Monday, September 29, 2008

Absence explained

This post is being made from a Windows 98 computer which rarely is used for English, so the formatting might be out.

I'm off drinking new and interesting forms of alcohol, munching on some pretty strange seafood, taking photos of curious signs, and occasionally talking to the children more often than I do at home. Yes, it's a holiday, and that awful Madonna song just came into my mind. (Gaa. Is there some sort of award for being an embarrassment in every decade of your life?)

One curious thing I have learnt so far is that not having deep REM sleep for 40 hours does not send me insane. I was expecting at least an hallucination, but nothing. Just bleary eyes. Then again, I did have a dream last night about Kevin Rudd having a scandalous affair with a prostitute. That is so unreal I don't expect that even the shamanic loco juice drinkers of the Amazon go that far.

Posting will be irregular for quite a while yet.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Asparagus report 2008

Almost exactly a year ago, I commented on the tasteless quality of imported asparagus. Just buy Australian asparagus in season, I suggested.

Well, I don't know what's going on, but I just ate some (apparently) Queensland grown spring asparagus, and what a disappointment. Very tasteless (although the famous toilet after effects still comes through.)

What have they done? Developed a particularly fast growing but tasteless variety for farmers? I'm going to have to look at growing my own soon.

Teh complaint

Over at teh blog with the teh crook name, teh use of teh "teh", formerly teh speciality of teh blogger Kim, has now become increasingly popular with teh academic. Teh repetition is so annoying that teh magistrate would acquit anyone who slapped teh culprits in teh street and told them "for God's sake, give up teh wankily lefty pretentious habit. It makes teh writing look as sophisticated as that in a high school newspaper."

Monday, September 22, 2008

To keep you going

Readers are free to chose one of the following explanations for a lack of posts here for a few days:

a. my secret mission involving leading a crack team of French commando rabbits was a success;
b. Friday night's proof of toilet-cubicle-sex-and-"no that wasn't me, er, yes it was"-karma meant I became a Buddhist for a weekend;
c. have been at the beach trying to convince Andrew Bolt of the error of his global warming ways.
d. just been busy with, well, stuff.

Busyness is likely to continue, perhaps for this week.

In the meantime, here's some worthwhile reading:

* a Guardian opinion piece (surprise) reminds us in an amusing fashion just how often communists have been predicting the end of capitalism. This naturally upsets a lot of Guardian readers in the comments that follow.

* someone at The Times gives a list of 10 books just not worth reading. As it includes Lord of the Rings, I think he's onto something. (The reasons given for each book are pretty funny.)

* Bill Shorten evidently thinks that the fastest way to depose Kevin Rudd is to marry into the monarchy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The double edged sword of the internet

Obama mobilizes rapid response on Web --

Found via Instapundit, this is just a little bit creepy:
Much of Barack Obama's political success can be traced to a database listing contact information for millions of people, a tool that has proved invaluable in raising record sums of money and organizing a national volunteer network.

Now Obama's presidential campaign is increasingly using the list to beat back media messages it does not like, calling on supporters to flood radio and television stations when those opposed to him run anti-Obama ads or appear on talk shows.

It did so as recently as Monday night, when it orchestrated a massive stream of complaints on the phone lines of Tribune Co.-owned WGN-AM in Chicago when the radio station hosted author David Freddoso, who has written a controversial book about the Illinois Democrat.

Some posts about the Crash

Just for my benefit as well as yours, here are some useful pieces on the current financial crash:

Roger Altman in the Financial Times

John Gapper in the Financial Times (who believes AIG should not have been bailed out)

A New York Times column here.

What I want to know is this: if Australia's financial position is so much better, how come our dollar is dropping so much against the US dollar (and Japanese yen?)

Of interest

'Calm before storm' may foreshadow climatic tipping point

This study sounds very interesting, but it is still not at all clear what they think could constitute a sign of the climate "slowing down". (I would have thought that temperatures not rising as expected might have been an example, but that is not mentioned, so maybe it isn't?)

Backfire again

Palin's Yahoo! Account Hacked | The Trail |

I like this comment that follows the story:

"Now, American People, don't worry, us democrats will not invade YOUR privacy, just our enemies!"

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Top threat down

Colbert Report's Threat Down this week was particularly good:

Anything but less sex

HIV rates climbing: new figures - Yahoo!7 News

The story covers not just HIV, but an increase in all STDs across Australia.

Most surprising is this:

Plans are afoot to introduce a radical plan to control syphilis by mass treating the highest-risk gay men regardless of whether they have contracted the infection.

"We think that's the best chance we have of taking the wind out of the outbreak," Prof Donovan said.

So, just give up on any concept of responsible sexual behaviour, and just treat any gay man who is having a new partner every week with antibiotics?

The report also notes this:

He said he was also concerned by a new trend of HIV infections arising among heterosexual businessmen and miners from WA, Queensland and the Northern Territory who travel to Papua New Guinea for work.

