Wednesday, April 30, 2008


A question of belief | Comment is free

Here's an interesting article on the very real problems that apostates from Islam (threat of death in some countries being the big one, but there are many other consequences in other countries.)

It was surprising to read this:
In Sudan and in some states in Malaysia, capital punishment is permitted. In Saudi Arabia, Mauritania and Iran, death remains a real possibility for the convert as although it is not specified in law, the countries can invoke this penalty through their application of sharia.
Malaysia? I wouldn't have thought it could happen there.

On going solar

The very sensible Robert Merkel has a very useful post at LP about why government subsidies for solar cell power don't really make much sense overall.

Despite the arguments he convincingly explains, individuals who install the systems and take the benefit of the government subsidies will feel as if they are doing good. It's easy to understand why, when they can look at their roof on a sunny day and think "I am making my contribution". It's a pity the world is more complicated.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Itchy "art"

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | Artists catch head lice for show

Clearly, after 100 years or so, it's getting harder and harder to be an avant garde artist.

Who knew primary school children and the homeless were walking art installations?

How to win friends and influence people

Beer and wine tax rise proposed | The Courier-Mail:
A 300 PER CENT increase in beer and wine taxes is being proposed by the Rudd Government's new preventive health taskforce as families battle rising petrol, grocery and mortgage prices.

Monday, April 28, 2008

A stupid dream, then away

Work (and tax!) pressure is likely to keep me from posting/reading the internet much for a few days.

In the meantime, on Saturday night I was woken mid-morning by a child, causing me to remember this stupid dream. Some sort of alien invasion of earth had resulted, not in death or destruction, but just in all men being treated very unfairly. Wages were docked (I forget what for), and we were forced to sleep in some tiny, claustrophobic dormitory type arrangement. At work, a woman co-worker, when shown my pay slip, just found it amusing. I was very disappointed with her inability to see the injustice.

Then a different woman and I were outside an office window, a few stories up, in some window cleaning gantry set-up. It was early morning, and a robot guard was walking down the silent street. We froze, and he didn't see us, so we continued our break in into the alien controlled building. Inside the office, there were jewels, from which voices came, and then 2 of the aliens themselves made an appearance. They just looked like men in silly colourful pantomine alien costumes. They were very easy to kill. I think I stabbed them with something.

The last impression I have is of sitting in a chair with my feet up on a desk, satisfied that I could kill as many of these aliens as I want.

Now I can usually work out pretty quickly what quirky combination of day time stuff has lead to a particular dream. In this case there was certainly an element of Dr Who, which I had been watching on Friday, but the injustice to males took a while. But then I remembered seeing the heading for an article about child support somewhere recently, and that must be it.

Either that or I just have a generic fear of aliens as feminists (or feminists as aliens?), even though they are easy to defeat.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

An anecdote too far...

I Peed On Fellini - Book Reviews -

Bruce Elder provides a short review of David Stratton's autobiographical "I Peed on Fellini". (I have read somewhere that Stratton was not sure that the title was a good idea, but presumably someone in publishing convinced him. Let's hope it's not the same editor advising Peter Costello.)

Anyway, the review notes that the book has:
... some very amusing and extraordinary anecdotes (the story of Bob Ellis and the used condom is as fascinating as it is grotesque).
There's no way I'm going to buy the book just to find out what that is about, but it's impossible not to be curious.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

That renewable target

This is another post where I try to get my head around energy issues from some Web sources. Anyone who has more accurate figures readily at hand is welcome to correct me.

I just saw some of Skynews Eco Report, in which the Rudd government's 2020 target of 20% energy from renewable sources was being discussed. (Can't find it on the Web yet.)

I think the female guest said that by 2010, Australia will have 2% of its electricity generated from renewables, and the 20% target by 2020 is made even worse by expected growth in demand for electricity (via population growth, presumably) in the same period.

However, this 2 % figure isn't right (or maybe I misheard her); a parliamentary paper from 2000, which I have referred to before, said we were already at something like 10% for electricity from renewables, but it was supposed to increase (by mandated government target) by 2% by 2010. Maybe that is the source of the 2% figure?

This 2004 fact sheet, from the Renewable Energy Generators Association, gives a better idea of the problem. It appears that, as of 2004, it didn't look likely that the mandated increase would be met. The problem has been that, after the enormous boost the Snowy Hydro scheme gave to renewable energy, the total proportion of renewable energy for the nation subsequently went into a pretty steady decline, as growth in demand was met by fossil fuels.

If I can follow the second table on that fact sheet correctly, it seems to be saying that:

a. total 1997 renewables was 16,000 GWh;

b. even to keep at 10.5% of total electricity by 2010, it would require an additional 9,500 Gwh from renewables;

c. to get to 12.5% by 2020 would take an additional 21,000 GWh;

d. to get to Labor's 20% target will take close to 45,000 GWh.

But: that government paper I linked to above said that close to 90% of the renewable electricity in 2000 was from hydro electric; a source which is presumably incapable of any significant further growth.

Actually, looking at the government's 2004 MRET (Mandated Renewable Energy Target) Review, it seems that they are now counting solar hot water as a renewable energy source, and in a table in that paper, they have hydroelectric down to 36% of renewables, and "deemed solar hot water" at 26%. (That figure for solar hot water seems kind of high, and almost a bit of a fudge to me.)

The MRET report does seem to confirm that an extra 20,000 GWh is needed by 2020 just to get to 12.5% renewables target. I assume that the REGA paper is therefore correct in its figure of 45,000 GWh to get to 20%.

The issue of how to treat hot water systems confuses the issue. If it were not for them, I would have said the following seems to be the case: we currently seem to get only about 2,000 KWh from renewables other than hydroelectric (that's 10% of 16,000 GWh, plus some extra to allow for changes since the 2000 paper). To get to 20% renewables by 2020 (an additional 45,000 GWh,) would therefore require the amount of current non-hydroelectric renewable electricity to be increased by a factor of (roughly) 23!

So, whatever windfarms, solar and other (non hydroelectric) electricity we have now, it has to increase about 23 times in 12 years.

(As I say, maybe intensive increase in solar hot water changes the figures somewhat, but as that seems not to be discussed much as a strategy, I am guessing that it won't be what rescues us.)

No wonder there is scepticism as to the target, and the Liberals are starting to argue that it will divert resources from the more important task of developing clean coal, which is actually much more important on a global scale. Greg Hunt may well have a good point here.

Anyway, it still seems pretty clear to me that the general public has no idea of the scale of the problem.

Newt and climate change

Here's a video that I didn't see coming:

The We Can Solve It Project, which the Pelosi/Gingrich ad promotes, has close connections to Al Gore. Although it seems Gingrich has been promoting Green conservatism for some time, it is surprising that he should promote a Gore project, given other comments he has made about him and environmentalism generally in the recent past.

Spielberg time

Return of the storyteller | The Australian

Steven Spielberg is doing publicity for the new Indiana Jones movie, and The Australian has a long interview today.

Nothing too surprising in it for someone (like me) who reads or watches every Spielberg interview he can. But there is this slightly amusing bit:
Spielberg is courteous and generous, without front, yet with that slight distance celebrities adopt to stay sane. He’s just seen Kevin Rudd on television, meeting George Bush: “I was very impressed – is he Labor or Liberal?”

Tracee's excited

From a little sorry, big things may grow - Opinion -

With sentences such as this, Tracee Hutchison will not just be in Tim Blair's sights, she's painting a big red bullseye on her pants and waiting for the kick:
...when I heard those historic words from Rudd's landmark sorry speech again this week — as part of a re-recording of an anthemic song about Aboriginal land rights due for release on Monday — few things could have convinced me more of the magnitude and significance of the metamorphosis this country is experiencing on a daily basis.
And this:
A little thing is growing. We have a chance to sing from the same songbook. And we can dare to be hopeful again.
Calm down, Tracee. Just get back to us in 5 years time, and tell us if your excitement was justified.

