Thursday, January 31, 2008

The U shaped life

Stephen Moss: It's official: happiness resumes at 50

It's a short article suggesting why a recent survey indicates that happiness peaks "when we are 20 and 70, but slumps in the middle":
In your 20s and 30s, you think there is some big secret that is being withheld from you. But there is no secret. No one has a clue what they're doing or why. By 44 you are distressed to discover there is no secret and that life's glittering prizes are made of tin. But then comes the getting of wisdom. As Oswald observes, "When you get older, you've learned to accept yourself."
Well, that's something to look forward to, then.

Still skeptical

Aerogenerator could help UK meet wind energy target | Technology |

This article talks about a new proposed wind turbine that is vertically mounted like a rotary clothes line; rather than horizontally like the current type. It does seem that there is a good case for changing the design, but I still wonder how the structure will go in a strong gale in the North Sea.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

How to build windfarms at sea

Use ships on legs, of course. (Article contains photo worth viewing.)

The therapist wins

Modern Japanese women: dealing with sex, lies and the dried-flower syndrome

This is a review of a book painting a very depressing picture of life, particularly the sex life, of modern Japanese women.

That many Japanese women often put up with their husband's infidelity and endure a sexless marriage is nothing new. I suspect that the longer working hours, the drinking with co-workers until late in the evening, and the expectation that husbands will take unaccompanied posts in other towns to further their career, all work to encourages affairs.

But here is something that I had not heard before:
Finding the right lover is not so easy, but we learn that at leastwomen can avail themselves of a clinic that offers them intimate encounters with sex volunteers. Women can select their volunteers from a catalog brimming with intimate details, and, yes, size does seem to matter. The clients say they are grateful for the service while there appears to be no shortage of male volunteers; money isn't everything.....
OK, in the West you occasionally hear of women who are unpaid "hands on" sex therapists for men, but can't say that I have ever heard of the service being provided for women. Back to the review:
So what's life like as a male sex volunteer helping women reach orgasm? Ironically, Hideo has a sexless marriage, but finds psychological fulfillment in helping sufferers of "dried-flower syndrome." He says the women are grateful and tell him that the sex rejuvenates them.
Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?
Another interview subject admits that she slept with seven "volunteers" in six months because she could not find love, but still wanted sex. It's her hope, however, "to graduate from being someone who can only relate to men through sex."
Hmm. Ceasing to avail herself of the services of that clinic might be a good place to start.

Illegal kidneys

Kidney Thefts Shock India - New York Times

Kidney theft is a much bigger issue in India than I would have expected:

Although several kidney rings have been exposed in India in recent years, the police said the scale of this one was unprecedented. Four doctors, five nurses, 20 paramedics, three private hospitals, 10 pathology clinics and five diagnostic centers were involved, Mohinder Lal, the police officer in charge of the investigation, said.

“We suspect around 400 or 500 kidney transplants were done by these doctors over the last nine years,” said Mr. Lal, the Gurgaon police commissioner....

He said a team of criminals he called kidney scouts usually roamed labor markets in Delhi and cities in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, searching for potential donors. Some prospects were asked outright if they wanted to sell a kidney and were offered $1,000 to $2,500.

A car equipped with testing equipment was often on hand so that potential donors could be checked immediately to see whether their kidneys matched the needs of prospective patients.

Letters and e-mail messages from 48 foreigners inquiring about transplants were discovered in Dr. Kumar’s office, Mr. Lal said. Five foreigners — three from Greece and two Indian-born American citizens — were found in one of the clinics during the raids. The police suspected that they were about to receive kidney transplants, Mr. Lal said, but they were allowed to return home because the evidence was insufficient to detain them.

Foreigners supporting this industry should be ashamed.

The confusing Pill

The long-running saga of health claims about the pill. - Slate Magazine

Interesting article that summarises all of the contradictory evidence about the health effects of the contraceptive Pill.

Meanwhile, in other contraceptive news, it turns out that Australian women keep re-discovering that no contraceptive is foolproof. This finding is especially prevalent amongst younger women.

Here's a conservative Catholic thought for you: if you are a young woman (or man) who is not certain enough of the relationship as to know whether you would be happy having a baby together yet, try not having sex. (OK, allowing for sinful nature, I'll amend that to: stop continuing to have sex.) Except for the odd case involving the intervention of God, it is guaranteed to work.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Super cool

Airbus A380 - cockpit | p a n o r e p o r t a g e | g i l l e s v i d a l

All readers with even the slightest interest in aviation must immediately click on the link to have a look at this very, very cool panoramic picture of the inside of a new Airbus A380 cockpit. You can zoom in close enough to read many of the buttons up on the overhead panel. You can look behind the seats. You can marvel at the joystick and other weird thingee that they evidently use to fly this gigantic plane. Hey, are they cupholders I see? (Probably not, but who knows.)

Love it. Thanks to CNET for the link.

Let's hope the garage remote doesn't interfere

Sperm 'tap' planned for reversible vasectomy - tech - 28 January 2008 - New Scientist Tech

From the story:

A radio-controlled contraceptive implant that could control the flow of sperm from a man's testicles is being developed by scientists in Australia.

The device is placed inside the vas deferens – the duct which carries sperm from each testicle to the penis. When closed, it blocks the flow of sperm cells, allowing them to pass again when it is opened via a remote control. The valve could be a switchable alternative to vasectomy, the researchers say.

Some time ago I posted about the issue of ongoing pain sometimes caused by vasectomies. Given that it is believed that the type of vasectomy which seals off the vas deferens on the "supply side" of the cut is more likely to cause pain, I expect that any implantable plug within the vas is also at risk of having higher rate of pain.

Monday, January 28, 2008

About Gaza

No easy solution while Hamas keeps warring - Opinion -

A decent enough commentary on the Gaza issue in The Age today.

Tennis fun

Sparks fly in Serb's big victory | Herald Sun

Even as a person who only watches a handful of sports programming every year, I found the Australian Open final last very enjoyable. (Although the wild upset of a Tsonga win would have been even better.)

I was curious at the end as to how much Tsonga got as the consolidation prize. Now I know: $685,000. Not bad, hey.

Calm down, Paul

No country for bad screenplays - Opinion -

Paul Sheehan holds a diametrically opposite view to mine about the current state of Hollywood:
We really are living in a golden age of cinematic literature and film is the literature of our age. We are a fifth-generation cinema culture and it shows. Filmmaking is imbued with the experiences of several generations and more good and knowing and ironic films are being made than ever before....

It is surely a golden age when the Coen brothers, Ethan and Joel, are making film after glorious film, when eccentrics like Wes Anderson and Jim Jarmusch are pumping out movies for cult followings, and when a new generation of talented filmmakers has dominated the Academy Awards.
I was under the distinct impression that Wes Anderson and Jarmusch no longer attract success of either the critical or popular kind, and the Coen brothers are pretty hit and miss now too. While I like some of the Coen movies, I have never quite gotten over Fargo, which was the biggest case of the cinematic emperor having no clothes I have ever seen.

Paul Sheehan is probably of the same school that saw the early 70's as a exciting period of Hollywood artistry, whereas all I could really see was a string of dark films with depressing themes, basically reflecting a the political malaise in the West at the time. Pretty much the same thing is going on now.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Mercury in fish questions answered

Biggest and best tuna tend to have the most mercury, experts say - International Herald Tribune

My questions raised earlier this week about mercury in fish are largely answered in the above article.

Here are some points worth noting:
The higher the fish in the food chain, the more it collects mercury. Sharks often have levels of mercury over 2 parts per million, but their meat is rarely consumed in the developed world.
Except in Melbourne suburban takeaways, of course.

