Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Build your own rocket plane

North American X-15 Downloadable Cardmodel

Found via Air & Space Magazine, which is full of articles this month about the X-15.


Comedy Central: Shows - The Colbert Report

At the website, go and scroll down the video list and check out the video of Colbert's Absinthetinence pledge (it's currently the third one down.)

It is very funny comedy writing.

There is something good natured about the frequent silliness of Colbert Report, I reckon, which is missing from the general sourness of The Daily Show.

UPDATE: here's what I presume will be a more permanent link to the clip.

China, food, safety etc

774 arrests in China over safety - International Herald Tribune

Doesn't China have ways of dealing with this problem other than via arrest?

Who cares?

Panasonic Introduces Next-Generation Blu-ray Disc Player

I may be proved wrong, but Blu Ray seems a clear case of a technology that is so far ahead of market interest, it's seems nearly pointless to bother putting more out there. (At least until they can be made cheaper.)

Pretty obvious

Male preference could have negative impact
New studies commissioned by the U.N. Population Fund predicted that as males outnumber females, because of pre-natal testing to determine the sex of fetuses and subsequent abortions of unwanted females, a surge in sexual violence and trafficking of women could occur.

News for your accountant

Monkeys reveal brain is hard-wired for counting - life - 30 October 2007 - New Scientist

While monkeys might not yet have mastered calculus, recent studies have shown that they can learn understand some basic aspects of arithmetic and, in a rare case, multiplication.

Andreas Nieder at the University of Tübingen in Germany and colleagues trained two rhesus monkeys to count by showing them various numbers of dots on a screen followed by Arabic numerals....

"Although monkeys don't have language they can understand a symbol and what it refers to," she explains.

Nieder, meanwhile, believes that the monkeys can count to far higher numbers. "I'm convinced that they could go to infinity," he says.

There must be a joke to be made somehow, or a funny passage in a faux Douglas Adams book, about the very idea of a roomful of monkeys counting to infinity. Go to it, comedy writers.

Last political post for today

I'm posting so much about politics lately I'm starting to bore myself.

But before I search the Web for something else, did you see Howard's remarkably relaxed and cheery performance on Lateline last night? It was in stark contrast to another stressed looking performance on 7.30 Report the night before, although I still say that Kerry O'Brien is coming out with much stronger aggression in his interviews with Howard compared to Rudd.

(I clearly remember Kerry looking increasingly downcast on the election night coverage in 2004 as the extent of the loss by Labor became apparent. He will be positively suicidal if Howard scrapes back in this time.)

I also just heard Malcolm Turnbull on AM sounding very, very chipper too.

It's amazing how quickly the mood can swing in election campaigns.

UPDATE: funny how I posted last week about the government in England getting all wobbly over a 20% renewable energy commitment by 2020 and now Kevin Rudd decides to commit Australia to the same figure. If England, with some years of the commitment behind it, is saying it doesn't look achievable, I would be very surprised if it is here too.

Sadly missing from Australian politics

Indonesian president releases album - Music - Entertainment -

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has found a new use for his presidential pen, composing an album of 10 heartfelt songs for release across the nation this week.

My Longing for You, a 50-minute album released on compact disc, features pop songs written by the president and performed by prominent Indonesian singers.

The cover shows Yudhoyono clutching an acoustic guitar, his solemn face looming over a line-up of musicians who perform songs such as The Sun is Shining, A Song Under the Moonlight, The Power of God and Good Luck in Your Struggle.

Forget leaders debates, and the worm, what we need is the Election-vision Song Contest. You might think Labor has the advantage, what with Peter Garrett on board, but he would have a hell of a lot of trouble working out his lyrics at the moment.

In fact, I can imagine Kevin storming on stage and ripping the microphone out of his hand, while he launches into an amended version.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

About interest rates

Fumbling the economy - Opinion -

Tim Colebatch writes about how the Howard government policies affect inflation and interest rates. It's interesting reading, but I remain sceptical about 2 points:

1. As per the Labor line, Colebatch argues that skills shortages lead to increased wages, which lead to inflation and higher interest rates. Howard is blamed for dismantling "Working Australia", which (in theory) would have skilled people up for the boom that was to come.

My scepticism is about just how big a factor this can really be. My intuition is that, in the big scheme of things, increased wages for tradesmen and other skilled workers is not likely to be that important.

2. Colebatch writes:
...instead of using budget policy to ease pressure on interest rates, as in the past, Howard has increased the pressure by shovelling money into voters' pockets while the Reserve tries to slow their spending. On Treasury projections, personal income tax will shrink from 12.1 per cent of GDP in 2004-05 to just 10.3 per cent in 2008-09 — adding $20 billion a year to consumers' spending power.

In past booms, monetary and fiscal policy have worked together. More jobs and higher wages increased tax revenues, reducing the need for rate rises to slow the economy. Now the Government has dropped its end so it can deliver big tax cuts.

But how legitimate is it to keep surpluses high as a means of controlling interest rates? Sounds a bit odd to me.

Colebatch does also list the ways that Howard can either claim credit for helping rates stay under control, or simply say that certain matters are not really within its control.

It's worth reading, despite my scepticism about some of his points.

Conservatives win, sort of...

The slow creep of conservatism - Opinion -

Gerard Henderson's column runs the entertaining argument that concludes "it seems we are all conservatives now". Worth reading.

Monday, October 29, 2007

You won't read this elsewhere

It must be the mind control waves being beamed into voters by our new comet-riding alien overlords which accounts for an unexpected Newspoll result favouring the Coalition. (Well, it's as good an explanation as any you are likely to hear in the media.)

Howard on Kyoto

Garrett clarifies Labor climate stance | The Australian

People like symbolism, there's no doubt about it. This "leading by example" argument for ratifying Kyoto plays well to the public, but surely it only makes some sense if the treaty process is actually working. Do people think China won't notice that the nations signed up to it are achieving nothing?

It would seem that Malcolm Turnbull thinks along the lines of "why should the Liberals (and me in particular) suffer the loss of the electorate's brownie points for the symbolism, even if the thing doesn't work." It makes political sense in a way, but is also quite cynical.

John Howard made the keys points on AM this morning, not that anyone will pay attention:
"Even if all of the countries that signed up to Kyoto had met their targets - which virtually none of them have - the fall in the world emissions on 1990 levels would be 41 versus 42 which is a difference of one per cent,'' he said.

"That is a meaningless outcome because the Kyoto Protocol for all its symbolism has not in practice been effective.

"That is the reason why Australia has not been willing to ratify it, although unlike most of the countries that have ratified it, we are probably going to meet our Kyoto target of 108 (per cent emissions reduction) over 1990 levels.''
Of course, everyone (including Turnbull) should also read the recent Nature article about the failure of Kyoto as well.

In fact, if he hasn't already done so, I don't see why Howard would not be citing this article as supporting what he has long been saying. (And the other thing that needs constant reinforcing is that the government has not ignored making reductions in greenhouse gases even though it did not ratify Kyoto.)

The continuing bad luck of JW Howard

It seems to me that when the Australian dollar was at it weakest some years ago, public perception was that this was a matter of some embarrassment to national prestige.

Now the dollar is at its highest level since 1984 (!), yet there is no beneficial perception in the public mind. What's worse, Toyota takes the opportunity to point out that it is making its operations unprofitable and raise the issue of tariff protection again, which always has popular appeal even though it makes little economic sense. According to the report just linked to, Senator Carr's initial reaction was reject further tariff protection to the car industry, yet it leaves open the likes of Kevin Rudd, SA premier Mike Rann and the unions to make sympathetic sounds about the importance of keeping manufacturing alive, and arguing over tariffs again.

The public perception will be that Labor will do more to keep manufacturing here, even though it doesn't seem to me there is any legitimate criticism to be make of Coalition support to the industry thus far. The anti tariff forces in Federal Labor will surely win, and its very likely that support Labor does supply will be pretty much along the same lines as what the Coalition might be talked into anyway.

