Saturday, May 31, 2008

A strong review

It's the movie I am destined to hate and despise (on the dubious assumption that I will ever actually see any of it), so I'm a little disappointed that Sex and the City has actually managed about a 50-something-percent approval rating at Rottentomatoes. I was hoping for it to do worse.

There are some savage reviews in there, though; but few of them I have read have lines particularly worth quoting. Roger Ebert gives a very disdainful review, but not a particularly witty one. He is not alone amongst reviewers in noting that a comedy "highlight" is a the uptight character (how shall we put this politely) soiling herself.

What's more puzzling is that there are a couple of good reviews from religious sites. Here's one at Beliefnet (not sure about that site; I've never spent time there, but it sure sounds like it specialises in soft edged spirituality). The one from Christianity Today seems particularly forgiving. This is very disappointing: who can I trust to incorporate reliable conservativism if it's not from a site called "Christianity Today"? (On the other hand, Anglicans still count themselves as Christians, so I should have known.) Funny how it is secular reviewers who are more offended by the empty materialism than the religious reviewers. Dana Stevens in Slate writes, for example:
The show's values are reprehensible, its view of gender relations cartoonish, its puns execrable. I honestly believe, as I wrote when the series finale aired in 2004*, that Sex and the City is singlehandedly responsible for a measurable uptick in the number of materialistic twits in New York City and perhaps the world.
The strongest short review of the movie is from the Orlando Weekly, and it is kinda funny in its savageness:

....we’ll continue to experience befuddlement verging on disgust whenever we’re reminded of Sex and the City (so named, we suppose, because Seriously Rethinking Third-Wave Feminism reads like ass on a poster). We’re totally down with the interpretation offered by a choreographer we know, who once pithily observed that SATC projects onto women “everything that’s wrong with men.” For real: Is it any sort of inroad for a summer film to prove that ladies, too, can surrender to pummeling materialism, a blinkered emphasis on self-gratification and hollow objectification of the opposite gender? Plus, Darren Star and his “creative” crew must be laughing their sphincters loose knowing that their amoral fantasia has been welcomed as gospel by genuine urban women, instead of their obvious target demo: Iowan paralegals too tipsy and titillated to notice that the characters are actually semiotic stand-ins for gay men.

So, no, we don’t have a strong opinion on the thing one way or the other.

I think it's the same reviewer with this even shorter summary (it's on the same page as the slightly longer review):
We’re realists here. We know that nothing we might write could dim a fan’s enthusiasm for rejoining the continuing adventures of Carrie and Samantha and … uh, Dopey, and … uh, the Pink Power Ranger. And maybe that’s as it should be, because everybody has the right to indulge his or her particular pop-culture obsession in a state of unmolested respect. So knock yourselves out, skanks.
UPDATE: I don't know why Rottentomatoes doesn't count Anthony Lane's reviews in New Yorker. Happily, Lane has reviewed it, and he's very funny. Speaking about the special preview he attended:
Not a drop of the forthcoming plot had been leaked in advance, but I took a wild guess. “Apparently,” I said to the woman behind me in line, “some of the girls have problems with their men, break up for a while, and then get back together again.” “Oh, my God!” she cried. “How do you know?
Interesting, he actually criticises it from a feminist perspective (the women mostly define themselves by their ability to snare and keep a man.) But he ends the review like this:
It’s true that Samantha finally disposes of one paramour, but only with a view to landing another, and her parting shot is a beauty: “I love you, but I love me more.” I have a terrible feeling that “Sex and the City” expects us not to disapprove of that line, or even to laugh at it, but to exclaim in unison, “You go, girl.” I walked into the theatre hoping for a nice evening and came out as a hard-line Marxist, my head a whirl of closets, delusions, and blunt-clawed cattiness.

Strange French law

BBC NEWS | Europe | Row over French bogus virgin case

An interesting case from France:
France's ruling UMP party has opposed a French court's decision to annul a marriage between two Muslims because the wife lied about being a virgin.

The Lille court's decision has also angered feminists who say it amounts to a fatwa against women's liberty.

The court granted the man's request for an annulment after ruling that he had been tricked into a marriage.

Both conservatives and feminists have joined forces to complain about the decision, but the government response:
....a justice ministry spokesman insisted the court's decision was not based on religion or morality but on the French civil code under which a marriage can be annulled if a spouse has lied about an "essential quality" of the relationship.
It sounds like there must be some interesting claims made in applications for annulment in France, then!

In Australia, incidentally, annulment of a civil marriage is exceptionally rare, as it is only available because one party was already married, or under age, or forced into a marriage under duress.

The fact that your partner lied about her sexual history seems an extraordinarily silly thing to consider for annulment.

Friday, May 30, 2008

Dalrymple on methadone

We must kick our methadone habit | Theodore Dalrymple - Times Online

Dalrymple has another go at pushing his line that methadone treatment for heroin addiction is a bad idea. (Or, at the very least, it is a bad idea to provide it indefinitely to addicts.)

I wonder what the situation is in Australia. In the early 1980's, I had a pharmacist friend who I saw dispensing liquid methadone to registered addicts from his pharmacy. This was in Queensland under Joh Bjelke-Petersen: I don't think many people really knew that conservative old Queensland had a methadone program going then. (In fact, I have an idea that Queensland program may have been more "liberal" for many years compared to the ones in the southern states.)

Still, I was under the impression that the Queensland program did not leave patients on it forever. I thought there was an expectation that the patient would move off it within a year or so. But maybe I'm wrong.

Anyway, Dalrymple's article is a fascinating read.


Researchers make breakthrough in renewable energy materials

The University of Queensland gets some PR on line, but the practical application of it all still sounds very unclear.

More trouble coming

Penny Wong in clash with carbon emitters | The Australian

Funny how the Rudd government's honeymoon has been ended by conflicting petrol price policies which are both not going to have any substantial impact on prices.

(By the way: has anyone asked the question - if you have Fuelwatch as a national scheme, and given that volatility in oil prices is expected to continue, how does anyone expect to be able to tell whether the scheme has worked or not?)

Much, much more serious trouble is brewing over energy and carbon trading:

TENSIONS are emerging between major greenhouse emitters and Climate Minister Penny Wong after a number of hostile meetings before the release of the Government's green paper on emissions trading in July.

Senator Wong has told small groups of chief executives from major power and other energy-intensive companies that the Rudd Government's election promise of a renewable energy target was "not negotiable".

One of these meetings in Melbourne last Tuesday completely broke down, with Senator Wong reportedly furious at the way she was being treated by the eight business leaders present, telling them "you wouldn't treat (former Treasurer) Peter Costello the way you are treating me".

I'm not so sure that playing the "you're not respecting me because I'm a woman" card was such a good idea, which is what I assume that report means. If that's correct, one of the guys should have responded "no, it's not that you are a woman. It's because you are a po-faced lesbian." That would have broken the ice; there would have been laughs all around, followed by questions about how good looking is her partner.

(I may have taken too much pseudoephedrine this week.)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Signs of unhappiness

Loyal workhorse escapes knacker's yard - for now - Annabel Crabb - Opinion

I won't be the first to say it, but it does seem a little surprising, doesn't it, that within 6 months of a government that (according to polls) is wildly popular, there are leaks from within.

Someone is not happy, and it would be interesting to know who.

Annabel Crabb notes this about our PM:

The Prime Minister's own attitude to what the Coalition is optimistically calling "Fuelgate" is one of professed nonchalance.

"I think actually having an exchange of views and having a debate where you have a complete embrace of different points of view is the way to go," he told Parliament smoothly on Tuesday.

"We are actually pretty relaxed about having a debate which has different points of view. We do not seek to suppress different points of view."

Poor Mr Ferguson. It was even worse than he had feared.

As all the Prime Minister's colleagues know, Mr Rudd reserves the expression "I'm actually pretty relaxed about that" for moments of particularly uncontrolled private rage.

I hope it is true, and that one day someone comes out and details the PM's private behaviour in more detail.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Something funny going on?

Cold-fusion demonstration "a success" ( Blog) -

This appeared a few days ago, and apart from being noted on a couple of well read sites, it hasn't attracted any mainstream media attention.

I wonder if it is a hoax. According to the report, there was a lot of Japanese media present. But surely if it was splashed there, it would have been picked up in Western media too. Physicsworld has also not updated the report with any video or any other form of verification.

Anyway, we can always hope they've come up with something useful, regardless of whether it is cold fusion or something else.

