Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas greetings


How December 25 Became Christmas - Biblical Archaeology Review

Found this via First Things. It's quite an interesting article on the origins of the celebration of Christmas, and points that there is another explanation for the date other than it simply being a Christian take over of the Roman mid-winter Saturnalia festival.

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years. But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

Annabel Crabb's charitable column

ABC The Drum - Why I like politicians

It's true what she says about politicians and the hours they work, if you take into account all of the party and electorate stuff they have to attend.

I said this to a family member once, who is in the public service, and he pointed out that while it may be tedious to someone like us, for politicians there is an ego stroking aspect of being asked to attend every local shindig.

He could be right.

Charity and the homeless

Local gov'ts to lease 500 rooms for homeless people during year-end

The Japanese government is getting a bit more involved in providing support for the homeless, but as the articles notes, they are still falling well short of the need:

Tokyo and nine other prefectural governments have decided to lease about 500 rooms from places like inns and company dormitories to accommodate homeless persons during the year-end and new year holidays, Kyodo News learned Wednesday.

But the number falls significantly below the welfare ministry’s initial target of securing 2,700 rooms nationwide, apparently because local governments feared too many rooms might lure jobless or homeless persons from surrounding areas, ministry sources said.
The impression you get of the homeless when you visit Japan is that they are economic victims who still have some pride. Hence their cardboard box shelters set up in corners of a big train station will be neat, with shoes still taken off and left outside. I can't say that I have ever seen a drunk, rambling or obviously mentally disturbed looking homeless person around such a shelter, as you readily find in certain parts of the inner cities of Australia. (Mind you, I could just not be going to the equivalent areas of urban Japan.)

I also get the distinct impression that there is little in the way of charities assisting the homeless in Japan, as there are here. I could be wrong; any reader from there can correct me. But the impression I have is that those countries with a history of monotheistic faith have a larger enthusiasm for providing charity, rather than those countries based on Eastern religions.

Your Christmas present from Opinion Dominion

Oceanography: Current Issue

Wow. Oceanography has an entire special issue devoted to ocean acidification with all articles available for free at the link above.

I haven't had time to read it yet, but they are clearly very detailed articles from some of the biggest names in the field.

Wishing you a well informed, if somewhat depressing, Christmas!

Distressing holiday news

Alvin and the Chipmunks 2 is about to be released at the cinema. (And my kids know about it.)

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Christmas in Space

NASA - NASA-International Space Station

It's nice to think of those far away from family at Christmas, and you can't get much further away than off the planet. The link above shows the current international crew of 5 on the ISS in silly Santa hates, and has lots of stuff to click on. I should send them a greeting I suppose.

Some cure

BBC NEWS | Health | Tinnitus cure 'is a step closer'

From the above report:

Studies show hearing loss can go hand-in-hand with over-excitable nerves within brain areas that process sound.

This uncontrolled nerve activity causes the noises that plague people with tinnitus and appears to be down to gene changes, Neuroscience reports.

And it raises the hope of treatment by silencing nerve activity, experts say....

Indeed, Belgian neurosurgeon Dirk De Ridder has tried implanting electrodes directly into the brain of sufferers to permanently normalise the overactive neurons.

He has had some successful results, although one of his patients repeatedly reported an out-of-body experience as a side effect.

Post mortem on Copenhagen

BBC News - Why did Copenhagen fail to deliver a climate deal?

There's lot of interesting detail in the BBC's analysis of what went wrong at Copenhagen. For example, this had escaped my attention:
China's chief negotiator was barred by security for the first three days of the meeting - a serious issue that should have been sorted out after day one. This was said to have left the Chinese delegation in high dudgeon.
Mind you, I'm probably in the group that is inclined to think that a bad binding international agreement might have ultimately been worse than the current outcome.

More bathing history

Filth: The joy of dirt | The Economist

I know I have posted on the history of cleanliness and bathing before (perhaps I have mentioned reviews of this book some time ago?) but The Economist review seems to note things I didn't know before. Such as the importance of linen if you didn't bathe:

Regular all-over bathing, elaborated in ancient Greece and Rome and celebrated in luxurious contemporary ensuite bathrooms, was distrusted for about 400 years in the second millennium. Water was thought to carry disease into the skin; pores nicely clogged with dirt were a means to block it out. In the 17th century the European aristocracy, who washed little, wore linen shirts in order to draw out dirt from the skin instead, and heavy perfumes and oils to mask bad smells.


Throughout the 17th century, writes Georges Vigarello, in “Le Propre et le Sale”, it was thought that linen had special properties that enabled it to absorb sweat from the body. For gentlemen, a wardrobe full of fine linen smocks or undershirts to enable a daily change was the height of hygienic sophistication. Racine and Molière owned 30 each.

As for the gradual end of the "water is dangerous" idea:

The myth of the danger of water was long-lived, and its demolition during the 18th and 19th centuries protracted. Louis XIV had sumptuous bathrooms built at Versailles but not, explains Mathieu da Vinha in “Le Versailles de Louis XIV”, in order to clean the body. Valets rather rubbed his hands and face with alcohol, and he took therapeutic baths only irregularly. Yet a century later Napoleon and Josephine both relished a hot bath, and owned several ornate bidets. In “Clean: An Unsanitised History of Washing”, Katherine Ashenburg notes that bathing was tied to diplomacy: the more tense the moment, the longer the soak. As the Peace of Amiens fell apart in 1803, Napoleon lay in the tub for six hours.

