Sunday, September 30, 2007

An inconvenient consultation

Muslim dentist ‘made patient cover her head’ - Times Online

From the story:

A Muslim dentist insisted that a young woman wear an Islamic headscarf before he would agree to treat her for toothache, the General Dental Council was told yesterday.

The patient, a community nurse, alleges that she reluctantly told Omer Butt, 31, who runs a dental practice in Bury, Greater Manchester, that she was a nonpractising Muslim.

It is alleged that the dentist then told her that he would refuse to register her as an NHS patient if she did not cover her head. She was in so much pain that she agreed to borrow a scarf from a nurse at the clinic.

OK, so how does this work with the Muslim doctors we have in Australia? If they work in our public health system, do they have an issue with seeing Muslim women (of which we have an increasing number) if their head is uncovered?

On placebo treatment

Bad science: Pinning down a remedy for backache | Science | The Guardian

The apparent success of acupuncture for treating back pain this week got a lot of publicity with media reports on a recent study.

The article above indicates that acupuncturists should not to be too excited about this. It appears that "random" needle puncturing (where there were needles inserted, but at random points, rather than the carefully chosen points that proper acupuncture theory would dictate) proved almost as effective as "real" acupuncture.

Yet both "fake" and "real" acupuncture did considerably better than the normal medical approach.

I can't be bothered Googling for the details now, but it is my understanding that acupuncture had come out reasonably well from many carefully controlled trials for certain conditions. Although the esoteric Eastern quasi-mystical theory that is behind it is not something I am ever going to sign up to, I have long had the impression that it is the most credible of the 'alternative' medicines. Simply putting pins in people sometimes seems to work at a much higher rate than other therapies.

Anyhow, the article I've linked at the top goes on to talk about the placebo effect generally. Everyone knows it works, but the problem for Western medicine is that both ethically, and from a point of view of medical litigation risk, its widespread use can't really be contemplated.

This has always seemed quite a pity to me. Maybe doctors can argue that the natural therapies have placebo all to themselves anyway. But the natural therapists don't think they are giving placebo treatment. They won't give a sugar pill any more than a GP will.

Can't there be a category of doctor that is given licence to prescribe any therapy whatsoever without risk of litigation, including alternative therapies and placebo? I mean, don't those who participate in studies like the acupuncture one know and consent to possibly be in the group that is given the placebo? Yet it still works for some of them.

So can't we have doctors that the public knows are permanently licenced to try placebo?

Just a thought.

UPDATE: I should've guessed. Horses have been getting acupuncture too. Oh, but horses don't have a placebo response, says a doctor, so that proves it's not working just by placebo effect on humans too.

Look, horses are the last animals to trust in an trial of anything medical. They would just find it funny to put up with the pain of 50 needles, then prance about as if their sore back is cured, because they know that this doctor will be encouraged, resulting in thousands more humans being pricked every year. I bet they have a chuckle about that.

Thursday, September 27, 2007 which the author seeks to discredit horses, but is in for a surprise

I started out to try to prove horses will be the end of civilisation, but the figures led me somewhere else. Follow the story:

From this site we learn that no one knows how many horses there are in Australia. It's between 900,000 and 1.8 million. However, I assume this is talking about domestic ones. Another site estimates there are 300,000 feral horses. (It also says there are up to 5 million feral donkeys! Who knew that?) Let's just assume 1.5 million horses combined, to be conservative and get round figures.

How much methane does a horse produce? Easily found (more or less) : 18 kg per year.

So let me get my calculator. That's 27,000,000 kg of methane a year.

But remember, methane is much worse than CO2 for warming. It is 21 times worse in fact.

So this leads us to horses making the equivalent of 27,000 tonnes x 21 = 567,000 tonnes of CO2 each and every year.

According to this site, the average car makes 4 tonnes of CO2 a year. So the horse population is making the equivalent greenhouse gases of 142,000 cars every year.

There are two ways of looking at this. If we had no horses in Australia, we could safely run an extra 142,000 cars on the roads with no net increase in CO2 - equivalent gases. But how many cars are there already in Australia? I am surprised to see it is about 10,000,000!

Hardly seems worth doing away with all those horses after all. Damn!

In fact, if one car makes 4 tonnes of CO2 per year, and a horse makes 18 x 21 = 378 kg of CO2 equivalent per year, then every car owner could run instead 10 horses a year (4,000/378).

For the average family of 4, they could give up the car and have two and bit horses each!

No, horses are our salvation, after all. (At least if you ignore the greenhouse contribution of their decaying excrement and the cost of growing and moving tonnes of feed around the country. Also, at least a car doesn't die from an upset tummy (colic) or get a fright every time it sees an inanimate object it doesn't like the look of. This last point was made by Stephen Fry in an interview on Parkinson, if I recall correctly.)

I still think they are stupid.

VITAL UPDATE (in which the author is vindicated by new information) : No, they are evil after all! Their relatively "green" greenhouse gas bottoms might make you think it is better for the planet to own ten horses instead of one car. But it is all a plan to lure humans to death and injury. Here, from the Australian Medical Journal, no less:
The risk of injury while horse riding has been estimated as between 1 per 320 to 1 per 1000 hours of riding.4,6 The variation in reported population-based risk of horse-related trauma of between 18.7 injuries per 100 000 to 9.5 injuries per 1000 population per year illustrates the difficulties of accurate data collection and variable inclusion of non-riding injuries.7 Interestingly, the overall risk of injury from horse-related activity has been determined to be greater than that of car racing or riding a motorcycle, and the rate of hospitalisation from falls from a horse equivalent to that from playing rugby.
Hehe. I know what horses are thinking. "Get on my back, stupid bipedal feed provider. See how long you last. The earth will be ours! Hahahahahahahaha!"

No, I've upgraded them from "stupid" to "evil".


Lovelock's idea

Scientists propose 'plumbing' method to solve crisis of global warming - Times Online

James Lovelock mentioned this idea while he was in Australia recently, but here it is spelt out in more detail. The New Scientist version of the story spends more time on the skeptic's reaction.

(Short version of the idea: lots and lots of pipes in the ocean that use wave action to pump up nutrient rich water to the surface, leading to more plankton, and more CO2 uptake.)

This idea has been around in a slightly different version since the 1970's at least, as it was featured in Jerry Pournelle's book "A Step Further Out," which is still on my bookshelf. His idea was to use the water sucking tubes to generate electricity too.

In New Scientist last week they had a pretty good article on the proposals for fertilizing the oceans with either iron or urea. Unfortunately, it's not on line for free.

The article did point out that one of the unknown issues of any form of using plankton growth to take up more CO2 is that it is not very clear how much of it ends up at the bottom of the ocean, which is where it really needs to be for long term sequestration.

Still, even if fish eat a lot of the plankton, how much fish poop sinks and how much of it floats? In a post last year, I noted an article that said that krill like to poo at depth, which makes them a (literal) CO2 sink. So who knows. Maybe the concentration should be on fertilizing the southern ocean, which is where I think most of the krill hang out.

Seems to me worthwhile trialling these ideas anyway.

Promises promises

Mike Steketee has made many posts critical of the Coalition this year, so it's good to see him making some pretty cutting remarks about Kevin Rudd's propensity to make commitments that he is never likely to be around to see achieved:

The Government is wrong to characterise Rudd as a policy-free zone: he has announced reams of initiatives. It is just that many of them have an elusive quality. Take his promise to ensure that nine out of 10 schoolchildren complete Year 12. It’s a laudable goal, but when would it be delivered? By 2020 is the solemn promise. That is in the fifth term of a Rudd government, unless it is the Gillard or Shorten government by then, or perhaps the Turnbull government after Malcolm’s frustrated ambitions get the better of him and he switches over to the winning side.

Don’t imagine that Labor is not accountable for such a promise: it has set an interim benchmark of 2015 to lift retention rates to 85 per cent. That is only three or four elections away.

Are we getting slightly ahead of ourselves here?
And he then goes into detail on the other policies "on the never-never." (Funny, I did a shorter version of this Steketee column a few of weeks ago.)

Also, journalists have indicated before that Kevin is not personally genuinely liked even within his own parliamentary party, and his refusal to commit to anyone getting the job they currently shadow if they form government will do nothing to alleviate that. It seems a particular insult to Wayne Swan if he won't commit to him being Treasurer. (It's a marriage of convenience for both Swan and Gillard to be seen as so close to Rudd at the moment anyway, as I understand it.)

