasant:
It's beautifully acted, it's well-directed, it's, the cinematography is fine and it's possibly, probably, an authentic depiction of life in the western suburbs of our cities, but it's such a deeply, deeply depressing experience in the cinema.

And coming on the heels of other deeply depressing Australian films like CANDY and other films like it, I just sat through the film getting more and more miserable as the film went on...

And, the four-letter language all the way through - I'm sure it's like that but it makes me wonder what a film like, who, where the audience is for this film.
Yet, in the strange way of assessing films they use, he still gives it 3/5. (As always, there seems to be a 1 to 2 star bonus there simply for it being an Australia project.)

The writer/director, meanwhile, thought he was writing for an audience:
WEST grew out of, basically, things that had happened to me as a teenager. I wrote the first draft, kind of in a haphazard way, when I was very young. I was about 16. I didn't really know what I was doing and I just - I was just trying to write something that I felt that I would want to see or that my friends would want to see.

So it wasn't an intellectual process at all. It was just spewing it out, you know, I guess. And then - and then the script - I worked the script really for another eight years in between other jobs and the draft that we shot was completed in about '94 and then it took a long time to get the money after that. So it was an exercise in persistence and patience really.
He seemed very earnest in the interview, which makes the almost guaranteed failure to find an audience for the project that has been on his mind for many, many years seem rather sad. Sort of. The other part of me just wants to continue ridiculing him.

Really, someone should be giving a collective slap in the face to Australian film makers and start yelling "snap out of it. Make something other than dire films about losers. NO, not even about losers who seem to come good in the last five minutes! And you, funders, stop spending money on them!"


Comment is free: Distinct possibilities

Go to the link for a Guardian "Comment is Free" piece which gives Hamas a ridiculous number of big brownie points for its role in the release of Alan Johnston:
...it was the "Islamists" ... who made the difference in terms of bringing relentless worldwide appeal as well as action on the ground, and led to his eventual release. Indeed had the Hamas leadership had its way, Alan Johnston would have been freed many weeks ago, but its self-restraint and discipline in dealing with this matter as well as its tenacity, has brought about this welcome resolution.
Even the Guardian's commenters find this hard to take:
hahaha - you're a joke. Are you talking about the same Hamas organisation that only 3 weeks ago were throwing their fellow muslim brothers off 10 storey buildings, or going into hospitals tying men and kids up and shooting them in the back. All the while screaming Allah Acbbbarrrr...
Or this:

Any sensible and decent person would be very happy that Johnson has been freed, but I don't see how it changes anything. Hamas still believes in the destruction of Israel, still has Shalit, still launches rockets at Israel, and so on. Just because they did something good (which was for their benefit anyway, hardly altruistic) doesn't mean they have ebcome good.

"We must seize the opportunity of these groups coming out clearly against terrorism and violence, and work to cultivate the common ground."

There is the problem. Hamas, Muslim brotherhood et all have not come out against violence nor will they anytime soon.

Credibility lost

Time for a long look at bottom of the glass - Opinion - theage.com.au

David Campbell complains about drinking culture in Australia. He admits, however, to having a jaundiced view (hmm, medical pun there) as he is a non drinker. The reason:
Wine is bitter and beer is … well, why anybody would pour that stuff down their throat is one of life's little mysteries....

I've been asked all sorts of questions: "Is there a health reason?" "Is it a religious belief?" The plain answer — that I don't like the taste — is met with raised eyebrows and a visible turning of the mental wheels: "Hmmm … weird!"
Well, at the very least, it shows a startlingly low level of curiousity. People who stop trying new tastes in either food or drink at their teenage years deserve a degree of ridicule, I reckon. If you say you don't drink for ideological reasons, even if it is not particularly well founded (like saying you never want to lose any degree of self control), that at least makes some kind of sense. But to carry on about the taste for the rest of your life, that's just a bit childish in my books.

(It just occurred to me that he may be a supertaster, in which case my criticism is unfair. More likely, though, he's just a big .... well, I was going to humourously suggest girl, but that doesn't seem apt considering today's teenagers. He is like my mother, but she's in her 80's and you allow for a degree of lack of experimentation by that age.

I also don't want to suggest that the likes of Campbell should be hassled relentlessly about their abstinence; of course people can chose to not drink for whatever reason they want and don't have to justify it. It's just that if they make silly blanket statements suggesting that all wine is bitter and beer worse than car acid they should expect a rebuke.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Queensland - mad doctor magnet?

What is it about Queensland and foreign doctors? First the awfully over-enthusiatic Dr Patel, whose Wikipedia entry notes that, even before he landed in Australia:
Medical staff alleged that he would often turn up, even on his days off, and perform surgery on patients that were not even his responsibility. In some cases, surgery was not even required, and caused serious injuries or death to the patient.
Then there was the case of the fake Russian psychiatrist working at Townsville hospital:
The Australian newspaper today published allegations that a bogus doctor engaged to work as a psychiatrist at the Townsville Base Hospital in North Queensland is a convicted paedophile. The newspaper claims that in 1987, Vincent Berg was jailed in the Soviet Union for indecently dealing with boys, and later deported from the United States after being accused of stealing church ornaments.

He was also allegedly defrocked as a Russian Orthodox priest in his home country.

When contacted by the newspaper, Mr Berg denied any wrongdoing and said the KGB had fabricated the allegations.
More recently, Cairns hospital had some youngsters with questionable qualifications:
Queensland's chief health officer, Jeanette Young, is investigating how the Cairns Base Hospital hired four foreign junior doctors before their credentials were checked by the medical board....