And let's hear it for the Japanese, who never went through the fear of water fad that the West did:

As Orwell goes on to ponder the question, “do the ‘lower classes’ smell?”, he points out that: “the habit of washing yourself all over every day is a very recent one in Europe, and the working classes are generally more conservative than the bourgeoisie. But the English are growing visibly cleaner, and we may hope that in a hundred years they will be almost as clean as the Japanese.”

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Christmas reading suggestion

The Japan Times has a short article on a new book entitled: "Suisen Toire wa Kodai ni mo Atta — Toire Kokogaku Nyumon" ("Flush Toilets Existed in Ancient Times — An Introduction to Toilet Archaeology").

The author "was first captivated by toilet archaeology when he excavated the late seventh century toilet remains at the Fujiwara Palace in Kashihara, Nara Prefecture, in 1992.."

Not quite Indiana Jones, but it's a living.

Inspirational, strange or both?

Two-legged dog gives hope to disabled Army vets --

You really ought to look at the video of the two legged walking dog.

Sounds reasonable

Faster, NASA, Faster -

The concluding paragraphs:

There is no reason American companies could not build a similar, but modernized, medium-sized, economical workhorse of a rocket that is simple enough to sustain frequent launching. If NASA were to promise to buy one such rocket a week, the manufacturers could also profitably sell copies for launching commercial spacecraft and satellites — at much lower than current prices — and this would spur the development of space-based industries in fields like telecommunications, earth imaging and even space tourism.

To maintain a vibrant, innovative program, NASA needs to step up the rate of rocket launchings. It should set a requirement that any new launching system fly once a week, then put out contracts for private companies to design and build rockets that can operate this frequently. By launching early and launching often, NASA could get back in the business of exploring space.

Dawkins' limits

Elders with Andrew Denton - episode 6: Richard Dawkins (21/12/2009)

Last night's Andrew Denton interview of Richard Dawkins was pretty fascinating. It seemed to me that Dawkins was quite defensive and almost ludicrously cautious; seemingly worrying all the time that Denton was setting him up for some sort of trap. For example, this exchange:

ANDREW DENTON: What's your definition of success?

RICHARD DAWKINS: ...Oh dear, I don't really answer that kind of question...


RICHARD DAWKINS: ...I'm just trying, well, because I just think of it as a dictionary word, which has a dictionary definition and you can go and look it up. I don't have a personal...

ANDREW DENTON: Well, you don't have a marker in your life for what would be achievement?

RICHARD DAWKINS: No, it's cause it's either you just give a dictionary definition or it becomes very complicated and personal. No, I don't really think I've got a got a good answer to that.

And then this part where he seems unwilling to talk about emotions:

ANDREW DENTON: Is it possible to explain love?

RICHARD DAWKINS: I think it in principle can be explained but I don't actually have the internal wherewithal to explain it. I just experience it.

And this:

ANDREW DENTON: When do you laugh at yourself?

RICHARD DAWKINS: ...Are all the questions going to be like this?

ANDREW DENTON: Not all... do you find these very difficult?


ANDREW DENTON: Well, why is that?

RICHARD DAWKINS: Um ... because they're about me, I suppose.

ANDREW DENTON: Some of the questions are about you and some are about your observation of other people.


I found this avoidance of the personal and emotional a strange contrast with his aggressiveness and apparent confidence in attacking belief in God.

More entertainment than expected

Taking the kids to a Christmas season bit of theatre seems to be a riskier exercise than it used to be. First, you have to hope that Amy Winehouse is not in the audience:
During a production of Cinderella at Milton Keynes theater in Bucks, Winehouse, who was in the audience with parents and children, heckled the cast and kept shouting, “He’s f…ing behind you”, The Sun reported.

Winehouse allegedly refused to be seated as she blocked the view of families by standing up in the stalls and walking along rows.

She called out for more than half an hour in the first act, yelling: "F… Cinders, Prince Charming, marry me" and branding the ugly stepsisters characters "bitches", sources said.

She refused to be ushered to a box after the interval and allegedly launched herself at front-of-house manager Richard Pound - allegedly pulling his hair, punching him and kicking him between the legs.
And even in New Zealand the kids might get more of an education that you expected:
About 130 foster children went along to see a performance of An Adagio Christmas put on specially for the young group.

Most of the children in the group were under 10, and some were as young as six.

But the government service that arranged the free Christmas play had not seen the script, which contained swearing and sexual references.

One character in the show swore: "He called me fat. You can talk you fat f**k."

Then another character talked about losing her virginity and pretended to have an orgasm.

"She loses her virginity! She shuddered and he lifted her higher, higher!"

The deputy chief executive of the Child, Youth and Family service, Ray Smith, has released a statement saying the play was a generous gift from a Wellington theatre.

He says he is disappointed the event has been tarnished by what he calls less-than-fair media coverage.

He said while small sections took everyone a little by surprise, they did not detract from what was an amazing show.

One way correspondence

Dear God, you've got mail

Well, I didn't know that this went on. I'm starting my 30 page opus now.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Lowering expectations

I forgot to link last week to this post at the First Things blog, about how low an author's expectations should be. It quotes a publisher, and then adds its own comment at the end:
"Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies. Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies. Only 25,000 sold more than 5,000 copies. The average book in America sells about 500 copies. (Publishers Weekly, July 17, 2006). And average sales have since fallen much more. According to BookScan, which tracks most bookstore, online, and other retail sales of books, only 299 million books were sold in 2008 in the U.S. in all adult nonfiction categories combined. The average U.S. book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime."