Update: Rudd has had to come out today and promise Swan, Gillard and Tanner their positions. A bit of a turnaround, and something to do with faction power too, I suspect. I imagine there were a few calls last night about his attitude yesterday.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not so long ago

Research team says extraterrestrial impact to blame for Ice Age extinctions

From this report:
No one has found a giant crater in the Earth that could attest to such a cataclysmic impact 13,000 years ago, but the research team offers evidence of a comet, two and a half to three miles in diameter, that detonated 30 to 60 miles above the earth, triggering a massive shockwave, firestorms and a subsequent drastic cooling effect across most of North America and northern Europe....

The magnitude of the detonations would have been huge.

“A hydrogen bomb is the equivalent of about 100 to 1,000 megatons,” Bunch said. “The detonations we’re talking about would be about 10 million megatons. That’s larger than the simultaneous detonation of all the world’s nuclear bombs past and present.”

That's a lot of energy.

But let's not spend a paltry million dollars a year to help track down dangerous space objects heading our way, hey Peter McGauran. Just keep looking after the horsies with a $110 million plus assistance package.

I still think the horses are faking it for a rest. Go get a real job, horse people.*

* Readers are advised that this blog has an official policy of encouraging irrational dislike of horses.

More on gay Iran

The Guardian has two items of interest about sexuality in Iran.

The first story (which on the main page of The Guardian's website is given the very wildly understated heading "Doubts over Iran's no gay claims") explains how Iran in fact has a very high rate of sex change operations. Second only to Thailand apparently:

Sex changes have been legal since the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, spiritual leader of the 1979 Islamic revolution passed a fatwa authorising them nearly 25 years ago. While homosexuality is considered a sin, transsexuality is categorised as an illness subject to cure.

The government seeks to keep its approval quiet in line with its strait-laced stance on sexuality, but state support has actually increased since Mr Ahmadinejad took office in 2005.

His government has begun providing grants of £2,250 for operations and further funding for hormone therapy. It is also proposing loans of up to £2,750 to allow those undergoing surgery to start their own businesses.

Am I the only one to find it very hard to imagine why Khomeini would be persuaded to be all kind and understanding of transexuals but still want all sodomites to die?

The second Guardian article is in Comment is Free by the author of an entire book on homosexuality in Arab countries. He makes this interesting point:
Of all the Muslim countries, Iran at the moment is probably the most active in persecuting gay people. This probably has less to do with religion than local political and cultural factors.

Janet Afary and Kevin Anderson, authors of Foucault and the Iranian Revolution, argue that this was a reaction - at least in part - to sexual behaviour in the Shah's court. They refer to "a long tradition in nationalist movements of consolidating power through narratives that affirm patriarchy and compulsory heterosexuality, attributing sexual abnormality and immorality to a corrupt ruling elite that is about to be overthrown and/or is complicit with foreign imperialism".

That makes some sense. Political revolutions anywhere have often been been preceded by rumours of self indulgence and sexual decadence in the ruling class, and I suppose if the revolutionaries are Islamic they may concentrate on alleging homosexual decadence more than heterosexual.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Not a bad idea

Broadband beyond the grave offers web service for the dead

Users of can issue posthumous instructions for everything from their funeral to feeding their pet, cancelling bills and magazine subscriptions, organising their will and other financial matters, sending final letters to friends - and foes - and delivering a valedictory video address summing it all up.

All that's required in this life is a computer, some inputting, and a minimum of $9.95 (£4.93) a year. Once a user has died, and it has been confirmed to the site by designated family members or friends, the content is released as he or she instructed.

Being able to posthumously send a bunch of nasty emails to all and sundry has a certain appeal. I don't think there is anyone I actually want to do that to right now; but I like the idea of having the ability to do it.

Could be some new legal cases coming up as to whether electronic instructions can be legally constitute a will.

Also, Pauline Hanson could have used this service for her "if you are seeing this, I am dead" speech.

Wind power skepticism

Ill wind changes Rudd's course towards Gore | Herald Sun

All of this article by Terry McCrann is worth reading, especially if the figures he gives for the amount of power wind is actually generating in Germany is correct:

On average across the year, the 7600 MW of installed wind capacity produced 1327MW. That's an operational level of 18 per cent of capacity. In rational terms, it's insanity.

Indeed as E.ON Netz notes, installed wind capacity went up 12 per cent in the year but actual wind power fed in to the grid went up just 1.5 per cent. Because of lower "wind availability".

The way you 'solve' this is that 'traditional' power stations with capacities equal to 90 per cent of the installed wind power capacity must be permanently on line to guarantee power supply.

So not only do you have to install six to seven times as much wind capacity as the output you will actually get, but you also have to build 'shadow' coal/gas/nuclear(?) as well.

That's one power station for the cost of 12 or so.

Did I say insanity? Unless you can build big enough batteries to store the power generated when the wind does blow.

Funny I should say that. E.ON has actually pioneered exactly such a battery. It's the size of four shipping containers, uses 'undisclosed' chemicals and can produce all of 1MW for four hours.

So not only do we have to have windmills blanketing the country-side, but millions of 'super-batteries' as well. Plus some new coal stations anyway.

We had them all shot

Ahmadinejad speaks; outrage and controversy follow -

When pressed about the harsh treatment of women, homosexuals and academics who challenge Iran's government, Ahmadinejad painted a rosy picture, saying, "Women in Iran enjoy the highest levels of freedom," he said.

He elicited laughter and boos from the audience at Columbia University when he said, "In Iran, we don't have homosexuals, like in your country."

That comment reminded me of Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke Petersen, as I am sure I have read that he had to have someone explain to him what homosexuals did when the issue of law reform for sexual matters came up.

Ahmadinejad in fact has the same "folksy" image as Bjelke- Petersen, the main difference being that (as far as I know) Joh didn't secretly pine for nuclear weapons.

Evading the details

Media Watch: Have We Met? (24/09/2007)

People who read Catallaxy know the story that Phillip Adams claimed to have had a "chilling" interview on his radio show with Helen Dale.

This story was dealt with in somewhat peculiar fashion on Media Watch last night, which seemed to want to spend as much time on other issues as pursuing the truth from Adams. The transcript on the Media Watch website (above) does not cover all of what was on the TV version .

Clearly, Adams was being evasive in his semi-retraction on LNL. He admits he did not interview her on that show, but implies an interview, or at least a meeting, did occur elsewhere without specifying when or where.

Oh well, I guess he might be more forthcoming to the ABC complaints people.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Real big of them

Taliban Allows Polio Vaccinations:
Thousands of Afghan children have received polio vaccinations after the Taliban movement agreed to allow health workers to operate safely in the south, the United Nations children's fund said. ...

In the past, health workers have been abducted in the region, which has has seen the heaviest fighting between the Taliban and international forces.

UPDATE: I missed a lot of it, but Four Corners last night looked interesting, being all about Afghanistan and the continuing pretty dire way most women are treated there, even when not under Taliban control. Still, there were some optimistic signs of revival of girls' education again, for example.

I still have trouble getting my mind around the concept that the Taliban are happy to kill teachers who dare to educate girls, though.

Irony warning

The Times of India does report widely on domestic violence and the mistreatment of women, but also carries many advertisements for marriage matchmaker services. You would think they might be a bit more careful about how closely these items are placed on the same page (see above.)

The paper also picks up a story from the Daily Mirror about railway track suicides in London. It is said that it's a lot of unhappy asian women causing the high numbers in particular areas.

This kind of suicide is really the most inconsiderate type possible, but thinking clearly is not really high on the agenda of those who do it, I suppose.

Making no sense

Tokyo sanctions an extended cull of Taiji dolphins | The Japan Times Online

The Japan Times has taken a very front line position in running articles criticising the annual dolphin slaughter in one part of Japan.

The result: this year's quota increased, and the killing season extended.

Given that the meat has been convincingly shown as unsafe to eat, it is a really bizarre exercise:
The creatures' meat is even included in school meals, and though the government knows full well it is toxic — up to 87 times the permitted level of methyl mercury was found in a joint Japanese/New Zealand 2005 academic study of samples bought from shops (see JT, Nov.1, 2006) — it seems it will do nothing now, perhaps preferring some scapegoating and deep bowing when awful human afflictions arise in the future. And as for Japan's meek vernacular media, well don't wait for them to raise a stink.