"Gay tourists also need to be more vigilant than ever as it has recently become very clear that in most Asian cities HIV epidemics among gay and bisexual men are now raging virtually unchecked," Mr Baxter said.

Most Asian cities, I note, are not Catholic, yet the condom message is not working so well. The magic power of the condom has been greatly exaggerated, it would seem.

Conspiracy of the day

Can icy fuel bring down an airliner? - tech - 16 September 2008 - New Scientist Tech

New Scientist seems to have opened up every story to comments. This'll be an interesting experiment.

Anyhow, see the link above for their short story on the reason for that odd malfunction of a B777 at Heathrow earlier this year. The investigation is blaming ice build up in the fuel system, but the circumstances still seem rather odd.

Of most interest is a comment that follows that suggests that Prime Minister Gordon Brown may be to blame (well, indirectly.) The idea that a PM could be so hapless as to cause a plane crash has such appeal that I sort of hope it is true.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

PDS worse than BDS

Anne Lamott on grief, despair, and the 2008 presidential election | Salon Life

Gosh. So you thought during the election campaign of 2004 that the prospect of George W winning a second term was driving progressives crazy? It's really shaping up as nothing compared to the tearing of garments and wearing of sackcloth being threatened if McCain/Palin win. (I am not sure if a string of celebrities have started threatening to leave the country yet, but it will be bound to come if McCain continues to poll well.)

Also, as this attempt at humour linked above makes pretty clear, it's mainly because of the Palin element.

Enough with the "lies"

Outrage at McCain--a loser strategy. - By Mickey Kaus - Slate Magazine

Kaus' argument (about how Democrats who cry "liar liar" are pursuing a losing strategy) makes a lot of sense.

Ever since 9/11, many liberals (especially those like the Daily Kos crowd, but older politicians will also seize on it when it suits them) have started acting as if political discourse has never involved ambiguity, exaggeration and half truths. For them to label every statement of their opponent that is not shown to be 100% "true" as an outright "lie" just makes them look immature, naive, and (at least in the case of politicians who know better), insincere. Yet it is a tactic that they are finding very hard to abandon, despite the harm it is causing to their side.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Go Brendan...

By which I mean, "go away, Brendan". Brendan Nelson's success tomorrow in the Liberal leadership would just ensure another year of tension with the Coalition continuing to poll badly against a Prime Minister who is already widely acknowledged as (at least) being a disappointment. Everyone knows he is unelectable. It's just that Brendan hasn't got the message yet.

Stand up Liberals: re-read the polls tonight and don't bother with another "fair go" for Nelson.

Roger knows Whoopi

Roger L. Simon: Whoopi’s not dumb - she’s just a fake

Roger Simon has an interesting post up about Whoopi Goldberg and her recent "return to slavery" comment on The View.

Old time sex

The love lives of the ancient Romans - Times Online

This is an extract from Mary Beard's just published book on what Pompeii tells us about the lifestyle of ancient Romans. It's pretty interesting. She writes:
Power, status and good fortune were expressed in terms of the phallus. Hence the presence of phallic imagery in almost unimaginable varieties all round the town. This is one of the most puzzling, if not disconcerting, aspects of Pompeii for modern visitors. There are phalluses greeting you in doorways, phalluses above bread ovens, phalluses carved into the surface of the street and plenty more phalluses with bells on and wings.
Yes, I recall years ago seeing a ring in the British Museum with a little erect penis diagram on it. I wonder what passed for pornography in those days? Did teenage boys sneak into the kitchen to look at the ribald drawings on the pottery? Or were human copulation and erections of such common knowledge that there was no sense of it being inappropriate for young children's eyes?

Beard also writes:
For elite men, the basic message was that sexual penetration correlated with pleasure and power. Sexual partners might be of either sex. There was plenty of male-with-male sexual activity in the Roman world, but only the very faintest hints that “homosexuality” was seen as an exclusive sexual preference, let alone lifestyle choice.
It's odd to think that the Romans would find Oxford Street in Sydney hard to understand. And it's also probably fair to say that they would find the concept of "gay marriage" ludicrous, and not because of religion.

The Roman baths are discussed as well, and this part shows the old guys could see still cause and effect:
And it is not only the modern visitor who is drawn to reflect on quite how hygienic it all was. There was no chlorination to mitigate the effects of the urine and other less sterile bodily detritus. Nor was the water in the various pools constantly replaced, even if there was sometimes an attempt to introduce a steady flow of new water into them.

The Roman medical writer Celsus offers the sensible advice not to go to the baths with a fresh wound (“it normally leads to gangrene”) . The baths, in other words, may have been a place of wonder, pleasure and beauty for the humble Pompeian bather. They might also have killed him.