Friday, April 25, 2008

That'd be right

Concrete examples don't help students learn math, study finds

For some time I have been meaning to complain about the way maths is taught these days at primary level, and the story above gives me a good excuse to do it now.

While I can't be the only parent to doubt the value of the methods now used in early maths teaching, I have particular reason to be irritated with it.

That's because my son has a clear developmental language delay. His general IQ is fine, but it would seem that the way his brain processes and remember language is just not quite what it should be, so that (for example) at age 7 he still needs a lot of correction with the tense of very common verbs, and must receive directions in short, clear sentences.

The problem is, as his teachers acknowledge, the way maths is taught now is very verbal, and a language development delay can therefore cause a much stronger "knock on" delay with maths than in the past. You didn't need much language to memorise tables, or to learn the one set method of how to do simple maths operations. You do need solid language when the maths questions and exercises are all framed in something akin to "real life" examples, or when they don't show just one way of doing a simple mathematical exercise, but 3 or 4 ways of thinking about it and letting the child work out the way that best suits them.

Parents with kids in primary school will know what I mean.

Michelle Malkin had a post late last year about some particularly silly sounding American maths texts. Maybe ours are not as bad as that, but the video she has in that post does illustrate the "multi-method" approach that is taken here, even from Grade 2. The video link is here.

Anyhow, this is all by way of introduction to the link above, in which some researchers argue that the overuse of "real life examples" for teaching maths may not in fact help kids learn the basic concept behind the example. That sounds counter-intuitive, but they have experiment to back them up.

So, great, here we have a hint of what might be a coming maths education equivalent to the "whole word / phonetics" debate of the last decade or two. Maybe in 10 year's time there will be a lot less "real life" examples or problems for primary school kids, and more straight forward maths as per the 1960's.

In the meantime, my son will have been somewhat disadvantaged by current educational fads.

The irritating thing is that older class room teachers can recognise fads in education, but can nonetheless be pretty helpless in being able to counter them.

On other Anzac Day posts

Anzac Day gets so much written about it now, I find it hard to come up with anything original to contribute. But each year I can always count on some dubious post or comment from Larvatus Prodeo on the topic.

This year, Mark Bahnisch proposes that it was Paul Keating who played an important role in "reviving" Anzac Day to the current high regard that it seems to enjoy in the community today.

I am far from convinced. I don't recall Anzac Day ever being really "on its last legs" in the 1980's, as Mark suggests. (He doesn't sound like the type of teenager/young man to be attending marches at the time to see first hand, but I could be wrong.) However, it does seem clear that in the last decade or so it has become embraced in a way that was not predicted.

I don't really have an alternative explanation to push here, but I suspect that the increasing loss of grandparents who were WWII veterans may have had something to do with it.

For a Keating skeptic like me, his forays into history were a matter of trying too hard to impose his views and his sense of the "right" type of patriotism on the population, and as such came across as posturing and a tad insincere. I feel certain I would not be on my own in that reaction.

At least in Australia, the power of politicians to influence community attitudes on such matters is easily overestimated, I reckon.

The most puzzling thing Mark says is in his comment 9 to his post:
I think his [Keating's] purpose, as I’ve said, was to lay to rest the stoushes over conscription and the massive sectarian divide that Billy Hughes opened up. Implicit in this, and sometimes explicit, was a view that WW1 probably had been futile - an Imperialist adventure. He tried to weave it into a new story, but the hereditary defenders of the British Empire vented their fury accordingly.
In the thread, Geoff Honnor at comment 19 challenges this; it would appear neither he nor I can recall any "venting" against Keating on the issue of the worthiness of WWI. As Honnor says, the disenchantment with that war overall seems to have been pretty much immediate.

Similarly, John Quiggin repeats an older post of his in which he makes the comment that Gallipoli campaign was bloody and pointless, as indeed was the whole of WWI, a war of which "nothing good came ...." The surprising bit is that he then says that the danger now seems that we will forget this.

Really? What is evidence that there is any risk at all that young people will start to think that either Gallipoli or WWI were really worthwhile exercises that had good results? They certainly wouldn't be getting that idea from their school teachers, that's for sure.

If the past is another country, it sometimes seems that the left is too.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Getting ready for May 22

Indiana Jones and the Heap of Old Junk - Features, Film & TV - The Independent

Here's an interesting article on the very murky history of the so-called Aztec crystal skulls, which feature in the next Indiana Jones movie.

The movie starts both here and in the States on 22 May, with its first public outing at Cannes on 18 May.

Attacking the facilitators

Good ideas lost in the translation - Miranda Devine - Opinion -

Miranda Devine's take on the 2020 Kevin Summit sounds pretty accurate. She doesn't trash it entirely (well, OK, she trashes about 95% of it), and she largely blames the outcome on the business management "facilitators."

Worth reading.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

So much for those clean, Green, Europeans

Europeans switching back to coal - International Herald Tribune

From the article:

Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent. Power generated by Enel from coal will rise to 50 percent. And Italy is not alone in its return to coal.

Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are slated to build about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

And why might some countries need to build more coal plants?:
Enel, like many electricity companies, says it has little choice but to build coal plants to replace aging infrastructure, particularly in countries like Italy, which prohibit nuclear power
The story goes on to talk about vague hopes for CO2 capture from European plants. But surely, finding suitable places within densely populated Europe is going to be a much bigger challenge than in the relatively vast open spaces of the USA or Australia.

I think they should give up on that idea, and either make it into powder that you can bury anywhere you have a large hole to fill, or algae.

Deveny right

Lefties miss Howard - Opinion -

It's hard to disagree with Catherine Deveny's general idea here, that Lefties like her are feeling a little deflated over not having John Howard to hate. (Phillip Adams used to say that hatred of Howard kept him alive. I wonder if he goes to the doctor more often lately.)

As Deveny says: "The left loves a whinge, a wine and a rant."
And her line about John Howard being like "an ex-boyfriend we're over" rings true too: "We don't want him back, but we want to know he's suffering."

The funniest thing about her column , though, is inadvertent. She characterises the Howard years as follows:
...people felt disillusioned and powerless with a government that ran on spin, dog whistles, scare campaigns, pork-barrelling and fear-mongering.
Sounds like a description of the 2020 Summit to me. (OK, the summit was not technically the government, but the way it was run, it may as well have been.)

It especially had all the elements of "dog whistling" that the left used to love to attack.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A very funny Colbert

This segment from The Colbert Report, on current international food problems, is really top notch comedy writing:

The coming cat peril

Are cat colonies a legal and ethical part of nature?

(Answer: no, no, no, no, No!)

From the article (about feral cats in California):

While most states are stricter in their regulations regarding feral cats, case law in California legitimizes feral cat colonies. These colonies are established or tended by well meaning "caretakers" who believe that cats have a right to live in nature. They are fed and watered daily by the these caretakers. In some parts of the state -- Sonoma County for example -- colony densities approach three to five colonies per square mile and may have 20 or more feline members.

Realizing that one pair of cats, having two litters of five kittens per year, can exponentially produce over 400,000 cats in a lifetime, can we begin to understand the problem. And it is a worldwide problem. A recent study in Australia found more than 12 million feral cats in the country; feline experts in the U.S. peg the number of feral cats here at 70 million.

At that rate, it is clear we soon will not have enough ground to stand on: (400,000 x 6,000,000).

But then again, maybe there's a reason I am not a demographer.