Just dumb bad luck for the Coalition again, I reckon.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

No way to run a country

China vows to clean up polluted lake - International Herald Tribune

Last week I referred to an article that talked about severe pollution problems in a famous lake in China.

It seems that the government has decided to clean it up, but look at the way the wheels turn there:
This spring, urban sewage and chemical dumping caused an explosion of bright green pond scum that coated much of the giant lake with a fetid algal coating. Panic quickly followed in Wuxi, a nearby city that depended on the lake to supply drinking water for its 2.3 million residents. Officials were forced to shut off the drinking water supply for several days.
Er, yes, sounds serious. Yet there initial response had been to to arrest the local farmer who started the warnings:

Several local officials have been fired or demoted, and state news media have reported that regulators have already closed as many as 1,000 factories in the area.

But the new crackdown has not helped Wu Lihong, a local environmentalist who has spent more than a decade trying to force official action. Wu, a feisty peasant, had repeatedly protested against the chemical factories and the local officials who protected them.

Wu was arrested shortly before the algae crisis and was later convicted in August on questionable charges. He is now serving three years in prison, even as his direst warnings about the lake have come to pass.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Alien invasion saves John Howard?

Mystery Comet Explodes into Brightness

Clearly, the current space shuttle mission is actually a welcoming party, but they'll probably be disintegrating before they can say "Klaatu barada nikto".

Clutching at straws, you say. Tell that to your new comet-dwelling alien overlords!

Howard's record by Hartcher

Typical. The Sydney Morning Herald's Peter Hartcher has an article that leads the News Review section of the paper this morning, but it seems not to be on the web. Called "Smashing the Myths", it deals with several favourite anti-Howard memes and lists the evidence for or against them. I can summarise the myths that Hartcher debunks as follows:

1. John Howard has made more Australia more selfish (except for the fact that they both donate much more money now and volunteer more time)

2. Howard can't work with Asia (except that in fact Australia has been more engaged with Asia than ever). Hartcher notes that even Keating dropped this line last month, when he said "any clown" could manage relations with Asian powers. (I had missed that.)

3.Howard has ruined the immigration programme (in fact has more immigrants than ever, and with less public resistance to it than when Keating was in.)

4. The economy is strong mainly because of the mining boom (as Gerard Henderson noted earlier this week, economists don't agree).

5. The 2004 Free Trade Agreement with the US sold out the national interest and would cause economic damage. (There is no reporting of the harm it has caused because it has caused none.)

So far so good, in the sense that Hartcher cites a lot of evidence to support his "myth busting" under each of the headings. When he gets onto the Howard negatives, though, the evidence becomes questionable.

The negative list is:

1. Howard took Australia to war in Iraq on a false premise. Well, at least he is not saying "Howard lied" about this. Hartcher cites the US Senate Select Committee on the pre-war intelligence. Hartcher might be a bit more even handed by adding that even the likes of Kevin Rudd believed the "false premise" too.

2. Howard and the Howard government have told lies. Here Hartcher really goes off the rails for a minute, as the evidence he cites is public opinion polls indicate most people believe it! Yeah, right, that's the way to 'get to the truth' of this proposition, Peter. Why do we need journalists at all if the polls will tell us what happened.

3. The Howard government has increased regulatory burden on businesses. Well, guess I can't dispute that, but it is part and parcel of introducing a new tax (GST) that, as far as I can tell, is deemed a great success.

4. The government has treated some immigrants and refugees punitively and manipulatively. In fact, I accept some criticism of the government about this, but at least it is remarkable how boats with would-be refugee claimants are no longer drowning in the Timor Sea.

5. The Howard government wasted a decade denying man-made global warming was real. Hartcher actually makes a point I was not aware of: Howard initially gave high praise to the Kyoto treaty. I didn't recall that, and shows that all politicians can make mistakes!

Overall, it was a good article.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Tattoos you may regret

Maybe I will get around to commenting on the Dumbledore was gay schtick soon, but in the meantime the story has meant fame for a 36 year old (non gay) Dad with a huge Dumbledore tattoo on his back. Really, isn't having large tatts done to please children enough to bring you to the attention of the Children's Protection services?

Anyway, here's some tattoo comedy (maybe it started out as a dolphin or something):

How not to win friends in the government

Three rate rises ahead, says ANZ - FederalElection2007News - FederalElection2007

Presumably, Mike Smith of ANZ does not think it likely he needs to have friends in the Howard government, with his prediction not just of a rate rise in November, but two more to come after that.

This is another case of terrible luck for John Howard. As far as I can tell, no one can point to any actual policy of the Howard government that is leading to the current pressure for interest rate increases (matters such as droughts, the US home lending crisis, and house price increases seem to be all that is cited.)

George Megalogenis points out today that nothing Rudd would do as PM has any prospect of affecting interest rates in a downwards direction in the short to medium term, so it's not like people can expect relief on home mortgages by voting Labor.

Howard is still arguing that relaxing IR laws will have an inflationary effect, and therefore interest rates will still be lower under the Coalition. But, of course, Labor will argue that Howard and Costello have already failed their last election "promise", so why believe them now, and that is likely to be the argument that will stick in voter's minds. (After all, it is politically difficult for the Coalition to suddenly push the line too hard that the recent interest rates are really out of its hands.)

Things are not looking good for Coalition recovery...

Read this, Labor Party

Time to ditch Kyoto : Article : Nature

When Nature magazine runs a commentary arguing that the Kyoto treaty is hopeless, you know something is up:

In practice, Kyoto depends on the top-down creation of a global market in carbon dioxide by allowing countries to buy and sell their agreed allowances of emissions. But there is little sign of a stable global carbon price emerging in the next 5–10 years. Even if such a price were to be established, it is likely to be modest — sufficient only to stimulate efficiency gains3. Without a significant increase in publicly funded research and development (R&D) for clean energy technology and changes to innovation policies, there will be considerable delay before innovation catches up with this modest price signal.

On present trends, for another 20 years, the world will continue installing carbon-intensive infrastructure, such as coal power plants, with a 50-year lifetime. If climate change is as serious a threat to planetary well-being as we have long believed it to be, it is time to interrupt this cycle.

The commentary even argues that the much touted (by Greenies) idealist symbolism involved in getting all countries to sign up to Kyoto works against it:

The notion that emissions mitigation is a global commons problem, requiring consensus among more than 170 countries, lies at the heart of the Kyoto approach. Engaging all of the world's governments has the ring of idealistic symmetry (matching global threat with universal response), but the more parties there are to any negotiation, the lower the common denominator for agreement — as has been the case under Kyoto.

The G8+5 Climate Change Dialogue, established in 2006 to convene the leaders of the top 13 polluters, was a belated recognition of the error of involving too many parties, each with dramatically different stakes and agendas. In September, the United States convened the top 16 polluters. Such initiatives are summarily dismissed by Kyoto's true believers, who see them as diversions rather than necessary first steps. However, these approaches begin to recognize the reality that fewer than 20 countries are responsible for about 80% of the world's emissions. In the early stages of emissions mitigation policy, the other 150 countries only get in the way.

Kyoto critics 1; Labor Party idealists 0.

Yes, but...

Climate is too complex for accurate predictions - earth - 25 October 2007 - New Scientist Environment

This report notes:

Climate change models, no matter how powerful, can never give a precise prediction of how greenhouse gases will warm the Earth, according to a new study....

The analysis focuses on the temperature increase that would occur if levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubled from pre-Industrial Revolution levels. The current best guess for this number – which is a useful way to gauge how sensitive the climate is to rising carbon levels – is that it lies between 2.0 C and 4.5 C. And there is a small chance that the temperature rise could be up to 8C or higher.

To the frustration of policy makers, it is an estimate that has not become much more precise over the last 20 years. During that period, scientists have established that the world is warming and human activity is very likely to blame, but are no closer to putting a figure on exactly much temperatures are likely to rise.

Which is why I argue that the case for keeping CO2 levels down based on ocean acidification is more sound.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Thinking about comedy

Despite my previous complaint that I did not find Summer Heights High funny, I ended up half watching most episodes, partly out of curiosity to see if I would eventually come around to enjoying it, and also simply because there was nothing else of interest on.