UPDATE: here's a way in which the position of women in the Roman empire wasn't bad, at least for the ancient world:
As the responsibilities of women became more significant to their husbands' prestige and political clout, so education for women became increasingly more common. Unlike Athens, it became acceptable in Rome for girls as well as boys to receive elemental education, to have read "improving" Roman and Greek authors and to be able to discuss political affairs. Boys then went on to higher studies, including rhetoric, the passport to political careers, while women married in their mid-teens. Throughout the Empire, however, a woman cherished her ability to read and write both as a mark of excellence and as a sign of her status.

The separation of women enforced by the Greeks had never been the Roman way; women were permitted to go out in public, attend lectures and meetings, dine with guests, and conduct their own affairs with some initiative. At the same time, as moral guardians of the health and virtue of Rome itself, their behavior was severely scrutinized for signs of intemperance, sexual laxity, or extravagant (and dangerous) display.
Sounds as if the women of Rome may have had more independence than many in present day Afghanistan or (arguably) Saudi Arabia. Nothing like progress, hey?

Unimportant information continuing

While I'm on a science fiction roll here, have I ever mentioned before that I quite like the movie version of Lost in Space? I watched it again over the weekend for the first time since I saw it at the cinema, and my original impressions are not revised: quite faithful in an updated way to the original opening episode of the TV show, impressive special effects (yes, OK, with the exception of the monkey, but it wasn't in shot all that often), huge expensive sets, and acting that was actually significantly better than that in many science fiction films. Besides which, I've always liked Mimi Rogers, William Hurt and Heather Graham. I even think Matt LeBlanc wasn't bad in his role. It was aimed more at a teen/young adult audience than the kiddie show that the TV series devolved into, but that didn't particularly bother me.

I don't understand why it got so many strongly hostile reviews.

It's well worth the dollar or two it would cost to hire at your local video store. Or just go buy it for $7 at Kmart.

It's not just you

Continuing with a run of trivial posts, on last night's episode of Dr Who, Rose finally was able to talk, instead of just turning up mysteriously and fading out again. Problem was, it seemed to me that she had a very distinct and somewhat distracting lisp, which I didn't recall from her full time appearances in previous series.

The good thing about the internet is that there is no trivia small enough not to have been noticed, especially when it comes to science fiction fandom. Yes, the lisp was definitely noticed around the world, and the explanation seems something of a mystery.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Idle, science fiction-y thoughts

Thinking about the LHC and world-wide catastrophe this week, as many people did, got me wondering about what really unexpected stuff might one look out for as a result of an experiment like this. The sort of thing that might use as a plot device in a Doctor Who episode, for example.

Obviously (well, from a Doctor Who story point of view), the LHC itself could vanish into an alternative dimension, leaving a large crater behind. The arrival of time travellers from the future could be quite on the cards, as it has been suggested in real life. How they arrive could be the novel factor (giant UFO over the facility; taking over the computer system; mind possession of the staff.)

Or it may be that a swap between alternative universe earths takes place. (Perhaps the physicists inside don't realise the swap, until they turn on the TV and notice something like President Gore.)

But here's an idea: the operation of the LHC has an effect on the other side of the world - at its antipodal point. This thought led me to look for resources on the 'net to easily find each antipodal point for anywhere on earth. Wikipedia lists several sites for this, and I quite like this one.

As you will see (assuming I am still holding anyone's interest here), the antipodal point for the LHC is in the Southern Ocean east of the south island of New Zealand. If there are any reports of underwater earthquakes, disappearing ships or UFOs in that areas, you read about it here first. (Possibly.)

Just talking about antipodes generally, it's disappointing to see that there are not all that many "land to land" points. China and parts of South East Asia joins up with various parts of South America, which is not something I would have expected by looking at a Mercator projection. A bullet through New Zealand would end up in Spain. So there: if ever masses of sheep start emerging out of mines in Spain, you know from where they are escaping.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Gun owning lesbian vote sewn up

The Corner on National Review Online

(by Palin, by the way.)

Launch attack! ....Sorry General, I meant "lunch "

Biden living up to his gaffe-prone reputation - International Herald Tribune

A handy list of Biden's gaffes is contained above.

Nukes for the moon

NASA Developing Fission Surface Power Technology

It makes sense, and one wonders if any advances in this field will eventually have earth bound applications:
A nuclear reactor used in space is much different than Earth-based systems. There are no large concrete cooling towers, and the reactor is about the size of an office trash can.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Somewhere I might be popular...

The withered middle-aged guy becomes a hot item in Japan's dating market

The Japan Times makes me feel better about my mid-middle age:
If you happen to be an over-45 male, looking a little tired, inclined to decline party invitations because you can't stand the hassle, comfortable in your own company and not really caring what other people think — so, the news is ALL good, at least in urban Japan. You are, or are extremely close to, what is known as a kareta oyaji (枯れたオヤジ, withered middle-age guy) — currently the underground popular label on the dating market. These days, young women have shifted their preference from the wakai (若い, young), kakkoii (格好いい, good-looking) and okanemochi (お金持ち, rich) — extremely rare for all these traits to co-exist in one man anyway — to the genki nai ojisan (元気無いおじさん, middle-age guy with no energy).
Woo-hoo, I'm hot in Japan!