More on anti-Semitism and its spread

Report: Muslim anti-Semitism 'strategic threat' to Israel | Jerusalem Post

It's an interesting report on the changing nature of anti-Semitism. An extract:

Among the report's most worrying findings is the growth over the past three decades of uniquely Muslim roots to older European versions of anti-Semitism. Without discounting classical Christian Europe's canards regarding secret Jewish conspiracies, the ritual slaughter of non-Jewish children and other allegations of Jewish evil, anti-Semitism in the Muslim world increasingly finds its own, Islamic reasons for anti-Jewish hatred through new interpretations of Islamic history and scripture.

From the Koranic story of a Jewess who poisoned Muhammad, to the troubled relations between Muhammad and the Jewish tribes of Arabia, radical Islamist groups and thinkers have been using extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric that has grown increasingly popular with the Muslim public, particularly in Iran and the Arab states. Using well-known Koranic texts, these groups have been mapping out the Jews' "innate negative attributes" and teaching a paradigm of permanent struggle between Muslims and Jews.

The goal of this "Islamified" anti-Semitism, according to the report, is to transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from a national territorial contest which could be resolved through compromise to a "historic, cultural and existential struggle for the supremacy of Islam."

Sounds about right to me. And the problem is, once you have a significant part of your population brainwashed with such stuff, how does the leadership talk them back down into a compromise with a side that that has been cast as inherently evil?

Just a politician

Kevin Rudd has shown the resolution to that age old riddle "what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object". Clearly, the answer is that there is no such thing as an irresistible force, as demonstrated by the inability of any force to separate our Prime Minister from a television camera. (Or perhaps I got that wrong, and there is an irresistible force: that which draws Kevin into the orbit of the nearest camera. You choose.)

Yesterday, after the 2020 Kevin Summit, I saw him on both Sunrise and The 7.30 Report.

On the latter, he was clearly in disingenuous politician mode:
KEVIN RUDD: .... For the Government, and remember for the 11 years or 12 years that the Howard Government was in office, the opportunity for a top down review of the entire taxation system was there. Instead they want for partial activity on consumption tax, and a partial activity on business tax. And business regulation.

KERRY OBRIEN: I think you'd have to acknowledge, I don't want to get bogged down in this, that embracing the consumption tax is one of the biggest single tax reforms in this country's history?

KEVIN RUDD: I would disagree with that. I think it's a different form of taxation but when you come to the overall impact of income tax, of company tax, personal income tax, company tax, indirect taxes, the transaction taxes of the States, and the overall effect of the combined taxation system, measured against global tax competitiveness, previous Government didn't do anything of the sort.
Of course, Kerry didn't press Kevin on this. (There remain very, very few occasions when Kerry O'Brien has shown him any aggression at all.) But, one would have thought these follow up questions might have been appropriate:

"You do recall, however, that the GST was intended by the Howard government to have a bigger effect than it eventually did, eg by removal of stamp duty, but political compromise prevented that?"

"Do you still stand by your assessment of GST as a "fundamental injustice"?

"Does your pre-election insistence on their being no GST increase under your government make a 'top down' review of taxes something of a pointless exercise, if you are going to cordon off that possibility?"

But instead Kerry went off tangent onto the completely out of the blue matter of whether Rudd liked "Advance Australia Fair". Nothing like pressing the serious issues, hey Kerry?

How very reasonable (sarcasm mode)

We can accept Israel as neighbour, says Hamas | World news |

From the report:
Hamas said today it would accept a Palestinian state on land occupied in the 1967 war, but it would not explicitly recognise Israel.
Jimmy Carter sees this as progress, but:
He [Carter] acknowledged that Hamas still refused to recognise explicitly Israel's right to exist, or to renounce violence, or to recognise previous peace agreements. The movement did not agree to speed the release of an Israeli corporal captured two years ago, although it did tell Carter it would let the soldier, Gilad Shalit, write a new letter home to his parents to prove he was still alive.
And how about stop teaching your children that their neighbours literally want their blood for dinner.

More important than the 2020 Summit

BBC NEWS | Muslim call to adopt Mecca time
Muslim scientists and clerics have called for the adoption of Mecca time to replace GMT, arguing that the Saudi city is the true centre of the Earth.

Mecca is the direction all Muslims face when they perform their daily prayers.

The call was issued at a conference held in the Gulf state of Qatar under the title: Mecca, the Centre of the Earth, Theory and Practice.

Of course, if we are going to fiddle with Mean Time, we should be considering Nambour as the birthplace of the new dawn.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A Quest on a quest of his own

CNN reporter in sex, rope and drug scandal - World -

I don't watch much of CNN, but this guy (whose name I never even went out of my way to check) has long been on my radar as having a particularly irritating style. ("Boisterous and quirky" is how this report describes him.)

He's a lot more quirky than we first thought, it seems.

So that's what I forgot over the weekend..

US neo-Nazis gear up for Hitler's b'day | Jerusalem Post

From the article (which appeared last week):
America's neo-Nazis will be staging a series of events and rallies across the US next week to mark the 119th anniversary of the birth of Adolf Hitler on April 20, 1889....

The events include on April 19 an anti-immigration march in Washington DC, a "family friendly" cookout in memory of Hitler in Morganton, North Carolina, for members of the white supremacist website Stormfront...
Still, it's not too late to join in the fun:
On April 26, Crew 38, a group close to the violent neo-Nazi group Hammerskin Nation, will hold an "Adolf Hitler Memorial and BBQ" in Houston with a swastika lighting.
Seriously, is it at all conceivable for there to be any better definition of "loser" than being a neo-Nazi in the 21st Century?


Police charged Down's syndrome boy with mental age of five - Times Online:

When two police officers came to interview Jamie Bauld, a polite, friendly Down’s syndrome boy with a mental age of about 5, he welcomed them with a big smile and a handshake. As the officers read him his rights and charged him with assault and racial abuse, he agreed with everything they said, then thanked them for coming to see him.

Yesterday Jamie’s parents told The Times that they had been through a seven-month ordeal with the Scottish legal system over what they described as a minor fracas between two youngsters with learning difficulties.

Jamie, 18, cannot tie his shoelaces or leave home on his own, nor can he understand simple verbal concepts such as whether a door is open or shut. But his parents said that he was charged with attacking a fellow student, an Asian girl who also had special needs....

They believe that he was a victim of the zero-tolerance policy on racism under which police have to respond to any complaint, however minor.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Summit reaction

The most disturbing and dis-spiriting things about the 2020 Summit do not include the entirely predictable fact that it ended up with barely a single entirely novel idea. Rather, they were:

1. the sight of the assembled "best and brightest" during the final summing up session appearing to think that it was all an outstandingly worthwhile exercise;

2. Kevin Rudd being so very obviously buoyed by all the love in the room.

I didn't fully appreciate before that the Australian "intelligentsia" (and a considerable number of business leaders as well) were such a needy bunch that this faux act of being "listened to" would make them all swoon. Who knew that the media would (by and large) also roll over?

Of course, the papers are letting their "usual suspects" be as cynical as they like; but there is no doubt that the editorial stance of the Fairfax press in particular has been entirely gullible on the issue of the value and purpose of the exercise. The ABC TV coverage's "bookend" comments that I saw (although I missed most) were so bad they gave the impression that Rudd's PR team had a direct feed into the teleprompt.

Honestly, it has actually felt like watching a insidious process of corruption of the nation.

Maybe my badly shaken faith in the common sense of the people will be partially restored if we get some cynicism reported via some - any - disillusioned attendees over the next few days.

But you know what this whole exercise has made me secretly yearn for? Some actual, immediate crisis or disaster for this PM to have to make a hard decision about; rather than this nauseous concentration on both building up his own profile and defusing potential enemies.