Trouble in space

Spacemen call up Earth and ask for a plumber | Science | The Guardian

The International Space Station's toilet is not working. (Or not working properly.)

Most obvious joke about this: imagine what the plumber's call out fee is going to be. Yuck, yuck, yuck.

The prophet who never gives up

The end of the world is nigh. Its name is Gordon - Times Online

He's not easily discouraged, you have to give him that.

Gordon Ritchie believes he has worked out all the details of the end of the world. Trouble is, he keeps making predictions which turn out wrong:
His predictions have not been rash. They've all been thought through very carefully, but many have been wrong. His revelation came to him after a long period of bible study, including six years in the Jehovah's Witnesses. It all fell into place for him in McDonald's , he says. “I felt like leaping up on the tables, shouting, ‘Why are you eating those burgers?'”
He buys and sells shares with enough foresight to make a living, but look at his other predictions:

“Well, when I went on New York radio in front of two million people telling them they were going to be imminently destroyed and then they weren't, yes, I did feel a complete berk,” he says. Similarly, he took out £30,000 worth of advertising in The Sunday Times predicting that the UN would take overall political control of the world. He ran ads in March, July, September and November 2001, revising his prophecy each time. “Yeah, that turned out to be wrong, duh!” says Gordon.
There's more:
So what are his latest predictions? We meet in late April. He says there will be a terrorist attack on the weekend of April 26 in Europe and the US. Er, no there wasn't. On May 12, angels will start appearing to people, just popping up at dinner parties or when you're watching TV. I feel sure I would have noticed that. Don't book your holidays for next August because, by July half of mankind will be toast and we'll be ready for the new kingdom of Christ, he says.
The belief that keeps him going:
“I know I'm right,” he says. I point out that he's not right, in fact he's very publicly wrong. “Well there's a limit to how many mistakes I can make, I suppose,” he says.
Err, no there isn't.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Colbert on that O'Reilly tape


Movies: Whatever Happened to Karen Allen? | Newsweek Entertainment

This is an amusing article by a journalist who, despite talking to the big stars and directors, still didn't have the courage to speak to his heartthrob Karen Allen when he saw her on the street.

Trouble ever brewing

Nuclear agency accuses Iran of willful lack of cooperation - International Herald Tribune

Don't worry, though, Ken Lovell says we have nothing to worry about.


US director Sydney Pollack dies

I always thought he made or appeared in competent, generally likeable, films.

Mars skepticism

While most things space related interest me, I don't often blog about Mars missions. I don't begrudge planetary scientists their fun, and good science may still come out of these missions; but really, I am skeptical of any optimistic talk of finding life on Mars, or indeed of manned missions.

For humans to travel to Mars, there is a major issue with space radiation. Even on the surface, it's not shielded by a decent atmosphere (or magnetosphere?) and the radiation environment is not so good for permanent living. (Unless you have shielding, the easiest of which is to live under dirt.)

As for bacteria, this summary of a recent paper indicates that any bugs would have to be far underground:
The damaging effect of ionising radiation on cellular structure is one of the prime limiting factors on the survival of life in potential astrobiological habitats. Here we model the propagation of solar energetic protons and galactic cosmic ray particles through the Martian atmosphere and three different surface scenarios: dry regolith, water ice, and regolith with layered permafrost. Particle energy spectra and absorbed radiation dose are determined for the surface and at regular depths underground, allowing the calculation of microbial survival times. Bacteria or spores held dormant by freezing conditions cannot metabolise and become inactivated by accumulating radiation damage. We find that at 2 m depth, the reach of the ExoMars drill, a population of radioresistant cells would need to have reanimated within the last 450,000 years to still be viable. Recovery of viable cells cryopreserved within the putative Cerberus pack-ice requires a drill depth of at least 7.5 m.
Here's another article (based on the same paper, I think) explaining that that scrapping just below the surface is not likely to find anything living.

Really, until they come up with a good answer as to how to ensure astronauts won't be killed during a lengthy voyage to Mars, I just don't know that it is worth the effort to plan for manned missions.

I would much rather intensive investigation of the Moon, with a view to permanent, sheltered bases, to act as lifeboats for humanity.

Yes, but...

Cheap carbon trap cleans up power station emissions - tech - 26 May 2008 - New Scientist Tech

Most of the story is behind a paywall, but here is the start:
Now a team led by Maciej Radosz at the University of Wyoming in Laramie say they have designed a cheap filter that could capture 90 per cent or more of the CO2 emitted by power stations. "This is a way to capture CO2 for about $20 a tonne - less than half the cost of current methods," says Radosz.
Yes, but surely the bigger issue with CO2 sequestration is where to bury it, and how to get it there.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Charlie Brooker has doubts

I've made the point many times: the problem with many a Labor supporter is their assumption that those on the Right are either too evil, or too dumb, (or both), to see the obvious truth that only those on the Left have the moral and practical answers as to how to govern.

Charlie Brooker, whose silly scowling photo used by The Guardian has always made me laugh, illustrates this well in his column today. Warming to the idea that your personal view of politics is strongly affected by genetics, he writes:
This would explain a lot. For instance, I know in my bones that rightwing policies are wrong. Obviously wrong. They just are. It's Selfishism, pure and simple. Nasty stuff. Consequently I don't "get" Tories, never have and never will. We don't gel. There's something missing in their eyes and voices; they're the same yet different; bodysnatchers running on alien software. Yet that's precisely how I must seem to them: an inherently misguided and ultimately unknowable idiot. (I'm right and they're wrong, of course - but they can be forgiven for not working that out. They can't help it. They were blighted at birth.)
But even he is now having his doubts, in the sense that he is finding he can't stomach current Labor figures either. Poor boy, he may be starting a much feared middle age retreat towards the right.

I know he is trying to be a bit funny in the way he writes in this column, but I still think he is pretty much speaking the truth in the above extract.

Secret missions

Titanic search was cover for secret Cold War subs mission - Times Online

So, Robert Ballard was engaged by the US Navy to check out the wrecks of the nuclear submarines USS Thresher and USS Scorpion. He succeeded too:
Thresher, had imploded deep beneath the surface and had broken up into thousands of pieces and Scorpion was almost as completely destroyed. “It was as though it had been put through a shredding machine. There was a long debris trail.” Dr Ballard developed a robotic submarine craft in the early 1980s and approached the US Navy in 1982 for funding to search for the Titanic, which sank in 1912 with the loss of 1,500 lives after hitting an iceberg.

He was told that the military were not willing to spend a fortune on locating the liner, but they did want to know what had happened to their submarines.The military were anxious to know how the nuclear reactors had been affected by being submerged for so long.

The story of Thresher is particularly nightmarish:

Thresher, the US Navy’s most advanced attack submarine at the time, sank with all her 129 crew in April 1963 while undergoing seaworthiness tests after dockyard repairs.

A surface ship, Skylark, was in contact when the submarine’s crew reported that a high-pressure pipe supplying the nuclear reactor with cooling water had blown. The accident 1,000ft down, caused the vessel to lose power. It then sank so deep that the pressure hull imploded.

But, according to the Wikipedia entry, the wreckage was already examined in the 1960's after the accident, so it's not as if Ballard was the first to go there. In fact, this report seems to be based on publicity for a National Geographic special, so that may explain a degree of exaggeration here.

Still, an interesting story.

Frozen chips & the clown

Billionaire made fortune in frozen potatoes - Los Angeles Times

File this away in that small corner of your brain that you aren't using right now. The invention of the frozen chip and McDonalds hamburgers are closely connected.

For some reason, I find that interesting.

Want to take the gamble?

Ocean Acidification: Another Undesired Side Effect Of Fossil Fuel-burning

In this general article about ocean acidification, it is noted:

The expected biological impact of ocean acidification remains still uncertain. Most calcifying organisms such as corals, mussels, algae and plankton investigated so far, respond negatively to the more acidic ocean waters. Because of the increased acidity, less carbonate ions are available, which means the calcification rates of the organisms are decreasing and thus their shells and skeletons thinning. However, a recent study suggested that a specific form of single-celled algae called coccolithophores actually gets stimulated by elevated pCO2 levels in the oceans, creating even bigger uncertainties when it comes to the biological response.

"There are thousands of calcifying organisms on earth and we have investigated only six to ten of them, we need to have a much better understanding of the physiological mechanisms" demanded Jean-Pierre Gattuso, a speaker from Laboratoire d'Océanographie Villefranche invited by EuroCLIMATE. In addition, higher marine life forms are likely to be affected by the rapidly acidifying oceans and entire food webs might be changing.