Alternative: Start a blog. You’re likely to reach more readers in a year you will with your book
Well, that makes me feel better about being a low-ranking blogger.

A fair summary

Phillip Coorey in theSydney Morning Herald gives a fair enough summary of the political mess that Australia (and indeed the world) is in regarding a response to AGW.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Christmas consciousness in the Many Worlds

Here's an interesting paper I found on arXiv: "Quantum features of consciousness, computers and brain".

I haven't heard of author Michael Mensky and his ideas before, and it remains unclear what his science qualifications are. Here's his home page.

He calls his idea the Extended Everett's Concept (EEC). (That's referring to Hugh Everett's "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics.)

This paper is rather frustrating. His explanation of the background debate of the role of consciousness in quantum physics, and Hugh Everett's many worlds theory, seems all quite reasonable and (as far as I can tell) accurate. But his own EEC idea seems poorly explained. For example, we get this:
Although consciousness in EEC is directly connected with quantum features of our world, no structure in brain of the type of quantum computer is suggested. Rather the whole quantum world is a sort of quantum computer supporting the phenomenon of consciousness and superconsciousness.
I need more meat on those bones. Here is another interesting line, apparently the crucial feature of EEC:
It is accepted in EEC that not only consciousness separate the alternatives but consciousness is nothing else than the separation of alternatives.
I should note that this paper is not the first he has written on his EEC idea; he came up with it in 2000, apparently. So I am not suggesting that this paper is inadequate for not explaining it well enough.

But when he gets to the consequences of the idea, it starts to sound a bit New Age flaky:
....the separation of alternatives disappears in the unconscious regime so that one obtains access to all alternatives. Therefore, in unconscious regime one obtains super-consciousness having access to all classical alternatives. This not only predicts ‘supernatural’ capabilities of consciousness but also explains why these capabilities reveal themself when (explicit) consciousness is turned off or weakened, for example in dream or meditation (the fact well known in all strong psychological practices).

This explains not only parapsychology but such well known phenomena as intuitive guesses including great scientific insights. In fact superconsciousness is a mechanism of direct vision of truth.
Hmm. Mensky has been published in the grandiosely titled journal "NeuroQuantology." (I wish I had come up with that name.) I see now that he has had an earlier paper up on arXiv, but I don't have time to read tonight. The abstract notes that:
The brain serves as an interface between the body and consciousness, but the most profound level of consciousness is not a function of brain.
So our individual consciousness is all just a subset of the the universal super-consciousness that is accessed via the brain? I'm not sure if that's what he means, but I am interested enough to read some more. (It also sounds consistent with some Eastern religious beliefs, too.)

Anyhow, this is just the sort of stuff that I find pretty intriguing. I may be enjoying the coming Christmas not just in this world, but in many others too, and while I sleep I may catch a glimpse of them. It's a good thing I don't have many nightmares.

On a final note: given that "many worlds" is pretty popular amongst scientists now, has any theologian considered its implications for Christianity? (I know Frank Tipler believes in it, and is a Christian, but I am not sure he has much dwelt on the theological implications.)

I mean, Christianity can live with the idea that God may have had incarnations in alien species in the universe we can see, but can you expand that to include his necessary incarnation in all of a spectacular number of branching universes? Just wondering...

Update: here's a recent internet forum in which the question about Christian theology and Many Worlds was asked, and some useful contributions follow. I also see that there was a 1998 seminar on the whole topic, with the likes of Paul Davies, Lee Smolin, a Vatican scientist and even Richard Dawkins attending! I'm betting nothing was resolved.

Mad or not?

James Cameron appeared on Conan O'Brien's show last week and did not appear particularly mad at all. Here's part one of the interview, which has its amusing bits:

Part 2 can be seen here.

The Daily Mail recently ran a story about him and Avatar, suggesting that there was enormous fear in the studio that it would be a box office failure. (That prediction seems way off the mark. The movie has been so well received, even I will probably see it.) The article describes Cameron's reputation as a horrible person to work with (or marry, apparently), which I noted here before, but also adds a little bit more biographical detail, such as his boyhood obsessive with Kubrick's 2001 inspiring his career.

Maybe Cameron should meet Kevin Rudd; they both seem to have a well deserved reputation for being two-faced. And it would be kind of amusing to see one of those Hollywood plagiarism cases against Cameron; I imagine James would turn up on the plaintiff's doorstep at midnight in mega gun-toting space marine mode, suggesting it be dropped.

Much to do about very little

RealClimate: Are the CRU data “suspect”? An objective assessment.

Climate change skeptics are still happily misrepresenting "hide the decline" and so busy trying to track down site adjustments that they think look suspicious (all the better to smear climate scientists with "smell likes fraud" comments) that they forget to see the wood for the trees. (Briffa pun unintended.)

This useful post at Real Climate shows a random check of raw data against the much maligned (by skeptics) adjusted data indicates no great disparity with the warming trends worked out from either.

I particularly liked one of the comments following the post, responding to a commenter suggesting that he was still concerned about researcher bias in what is chosen to be published. Here's the response:

JSC, frankly, the likelihood that this analysis could have come out differently is basically nil, because their are multiple research groups analyzing such climate data, so there is no way that one group could be “cooking the books” in some way without a discrepancy showing up. For that reason, an analysis like this is almost certainly unpublishable–it is hard to a publication for belaboring the obvious. I don’t think the point of this post was to convince the deniers, anyway. Anybody who believes that CRU, GISS, etc. are all engaged in a grand conspiracy has doubtless already dismissed RealClimate as co-conspirators, so why would they believe that the raw data randomly sampled just because RealClimate says so?