UPDATE: Annabel Crabb has written up the summit as a religious event all about the PM, and this line struck me as the funniest:
On one visit to the Economy group, he [Rudd] arrived among a standing group of summiteers and promptly seated himself on the floor. He did not wash anyone's feet or anything, but the "Suffer the little economists to come unto me" theme was obvious enough nevertheless.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Don't believe him

The Sakai is the limit - Food & Wine - Activities & Interests - Travel

In this story in the Sydney Morning Herald (mainly about one very expensive restaurant in Tokyo,) the writer claims of he and his wife:
We had thought we could cope on a daily food and transport budget of $100 or just under ¥10,000. But whether we are in the glittering Ginza or the relative grunge of Electric City, our only affordable meal seems to be tiny watery noodle meals with small servings of beer or sake.

These little lunches, whether from semi-automated train station cafeterias or battered old diners, cost an easy $30 combined and still leave us hungry enough to chew our hands.
Now, unless Mr Thompson and his wife have unusually large calorific needs or desires, this is absolute rubbish.

Anyone can find a filling and tasty meal in Tokyo, especially at lunch, for around $8 to $12. Apart from the train stations, the department stores all have good, cheap eating. It's not even hard in upmarket Ginza. And it's not all noodles I am talking about either.

The one thing I routinely tell people about Japan is that, while accommodation is relatively expensive (and hotel rooms are small for the price), the cost of eating is not so expensive, unless your do want to go to higher end restaurants or eat all the time in your hotel.

If the SMH wants to pay me to demonstrate the ease of eating on $45 a day in Tokyo, I would be happy to oblige.

A very American end of the world

Escape, Carolyn Jessop's memoir of life with the FLDS, condensed. - Slate Magazine

Slate gives us a handy summary of some of the beliefs and practices of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (being the Texan group which recently had the kids removed.)

This part is particularly odd:
In a favorite children's game, called Apocalypse, kids act out the FLDS vision of the end of the world. According to FLDS lore, Native Americans who were mistreated and killed in pioneer days will be resurrected in the end times, when God will allow them to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them (the presumably also-resurrected settlers). In return for this indulgence, "resurrected Indians" will also be "required to take on the job of protecting God's chosen people"—FLDS members—by killing FLDS enemies with invisible tomahawks that can sever a person's heart in half. Very cowboys and Indians!

Bad, bad idea

Rock bottom | Comment is free

Have a look at the trailer at the movie website (there's a link in the article.) Yes, it looks like just about the worst concept for a movie comedy, ever.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Photo time

I went camping the weekend before last, and I have a few photos to prove it:

This tent is old. I bought it when I was about 18 or 19, used it for a few years, then packed it away for about 26 years until having kids inspired me to resume camping again. To my surprise, it had not rotted away or been consumed by vermin. Now I get to bore any other family we travel with by explaining this story of remarkable tent longevity, and making "how long can a tent last?" observations, every time I am setting it up or taking it down. Oh - the yellow inflatable canoe - it's nearly as old too.

This is sunrise the first morning. Either that or a thermonuclear explosion over distant Caboolture. (I'm such a romantic.)

This type of skinny spider was everywhere:

But for a really weird looking one, try this:

If it's a new species, it should be named after Des, who was the one who spotted it and insisted I take a photo just in case he was its discoverer.

The last photo is of sunrise on the second day, with added cloud:

The place, incidentally, was the Lake Somerset Holiday Park, which is huge, has excellent facilities, and very friendly management. Just bring something that floats in which to potter about, and it's great.

Over 45? Sit down, relax

Exercise May Lead To Faster Prostate Tumor Growth

What all middle aged men have been waiting for: an excuse to sit around and get fat.

The experimental model that this is based on is not exactly close to real life, though:
The researchers implanted prostate tumors subcutaneously in the flanks of 50 mice and then put half of the mice in cages with exercise wheels and half in cages with no wheels. All mice were fed the same diet. On average, the exercising mice ran more than half a mile each day.
So, next thing is to try to do this a bit more realistically:
The researchers are currently conducting a validation study, in mice, in which tumors are injected directly into the prostate, thereby better simulating human prostate cancer, Jones said.
Just how big is a mouse prostate? How do you tell if it's enlarged?

So-called neutral

Washington Watch: Doing good business with evil | Jerusalem Post

An interesting opinion piece from the Jerusalem Post, complaining how the Swiss will deal with whoever they like (currently, Iran) if it suits them.

The whole topic of the role Switzerland played during WWII is something about which I don't know much. Put it on the almost endless list of "things worth reading a book about one day." (I like to imagine that this is what heaven is for: a very, very long time to catch up on reading.)

Contradictory evidence

Study Sees an Advantage for Algae Species in Changing Oceans - New York Times

Bah! Just after I spend time catching up on ocean acidification, and trying to encourage readers to worry about the effect on carbonate-incorporating algae, a new study indicates that they have actually done better under increased CO2 levels, contrary to previous studies and expectations. (Who would have guessed that it makes a difference if you bubble gas into the water, rather than simply add acid to it?)

Neither the article above, or the other one it links to, talk about whether this means this is an automatic way the earth is increasing the oceans as a CO2 sink. But my guess is that it can't be hurting in that regard.

However, the article also says that this research doesn't mean the coral reefs are safe from acidification.

And: I also wonder whether someone will come up with a concern about too much algae being produced in some regions with too much acidification. As I mentioned in my earlier post, I didn't think you really wanted a lot of certain types of algae in shallow waters.

More information required.

And no gloating please, Andrew Bolt.

UPDATE: It gets worse (for my previous post.) According to the Ocean Acidification blog, there's an article in Science that is claiming we simply don't know enough to be able to dismiss coral reef's ability to adapt to increased acidification. I think the suggestion is that other types of coral will simply replace the ones that are more sensitive to it.

But then: the worriers have made a response already. And they make the point that, when corals have disappeared in the past due to high ocean acidification, they have taken millions of years to recover.

It's a big gamble, isn't it? My gut reaction is still that increasing the acidity of the entire ocean by a factor of 2 or 3 over a relatively short period of time (a century or so?) is a dangerous experiment to be playing. We can't even stop the first part of it, due to the lag time in CO2 absorption, but we can try and stop the worst of it.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Boeing 777 crash still a worry

There was a safety bulletin put out by the British Air Accident Investigations Branch in February 2008, regarding the Boeing 777 crash at Heathrow.

The circumstances of the accident are described (while at 720 feet from landing, one engine reduced power, followed by the other within 7 seconds, and then they wouldn't respond to the request for increased thrust.) There was some rubbish found in the fuel tanks, but it seems that is not the obvious answer. The fuel itself did not seem to be contaminated.

Odd, hey? At the end it says they are looking at the high pressure fuel pumps, and the fuel system generally.

Rice woes

As Australia dries, the world suffers - International Herald Tribune

I didn't realise until recently that Australia's rice production was internationally significant. Normally:
Annual world production totals 600 million tonnes with only 25 million tonnes traded outside the country of origin. While Australian rice represents only around 0.2% of world rice production, remarkably Australia exports represent over 4 % of world trade.
That's about a million tonnes of rice. But we won't be exporting a grain this year:
A few dozen growers - most using water pumped from underground - will harvest just 18,000 tonnes for domestic consumption, it is forecast.
But one thing that puzzles me about this is the question of where we grow rice in this country:
Rice is grown on some 145,000 ha of land, mainly in the irrigated areas of south-eastern Australia. Eighty per cent of rice produced in Australia is of medium-grain Japonica varieties, which are well suited to high summer temperatures without the humidity of tropical climates.
Huh? Haven't we routinely got water to excess in the Ord River dam in WA, as well as in many North Queensland dams? Isn't rice generally well suited to the tropics?

Here's my brilliant Australia 2020 suggestion: let's try growing rice where the water is! (Thank you, thank you, it was nothing really.)