This is consistent with what I have said before. You already have big changes underway in ocean chemistry, due to the lag time in the ocean absorbing CO2. With thousands of creatures possibly directly affected, and thousand more in the food chain, it a huge gamble to do no planning for reduced CO2 emissions while waiting another 20 years or so for scientists to get on top of the biology of ocean acidification.

Maybe what is needed is some specific research on something people directly like, such as the effect on prawns or oysters. If research can show that ocean acidification will lead to the decline of the beloved Sydney rock oyster, maybe that would get people's attention.

Actually, now that I Google that topic I see that someone says that prawns and crabs won't be affected because of the way they make their shells. But I am sure I have read somewhere else that krill may be affected. (Maybe that is indirectly because of the effect on some types of plankton.) Anyway, here's the quote from The Telegraph:
Mussels, clams, scallops and oysters are expected to be the worst-hit as the oceans grow more acidic. However prawns, crabs and lobsters will escape unharmed as they produce their shells in a different way.
If the effect on oysters is so clear, I reckon a few good Youtube videos showing the effect might be enough to get ocean acidification more attention. I think at the moment people read about it and shrug their shoulders: there is no direct image of the problem for them to worry about. (Whereas if you concentrate on earth warming, you can do a Gore and use pictures of hurricanes and such like, and whether or not they are truly related to global warming, they have an emotional impact to some people.)

By the way, there are a few new posts up at the Ocean Acidification blog listed in my blogroll.

Homer Simpson will be pleased

Doughnut-shaped Universe bites back : Nature News

Sunday, May 25, 2008

My opinion of you know what movie

Went and saw Indiana Jones & the KCS. I came out quite satisfied, though I still find Temple of Doom the most enjoyable of the series.

If you are one of those who think Last Crusade was excellent, you may as well ignore my opinion. Unlike that instalment, in which I found there were no thrills to be had and most jokes fell flat, this movie has genuinely exciting, protracted sequences, and a script that does provide some genuine humour. (The script is not perfect, though, and any flaws with the film really lie there, and not with the welcome re-invigorated action direction of Spielberg.)

One curious aspect of the film, though, was that the self referential bits gave me a feeling that it was like watching the last film in the career of an aging or ill director, who's doing a bit of a career summation. I assume that was not the intention.

You would, however, have to assume that the last scene was meant to telegraph that there would be one more Harrison Ford outing in the role before it is (possibly) handed over to Shia LaBeouf. I for one would welcome another outing with this cast.

An aside: They played the short for Baz Luhrmann's "Australia". It shows every sign of bearing as much resemblance to a realistic portrayal of this nation as "Moulin Rouge" did to 19th century Paris. It showed great promise as a great embarrassment, which I fully expect it to be, as I quite intensely dislike everything of Luhrmann's I have ever seen.

Crawford redux

I'll never forgive Mommie | By genre | Books

This mildly interesting article is about the soon to be re-issued "Mommie Dearest", the most successful adoptive parent character assassination ever.

It turns out many of the other adoptive kids in the Joan Crawford household, and staff who were around her, claim that Christina was wildly exaggerating. If she is, she's certainly very creative about it.

But the main reason I thought this worth a post was for this snippet which surprised me:
Her [Joan Crawford's] forceful personality and strident physical attractiveness meant she was used to getting what she wanted. She married four times and had a string of affairs with both men and women, including a one-night stand with Marilyn Monroe.
Who in American isn't said to have slept with Marilyn?

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Tania goes international

Bollywood starlet Tania Zaetta accused of sex with soldiers in Afghanistan - Times Online

Just what Tania needed - the international press running with the story. Oddly enough, the general character of the comments that follow the Times article are more or less congratulatory for her keeping up the morale of the troops.

Surely, such rumours have followed each and every visit of a female entertainer to overseas troops ever since such entertainment tours began. It's the perfect material for a "friend of a friend" story, and the bragging motivation of whoever starts such a rumour is self evident. Why should this one be given any special credence by anyone? Unless the video turns up on the internet, you can safely assume it never happened.

So who's the idiot who even bothered putting it in some short lived Defence topic list? (Even on the very, very slim chance that it did happen, why would you even worry about it unless you knew a video was being circulated? Stay silent and sensible people who did hear the rumour would just dismiss it anyway.)

Never underestimate the stupidity of some of the people in Defence.

Make Arabs anXious

This was on Little Green Footballs a few weeks ago, but I missed it then.

Memri has a clip up showing some Arab guy on TV claiming (with apparent sincerity) that Pepsi stands for "Pay Every Pence to Save Israel". It's such a stupidly creative rumour, I'm almost impressed.

Some Googling around shows that Time magazine mentioned this as a rumour spread on Iranian TV in 2006. (The Time article also mentions Oprah being on TV in Iran too. Why is she popular there?) Snopes mentions the rumour in 2007 entries here, and again here, where it's said that it spread through Eygptian high schools via chain letters. (It makes you wonder how spectacularly stupid some stuff in chain letters in the Middle East must be.)

As Snopes points out, this urban myth of the Middle East is particularly ironic given that both Coke and Pepsi were strongly criticised in the 1960's by American Jews for not selling in Israel, in order to keep the more lucrative Arab markets. There's a whole Snopes entry about that period.

As for the heading of the post, it's my guess as to what the "Max" must stand for in Pepsi Max.

I'm tempted to post it on some Arabic/Iranian forum, and wait and see how long before it turns up on a Memri clip.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The barmy, barmy Mitfords

Hitler, my sisters and me | Hay Festival | Books

It's hard to resist yet another article about the Mitford sisters and their jolly adventures with fascists and communists. One of them is still alive, Deborah, and she is interviewed in this article about a new collection of the sisters' letters.

Just how balmy some of the family were is illustrated well by this passage:
Unity stalked Hitler, sitting in his favourite cafe, staring, until he noticed her, and then met him more than a hundred times; he gave her a flat that had belonged to a young, now absent, Jewish couple. "The Führer was heavenly, in his best mood, & very gay," she wrote to Diana in 1935. "He talked a lot about Jews, which was lovely." She signs off "With best love and Heil Hitler! Bobo", and writes breathlessly about her various encounters. In some ways, the most disturbing aspect of the letters is their clash of tone and content, the gushing of a star-struck schoolgirl about the heyday of the Reich.

Charlotte and Deborah both stress that Unity, who thought it amusing to take a white rat to parties, was, as Charlotte puts it, "completely unsophisticated, rather young for her age. And she was just bowled over". But this does not apply to Diana, whom Deborah believes was the brightest of the sisters. Diana's letters are nearly as gushing. She and Mosley married at the Goebbels' home in Berlin, and, she wrote to Unity, "I felt everything was perfect, the Kit [Oswald Mosley, whom she called 'kitten'], you, the Führer, the weather, my dress ..." (Many Mitfords were drawn in to some degree: Unity persuaded her parents to support fascism, while, in the 30s, Himmler offered Nancy a tour of a concentration camp. "Now why? So that I could write a funny book about them.")

One thing I didn't know before is that the Kennedy family knew the Mitfords too:
The Kennedys were childhood friends; when Joseph P Kennedy was made ambassador to London in 1938, he moved for a while into a house on Princes Gate, in London. The Mitfords had a place nearby. "Kick [Kathleen Kennedy, who married Andrew Cavendish's elder brother] was 18 and Jack, I suppose, was 19 or 20. Young Joe, who was killed, was maybe 22. And so they were just this very exuberant, charming, wonderful family who happened to live in the next street. The odd thing was, at a dance once, my mother said to Andrew, my husband, to whom I wasn't even engaged then, about Jack, 'Mark my words, that young man will be president of the United States.' Isn't that extraordinary?"
It's hard to believe that a 20 year old John Kennedy would not have been leading an active sex life at that time, and the article indicates that some have claimed that Deborah herself was his lover, but she denies it.

It's a small world for the rich and powerful, isn't it?

UPDATE: the original heading I had on this for nearly a day was "balmy balmy Mitfords". As the Mitfords were not exactly like a warm and soft breeze, I actually meant "barmy", but then again I see from Chambers online dictionary that "balmy" is sometimes used for "barmy". So I haven't completely embarrassed myself. Yet.

For the love of Kevin

I saw most of Q&A last night, which was basically an hour of the Prime Minister taking questions from a (mostly) loving audience.