Nothing changed in the course of the series. In fact, my problems with it only increased over time. For example:

* I am surprised that there was not more public comment on the use of a Downs Syndrome actor in the show, given the questionable role he was given. Those of us who don't know the actor and his family cannot say that his involvement was exploitative, but doesn't having real life actors with a degree of disability playing fictional roles in which they are exploited or mistreated due to the same disability make people uncomfortable?

* There's no doubt that Chris Lilley is good at acting the roles. But trying to expand a sketch show format's 5 minutes of unrealistic silliness (particularly with something over the top that "Mr G" would do) into a series is too much of a stretch and just ruins the comedy for me.

* The show looked expensive to make, given the large number of actors and extras on the set. Australian films and series routinely look underpopulated, and this one did not have that problem at all. But this only made me resent it more. Seems such a waste of effort on a comedy/satire which I didn't like.

* The show almost certainly suffers the problem that is common to much British comedy now: it is written by a single person and there seems to be no one to act as a filter. (The whole plot about the drug death based musical strayed too far from vaguely plausible reality for far too long to be funny.) Mind you, there is a major lack of sensible filtering going on at The Chaser too, even though it is a team. (I can only enjoy about 50% of that show now, and the degree of annoyance with the other 50% is very offputting. I never care if I miss it.)

* More generally, this show made me wonder about how long British and Australian TV comedy based on deeply unpleasant characters with no redeeming features whatsoever has now been popular. Let's see, we've had The Office (although I stand to be corrected on that, I saw very little of it), Absolutely Fabulous, Nighty Night (now there was a show which I watched purely out of perverse interest in how unpleasant it was,) Alan Partridge (actually, he did make me laugh, but I don't think the character is well known in Australia. Have a look at this clip from his chat show to get a general idea.)

Fawlty Towers was perhaps the start of the plague of this sort of black comedy, but I think the unpleasantness of comedy characters has become much worse since then. (You could occasionally feel sorry for Basil, after all.) It is interesting to note that this style has never really caught on in the US in the same degree. (Of course, American TV comedy has its own major problems over the last decade, but that's a different post.)

I just wish British and Australian comedy writers would give this style a break for a decade or two.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

A joke of dubious taste

This from Jimmy Kimmel:
All of California is on fire. The smoke is so thick in Malibu, you can barely see Britney Spears’ vagina.

Shuttle/ISS sightings alert

Hey, this trip by the space shuttle is going to provide a series of good, early evening sighting opportunities for Brisbane, and (presumably) the rest of Australia. Go on, take pleasure in high technology and go out to spot it. (The space station and shuttle combination makes for a very bright object.)

Bad experience at the airport, I assume

Bryan Appleyard was recently travelling, and found that he really doesn't like Air Canada:
The brains of its staff are specially programmed to forget everything as soon as they have checked somebody in. So, when a new customer appears before them, something like this goes through their minds:
'An entity in my visual field is occupying space and reflecting light. It moves. It is shaped like me. But what am I? This entity is pushing something towards me. What does it want me to do?'
That's sounds very much like something Douglas Adams would have written, but in any event it makes me laugh out loud.

Viva von Braun

Rocket Man: Books: The New Yorker

This review of a new biography of Werner von Braun (famous German rocket designer, for all you youngsters out there) makes for interesting reading.

My favourite line is about his increasing fame in America at the start of its space program (and you have to know he headed the German V-2 rocket program in WWII):
Cover stories in Time and Der Spiegel mentioned the Gestapo arrest but not von Braun’s Party membership, let alone the S.S. and Dora; his lecture fees soared, and in 1960 he escorted Mamie Eisenhower to the première of “I Aim at the Stars,” a movie based, with more than usual looseness, on his life story. Mort Sahl suggested a subtitle: “But Sometimes I Hit London.”

Political protest was more serious then..

The hemlock and the chatterbox - Times Online

The link is to a review on a new book on Socrates, who killed himself with hemlock. Plato painted this as a very noble act; others thought his method of suicide was too easy:
According to Plutarch, Cato the Elder called him “a big chatterbox”; the painless demise was contrasted with the hideous suicide of Cato the Younger. As an explicit act of political protest, inspired by Socrates, Cato stabbed himself till his innards extruded; after his wound had been sewn up, he tore it open again and ripped out his bowels.
It would be right up there with self-immolation as a way of attracting media attention.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Dawkins can't let go

Comment is free: Physician, heal thyself

This is a pretty interesting anecdote about Richard Dawkins and his evident willingness to renew gossip against a critic when he had previously agreed that it was false. Those who hold him in high esteem should note.

Funny that

Labour's plan to abandon renewable energy targets

Just as Australians seem to be warming (ha ha) to Labor's plans to increase renewable energy, and its determination to rule out nuclear, Labour in England seems to be planning to talk Europe out of setting fixed targets for renewables, and wants to use more nuclear:
Leaked documents seen by the Guardian show that Gordon Brown will be advised today that the target Tony Blair signed up to this year for 20% of all European energy to come from renewable sources by 2020 is expensive and faces "severe practical difficulties"....

They also reveal different priorities across government departments about how to get renewables to 20% of the electricity mix. Although Germany has increased its renewable energy share to 9% in six years, Britain's share is only 2%, with its greenhouse gas emissions rising...

One of the main objections of government to meeting the renewables target set by Mr Blair is that it will undermine the role of the European emission trading scheme. This scheme was devised by the Treasury under Mr Brown and allows wealthy governments to pay others to reduce emissions. "[Meeting the 20% renewables target] crucially undermines the scheme's credibility ... and reduces the incentives to invest in other carbon technologies like nuclear power", say the papers.

The government is clearly worried about its ambition to introduce more nuclear power as soon as possible.

Preparing for the darkness

What? I go away for a few days and look what happens. Kevin Rudd gets more popular, despite snacking on whatever it was in his ear and it being up for all to groan at on Youtube. Who knows how high his popularity may soar if the next video shows him picking his nose, or playing "pull my finger" with some kiddie at an election campaign outing.

Obviously, I am mature enough to know that it is not the end of the world if Labor wins the election, but (to borrow Danny Katz's technique) OH MY GOD IS HE GOING TO WIN THE ELECTION?!

It seems that the Coalition is possibly doomed because no matter what policy it announces, Kevin is likely to agree with 90% of it and thrown in free porn too. (Well, at least that was the side effect of Labor's policy of subsidising at-home internet access for school kiddies. Annabel Crabb made this observation on Saturday, but it had also occurred to me as soon as I heard the policy.)

Kevin Rudd likes to claim that there will be further tough IR reform under Howard/Costello. This is actually an argument that the Coalition is collectively insane, as who amongst them, if they scrape back in, could possibly think that further workplace reform is worth is all the grief?

I didn't see or hear the debate. I was actually sitting in a tent at the time, preparing MY PLANS FOR LIVING IN THE DESERT IN THE EVENT OF THE APOCALYPSE OF A RUDD VICTORY WITH A 51% PRIMARY VOTE.

(Sorry, it comes in waves.)

I don't find the debates all that stimulating anyway, and as everyone has already observed, Howard is never deemed to have won them regardless of what he says. The fact that Howard does not always have perfect media presentation is something I actually find endearing about him. He can look awkward and nervous, especially on the international stage, as if it is an accident that he is rubbing shoulders with world leaders. You won't get much of that look from Kevin Rudd, especially if he is in China, but I don't know that I would trust him to actually take tough decisions against them if that need develops in the next few years.

By the way, Gerard Henderson had an excellent column in The SMH today, on the issue of who should take credit for Australia's economic success. (Both Labor and Liberal, he says, and backing it up with quotes from people who would know.) He was also on an entertaining panel discussion on Lateline last night. Phillip Adams had a ridiculous column earlier this year in which he accused him of having no sense of humour. It seems Adams does not understand the concept of a dry sense of humour. Gerard just doesn't believe in laughing at his own wit.