The key point here is that the data is readily available for anybody who is genuinely interested in temperature trends or who is concerned about the possibility of temperature adjustments introducing bias, and it provides an example of how to go about it. This is not sophisticated science, just random sampling that anybody who has taken a basic statistics course would understand. The remarkable thing, really, is the apparent total lack of interest of climate science critics/auditors in doing this kind of basic analysis. One cannot help but suspect the motives of those who focus on criticisms of cherry-picked individual stations, or who insist that the validity of the enterprise cannot be evaluated without analysis to every scrap of data and code used by climate scientists for their own analyses, but who cannot be bothered to do this kind of analysis using unbiased sampling techniques. Or perhaps they have done it, but have chosen not to report it?

Toddler Hamlet

Here's a very charming video found via Scienceblogs:

Friday, December 18, 2009

Now I can write that novel

johncwright: Writing in One Lesson

Science fiction writer talks about the "one trick" in writing, which I assume I am allowed to pass on here:
There is, when you right down to it, only one trick in writing, which she here calls "the trick." It consists of raising the readers expectations, but satisfying those expectations in a logical yet unexpected way. The trick is that anything has more effect if the reader things the opposite is about to happen.

If you only learn one thing about writing, learning the trick the one thing you should learn.

The trick when applied to plots is called plot twist; when applied to character, is called three-dimensionality; when applied to theme, is called wisdom; when applied to word-choice is called contrast.
I'm not sure how useful this is for my tiny brain. When I was single and had more idle time to think, I would sometimes try to think of ideas for stories or movies (or even plays, since they seem the simplest form of writing for publication possible!) But my mind would invariably float to books/movies/plays/characters I already knew or liked. I guess that other people sharing this problem explains fan fiction. It's so much easier to work in a world already created by someone else than to start in your own.

And on the rare occasion I have tried to write something, I realised that simply reading fiction gives you absolutely no idea how to write it. Just to write the simplest exchange of dialogue seemed suddenly awkward and daunting.

Actually, on this dialogue point, I have just tried to read Tim Winton's "Breath", and found it dull. His approach to setting out dialogue was to simply indent it, avoid inverted commas and strip it of surrounding "I said" "she said" stuff. I found this quite unsatisfactory. After about 25 pages, I decided the book was uninteresting thematically, and skimmed the rest. It turns out that erotic asphyxiation - sometimes auto-erotic, sometimes not - was a key plot element, although I couldn't really see the point of the whole novel really. I had thought I might like Winton, given that he is reviewed so favourably (he won the Miles Franklin Award for this book, for crying out loud) but it turns out he is a JAOAA (Just Another Overrated Australian Arthur.)

(Yay, I just listened to the BBC Saturday Review in which one person on the panel reckons the book's a bore too.)

Anyway, I'll just sit around and wait for a breakthrough idea, write it as a play set to the music of ELO, and make millions.

A Christmas suggestion for your local GP


I find the line "Swine Flu (H1N1) now available" particularly amusing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

CO2 news from the AGU

AGU Day 2: The role of CO2 in the earth’s history | Serendipity

This is a good, lengthy summary of a talk given at the current American Geophysical Union conference on the important role of CO2 in prehistory.

There is also a very noteworthy report of a talk given by the people who run AIRS, an infrared instrument, on NASA's Aqua satellite.

Here are some key parts:
researchers told reporters that AIRS, containing no moving parts, has proved remarkably robust, measuring carbon dioxide, ozone, water vapor, and carbon monoxide in the mid-troposphere, five to 12 km above Earth’s surface, with far greater precision than anticipated prior to launch in 2002.

In particular, said Moustafa Chahine of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “AIRS provides the highest accuracy and yield of any global carbon dioxide data set available to the scientific community.” Seven years of these data were made available to researchers worldwide in conjunction with the AGU meeting. NASA said it was the first ever release of daily CO2 data based solely on observations.

AIRS researchers have learned over the past seven years that CO2 does not mix well in the troposphere, but is what Chahine called “lumpy,” concentrated more in some places than in others, driven by the jet stream. AIRS has tracked the dispersion of CO2 from Indonesian forest fires, which accounts for a staggering 20% of global anthropogenic CO2. Where does it go? Along with the northern hemisphere’s other CO2 emissions, much of it winds up over the southern hemisphere, according to AIRS measurements, as reported here....

Bloody hell! How hard can it be to devise a way to stop Indonesians from burning so much forest?

This part is important:

Another member of the AIRS team, Andrew Dessler of Texas A&M University, reported on the unique view the instrument is providing of water vapor distribution in the atmosphere, and in particular the feedback of water vapor that he says amplifies warming due to CO2. He warned that warming of a few degrees Celsius is “essentially guaranteed” over the next century, unless there exists a “presently unknown offsetting feedback (e.g., clouds).”

Dessler took issue with a statement, attributed to Lowell Wood, in the recently published book, Superfreakonomics, that current climate models “do not know how to handle water vapor and various types of clouds….I hope we’ll have good numbers on water vapor by 2020 or thereabouts.” Dessler told reporters that AIRS, using the infrared spectrum, sees right through clouds and is providing accurate water vapor data today. Current models do a good job of simulating the water vapor feedback effect, he said.