Andrew Bolt has already noted how the audience was stacked.

The odd thing I noticed about it was that the audio on the audience seemed really turned up to 11. Kevin would make a mildly humorous comment, and the audience laughter in response sounded like a laugh track from Seinfeld.

Although there were questions coming from a critical perspective, the whole thing was so controlled it was far from a challenging environment. Our PM is good at avoiding the question, and is still at the stage of blaming the previous government for most things.

I still can't warm to his personality. Beneath all the standard politician talk, I get the impression that he's a tightly sprung, over-controlling robot, who is not as self-effacing as he likes to portray. There is a faux humility in the continued references to his upbringing in Nambour, which I am very tired of hearing about.

Taking fuel efficient flying seriously

It's interesting to see that soaring fuel costs are leading to jets being flown a bit slower, in order to increase fuel efficiency.

But, for the short inter-city hops in Australia, why don't airlines seriously consider going back to modern turbo-prop aircraft? According to to The Times last month:
“Propeller-driven planes achieve massive fuel benefits on shorter journeys,” Kapil Kaul, of the Centre for Asia Pacific Aviation, said.

For a trip of less than 600 nautical miles, or about 90 minutes’ flying time, a turboprob may use as much as 70 per cent less fuel than a similar-sized jet, he said.

According to Treehugger, the environmentalist website, travelling on an aircraft such as a Bombardier Q400, one of the most advanced turboprops, can be more environmentally friendly than going by car (but not quite as green as taking a train).

This post makes the same point.

Of course, such fuel efficiency doesn't hurt from a greenhouse gas point of view, but even if you are a complete skeptic on that, the economics still make a lot of sense.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

On IslamicTube today

Wandering around the internet today, I stumbled across It's an Islamic version of YouTube; full of Islamic fun.

In today's "featured" category, there's an extract of a talk from an American sounding black Muslim about how AIDS was deliberately injected into Africans as part of an evil American/WHO plan to keep the population down. You can see it here.

They also seem very keen on little kids who can talk about Islam. There's this 2 year old who knows a series of answers to questions about Islam. Watch it and guess which question and answer I find most worrying:

(This version is on Youtube; I don't think you can embed the videos from Islamictube.)

Going back to AIDS, you can go to the "Science and Facts" channel on IslamicTube and watch the series "Medicine and Islam", which seems entirely devoted to camel's milk. I haven't watched it all, but it would seem from the heading that AIDS gets a mention.

Yes, I must spend more time on IslamicTube.

Of interest if you want to live on the moon

100 Explosions on the Moon

NASA has started watching the Moon to see just how often they can see the flash of a meteor hitting it. It turns out they can see a lot of flashes:
Over the past two and a half years, NASA astronomers have observed the Moon flashing at them not just once but one hundred times.

"They're explosions caused by meteoroids hitting the Moon," explains Bill Cooke, head of NASA's Meteoroid Environment Office at the Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). "A typical blast is about as powerful as a few hundred pounds of TNT and can be photographed easily using a backyard telescope."

As an example, he offers this video of an impact near crater Gauss on January 4, 2008.
Long term residents would live under a couple of meters of dirt to avoid radiation anyway, but here's another reason for them to find a nice cave to live in.

A pleasant surprise

A Modest Glass of Wine Each Day Could Improve Liver Health
Researchers at UC San Diego School of Medicine are challenging conventional thinking with a study showing that modest wine consumption, defined as one glass a day, may not only be safe for the liver, but may actually decrease the prevalence of Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).
Who'd have thought you can say "I'm drinking for my liver"?

Good one, Kevin

CSIRO cuts could have 'unforseen consequences' - ABC News
The science research agency says it has no choice but to close its laboratories at Mildura in Victoria, and Rockhampton in Queensland, after a Federal Budget funding cut of more than $60 million over four years.
And I imagine most CSIRO scientists probably voted Labor too.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Not a good look

Orthodox Jewish youths burn New Testaments in Israel - International Herald Tribune

Just when you thought there was enough trouble in Israel already, we have the additional fun of friction between Orthodox Jews, Messianic Jews and Christians.

Here's an idea for sorting out the Middle East: the UN should mandate that the Disney corporation take it over. Disney World in Florida seems nearly as big as Israel anyway.

They really know how to make queues for attractions work, and they have probably got hundreds of lawyers who can sort out those fights between the different churches over who runs the holy sites.

As for the more serious issue, like resettlement rights for Palestinians: put Mickey and Farfur in a boxing ring and let them sort it out.

This post was brought to you by pseudoephedrine. (I have a cold.)


Shitterton: The village that dare not speak its name - This Britain, UK - The Independent

From the article:
This isn't the only place in Britain proudly to wear the Shit– prefix – an unholy trinity is formed with Shittlehope and Shitlington Crags, both in the North-east of England – but Shitterton is the only one of the three actually to be named after excrement. According to the mathematician Keith Briggs, who keeps an informative website on this burning topic, the name is probably derived from a river called Shiter, "a brook used as a privy".
The whole article is funny, in a Benny Hill/Two Ronnies kind of way:
Shitterton probably started a slow metamorphosis towards Sitterton during the Victorian era, at the same time as towns and villages on the river Piddle were being renamed to Tolpuddle, Affpuddle and Puddletown – presumably in order not to cause embarrassment to travellers asking for directions.
I see that the Independent ran another article recently on rude place names in England. Go and pick a favourite.

Green heresies

Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green

I haven't had time to read all of this yet, but this list of 10 "Green heresies" about how to tackle greenhouse gas looks very interesting.

It includes "embrace nuclear". There really do seem to be a lot of articles from the 'States at the moment promoting nuclear.

When are we going to see the same in Australia?

I just tried to find the on-line copy of John Howard's Nuclear Energy Task Force report, and Googling took me to a page in The Age which contained a link, which takes you to an "error" page in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, noting that the content on the website is being "reviewed".

No matter, here it is archived by the National Library.

Another possible lung cancer test

Blood Test For Lung Cancer May Be Possible

This one, is, I think, different from a couple of other tests that have been noted in the last year or so:
Rather than screening for factors released by the incipient tumor into the blood stream, the test Dr. Vachani and colleagues used looked at gene expression in the subject's own circulating white blood cells. "We found that the types of genes present in these cells could tell us whether or not cancer was present," explained Dr. Vachani.

Sounds promising

Vaccine Triggers Immune Response, Prevents Alzheimer's In Mice
Vaccinated mice generated an immune response to the protein known as amyloid-beta peptide, which accumulates in what are called "amyloid plaques" in brains of people with Alzheimer's. The vaccinated mice demonstrated normal learning skills and functioning memory in spite of being genetically designed to develop an aggressive form of the disease.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Things I would rather not think about

One of the more peculiar things to come out of greenhouse gas concerns has been an interest in innovative (and environmentally friendlier) ways to dispose of human bodies.

First, on the New Inventors recently, there was the idea of burying the corpse in a sack, which discretely drops out of a reusable coffin. Hard to object to the idea really; coffins are expensive, and seem quite a waste. It could do a lot of coffin carpenters out of work very quickly, though, if it catches on.

Secondly, the topic came up on The Science Show last week. The basic proposal discussed there was that cremation produces a lot of CO2, and it would make much better sense to bury people vertically near a tree. The carbon from the bodies will end up in wood in the tree. Again, sounds quite sensible really, and the only objection is probably aesthetic, in that a standing body doesn't look as restful as a supine one.

But the next idea is a step too far. Apparently, it is being taken seriously in the States by the funeral industry. Here it is, from William Saletan's Human Nature blog at Slate :
You may soon have a new option: being dissolved in lye. Well, let's not call it that. Let's call it "alkaline hydrolysis." According to AP reporter Norma Love (what a byline!), the process leaves a "brownish, syrupy residue":

It uses lye, 300-degree heat and 60 pounds of pressure per square inch to destroy bodies in big stainless-steel cylinders that are similar to pressure cookers. ... In addition to the liquid, the process leaves a dry bone residue similar in appearance and volume to cremated remains. It could be returned to the family in an urn or buried in a cemetery. The coffee-colored liquid has the consistency of motor oil and a strong ammonia smell. But proponents say it is sterile and can, in most cases, be safely poured down the drain, provided the operation has the necessary permits.

This has a very high "yuck" factor to overcome. I think I would even prefer being left to be eaten by birds (as do the Parsis, although the lack of vultures is causing a bit of a concern to the neighbours) than being turned into industrial sludge.