Obviously with the polling being the way it is, I am already starting to look for the perfect quote for a post after a Rudd win. This one from Sartre's "Nausea" seems possibly apt:
I can't say I feel relieved or satisfied, just the opposite, I am crushed. Only my goal is reached: I know what I have to know; I have understood all that has happened to me since January. The Nausea has not left me and I don't believe it will leave me so soon; but I no longer have to bear it, it is no longer an illness or a passing fit: it is I.
I wonder how many invitations to dinner parties he got.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

And I now declare this blog a post free zone for the rest of the weekend.

After this. (From the world's favourite band, which has a new double CD out too.)

Some slightly encouraging news - for fish

Cod 'making a comeback' | Environment | Guardian Unlimited
Cod levels in the North Sea are showing signs of recovery, but limits must be enforced to ensure it continues, experts warned today.
By the way, what is it with wacky names for fish (expecially those from the Northern Hemisphere). This article mentions haddock, pollock (OK, we've at least heard of those), but also spurdog and porbeagle.

Turns out the porbeagle is a shark, and no one is sure how it got its name.

And...and...Damn, I can't think of a witty line to finish with.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Why CO2 is a worry, revisited

Acid oceans warning

It's nearly a year since the post in which I explained that I could no longer sit on the fence over the issue of rapidly rising CO2 in the atmosphere not just because of whatever level of global warming may result, but (perhaps even more importantly) because of the effects of ocean acidification. These effects, it seemed to me, would be much more easily tested and verified.

This position seems further vindicated by these comments by an Australian scientist (see link at top):
“Analysis of coral cores shows a steady drop in calcification over the last 20 years,” says Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of CoECRS and the University of Queensland. “There’s not much debate about how it happens: put more CO2 into the air above and it dissolves into the oceans.

“When CO2 levels in the atmosphere reach about 500 parts per million, you put calcification out of business in the oceans.” (Atmospheric CO2 levels are presently 385 ppm, up from 305 in 1960.)

“It isn’t just the coral reefs which are affected – a large part of the plankton in the Southern Ocean, the coccolithophorids, are also affected. These drive ocean productivity and are the base of the food web which supports krill, whales, tuna and our fisheries. They also play a vital role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which could break down.”
Just to remind you, the "do nothing" graph showing how quickly the earth would reach 500 ppm looks like this:

(This appeared with a few other useful charts at my previous post here.)

I would like to hear the sceptical argument against taking ocean acidification seriously, if there is one. I do, however, remain deeply sceptical about a lot of the response to greenhouse gases, especially Kyoto. Alex Robson in the Daily Telegraph recently pointed out again its glaring defects.

Yet, like windpower, many voters will warm to Labor's promises to sign up to it, as it gives that nice warm feeling of doing something. But such fiddling at the edges is probably more of a problem itself if it delays serious thinking about how real results can be achieved.

People may pooh-pooh Bush's recent emphasis on new technology being the primary way forward, but it seems to me he's probably right.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

An odd way to learn about home

On the Edge in Melbourne | Cosmic Variance

An entry in a blog about physics has brought to my attention a tourist attraction in Melbourne about which I had not heard before.

Information can find its way to you by very circuitous routes in this world of the internet.

Time for that backyard cow

The UHT route to long-life planet - Times Online

In England:
Officials at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs have made a serious proposal that consumers switch to UHT (Ultra-High Temperature or Ultra-Heat Treated) milk to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Unless it's so full of chocolate or coffee flavouring that you can't taste anything else, UHT milk is best restricted to camping. (Even then, come to think of it, it's still only drinkable if cold, and if you have the ice you still may as well have fresh while in your tent.)

The report goes on to note that UHT milk is not popular in England. I had thought that it was much more popular there than here, but this was based on a visit in the late 1980's during which an Australian couple I stayed with routinely bought UHT milk for their tea and cereal. I remember asking them about this, and being told this was not abnormal for English people.

Turns out it was my hosts who were odd in this respect. (There were other signs of oddness too, but let's not go there.)

Anyway, the most surprising thing about The Times report is that it shows that UHT milk is very popular in some European countries. What, can't they afford refrigerators? In France and Italy, with their reputation for loving and caring deeply about their food, they use huge amounts of milk which has had its flavour boiled out of it? Here are the figures:

UHT milk as a percentage of total consumption:
Austria 20.3
Belgium 96.7
Czech Rep 71.4
Denmark 0.0
Finland 2.4
France 95.5
Germany 66.1
Greece 0.9
Hungary 35.1
Ireland 10.9
Italy 49.8
Netherlands 20.2
Norway 5.3
Poland 48.6
Portugal 92.9
Slovakia 35.5
Spain 95.7
Sweden 5.5
Switzerland 62.8
Britain 8.4

This is the most surprising thing I have read all day. (Some days I am easily surprised.)

Staph is worse than thought

Staph Fatalities May Exceed AIDS Deaths - New York Times

From this report:

Researchers found that only about one-quarter involved hospitalized patients. However, more than half were in the health care system -- people who had recently had surgery or were on kidney dialysis, for example. Open wounds and exposure to medical equipment are major ways the bug spreads.

In recent years, the resistant germ has become more common in hospitals and it has been spreading through prisons, gyms and locker rooms, and in poor urban neighborhoods.

The new study offers the broadest look yet at the pervasiveness of the most severe infections caused by the bug, called methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA. These bacteria can be carried by healthy people, living on their skin or in their noses.

A good reason to avoid gyms, I say.

A gift for John Howard

Nurse action closes hospital beds - National -

The Liberals ought to use this to point to the very low levels of industrial action under the Coalition, and point out that with Labor all over the country, you can expect more strikes, not less.

Today's political columns

Good columns today from Andrew Bolt and Annabel Crabb about Kevin Rudd.

Annabel's column about Rudd's perpetual self-interviewing style (which, one would think, he ought to be being advised by some brave staffer to at least ease up on) is very funny.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Made me laugh

A disgusting new All-Bran ad. - By Janelle Nanos - Slate Magazine

Someone at Slate has too much time on their hands if they have to spend so much time analysing just how "disgusting" is a recent American ad for All Bran cereal.

The article seems to conclude, reluctantly, that it is funny. True. Go and have a look the ad via the Slate article or here.

Tax and interest

Funny that, The Age website this morning has headlines of "PM flunks rates test" and "Howard's tax splurge". The ABC site has "Labor seizes on Howard's interest rate gaffe." Accentuate the negative is clearly The Age's theme.

And on Sunrise this morning, a "phone in poll" indicated strong support for better services rather than tax cuts. ( I can't find a link, but it was something like 80/20 split, which indicates to me that maybe Labor or the unions is getting organised faster with these things.) Yet there seem to be very economists who would call the tax plans at all irresponsible. ( on line poll asks the same question and at least has a 50/50 response.)

What's the bet that those who are saying "better services" are the same ones who are whinging about the cost of living increasing (even though official inflation is still quite modest). Presumably, they also think that the government keeping high surpluses year after year is going to help them afford the higher costs of petrol and vegetables.

No wonder Howard is getting frustrated.

Howard, like Bob Hawke before him, has taken the charitable view that the Australian electorate generally makes the right call when voting. It seems to me that this is one election where the collective wisdom of the masses has gone walkabout, and is showing no signs of returning anytime soon.

Dioxin and the pulp mill

Pulp mill's dioxin output undetectable: scientist - Climate Watch

From the above report in The Age:

Specialists observing the Swedish pulp and paper industry doubt claims that conditions imposed on the Gunns mill would make it world's best practice, but chief scientist Jim Peacock said Australia was taking a more precautionary approach than Sweden.

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency specialist Erik Nystrom told The Age that the amount of effluent triggering closure of the pulp mill was the same as that produced by the entire Swedish bleached pulp and paper industry in a year.

Dr Peacock, the Chief scientist wrote to the Age:
"Unlike the Swedes, however, the conditions imposed take a more precautionary approach … dioxin levels must be monitored on a daily basis, with remedial action required should measurable amounts of dioxins be detected."
What more could you ask for?