Three words

PM's 2020 pledge for every child | The Australian

So this is Rudd's great idea for 2020 Australia? Expensive, unnecessary, and lame.

At least someone at the Sydney Institute called it right:
Barclays Capital chief executive Nicholas Johnson, who in moving a vote of thanks said: "I thought he was meant to be an economic conservative, sounded like an old-fashion socialist to me".

That can be arranged...

Emissions will drop when we end the reliance on coal

The link is to Kenneth Davidson's column in The Age today, which begins:
IF FORCED to choose, I would prefer to live on top of a nuclear waste dump than a carbon dioxide dump, which is both the Government and Opposition's preferred method of dealing with the greenhouse gas emissions from burning coal to produce electricity.
Actually, I share quite a bit of Davidson's scepticism about geosequestration of CO2 from coal fired plants ever being viable on a large scale.

UPDATE: seeing I have lately had a surge of new visitors (thanks, AB!), I should refer people to a post I did about geosequestration last year, which notes some new ideas that sound somewhat more promising to me that trying to pump huge volumes of gas into the ground.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Be prepared to be shocked

Our Local Correspondents: Up and Then Down

If you are interested in elevators (and who isn't?), you must read this very long essay about them in The New Yorker.

I must admit I didn't know this:
In most elevators, at least in any built or installed since the early nineties, the door-close button doesn’t work. It is there mainly to make you think it works. (It does work if, say, a fireman needs to take control. But you need a key, and a fire, to do that.) Once you know this, it can be illuminating to watch people compulsively press the door-close button. That the door eventually closes reinforces their belief in the button’s power. It’s a little like prayer.

Wasn't it around the early 1990's that call buttons in the economy section of aircraft also mysteriously stopped having any effect?

A notable passing

One of the great physicists of the 20th century, John Wheeler, has died, aged 96. The New York Times obituary is here, but for a very personal observation of what he was like as a teacher, go to this tribute at Cosmic Variance. He certainly sounds like a lovely man.

Look who the Truthers have for company

Ahmadinejad casts doubt over 9/11 | Jerusalem Post

The Iranian President must be spending time on Truther websites:

Though Iran has condemned the al-Qaida attacks on New York and Washington in the past, this was the third time in a week Ahmadinejad questioned the death toll, who was behind the attacks and how it happened.

"Four or five years ago, a suspicious event occurred in New York. A building collapsed and they said that 3,000 people had been killed but never published their names," Ahmadinejad told Iranians in the holy city of Qom.

Robert Fisk must feel proud.

IT Crowd returns

The second series of The IT Crowd starts on the ABC tonight. It's one of the very few recent British sitcom-ish shows that makes me laugh, but the humour is very silly. Here's 8 minutes from the first series, which gives you a good idea of the characters:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Taking ocean acidification seriously

Oh. There's another link to this blog today (and praise) from Andrew Bolt, and now I'm going to deal with an issue that I expect may earn his scorn. Don't leave me, new readers! I try to be very reasonable about this, you know!

It's been quite a while since I explained why I decided it's a good idea to reduce CO2 production, and to do it with urgency. My position is that it doesn't matter whether or not the Earth is looking cooler for a year or two at the moment: the effect of ocean acidification is something that started being viewed with serious alarm by marine scientists over the last 5 years especially, and that concern is not going away.

For some easy to read primers on the problem, try these three Australian sites here, here and here. (Australia has special reason to be concerned, as will become apparent soon.) The lengthy Royal Society report of 2005 on this, which is actually pretty easy to read, is here.

I'll list a few key points so you don't even have to follow the links:

a. increased atmospheric CO2 levels have already increased the acidity level of the ocean by 30% over the last couple of hundred years;

b. the steep climb expected in further CO2 emissions on a "business as usual" scenario could lead to about a 300% increase in acidity, although even then it will be slightly alkaline. (If you want to, you can insist that the change be called a reduction in ocean alkalinity instead of an increase in acidity; it makes no difference to the life that lives there.)

c. even if all CO2 production stopped today, the ocean will continue getting more acid by at least the same amount as it already has, and it will take thousands of years for ocean chemistry to get it back to pre-industrial levels. (The chemistry of the earth means that even when the ocean has been much more acidic, it eventually comes back to something close to what we've currently had for a long time - see the next point.)

d. ocean pH is believed not to have been as low as its current level for a very long time (one article mentions 430,000 years; another mentions 40 million years, but I am not sure which pH level it is referring to.) One article indicates that if "business as usual" continued beyond 2100, the oceans will eventually get to a pH that hasn't been seen for 300 million years! In any case, it's the rate of current change that is a big part of the problem:
During the Ordovician, atmospheric carbon levels were much higher, but had risen gradually, allowing the oceans to remain saturated with calcium carbonate, and life had flourished.

But, 250 million years ago, the formation of the Siberian Traps through a massive volcanic eruption caused a sudden and massive shift in oceanic pH, and nearly 90 percent of oceanic species went extinct. He noted that the extinctions followed lines that were predictable; species we'd expect to be sensitive to carbonate concentrations died, while those that have finer control over their physiology largely made it through the extinctions.

e. Australians have good reason to worry: cold water takes in CO2 faster, and the large Southern Ocean waters should therefore become most acidic first, and the acidity levels are expected to spread north. Warm water coral reefs might already be being affected by sensitivity to even the current levels of increased acidity, although there are still uncertainties about this.

On the Science Show this week, some scientists express their deep concern.

Look, no one says that the oceans will go completely and utterly barren everywhere, but the concern is that the change from what they are like now could be very dramatic indeed, over a very short space of time. Most significantly here in Australia, is the possible absolute collapse of coral reefs as we know them. In that Science Show transcript, one American scientist notes:
Unfortunately the picture for acidification is much fuzzier but also much uglier, and that's because corals seem to have little in the way that they can escape from the effects of acidification. It's actually the case that corals can survive, at least in the laboratory, in highly acid waters, but they turn into little sea anemones, they stop building skeletons altogether. As a consequence what you will have is a world of coral reefs but coral reefs without skeletons, which really aren't reefs at all. So that these structures that we can see from space and which so many organisms depend upon in terms of the three-dimensional complexity will simply cease to exist.
Even if you view large scale changes to the reefs of the world as only an aesthetic loss, the other major concern noted in the various articles is that acidification affects many types of plankton, upon which much bigger things feed, which in turn are eaten by things on which humans like to feast. And these plankton also have a role in sinking CO2 to the bottom of the ocean, so if their population goes down, more CO2 is left to go into the ocean to make it more acid, etc.

Of course, the scientists are still working on it all, and the ecological effects of such large scale change are not entirely clear. But I think from a common sense point of view, massive changes in ocean ecology sound dangerous. And remember that it will take thousands of years for pH to drop. (Adding stuff to the oceans to make them less acidic would have to be on such a large and expensive scale it doesn't really seem feasible, although there are people coming up with ideas.)

In an earlier post about this, I mentioned that I would like to see any skeptical arguments about ocean acidification. (Andrew Bolt correctly points out that some predictions of the Great Barrier Reef's demise due to ocean warming have, at the very least, been very premature. But Andrew's hope today that a reef's ability to recover from a nuclear blast is a good sign doesn't exactly address the big picture of acidification. Acidification is a much more long term process, that is already well underway.)

Googling for "ocean acidification skeptics" doesn't bring up much. Some have taken recently to (rather conspiratorially) claiming that scientists are starting to "talk up" ocean acidification because they realise that recent cooler temperatures mean people will stop believing in global warming. (Of course, as even the articles listed here indicate, many marine scientists have been talking about it with alarm for the last few years in particular, ever since the Royal Society report of 2005 really gave the issue a lot of attention.)