As to where this mercury in fish flesh is coming from:
Since tuna spend most of their time far out at sea, scientists believe that most of the mercury they absorb occurs naturally and is dispersed in the oceans by historic volcanic activity. Close to land, industrial sources can emit mercury as a pollutant. And since tuna spawn in shallow waters, local industrial pollution could have some influence on contamination of tuna flesh.
This answers my question about how orange roughy, a deep sea fish, acquires mercury in its body.

As to how dangerous the levels of mercury in tuna are:

The ill health effects of mercury in tuna and other large fish are a topic of active debate in the global scientific community, and many scientists caution against an exaggerated response - noting that fish is generally more healthful than red meat. In high doses, mercury is a neurological toxin.

But the health risks are greatest for pregnant women and nursing mothers who may pass mercury to their infants. When it comes to adults, "I think there is a little scare-mongering here," said Dr J.J. Strain a nutritionist at the University of Ulster who has been studying the health effects of fish-based mercury ingestion on young children in the Seychelles. "Fetal brain is at least ten times more sensitive than adult brain, so the health risk, if any, relates to pregnant women, not other adults."

And there is another complication to take into account too:

Research also suggests that the toxic effects of mercury is canceled out if it is ingested alongside selenium - and most ocean fish contain both elements. There's now a lot of evidence to suggest that "excess selenium over mercury equals healthy food; excess mercury over selenium equals potentially harmful food," Dr. Kaneka said.

"We shouldn't focus just on the negative risk of eating fish - yes, there are these contaminants, but there are also huge benefits. This is a work in progress and it's a very complicated risk/benefit analysis," Valdimarsson said.

Well, glad that's all sorted out. Or not, as the case may be.

Good reading

JG Ballard reminisces on his boyhood years in Miracles of Life - Times Online

Especially if you have ever seen or read "Empire of the Sun", this extract from (what I assume is) a forthcoming autobiography by JG Ballard makes for fascinating reading.

Rock history you never knew

Bill Wyman rolls on - Times Online

This part of the above generally amusing interview with ex-Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, is rock history that is news to me, at least:
“Do you know what the biggest problem is for most musicians on tour? Getting your laundry done.” That’s what killed Buddy Holly, he tells me, catching a doomed overnight flight because he wanted to sort out the washing.

How the classics used to be

What Music Has Lost -

I've heard a bit about this topic before: how the modern way of listening to classical music does not bear much resemblance to how it was performed in the days the work was created.

This review of a book on the topic gives a bit more background:
There was a whole tradition of "concert improvisation." The young Franz Liszt would improvise on themes offered by concert-goers to such effect that his listeners were left in a state of delirium. Audiences in the 19th century, themselves less rigidly bound than audiences today, got into the spirit by voicing their enthusiasm when a passage moved them -- interrupting with applause or shouts and sometimes demanding, mid-concert, a reprise. They applauded between movements as well.
Much of the blame for the stifling formality of performance today is, apparently, the fault of a prominent later figure in music:
Mr. Hamilton shows how much of our present performing etiquette derives from Felix Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann, whose antipathy to interpretative license (and to Liszt, its exalted practitioner) bordered on the pathological. "It is inartistic, nay barbaric, to alter anything they [composers] have written, even by a single note," said Mendelssohn. His style demanded strict meter, the avoidance of expressive ritardandos, utter fidelity to the page and minimal pedal. No wonder, as Mr. Hamilton drily notes, that on the wall of the Leipzig Gewandhaus (where Mendelssohn played and conducted) was Seneca's apothegm: "Res severa est verum gaudium." That is: "True joy is a serious business."

So much for the evil Howard agenda...

Mundine urges death to permit system | The Australian

Well there you go. An Aboriginal leader with impeccable Labor credentials thinks Labor should not be re-instating the permit system removed by the Howard government.

Will this make the latte Left re-consider their position that the Howard move was the true evil purpose behind the Northern Territory intervention, and that there was no way it was connected to improving aboriginal life? I seem to recall lots of people at Larvatus Prodeo were running this line.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Bloody songs

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street | Reviews |

Not being sure that I have ever heard a Sondheim song or bit of music that I particularly liked, I am in no rush to see a movie that combines his musical oeuvre with Tim Burton's Goth sensibility and lots of blood. Peter Bradshaw (above) has this to say in his review:
Depp stars in Tim Burton's screen version of Stephen Sondheim's neo-Victorian horror panto Sweeney Todd, for which critical superlatives more appropriate for the Sistine Chapel ceiling have been lavished. I have to admit to being agnostic; for me, Sondheim's music, though forceful and fluent, slides through the mind leaving me with a faint hankering for the vulgar satisfactions of memorable tunes.
And Anthony Lane wrote:
So, how do you rescue the hell brew from absurdity? The answer, for Sondheim, is dexterity: the unstinting sophistication of his wordplay and his flirtatious harmonies—forever hinting at the sweeping show tune, only to duck away into discord and off-key fretfulness—is a riposte to his silly plot.
Hmm. It seems a fairly common assessment that much of Sondheim's music is clever, but not "hummable", and people expecting a memorable show tune often feel "cheated". The Wikipedia entry about him is interesting: he's had his fair share of failed musicals, and there is this odd line:
The failure of Merrily greatly affected Sondheim; he was ready to quit theater and do movies or create video games or write mysteries.
A video game by Stephen Sondheim?

The other mystery about his Wikipedia entry is that it says nothing about his adult personal life. Looking at some other websites indicates that the issue of his sexuality has been pretty complicated (one site says he didn't come out as gay until he was in his 40's, and even then he didn't fall in love with a man 'til his 60's. He also nearly married actress Lee Remick when he was younger.) So why is there is absolutely nothing in his Wikipedia entry about this part of his life?

Despite it getting a very high rating on the Rottentomatoes scale, I think I'll give Sweeny Todd a miss. (It's taken nearly $50 million at the US box office after a month, which suggests most people have decided the same.)

A musical interlude

Last month, I mentioned that I had seen the 1999 DVD version of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and was very impressed.

Since then, my clever wife found it at Target for about $12, and it is currently on high rotation still with the kids. I am still finding it exceptionally enjoyable after repeat viewings.

Have a look at the Pharoah's Song, which is always viewed as the highlight of the show. Even if the pastiche Elvis song doesn't immediately impress (it is pretty catchy, though), perhaps you will see why I admire the editing and the way the whole thing is done:

I also think I have a middle age crush on Maria Friedman (the narrator).

Proof there ain't no justice

Microsoft profit rises on Windows - International Herald Tribune

Bill Gates is making profit on Vista?!!

Doubting Soros

Relax. Our economy isn’t manic depressive | Anatole Kaletsky - Times Online

Everyone has probably heard that George Soros predicts economic doom. This article explains the reasons to doubt him.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Reason for moving to the Moon

Could WR 104 Threaten Earth?

Recent studies of supernovae have explored whether there is a link between these exploding stars and gamma-ray bursts (the most energetic events known in the Universe). In the case of WR 104, it is possible that when the Wolf-Rayet star explodes, much of the energy and matter will be ejected at the polar ends – and Earth is virtually pole-on to the system.

Our understanding of the connection between supernovae and gamma-ray bursts is still in its infancy, but Tuthill and his colleagues suggest that there is a possibility that WR 104 might produce a gamma-ray burst – one that would be only 7,000 light-years from us (as good as on our doorstep).

The good news is that we probably have several hundred thousand years before the Wolf-Rayet star in question does explode.