Now I must find a more pleasant topic for my next post...

Just what we need...

Extinct gene brought back to life - Science - Specials -

According to the article, this research does not mean it would be easy to recreate an entire Tasmanian tiger; but further work with individual genes may lead to Frankenmouse creations:

Future experiments may be able to extract more specialised genes - such as those that were responsible for giving the thylacine its dog-like features, or its distinctly patterned skin, into a mouse.

"We might be able to produce a striped mouse," said Dr Pask, even one with a thylacine pouch.

Just be careful you don't make a ravenous, sharp toothed killer mouse, Dr Pask.

By the way, after reading some of Larry Niven's science fiction in the 1970's, which featured all sort of genetically modified creatures, I came up with the idea that humans modified to have pouches for fetus growing would have a fair few advantages compared to the current set up. Maybe the future belongs to human/kangaroo hybrids.

Love Saudi Style

She’s never met the man she’s marrying: it’s love, the Saudi way - Times Online

This was an interesting article about a couple of young Saudi men and their views on love and finding a partner.

The two guys interviewed are described as:
...average young Saudi men, residents of the nation’s conservative heartland, Riyadh, a flat, clean city of 5m that gleams with oil wealth, two glass skyscrapers and roads clogged with oversized SUVs. It offers young men very little in the way of entertainment, with no movie theatres and few sports facilities. If they are unmarried, they cannot even enter the malls where women shop.
So what do they do when not working?:

There are eight other children in the house where Enad lives with his father, his mother and his father’s second wife. The apartment has little furniture, with nothing on the walls. The men and boys gather in a living room off the main hall, sitting on soiled beige wall-to-wall carpeting, watching a television propped up on a crooked cabinet. The women have a similar living room, nearly identical, behind closed doors.

The house remains a haven for Enad and his cousins, who often spend their free time sleeping, watching Oprah with subtitles on television, drinking cardamom coffee and sweet tea – and smoking.

Well, I assume the recent episode of a man [sic] having a baby must have gone down a treat!

Clearly, the way to change Saudi society is to insert subliminal messages via Oprah. Maybe Obama could convince her to be a secret psyops agent.

Unhappy campers

Labor's leaders have eclipsed our solar power hopes - Opinion -

The domestic solar power industry is very unhappy with the budget.

I know that a huge amount of government money being spent on this would not be an effective way to fight greenhouse gases, but if only a modest amount is spent encouraging families to use solar, I don't think that it hurts.

Monday, May 19, 2008


Europe, please stop funding this man | Features | Film

Joe Queenan writes a fierce, but amusing, attack on the recent career of Woody Allen. I haven't cared for much since Crimes and Misdemeanors.

(Meanwhile, that Indiana Jones movie is hovering around a 70% approval rating at Rottentomatoes. Maybe that's not a bad thing: if I'm disappointed in an extremely well received movie, it's hard not to get annoyed at why so many other people over-praised it.)

Just a little creepy

A Purity Ball - The New York Times

Hey, I'm as much for young unmarried people not having sex as the next conservative, but even so I can't help but cringe at the symbolism used at the "Purity Ball" shown as a slideshow linked above.

It's all too much setting themselves up for a fall, if you ask me. Just go and stay a virgin quietly.

A history of Pebble Bed Reactors

There's a blog run by Robert Hargraves devoted entirely to Pebble Bed Reactors. It was dormant for a while, but he appears to have revived it recently, and he's got a link to an interesting recent article by an engineer about the history of the reactors. Well worth a read, and I'll add the blog to my links soon.

McCain has fun

Found via the always interesting Tigerhawk, here's John McCain doing an amusing short sketch on Saturday Night Live:

Glad to see he doesn't take himself too seriously.

Just as I said

Rudd and Swan fudged paltry spending cuts |

My initial reaction to the budget was to call it a con, because of the difference between how it was spun and what it actually did.

Ross Gittins today makes out a very convincing and detailed case that I was right.

Bring it on

Turnbull denies fuel excise leak |

I didn't see Insiders yesterday, but heard part of it on the radio. Gerard Henderson was being scathing of Nelson's petrol tax excise policy. Now it appears the preliminary fun and games of a leadership challenge are probably underway.

I guess the plan may well be to see if Nelson can increase his approval rating to anything significant in the next poll. If he is still Mr Around-Ten-Percent, I really can't see the point of letting him hang around any longer, even if the ideal may have been to let Turnbull get more experience as shadow treasurer first.

Nelson is a liability as leader; he should go.

Eye candy

Wild China, a 6 part BBC nature documentary, started on the ABC last night, and it was spectacularly good to look at. Why is the BBC so accomplished at this sort of thing?

Highly recommended.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Begging to differ

Shirley Hazzard: Greatest novelist of the 20th century? - Times Online

Based on Bryan Appleyard's high regard for Shirley Hazzard, I recently bought her last novel "The Great Fire." Now Bryan's gone and interviewed her (see above link), and his admiration is set out clearly there.

Sadly, I am almost half way through the novel and am finding it close to unbearable; last night I nearly decided to simply give up.

I don't mind the more ornate style of writing of your typical mid 20th century author: I have read nearly everything of Evelyn Waugh, and quite admire Brideshead Revisited in particular. In the last few years, I finally got around to The Great Gatsby, and while I felt the material was somewhat slight, I thought the writing had some of the same appeal as Waugh's. Going back further, Conrad can be a bit of struggle for me, but I could still understand him.

The problem with Hazzard, who is old enough to have started writing mid last century, is that I keep finding apparently carefully constructed sentences or paragraphs (she took 20 years to finish it) which none the less I have to re-read to discern the information or mood they are intended to convene. Even then I am not always successful in getting her point.

I don't think I am a particularly thick reader. As she has generally been very well reviewed, I have to give examples to try to validate my complaint.

This first paragraph is, I think, important to the theme of the novel, set shortly after the end of WWII; but that's only my guess, given the way it is written:
In the pattern of disruption that had been Aldred Leith's life for years, arrival had kept its interest. Excitement dwindled, curiosity had increased. Occasion revived an illusion of discovery, as if one woke in a strange room to wonder afreash not only where but who one was; to shed assumptions, even certainties. On the sea that evening, such expectation was negilible. Earlier in the day, in the swaying train, Leith had written to a wartime comrade: 'Peace forces us to invent our future selves.' Fatuity, he thought now, and in his mind tore the letter up. There was enough introspection to go round, whole systems of inwardness. The deficiency didn't lie there. To deny the external and unpredicatable made self-possession hardly worth the price. Like settling for a future without coincidence or luck.
I hope someone out there agrees with me, but I find that to be a semi-opaque mess; not good writing at all.

I learn from Appleyard's interview that much of the novel must have been inspired by Hazzard's real life adventures as a young women in post war Asia. She also makes it clear that she was an artistically inclined youth who longed to escape Australia, and that explains why she has one major character who views the country the same way:
He and Rysom had been raised on the Australian myths of desecration - on tales of fabulous vomiting into glove compartments or punch bowls, of silence ruptured by obscene sound: the legends of forlorn men avenging themselves on an empty continent, which, in its vast removal, did not hear or judge them.

These things, Peter Exley knew, who had been born and raised to it all, and endangered by it. Who had released himself into the lavish hospitality of art. Because of his own hairbreadth escape, the condition did not excite his compassion: the attack on whatever withheld itself in mystery - a woman, a culture, a work of art; the sense of private self. All could be exorcised with a beer and a jeer; the mockery, like the drink, being passing assuagement only, of the wound that would not heal.
Of course, this section makes Hazzard sound like a snob too; but who knows, maybe I would not have been entirely happy in mid 20th century Australia either.

No, I restrict my complaint to her prose style, which I guess is a result of what happens when an author keeps revising her writing over twenty years: it becomes elaborate but tedious and unclear.

The review of the book at Slate I can partially agree with. It notes that:
For all her subtlety and depth, Hazzard does not create memorable or particularly believable characters, or, if she manages to, she doesn't seem to favor them....

Moreover, all of Hazzard's characters lapse at intervals into unconvincingly poetical speech: "Decent people, but the place is laconic. Surprised by peace" is how the old scholar describes conquered Hiroshima to Leith upon first acquaintance.
Her style is described as "oblique", whereas I definitely would say "opaque".