China's social problems, again

In China, 190 children are snatched every day.

It's an interesting article about another unintended consequence of China's one child policy.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The one who really doesn't know when to quit

Rudd's post-birthday slip-ups |

Yes, Kevin does have a problem: he doesn't know when to let the issue of his heart operation fade away. The story above shows that he is still using it in an attempt at humour:
When asked how he celebrated, Mr Rudd said: "With great sobriety ... well they tell me I've got a problem," referring to revelations this week about a heart operation he had 15 years ago.
On the TV news last night, I saw him make a fake clutch at his heart after missing blowing out one of his candles on his cake.

My advice: No one sensible actually thought this was a damaging issue, Kevin; or at least it wasn't until you had minders who denied you ever had an operation, and you and your fellow parliamentarians started ludicrously suggesting that it took a Liberal Party private investigator looking at your medical records to discover you had the operation.

Leave it alone. Even by bringing it up in attempts at humour, it reminds people of an episode that has backfired badly.

(Matt Price thinks that "Labor’s contrived and co-ordinated squealing about alleged dirt units, private detectives, slime files and mud-slinging will work." I think he's wrong; it is now too transparently a tactic.)

UPDATE: the Courier Mail now reports that it has seen a sheet alleging a Coalition minister is a closet gay. Shock! Labor or its supporters actually circulate dirt on their opponents? Who'd have thought?

UPDATE 2: now it's said that the gay minister stuff was originally leaked to Laurie Oakes by a Liberal Party figure, as part of internal politic-ing for positions. Funny business, politics.

You know, the first time I ever heard the old one about Keating having an affair with a young guy was from a solidly rusted on Labor supporter and well connected member of her union. Clearly, she had heard it from someone within the Labor movement who sincerely believed it, as she had not immediately dismissed it out of hand.

Rumour mongering follows some bizarre paths in politics, and life generally I suppose.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Another springtime pic

From my backyard, again.

Ackroyd's unusual interests

Soul survivor | News | Guardian Unlimited Film

Follow the link to an interesting interview with Dan Ackroyd. I knew he was interested in the paranormal, but not the extent to which he is a true believer.

Just not very funny

Summer Heights High episode upsets ecstasy death family

Even before this story came out, I had been intending to post about my puzzlement over the (apparent) popularity of Chris Lilley's satirical "Summer Heights High".

The three characters he plays are intensely dislikeable, each in their own way. And yes, we have all seen irritating teen girls, heard smart-arse islander boys, and know that drama teaching may be particularly attractive to a self-absorbed (presumably gay) man; but is there any reason to try to blend these characters into a mockumentary of such length? To me, they are just not interesting enough, and show no sign of development from week to week. The story line of the drama teacher writing songs about the drug overdose girl became so unrealistic that it just became stupid. I don't blame the family of a real drug overdose victim being upset.

At least Kath & Kim is not entirely populated by unpleasant central characters. True, Kim is totally without redeeming features, but I always felt that everyone around her was written to have at least some good in their character.

Summer Heights High strikes me as very similar in tone to the dark Australian "comedy" films to which I have never responded either.

A good week for the government

This week has seen a very solid momentum swing back towards the government. The highlights:

* the Rudd/Labor humbuggery about "smear campaigns" is, I reckon, finally starting to be revealed clearly as such to the public after yesterday's performance in Parliament. It has irritated me all year that Rudd has been getting away with this: carrying on as if stories clearly created by journalists (such as the issue of the Eumundi farm, or the strip club incident, or the heart operation) were being created by the Liberals; and acting as if it were some revelation that politicians or their staffers seek to background journalists on the past lives of their opponents (as in Gillard.)

Rudd went one lunge for sympathy too far with his questions about the heart operation story yesterday, and it clearly backfired. Have a look at Matt Price's very disdainful comment on this in The Australian this morning. (It was also very clear to anyone who had seen Downer on Lateline the night before that he had not idea of the story until that day.)

Rudd's attempt at a comeback to Costello "not having courage to take on Howard" is clearly a losing argument, especially when you see Costello reacting with glee as if it is water off a duck's back. The re-invigorated Costello is going to have a high profile during the campaign, and provided he and Howard compare their notes very carefully every morning and don't start accidentally contradicting each other, I think their handover approach may work reasonably well.

* As noted in a previous post, a hot culture war issue over lesbians and IVF can't hurt Howard, as it will perhaps persuade any doubtful Hillsong types that the Liberals are (at least marginally) more socially conservative than Labor.

Incidentally, Mark Bahnisch had a post at LP this week in which in response to me, his "buddy", he claimed the IVF lesbian case was a "storm in a teacup". Since then, I've read at least 4 newspaper commentary pieces on it, even one today, and noted the thousands of angry comments to various forms of media. For a sociologist, he seems completely tone deaf to what his society is actually talking about.

* The government's success in striking a deal with one of its strongest aboriginal critics in the Northern Territory is really very significant, and undercuts a lot of the carping criticism by aboriginal rights tragics who prefer ideology over success on the ground. Labor types may doubt The Australian's version of the story, but the story about it on The 7.30 Report was very positive too.

Of course, it is true that aboriginal issues are not a significant vote changer for 95% of Australians, but it is still a positive story.

* For those who read newpapers, there is also this positive comment on John Howard from Alan Greenspan:

In his memoir The Age of Turbulence, for which he was reportedly paid an advance of $US8 million ($9.3 million), Greenspan writes: "Prime Minister John Howard impressed me with his deep interest in the role of technology in American productivity growth. Whereas most heads of government steer clear of such detail, he sought me out on such issues during visits to the US between 1997 and 2005.

"He needed no prodding from me on monetary policy. His government in 1996 had granted full independence to the Reserve Bank of Australia."

Priced by the word, this pat on the head for the Australian leader is worth $US2800, but it's priceless if you're a prime minister in search of accolades from modern American heroes.

Expect to see that used politically here soon.

Yes, a pretty good week really.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Too good to be true

Sunny Outlook: Can Sunshine Provide All U.S. Electricity?: Scientific American

Maybe I worry too much about small global risks, but one issue with extremely high reliance on solar power is what happens if something disastrous causes the sun to be blocked for months at a time? For example, a supervolcano, a small to medium size asteroid strike, or accidental nuclear war.

It would mean the immediate end of power for months, and surely that would make national recovery all that more difficult. (Presumably, coal or gas fired plants would not last much longer, as such a disaster would cut fuel supply too.)

But I think once they are fuelled up, nuclear plants run pretty much on their own for a few years, don't they?

It would seem to me to be a matter of caution to always keep some nuclear power plants on line for this reason alone, even if solar became as truly ubiquitous as the optimists hope.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

When surgeons get bored with normal operations...

ScienceDaily: Surgeons Remove Patient's Gall Bladder Through Vagina

This idea of surgeons going in and removing organs via various orifices has been reported before, and research in the field goes on, obviously. The whole idea just makes me feel queasy, and my intuitive reaction is to sceptical about how much better such methods can really be. God knows if I were a woman, there would be no way I would prefer via vagina procedure over a simple incision. (There's a sentence I will probably write only once in my life.)

Bringing back the culture wars

The news story about the lesbian couple suing their IVF doctor for providing them with two healthy children instead of one has raised a stunning amount of antagonism from the public. News Ltd had readers' comments on this story yesterday, and although I can't find them now, there seemed to be about one supportive post to every 50 very angry ones.

I note that yesterday's initial report had more detail of the mother's neurotic sounding reaction than today's version linked above. The Daily Telegraph version had this part which was sure to raise eyebrows across the nation:

The woman said she enjoyed some aspects of the pregnancy, such as decorating the girls' nursery, but other parts were distressing, including purchasing a pram.

"It was like the last frontier of acceptance to spend hundreds of dollars on a pram," she said.

People would have been upset if it were a heterosexual couple complaining of the same thing, but add into the mix the fact that it's lesbians, and far from poor ones at that, and you have the ideal circumstances for a real culture war about gays and making children. Lucky John Howard, I think, as a conservative cultural backlash on such issues must surely be easier for him to handle than Labor. (Penny Wong, I am waiting for your comments about this case.)