Europe tries again

European energy | An EU plan to cut hot air |

The Economist looks at the EU's plans for CO2 targets. This section is noteworthy:
The trick of managing both to save jobs and the planet will mostly be left to the EU’s Emissions-Trading Scheme (ETS). This obliges big polluters such as power companies or industrial giants to trade permits allowing them to emit tonnes of carbon dioxide, and other climate-change nasties, within a steadily tightening overall cap. So far, firms have received some 90% of their permits free (letting some earn fat windfall profits by charging customers for their nominal cost).
Different countries will also be allowed different targets:
Sweden, for example, will be asked to meet 49% of its energy needs from renewable sources like hydro-electric power, or nifty heating plants that burn wood or straw. Yet tiny Malta (a sun-drenched but crowded rock near Italy) has been given a renewables target of just 10%. It is a similar story when it comes to cutting greenhouse gases: wealthy Denmark must cut its emissions by 20% by 2020, against 2005 levels. Bulgaria and Romania, the union’s newest and poorest members, will be allowed to let their emissions rise by some 20%.
Late last year, The Guardian reported that there is "severe scepticism" about the 20% renewable energy target in Britain. The Financial Times has a significant problem with the renewables target too.

I'm just sceptical any time the EU claims it is taking the "high moral ground".

Big trouble in big China?

Earnings illusion threatens Chinese market: Wei Gu | Special Coverage | Reuters

Waiter, waiter, percolator

High society - Health - Specials -

I had no idea that the levels of caffeine from espresso could be so wildly different:

Unless you drink instant coffee, it is impossible to control your caffeine intake if you're a regular coffee drinker. A Griffith University dietitian, Ben Desbrow, proved fresh coffee has wildly inconsistent content by buying 97 espressos, the base unit of coffees, from Gold Coast cafes and analysing the laboratory results. Some coffees contained up to nine times more caffeine than others; from 25 milligrams up to 214 milligrams.

The finding underscores a nightmare that caffeine scientists have long faced when trying to find out whether caffeine is beneficial, detrimental or neutral for, say, cardiovascular disease, cancer or diabetes. Researchers need to be able to measure a population's caffeine consumption as a starting point. But, as Desbrow demonstrated, recalling how many cups of coffee you consume a day is a dodgy and probably useless gauge. This cornerstone problem could be dissuading scientists from the area and leaving coffee addicts in the dark.

And the reason this may be a problem:
It is generally accepted that stress or edginess and other harmful effects of caffeine can kick in after an intake of 400 milligrams a day, so an unsuspecting person drinking three cups of high-caffeine coffee across the day could easily be in the danger zone without realising.
Sounds like caffeine addiction could be a much bigger problem than I would have expected, all depending on where people buy their coffee from.

Oscar irrelevancy

Oscar nominations 2008 in full - Telegraph

As with last year, I couldn't care less about 95% of the movies and actors nominated in this year's Oscars.

I was going to say that it seems a long time since Oscars truly reflected mass audience tastes, but I suppose the year that the last Lord of the Rings movie walked away with everything might disprove that. (Then again, I strongly suspect most people saw it out of obligation to finish the trilogy; not because it was inherently that great a film.)

It would be better for all concerned if the Oscars did not proceed this year; maybe it will actually make people look forward to a year when the nominations might align more with popular taste.

More on mercury in fish

High mercury levels are found in tuna sushi - International Herald Tribune

Hey, whenever I decide there's nothing to blog about, I find a few things in quick succession.

Further to my recent post about mercury in fish, here's an article indicating that it is a real problem even for the relatively small amounts of tuna eaten as sushi:

Recent laboratory tests found so much mercury in tuna sushi from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants that at most of them, a regular diet of six pieces a week would exceed the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Sushi from 5 of the 20 places had mercury levels so high that the Food and Drug Administration could take legal action to remove the fish from the market. The sushi was bought by The New York Times in October.

"No one should eat a meal of tuna with mercury levels like those found in the restaurant samples more than about once every three weeks," said Dr. Michael Gochfeld, professor of environmental and occupational medicine at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School in Piscataway, New Jersey

Canned tuna has been recognized as a potential problem for some years too, but these sushi tests were even worse:
In 2004 the Food and Drug Administration joined with the Environmental Protection Agency to warn women who might become pregnant and children to limit their consumption of certain varieties of canned tuna because the mercury it contained might damage the developing nervous system. Fresh tuna was not included in the advisory. Most of the tuna sushi in the Times samples contained far more mercury than is typically found in canned tuna.
The levels of mercury in large fish everywhere seems to be a phenomena that just doesn't attract the degree of public concern that it deserves. (In past posts, I have noted the problem with mercury in dolphins eaten in part of Japan, and in whale meat eaten somewhere else.)

What I don't understand is where the mercury is coming from, and is it too late to do anything about it? And if they have so much mercury in their flesh that we shouldn't eat them, how come the dolphins, whales and fish don't get sick themselves?

Quiet week

Anyone else notice how quiet this week seems to be for blogging? Even Heath Ledger doesn't seem to have attracted anything in the blogs I check regularly (and in any case, it's hard finding something novel to say about that, I suppose.)

How bad can aboriginal problems be?

Very, very bad is the answer. This article explaining the history of a troubled aboriginal teenager from Cape York makes for startling reading:

Welfare officials lose raped deaf girl |

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

"Dude" lead leads nowhere

A bizarre turn on the investigative trail |

I don't really know why Salon journalist Mark Benjamin let this story be published. It is a little amusing, but mainly at his expense.

In short, he attempts to follow a lead about a war crime in Iraq from an ex-Marine who sounds, right from the start, very unlike an ex-Marine.

Despite all the warning signs that this guy was not the genuine deal, the reporter goes on a snowy trip only to find a paranoid young guy sitting in a chalet with his stoner friends in a haze of pot smoke. The interview ends abruptly when the CIA is mentioned. It is never clearly established whether he was really a Marine at all (despite some apparent early confirmation of it from other sources.)

I would not have been particularly happy about paying for the trip if I were Mark Benjamin's editor.

Googling a death

How does Google News work? It seems surprisingly slow sometimes.

This morning I heard that Heath Ledger had died on the ABC radio news at 8 am. At 8.30, I checked both the Australian and US Google news sites and it wasn't there yet. The story would indicate it was posted at about 7.45 my time.

One gets used to Google search being so powerful that it seems a big let down for Google News to not have linked to major stories within 10 minutes.

As for Heath: Sounds like yet another case where too much success too young has proved problematic. As for how he was as an actor: you know, I don't think I have ever seen all of any movie or TV show he has been in.

He had a reputation for being difficult with the media, and that may explain some of the less than sympathetic comments being expressed at the site.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


Saudi allow women to stay in hotels without a male guardian - International Herald Tribune:
The daily Al-Watan, which is deemed close to the Saudi government, reported Monday that the ministry issued a circular to hotels asking them to accept lone women — as long as their information is sent to a local police station.
And elsewhere it is reported that by the end of the year, women will be allowed to drive a car. But not everyone there is ready to accept it, according to this letter to the editor quoted in The Telegraph:
"Allowing women to drive will only bring sin," a letter to Al-Watan newspaper declared last year. "The evils it would bring - mixing between the genders, temptations, and tarnishing the reputation of devout Muslim women - outweigh the benefits."


Until All the Fish Are Gone - New York Times

An interesting editorial in the NYT on the international problem of overfishing.

Incidentally, in Australia the Lifestyle Channel has started showing Rick Stein's latest series, in which he is travelling around the Mediterranean. (As always, it works very well as foodie travelogue.) His occasional trips on a fishing boat certainly indicate that the Europeans have just about fished the Mediterranean empty.

Why didn't the ABC or SBS pick up this series shown on the BBC?