The only site I have found (admittedly in a quick search) with a detailed attempt to rebut ocean acidification science is here, by one Dr Floor Anthoni of a New Zealand group called "Seafriends". Dr Anthoni appears to have no academic background in biology; his qualifications seem to be only in computer science and electronics.

He claims that some of his own discoveries mean that ocean acidification is not property understood, and it will not be as big disaster as predicated. (He claims the ocean will become "more productive", but also says "...there could be some unexpected and unforeseen surprises. The world has been changing and adapting to major changes since it came out of the last ice age, and the changes caused by fossil fuel will be relatively small.")

Well, I would be inclined to take Dr Anthoni more seriously if he actually had qualifications in a relevant field, and didn't come across as a generic contrarian on most things to do with the greenhouse gas issue.

It seems that, more so than with climate change due to greenhouse, it is extremely hard to find a scientist in the field who doubts the serious ecological consequences of large amounts of CO2 in the oceans.

Here's my concluding thought: at least with global warming, it is possible to argue there will some "upside". Fewer people in colder countries will die during winter, plants may grow faster to supply food, the residents of Greenland are already happier; that kind of thing. And to look at the really big picture, surely the world is better off being quite a few degrees hotter than having much of North American and Europe under hundreds of meters of ice. (That's the scenario of global warming preventing an overdue ice age.)

Ocean acidification on the other hand seems to have no upside at all. (I am discounting the credibility of Floor Anthoni on this.)

The only thing that may seem a vague "positive" is that some research noted in the Ocean Acidification blog seems to indicate that some algae may do better. But (from memory, without having time to Google this right now) algal blooms don't have a good reputation, especially in shallow coastal waters, where their decay sucks the oxygen out of the sea and makes it sterile of larger life. Algal blooms in the deep ocean might have some carbon sink effects, but the reason iron fertilization of the ocean is viewed with much scientific skepticism is due to the uncertainty as to whether the carbon taken in really does make it to the bottom of the sea for any length of time.

Overall, the change of all coral reefs into something with much, much less diverse life, and fewer carbon sinking plankton in the deep ocean, will surely be a bad thing, with food chain and other consequences that indeed sound worrying.

I also haven't even repeated here the point in my original post that past CO2 levels of just under 1,000 ppm (we're well over a third of the way there) were around when some scientists think that anoxic oceans made large amounts of hydrogen sulphide which killed land animals in mass extinctions.

It seems fully deserving of all the attention it can get, and as I said at the start, is of itself a compelling reason to take the need for urgent CO2 reduction very seriously.

Tell me where I am wrong...

UPDATES: I've been fiddling with this post all day, adding stuff mostly.

I actually have found a post by an academic who briefly mentions some reasons for thinking that coral reefs (and some plankton/algae) may be more adaptable to pH change than some fear. But he notes that the lab experiments are (so far) contradictory on the issue. It's not enough to relieve my concerns.

Jennifer Marohasy's blog contains lots of skeptical posts about coral reef danger, although a lot of them are on the issue of warming waters, not acidification.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Gulberg, who Andrew Bolt strongly criticised for exaggerating coral reef danger, has his own blog too. He admits his early predictions were too dire about the speed with which reefs could die, but I think he defends himself pretty well overall. Have a look at this thread in which he debates Peter Ridd.

A clarification: at one point I mention some types of plankton as having a role as carbon sinks, but later I mention the skepticism about whether algae is an efficient carbon sink. I think they are not contradictory statements because plankton and algae come in different varieties, only some of which use carbonate and are likely to be the best at being permanent carbon sinks. If that type doesn't grow so well in acidified oceans, the plankton/algae mix may swing towards the type which is not likely to be good at taking up carbon permanently, even if you do have more of them due to "fertilization" by CO2.

Correct me anyone if you think I have misread that from the articles.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Excuse me while I hold my applause

The announcement that current Queensland Governor Quentin Bryce will be the next Governor General has met almost universal acclaim. (Even Andrew Bolt and Tim Blair remain silent on the question of the merit of her appointment, apart from Bolt thinking it politically savvy.)

However, for a conservative like me, the appointment of a female lawyer with a background in academia, administrative law, human rights and a stint as Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner, sets off my automatic cynicism neurons, even before checking what she has been doing lately. And unlike Bill Hayden, who came over all conservative as a result of his appointment, we've seen Quentin in the State equivalent role for some time, and can read her many speeches. It seems a safe bet that she will not be having the same conservative sentiments overcome her anytime soon.

A quick look around the internet gives some indication for at least fellow conservatives to exercise caution before praising her appointment to the high heavens:

1. This story by Courier Mail journo Des Houghton, mentioned briefly in the Australian's editorial, may have been based on the gossip of just one disgruntled Government House employee for all I know. But then again, maybe he/she/they was/were disgruntled for good reason:
....staff are leaving in droves with departures including three chefs, an under butler, a chauffeur, a personal assistant and a second footman.

Staff complain of unnecessary interference by Ms Bryce, who even insisted that gardens be torn up so purple and pink flowers could be planted for International Women's Day.

There has been an exodus of long-serving staff since Ms Bryce, an ardent feminist, was given the plum job in July 2003.

2. Des, who doesn't seem to be a fan, followed up with this story at the end of last year:

GOVERNOR Quentin Bryce, or Queen Bee as she is now known in vice-regal circles, has authorised spending in the order of $150,000 for a history of the Queensland governors.

In an echo of the Peter Beattie appointment of Ross Fitzgerald to write a state history, I'm told no tenders were called. The commission went to historian Peter Forrest and his wife Shirley, also a historian. Longreach-born Forrest has written six books including a history of Bryce's hometown, Ilfracombe. A history of Queensland governors may seem like a cure for insomnia, but Forrest tells me his work will be a "broad-brush history of Queensland through the prism of the governors' lives". The world through Quentin Bryce's eyes? I can't wait.
3. In many, though not all, of her speeches as Governor, she starts by either "acknowledging the traditional owners" of the land, or even in one or two odd cases, merely "gives thanks" to them. I understand it is quite the standard thing for our Premier Anna Bligh to "acknowledge" them. I am not entirely sure what Quentin is "thanking" them for, however. Not fighting too hard last century? Giving her permission to turn up (like Greer claims to seek.)

The habit can be harmless enough, if somewhat grating to conservatives who don't share a romantic view of indigenous culture, at least if there are aboriginals in the audience. But Bryce does tend to gush somewhat if they are the audience:

I give thanks to the indigenous peoples of the land: the Dreaming, the ancestors; the generations who survived and who remain with us.

We are grateful and proud to live beside you...

They always have a warm welcome for me. They share their stories with me. They inspire and teach me how to be an elder.

4. Going back to 1998, Green Left was happy to laud her contribution to a meeting to protest against a private abortion Bill that a conservative ACT local politician (Paul Osborne) was trying to get up to restrict abortion:
Quentin Bryce argued that women's control of their fertility is a basic human right. Osborne's bill violates the UN Declaration of Human Rights and international statutes to which the Australian government is a signatory.
Oh great, the Governor General to be is a lawyer who thinks that you can't succeed in even placing limitations on abortion because of a UN Treaty?

5. The Age reminds us of the nasty little note that tarnished her reputation as Sex Discrimination Commission (I had forgotten this until now; thanks Andrew Jaspan!):

In 1990 Alexander Proudfoot, a doctor with the federal Health Department's Therapeutic Goods Administration, complained to the Human Rights Commission that women's health centres in the ACT operated in breach of the Sex Discrimination Act. Under Freedom of Information, Dr Proudfoot had got a case file from Ms Bryce on which she had written a note, "another example of a male wasting our time with trivia". The 10 words grew into a mountain of legalese as the doctor pursued Ms Bryce through the system.