A worthy post

An ambitious social experiment: the Harlem Children's zone - Life Matters - 11 December 2009

I happened to hear part of this radio documentary on the Harlem Children's Zone, a project designed to make a difference to the socially disadvantaged kids of that area.

It was really quite interesting, explaining how adult work training programs don't generally work, yet some relatively simple interventions in very early childhood show clear and lasting benefits for the kids.

I've always felt a bit suspicious of some of the claims of the early childhood intervention academics. It just sounded like a field of study which wanted to carve out a new niche industry of toddler teachers.

But this documentary sounded very convincing, at least if you talking of the advantages early intervention shows in really poor/disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

It's well worth a listen, which is your only choice as there is no transcript.

The Economist on Copenhagen

The Copenhagen climate talks: Filthy lucre fouls the air | The Economist

This article is a pretty good explanation of the arguments over money at Copenhagen.

As I have said elsewhere, it does seem that African and other developing nations seem to have gone to Copenhagen with a "shake down the rich guys" attitude. Here's a crucial paragraph:
Everyone agrees that poorer countries, including India and China, need cash for climate “mitigation”—adopting green technology and new approaches to land use and forest conservation—and for “adaptation”: coping with the anticipated effects of climate change, some of which (like a degree of sea level rise) look unavoidable. America has joined the list of countries accepting such transfers, saying it will pay its “fair share”. Rich countries have talked of a “quick start” fund. The leaked Danish text has it starting in 2010-12 at a value to be determined; the UN has suggested $10 billion. To poor countries, this sounds paltry: responses range from “bribery” to “it will not even pay for the coffins”. Instead, the G77 has asked for 0.5% to 1% of the rich countries’ GDPs. That implies hundreds of billions of dollars on top of existing development aid. The idea that rich countries will hand over 1.2% to 1.7% of their wealth in perpetuity is not going to fly.

May be worse

Sea level rise may exceed worst expectations : Nature News

Sounds pretty convincing explanation that there may be worse sea level rises than previously expected.

Cardboard houses

Shigeru Ban, the architecture of paper -

An interesting series of photos here of an architect who really likes cardboard.

Things that make me happy, No 2

Time for an another instalment of this absolutely fascinating series.*

It's....Tasmanian smoked salmon. Tassal or Huon brands, available at all good supermarkets. (It shames the imported stuff.)

But, it is a pleasure that has a small amount of guilt associated with it. See the recent story about how environmentally questionable Tasmanian salmon farming is. Still, they'll have to take my 100 g two serve packet out of my cold, dead, somewhat fishy smelling, hands.

* Perhaps a slight exaggeration.

One of the more interesting planets found

Waterworld planet is more Earth-like than any discovered before | Science |

This makes me think: has there ever been a science fiction novel based on the exploration of a entire water planet? I can't think of one off the top of my head.


ABC The Drum Unleashed - Evidence-based policy? Not on this filter!

I still don't quite understand all the details of the Labor government's internet filter, but I understand enough to be able to tell, as noted in this article, that it is going to be completely ineffective for the "normal" types of pornography sites that probably represent 99.999999% of the concern about children accessing the internet.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Surprise: someone with more faces than Kevin Rudd

It is very hard to see how he does it. (I haven't listened to the video, so maybe he gives an explanation.)

Most excellent news

How a glass or two of champagne really does lift the heart | Life and style | The Observer

The team found that champagne had a far greater impact on nitric oxide levels in the blood than did a polyphenol-free alternative of alcohol and carbonated water. In short, its polyphenols have the ability to improve blood pressure and reduce heart disease risks. "Our data suggests that a daily moderate consumption of champagne wine may improve vascular performance via the delivery of phenolic constituents," state the researchers in their paper. They have yet to test other types of fizz, such as cava and prosecco, but Spencer said there was "no reason" in principle that they should not perform in the same way.

Bet Australia follows

Cheques to be bounced into history | Money |

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Snark heaven

There's lots of UK-centric but still enjoyable snark in The Guardian's series of "The people who ruined the decade". My favourite entries so far:

BEN ELTON Turned rock history into a 'jukebox musical' cash cow

"The Matrix meets the Arthurian legend meets Terminator 2," was how Ben Elton hilariously described his Queen musical when it debuted in 2002. A more honest commentator might have pegged We Will Rock You as being a bit like Suzi Quatro directing a particularly stupid episode of Deep Space Nine using a cast entirely drawn from the Camden branch of Fresh & Wild. By blowing off any regard for plot, cliche or character arc, Elton took the genteel traditions of musical theatre and rock's outsider chic, and served them up as a mindless MOR smoothie. Marketing men realised there were plenty more theatregoers too old to rock'n'roll, yet too dumb for Sondheim. And so, as Tonight's The Night et al followed the idiot-proof recipe drawn up by WWRY and its close predecessor, Mamma Mia!, Elton – rather wisely – relocated to Australia. Now, if you stand in the West End on a Saturday night and tune out the muffled chorus of Hoover salesmen singing Bohemian Rhapsody, you can hear Theatreland creaking towards a new cultural low.

Well, actually I don't care for Sondheim either, but apart from that I agree.