Reclaim the streets now! | Libby Purves - Times Online

Libby Purves (quite rightly) gets very, very upset with how Britain's Home Secretary (a woman) answered questions about safety on the streets. The comments are so startling wrong-headed, she deserves every criticism she gets:

The revelation occurred in an interview. The Home Secretary was droning peacefully on about how “people are safer in terms of crime than ten years ago” (ignoring, as they always do, the fact that much street crime goes unreported because there's no point, and that the drop in crime figures has more to do with car alarms than policing).

Then the canny reporter asked whether she personally, would feel safe walking alone in Hackney at night? And the minister said “No. Why would I do that?” OK then, Kensington or Chelsea: would she walk alone at night there? “No,” replied the Home Secretary again, adding the appalling line: “But I never would have done, at any point in my life. I just don't think it's a thing that people do. I wouldn't walk around at midnight. I'm fortunate that I don't have to.”

Boing, splat! She said it; and worse, she has no idea why it is dreadful. In a desperate attempt to spin her clear, an aide revealed that his boss bravely bought a kebab in Peckham recently.

Investigative hacks discovered that this was at 5pm, and with a protection officer. Later the Home Secretary said yes, she would walk around in her own constituency (expressing terror of one's voters is never politically helpful) but added: “You don't walk in areas you don't know, in any circumstances”; and that her task is to “persuade” people that they are safe.

No. The task is to make them safe. On any street, any time

Darkest Africa

BBC NEWS | Africa | I ate children's hearts, ex-rebel says

Milton Blahyi, a former feared rebel commander in Liberia's brutal civil war, has admitted to taking part in human sacrifices as part of traditional ceremonies intended to ensure victory in battle.

He said the sacrifices "included the killing of an innocent child and plucking out the heart, which was divided into pieces for us to eat."

There had been numerous rumours of human sacrifices during the 1979-93 conflict but this is the first time anyone has admitted publically to the practice.

He's now an Evangelist preacher. I assume that even Dawkins would approve of that as an improvement.

Lane on the monster that ate New York

Monstrous Times: The Current Cinema: The New Yorker

Anthony Lane writes a witty review of Cloverfield, and although he seems to have found it somewhat silly fun, the whole concept of the movie (Blair Witch meets Godzilla, as several other critics have said) leaves me cold.

JJ Abrams is over-rated as a creative force, I reckon.

Slow medical research

Coffee can double risk of miscarriage - health - 21 January 2008 - New Scientist

The suggestion is that even 2 cups of coffee a day can increase the risk of miscarriage.

Seems to have taken medical research a hell of a long time to pin this down as really a risk factor after all.

Helping the Japanese

The West as cruel to animals as the Japanese - Opinion -

It doesn't really matter whether Peter Singer is right or not (and he probably is at least right to suggest that many people would find some factory farms to be cruel;) the point is more that by raising this now he is only going to serve the purposes of the Japanese whaling lobby.

Singer also doesn't give enough importance to the difference the type of animal makes to the issue of whether killing it is ever justifiable. It's pretty clear that whales are a hell of a lot smarter than kangaroos, isn't it?, and no species of kangaroo is threatened by culling. To draw a comparison is disingenuous.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Counting on the gullibility of men

Fancy an on-screen romance with a cherry on top? | The Japan Times Online

Read that article if you want to know about the modern way to separate the more gullible Japanese man from his money.

Good luck to Tim Blair

I've been remiss in not earlier sending good wishes to Tim Blair, but I particularly wanted to say that I think he did a considerable public service by describing the course of symptoms he went through in the lead up to the diagnosis of bowel cancer. The fact that he seems to have had very generalised pains for some time before it settled in a specific area was not something I would have expected from bowel cancer.

His theory as to how it is men ignore gradually increasing warning signs seemed plausible, and it should work as a good warning to any men who have the same thought processes.

(As for me, call me a big hypochondriac girlie man if you want, but there's no way that even one sleep interrupted night caused by a novel type of pain would not result in a GP visit.)

Saturday, January 19, 2008

A handful of Melbourne photos

Now that Kevin Rudd has lost his sideburns (it's been many a decade since a Prime Ministerial hair fashion has received such universal condemnation,) I don't have much to post about except to put up more photos from Melbourne:

The place: Werribee Open Range Zoo:

It is a good quality zoo, where you don't have to feel guilty about most of the animals being too cooped up. The new hippo enclosure is fun for the kids, but you have to be lucky and be there before they disappear underwater for protracted periods:

When you finish the zoo, make sure you drop into the adjacent (and free) Victorian State Rose garden:

I try to grow roses in Brisbane, but it is a never ending battle against black spot and other humidity-loving diseases. While my wife loved Melbourne's roses, they also made her depressed about ours at home.

Back to the city. Who doesn't try taking this photo from the inside of Melbourne Central shopping centre? Still, came out quite well, I think:

Of course, food is what Melbourne does best (fish and chips excepted, of course.)

Fortunately, both my kids love spaghetti bolognese, and every cafe in Melbourne by law has to have it on the menu. (I may be exaggerating.)

(By the way, since when did restaurant touts start pestering passers-by on Lygon Street? An unwelcome addition.)

The docklands area of Melbourne is looking good, and getting the Williamstown ferry on a nice day is a good way to see part of it:

Cue corny travelogue music as we prepare to leave Melbourne with a nice sunset shot:

But finally, I admit I am particularly happy with this shot of the silly sculpture "Cow up a tree":

Flakey Melbourne

Give small children small fish: doctor

I found it a little surprising to read a couple of weeks ago that, even in Australia, parents should not feed too much large fish to their very young children, due to the risk they will get too much mercury.

Do big fish everywhere in the world have too much mercury in them? If so, how long has this been the case? Furthermore, even some not so huge sized fish can be a problem:

The NSW Food Authority's chief scientist, Dr Lisa Szabo, said there were only six types of fish parents needed to worry about - shark, broadbill, swordfish, marlin, orange roughy and catfish.

"In part it's because they're bigger," Dr Szabo told reporters.

"But they're also longer lived and they're predatory fish, which means that they eat a lot of small fish so that's why they tend to accumulate the mercury."

Orange roughy is an interesting, ugly fish, as being a member of the slimehead family would tend to indicate. (Oh the cruel taunting that must go on in fish schools. Ha ha.) But, as it lives in deep cold water, which I generally assume is far from mercury producing shores, I did not expect it to have a mercury problem. Still, if you live for a hundred years before someone eats you, I guess there is a lot of time to accumulate bad things in your flesh.

Anyway, this is all by way of long introduction to a minor anecdote about a problem with Melbourne, or perhaps it is with Victorians generally.

I have said for decades that, despite the fact that I really don't like its weather (particularly its winters which are grey, wet and seem to take forever to leave, and yet never have the hope of the prettiness of snow,) Melbourne is the best place in Australia to eat. My theory is that this was historically prompted not only by foreign immigrants, but also by the fact that the weather means there is nothing else to do for 8 months of the year other than to stay indoors.

However, there is one area where Melbourne is still disastrously backward in the matter of food: the suburban fish and chip shop.

While staying at Williamstown recently, my wife noticed a pretty new looking fish and chip shop that had lots of customers, and had a great position across the road from the water. She suggested we eat from there. Before we went into the shop, I told her that maybe it would be OK, but I knew from past experience that Melbournians had a peculiar feature in that they assumed fish and chip shops need only sell flake (shark).

In contrast, the Brisbane fish and chip shops of my childhood sold everything but flake - whiting, flathead, snapper, sea perch (a.k.a. orange roughy, incidentally.) Flake only started appearing in Brisbane as an option in (I would guess) the 1980's.