Henderson on the Church and journalists

Ears to the pulpit, when it suits - Opinion -

It's an interesting column today by Gerard Henderson, returning to one of his favourite themes of how church leaders saying Left-ish things guarantees favourable coverage in the media; but it's condemnation all around for any consevative views expressed.

He also notes a mistake made by Monica Attard which we can assume will not appear on Media Watch.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Wormholes return

This arxiv paper seems important, if it is correct in its conclusions. It suggests that orinary matter, not "exotic matter" may be enough to support a wormhole, which opens the possibility of time and multiverse travel. Hey you, science journalist, tell me if I am right.

From the introduction:
The equations of gravitation admit solutions, known as Lorentzian wormholes, which connect two regions of the same universe (or of two universes) by a throat, which is a minimal area surface. Such kind of geometries would present some features of particular interest, as for example the possibility of time travel (see Refs. [4]). But a central objection against the actual existence of wormholes is that in Einstein gravity the flare-out condition [5] to be satisfied at the throat requires the presence of exotic matter, that is, matter violating the energy conditions [3]. In this sense, thin-shell wormholes have the advantage that the exotic matter would be located only at the shell....
...we show that for certain values of the parameters, thin-shell wormholes could be supported by matter not violating the energy conditions....
And from the body of the paper:
Thus, in the picture providing a clear meaning to matter in the shell, in Einstein–Gauss–Bonnet gravity the violation of the energy conditions could be avoided, and wormholes could be supported by ordinary matter.

So that's what stamp collecting is good for

A Brisbane solicitor was jailed today for having a huge collection of child pornography. An unusual submission was made by his barrister:

His barrister, Ralph Devlin SC, told the court last month that the high number of images and movies were because of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Mr Devlin said Quinn came from a "family of hoarders" and that he had an obsessive compulsion to collect these images but had since turned his attention toward stamp-collecting.

I guess there had to some good point about stamp collecting, but its jail avoidance potential was one I would never have guessed.

Kerry annoys Howard

I was not able to give it my full attention, but it seemed from what I did see of the interviews on 7.30 Report tonight that Kerry O'Brien clearly annoyed Howard in the first couple of minutes (with a sarcastic "how convenient" quip when the PM said he wasn't going to answer the first question which related to his poor polling.) In fact, all of the questioning of Howard seemed more aggressive than that of Rudd.

Of course you can say "you would say that, wouldn't you", but I still reckon it's true objectively.

I am waiting for the transcript to appear to see if it justifies my impression.

Dealing with pollution in China

In China, a lake's champion imperils himself - International Herald Tribune

Got a government VIP man coming to check out pollution in a famous lake? This, apparently, is how the Chinese dealt with the problem:

In 2001, Wen Jiabao, then a vice premier, now China's prime minister, came to investigate reports of Lake Tai's deterioration. Like most Communist Party inspection tours, word of this one reached local officials in advance. When Wen asked to see a typical dye plant, one was made ready, according to several people who witnessed the preparations.

The factory got a fresh coat of paint. The canal that ran beside it was drained, dredged and refilled with fresh water. Shortly before Wen's motorcade arrived, workers dumped thousands of carp into the canal. Farmers were positioned along the banks holding fishing rods.

Wen spent 20 minutes there. A picture of him shaking hands with the factory boss hangs in its lobby.

It's all rather amusing in a "SGT Bilko" kind of way, as long as you don't have to live there.

Kevin Rudd, what are you going to do about this?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Not if Kevin Rudd has his way

Go nuclear for a third industrial revolution, says EC

There was also a pro nuclear article at Online Opinion a couple of weeks ago that is worth a read.

Labor's evident preference for windmills over any possibility of nuclear is a cop out if they are serious about reducing greenhouse emissions.

Bedroom pitfalls

Better eat a banana | Guardian Unlimited Books

This is an amusing survey of bad fiction writing about sex.

I wish more movies would "leave us at the door" these days too.

A wasted dinner

Why Rudd is not fit to rule |

Earlier this year it was mentioned on Insiders that Piers Akerman had had a dinner with Kevin Rudd.

One assumes that Kevin thought he could gain some advantage by breaking bread with one of the nation's biggest Howard supporters, but it has been clear for months that it was wasted effort.

This weekend, Piers explains in very clear terms that he does not trust Kevin one iota:
....I have the gravest concerns about his fitness to head a political party, let alone run this nation.

My main concerns about his character relate to what I perceive to be an unalloyed ruthlessness, a lack of his loyalty to anything but his own short-term political ambitions and his projection of a carefully constructed image that has little or nothing to do with Rudd the man.

While I generally don't pay all that much attention to Akerman, that little summary of The Problem with Kevin seems fair enough.

That rat movie

I finally caught up with "Ratatouille" today.

It's great, although I must admit that I understand why it has not had quite the same degree of box office success as most Pixar fims: I think it is their most adult oriented offering to date, perhaps even more so than The Incredibles (also by Brad Bird, of course.) A lot of the subtle humour depends on an adult understanding of stereotypes surrounding both the French and the profession of cooking.

I would think that most kids under 5 would find it about 15 minutes too long, but on the other hand, my (7 yr old) boy's interest never flagged. Mind you, he enjoys watching Iron Chef too. Both of the kids insisted on cooking something at home after the movie. Some instant pancake mix with some fresh blueberries thrown in did the trick.

Brad Bird handles animated action so well, it makes me wonder if he could bring new perspectives to a live action film. Drawing wild camera angles is presumably somewhat easier than live action, though. You can draw anything, after all.

UPDATE: the movie has been a great critical and box office success in France, where it has (apparently) caused a surge of interest in pet rats . Good to see.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Tim Flannery makes a mistake

This is interesting. According to this post at the Real Climate site (which is, after all, run by Al Gore supporting, actual climate scientists), Tim Flannery's claim this week about greenhouse gases reaching a certain disastrous level ahead of schedule is simply wrong. It appears he got confused by the terminology:
There was a minor kerfuffle in recent days over claims by Tim Flannery (author of "The Weather Makers") that new information from the upcoming IPCC synthesis report will show that we have reached 455 ppmv CO2_equivalent 10 years ahead of schedule, with predictable implications. This is confused and incorrect, but the definitions of CO2_e, why one would use it and what the relevant level is, are all highly uncertain in many peoples' minds.
There follows a run down as to how to understand the terminology correctly, which I won't bother reprinting here. The penultimate paragraph says:
The important number is CO2_e (Total) which is around 375 ppmv. Stabilisation scenarios of 450 ppmv or 550 ppmv are therefore still within reach. Claims that we have passed the first target are simply incorrect, however, that is not to say they are easily achievable. It is even more of a stretch to state that we have all of a sudden gone past the 'dangerous' level. It is still not clear what that level is, but if you take a conventional 450 ppmv CO2_e value (which will lead to a net equilibrium warming of ~ 2 deg C above pre-industrial levels), we are still a number of years from that, and we have (probably) not yet committed ourselves to reaching it.
The final paragraph comes close to direct criticism of Flannery:
....this is another example where people are quoting from draft reports that they have neither properly read nor understood and for which better informed opinion is not immediately available. I wish journalists and editors would resist the temptation to jump on leaks like this (though I know it's hard). The situation is confusing enough without adding to it unintentionally.
I will wait for Tim's retraction (or, at the very least, clarification) to be made and appear in the media. (Cue crickets chirping.)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I hope she's not expecting a big inheritance...

A Muslim Wife: Observations

Every couple of weeks I check how the Muslim Wife is getting on. (You may recall a previous post in which she told off a relative for keeping a dog as a pet.)

Well, she doesn't post much, but it would seem staying with her family inspires her:
Have you ever watched someone chase after the dunya, only to have it slip from their grasp every time?

Have you ever known someone who piles their plate high with food, yet their body is never satisfied?

Have you ever seen someone who has it all, yet can not appreciate any of it?

Have you ever met someone whose eyes are red with anxiety and whose heart never rests from worry?

Have you ever met someone whose feet are dangling in their grave, yet they deny the inevitability of death?