Finally, after four years and various hearings, the complaint was dismissed with Commissioner Robert Nettlefold, QC, saying her "unfortunate notation" was "an expression of frustration and annoyance".

6. In her recent International Women's Day Address, she makes this dubious point:
Each year, the number of women in our country who are subjected to physical, emotional and sexual assault is almost invisibly growing; while, insidiously, the number of convictions for rape is steadily declining.
Women are both being treated worse, and finding it harder to get a rape allegation believed? I'd like to see the figures and some decent analysis of them before I accept this argument of deteriorating conditions for modern Australian women. (From memory, such claims of increased violence against women usually come from surveys which define abuse very widely.)

And then back to the gush:
I adore International Women’s Day:
• all that it means and offers;
• its secure and valued place on the global stage;
• our local celebrations of its spirit and infinite promise.
Infinite promise, eh? And this:

In our own communities we need to re-engage and collaborate, to think harder about our obligations and connections, as women shaping our own futures.

Above all, we need to require more of ourselves.

Women are often accused of 'wanting it all.’

I think we should want more.

Forget the old orthodoxies.

Be outrageous in your desires, your list of wants:

Quentin forgets to mention this one: women should try and have a career that is almost exclusively in academia or government appointed positions. It tends to help in the "time off to have a family" department.

Having said all that, for all I know she may just be the loveliest, most hard working GG ever, who will charm absolutely everyone. Or not. (She certainly seems to have had a busy diary of speeches as Governor, I'll grant you that.) But excuse me if I see grounds for suspecting that she might not be warmly received by everyone in her future performance as GG.

Where your eyes don't go

There's a They Might be Giants song with the same title as this post which is a tuneful take on the horror of having an unconscious mind that could be getting up to anything. I've always liked this line:
Every jumbled pile of person has a thinking part that wonders
What the part that isn't thinking isn't thinking of
Brain scientists are still pondering this issue of when the conscious mind become aware of decisions the brain has already made, as a Nature News story tells us. (As usual, this will probably disappear soon, so I need to take out large extracts):
Your brain makes up its mind up to ten seconds before you realize it, according to researchers. By looking at brain activity while making a decision, the researchers could predict what choice people would make before they themselves were even aware of having made a decision....

Haynes and his colleagues imaged the brains of 14 volunteers while they performed a decision-making task. The volunteers were asked to press one of two buttons when they felt the urge to. Each button was operated by a different hand. At the same time, a stream of letters were presented on a screen at half-second intervals, and the volunteers had to remember which letter was showing when they decided to press their button.

When the researchers analysed the data, the earliest signal the team could pick up started seven seconds before the volunteers reported having made their decision. Because of there is a delay of a few seconds in the imaging, this means that the brain activity could have begun as much as ten seconds before the conscious decision. The signal came from a region called the frontopolar cortex, at the front of the brain, immediately behind the forehead.

If you think you heard about this type of experiment before, you'd be right. It is building on some (now) quite old results of Libet, whose experiment was quite similar in design, as the article explains:
Libet's study has been criticized in the intervening decades for its method of measuring time, and because the brain response might merely have been a general preparation for movement, rather than activity relating to a specific decision.

Haynes and his team improved the method by asking people to choose between two alternatives — left and right. Because moving the left and right hands generates distinct brain signals, the researchers could show that activity genuinely reflected one of the two decisions.

But all is not lost for free will yet:

...the experiment could limit how ‘free’ people’s choices really are, says Chris Frith, who studies consciousness and higher brain function at University College London. Although subjects are free to choose when and which button to press, the experimental set-up restricts them to only these actions and nothing more, he says. “The subjects hand over their freedom to the experimenter when they agree to enter the scanner," he says....

But results aren't enough to convince Frith that free will is an illusion. “We already know our decisions can be unconsciously primed,” he says. The brain activity could be part of this priming, as opposed to the decision process, he adds.

Part of the problem is defining what we mean by ‘free will’.
Personally, I like to look in the mirror every morning and say "stop making decisions without me" ten times while I shave.

Gratuitous political postscript: I hope they never include Brendan Nelson in these tests. No ten seconds for him: I reckon he must surely have about about a 10 hour gap between speaking and recognition of what his stream of consciousness has already come up with.

More money than sense

$5m in will for right-to-die campaign

Who knew that the late (Labor) Lord Mayor of Brisbane, Clem Jones, was worth $150 million? And that he still wanted to be in politics after his death by funding the cause of euthanasia law reform?

This bequest is so stupid, it's verging on the positively offensive. Who on earth thinks that euthanasia has (to date) failed as a political cause because it can't get enough media attention? It gets a huge amount of coverage, most of it written by a profession (journalism) with an undeniably soft-Left tendencies. Whenever it comes up as a media topic, there is a flood of letters tot he editor from euthanasia reform supporters.

Aren't the chances high that the Northern Territory or ACT will have a go at implementing it again, now that we have Labor at Federal level?

Frankly, it's hard to see how the executors are going to find useful ways to spend the money. If I were them I wouldn't touch Philip Nitschke with a barge pole: his inability to rouse himself with too much concern about the merely bored wanting to kill themselves make him his cause's own worst advocate.

Surely it would be better spent on work directly relieving the suffering of the dying who either can't, or don't want to, accept euthanasia as an option. I would have thought that $5 million could fund at least a few palliative care beds indefinitely, or pay for a facility to be built in a place that has none at all at the moment. It would then be used for some direct relief of suffering, rather than helping a movement that the media can't get enough of.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

On the new Futurama

Matt Groening makes feature-length DVD of Futurama - Times Online

The odd thing is, I didn't care much for the first episode of Futurama I saw many years ago. But after a couple of more episodes I was hooked, and I am happy to see that it is making a return.

Bryan Appleyard likes it too, and his interview with creator Matt Groening is worth reading. I wonder when we can get the DVD in Australia...

LHC black hole coverage continues

New atom-smasher could fill gaps in scientific knowledge -- or open a black hole - Los Angeles Times

While we're sitting around waiting for CERN to release its revised safety assessment, there is still some detailed coverage in the press turning up.

Physicist M Mangano appears to be wearing the brunt of the effort to re-assure everyone that they won't accidentally end the Earth prematurely, and it's important to note the tone he takes here:
Michelangelo L. Mangano, a respected particle physicist who helped discover the top quark in 1995, now spends most days trying to convince people that his new machine won't destroy the world.

"If it were just crackpots, we could wave them away," the physicist said in an interview at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, known by its French acronym, CERN. "But some are real physicists."
It's not clear whether or not he is referring to someone other than Walter Wagner here; after all, Wagner's experience as a phyiscist has been called into question by some.

According to the article, Mangano himself is currently writing the updated assessment. Let's hope he finishes it in time for it to be properly considered by the rest of us before they power up the machine.

(As I said in an earlier post, the fact that the report has been somewhat delayed is not exactly comforting.)

Fisking incoherence

Rachel Cooke meets Middle East reporter Robert Fisk | Media | The Observer

Rachel Cooke interviews and talks about Robert Fisk in this rather interesting article. I get the strong feeling that Fisk would not like the picture painted of him. Try this long section:
We are talking - or, rather, he is talking. Luckily he has a loud, uncompromising kind of a voice and the balcony is tiny, so he is close to me, both of which ensure that I can hear him above the roar of cruising Mercedes below. It is the end of a long day - he picked me up at nine this morning for a drive south to the border with Israel, and I've been with him every minute since - but, if anything, Fisk's energy, unlike my own, increases with every word he utters. On he goes: unrelenting, furious, pernickety and labyrinthine in argument. Every anecdote involves three dusty side alleys, every explanation three historical examples. Worn down by these things, I ask - too casually, I see now - if he thinks that, once the Americans exit Iraq (he believes that they will do this soon; that the US media is already preparing the ground by running articles bemoaning - I paraphrase - the fact that the Iraqis simply don't deserve what the US has offered them), there will be a civil war. 'Do you CARE?' he shouts. Perhaps I look startled, because he now corrects himself. 'Do WE care? I don't think we do.'