Maybe Melbourne has changed, I said to my wife. Surely it has caught up with the times and sells something other than the strangely textured gummy shark, which I think most Brisbane people still quite rightly disdain. (I think from childhood holidays in Sydney that it wasn't very popular there either.)

But no, the very fancy looking, popular fish and chip shop in question sold only flake, and I don't think it was because they had run out of other fish either.

We walked up the road to another fish and chip takeaway, a much less fancy looking one, and its extensive fish menu was flake and something sold as whiting (although the latter turned out to be something suspiciously large and not exactly of whiting shape.)

Although my sample of shops was admittedly small, I still feel confident in saying that Melbourne for some mysterious reason is still the worst city in Australia to eat take away fish and chips.

(Why did they ever accept small shark as the default choice for takeaway fish in the first place? Anyone know the history of that?)

Flying a 777 this weekend?

What pilots are saying about the BA 777 accident

This website indicates that some pilots speculate that fuel contamination is behind the Heathrow 777 crash this week.

However, the initial accident report says this is what happened:

Initial indications from the interviews and flight recorder analyses show the flight and approach to have progressed normally until the aircraft was established on late finals for Runway 27L.

At approximately 600ft and 3km (two miles) from touch down, the Autothrottle demanded an increase in thrust from the two engines but the engines did not respond.

Following further demands for increased thrust from the autothrottle, and subsequently the flight crew moving the throttle levers, the engines similarly failed to respond.

I wouldn't have thought that a fuel contamination would lead to this problem in both engines at exactly the same time.

Its sounds more like a problem with the avionics (if that is the right word for the electronics involved in control of the engines.) And if I am right at this guess, I wouldn't want to be flying in a 777 right at this moment.

I love making guesses in fields I know next to nothing about.

UPDATE: this article in The Times lists the possible causes, and yes, a computer/software problem is one of them.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Sentencing for rape

'Stinky rapist' gets 15 years | The Courier-Mail

I generally don't like to get involved in the populist debates about the appropriateness of certain sentences for certain convictions. The reason is that you can't rely on media reports to give a full picture of comments made in court by the judge or the barristers.

Having said that, there are some cases that do raise my eyebrows as to whether the sentence really could be adequate. The Aurukun child rape case was one, and now this Brisbane rape case is another.

Basically, the media story indicates that this was the creepiest, most pre-meditated form of rape possible. (Complete stranger - later found to have hepatitis - enters woman's house, ties her up, and forces her into shower afterwards in attempt to cover his tracks.) The jury took 40 minutes to find him guilty.

He got 15 years jail, of which 80% must be served. The newspaper report says he has "a violent history of offending", showed no remorse, and his prospects of rehabilitation are low.
As rape carries a maximum of life imprisonment in Queensland, the question is: just how much worse can a "straight forward" rape possibly be in order to justify a life sentence? To my mind, this case must be very close to deserving a life sentence.

Permit system

Back to a system that permits social rot | The Australian

Nicolas Rothwell criticises the decision to re-instate a "permit system" for entry on Northern Territory aboriginal communities.

I suspect he is right, and Labor's sensitivities to listening to all aboriginal voices is actually a prescription for lessening strong action to change communities.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Meanwhile, in the Souther Ocean

A tale of two ships | Environment | The Guardian

This article provides an informative background to the rivalry between Greenpeace and the Sea Shepherd.

How low can it go?

Teen brat just loves the world's attention |

While I am reluctant to add my tiny bit to the publicity surrounding teenager "Corey" [I predict new parents will avoid giving their baby boys that name for a good few years now,] it is astounding to think that the makers of Big Brother could contemplate this:

While Corey was too young to be a housemate, he was being earmarked by Big Brother producers last night for a role somewhere in the franchise, Ten sources said yesterday.

"His fame and notoriety hasn't escaped the executive producers of Big Brother ... he would deliver the Ten demographic in droves," the source said.

Of course, the source could just be a publicist who sees this as a way to get some attention to a dying franchise, but I wouldn't put it past them.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Stick to the $10 limit

Study: $90 wine tastes better than the same wine at $10

This was a very fascinating study on the how expectations influence perceptions:

Researchers ...have directly seen that the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price. And that's true even when, unbeknownst to the test subjects, it's exactly the same Cabernet Sauvignon with a dramatically different price tag.

Specifically, the researchers found that with the higher priced wines, more blood and oxygen is sent to a part of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure. Brain scanning using a method called functional magnetic resonance imaging (FMRI) showed evidence for the researchers' hypothesis that "changes in the price of a product can influence neural computations associated with experienced pleasantness," they said.

You see, people should just take my approach and make it a personal challenge to find the best wines you can at no more than $10 a bottle. (For many years, De Borteli's Sacred Hill range has usually been the most reliably pleasing sub-$10 wine, although you have to move between varieties from year to year. The Jacobs Creek sparkling range - often on special at $8 a bottle - is also consistently good.)

The report about the American study notes even this strange effect:
"Even more intriguingly, changing the price at which an energy drink is purchased can influence the ability to solve puzzles."
Very odd, hey?

Arabs got the blues

The Arabs | Between fitna, fawda and the deep blue sea |

This is a pretty interesting review of the various reasons the Arab nations are all pretty depressed at the moment.

Here are a few points from the article that I don't think are so widely known:
* In Egypt, fewer than one in ten voters bothered to turn out for recent polls.

* Sex out of wedlock remains taboo, yet the cost of lavish weddings, hefty dowry payments and the bridal requirement of a furnished, paid-for home have pushed the average age of marriage in many Arab countries into the 30s.

* Religious texts still out-sell every other form of literature in most Arab countries.

* An oft-quoted statistic from the reports is that the amount of literature translated into Spanish in a single year exceeds the entire corpus of what has been translated into Arabic in 1,000 years.

UPDATE: this is a fascinating article on how Egypt tries to iron out inequality by massive government subsidies for bread (amongst other things,) and how it goes wildly wrong. Here's the key paragraph, but go read the whole thing:
So the bread subsidy continues, costing Cairo about $3.5 billion a year. Over all, the government spends more on subsidies, including gasoline, than it spends on health and education. But it is not just the cost that plagues the government. The bread subsidy fuels the kind of rampant corruption that undermines faith in government, discourages investment and reinforces the country's every-man-for-himself ethos, say government officials and political experts, not to speak of bakers and their customers.

Government piggy bank to save us?

Rudd Government vows to cut fat - National -

According to the new Federal government:

THE budget surplus needs to be bigger and the Rudd Government's first budget will tighten fiscal policy "significantly", Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner has warned, as he searches for fat around departments to cut.

Mr Tanner said the present inflationary pressure meant the budget situation needed to be stabilised. "Spending has accelerated too quickly," he said.

The surplus needed to increase as a proportion of GDP to put downward pressure on interest rates, he said.

"The projected surplus is a fraction over 1% of GDP. A surplus of 1% is good, but not necessarily good enough", he said. "There is a clear need for a significant tightening."

I have limited understanding of economics, but my intuition is that there is something very wrong about the very idea of using a budget surplus to control inflation.

It also places Labor in a very peculiar political position. It liked to accuse the Howard government of being "big taxing", and skimping on spending on infrastructure. Now Labor will keep the same taxes Howard would have, but just let them sit in the government piggy bank, and (presumably) still limit the spending on infrastructure and the public service. (How ironic too that I heard that there will be cuts to the Foreign Affairs department. I would have thought having more public servants posted overseas might help our economy if it meant they spent their salary in another country!)

Certainly, I have a problem with the idea, currently all the rage with many Left of Rudd, that the tax cuts should be abolished because they provide too much stimulus to the economy. As Harry Clarke points out, it's simply going to replace bracket creep anyone, which surely is only fair.