Truth spectacularly stranger than fiction

Sex offender, 30, posed as schoolboy |

From the report:

A 30-YEAR-old sex offender who posed as a 12-year-old boy to enrol at schools in the US for two years has pleaded guilty to child porn and other charges....

He shaved and wore pancake makeup to help him appear younger, convincing teachers, students and administrators that he was a young boy named Casey.

He was caught in January 2007 after spending a day in the seventh grade at a school after school officials became suspicious about his paperwork.

Rodreick was arrested with three other men, who were posing as his cousin, uncle and grandfather.
They at least gets top marks for bizarre determination in pursuing a perversion. Hopefully, they'll get a top sentence as a reward too. (By the way, if I understand the report correctly, the school kids were not the ones in the pornography he had, so I am not making light of anything that happened to them.)

Painting to save the planet

The Great Beyond: Whiter roofs for a cooler planet

The idea has been around for some years, yet seems slow to take off. I didn't know this:
California has required flat-topped, commercial buildings to go white since 2005, and will require new and retrofitted buildings to use cool-color roofing starting in 2009. These shingles and coatings look like their high-absorbing counterparts, but reflect more of the sun’s rays.

Higgs history

They're about to turn on the Large Hadron Collider. Don't expect the Higgs boson to show up.

This Slate article is an interesting review of how the idea of the Higgs boson came about. Whether or not the LHC will find it is the big question. (Assuming, of course, it doesn't blow up first.)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Silly Obama

The Associated Press: McCain camp angry over Obama's 'lipstick' comment

I bet his minders smiled through gritted teeth as soon as they heard Obama wing it with this:
"You can put lipstick on a pig," he said to an outbreak of laughter, shouts and raucous applause from his audience, clearly drawing a connection to Palin's joke. "It's still a pig. You can wrap an old fish in a piece of paper called change. It's still going to stink after eight years."

Not feeling entirely relaxed yet: LHC issues update

Well, what do you know. Rainer Plaga, who (unknown to most journalists) has given reasons as to why he thinks the CERN safety review was flawed, has answered my email.

I didn't ask for permission to reprint it, but he says he is preparing a response to the Giddings/Mangano rebuttal of his concerns. He says he "needs time" to finish this. Let's hope he doesn't take too long.

He also thinks they are ignoring another important point he made in his paper, but I have go back and re-read it before I can explain.

I have read criticism at Cosmic Variance and elsewhere that Plaga is definitely not an expert in the field of black hole radiance and we don't need to take him too seriously. Certainly, his "home page" has little detail, and it seems he is not actively working in astrophysics. Still, I am interested in independent physicists reviewing safety issues.

Good news from North Korea?

No-show at anniversary parade raises questions over Kim Jong-Il's health | World news |

I wonder if anyone has any idea who will follow him?

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

When smears go wrong Sliming Palin

The very handy FactCheck website says there have been massive emailings spreading rumours about Sarah Palin. One which tries to make her appear particularly hypocritical says that she dramatically reduced the funding for "special needs" children in Alaska.

Funnily enough, the exact opposite is the case:
According to an April 2008 article in Education Week, Palin signed legislation in March 2008 that would increase public school funding considerably, including special needs funding. It would increase spending on what Alaska calls "intensive needs" students (students with high-cost special requirements) from $26,900 per student in 2008 to $73,840 per student in 2011. That almost triples the per-student spending in three fiscal years.
I suspect someone at Daily Kos will say she only did that because she knew her own baby had special needs. But as Factcheck points out:
According to Eddy Jeans at the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development, funding for special needs and intensive needs students has increased every year since Palin entered office, from a total of $203 million in 2006 to a projected $276 million in 2009.
Try again Democrats. You probably just helped give her more good publicity.

This is why Truthers are dangerous

9/11 rumors that harden into conventional wisdom - International Herald Tribune

In short, they encourage conspiracy belief in the Middle East, and that cannot possibly help achieve peace there.

I've said before, there should be greater attention given to taking the fight to the truthers.

End of the world delayed (an LHC update)

US LHC Blog - Turning Back Time

I have already pointed this out last weekend, but it is worth repeating, as I am getting quite a few extra visitors who are Googling for information about the LHC and black holes.

The activity at the LHC tomorrow is only to try to get a single beam right around the ring for the first time. There will be no collisions with other particles (well, unless the beam goes off course and smashes into something by accident. That would be big news, due to the delays it would cause in repairs.)

As LHC physicist Peter Steinberg explains above, even when the LHC gets two counter-rotating beams colliding (within a month or two) the first collisions will be at the lower energies that older particle colliders have already dealt with.