And then there is this, about a TV producer I've never heard of who has a hell of lot to answer for:
PETER BAZALGETTE TV's posh popularist

What do Rebecca Loos's porcine pull-off in The Farm, Jade Goody's entire TV career, and those late-night call-in shows where glamour models pretend that no one in the country is able to rearrange the letters "s-p-a-n-n-r-e" to spell out something you find in a tool box, all have in common? The uncommonly common touch of Peter "Baz" Bazalgette, ex-chairman of Endemol UK. Though Bazalgette says he's a "fishwife at heart", he remains one of those odd, Notting Hill fishwives who attended Dulwich College, Cambridge University and now sits on the board at The English National Opera. Under Bazalgette's watch, TV schedules resembled a televisual tranquiliser, administered from the top table of British society, down to the TV diners at the bottom. He would of course, dismiss this as miserable, puritanical carping, before popping off to a box at the ENO to catch a simply delightful Italian sing their heart out (while you watched Ground Force).

SEE ALSO Anyone with an Oxbridge education working on Wife Swap

(Regular readers may recall that, strangely, fiddling with pigs seems to be a particularly popular feature of British TV.)

Cute abstract

From arXiv, a physics paper with an appealing abstract:
The current observational data imply that the universe would end with a cosmic doomsday in the holographic dark energy model. However, unfortunately, the big-rip singularity will ruin the theoretical foundation of the holographic dark energy scenario. To rescue the holographic scenario of dark energy, we employ the braneworld cosmology and incorporate the extra-dimension effects into the holographic theory of dark energy. We find that such a mend could erase the big-rip singularity and leads to a de Sitter finale for the holographic cosmos. Therefore, in the holographic dark energy model, the extra-dimension recipe could heal the world.
Now someone just has to explain to me what a "de Sitter finale" to the universe means.

Esoteric research

In the previous post, I mentioned Ron Stenman, who has runs the Paranormal Review blog, but I've never read it much. (Everything seems to get a run there, which makes it seem just a touch too "broad church" even for someone like me with an interest in the topic.)

Still, this recent post of his shows that there is still some quite esoteric research being undertaken in some parts of the world:

Automatic writing mediumship (known in Brazil as psychography) has almost disappeared in Europe but is still much in evidence in Brazil. Clinical psychologist Dr Julio Peres decided to use the latest medical technology to explore what changes occur in the mediums’ brains whilst apparently receiving communications from spirit entities. To find out, he took 10 of them to the United States so that they could undergo neuroimaging at the University of Pennsylvania’s hospital, which has a new Centre for Spirituality and the Mind.

Before participating in the sessions, each medium was injected with a tracer substance so that areas of brain activity would show up on SPECT scans, which use gamma rays to monitor changes. Brain activity was recorded when the subjects were writing normally and also when they were producing spirit-inspired scripts.

The results, which Dr Peres says “challenges the hypothesis that the mind is created by the brain”, revealed that whilst the content of the automatic scripts was more complex than the structure of the mediums’ normal writing, their scans showed the activity of the reasoning parts of their brains decreased during automatic writing. Which poses the question: who was creating them?

Dr Peres hopes that a scientific paper on this research will be published in the next few months. The data will also be published as a book next year.

Automatic writing would be more impressive if it created whole works worthy of a deceased author, but as far as I know it only produces screeds of New Age-ish waffle. Still, it's of interest.

Death to modern witches

Saudi Arabia to execute TV psychic

An unbelievable story from Saudi Arabi. The Guardian's "Comment is Free" section has also covered it here. Ron Stenman makes the point:
I can’t help but reflect on the absurdity of a situation that arises from a religion – Islam – which is said to be based on revelations from angels dictated to Muhammad over a 20-year-period. In some countries, that would also be thought of as witchcraft.
I would be very surprised if an execution goes ahead, but as the link at the top of this post notes, there is at least one female "witch" still on death row in Saudi Arabia for the last few years.

What a country...

An odd connection

Coffee, tea may stop diabetes
Researchers at The George Institute have discovered that high consumption of coffee and tea is associated with a substantially reduced risk of type 2 diabetes. Lead author, Associate Professor Rachel Huxley, The George Institute, says that people who consumed on average three to four cups of coffee a day had one-quarter lower risk of developing diabetes compared to non-coffee drinkers.
But it doesn't appear to be the caffeine:
“In those individuals drinking more than three or four cups of coffee per day, the reduction in risk of developing diabetes was even greater; up to 40 per cent in those drinking more than six cups per day compared with non-coffee drinkers. Interestingly, similar reductions in risk were also observed for tea and decaffeinated beverages suggesting that any diabetes-sparing effect is not driven primarily through caffeine as previously thought.”
Odd. I wouldn't have expected too many other similar compounds in tea and coffee. Maybe it's just drinking hot beverages that does the trick.

To know the future - consult the all-knowing Kitty

Japanese Fortune Telling: Of Cats’ Paw-pads, Penguins, Monsters, and Gundams

A very odd collection of books from Japan about unique forms of fortune telling.

Actually, I'm torn between consulting Kitty-chan or the capybara.

Geothermal blues

Double blow for 'hot rock' geothermal power - Short Sharp Science - New Scientist

In Australia, though, it's just got new funding from the Federal government.

I remain somewhat skeptical of this technology's potential.

Things that make me happy, No. 1

Hey, after a big rant a few posts back, I said I would post about reasons to be happy.

Well, I'll have to break it up into short bits of things that are at least making me happy at the moment, so here we go:

1. the birdbath outside the dining room window. Watching bird drink and bathe while you eat breakfast or lunch is much more enjoyable than I expected. My wife yesterday even bought a bird identification book (more for the kids than me), but I can't see myself being drawn too far into the somewhat peculiar world of obsessive birdwatchers. If the birds come to me, fine; but I'm not going to them.