Have you seen the one whose face has turned black from the absence of Allah in his mind, his heart, his life.....

I have.
I just spent the past week with them.
I'm related to them.
Bloody hell. No matter how genuinely she may feel this way, does she have to diss the relatives on the WWW after every visit? I would love to hear their side of the story.

Divorce Hollywood style

Sheen's gross e-mails to Rich

This blog doesn't make a habit of noting Hollywood celebrity gossip masquerading as news, but this report of what Charlie Sheen apparently said in emails to his former wife is too much fun:

"You are a pig. A sad, jobless pig who is sad and talentless and sad and jobless and evil and a bad mom, so go [bleep] yourself sad jobless pig," reads another.

"You are an evil piece of [bleep]. I can't wait to tell the world what a piece of [bleep] you are. You don't get a [bleeping] dime till this is resolved," says a third e-mail.

Fun? you might say: just standard Hollywood ugly break up conversation really.

Ah, wait for it. The part I like best is this:
....Sheen tried to apologize. "I have been responsible for some of the worst dialogue and venom-spewing behavior in the past few weeks that I can possibly recall, ever," he wrote. "The anger and frustration that our situation has generated is beginning to manifest itself in physical forms and cellular regression."
This is just too deliciously Hollywood silly, isn't it? (It also sounds like he is quite the fan of that very wacky Altered States movie.)

To the islands

Foreign Correspondent

The ABC's Foreign Correspondent this week had a long story on the Faroe Islands - a place I had never heard of before.

As this intro says:

The Faroe Islands, midway between Scotland and Iceland, were settled by Vikings a thousand years ago. Remote and intriguing, they look like something out of a Norse fairy tale.

People live in log houses with turf rooves, speak an ancient Viking language and delight in dressing up in traditional costume and singing Norse ballads.

They also eat pilot whales, even though the amount of heavy metals in them means that the government advises against it. (Shades of eating dolphin in Japan.)

Still, the story was fascinating, the scenery spectacular.

I think it is repeated sometime again over the weekend, and then it turns up on broadband on their website.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A David Byrne road trip

I have previously recommended the journal/blog of the multi-talented David Byrne (ex Talking Head, just in case someone needs reminding).

Apart from his occasional political comments, which could come direct from the pages of Huffington Post and are easily ignored, he writes terribly well; and although he's a New York liberal with somewhat esoteric artistic interests, he seems to take a very non-judgemental attitude to how the rest of his country lives.

Go read, for example, this long entry detailing a recent 7 day road trip he took with his daughter across the southern part of the States. He certainly does not appear to live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, staying at chain motels for example, visiting Dollywood with a completely snob-free attitude, and eating steak across the bar-b-q belt with the best of them. He comments how "sweet" it was when he was recognised at a particular town and signed several autographs.

For those who have been following him for a long time, you might recall that this non-judgemental attitude to ordinary life in the suburbs and malls was clear in his gentle- natured 1986 movie "True Stories". It's not a earth shattering movie by any means, but it is eccentric in a sweet natured way, and the sound track is good. It's well worth watching if it is still to be found at the video library. (I doubt that it is, but I imagine you could still buy it easily enough.)

He just comes across as a smart and likeable man who is interested in everything. Provided you could keep the conversation off current politics, I get the impression he would be one of the great dinner party guests of the world.

Update: possible alternative title to this post: "Oh no! I think I've got a man crush on a New York liberal!"

Keep it to yourself, Deveny

We need a scientific, statistical approach to drugs - Opinion -

Catherine Deveny starts her column on drugs with this:
I haven't taken a lot of drugs in my time, but, like most people my age (I'm 39), I tried almost all of them when I was in my 20s.
Most people verging on middle age have tried "most drugs"? Big call, Catherine, and you perhaps should start speaking to more people outside your own circle.

Of those she does talk to, she reports benignly:
My mates in their early 20s tell me that "only bogans drink" and they prefer to take recreational drugs on a Saturday night. They mention drink-driving laws, the violence associated with drunks and calorie intake. They are not concerned about the long-term effects of drug use....

My kids will take drugs. What am I going to tell them? I don't know yet. But truth will be a large part of it. There'll be a policy that we will pick them up or pay for a cab from wherever, whenever if they are not fit to drive or if things get out of hand. No questions asked.
Seems a good bet that the things she won't tell her kids will include:

* they shouldn't take pills offered at a night club or rave because they have no proper idea what is in them.
* that being caught with virtually any drug on you may interfere badly with future travel plans to the States or other countries.
* that she would really rather they didn't try the experiment of seeing whether or not they have a pre-existing disposition towards schizophrenia, a crippling (often life-long) disease, that marijuana use is now widely believed to encourage to the surface;
* that part of being a young adult is taking your own responsibility for getting home safely from a night out. (Here, dear, just use that credit card linked to my account.)

Deveny is, presumably, the type of person who thinks letting teenagers bring alcohol to a party is responsible, because they will only do it anyway and they should be encouraged to be responsible, blah blah. Funny how many disastrous parties have started that way.

It's one thing to say that you don't want to be a hypocrite and tell your children not to try drugs when you tried them yourself. (Even though that may mean that you simply developed more sense as you got older.) It's another thing to tell your children via the newspaper that you have tried just about everything, and give them tacit encouragement to do the same. As long as they are careful, you know?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

The Australian Kevin Party

It's becoming clear that the biggest danger to Kevin Rudd, as soon as he gets IR legislation through the Senate, will be assassination by someone on the Left of his own party. Well OK, maybe not assassination, but a convenient accidental fall from some high point around Parliament House.

Over the past couple of weeks, Kevin has:

* warned all of his shadow cabinet that no one's position is secure;

* had to clarify that by saying he meant no one except for his closest 3 pals;

* then had to reassert his power by saying he alone (and not the factions) will pick the Cabinet membership;

* annoyed environmentalists by going along with the Howard decision on the Tasmanian pulp mill;

* criticised his shadow foreign minister for giving a speech approved by one of his (Kevin's) own staffers;

* on the 7.30 Report tonight, has seemingly added said shadow foreign minister as the fourth person at least "guaranteed" a job in cabinet (though maybe not foreign minister):
But as for the rest of the time team, I will select those on the basis of merit come the outcome of the next election. If we are elected to form the next government of Australia. But Mr McClelland will be part of that team.
(One can only assume that this is to placate McClelland for being publicly ticked off even when he had done everything right to see that Kevin approved the speech); and

* Upset teacher unions by promising to keep the Coalition's school funding system for the next few years.

Oh sure, every Labor politician is currently willing to bite their tongue for now while they think of the polls, but what Rudd is doing seems well designed to guarantee that he will not have loyalty in the long run. Certainly, he is positioning himself as the Prime Minister most likely to be punched in the nose by someone from his own party towards the end of the parliamentary Christmas shindig.

I also note that on the 7.30 Report tonight, Kevin said that even if the Commonwealth takes over hospital funding in the future after a referendum, this doesn't mean that actual control of the hospitals would be in the hands of the Commonwealth:
KERRY O'BRIEN: Well, very quickly, who would run those 750 hospitals?

KEVIN RUDD: In the document we released, we said the Commonwealth, if we went down the option of getting a mandate from the Australian people for the Commonwealth to take over funding responsibility, in taking over funding responsibility the Commonwealth, we said in that document, and we adhere to it right today, will not be running any one of those individual hospitals. The options available are for the States to continue to physically manage hospitals or for them to be managed privately or on a committee basis as the Prime Minister appears to have set up in relation to his Mersey model.
Seems to me that this is not what the public expects from the idea of the Commonwealth taking responsibility for the hospitals.

UPDATE: I see that Andrew Landeryou claims that McClelland was hung out to dry because Simon Crean has been promised Foreign Affairs. He doesn't seem the type, to me.

(Landeryou's blog is a lot of fun at the moment. If you missed the old Youtube video he posted last Friday, go have a look.)