According to Peter, it will be a few months before it is cranked up to the higher levels of energy that are novel and could possibly create micro black holes or other particles. As he says, the death threats can be put on ice for a few months at least.

So: the world is definitely not ending tomorrow. You still have to pay your taxes.

As to my earlier post about the Rainer Plaga paper, I still have not received an email response from Dr Plaga. Given the heightened level of interest at the moment, it would give many people relief if he did acknowledge an error. If he doesn't accept that he made an error, then having some more independent physicists weigh in would help.

And here's something new to read about what the LHC might find: maybe not micro black holes, but "string balls", which may evaporate in a similar way to black holes anyway. The paper is about how to tell the difference.

I am curious as to whether there is any potential safety issue for them, if they don't behave quite as predicted. (Yes, I know, the same argument about stars and planets surviving cosmic rays would apply, but the same counter argument about the LHC creating slow moving objects would need to be considered.)

I also see there is a paper from August called "On the stability of black holes at LHC". It's a little hard to follow, but it would seem that they are arguing that it certain possibilities as to higher dimensions are true, the "behaviour" of the black holes created there may be "stable". I assume they mean that they won't disappear in a flash of Hawking Radiation, which has always been the main assumption of those doing the safety assessments on the LHC.

It's good that the LHC is not getting up to high energies just yet: it may allow sufficient time to get answers to these last minute concerns.

UPDATE: I have got a physicist to put into plain english the point that Mangano/Giddings were making in their rebuttal of Plaga:

Plaga is considering a warped extra dimensional scenario. In such models, there is a regime in which one is allowed to use the four dimensional quantities and laws, and a regime in which the phenomenology is described by the five dimensional laws (I describe this a little, in a simpler model, here). In their rebuttal, Giddings and Mangano point out that Plaga is applying four-dimensional formulae where they don’t apply, obtaining an incorrectly high result. This is perhaps the main clear problem.

Mind you, Mark Trodden likes to call all people who raise safety issues "crackpots", which gets up my nose for reasons I have explained before, but he has performed a useful service here.

Now, if we can also deal with the LHC and naked singularities, string balls, and time loops, I would be feeling better.

Truthers: what evidence?

BBC NEWS | Programmes | Conspiracy Files | The Conspiracy Files: 9/11 - The Third Tower

Four Corners last night did their bit to annoy Australian Troofers (I rarely deliberately misspell for ridicule, but they deserve it) by showing this BBC documentary about the collapse of WTC 7. Unfortunately, it would seem only the preview is available, and (if it is like the first section of the whole show) it may give the impression that the makers think the conspiracists have some good points.

Overall, though, the show did a pretty good debunking job. If anything, they were too soft on the obviously problematic psychology of truthers. They have incredibly little evidence (well, none actually) to support their ideas, yet having decided that there is a hidden truth, absolutely anything is taken as confirmation of the secret.

I find the slightly premature reporting (by the BBC, following Reuters, who followed someone else) of the collapse a particularly odd piece of "evidence" for them to latch onto. Assuming a conspiracy for a moment, why on earth would the people running it need to announce the collapse to the media at all? It's not as if they were not going to notice. Many witnesses say the building was creaking and deteriorating before their eyes: it's not as if a collapse was actually unexpected at the time the BBC ran the story. It is far from surprising that someone standing near a reporter somewhere in the city (who may not have been actually been within sight of the building) may have used the word "collapse" before it happened, and that reporter passed it on believing the building had already collapsed. Didn't troofers ever play "chinese whispers" at a party when they were kids?

So the BBC reporter's explanation makes complete sense. But the psychology of the troofers means they just can't accept that a mistake is the obvious explanation.

Monday, September 08, 2008

The literary life

High-pitched buzzing from the booksy girls and boys | The Spectator

Paul Johnson talks about the literary scene in London in the 1950's and beyond, and it makes for an entertaining column.

Meanwhile, on the demonic front

Something clever?: Is your computer possessed by a demon?

An evangelical from the US apparently put forward these propositions in a book in 2000:
  • Demons can possess anything with a brain, including a chicken, a human being, or a computer.
That would account for some evil chickens I have encountered in my life.
  • "Any PC built after 1985 has the storage capacity to house an evil spirit."
I suppose that means they can live in USB keys too.


When wind turbines fail

Spinning to destruction: Michael Connellan on the dangers of unreliable wind turbines | Technology | The Guardian

Here's a good read on the engineering challenge of building wind turbines that don't fall apart, and how that challenge has sometimes not been met.

Novel writing all washed up

First Things - Revisiting the Novel

The post above, from the very readable First Things blog, is a complaint by someone about how he has lost interest in novels, and is finding it hard to get back into them. (He's doing that by reading Jane Austen, though, which certainly wouldn't be the approach I would try.) My weekend thoughts on To Kill a Mockingbird has also inspired me to get around to posting on this topic.