..a newspaper report alleging that one of the employees used an online medical degree from the Caribbean to get the job, while a Chinese woman's documents show she would have started medical school at the age of 14.
And finally, we get our very own doctor from Gold Coast hospital arrested and being investigated for possible connections with the mad (alleged!) doctor bombers of England. (Of course, he may end up being found completely innocent of anything, but it's not a good look.)

The big mystery is: why does this run of foreign doctors gone wrong stories seem centred on Queensland out of all of Australia? Sure, it adds a certain potential air of drama and excitement to visiting a public hospital here, as you wonder whether all the possible ways that Queensland foreign hospital doctors have been in trouble have yet been exhausted. I mean, about the only thing we haven't discovered yet is that Josef Mengele's grandson, who qualified in surgery under the guidance of faith healer Arigo ("surgeon of the rusty knife") in Brazil, has been stealing kidneys from Jewish patients. (OK, there aren't many Jews in Queensland, but they holiday here from Melbourne sometimes, surely.)

It's all very odd, if you ask me.

Drink up, kids

They have ads on TV for kid's beer in Japan. (You can see it on Youtube via the link.) I am not offended. This is a country, after all, where beer can be found for sale in vending machines on the street. (They're not all over the place, like the coffee, tea and various soft drink vending machines, but still.) Yet there is nothing like the ridiculous drunken teenage party invasions that go on here.

A journalist in Baghdad

I’m cowering under the bed. But I’m here -Times Online

Here's a short account of what it is like for a Western journalist (and a female one at that) to work in Baghdad at the moment. She deserves praise for being one of the few journalists willing to be there at all.

More deep thoughts from Paul Davies

We are meant to be here | Salon Books

Paul Davies is out promoting a new book, and gets a long interview in Salon to explain his ideas. It explains his views better than the last article I linked to.

Here's the key sections:
Now we're into another variant of the anthropic principle -- which is sometimes called the "final anthropic principle" -- where, somehow, the emergence of life and observers link back to the early universe. Now, Wheeler didn't flesh out this idea terribly well, but I've had a go at trying to extend it...

It's part of conventional quantum mechanics that you can make observations now that will affect the nature of reality as it was in the past. You can't use it to send signals back into the past. You can't send information back into the past. But the nature of the quantum state in the past can't be separated from the nature of the quantum state in the present.

What we're saying is that as we go back into the past, there are many, many quantum histories that could have led up to this point. And the existence of observers today will select a subset of those histories which will inevitably, by definition, lead to the existence of life. Now, I don't think anybody would really dispute that fact.

What I'm suggesting -- this is where things depart from the conventional view -- is that the laws of physics themselves are subject to the same quantum uncertainty. So that an observation performed today will select not only a number of histories from an infinite number of possible past histories, but will also select a subset of the laws of physics which are consistent with the emergence of life. That's the radical departure. It's not the backward-in-time aspect, which has been established by experiment. There's really no doubt that quantum mechanics opens the way to linking future with past. I'm suggesting that we extend those notions from the state of the universe to the underlying laws of physics themselves. That's the radical step, because most physicists regard the laws as God-given, imprinted on the universe, fixed and immutable. But Wheeler -- and I follow him on this -- suggested that the laws of physics are not immutable.
The mechanism by which they are changeable over time seems rather vague speculation to me, and he doesn't seem to suggest a way to test the idea. (Although there has been mention recently that whether changes to certain laws of physics have taken place over time is testable.)

One area in which I think is a bit inadequately addressed in the interview is the odd "Platonic world" feeling of mathematics.

In my previous post about Davies, I suggested that it was a bit of a stretch for him to say that there was "ultimate meaning" to the universe when he doesn't seem to believe in eternal life of any kind. However, maybe he is a secret admirer of Tipler's Omega Point after all:
Ultimately, it may not be living intelligence or embodied intelligence but some sort of intelligent information-processing system that could become omniscient and fill the entire universe. That's a grand vision that I rather like. Whether it's true or not is another matter entirely.
The whole interview is worth reading.

The kindness of rats

news @ nature.com-Generosity among rats-Rats do unto others as they have been done to.

Odd forms of rat research will always be welcome here. (I was particularly fond of the ticking rats story a few months ago.)

Now from Nature:
Rats that benefit from the charity of others are more likely to help strangers get a free meal, researchers have found.

This phenomenon, known as 'generalized reciprocity', has only ever been seen before in humans. A good example, says Michael Taborsky of the University of Bern, Switzerland, is what happens when someone finds money in a phone box. In controlled experiments such people have been shown to be much more likely to help out a stranger in need following their good luck.

In humans, such benevolence can be explained by cultural factors as well as by underlying biology, says Taborsky. But if similar behaviour can be found in other animals, he reasons, an evolutionary explanation would be far more likely.

To test for this behaviour in animals, Taborsky trained rats to pull a lever that produced food for its partner, but not for itself. Rats who had received a free meal in this way were found to be 20% more likely to help out an unknown partner than rats who had received no such charity
Maybe all rats go to heaven too.

Monday, July 02, 2007

How did this slip through?

PM warms to his task - Opinion - theage.com.au

It was most surprising to see in The Age yesterday some commentary by Jason Koutsoukis talking up John Howard's policy initiatives on greenhouse gases:

NOW that winter has settled in and taken some of the heat out of global warming as a political issue, it's worth taking stock of who is offering the best policies on climate change.

At this stage the answer, surprisingly, is John Howard, who in a few short months has managed to cobble together a decent looking framework for a national emissions trading scheme, plus a host of other measures.

Despite harping on about the urgent need for government to do more on climate change for the past six years, Labor is still unable to articulate what it would do.

Gosh, editorial control seems to be slipping at The Age!