To illustrate how angry people get about this, on talk back radio this morning I heard a man complaining how he and his ex wife had failed at IVF, how much it had cost them, etc, and then he started crying when he said that he was so angry to hear one of the women on the radio saying that if they won the case they would buy 2 Harleys and travel around Australia. The radio announcers had to interrupt quickly and reassure their listener that the earlier call (which I had missed) was fake. I presume this man heard what was intended to be a satirical call and assumed it was true.

The thing is, it is clear the doctor is admitting a mistake, and I am not entirely sure what his defence is. If the judge actually finds in favour of the women, the public outcry will be huge.

I expect that this case, regardless of its outcome, will make the issue of gay relationship financial rights all the more politically sensitive. These women are, at the very least, unhelpful to that cause.

I would also be curious to know how many of the public are against the idea of lesbians ever making their own children, whether it be by IVF, donor semen, or whatever. I suspect that people may well draw a strong distinction between lesbians who end up with children as a result of a failed heterosexual relationship, and those who have only ever been in lesbian relationships but use artificial methods to conceive. The public may well be more conservative on this than many people think.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Spring 2007

Taken in my backyard at lunchtime today.

Death to apostates

Comment is free: Supporting Islam's apostates

Interesting article. I note with particular interest the quote from the Koran which is a good example of the, ahem, problematic nature of that document.

(Go on, Geoff, hit me with some Armstrong niceness about how unfair I am being.)

All year 'round tastelessness

One of the pleasures of spring is that it is asparagus season. Of all the vegetables, asparagus seems to me to be a particularly adult taste: I think it is pretty unusual to find a child who likes it, but one can develop a particular fondness for its subtle flavour later in life.

But this post is really about the pointlessness of importing asparagus. In the last couple of years, all year round imports from Thailand and (I think) Peru mean that asparagus is nearly always available. However, even though it sometimes looks good on the shelf, I have found it to be almost completely tasteless on the couple of occasions I have given it a try.

I just don’t see the point of providing such produce. One of the pleasures of food is enjoying its seasonality. I guess I could see the point if it actually tasted good, but unless I have been unusually unlucky, asparagus is just a vegetable that does not travel well. Who buys it and keeps the market for it alive?

The other thing about this is the waste of energy that is involved. You don’t have to be a Monbiot to think that moving a tasteless vegetable around the globe would have to be perhaps the most worthless use of petroleum (and generator of greenhouse gases) that you can imagine. I suppose the aircraft’s cargo hold may have been coming here anyway, full or empty, but it still irritates me.

Go out and just buy your Australian asparagus in season. (Or for that matter grow your own. My father used to do that and once it is established you can get heaps of spears year after year.)

The trouble with epidemiology

From last weekend's NYT magazine, there's a long and very interesting article on why it seems medicine keeps changing its mind as to what is "good" for our health. It's well worth reading if you have any interest in public (and private) health.

More please

Newspoll boss says gap will close - National -

The most important thing about the latest Newspoll is the Coalition primary vote is back over the magic 40% line, barely. As I have noted before, it may be a 10% gap, but it only takes a 5% swing to put the parties on even pegging again.

Mark Bahnisch has been so overcome with excitement at the prospect of a Labor win that he can't seem to see the downside of anything Kevin does. His commentary is so positive for Labor now that one suspects he hopes for a job out of a new Rudd government.

In this post, he thought Kevin conducting a premature campaign launch last weekend was evidence of Labor "taking control" of the timing of the election. He even seems to think that Rudd routinely ignoring the government benches during Question Time is a good look.

I think most people would see the clear danger in both of these that they can come across as hubris and arrogance.

I also suppose you could not expect Rudd to not try out his Mandarin at APEC, but even then I wonder whether to some in the electorate he looked a little too smugly proud while doing it.

Just to show my even handedness, I will say that Peter Costello on Radio National breakfast came across as all platitudes and little substance today. His talk of having a vision of "inclusiveness" for the marginalised without explaining specific policies to achieve it comes across as just as much blather as what Rudd says at the moment. I am really not sure how he would come across as PM.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Danish dictionary required

New terrorism case confirms that Denmark is a target - International Herald Tribune

This article talks about concern that Denmark is a particular target for Islamic terrorism, and contains this brilliant quote:
At home, the children of Muslim immigrants complain of job discrimination and integration problems, feeding the disenchantment of the small but growing Muslim population.

"In the schools, Danish teachers are always talking about democracy and human rights, but now they see what Denmark is doing in Afghanistan and what they did here with the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad," said Imran Shah, 31, who leads a youth group at a local mosque. "They ask themselves, is this a democracy or are they talking about double standards?"

Yes, I suppose that damned fine democratic institution known as the Taliban is not getting its chance to enforce human rights in Afghanistan because of Denmark and others. A small investment in a dictionary so as to understand what the terms "democracy" and "human rights" mean might come in handy for Imran.

Twice the harm

Skunk strength has doubled, studies suggest | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

There's always a lot of argument around the issue of the increasing strength of cannabis over the years. It would seem that, in England at least, there is clear evidence that the average strength has doubled in the last 10 years.

I assume something similar would have gone on in Australia too.

It also adds some weight to my scepticism about claims that the additional harmfulness of modern, hydroponic cannabis is due to the fungicides and other chemicals used on it while it is growing.

Credit where it's due

Workplace Ombudsman proves his mettle - National -

It's surprising to see this reported in The Age, of all papers:

Since March 2006, the Workplace Ombudsman's office has won back $19.4 million in underpayments for 13,700 employees, dealt with 21,000 cases (most of them within three months), taken 73 matters to court, and secured penalties totalling $683,555.

The Government continues to give Mr Wilson more funding to take on more tasks — and he is adding 100 workplace inspectors to the present 220.
But the labour movement now has no idea what to make of this creation of WorkChoices.
Labor's IR spokeswoman Julia Gillard has lashed the Government's "big government industrial relations bureaucracy" and promised to cut its funding. But last week, ACTU Secretary Jeff Lawrence called it a "really important" body, saying it is "not properly resourced".

Go Annabel

Smirks to the left and smirks to the right - Opinion -

Jeez, Annabel Crabb is sure giving Matt Price a real contest in the "wittiest political sketch writer" stakes this year. From this morning's column:

At the Penrith event the Labor leader took the opportunity to indulge his weakness for announcing snappily named organisations that will be hurried into existence should his present confidence about the election result prove well-founded.

This time, it was Skills Australia, "an independent, statutory body responsible for advising government on the future skills needs of the nation."

Skills Australia would join Infrastructure Australia, the Petrol Commissioner, the Ambassador for Older Australians, the Office of Strategic Interventions, and so on: all organisations which would be established under a Ruddocracy to research, adjudicate and conclude upon the problems and challenges facing Australia.

Once upon a time (the curmudgeons among you may be thinking) this was the job we gave to governments. But in the era of New Leadership, such thinking is considered embarrassingly passe.

By the way, just how much money does Labor have for TV advertising this year? It seems to be spending a fortune already, yet presumably is holding something back in reserve for the actual campaign.

I also suspect that the line of Rudd, Swan, Gillard et al that they know they haven't won the election yet is starting to look obviously fake when you have a pre-election campaign campaign launch like that one at Penrith. The hubristic appearance of it should, I reckon, hurt Rudd at least a tiny bit, or it would if we lived in any political times that made sense.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Relevant here too?

Silence on Concussions Raises Risks of Injury - New York Times

I know nothing of American football, but still it is interesting to read from the above article how big of a problem concussion is in the game:
At least 50 high school or younger football players in more than 20 states since 1997 have been killed or have sustained serious head injuries on the field, according to research by The New York Times.
Mind you, they don't explain what a "serious head injury" exactly is. Still:
Anonymous questionnaires that ask specifically about concussions have reported rates among high school football players at about 15 percent each season; when the word concussion is omitted and a description of symptoms is provided instead, close to 50 percent of players say they had one, with 35 percent reporting two or more.
It's interesting to note that, apart from death, other ongoing problems can be caused:
Experts said that for every such case there can be hundreds of victims of postconcussion syndrome, leaving youngsters depressed, irritable and unable to concentrate, and they sometimes miss school for weeks or perform poorly on tests. Ben Mangan of Lewisburg, Ohio, still has mood swings and cognitive problems deriving from at least one major concussion in 2002.
I wonder how seriously concussion is dealt with in official rugby league circles, and whether any famous players with depression believe (or are told) it may have been caused by it.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The argument for taking geo-engineering seriously

TCS Daily - Geoengineering Is the Future; Here's Why

I found this paragraph the most surprising:

Unfortunately, there aren't good, easy alternatives for replacing coal anytime soon. The fastest-growing non-fossil fuels -- wind and solar power -- are expected to climb an average of 10.5 percent annually. But by 2030 this will represent only about 1 percent of global energy demand. Renewables such as hydropower, wind, and biofuels face similar challenges. They just aren't capable of providing the energy, in a dependable manner and on a large enough scale, to meet base load generation demands. Nuclear is the one option that can make a difference. But just to hold its current 20 percent share of the U.S. energy market, dozens of new plants will have to be built in the next two decades.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Steve Martin at his best

Stay to the end to see a special appearance by Pavarotti too, (sort of).