It's at this point that I start to think longingly of my hotel room in the Holiday Inn; not the old Holiday Inn, which stood close to the green line during the Lebanese civil war and is a pockmarked, shelled-out monument to terror to this day, but a new one, above a smart shopping mall. But it's difficult to get away. For one thing, every time I open my mouth to make my excuses, either he interrupts - Bin Laden this, Noam Chomsky that - or he takes another mobile phone call (no call can be missed, no matter that those coming in tonight are not from top contacts but from groups wanting to book him for lectures). When I do finally lift my bottom from my seat, he takes it as an opportunity to show me his desk - on it, a set of Russian dolls decorated with the faces of Israeli prime ministers and a framed postcard of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in the moments before his assassination in 1914 (Fisk's father fought in the trenches in the First World War, a fact that has had a profound influence on his own life). At last he puts me in a taxi, though not before he has reminded me that he'll pick me up at 5.30am so that we can travel to the airport together: he is off to Canada to lecture; I'm going home to sleep like the dead. It's kind of him to take such care of me, but I can't say I feel too grateful at this moment. Will he still be like this in the morning? Fisk's long-suffering driver, Abed, was right: one day with him is like a month with anyone else.

And how about this for an irritating habit:
But it is worrying that he refers to himself repeatedly in the third person. 'Have you read any Fisk?' he asks me on the telephone before I land in Beirut, a question that is insulting on so many levels. And now I'm here, he keeps calling himself 'Mr Bob'. Oh, well.
The actual sections on his analysis of the Middle East make him seem as incoherent and rambling as some of his efforts on ABC's Lateline. He actually seems to dislike or distrust just about everyone in the Middle East, even the Lebanese he has lived amongst for years, as well as most of the West.

Maybe he would have been happier on another planet.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Unpopular vicars

So, there was a vicar in England with some anger management issues (spitting on a parishioner was probably not a good way to keep on good terms with the Bishop.) Who knew that this sketch on That Webb and Mitchell Look was based on fact?:

Incidentally, the ABC has replaced Webb & Mitchell with another couple of Brits on "The Armstrong & Miller Show". They are rather hit and miss, as were W&M I suppose, and the style of the humour is often similar. But I find Webb & Mitchell much more likeable and overall significantly funnier.

I also see that Channel 7 has had big ratings with repeats of the Vicar of Dibley, with episodes from 1994! Years after it was shown on the ABC. This must drive ABC programmers nuts: knowing that the 'plebs would like a show if only they watched it.

However, I should hasten to add that personally, I can't stand Vicar of Dibley. Dawn French can be funny, but I find her acting way too hammy in this show. And it's not just her: everything about the attempted humour of the show fails for me.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lurid crime reports of Inida (continued)

Youth kills grandmother for denying porn

There's no need for a court when you have The Times of India on your case:
Denied his daily staple of porn and horror films on his personal computer, a youth from an affluent family decided to get rid of what he thought was the root cause of his misery.....

On April 3, Abhishek smashed Shantabai's head with a stone pestle, killing her instantly. He also stabbed Viren to make it look like an outside job. During interrogation, he tried to mislead the police by saying that Shantabai's head had been smashed by an intruder. He claimed that he had tried in vain to catch the intruder.

However, the police found discrepancies in the statements given by Abhishek and other family members. Abhishek was picked up on April 5 and subjected to questioning.

On Tuesday, he finally cracked and admitted that he killed his grandmother and stabbed his brother.
(This is not a report from a court sentence: it is simply the report of the alleged confession.)

Your next car might be a hybrid

Hybrid cars aren't just for smug yuppies anymore. - Slate Magazine

An interesting article on how successful Toyota has been with their hybrids, and how they are only likely to get more popular in the near future.

Slate has also recently done some debunking of the anti-Prius comparison between a Hummer and the hybrid.

And in other pro-Prius news, they are capable of very substantial mileage on initial batteries. (410,000 km according to this story.)

Big picture time again

Here's a couple of Arxiv papers of interest:

The first one: a paper from January pointing out that finding a Higgs boson of just the right mass at the LHC could in fact confirm that the universe won't expand forever, but will undergo a "big crunch" in the distant future. (I would much prefer the universe to have a big crunch than accelerate into nothing. A big crunch leaves open Tipler's Omega Point, for which I retain a fondness.)

The second one: a recent paper talking at great complicated length about black holes as "fuzzballs". The thing is, black holes could hardly be described as well understood. Although there are astronomical objects which have the right weight and behaviour which would be expected of black holes, some still argue that they aren't "true" black holes at all, and there are questions about the exact nature of the horizon, etc of any black hole. When you get down to Planck size, I think the uncertainty is worse.

Anyway, although the paper seems to indicate that they still expect "fuzzball" model black holes to radiate with something like Hawking Radiation, I am not clear as to how they think this solves the information loss issue. (I have only skimmed this paper quickly.)

As for the relevance to the LHC and micro black holes, I would like the CERN safety review to take into account alternative models for black holes, just to see if they raise any safety issues in terms of potential for no HR, or increased accretion rates, etc.

Reads like fiction

Man with suicide victim's heart kills self - Life-

This is one of those real life stories that might strain credibility if you read it as fiction. (More remarkable than the fact that the heart recipient shot himself, as did the donor, is that the donor's young wife married the recipient!)

A witty Katz column today

Praise be to the Lord our Jobs - Danny Katz - Opinion -

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The daily carrot routine

Health - Life & Style Home -

See the link to a story about a new book on anorexia, and how difficult it can be on the families. The way it can manifest does sound truly bizarre:

It [the book] features Hannah, who would peel and steam one frozen carrot at a time, weigh it, have three mouthfuls, turn the plate 45 degrees and have another three mouthfuls. When the carrot was gone, she would repeat the same routine with the next carrot from the freezer.

"It nearly drive us bonkers," her mother said. "It would take her up to 2½ hours each night to eat … 200 calories. It was mind-blowingly annoying. And we'd have to have the exact products in the right part of the fridge or she'd throw a hysterical screaming fit."

Such behaviour was extraordinarily difficult for families to understand, Professor Halse said.

Yes, it's hard to overstate how annoying that would be for the parents. Honestly, the first time your teenager did that routine for dinner, wouldn't you want to shake her and yell "pull yourself together", or something similar. Not that it would help, of course.

It really is one of the strangest medical conditions, and why is it that (as far as I know) it is only a relatively modern illness? Did a teenager's inclination to obsessive/compulsive behaviour 50 years ago just get directed into some other aspect of life?

Skin derived stem cells showing some promise

Technology Review: Reprogrammed Stem Cells Work on Parkinson's

Further confirmation in this story that embryonic stem cells may be unnecessary for useful therapy after all. It also indicates that unwanted cancer as a result of stem cell therapy might be able to be avoided.

Can I order my brain rejuvenation upgrade for 2030 now?

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Things that turn up in libraries

The Tablet reports that:
Six previously unknown sermons of St Augustine of Hippo have been discovered at Erfurt University in central Germany, a find that the head of the university's library department, Thomas Bouillon, has hailed as "most significant".
As St Augustine died in 430AD, these are pretty old records relating to a very important figure in religious history.

Augustine could be something of a spoilsport, though:
In another sermon about St Cyprian, who was martyred in 258, Augustine criticises the practice of holding drunken orgies on martyrs' feast days.