Ocean acidification calmly explained

It's from earlier this year, but I have just got around to watching this video of a talk on ocean acidification given at the University of California by a marine chemist. It's a very straightforward but convincing explanation of the problem and the issues, and is well worth watching if you have a spare hour:

Sunspot connection questionned

Sunspots do not cause climate change, say scientists - Climate Change, Environment - The Independent

I see the (at least noteworthy) skeptic Dr Roy Spencer had a recent post looking for sun/climate connections in 2008/2009.

He suspects there might be some connection, but it by no means clear.

Meanwhile, in Iran

Iran 'building nuclear bomb trigger' |

The interest in Copenhagen seems to be dampening media and public interest in the worsening situation regarding Iran.

I missed this report last week, for example:
...Iran accused western-backed Saudi Arabia of handing over a missing Iranian nuclear scientist to the US and claiming that Washington is holding 10 more of its officials...

Tensions between Tehran and Washington have ..been fuelled by the allegation that Saudi Arabia sent an Iranian nuclear scientist to the US. Iran said Shahram Amiri disappeared during a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia in June and accused the US of acting like a "terrorist".
All very reminiscent of the Cold War, really, except this one probably stands a better chance of going "hot".

A useful summary

Long-term goals the big hurdle

Tim Colebatch in The Age gives a useful summary of the massive task ahead if the world is really to achieve the 2 degree target:
The only fair basis for determining long-term emission rights is population. At Copenhagen, they are negotiating on total emissions or emissions growth. Yet inescapably, the currency we will end up dealing with is emissions per head.

Ross Garnaut saw this clearly, and made it the central feature of his report's design for a global agreement. He proposed that the world adopt a goal of convergence to equal per capita emissions by 2050. With a 50 per cent cut in global emissions, that implies cutting emissions to about 2.5 tonnes per head.

That implies Australia and the US would have to cut emissions per head by 90 per cent over the next 40 years, and China by 45 per cent. But a poor country like India would be able to expand emissions by 90 per cent. And countries could trade emission rights to meet the target.

Cut emissions per head by 90 per cent? Sounds unlikely, to say the least.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Reasons to be unhappy

Here at Opinion Dominion your blogger generally likes to talk up optimism for the future. But this attempt to look at all empty-ish glasses as in fact being half full has taken a savage beating over the last few weeks, and it's hard not to disagree with Time magazine that it is looking like a dispiriting end to a particularly uninspiring decade. Cases in point:

* An outbreak of aggressive stupidity Part 1: climate change skepticism has never been known for its sense of calm, dispassionate reason, but with the release of the CRU emails, they've just gone bat-sh*t crazy, following their own echo-chamber memes over the edge of the cliff of sanity. It's remarkable how few on the blogosphere drive this: I would guess that Watts up With That, Roger Pielke Snr, Steve McIntyre and Andrew Bolt probably account for about the dispersal of about 90% of all "skeptic" memes.

Bolt in particular shows no interest in counter arguments, although as I have acknowledged before, Watts will sometimes post something that runs counter to a skeptical line. McIntyre seems to have made one half reasonable point in his skepticism career, and has continued to dwell on it for years, as if uncertainty as to accuracy of tree ring proxies really had created a crisis for the whole of climate science. His view of his own self importance seems remarkably over-inflated.

It's not the claimed "skepticism" per se of the followers of these views which is so aggravating; it's the seeing of conspiracies, the "it's always been a hoax", the outright deceptive nature of much of their sloganeering that is driving me to distraction. Any post in a blog headed sarcastically "hide the decline" shows the person is a non-serious partisan player, and makes me want to reach for my pistol. (And no doubt that last comment will be claimed by a 'skeptic' as showing that I am a violence-threatenting fascist out to gun down non-believers.)

These same people take the same shrug shoulders approach to ocean acidification, so there is no point in trying to argue with them that there is fact a matter of at least equal significance as to why CO2 should be reduced. (And my official position remains that acidification alone is enough to take urgent action. An actual drop in global temperatures over the next decade would not change that.)

* An outbreak of aggressive stupidity Part 2: The Coalition parties in Australia have been taken over by the do-nothing climate change "skeptics."

Tony Abbott, a smart enough guy who nearly everyone has liked for his forthrightness as a Minister, saw right-wing skepticism (especially amongst rural folk, who were presumably already glued onto the Nationals anyway) as an opportunity to grab a leadership that he probably figured was never going to evolve naturally towards him.

I predict he will pay for this disingenuous opportunism. I'll certainly not be voting for a party in such complete disarray on such an important issue, and for a leader who has surrounded himself with a deeply unimpressive shadow cabinet.

* The Right in America goes off the deep end: I don't agree with everything Charles Johnson says about how the Right has gone wrong in the United States, and even suspect that he may be unfairly criticising or misrepresenting some figures. But still, overall, it's hard to disagree that the Republicans have been taken over by anti-science "skeptics," have few people left who argue with reason and clarity, and it is indeed a worry that the very strange Glenn Beck is taken seriously by a significant number of people.

It's hard to see from where a plausible Republican Presidential candidate is next going to emerge.

* Even those who are "right" are wrong, Part 1: Just because I think the Republicans are in complete disarray doesn't mean I am particularly impressed with the other side of politics in America. I always thought Obama was over-hyped, as if the ability to deliver a platitudinous speech in a deep voice was all it needed to lead America out of its funk. Well, it's hard to see how I was wrong. He's likely to be unable to convince Americans of the need for serious money to be raised and spent on clean energy; I suspect he will cause NASA to flounder for another 20 years; it seems that he has been unable to get through serious health reform. (That the right wing equates access to reasonable health care for everyone as too much "socialism" is one of the sillier features of the Republicans today. You really get the feeling Republicans just need to travel more.)