More important than Newspoll

To Truther or not to Truther, that is the question

Comment is free: 9/11 - the big cover-up?

Gay greenie and general lefty pest Peter Thatchell writes a Comment is Free article (above) in which he says he is not into conspiracy at all, but:
There are dozens of 9/11 "truth" websites and campaign groups. I cannot vouch for the veracity or credibility of any of them. But what I can say is that as well as making plenty of seemingly outrageous claims; a few of them raise legitimate questions that demand answers.
Unlike WTC3, which was badly damaged by falling debris from the Twin Towers but which remained standing, WTC7 suffered minor damage but suddenly collapsed in a neat pile, as happens in a controlled demolition.
There are many, many more strange unexplained facts concerning the events of 9/11.
Yet, when quite a lot of Guardian readers call him out for claiming not to be a conspiracist, while at the same time saying that the conspiracists are onto something, he gets all indignant:
I am very surprised and disappointed by the way some of the posts on this list have seriously misrepresented what I wrote in the article above.

They have used the insinuation of "conspiracy theorist" (which I am not and which I reject) as a convenient way to evade serious engagement with the issues I have raised.

What I tried to do in my article is make a clear distinction between wild, unfounded conspiracy theories, and legitimate, credible questioning of the official account...
So, to Tatchell's mind, suggesting (as he clearly did) that WTC 7 was a controlled demolition and stating that there are other (completely un-specified) "strange unexplained facts" about 9/11 is not part of a "wild unfounded conspiracy" theory. Just reasonable, ordinary,run of the mill conspiracy theory then, I suppose.

As Bugs would say, what a maroon.

Cap & trade not so clear cut

An Inconvenient Solution by Nicole Gelinas, City Journal Summer 2007

Here's a good, easy to follow article on carbon cap and trade schemes and the problems inherent with them.

Worth a try

The Dilbert Blog: Osama Placebo

Inspired by the new Osama video, Scott Adams has a devious plan for overcoming al Qaeda terrorists:
How hard would it be for the CIA to create a fake Osama who looks more real than the real one?

I don’t think it would be hard. A Hollywood special effects team could pound one out in a week. Then you just need to get the other intelligence agencies to say the voice is authenticated. Bam.

The first video of the fake Osama could be one of his typical wandering diatribes against capitalism and infidels and blah, blah, blah. Once the public, especially the terrorist cells with no direct contact back to the base cave, start to believe he’s real, you can begin to sprinkle in new topics and nudge the terrorists in whatever direction you like. Remember, there’s no such thing as a story too ridiculous when you’re talking about people who believe suicide is a good way to get laid.

By the third or fourth video, Osama could be telling his followers to tattoo “Al Qaeda” on their foreheads to show their devotion and lack of fear.
And on it goes. Hey, sounds worth a try to me.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Religion, morality, etc


This is quite a long article, looking at the origins of morality, religion and and comparing conservatism and secularism. While written by an atheist psychologist, it's quite sympathetic to the positive role that religion can play in society.

It's good reading, but has so much information it's hard to absorb it all into long term memory.

Bjorn again

‘Feel Good’ vs. ‘Do Good’ on Climate - New York Times

Bjorn Lomborg gets a short but sympathetic hearing from John Tierney in the NYT. Good reading.

The article mentions the roofs being painted white as a significant way to reduce urban heat-island effects. I am surprised that this simple tactic does not get more notice. A previous post that mentioned this in more detail is here.

Going nuclear

Nuclear dawn |

See the link or The Economist's optimistic look at a resurgent nuclear power industry. Happily, pebble beds get a mention too.

Back to politics

There's no doubt it's been an interesting week politically, but the amount of analysis, speculation, double guessing, and (especially from the left leaning blogs) somewhat premature dance-on-your-grave, this-is-the-end-of-Howard-and-his-government celebrations and name calling (cabinet is "gutless" for not ousting Howard) is just too much. At Larvatus Prodeo, no one is bothering to call out the lefties on their speculations, which ranged from "Howard will be out by tomorrow" to "all of this has been an evil plot so Howard can prove he is top dog" to "how can we believe he will ever retire even when he says he will?" (That last one is Tim Dunlop's line too, and it's about his silliest suggestion ever - as if Howard can forever hold back the resentment of Costello and his supporters for not honouring what is now a clear public commitment. He will be forced out if he hasn't retired without allowing some lead time for the new PM.)

But how this will affect the current polling: I say it's anyone's guess. I have no idea whether it will make next week's Newspoll go up for the government, or down, or stay the same. It is impossible to tell.

I will say, though, that it seems to me that there is a risk that the retirement announcement might have the curious result that Howard loses his seat, but the government squeaks back in. Somehow, I don't think Howard could really complain too much then; he could just say that his retirement plans have been brought forward, but at the end of the day the best government for Australia got back in.

Back to religion

To doubt God is human, and to hell with convention - Opinion -

I've been meaning to talk about the issue of Mother Teresa and her private feeling that God was not there for her, but haven't had time to put my thoughts together yet.

Meanwhile, this article reprinted in the SMH today from the LA Times is an interesting comment on the matter.

Anti Tarantino

Is Quentin Tarantino losing the plots? - Times Online

I always thought he was over-rated. Glad to see critical opinion is catching up with me.

Oh come on...

Academy to Invite Jon Stewart Back as Oscar Host - New York Times

His hosting of the show wasn't all that successful, I thought. But then again, with Hollywood generally being in the creative and entertainment doldrums for years now, it's a tough gig for anyone.

By the way, I have come to the view that The Colbert Report is consistently funnier than The Daily Show.

You can always trust The Age... run the loopiest columns from the international press relating to 9/11, as long as they have an anti-American slant:

Remembrance of 9/11 leaves us untouched - Opinion -

An extract:
Nothing has truly pricked America to check out its conscience. Bush to date has not asked for sacrifice and certainly none has been volunteered. The evidence is in our toys and our girths. We continue to drape ourselves in the innocence of the victims of September 11 against the "face of evil", as Bush puts it. Yet we maintain our assault on the world's resources, with no worry as to when mere envy of us around the globe is stirred up into evil in a cave in Afghanistan.
Isn't this a bit of a weird juxtaposition? Does he mean that if Americans had fewer cars and were slimmer 10 years ago that bin Laden would have called off the attack? Seems to me a thinly veiled way of suggesting that US really deserved the attack for being greedy.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Keeping it real

Warning: it's all about religion!

Readers interested in the topic have probably already noted that there currently seems to be a backlash underway in England against the Dawkins/Harris/Hitchens anti-religion books. Here's a Comment is Free article by Alex Stein in today's Guardian that takes Hitchens to task. Madeleine Bunting also joined in last week, and in The Times we had John Humphreys explain why, even though he had become an agnostic, the militant atheists really irritate him. Bryan Appleyard had a short, pithy post too.

All of those are worth reading.

The general gist of them is that Dawkins and his followers attack the most unsophisticated, fundamentalist versions of religion, but fail to engage in debates with those who have a more sophisticated understandings of religion. To the extent that he does engage, I think Dawkins claims that what sophisticated theologians propose is not something that has any real meaning anyway.

This does bring up an issue that is a tricky one for those of faith, namely, the contest between realist and non-realist views of religion.