Has any other country ever been in a similar position to this and successfully used budget surplus increase to limit inflation?

Some economist comment needed, and I don't mean John Quiggan.

And: for God's sake, what does Kevin Rudd think he is doing with the length of his sideburns? Is he a secret Elvis fan?

UPDATE: I suppose that the good thing about economics is that you can hold any opinion and expect that there will be an economist somewhere who will support you. This article from The Australian indicates that there is indeed reason to be sceptical about an increased budget surplus helping significantly with inflation, but it would seem most economists think it at least won't do any harm.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Visiting Israel

Digging the Bible. - By David Plotz - Slate Magazine

Here's a nice travel piece by David Plotz, which explains why Israel would be such an interesting destination for people interested in the Bible. History everywhere.

Anything but self control

Cue the gluttony - Los Angeles Times

This article talks about the idea from the US that "environmental cues" make people eat more, and become obese:
Several recent studies, papers and a popular weight-loss book argue that eating is an automatic behavior triggered by environmental cues that most people are unaware of -- or simply can't ignore. Think of the buttery smell of movie theater popcorn, the sight of glazed doughnuts glistening in the office conference room or the simple habit of picking up a whipped-cream-laden latte on the way to work.

Accepting this "don't blame me" notion may not only ease the guilt and self-loathing that often accompanies obesity, say the researchers behind the theory, but also help people achieve a healthier weight.

To make Americans eat less and eat more healthily, they contend, the environment itself needs to be changed -- with laws regulating portion size, labeling or the places where food can be sold or eaten. That would be much easier, the researchers add, than overcoming human nature. The theory that our society -- not us -- is to blame for our overall expanding waist size is garnering support from health and nutrition experts.
Now look - no doubt "supersizing" meals is one of the unhealthiest ideas American fast food ever came up with; but the idea of laws to limit portion size is surely the most inappropriate thing anyone has ever suggested legislating about.

A requiem for the sitcom

I've written before about how sitcoms over the last, I don't know, 5 years or so, seem to have just fizzled out to a sad death. (When did "Malcolm in the Middle" end? It was the last one I could whole-hearted recommend.)

AA Gill in The Times is in despair of British sitcoms in particular; although I would say it has been moribund for perhaps 15 or 20 years. (OK, perhaps one small, short, silly exception: The IT Crowd.) What Gill says of British sitcoms applies to the US ones too, in my opinion:

I don’t believe in golden ages, on TV or anywhere else, and I am constantly telling people that if they’re not seeing the best television of their lives at the moment, it’s only because they’re not looking in the right places. I honestly believe every aspect of television is better than it’s ever been – except for the sitcom, which is far worse than it was 20 years ago, 10 years ago, last year and probably last Wednesday. It seems to be an artistic form, like weaving corn dollies and plate-spinning to music, that has reached a point where nobody can remember what its point is supposed to be. Sitcoms used to be about anger and hubris and the small man standing against the slings and arrows of life. The difference between British and American sitcoms was that ours were all about failure and theirs about success – they’d bake a cake, our lot would fall into a cake.

Now the situation has gone missing. It’s just about pushing comedians into rooms. The comedy lacks structure or tension or even interest. They’re not about life, they’re about the tired conventions of sitcom, so every scene, every exhausted setup and wan punch line, has been handed down until it’s ragged and sticky with overuse. The sitcom has become the Oxfam shop of telly.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Even Kevin has not saved us

Guardian Unlimited | Comment is free | A senseless belligerence

Waleed Aly goes to town in this Guardian piece about the treatment of Dr Haneef and David Hicks, and claims that the new Labor government is probably not going to be all that different despite its "softer" rhetoric.

But this comment (by "Phorein") caught my eye, as one of the finest examples of over-the-top condemnation of Australia I have recently seen:
Unfortunately for Australia, those who have been living down there for a long while know first hand that this article does describe a sad reality: that of a country which has progressively become a totalitarian society based on surveillance and hatred. Yes, it's a regime, because there is no political debate, because the political elites go hand-in-hand with a clique that utterly dominates the mass-mediad, and because most gullible and holier-than-you "Aussies" are happy to be sheep.
I love condemnations of Australia by Guardian readers. It just wouldn't be as much fun to read without them.

Kid's holiday movies

The kids and I have seen 2 holiday season movies so far.

First, the power of TV advertising convinced both son and daughter that they must see Alvin and the Chipmunks. My observations: at first, I thought the lead actor (Jason Lee) just seemed particularly bad at pretending that the computer generated characters are really there when he talks to them; but then I noticed that he also seemed to be seeing through the human actors when they were in a scene. He just seems not quite "there" in his acting.

For a kids film, it is perhaps surprising to note that it tackles the issues of corporate greed, exploitation of artists, and men over 30 who still have a 20 year old's aversion to commitment to having a family. And let's face it, when the average age of the target audience will be about 5, expectations should be low. But even so, it's not a movie that will stick in anyone's mind for more than 10 minutes after leaving the cinema, even if the chipmunks first song in the movie (a rendition of "Funky Town") drew spontaneous applause from an easily pleased audience I saw it with.

It also raises the most incredibly inconsequential question ever: was that Paris Hilton in a black wig doing an uncredited appearance as the French maid? Even Yahoo answers does not know for sure.

Secondly: The Water Horse - Legend of the Deep. This is more like it. The poster heavily promotes that it is a Walden Media production, the same company that is making the Narnia series, and with good reason. It shares with "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" a very similar tone of basic seriousness, as well as great production values, solid acting and good script.

Yes, it is a little derivative in certain respects, and it certainly helps if you are not too familiar with the geography of Scotland. My (5 year old) girl found it a bit too scary in parts, but I would expect that most children (particularly boys) from about 7 to 12 should be really impressed.

Indeed, overall, I liked it a quite a lot, especially as I tend to give bonus points to any intelligently made family movie that can touch the adult audience as well as please the kids.

(It seems to be underperforming at the box office in the States, but everyone involved should be pleased with the product.)

Next on the list: the well reviewed "Enchanted". That should keep my daughter happier.

Oratory and politics

Is Eloquence Overrated? - New York Times

In light of the good reviews Obama gets for some of his speeches (personally, I am not so convinced; it seems to me the deep, smoker's voice would get him half way to acclaim even if he were reading a McDonald's menu), this is an interesting article on the value of politic oratory.

There is an actual connection to the Kennedy speeches too.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Greenaway warning

The Renaissance Man | The Japan Times Online

It had escaped my attention until now, but that director of unbearably pretentious arthouse films, Peter Greenaway, had a new film released late last year.

The Japan Times says it opens this way:
The opening scene of "Nightwatching" sees the painter [Rembrandt] stripped, beaten and screaming, questioning the meaning of art and life. It's a classic Greenaway treatment, for in his films, philosophizing and gore come hand-in-hand.
This has been a public service announcement to any man with a girlfriend interested in arthouse film.

Annabel on copyright

Talk to the hand if you want to use Hewitt's gesture - Opinion -

Annabel Crabb writes amusingly on sport and copyright this morning.

Curry ends political career?

Abe: I flushed career down toilet | The Daily Telegraph

Former Japanese PM Abe has gone into a lot of detail about suffering from ulcerative colitis since he was 17, and how it led to his resignation.

"To mention an indelicate matter, I rushed to the lavatory after having keen abdominal pains and saw the basin all red with tremendous bleeding," he said.

"Bleeding causes slight anaemia. More than anything else, though, you feel depressed as you see fresh blood every time you go to the toilet."

Abe said the illness usually made him "feel the need to relieve my bowels every 30 minutes".