I too have developed something of a problem with finding engaging fiction in the last few years. I used to read a lot of science fiction up to about the end of the 1980's when, despite the apparent good news of the end of the Cold War in the real world, it seemed that science fiction went pretty deeply pessimistic and ugly. Old optimistic authors I used to like (Niven and Pournelle, for example) stopped producing really good work. Arthur C Clarke's prose style (never a strong point of his books anyway) became ever worse, and as for Heinlien's last rambling novels of the 1980's, the less said the better.

I still get a hankering to read science fiction from time to time, and not being aware of any current American authors to my taste, in the last couple of years I have tried a few British science fiction writers who seem to be well reviewed. Peter Hamilton can be good in parts, and I quite like his future technology ideas, but I feel he often badly needs more editing. Ken McLeod's underlying socialist politics is just too obvious. "Blindsight" by Peter Watts was another go at the "first contact"sub-genre that I felt pretty much went no where. (For some bizarre reason, he thought it a good idea to have a main character who is literally a vampire, which the novel treats as a real human sub-species.)

I am presently reading the first novel by Charles Stross (The Atrocity Archives), and while it is passable so far, it immediately struck me as being like a novel length treatment of ideas found in Heinlein's novella "Magic Inc". This is, I suppose, the fundamental problem for new science fiction: all the major themes were done by great novels within the first 50 or so years of the genre. It surely is a challenge to re-visit the sub-genres in a way that is fresh and worthwhile.

The thing I find common in these authors is the lack of readily likeable characters. Perhaps Peter Hamilton comes closest in this regard, but as I say, I think he has other faults.

Away from science fiction, I find the themes of most recent novels don't appeal. Probably due to my interest in religion generally, examinations of characters' lives from a purely secular point of view just seem somewhat lacking in significance to me. (This is a major fault in Australian film too: religion as something important to the characters is rarely present, or if it is, it is only ever portrayed in a negative light.) That there would be consideration of the "bigger picture" could be expected of the famous Catholic authors of the 20th century, but as First Things commented in June, those days seem long gone. I tried Shirley Hazzard recently, who seemed to be reviewed as if she had many of the qualities of older, mid 20th century fiction, but (as I have posted before) I actually found her style woeful, despite the high praise she generally receives.

As for the famous Catholic writers, by the 1990's I had read all of Waugh. However, I have only recently just read my first Graham Greene novel. (The Bomb Party, a short, less well regarded work.) It was pretty good, and I liked his style. I think I will be trying more. But it is kind of depressing that I have to be dipping back 60 years to find fiction that appeals.

So the point of this ramble is that it has occurred to me that, just as nearly everyone in their 40's starts thinking that popular music has peaked and is in decline, it seems to me that almost no good fiction has been written since around 1990.

Pity really.

Target probably too low then?

Firms hint at accepting 10pc Garnaut emission reductions | The Australian

Sunday, September 07, 2008

A great movie

"To Kill a Mockingbird" was on TV today, being played as part of a Father's Day themed set of movies.

Its semi-melancholic remembrance of parental love still gets to me emotionally. (This is the first time I have re-watched it since having children, but it has always moved me.) Its effectiveness is all the more remarkable in light of the simplicity and the economy with which it was made: black and white film; a studio backlot set; direction and storytelling that is measured in pace but never flashy. I have always thought the score is particularly effective. (It was by Elmer Bernstein, who had a ridiculously long career in movie music.)

It is, of course, also an excellent example of the discretion with which older movies (and books) could deal with adult themes. If the film were being made today, in the "need to see everything" modern style of most movie storytelling, there would likely be flashbacks to illustrate the rape /seduction scene, rather than a simple reliance on the trial testimony.

Watching it made me check again whether Harper Lee is still alive. She is, and the Wikipedia entry for the book shows a photo of her receiving 2007 Presidential Medal of Freedom less than a year ago. She has always sounded very modest, but she deserves to be extremely proud of the legacy of her one novel.

Geo-engineering re-visited

Global warming | A changing climate of opinion? |

What I didn't get for father's day

The Eclipse 400 - zoom zoom ZOOM - The Red Ferret Journal

...a very cool looking private jet.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

End of the world, or not, post

I'm getting mightily annoyed with the way the media, and particularly science journalists, are reporting the "end of the world" stories regarding the LHC. Not because they are being sensationalist (though a small fraction are), but because they are, more often than not, being overly dismissive while at the same time clearly ignorant of the detail of the debate.

For example, the science editor at The Times is Mark Henderson, who himself has no science background, and certainly looks very young. He wrote in The Times that:

Once again the cry has gone up that the accelerator could create a black hole that would devour the planet. Legal challenges have sought to halt it, and these have been more widely reported this week than the project itself.

Yet the claim is utterly ridiculous. ...