I don't think this is often clearly discussed in the popular press. I believe I first read about the realist/non-realist divide in a book by philosopher/theologian John Hicks in the 1980's. The idea is that the trend which started with historical scepticism of the Bible in the 19th century has been for those sympathetic to religious belief to move from a "realist" understanding of the Gospels (or Bible generally) to a "non-realist" interpretation. That is, the literal truth of matters such as the Virgin Birth, the resurrection of Christ, or even the existence of an afterlife, is believed by non-realists to be unimportant, and the mythological or metaphorical "truth" or utility of matters of faith is seen as the key.

People who hold thoroughly non-realist views can claim to still be people of faith, but it is achieved by re-defining what was previously thought to be undoubtedly real to something which is either not real, or a something in which the literal reality is now considered unimportant. John Hicks has an article on his website which explains this view well.

This is really the crux of the issue for faith in the Christian churches at this time in history, and I do find it a matter of some difficulty personally. Catholics like me, taught in the 1960's, have never had a particularly fundamentalist view of the Old Testament forced on them. So I don't have a problem with a non-realist reading of much of the Old Testament.

When it comes to the New Testament, though, the non-realist attitudes seems to me to have significantly more problems.

My main objection perhaps comes to where non-realism goes so far as to deny something as basic as a belief that there is a supernatural realm, or an afterlife of any variety. At its heart, the teaching of Jesus had the importance of how you live your life on Earth because there will be an accounting for it in an afterlife. (Whether that was an immediate after-death judgement, or one at the end of the world, is rather moot to this point.) But if you start denying that an afterlife has any reality at all, surely you are denying not just "stories" like the Virgin Birth or even the resurrection (which can be seen as, say, rumours that got out of hand,) but something which was clearly fundamentally what the figure at the heart of your religion believed to be a reality about the universe.

On the other hand, it is clear that the founding fathers of Christianity had a fundamentalist understanding of how sin came into the world (via the actions of the first man Adam) and the role that Christ had in fixing the situation.

If you do believe in evolution, one can still (like CS Lewis) believe that there came a point at which the first man did evolve into existence, and did actually undergo a temptation of the kind described in Genesis. But this is a matter difficult for modern people to believe. The concept of how sin or evil originated is thus a difficult one for the Church if you believe thoroughly in evolution, and this also affects one's understanding of Christ.

So, the issue as to where to draw the realist/non-realist line is a tricky one, to say the least.

Should my acknowledgement of the difficulty mean that I should not criticise the likes of Cuppitt and Spong, who try to spread the word that the only way for Christianity to survive is to become completely non-realist? No, I don't think so. I may have trouble with deciding how to resolve the issues, but I think I can still make the call if I think others have gone completely too far into the non-realist camp.

The other matter to always remember that above all of this is the issue of how lives are actually lived. As we all know, fundamentalist faith in ideology of any kind can lead to devastatingly evil acts. The atheist can argue that evolutionary biology is what is behind the moral impulse in humans, and that is why you don't need religion to inform moral reasoning. But what they can't show (at least to my satisfaction) is the reasons why humans should always act as if there is a true universality to the moral law.

In any event, a willingness to act as if there is a universal moral law is, at its heart, more important than the theory on which the moral actions are based.

On bin Laden and the relativists

Comment is free: Backing the bombers

This article refers to another one by Martin Amis in which he hits out at those who are semi-apologists for Islamist terrorism.

I like this comment that follows it, on the hypocrisy of much of Europe. (Perhaps it's a little over-stated, but the sentiment seems right):

The US has coddled Europeans for 70 years now, which has helped produce a child-like mentality in Europeans, where there's little thought of consequences. So, for example, Europeans can pretend they're champions of human rights, when not a one of them has ever put their lives on the line or made any meaningful sacrifice for some other country's freedom or rights. They can pretend that running a foreign policy based primarily on giving their businesses access to the most horrendous regimes is somehow moral. Freud called this type of thinking 'magical' thinking, characteristic of childhood, when the child has the mother's breast 'magically' appear whenever it cries.

Camus called this European mentality 'Christianity for others, pagansim for oneself.'

When you're a child, you think Jesse James was really cool for robbing banks. When you get older, you realize that real people died in those bank robberies, so he wasn't really that cool at all.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A propos of nothing..

Comment is free: Nicks nixed

I have no idea why this comment piece appears in the Comment is Free section of The Guardian today. But it a bit surprising to hear that France only stopped using the guillotine in 1977.

Silly politics

Capitulation - Possums Pollytics

I just had a quick read of the post above, which goes into a lot of detail about what the Cosby-Textor analysis of the issues revealed.

Howard haters are taking so much joy at the moment at the likely looking defeat of the Liberal government that are not prone to be troubled by the obvious question: why has appearance of Rudd as leader even (apparently) turned several issues from one previously Liberal "owned" ones to Labor "owned" ones?

The difference that Rudd has made to the polling on issues is surely at the heart of the puzzlement of the journalistic commentators. The force of one personality is significant to politics (look at Mark Latham,) but there seems something a little weird about one person being able to convince everyone that his government would be best on a range of issues now.

Any reader who has long disliked Howard need not bother commenting here along the lines of "well, it's just that he has never really been popular", because that is not really addressing my point.

My personal theory is still that Rudd is in league with the Devil, or at the very least using Jedi mind tricks. He will probably look like Yoda when he gets older too. (He already speaks in a funny fashion, with that auto interviewing style.)

A documentary worth seeing

In the Shadow of the Moon - Rotten Tomatoes

It's about the Apollo program, and has received very good reviews.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Getting naked at LHC, and black hole bombs?

I could be wrong, but I am pretty sure I have never seen CERN, or anyone else, mention the possibility of a naked singularity being created at the LHC rather than (or as well as) mini black holes. Yet it would appear that some credible physicist types think it is still an open question.

Here's an extract from the relevant paper, which is from 2002:
There is thus no compelling reason to discard the possibility that the collision of charged particles produces a naked singularity, an event which would probably be indistinguishable from ordinary particle production, with the naked singularity (possibly) behaving as an intermediate, highly unstable state. The phenomenology of naked singularities is probably rather different from that of black holes, as they are generally expected to explode in a very sudden event instead of evaporating via the Hawking process (at least in an early stage; see, e.g., [20] and Refs. therein).

We should however add that the present literature does not reliably cover the case of such tiny naked singularities and their actual phenomenology is an open question. A naked singularity is basically a failure in the causality structure of space-time mathematically admitted by the field equations of general relativity. Most studies have thus focused on their realization as the (classical) end-point of the gravitational collapse of compact objects (such as dust clouds) and on their stability by employing quantum field theory on the resulting background. However, one might need more than semiclassical tools to investigate both the formation by collison of particles
and the subsequent time evolution [20]. In particular, to our knowledge, no estimate of the life-time of a naked singularity of the sort of interest here is yet available.
I thought that naked singularities had been ruled out as a general concept a long time ago. (They are, as I understand it, the heart of the black hole without the cloaking event horizon.) It would seem from the above that no one has a clear idea how they would behave, or how long they would last. It seems to me something that the safety review for the LHC should address.

Another paper I recently found while trawling the 'net also raises issues I would like to see better explained. This is from someone at Princeton in 2002, and has the cheery title : "Explosive Black hole fission and fusion in large extra dimensions".

The paper seems to be mainly about "explosions" that could be caused by the evaporation process of micro black holes, including those that could be created at the LHC. What remains very unclear to the lay reader is whether the amount of energy involved in this is nothing to worry about, or not. But the paper does end with this curious section:
One cannot avoid considering bomb construction using either fission or fusion ignoring the problems of creating and handling small black holes. A black hole could be prepared close to its critical size ready to fuse and then activated by adding matter and reaching “critical mass”. Timing the fission process is more difficult, since the time for decay is determined by the Hawking radiation which cannot be hurried artificially, but perhaps it is possible to balance the Hawking radiation with incoming radiation until activation. However, these bombs have a big disadvantage, since if one is in possession of small black holes, one could collide them with very similar explosions occurring both in emitted energy and time scale (being a classical process), and since igniting the phase transition seems to be the more complicated process it would probably be disfavoured, and luckily not used for destructive ends.
Err, I wish physicists would be clear when they are using terms like "bomb" and "explosion" in papers which are discussing micro black holes whether they are presenting stuff which indicates possible danger.

This mention of a black hole bomb (and by the way there is another type I haven't mentioned yet) is completely unclear as to whether it is talking science fiction stuff centuries away, or something plausible anytime you can start creating mini black holes at an accelerator.