Melbourne place to stay

OK, Melbourne and other Aussie readers. You learnt yesterday that I will be bringing the family there for a short holiday in a couple of month's time, courtesy of Tiger Airlines. Given that there are 2 kids, a serviced apartment would seem to be the go. Seems to me an inner city suburb would be just as good as the CBD, as long as we are near a tram line.

Using on line services for this stuff is a bit of a pain now. There are too many different websites that overlap and cover the same joints.

Anyone have a suggestion for good family accommodation at moderate price?

Mind, meet brain

Mind Hacks: Biting the mind

Mind Hacks is a terribly good blog on all things to do with neuroscience and associated issues. It really is worth checking out every couple of days.

The post above is a particularly clear and concise summary of the brain/mind problem, and I think it is an excellent little bit of writing.

For what it's worth, here's my little comment on it. I understand the position the writer seems to support (property dualism), which he says means:
....that both mind-level and brain-level explanations may explain how we think and behave but at different levels that may not always be reducible.
For what it is worth, I find it a little puzzling to get around the issue of how the mind level of meaning has feedback to the brain level. It is (especially with the computer analogy of hardware and software) easy these days to imagine brain creating mind, but somewhat harder to imagine how the world of meaning that the mind lives in affects the brain.

Words spoken to you can cause a flood of tears. That's sort of odd, isn't it? It's the meaning the words convey, nothing to do with the physical nature of the sounds, that affects your mind which affects your brain and leads to the tears.

Well, I think it's odd anyway.

The importance of washing vegetables

ScienceDaily: Human Urine As A Safe, Inexpensive Fertilizer For Food Crops
"Our results show that human urine could be used as a fertilizer for cabbage and does not pose any significant hygienic threats or leave any distinctive flavor in food products," the report concludes.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Dying to finish

Runner dies, 300 treated as heat ravages Chicago Marathon -

People direct their competitive impulse towards all sort of weird and essentially useless pastimes, but those who choose to get a sense of satisfaction out of completing marathons add the additional perversity of doing something clearly bad for the human body.

People get upset about boxers doing self harm, so why does no one talk about maniac runners and their knee reconstructions, other leg and foot injuries, and deaths?

Cheap tickets: a public service announcement

Tiger Airways since this morning is having a 24 hour sale of very, very cheap flights. I have scored a trip from the Gold Coast to Melbourne with the family at a cost of $40 return per person! Huzzah, as they say.

Awful news

Most readers may have already seen this over at Tim Blair's, but it is very unhappy news about Matt Price. Of course, all best wishes, positive vibes or prayers should be directed towards him. He is the most likeable of all the regular political journalists.

Mirrors will save us

BBC NEWS | Mirrors 'could deflect' asteroids

The idea:

Flying mirrors could save earth from a catastrophic asteroid collision, researchers have claimed.

Up to 5,000 mirrors would be used to focus a beam of sunlight on to the asteroid, melting the rock and altering its orbital path away from earth....

"With only 10 spacecraft flying in formation, each with a 20m mirror, we could deflect a similar size asteroid into a safe orbit in about six months.

"Our studies show that this technology is genuinely feasible.

Um, for a big asteroid, controlling 5,000 mirrors on spacecraft is considered feasible? Just blow it up.

It's official

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Official Saudi website for fatwas

I only post about this because I like this term:
The situation at present, he said, was fatwa chaos, with Muslim scholars issuing rulings that clash with the official line of the religious establishment, spreading confusion.
Has a certain ring to it, don't you think?

If you can't say something nice, then... ah, forget it

I really wish a certain prominent blogger would stop posting pictures of himself.

Also, I have always thought his attempts at photo essays are terribly dull and indicate he has never read even a magazine article with suggestions on how to take an interesting photo.

(Look, if you can't be bitchy on your own barely read blog every now and again, where can you?)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Bjorn again, again

Bryan Appleyard meets Bjorn Lomborg - Times Online

This is an interview (well, more of profile really) with Bjorn Lomborg. He sounds an interesting character. (Turns out he is gay, which makes the way he upsets Greenies even more satisfying.)

A tale of the young and stupid

The ex files: Andrew Cottam, 27, and Hannah Claydon, 21

I don't know why people volunteer such disclosure about their unhappy past relationships, especially when it is a story like this one.

Andrew tells the story of how, as a 21 year old, he dated a 15 year old. He met her down at the local (underage drinking?) and describes her as: opinionated, self-assured teenager with lots to say. I offered to walk her home and we shared our first kiss on the doorstep. I didn't have any reservations about the age gap because she seemed so mature.
It would seem that a sexual relationship started quickly, with the mature, self-assured 15 year old climbing up to his bedroom and leaving early the next morning. (His parents, having common sense, did not approve of the age difference, or perhaps it was also the fact that what he was doing was probably illegal.)

Of course, it all turned into a nightmare pretty soon when said self-assured girl, after 6 months, couldn't see her boyfriend every night because of work. She became "sulky and argumentative" and insanely jealous. Andrew finally had enough after this incident:
One night, I sneaked out when Hannah was asleep. I chatted to a group of lads in the bar, with no intention of meeting girls. Hannah woke up, realised I'd escaped and went mad. She stormed into the bar, pouring a drink over my head and slapping me in the face.
Relationship ends. How sad.

Of course, I am posting about it because it the blackly funny "told you so" aspect of it all. However, appearing as it does in the women's section of the Observer, I don't know that it will reach the audience to which it might serve as some sort of warning.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Strange science time

I mentioned recently that it seems that the creation of "naked singularities" (without the cloak of a black hole event horizon) at the Large Hadron Collider is considered a possibility. It seems that their creation via the same astrophysical process of gravitational collapse that leads to black holes is still being considered too.

This recent paper looks at the possibility that may account for some of the most powerfully energetic events in the universe. Here's some extracts:
Impulsive cosmic events combine two main puzzling features, namely an extremely short time of emission (order of a second) and a very high energy fluence. The main challenge therefore is to find a unique mechanism which allows at once for both properties.

The most impressive examples of the above type of events are the Gamma Ray Bursts. The total energy emitted can be as high as 1054 ergs, mostly concentrated in a pulse as short as a second. This amount of energy appears much more stunning if we think to it as being the energy emitted in a second-long pulse by 1010 galaxies each made of 1011 Sun-like stars, each emitting at a rate of ∼ 1033 ergs/sec., concentrated in a region probably smaller than a galactic core!
OK, I knew Gamma Ray Bursts were powerful, but that just sounds ridiculous. I wonder how far away from one you have to be in order to stand any chance of survival?

The paper goes on to explain that naked singularities comprise a Cosmic Time Machine, which, if I understand it correctly, can beam out huge amounts of energy from the the past and future. The author believes that these may account for some (all?) Gamma Ray Bursts.

Still, there seems to be a limit on how long the burst can last (luckily!):
Evidently the longer a naked singularity lasts as such the more luminous will be the burst because longer is the future development which will be ”compressed” by the time inversion and therefore more are the photons which will contribute to the prompt emission. This mechanism may lead to undesirable bursts of infinite intensity! Naked singularities however appear to prevent this circumstance. It is well established that a naked singularity decays to a black hole.
For the possibility of naked singularities being created right here on Earth, maybe late next year at the LHC, go see the paper extracted at my previous post here.

I presume that astrophysical naked singularities may be very, very different from the ones formed at the LHC, but as I said in my last post, it would be nice to see the possible consequences of having then in Europe clearly addressed.

The X ray bag

Found over at Red Ferret Journal, try taking this bag on board your next flight, especially if it's to the USA:

As the witty guy who writes for RFJ says:
The X-Ray Bag is guaranteed to raise a chuckle at the airport security line, oh yes. They’ll be laughing and smiling and pointing you out as a really interesting and funny person. Heck, they may even invite you home to meet the family when you get back from your trip. Or you’ve paid the bail money. Either way, it’s a wonderful way to meet people and make new friends.