Actually, now that I read more of the reviews, a lot of them do seem to acknowledge flaws, yet somehow they still come around to forgiving them. Take this from another review:
Hazzard's prose is crisp and whittled, sometimes even cryptic. We never get a fully fleshed story of Leith's heroics, nor of the mysterious mentor, a former Japanese prisoner who, on his deathbed, presciently foretells Leith's passage back to a personal life. Horrors are hinted at but never dwelt upon. Hazzard revels in oblique distillation, but she is by no means a minimalist. Her sentences are rich in clauses, and her observations run deep, as do her characters' self-awareness and interior lives.
There's that word "oblique" again. And I would not say that her prose is "sometimes" cryptic; it happens on about every second page, and I just find that intolerable.

Bryan Appleyard wonders why she isn't better known, but it doesn't surprise me at all.

Confusing Fisk

It's hard to tell why The Independent continues to pay Robert Fisk. His style is increasingly confused, and in dire need of editing. Here are some recent examples.

First, talking about a nice meal he was able to have despite the recent violence in Lebanon:
But I brought up the tiny matter of the little massacre in northern Lebanon in which 10 or 12 militiamen were captured and then murdered before being handed over to the Lebanese army. Their bodies were – I fear this is correct – mutilated after death.

"They deserved it," the elegant woman on my left said. I was appalled, overwhelmed, disgusted, deeply saddened. How could she say such a thing? But this is Lebanon and a huge number of people – 62 by my count – have been killed in the past few days and all the monsters buried in the mass graves of the civil war have been dug up.

I chose escalope du veau at the Cocteau – I am sickened by how quickly I decided on it – and tried to explain to my dear Lebanese friends (and they are all dear to me) how much fury I have witnessed in Lebanon.

Fisk should have more self loathing about his writing style than his choice of lunch.

If you need more convincing of his self-indulgent and increasingly opaque style, try the latest column. It contains such gems of journalism such as this:

So let us start at the beginning (be that the Ottoman, French, post-Versailles beginning of Lebanese history). Or let us begin yesterday, when it was broadcast that two Hizbollah members (for which read Shia Muslims) were knifed to death in Aley by Druze Muslims. Outrageous, if true. So let us begin with the statement that the Lebanese army command has decided to let Brigadier General Wafiq Chucair remain in command of security at Beirut airport. And that the Lebanese army commander – General Michel Sulaiman (the favourite for president if parliament, after 18 sittings, decide to choose one) – was determined to restore "law and order".

Thus (if the reader is not already confused) we should advance to the near-present.
Then, talking about an exhibition of Lebanese civil war posters, he writes:

And when I walked round that exhibition, I thought – yes – that this war could never be recreated. I even contemplated an article saying that there would not be another civil war here. On reflection, I should have sent that story to this paper. For despite everything that we have witnessed these past three days (or two years, or the 30 years or 2,000 years, you take your pick), I don't think the Lebanese want another civil war.

Five days ago, I recorded an interview for Saad Hariri's Future channel about my new book, and told my interviewer that I did not think there would be another civil war in Lebanon. Because Hizbollah has cut the cables of the channel, there will be no programme. "You did it for nothing," the young Lebanese woman interviewer told me yesterday. Yes, I think she was right. But I still suspect that the Lebanese will not tolerate another civil conflict.
Whatever you think of his politics, you would surely have to agree that his writing has become awful.

Now it's engineers

High-Tech Japanese, Running Out of Engineers - New York Times

First, it was doctors, now it's engineers. Of course, the basic problem is, Japan is going to run out of people soon. It's one of the nations that forgot to have children, and it's kind of sad to watch.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Television love

My five hours with Sony's amazing XEL-1 OLED television.

This is a pretty amusing article by someone who is deeply impressed by the picture quality of the small Sony OLED TVs that you can now buy overseas. He writes:
Like some awesome hybrid of a plasma screen, an LCD, and a Holodeck, the picture on the OLED (it stands for organic light-emitting diode, which means, I think, that the TV is alive) is demonstrably clearer than anything I've seen before. The movie Hairspray is playing when I arrive, and its crisp luminosity makes me forget that Hairspray is absolutely terrible. A colonoscopy video would be compelling on OLED.

There are about 20 big-screen televisions lining the walls of the room, high-definition LCDs and plasmas and whatnot. Compared with the OLED, they all look like they're covered in thin layers of gauze.
The article doesn't mention, though, the question marks raised about the display's longevity. (Sony claims 30,000 hours to get to half-brightness, but a test company claims it will be more like 17,000.) Still, I guess if you're rich enough to buy an 11 inch screen TV for US$2,500, you're reach enough to buy something better in 8 years anyway.

A deeper conspiracy

Unleashed: Unanswered 9/11 questions

What's this? ABC Unleashed is now open to spreading the poisonous blatherings of 9/11 Truthers? This is how my taxpayer funded ABC is using it's money?

Ah, but I suspect there is actually a deeper conspiracy going on. Just how seriously can anyone take a conspiracist with the first name "Hereward"?

Christine Kerr on the alcopops

The real motive behind the alcopops tax hike | The Australian

Christian Kerr sets out a very strong case for very strong cynicism over the alcopops tax increase.

I had been wondering what proportion of alcopops are based on rum and dark spirits, which are almost exclusively marketed to men. Kerr supplies the answer: about 75%.

This indicates that the increase is largely off target, if the concern is to reduce binge drinking in women in particular.

It may also mean that the move is much more unpopular with the electorate than I first imagined, so something good may come from it after all...:-)

Friday, May 16, 2008

Warning: religion

Tonight's very distressing scenes on the television from the earthquake affected areas of China reminded me of a recent article at First Things, inspired by the recent Burma tragedy, about theodicy.

Wikipedia explains that theodicy is " a specific branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to reconcile the existence of evil or suffering in the world with the belief in an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God, i.e., the problem of evil."

There are several ways a Christian can seek to explain the problem of evil, but I think I am probably now more inclined to take the Jewish/Kantian view, as explained in the Wikipedia article, that it is a bit presumptuous for humans to believe they can work it out at all.

Still, the First Things article I mentioned struck me as expressing very elegantly the emotional power of a theodicy that is based on a traditional Christian belief in real evil and a Fallen creation. It is written by David B Hart, said to be an Eastern Orthodox theologian, and while it is all worthwhile reading, the last paragraph sums it up nicely:
As for comfort, when we seek it, I can imagine none greater than the happy knowledge that when I see the death of a child I do not see the face of God, but the face of His enemy. It is not a faith that would necessarily satisfy Ivan Karamazov, but neither is it one that his arguments can defeat: for it has set us free from optimism, and taught us hope instead. We can rejoice that we are saved not through the immanent mechanisms of history and nature, but by grace; that God will not unite all of history’s many strands in one great synthesis, but will judge much of history false and damnable; that He will not simply reveal the sublime logic of fallen nature, but will strike off the fetters in which creation languishes; and that, rather than showing us how the tears of a small girl suffering in the dark were necessary for the building of the Kingdom, He will instead raise her up and wipe away all tears from her eyes — and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, nor any more pain, for the former things will have passed away, and He that sits upon the throne will say, “Behold, I make all things new.”
I feel a little sorry for people who have never felt the emotional appeal of such a belief system.

Solar for the poor means solar for no one

Solar power rebate change cools public demand | The Australian

A DECISION to break a pre-election promise on solar panel rebates is already reaping havoc, with cancelled orders and staff laid off.

Phillip May and his partner, Sophia Moody, are seething after the decision in Tuesday's budget to introduce a means test for an $8000 rebate when household income exceeds $100,000.

Adding to the insult, the rebate introduced by the Howard government first came about because Labor had promised one and that it would be available for households earning less than $250,000.

"This has kicked the guts out of our company," Mr May said last night.

The two directors of small Queanbeyan-based installation firm Solartec have been fielding calls all day from would-be clients who now won't go ahead with energy-saving panels.

On talk back radio yesterday, I heard a caller who was about to install a 2 kilowatt system at an (after rebate) cost of $14,000 arguing that it was only the higher income home owners who would even consider installing panels at this cost. He said he was only doing it to make his contribution to reducing greenhouse gases; not because it was economically viable.

Seems a good point. While there was an argument for changing the rebate system, this method seems a bit perverse.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Pointless replies

Why is there prominence given to Budget replies, especially when the Opposition is years away from regaining power in the lower house? I never watched a Labor one during the Howard years, and I didn't watch Nelson tonight.