Now that would make cabinet meetings a challenge...

But the heading for this post comes from this part of the story:
Abe said his health deteriorated in late August, when his stomach was upset by local food during his tour of India, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Sounds like it may be the first time a curry or chilli dish has led to a Prime Minister's resignation.

Friday, January 11, 2008

For Indiana Jones fans

Keys to the Kingdom: Entertainment & Culture:

Vanity Fair has a long article on the upcoming Indiana Jones movie. And a long interview with Spielberg.

The main article notes that the new movie is set in the 1950's, and apart from featuring crystal skulls, Lucas himself suggests that story has more of a science fiction heart than a supernatural one. (There has been speculation that part of the movie is set in the alleged home of recovered UFOs - Area 51.)

This ties in with my long standing idea for Indiana Jones to be tied in with Close Encounters.

If this turns out to be the basis for the movie, I should write to Spielberg and ask for a royalty cheque. (I cannot recall clearly whether I actually posted this idea somewhere years ago in my very early days of using the internet. Let's hope so!)

Of interest

Late Night Live - 10 January 2008 - The Kennedy Brothers

Today I heard most of this repeat broadcast of Phillip Adams talking to David Talbot about his book on the Kennedy brothers.

I'm not entirely sure how much to trust the founder of, but some of the information was new to me. For example, I hadn't heard before that a couple of people report that Lyndon Johnson, on Air Force One immediately after JFK's assassination, made a couple of comments to the effect that he feared it was a military coup.

Talbot also says that Robert Kennedy privately believed there was a conspiracy involved, but was waiting to get elected President before he could get to the bottom of it.

Pretty interesting.

But not here...

BBC NEWS | New nuclear plants get go-ahead

Colour me skeptical

Crean vows to act on trade deficit - National -

More Rudd government talk, but with considerable vagueness about the actual cure:
After 68 successive months of trade deficits, Mr Crean said that to get the trade balance back in the black, Australia needed faster growth in exports of services, and sophisticated manufactured goods, which had flagged in the past decade. "It's about investing more in infrastructure and skills, it's about innovation, and it's about having an integrated trade and industry policy approach."
Surely much of this is to do with the globalisation of the manufacture of sophisticated goods, which presumably was not that much of an issue the last time Labor was in power. I can't see it matters how much you skill up the Australian work force in the next 5 years; China is still going to be a cheaper place to make the same stuff, surely.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

This will get Lambert going

Iraqi war death toll slashed by three quarters - health - 09 January 2008 - New Scientist

A much larger survey in Iraq than the notorious Lancet one estimates the loss of life at more like 150,000, not 600,000.

Tim Lambert is bound to get agitated over this, but it sounds like his unswerving defence of the Lancet study is now going to get harder.

The Boxing Day incident

The Dilbert Blog: There’s a Name for It

This Boxing Day post at Scott Adams' blog is well worth reading for a laugh.

Super soaker saves the world?

Solar Cells with 60% Efficiency?
Nuclear Engineer Lonnie Johnson, best known for his invention of the super soaker squirt gun, has recently designed a new type of solar energy technology that he says can achieve a conversion efficiency rate of more than 60 percent.
The super soaker had an "inventor"?

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Williamstown, Melbourne

On the recent trip to Melbourne, apartment accommodation at a reasonable price was a bit hard to find in the city, and the family and I ended up staying at the old port area Williamstown.

In the late 1980's, I had lived in Melbourne for about 9 months, and although I was not particularly happy with my job and personal circumstances at that time, I was always impressed by Williamstown and rented an apartment there. It has a real English village atmosphere, with small pubs on many corners (some now shut, but many still operating,) gardens with lots of roses and lavender in front of the many century-old cottages, lots of tree lined streets, and a historic waterfront area that is full of sidewalk dining and bars. Some of the facades of the old commercial buildings could do with a bit of sprucing up, but the slightly worn aspect of the area I find part of its appeal.

You can either catch a train or ferry and be in the middle of Melbourne in well under the hour either way (about 30 minutes on the train.) By car it is a very easy drive up and over the Westgate bridge and you are in the middle of town.

On a nice sunny day, the waterside park at Nelson Place is surely one of the nicest places you could be in Melbourne; but if you stay in the area for a couple of days you can also enjoy the simple charm of an evening walk through the streets admiring the houses and their gardens, and stumbling on the occasional building of particular historic significance. You'll likely also likely find yourself near a small pub in which to take refreshment mid-way.

The photos that follow don't do it complete justice: I don't want to include any with the kids here. But if you are visiting Melbourne in nice weather, do yourself a favour and at least have one long day wandering around Williamstown.

Museum minesweeper HMAS Castlemaine (normally open only on weekends, though)

Williamstown marina.

Waterside precinct.

Old hotel (not sure what it is now)

The Williamstown timeball, built in 1852. Its use explained here.

An impressive house.

Bad haiku

As inspired by real life events in Melbourne:

Hat on, Austin gripped,
Hey, that pie was nearly free
More beers next time Tim.

Why I will never bother reading her

Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas

This passage, from a Time Literary Supplement review of a book about Stein & Toklas, is pretty amusing:
But just how “incomprehensible” is a work like The Making of Americans, Stein’s monumental, and largely unread, chef d’oeuvre? The sympathetic reader, the one who does not send the book windmilling across the room after finishing the first page, has two options. The first – which appears, incidentally, to have been the preferred tactic of Stein’s immediate circle – is simply to go with the flow of words, to luxuriate in a language unchecked by the stuffy conventions of realism or, for that matter, grammar. To use a trope Stein herself favoured, the words become the bold brushstrokes of a thoroughly modernist aesthetic, conveying moods, impressions and suggestions of form in place of narrative coherence or clear ideas. (While acolytes like Bernard Fa├┐ adored such airy expressionism, Picasso was apparently less indulgent – he was unable to sit through a reading of Stein’s “word portrait” of him, professing to its author that he couldn’t abide abstractions.)


eMJA: What’s hanging around your neck? Pathogenic bacteria on identity badges and lanyards

After previous studies finding harmful germs on doctors and nurses' neckties, stethoscopes and pens, an Australian study has been done to test ID cards and the lanyards that health care workers often keep them on.

The results were not good, especially for lanyards:
A total of 27 lanyards [out of 71 tested] were identified with pathogenic bacteria, compared with 18 badges. Analysing lanyards and badges as a combined group, seven had methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, 29 had methicillin-sensitive S. aureus (MSSA), four had Enterococcus spp and five had aerobic gram-negative bacilli. Lanyards were found to be contaminated with 10 times the median bacterial load per area sampled compared with identity badges. There were no significant differences between nurses and doctors in total median bacterial counts on items carried, but doctors had 4.41 times the risk of carrying MSSA on lanyards
The same edition of the Journal carries a fairly cranky sounding editorial that complains that we don't really need more studies showing where germs in hospitals can be found:
The United Kingdom has just mandated a “bare below the elbows” dress code in its hospitals.5 This means no more coats or even wristwatches, despite a lack of evidence that these items play a major role in transmitting MRSA. The UK Prime Minister has called for better cleaning of wards, in the belief that this is the key to controlling MRSA.5 While there is some merit in these proposals, they are focusing on elements that are minor compared with the most important one — how best to stop MRSA spreading via hands....

We don’t need more environmental-type studies without clinical endpoints. We need studies in which we intervene and show that the interventions reduce the number of people infected with MRSA.

Flaws will be found

Circumcision Doesn't Reduce Sexual Satisfaction And Performance, Says Study Of 4,500 Men

At last, a study that confirms what all sensible people guessed: circumcision is no big deal as far as change in sexual enjoyment for men is concerned.