A very unlucky person

Paintball Accident Made Him a Widower, and Then a Crusader - New York Times

In 2004, a husband and wife took their 10 year old son to a paintball park, but then this happened:
A 14-year-old player inadvertently detached a valve, launching his gun’s carbon-dioxide-filled cylinder as an unguided missile. It struck Ms. Contois, who was watching from a picnic area off the field, in the back of the head. She never regained consciousness, and died at the scene.
It is hard to credit just how unlucky she would have to be to die that way.

Friday, October 05, 2007

The Eddie Elephant in the Room (a TV rant)

So, Channel 9's new TV boss David Gyngell thinks that putting back Eddie McGuire into a super rich, super long, version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire is a good idea?

Funny, I seem to recall that when the show used to offer a paltry million bucks, it was dragged out from 60 to about 80 minutes most nights. A $5 million prize will likely mean a purported 80 minutes ends in 120 minutes. Why not just say it will be three hours then let it run right through to Today?

Although "Millionaire" maybe used to rate well enough, I have a general theory that Channel 9's problems really began when Eddie started appearing more on screen (not just when he tried his hand at management.)

I have always found him an unappealing screen personality who gives me the strong impression that he is likely a jerk in real life too. The impression was reinforced when I read in a review of "Who Killed Channel 9" that his sophisticated sense of humour included this:

When the producers walked into McGuire's office, according to Cress' diary, "Eddie is standing with his back to us, feet splayed apart and his hands firmly on the desk. 'From what I've heard about you guys, I guess I'm going to have to assume the position' ".

Cress comments: "I always suspect that someone who begins a business meeting trying to put you at ease with a man-joke is probably leading up to something less funny."

Anyway, everyone knows how Gyngell could revive Channel 9. Everyone.

Here's the new promo: Channel 9: The One that Won't Stuff You Around

Yes indeed, absolutely everyone knows that the crucial problem with most commercial television in Australia for the last, I don't know, 5 or more years, is that they decided to STUFF EVERYONE AROUND.

Do I need to spell it out? How many series are now run from episode 1 to even episode 10 without a 2, 3 or 4 week hiatus (possibly more than one,) during which there may or may not be old episodes from the same series 3 years ago, as well as at least one a change in the time-slot. (And that may be from sometime vaguely reasonable to something completely unreasonable.)

And how about this for another radical idea: programming will follow age appropriate times. I'm not talking MA shows after 8.30 pm either. No, the most astoundingly puzzling programming I have seen for years is the two English antique shows (Bargain Hunt and Antiques Roadshow) being shown on Nine between 5 and 6pm. What the hell? This doesn't count as a show with any conceivable general family interest: certainly it would send children running screaming from the room. Has Nine decided that it must help parents by running these moribund shows so as to convince primary schoolers they can then do their homework before dinner at 6? And the people in retirement villages who may want to watch it are probably in the dining room eating at 5.30 anyway.

All Gyngell has to do, apart from "boning" McGuire permanently, is to announce that, of all the commercial TV in Australia, Channel 9 will be the only one now to show series for a full, continuous season, with no weeks of interrupting repeats, and a guarantee of (at most, and only if it is truly deserved) one timeslot change per show per year.

(And Antiques Roadshow will not be shown, but a special DVD set will be send to the half dozen people who have been watching it.)

Car park terrorist

New Scientist Technology Blog: Hybrid cars: Too damned quiet?

The post above is about the issue of the potential danger of silent hybrid cars (well, at least until their petrol motor kicks in.) Should they make some sound when in electric mode?

I don't think this commenter was joking when she wrote this:
Personally, I find it great fun to drive around underground car parks in 'stealth' (electric only) mode, creeping up behind people with laden shopping trolleys and gaggles of screaming kiddies, and scaring them out of their wits.

On the open road I haven't hit any pedestrians - blind or otherwise - yet, but have nearly collected a couple of cyclists who didn't look, or signal, before changing lanes.

But seriously, I think education is the answer. Everyone, from littlies learning to cross the road, up has to learn to rely on their eyes and not just their ears. As for the blind - they should be able to feel the vibrations and hear the slight 'crunching' sound the tyres make on most paved surfaces. I've had to learn that pedestrians and cyclists aren't necessarily aware of my presence and are likely to try and throw themselves under my wheels.

Hitchens and a death in Iraq

A Death in the Family: Politics & Power:

Christopher Hitchens writes very well about his dealings with the family of a young man killed in Iraq who had cited Hitchens as inspiring him to enlist.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Recognize this?

The Japanese cartoon ran in Australia in the 70's. It's Space Cruiser Yamato, and this model was one of the fiddliest I've ever taken glue to. The boy is impressed, though.

Famous last words

Wild Thing: Books: The New Yorker

The oddest thing I learned from the above article about the (generally dislikeable) ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was that his last words were "Moby Dick". Not quite in the "Rosebud" league, is it?

Mark that one down for your next trivia competition.

Sounds interesting

How I faked it for the Nazis - Times Online

There's a movie on the way about a large scale Nazi counterfeiting operation. Sounds an interesting story, even if changed somewhat for the film.

He's right

Guardian Unlimited: God knows where all the religious novels went

Being quite the fan of Evelyn Waugh and CS Lewis, I agree.

As it happens, I have never tried Graham Greene, but will get around to him one day.

Yes, novels informed by a Catholic or quasi-Catholic sensibility are hard to come by these days.

Getting better

Sony Unveils Second Edition of Reader Digital Book

I don't think the first one was even released in Australia.

In any case, the features of this second version sound considerably improved.

Katz on Gillard (or so he wishes)

Rudd's right-hand woman is one foxy lady - Opinion -

I haven't recommended a Danny Katz column for a while, but this one is quite funny.

Update: I have noticed that, whenever I recommend a Danny Katz column, I seem to get quite a few visits from someone in Melbourne who is Googling his name. Does Mr Katz spend every Thursday searching for comments on his latest column? Not that there would be anything wrong with that, but if it's you, D Katz, just make a comment here, or send me a carton of wine as a reward for saying nice things about your writing. I probably increase your readership by at least 2 or 3!

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A good point...

This link is to a post by Bryan Appleyard, which leads to his review of a book which claims to take a scientific approach to showing that something like a "soul" exists.

The book may be of interest, but I liked this first comment to the post, as it seems to me quite true:
One thing that intrigues and baffles me as a non-scientist observing this latest fad in materialist determinism is how enthusiastic, sanguine and comfortable modern "brights" have become with this stuff. Not so long ago, when guys like Sartre ruled the roost, atheistic materialism was supposed to be terrifying and only for the stalwart--remember all that stuff about having the near superhuman courage to stare into the abyss of nothingness? Now everybody seems to be having a big party scorning that scary old free will, and religion is positively terrifying.

More things I didn't know

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Volcano erupts on Red Sea island

Hey, it's quite an extensive list really (the things I don't know), but the fact that there are any volcanoes in the Red Sea could have been included until this story broke.

Having heard the report, I wondered whether anyone had ever speculated that volcanoes in that area might have something to do with some Old Testament stories.

And, of course, Google quickly reveals that someone has suggested it already. (Jeez, don't you hate how it's getting harder and harder to even imagine that you have had an original thought since the internet came along.)

Anyhow, Colin Humphreys has suggested that Mt Sinai was an active volcano at the time Moses was hanging around there. Go have a read of his few pages from Google books (at the last link) and see if it sounds credible. (I suppose we should be asking geologists too, but they might ruin an otherwise plausible idea.)

Hitchens on China

Burma's foul regime depends on Beijing.

Christopher Hitchens points out the number of bad regimes that China supports, and it's very many indeed:
Is there an initiative to save the un-massacred remains of the people of Darfur? It will be met by a Chinese veto. Does anyone care about Robert Mugabe treating his desperate population as if it belonged to him personally? China is always ready to help him out. Are the North Koreans starved and isolated so that a demented playboy can posture with nuclear weapons? Beijing will give the demented playboy a guarantee. How long can Southeast Asia bear the shame and misery of the Burmese junta? As long as the embrace of China persists. The identity of Tibet is being obliterated by the deliberate importation of Chinese settlers. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man who claims even to know and determine the sex lives of his serfs (by the way, the very essence of totalitarianism), is armed and financed by China.