The Coalition's decision to oppose the "alcopop" tax increase is not going to win much public favour, and I doubt that the 17 - 25 year old demographic of young women who will most appreciate the move are the Coalition's natural constituency anyway.

Did Nelson mention pensions? It seemed to me, listening to talkback radio on the first couple of days after the Budget, that the most common complaint was that the nation had a spare $20 billion that the government wanted to save for future spending, but it couldn't increase aged pensions.

So, what can you do with a spare few billion dollars? According to this Liberal Party publication from 2007 (which is actually full of interesting graphs and stuff about how the Coalition was benefiting pensioners), Australia is spending about $24 billion a year on the aged pension for about 2 million recipients.

A 10% increase in the pension would therefore appear to cost roughly $2.4 billion. Of course, with the aging population, such an increase might be more problematic for the future; but then again, when will all that superannuation sloshing around start to help the government bottom line?

So, yes it does seem there was some room for improvement to pension rates, although I guess it would be better to add the support in some other fashion than a straight rate rise.

In other movie news...

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes

Early reviews for Prince Caspian are pretty positive. Yay!

I don't know why they chose to open a few days ahead of the Indiana Jones movie. It's being absolutely swamped in publicity terms.

I guess the hope is that the pretty rock solid American Christian audience that I suspect accounted for a lot of the first Narnia movie's box office success is pretty much guaranteed to see this sometime during summer, regardless of when it opens. (Of course, The Lion,the Witch and the Wardrobe deserved its success anyway.)

Least anticipated film of the season

Florist detour and frock stars come up smelling of roses - Film - Entertainment

The only point I can see in having a "Sex and the City" movie made is for women to have some sort of clear test as to their new boyfriend's sexuality. The number of straight men willingly in a cinema to see it (or, at least, there at their own suggestion) will be vanishingly small .

And really, was there ever a worse look in a dress than the open cut thing that bony-chested what's-her-name is wearing in the photo at the link? (Oh dear: I have commented in a bitchy sounding way on women's fashion. No, no, I don't want to see the movie, honest.)

UPDATE: here's a pretty funny column on the same topic, which repeats this comment which apparently appeared after the movie's review in The Times:
I don't think SATC is just for girls. I am a reasonably well-adjusted bloke and I am looking forward to seeing the film with my girlfriend. I am then looking forward to poking my eyes out with red-hot pokers, burning my skin off, and rolling around in salt for a while."—Phil Mann, Newcastle upon Tyne.

Devine Vs Wodak

Puff goes the drug liberaliser - Miranda Devine - Opinion -

It's interesting watching the argument between Miranda Devine and Dr Alex Wodak on the question of marijuana laws. Seems to me Miranda is clearly winning.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Didn't Nicola get the memo?

On the 7.30 Report on Monday, Kerry O'Brien had this exchange with Health Minister Nicola Roxon:
KERRY O’BRIEN: Have you consulted the States on this? You've told them of your decision are they relaxed and comfortable about the prospect of up to 400,000 extra people coming back into the public hospital net?

NICOLA ROXON: Those are estimates from the health insurance industry. They haven't provided us with the basis upon which they make those estimates or whether, in fact, those people will present at public hospitals.

KERRY O’BRIEN: At least they've given us some figures, you haven't given me any.
On the ABC today:

Treasurer Wayne Swan has confirmed his own department predicts 485,000 people will dump their private healthcare cover under changes to the Medicare surcharge that were confirmed in last night's Federal Budget.

The figure is well above what the industry was predicting as a result of the surcharge income threshold doubling to $100,000 for singles and $150,000 for couples.

It's about time our PM had them both in his office for a cup of tea and introduction, isn't it?

Also in the Kerry O'Brien interview, there's a sign that he's starting to get sick of the way the Rudd government media manipulation works:
KERRY O’BRIEN: The decision on the health fund tax levy was leaked to both Fairfax and News Limited newspapers for Saturday morning and then Wayne Swan confirmed it on radio. Are you comfortable that this kind of media manipulation has now become commonplace? Why not, if you want it out, why not just announce it if you want it out there before the Budget? I would have thought that would be a more honest way to do it, wouldn't it?
Why doesn't he ask pointed questions like this to Kevin Rudd himself, to whom he still gives a puzzlingly easy ride?

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Budget comments

Short summary: it's all a con.

A lot of the reaction tonight is pretty positive, but those taking a more cynical view seem to me (of course!) to have the more realistic take on it.

This summary here on ABC Online seems pretty right. It's not taking spending cuts seriously at all. Of course, as Turnbull had warned, severe spending cuts were not necessarily good in current circumstances anyway. However, (again as Turnbull complained tonight,) Swan was selling the need for "inflation fighting" spending cuts before today, but he hasn't really delivered on his own promise.

There was an economist writing in the Courier Mail today who argued that assessing the likely effect of a budget on inflation was extremely difficult and depends on assessing the effect of all cuts and spending programs in the entire budget. This makes a lot of common sense, but I can find no link.

In any event, it seems clear that the $2 billion net savings in the budget as delivered will make next to no difference to inflation. Are people forgetting that only a couple of days ago Access Economics was claiming that every $3 billion dollars saved would prevent a .25% interest increase? Some months ago, Ross Gittins claimed that it would take an extra $10 billion in surplus (or a surplus of 2.3% of GDP) to have the equivalent effect. I think I heard that this budget has a surplus of 1.8% of GDP. Therefore, even on Access Economics more 'optimistic' view of how effective spending cuts could be, any praise for this being an inflation fighting budget seems distinctly premature.

On the nature of some of the savings, Alan Kohler made this interesting point I haven't seen elsewhere:
One of the big savings measures is a bit of a fiddle though. The cancellation of the $959 million “Australia Connected” fund that was awarded to Singtel Optus and Elders has been counted as a saving, but the $4.7 billion National Broadband Network amount that replaces it is not counted as an expense because it hasn’t been spent yet and is not detailed in the forward estimates.
And on the point of the "future funds," which really are there just to delay large infrastructure spending until the lead up to the next election, the Crikey budget blog notes this:
...Wayne Swan today indicated both the capital and interest would be spent on appropriate projects. Given the expected inflation environment over the next few years – and the fact that, when it comes to infrastructure, we are suddenly playing catch-up for years of State Government neglect – it’s hard to work out how expenditure by these funds won’t have a similar inflationary impact several years hence as they would now.
The Opposition has made the point that its education endowment fund was a permanent fund that earned ongoing income to upgrade universities; it was not simply a pool of capital to be spent and disappear over a few years.

As I say, all a con.

On the other big political issue of the week (the Medicare surcharge levy adjustment), there is no denying that there was a logical argument for increasing the limits, as there is with taking bracket creep into account in tax tables. But also as with tax bracket creep, governments that adjust too quickly are not really helping their bottom line.

Given that there was no adjustment for 10 years, some adjustment was justifiable now. But to take it from $50,000 to $100,000 for a single person is just ideology at work, not logic. (I've had a quick look at CPI figures for 97 to 07, and it looks to me like $67,500 would be the correct inflation adjusted figure.)

Isn't that effective "tax cut" going to have an inflationary effect?

There's no doubt a significant number of single people will first drop out of private health insurance because of this change, followed by more married couples when the funds increase their already barely tolerable premiums because of the loss of the single people.

It's the first case of a unexpected and clearly bad idea borne of Labor ideology for this government. As Tony Abbott ably argued, it is very likely to make dealing with the problems within the public health system much worse in the long run.

UPDATE: I typed this last night then forgot to post it. I see now that Andrew Bolt was making the same points. Peter Hartcher makes the case for it actually being bad for inflation.

UPDATE 2: I hear that Malcolm Turnbull is running with the case that it is actually going to stimulate inflation, and he may be right.

So, to get my criticisms in order:

It's not that I was looking for a budget that did cut into people's income (eg by not delivering the tax cuts,) but the government is trying to sell the budget on pure spin, as Bolt says.

Swan is selling increased tax as a "saving": does that really make sense? Some of the other savings may well be illusory too, as noted above.

Putting the surplus into funds to be spent in future might not be such a bad thing, provided the process of identifying infrastructure spending comes up with sound projects. From that point of view, the budget is a bit of a "wait and see" proposition, as it may or may work well in the future.

It's not a budget that deserves strong condemnation; on the other hand it is not one that deserves praise either.

It is definitely the most highly "spun" budget we have seen for many years.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Slow blogging

Work, and a need for deep meditation in my underground bunker in preparation for the forthcoming release of a couple of unusually highly anticipated movies, is likely to keep me from posting much for a week.