This isn't a story that's worthy of serious discussion, even as kooky fun. It might sound harmless, but it feeds stereotypes of crazy and reckless boffins who know everything about nothing and nothing about everything, and encourages the contemptible but widespread view that scientists are not to be trusted.
"Utterly ridiculous" ideas generally don't get responded to by detailed safety studies, Mark.

Henderson and his ilk seem to have missed this comment by Mangano, the physicist most credited with this year's safety review, reported earlier this year:
"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."
Mark and most other science journalists writing reassuring articles this week also seem to have missed the issue raised only in August by astrophysicist Rainer Plaga that there might be another mechanism (other than the earth being eaten by a black hole) by which micro black holes might be dangerous. Yes, Mangano and Giddings have responded to this claim, but isn't this a newsworthy addition to the current reporting?

Plaga's concerns are particularly newsworthy because, as I noted a few posts back, he seems well and truly within the mainstream of astrophysicists. He writes:
The luminosity of a mBH accreting at the Eddington limit with the parameters assumed above corresponds to 12 Mt TNT equivalent/sec[11], or the energy released in a major thermonuclear explosion per second. If such a mBH would accrete near the surface of Earth the damage they create would be much larger than deep in its interior. With the very small accretion timescale (≪ 1 second) that was found with the parameters in section 3, a mBH created with very small (thermal or subthermal) velocities in a collider would appear like a major nuclear explosion in the immediate vicinity of the collider.
I have asked nice physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, who has discussed the LHC safety issues before at length at her Backreaction blog, about this. Unfortunately, she has not seen Plaga's paper or Mangano's reaction, and is showing little interest in reading them any time soon. (I think she doesn't really believe any micro black holes are likely to be created, and that may well explain her lack of concern.)

Therefore I don't know who else to ask in the physics world as to whether the Mangano response is conclusive.

Well, in the interests of citizen science journalist, I have sent a short email to Plaga himself, asking if the Mangano/Giddings comments on his paper has caused him to change his mind.

I will let you know if I get a response.

UPDATE: No response yet, but I just wanted to clarify that, as explained here, on 10 September the LHC is only planning on getting the first beam circulating in one direction. There won't be any no particle collisions until they get another beam, going in the opposite direction, up and running. According to the Guardian:

"If the beam goes all the way round on the first go, that would be quite amazing. It's never happened in the history of particle colliders," said Cern's James Gillies. If the test is successful, scientists may try to send the beam around in the opposite direction, though first collisions are not expected until next month.

They expect to spend a few months getting to grips with the machine before putting it to work in earnest.
So, even in the worst case scenario, we all have at least another few weekends ahead of us. Drink up, be merry, ask questions, etc.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Colbert and Palin

One of the interesting things about watching Colbert Report is trying to work out at what point he (the person, not the character) might genuinely be agreeing with, or at least sympathetic to, a conservative position. I really get the feeling it happens from time to time, but it is just fleeting impressions, and it's hard to know the truth. (I certainly believe he is more mature about politics than Jon Stewart, and is capable of actually liking conservative figures.)

On the other hand, I do think that his episodes this week have been showing a liberal narkiness that is so strong, he is too clearly breaking out of character with too many of his jokes.

This makes today's forthcoming episode especially interesting, to see how he handles the extremely well received Palin speech. Colbert the character should be absolutely swooning. But just how much attack will Colbert the person manage to fit in, and will it come across as sour?

UPDATE: So, how did Colbert go? It's a bit of a mix really, with some jokes working well, and others failing. The first couple of minutes of the following clip are good, then the section about Guiliani fall flat. But, if nothing else, you should watch for the last section, featuring a 21 year old college blogger who had been promoting Sarah Palin. There's a very big laugh to be had there, but not from Stephen:

Dolphin wars

New Scientist Environment Blog: Dolphin serial killers?

It's being suggested that some dolphins are killing other dolphins as a culturally learned behaviour. Not so cute after all...

Thursday, September 04, 2008


I caught nearly all of the Sarah Palin speech when it was replayed on CNN tonight. Whether or not she can survive the rough and tumble of live interviews and debates is yet to be seen, but (a little to my surprise) my reaction to her RNC speech was that it did feel like I was watching the historically important birth of a political star.

She is a political natural if ever there was one, yet at the same time has a very authentic feel about her whole personae, which is what I find just seems to be lacking in the Obama family, and in Hillary Clinton too. (Not to mention hair-do boy John Edwards.)

Reaction all over the place has been strong, with the notable and very, very bitchy exception of Andrew Sullivan, whose over-the-top pursuit of Palin from the start has caused him to lose any credibility he may have once had as a reasonable pundit.

Not a good look

Arctic Ice Shelf Breaks Away in Canada - Science - redOrbit

For other Arctic melt news, Brian at LP had a good post this week that is worth looking at, as it pulls in images from a few different sources to show the extent of ice melt, and the decreasing depth of what remains. (But note that some headlines of the last couple of days about the ice cap now being an island have been exaggerating.)