Some clarification is deserved, as with naked singularities.

(Oh, and the fact that micro black holes may be being created in the atmosphere 100 times a year is relevant to this too, I know. But I still worry about the "stationary" black hole or naked singularity as an issue at the LHC, as naturally occurring ones would normally have high velocity. Also, I am sure I have mentioned a paper recently which suggested that micro black holes may be harder to create than we think, even with large extra dimensions. Perhaps they are made by fluke in the atmosphere only very occasionally, causing events like Tungaska or some unaccounted for atomic blast signals detected by satellite? All possibilities should be addressed, I reckon.)

Good point

9/11 theories as factless as those of Bush - Opinion -

Christopher Scanlan makes a good point in his criticism of 9-11 conspiracy theorists:
The September 11 conspiracy theories are like a left-liberal version of intelligent design. Just as the adherents of intelligent design invoke a great designer whenever they come across some part of the natural world that they personally can't explain, the September 11 conspiracy theorists invoke the White House whenever they can't account for the events of that day....

In the world inhabited by conspiracy theorists, even the absence of evidence is itself turned into evidence of how large and how successful the cover-up has been.

In the same way that supporters of intelligent design lead away from an explanation of the natural world, the September 11 conspiracy theories lead us away from any deeper understanding of the attacks, into a fantasy world in which the US has no enemies — except its own leaders.
I am not stridently against all aspects of the intelligent design argument, by the way, as I have much interest in the anthropic principle when it comes to cosmology, but I still think the comparison is quite valid.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Howard's way

The Australian is suggesting a Federal election will be called this week for October, and that John Howard will stay on as Leader.

For all the poll driven speculation that Howard might resign before an election, I just can't really see what sense it would make in light of the polling not so long ago that had indicated that Peter Costello would lose votes for the Coalition rather than gain them. If the likes of Andrew Bolt and even Janet Albrechtsen are going to let the polls determine who should lead, shouldn't they at least be consistent and accept Costello's polling as relevant too?

And as was noted by Lenore on Insiders today, Costello would surely be 'tainted' by his past support for all major government policies, and you can't imagine him being leader for a month and coming up with any significant new direction.

I find Andrew Bolt's input into Coalition fortunes particularly galling. He has painted himself into a corner on greenhouse scepticism, and I would bet money that his columns on this have influenced some in the Liberal backbench to maintain scepticism, which in turn (as conservative Harry Clarke argues) has almost certainly harmed the government's attempted message to the electorate that it does take greenhouse seriously now. Thus having helped create one problem for the government, Bolt blames Howard for staying around too long.

For what it is worth, I think the arguments for Howard resigning just don't pass muster.

As I said a few posts ago, I reckon the Liberals have to come up with some surprising and new policy initiatives during the campaign to make up ground. I hope the policy boys & girls have been hard at it while Howard has been otherwise distracted by APEC (which, incidentally, I can't see giving the government any significant bounce. The security level is going to be seen as overkill, and the Federal government will probably get blamed even though it was the New South Wales Labor controlled police who were seen as being rough with a couple of protesters on the TV last night . I think John Howard probably just can't believe his run of bad luck lately.)

UPDATE: Tim Blair and Andrew Landeryou come out in support of Howard staying on. Yay.

International adultery

A couple of months ago, I briefly mentioned a book comparing different nations' cultural attitudes to adultery ("Lust in Translation".) Here's a link to a fairly long review of the book which provides many more interesting snippets of information. For example:
The figure that is often heard - that more than half of married men, and a quarter of married women will cheat on their spouses over their lifetime - turns out to be both highly problematic and overestimated. These later figures come from Alfred Kinsey's studies in the 1950's, and they are based upon badly unrepresentative samples (46). This was exacerbated by later studies by Shere Hite and Cosmopolitan magazine which placed adultery figures as high as 70% for both men and women. It turns out that in the U.S. only about 20% of men and 10% of women have extramarital sex over their lifetimes (50), although, as Druckerman notes, statistical evidence in this area is strangely hard to come by.
Yes indeed, adulterers should be wary of consoling themselves that "everyone does it" if such belief is based on statistics in Cosmopolitan.

As for America's love of therapy:
...while there were only 3000 marriage and family therapists in the U.S. in 1970 (98), that number had risen to 50,000 by 2004 (100), a staggering 1600% increase!
The review talks about how American therapy is heavily geared towards complete disclosure to the partner. Contrast this:
The French, who surprisingly commit adultery about as little as Americans do, view the situation quite differently. In order to protect their spouses from the pain of their adultery, French cheaters rarely reveal the truth of their affair to their spouse, even when the affair has come to light. And they rarely feel guilt over living their double life.
Russians, meanwhile, are apparently the most active adulterers around. Funny, I always find it hard to imagine a lot of sex going on in any country that is freezing for much of the year. Must be something to do with coming from Brisbane; it makes my mind concentrate simply on how cold I am whenever I visit somewhere with daytime temperatures below about 5 degrees.

On the home front

I've been too busy with domestic duties to blog. Here's what I have learned over the past few days:

* my 4 yr old daughter needed day surgery (for a dental procedure.) She charmed the nurses, which is entirely understandable (I am a biased father) and was a very good girl. I have no particular worries about relatively minor procedures like this, but I found it a bit more disconcerting than I expected to hold her hand and watch her fall asleep under the anaesthetic gas. It's too much like one's imagination of being with someone at death; that's the problem.

* Speaking of anaesthesia, I was talking to a doctor recently and the topic of suicide and anaesthetists came up. He said it was true that they had a higher rate, due to their familiarity with the ease with which the right drugs can end it all. I mentioned that, as far as stress goes, I would have imagined that their job was something like that old adage about war: mostly a lot of sitting around being bored, interrupted by the occasional period of absolute terror. I was told that it's not like that for them because many different types of surgery require blood pressure to be well controlled to limit bleeding, and the surgeons can be demanding throughout the procedure that the anaesthetist keep the pressure within a very tight range. That can be difficult, apparently. Interesting...

* I picked up the new (actually, second hand) car. It is amazing the stuff you get in cars these days for the price. I am not into cars in any significant way: the one I am replacing (which is the one I use for work) is 13 years old. Getting this new car has reinforced what I have said many times: why does anyone really need a car worth over, say, $50,000 these days? The one I got is 18 months old, cost barely over $20,000, yet has all the features that I can imagine ever really wanting. If I was benevolent dictator (and if government over regulation actually worked, which I know it doesn't) the law against manufacturers wasting time on building luxury cars would be high on my agenda.

* New, bigger cars, involve unwanted re-arrangements of garage junk.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Tell us what you really think of tattoos, Bryan

Thought Experiments : The Blog: Ponder Post 10: Tattoos?

Bryan Appleyard really doesn't like tattoos. It's a funny post.

The rise and rise of the fashionable modern tattoo is like watching Kevin Rudd's popularity in the polls: all logic suggests it must come to a stop sometime; indeed a reversal in fortune is long overdue, but for some mysterious reason it just keeps on going up. You'll all regret it in 20 years, you know!

Education Schmeducation

Why are the ideas of what makes for good teaching method, and a good education system overall, in such an ever-changing mess? Live for 40 years or more and it seems you will witness the educationists change their minds at least a dozen times, covering everything from cuisinaire rods (which seemed to fly in and out of fashion within barely a few years,) whole word versus phonetics or some sort of compromise position, how best to teach foreign languages, the culture wars that affect the teaching of history, whether homework is or isn't all that beneficial, and even what age is best for kids to start school in the first place.

Witness this article from The Times on this last issue. Apparently, kids can start in the English school system at a particularly young age compared to their European counterparts:
The latest government figures indicate that around 80 per cent of children enter school before their fifth birthday and last year there were almost 800,000 four-year-olds in our primary schools. By comparison, children in France, Portugal, Belgium, and Norway start school at 6, while the school starting age in many Scandinavian countries is 7.
The article quotes some personal experience:
Solvie Jorgensen moved to the UK from Norway when her daughter had just turned 4. She initially opted to defer school entry for a year: “It seemed much too early: in Norway Freya would have had two more years of nursery.” But Freya pleaded to be allowed to start, so they enrolled her in November. “I was pleasantly surprised, but still think there’s a far greater emphasis on numbers and letters from a young age in British schools than in those back home. There, formal teaching doesn’t start until 6, and even then teachers are more concerned about children being happy at school and making friends than whether they can write their name and count to ten.”
In Australia, meanwhile, it seems to be taken for granted now that "prep year" is important and should be put in place everywhere, even though it seems it is all play based and just a glorified kindy.