Also, for whatever reason, I have been finding it harder to find particularly "blog worthy" stuff on the internet in the past few weeks. (Hence my need to post on the rather mundane topic of rating the Indiana Jones movies. Last night, I watched another vaguely remembered Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis movie - Sailor Beware - with my son, and enjoyed it a lot. I am tempted to try to explain here why, but I'm not particularly good at that style of writing anyway.)

Anyway, there is likely to be something in the Budget that I will write about, so don't go away for too long.

Moving CO2

Carbon Dioxide Capture And Storage: Grasping At Straws In The Climate Debate?

This short article argues that there is strong reason to be skeptical of CO2 storage being able to be done at the scale really required to be effective:
The Climate Panel sees CCS as offering great potential. In various scenarios it accounts for between 15 and 55 percent of the reduction of greenhouse gases by 2100...

The problem is, according to Anders Hansson, that CCS is still a relatively untested method.

“There are a number of small facilities, in Norway, for instance, where they capture and store a million tons of carbon dioxide per year. Swedish Vattenfall is starting a pilot facility in eastern German this summer.”

Globally, a total of some millions of tons per year is being stored today within the framework of CCS. But to live up to the hopes placed on CCS requires the storage of several billion tons. In other words, this involves gargantuan volumes. In fact, carbon dioxide would be the world’s largest transported good.

“In full scale this technology only exists in the imaginations of the people developing it,” says Anders Hansson. “It’s overly optimistic to place such great faith in it, considering all the uncertainties found in the scientific literature.”

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Back to the egg

Another year, another column from Tracee Hutchison about childlessness, and her resentment that politicians tend to concentrate spending on supporting families.

Last year, Tracee said this (in reference to Bill Heffernan's famous "barren" comment about Julia Gillard):

Despite John Howard's and Peter Costello's attempts to distance themselves from their wayward senator's latest spray, they are the culprits of turning the family values mantra into political paydirt and their imminent budget sweeteners to families will reinforce it.

Forget about the clever country we once aspired to be, we've become the conception country.

Exactly as I predicted, the Labor Party attitude is not pleasing her either. From today's column:

Why should single, childless people, many of whom are struggling to find relevance in a kids-and-couple dominant culture, be forced to pay for other people's children through a combination of taxes and imposed maternity leave levies? Isn't that a bit like rubbing our noses in it? Very inconsiderate if you ask me, especially when there's nothing in either budget for us.

The first part of today's column is all about how she has ended up accidentally childless.

I'm not unsympathetic to the sorrow that a single woman in her early middle age may feel at the realisation that they probably are not going to ever have a kid. (Although, as I have said before, I don't know why many modern women who know they want children will still waste years and years sleeping with partners who won't commit to the idea.)

That said, I don't know that Tracee exactly gives credibility to her argument that single people are "ignored" by government by explaining first that she walks this emotional precipice when someone just tries to make small talk with her:
And then, at some point, the mere thought of being asked one more time if you have children makes you want to shriek like a madwoman or slap the nearest person to you very hard indeed. You opt, of course, for a dignified silence for fear of being whispered about in unbecoming sentences such as "no wonder she can't find a fella …"
With such a sound and rational grounding in the issue, she should run for the Greens for Parliament.

A slight overstatement, perhaps

Danger of infection in surgery preparation - National -

There's an orthopedic surgeon upset about idiosyncratic rules in Sydney hospitals:

Dr Robert Molnar has for the past six months unsuccessfully sought an explanation from the Health Department as to why he is not permitted to use alcoholic surgical preparation solution on his patients at Westmead Hospital, yet he is able to at St George and Sutherland public hospitals.

The rules vary across hospitals: alcoholic solution can be used at Fairfield, Concord, Prince of Wales, Royal Women's and Royal Prince Alfred hospitals but is barred at Liverpool, Nepean, Gosford, Canterbury or Royal North Shore.

And why does this matter? Apparently, the alcohol based ones are known to offer better protection against post operative infection:

A Sydney orthopedic surgeon, Doron Sher, said that if the surgeon was appropriately educated the risk of fire was minimal.

"There is evidence in the literature showing that infection rates are lower using alcoholic Betadine," he said. "I use the alcoholic solution when I get the option because I believe that you get a lower infection rate."

But I like this line in the report best, as I assume this conclusion hasn't been verified in studies:

Dr Molnar had used an aqueous antiseptic to prepare the skin.

"You may as well spit on the wound...." he said, noting that alcoholic solution could be used at most private NSW hospitals.


Will changed a week before overdose death - National -

Isn't it an odd choice to be calling a death by Nembutal an "overdose". According to Wikipedia, there are very few things Nembutal can be used for in humans, and of course its fame now is mainly as euthanasia groups' preferred suicide drug.

Seems a bit like saying someone died of a rat poison overdose.

Friday, May 09, 2008


This bud's for you, and you, and you too - Los Angeles Times

Go and read this piece by Joel Stein that shows how unbelievably farcical "medical marijuana" is in California.

(I always assumed such a system was a joke, but it's a much bigger joke than I ever imagined.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Pilot shortage

Somehow, I seem to have missed reports about the international pilot shortage. Yesterday, I heard someone on the ABC putting figures on it, and I can't find a link. However, there's already an estimated shortfall of several thousand.

The plight of pilots in China seems particularly harsh. From The Economist in April:

The state is being so heavy-handed because it fears a mass walkout. It maintains an iron grip on pilots through lifetime contracts, enshrined in state law, which they must sign in return for receiving pilot training. With growing demand from the 20 private airlines that have started up in the past four years, these contracts seem like handcuffs. The CAAC requires pilots to pay 700,000-2.1m yuan to break their contracts. This week Shanghai Airlines filed a lawsuit against nine of its pilots demanding even more (35m yuan) if they continue with their plans to leave the company.

The CAAC's figures show a shortage of 5,000 pilots and predict that 6,500 more will be needed by 2010. The lack of local facilities is prompting Chinese airlines to send groups of students to Canada, Australia and Spain for training.
MSNBC had a story about the international shortage mid last year:
Figures released by International Air Transport Association show that global air travel will likely grow 4-5 percent a year over the next decade, though the aviation boom in India and China is expected to exceed 7 percent....

India and China alone will need about 4,000 new pilots a year to cope with their growth.

By comparison, Germany's Lufthansa — one of the world's largest airlines — employs a total of just over 4,000 pilots.

On average, airlines need 30 highly trained pilots available for each long-haul aircraft in their inventory. For short-haul planes they need less, between 10-18 flyers.

Those figures for the number of pilots an airline needs for each aircraft seem surprisingly high, but what would I know about running an airline.

Anyhow, maybe it is all the more reason to build airships. (I figure pilots don't have as much to do on them, and they could get more sleep on the flight.) Or, there is always this solution:

Yes, a small company in Mexico wants to build you a strap on rocket helicopter. (Mexico? Well, I guess they would come in handy for border crossings.) But before you place your order, read the rocket helicopter designer's personal history (from the "About us" heading on the company website):
At the school I was a trouble kid and I ended psychoanalyzed in the Conduct Clinic for abnormal behavior because I didn't liked the school, because they try to teach me things that I didn't want to learn and they don't teach me what I wanted to learn!, it was just a communication problem!.
The only two subjects I liked too much was physics and chemistry unfortunately this classes was only two times per week, I hated the rest of the subjects and the school was a boring place for me.

This was a constant fight with my teachers because I considered that my brain has a finite capacity to keep formulas and data that are important for me and not the name of the horse that was rode by El Quijote or the dates and places of the Napoleon fights and another stupid things that I don't care and never used in my life.

I skipped the school (play hockey) many times and went to work as a helper at a speed garage that prepared racing cars, there I learned a lot of mechanics, to weld, to paint, to work the fiberglass, to modify engines for racing, to port and polish the race car heads, etc., this was the things I wanted to learn and not all the garbage that the teachers wanted me to remember.
Sounds like a young Speed Racer, really.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal has an article today about shortages in all jobs to do with the airline industry, and the safety concerns that this is causing. (Some estimate a shortage of pilots in the order of 42,000 worldwide by 2020.) The most surprising snippet:
In Brazil, pilots at TAM Linhas Aéreas SA last year overshot a São Paulo runway and smashed a new Airbus jet into a building during stormy weather, killing more than 190 people. The pilots were apparently confused about how to reduce engine power and apply reverse thrust.