As for other bad news from the north, there was a short, but worrying, report earlier this week about methane release from the seabed near Siberia. I think we'll be hearing more about this soon.

Meanwhile, the sceptics at Marohasy are getting worked up about the revised "Hockey stick" graph of Mann. Most skeptical commenters there are well beyond any possibility of being convinced that they may be wrong. It's denialism as a matter of faith. Personally, I've never worried too much about the hockey stick controversy, after I decided that it's not a good idea for the sake of the oceans to let CO2 increase to heights unseen for thousands or millions of years, regardless of the air temperature outside.

I note that Marohasy skeptics rely a lot on information sourced at CO2 Science. I am not sure how much more the guys who run that site could do in website design to make their motive obvious. (It features a hummingbird at a flower which has flourished with all that yummy CO2.) Their brief is clearly is to make everyone embrace CO2 as the "feel good" gas.

It has quite the opposite effect on me: it makes it very hard to take them seriously, right from the first glance.

This'll be interesting

Mohammed novel to be published: author |

Another world

The Forbidden World: Books: The New Yorker

If you have an interest in stories about ex-priest heretics burned at the stake in Italy in 1600 (and who doesn't?) this book looks promising.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Black hole danger not gone??!!

0808.1415v1.pdf (application/pdf Object)

Bloody hell - I was curious as to why there had been another sudden burst of publicity against there being any danger from micro black holes potentially being created at the Large Hadron Collider.

Here's my guess: it's to counter this paper (linked above) called "On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders" which it appeared at Arxiv on 10 August.

The author - R Plaga - is a mainstream, well published, astrophysicist, as far as I can tell.

Here's the Wikipedia entry on this recent controversy, which I had missed until today. Giddings and Mangano, who gave the LHC the "all clear" earlier this year, have responded to Plaga's paper.

I have no time to read up on this right now, but sheesh, I wish this was all sorted with more time before they flick the switch on the LHC.

It is also further vindication of my long held position that physicists at CERN had never previously done a really thorough consideration of all the possible dangers from the operation of the LHC.

UPDATE: this is really hard for a non-scientist to follow, but it would seem that Mangano point to what is almost a mathematical mistake in Plaga's paper. Not at all sure that I have understood the point, though, and I would like to know if Plaga acknowledges a mistake.

His argument is that, if certain models are right (which of itself is probably a very big "if,") micro black holes could represent a planetary danger even if stars clearly have survived naturally created ones over the millennia.

You know, one of the underlying concerns that worriers have had about the LHC is whether danger from such experiments is a plausible explanation for the Fermi Paradox. That's why I still do not feel relaxed and comfortable, when safety issues are still being proposed by credible figures just a month before the machine is switched on.

Bet he didn't see this coming

Bristol Palin's Boyfriend Going to GOP Convention - Republican National Convention

Get your high school girlfriend pregnant, and then have to appear at international media event. Nothing like pressure, hey.

Maybe this should be added to sex education classes under the category of possible consequences of unprotected sex.

Clean energy news

Wind Energy Bumps Into Power Grid’s Limits - Series -

This article is from last week, but it's an interesting look at the problems that the use of wind farms cause for the power grid in the US. It's not clear to me what sort of problem this may represent in Australia, as I think we have a pretty co-operative inter State grid system now, don't we?

I still don't like the idea of widespread use of windmills. I don't care what supporters say, the sight of tens of them on a horizon bothers me as an unnecessary visual intrusion on nature. Plans to put them all out of sight at sea seem a better prospect, and would avoid the bat killing issue which I assume would be a major problem in many parts of Australia. (Not to mention that flying foxes are believed to be spreading the deadly Hendra virus, so handling dead ones is not a good idea.)

As for solar energy, long time readers will remember that I like the look of the Infinia corporation's solar stirling engine. It still seems to be building up to big scale manufacturing, but the pace (as with many renewable energy ideas) seems very slow.

I see recently that another solar stirling power company (Stirling Energy Systems) has applied to build a full scale power station using 30,000 dishes in the California desert! It will be very interesting to see if this goes ahead, and can compete well with other forms of solar thermal.

One issue is that other types of solar thermal (the ones that heat fluid in a pipe) have a more direct way of getting some overnight energy storage (eg using melted salts, etc.) I am not sure if SES has an idea for overnight power.

Finally, how is the South African demonstration pebble bed reactor going? Still progressing, it seems, but again, there seems little sense of urgency about such projects.

Star Wars creeps closer

US army has laser guns in its sights - tech - 02 September 2008 - New Scientist Tech

Although not planned as anti-personnel weapons, the effects on people of a moving laser would presumably be pretty ugly.

The article is also noteworthy for use of the word "ruggedised".