You can safely bet, however, that the weird cult of the anti-circumcision movements on the Web will find flaws with the study.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Two Japanese stories

Here's a couple of Japan Times articles I didn't get to mention over the last couple of weeks.

First, there is a good article on the brief rise, and dramatic fall, of Christianity in Japan from 1549.

I have a book on the topic which I have never finished. One point the Japan Times article leaves out is that (according to the book) one difficulty in converting the Japanese was due to their distress at the idea that the souls of their deceased ancestors were condemned to Hell forever because they had been unlucky enough to not have heard about Christ before they died.

Anyway, the Japan Times article is a good read. It's interesting to note that one aspect of Japanese culture made the persecution of Christians that much easier:
As persecution intensified, the Jesuits were nonplussed by a Japanese trait they had not previously noticed. "They race to martyrdom," observed Father Organtino, "as if to a festival." The Christian view of suicide as sinful made few inroads against the traditional Japanese view of it as glorious.
The other JT article of note is one that details everything you ever wanted to know about Mt Fuji. This part in particular was new to me:

Fuji is said to be privately owned. Is that really true?

Surprisingly, yes, as far as the peak above the eighth station is concerned.

Fujisan Hongu Sengentaisha, a Shizuoka-based Shinto shrine, possesses an ancient document stating it was granted the parcel in 1609 by samurai warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu, who established the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603.

In 1957, the shrine sued for possession of the tract, citing a 1947 law returning state-held land to Shinto shrines that had previously held it.

In 1974, the Supreme Court upheld the claim, but transfer of the property rights wouldn't occur until 2004. Some national roads and the former meteorological observatory stayed under government jurisdiction.

HIV updates

Over the last week or so, the New York Times had 2 interesting articles about HIV.

One was an opinion piece by AIDS specialist Daniel Halperin, who worries that the large funding provided for HIV treatment in some African countries with relatively low rates of infection would be much better spent on basic health measures such as the provision of clean water. He writes:
As the United States Agency for International Development’s H.I.V. prevention adviser in southern Africa in 2005 and 2006, I visited villages in poor countries like Lesotho, where clinics could not afford to stock basic medicines but often maintained an inventory of expensive AIDS drugs and sophisticated monitoring equipment for their H.I.V. patients. H.I.V.-infected children are offered exemplary treatment, while children suffering from much simpler-to-treat diseases are left untreated, sometimes to die.
It seems to be basically the same point Lomborg has repeatedly made regarding getting priorities right.

The other article goes into detail about the medical complications that ageing HIV sufferers are increasingly facing. The outlook sounds pretty depressing, as they don't even understand what may be causing what illnesses. As I have said before, I would hope that HIV warnings to the young are including details of how the disease and its treatment compromise health in a major way, even if is not the immediate death threat that it used to be.

One foot on the floor, please

Guardian Unlimited: Why movie sex is better off faking it

This post at the Guardian's film blog was inspired by the (apparently) very real looking sex in Ang Lee's new film. The post makes this good argument against the increasingly common appearance of real sex acts in art house "R" rated cinema:
Sex changes in the presence of a camera, because it's no longer the business of the two people involved, but all about the third party - the viewer. What's always been dishonest about the likes of 9 Songs and The Brown Bunny is the slippery appeal to the audience that the sex is somehow scaling new heights of raw and fearless truth - when, in fact, it's just another performance sold as a non-performance, like everything else you see in a film. It's just that, rather than the strange, hairless, sheeny creatures of actual porn, you've got Tony Leung or Chloe Sevigny demonstrating their commitment to their craft. Not only is it all completely bogus, the results are usually far from erotic .... more importantly, they're not even dramatically potent.
In fact, the post reminds me of a general modern misapprehension about sex, perhaps particularly held by women, I suspect, that it is more revealing of true character than other day to day aspects of behaviour.

It is understandable that sex, particularly at the start of a relationship, can have a strong effect on each lover's perception of the other. But what I am questioning is the view held at an intellectual level that sex reveals "true" character.

The fact that the world's worst dictators, and probably a fair proportion of its worst criminals and murderers, have been married or in long standing sexual relationships, would suggest otherwise, wouldn't it? And surely everyone knows someone who ends up with a partner who is of bad or dubious character when not in bed with his or her partner.

There is every reason to suspect that the sex may be fogging the judgement of the partner, not enlightening it.

But do you need to have sex depicted explicitly in a film to realise this is true? Nah. Do you need to see an actor's genitals to understand the motivating role of sex in a character's life? Not at all.

I go further than the author of the post: story telling in modern cinema could be greatly improved if we went back to the almost non-depiction of the actual sex that existed in the cinema of (say) the 50's. Adults still understood when couples were lovers, without having to see them naked. The passionate kiss in the surf made the lust clear enough, didn't it? The sight of the train going into the tunnel at the end of North by Northwest was both funny and about sex. (Although that's not a trick you can repeat more than once, I suppose!) Adults knew that Black Narcissus was largely about repressed sexuality, and hardly a naked nun was to be seen.

The abandonment of the need for any degree of subtlety has worked against the interests of better story telling, and has lead now to the distracting stuff about whose breasts or penis are actually able to be spotted in the latest film.

Is there any spot on the censorship board coming up soon?

First Weird Science post of 2008!

Is time slowing down? - fundamentals - 21 December 2007 - New Scientist

This story, the bulk of which is unfortunately still behind the paywall, appeared in the Christmas edition of New Scientist, and seems to have attracted scant attention. It's certainly a novel idea, though.

Anyone with even a vague interest in astronomy knows that astronomers now believe the universe is currently expanding at an accelerating pace, and the nature of the "dark energy" behind this is the current major puzzle of physics and cosmology.

But, what if it is all an illusion, caused by Time itself slowing down?

What a great idea. Unfortunately, if true, it means that in billions of years the universe freezes.

Ha! And here you thought time stood still when you had to sit through a couple of Merchant Ivory films with your former girlfriend. It was just the universe preparing you for the real deal.

Update: here's a post from the nicely named "Daily Galaxy" blog which summarises what was in the New Scientist article.

I feel sleepy already

Comment is free: Blogging the Qur'an

The Guardian is going to spend a year "blogging the Koran". This opening explanation of what they are going to do acknowledges that it is a difficult book to read.

This came to mind when I recently watched Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat for the first time, which led me to re-read the story in the Bible. (I am not sure whether I had ever read this section from beginning to end before.) It's a good story, and made me think about the simple pleasure of narrative that is to be found in many parts of the Old Testament.

As far as I know, there is no extended story telling in the Koran. Certainly, you come up pretty empty handed when you type in "great stories from the Koran" in Google.

Anyway, the first column in The Guardian about their experiment is of cultural interest at least.

It seems a curious feature, however, that good education results in the east asian cultures is sometimes thought to be due to large role of rote learning and increased use of memory that their language requires. However, the common exercise of children memorising an entire book in Muslim cultures does not have the reputation of having the same result.

Weirdest anniversary gift ever...

Comment is free: The virginity dialogues

From the above:
Other coping mechanisms [for Egypt's "sexual counter-revolution"] include non-penetrative sex and the increasingly common practice among the wealthier classes of pre-marital hymen restoration. According to Seif el-Dawla, this has reached the point where some middle-class Egyptian couples celebrate their wedding anniversaries by re-bridging the wife's "maidenhead", a practice that is also joining boob jobs as a gift of choice for some "discerning" western spouses.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Normal transmissions to be resumed soon

I'm back from holiday travels, only to face work with reduced staff for another week.

There's lots of stuff I can post about, but probably can't for another 12 hours or so...