Oh, I'm sure there will be the studies that show how much better this is for children down the track, etc, etc; but the problem is it seems you only ever have to wait a few years before contradictory studies will be out on virtually any area of education. (Well, this is the impression one gets, anyway.) For example, from The Times article:
...a study by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development indicated that by the time they reach their teens, the gap between the achievements of students from professional and working-class backgrounds is wider in the UK than in most other countries. Caroline Sharp, of the National Foundation for Educational Research, sums it up thus: “There appears to be no compelling educational rationale for a school starting age of 5 or for the practice of admitting four-year-olds to reception classes.”
My particular grudge against educationalists at the moment is the way that maths is being taught to my 7 year old son.

I can't be the only parent out there who is irritated by the heavily verbal way in which basic maths concepts are taught now, surely? It's hard to explain here, but there are new terms which are used to try to get kids to understand the concepts. (I forget the sorts of phrases, but it includes "sharing numbers", or "friendly numbers" and ...oh god I can't remember them now, but the parents need a glossary to understand the new terms being used with 6 and 7 year olds to help them understand the concepts of addition and multiplication, etc.)

The problem is that, if your child, like mine, is behind the 8-ball on language, this really stuffs him up in understanding the highly verbal (there's probably a better word, but I can't think of it now) way they are trying to teach maths too. Simple rote learning of tables did not have this same problem. "Oh but it was so mechanical and they didn't have a deep understanding." Bah!

I have mentioned this (very politely) to my son's teachers, and they seem to quite agree with me that the way they have to teach it is problematic for someone like my son, but there is not much they can do about that, apart from giving him extra help in maths, although even that will be highly verbal too.

I find it very irritating that, even in maths at the level of grades one and two, phrases with a specific contextual meaning unknown to parents are being used. Sure, everyone is ready for high school maths to be difficult for the parents, but for them to not even understand the terms being used in homework at Grade 2? It probably looked good to some educational psychologist in some study or other, but in a few years they will probably pull back from it for the exact reason I am complaining about here.

I also trust that this is not something peculiar to the school my boy is attending. I hope I have also made it clear that this is not a complaint about the teachers in the classroom, about whom (at my son's school at any rate) I have no complaint at all. It's about the educational theoreticians, and the apparent sense in which either changes are made with no strong evidence as to effectiveness, or the evidence changes over time anyway.

Any reader who is a parent of primary school kids are welcome to share their views. (Although I suppose if your kid is writing mini novels and top of the class at maths, you probably wouldn't have even noticed the problem.)

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

The luck of the Adams

Scott Adams' analytical reaction to being the victim of a bird crap attack made me laugh quite a bit.

Aeronautic engineers not required after all

Airline sacrifices goats to appease sky god - Yahoo!7 News

Nuclear Japan

All cost bets off if Big One hits nuke plant | The Japan Times Online

This article talks about the nuclear industry in Japan, and notes this:

A year ago, the government revised its 1981 guidelines for nuclear safety, obliging operators to make plants sturdy enough for quakes above the previous standard of magnitude-6.5. Still no new higher magnitude minimum was specified, and individual utilities were left to determine appropriate levels themselves.

That is cold comfort for anybody seeking guarantees of safety should the Big One hit. Records show that at least one magnitude-7 or greater quake occurs almost yearly, while the Meteorological Agency forecasts a magnitude-8 quake will strike the Tokai region in central Japan "in the near future."

It does surprise me that a country as seismically unstable as Japan has gone into nuclear with such enthusiasm. Australia, on the other hand, should have no such worries at all.

The decline of romance

Both this week's Time magazine and The Guardian have articles which lament the current state of how romance is dealt with in the cinema. The Guardian article is particularly acerbic, ripping into the spate of recent films which are basically "male loser made good by the love of a good woman" films. I can't say that I have seen the films that Joe Queenan complains about, but I suspect I would share most of his reaction.

It is true when you think about it: Hollywood has become very bad at decent romance stories for quite a number of years now. The last really good romantic film with both male and female interest that I can think of would probably be Shakespeare in Love, and that is nearly a decade ago now. I saw it first on an airplane, and on the old projection screen set-up (not the new fangled seat-back LCD,) and still I felt affected by the ending.

In the Time magazine article, Richard Curtis, whose films I actually don't care for, does say something that sounds about right:
"If you write a story about a soldier going AWOL and kidnapping a pregnant woman and finally shooting her in the head, it's called searingly realistic, even though it's never happened in the history of mankind," he notes. "Whereas if you write about two people falling in love, which happens about a million times a day all over the world, for some reason or another, you're accused of writing something unrealistic and sentimental."
There is also the point that some real life love stories really are so remarkable that you imagine if they were written up as fiction they wouldn't be believed. Case in point: this week's Australian Story episode.

Science and politicians

As both science and politics make regular appearances here, how many readers out there know who the current Science Minister is in the Federal government, and who Labor has for a shadow Science Minister?

I couldn't remember either without checking, which probably says something about the low priority that Science gets in the Federal government here. (It's Julie Bishop as the minister, and Senator Kim Carr as the Shadow. Both have science bundled up with other areas which almost certainly take up more of their time.)

Julie Bishop is an ex-lawyer, although a fairly high flying one by the sounds. (Who'd have guessed that you could be a partner of big law firm if you have a funny stare like that.)

Kim Carr is an ex teacher from a technical college. (At least he is not a union hack.)

But really, you get the feeling that science would be far, far down on their list of private interests.

I wonder when was the last time we had a science minister who really had a genuine, pre-existing deep interest in science?

Why can't I be science minister? It would be like Kim Beazley in Defence: the personal interest would make the job a pleasure. Except you have to deal with other politicians too, and I am sure that can ruin your day.

Micro black holes (continued)

This paper isn't new, and it may or may not have not great relevance to the issue of safety of micro black holes at the LHC. (Unfortunately, I am not an expert on gamma radiation.) But the paper is interesting for two reasons:

1. It suggests that if the LHC can produce micro black holes, then atmospheric collisions from cosmic rays may produce about 100 micro black holes a year for the entire surface of the earth. (Astute readers will recall, though, that these are different from accelerator created ones because they would have high velocity from the way they are made.)

2. It also says that even micro black holes (or, if I am reading it right, their remnants) could create high energy radiation. As this is hard to summarise, I'll just copy it here:
A charged particle being accelerated by a black hole can produce g -rays with energies in the multi-TeV range before the particle passes beyond the horizon radius provided that the curvature gradient of the space around the black hole is large enough. Such curvature gradients occur in quantum black holes, black holes whose masses are of the order the Planck mass. A calculation taking into account special relativity (but not general relativity) shows us that to produce g -ray energies in the 10 TeV range a single electronic charge would have to be accelerated by a black hole with a mass equal to five times that of the Planck mass.

The microscopic black holes needed to produce ultrahigh g -rays may be the remnants of primordial black holes. Such black holes can be produced by
• Inflationary horizon-scale fluctuations
• Density fluctuations at phase transitions and bubble formation and collapse
• Baryon isocurvature fluctuations on small scales.

Large-mass primordial black holes (M > 1015 gm) decaying via Hawking radiation [5] as described by the canonical ensemble in 4 space-time dimensions, (dM/dt)∼ −M−2, would have decayed to a Planck-size mass in the present epoch.Microscopic black holes produced in this manner could be stable if quantum gravity effects terminate the decay process.

Copious microscopic black hole production can also occur if large extra dimensions exist. In this scenario black hole production can occur as the result of the collision of particles with total center of mass energy above the effective Planck scale, which can be as low as the electroweak scale mew ∼ 1TeV. Black holes could thus be produced in collisions of high energy cosmic rays with the Earth’s atmosphere. As we show in the next Section, such black holes may live long enough to create ultrahigh g -rays even without taking quantum gravity effects into account.

Seems possibly relevant to me to the issue of the safety of the LHC at CERN, if its going to be creating thousands of little black holes and black hole remnants, many of which are going to hang around rather than zipping off into space.