* Even those who are right are wrong, Part 2: To deal with a problem you have to first acknowledge it exists. Hence my anger at the skeptics/deniers. But, even if you get over the hurdle, there is still little evidence that those nations that do take climate change seriously can think of anything beyond emissions trading schemes as a "solution".

I reckon the carbon tax proponents simply left their run too late.

I actually wonder whether it's worth worrying about precise targets at all: we simply want governments to raise money for massive investment in research and deployment of clean energy and to just get on with it. It seems the simplest way of doing that is to impose a carbon tax.

Economists have a fear of governments picking favourites, and would prefer to let the market work out the best combination of solutions. But at times when serious and urgent action is needed, nations don't let that happen. It's a bit like the heads of industry telling the generals how they should run a war that it is expected to take 30 years to play out.

I strongly suspect that Bjorn Lomborg is right on this point.

Of course, the Labor Party in Australia has its head in the sand on nuclear power too, which is another reason to grind one's teeth.

* Is Copenhagen worth anything at all at the end of the day? The Wall Street Journal seems to editorially be about the only paper in the world that promotes climate change skepticism. However, they might have a point in this article, which argues that even the most optimistic agreement that seems politically possible is not going to help keep CO2 within the levels needed.
I suppose I should be skeptical of anything the WSJ runs on AGW, and I note that the article seems to be based on continued extremely high economic growth in China. Still, it seems a worry.

* It's been stiflingly hot in Brisbane. The last couple of weeks have been hot and breath-sappingly humid to a degree I am sure is unusual even for Brisbane in early December. There have also been few storms to provide evening relief. It is starting to remind me of the summer of 1998, but we will have to wait and see.

* Why can't directors I don't like fail? This has been a disappointing year for my hopes that Tarantino might have made a career ending film. Instead, we get violence with no redeeming moral context being praised as entertainment again.

Now, James Cameron, who appears to be a complete and utter real-life jerk from all reports, has apparently made a successful CGI heavy film at a time I thought just about everyone was getting sick of CGI, and starting to get leery of 3D too. (It certainly makes going to the cinema a much more expensive exercise.)

Obviously, karma has been proved again as an implausible theory.

* I didn't even like last Saturday's episode of Mythbusters. This is the one where they spent time on looking at the movie inspired myth that putting a person's head into liquid nitrogen for a short time will freeze it enough to make it shatter on a bench top. The movie in question is (apparently) Jason 10, which I presume is another example of the Hollywood slasher/horror/sadism genre which has developed in the last decade and is purely about how to raise the bar in imagining gruesome ways to die.

This was not, in my books, a "myth" worthy of attention, and was far too gruesome a topic for a show with a large following amongst smart kids. I hope they got some criticism for it.

In fact, I am starting to worry that they are running out of myths to deal with. I'll have to put my mind to suggesting some.

OK, that's it for now. For my next post, I will attempt to revert to reasons to be happy.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Monday, December 07, 2009

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Space beer

Sapporo taking orders for ISS brew

Sapporo Breweries Ltd. will sell a limited volume of beer made using barley grown from seeds that were stored in outer space under a joint project with the Russian Academy of Science and Okayama University.

The brewer will receive orders for the Sapporo Space Barley beer via the Internet until Dec. 24, making 250 six-packs, holding 330-ml bottles, available at a price of ¥10,000 each, Sapporo said Thursday, adding the product will be delivered to customers in late January. Proceeds will be used for the promotion of science education.

The original barley seeds were stored for five months in the Russian module of the International Space Station.

Good to know the Russians and Japanese have their space research priorities right...

Friday, December 04, 2009

Sonic booms

I see that residents near the northern New South Wales coast were almost certainly shaken by a distant sonic boom last night. (The RAAF was doing exercises off the coast.)

This reminds me: last week's episode of Mythbusters where they were testing the effects of sonic booms on glass, cars and structures was very enjoyable. You can see some clips from it here.

It's a fantastic show, and is about the only thing on TV that is a "must see" every week in my house when new episodes are on. (The boys in the family are a bit more enthusiastic about it than the girls, though. Is that a surprise?)

Nature comes out swinging

Climatologists under pressure : Article : Nature

A pleasingly aggressive editorial in Nature on "climategate".

"Hockey sticks" without tree rings

Another excellent, succinct post from Skeptical Science. (Which, of course, "skeptics" won't read.)

Now it's serious

That Jon Stewart is not always very careful with his analysis was made very clear earlier this year when he opined that Truman was a war criminal for using atomic bombs. In particular, he suggested that it would have more appropriate to set off an A-bomb off shore as a warning first; a view that might make sense if you had certainty that the weapons would always work, had more than two at your disposal, and did not have to make such a massive effort to get even those ones made.

The right wing blogs in the US (correctly) lamblasted Stewart for such careless, off the cuff, thinking.

Now Stewart is being careless and trivialising again, but this time the Right is applauding it, because it's about "Climategate".

What's worse, this wasn't Stewart being put on the spot during an interview, it was a prepared piece. It also tried to have it both ways, claiming at the end that it doesn't prove global warming is a fraud, and trying to ridicule Senator Inhofe for his rabid climate change denial.

It would seem that Stewart, like Monbiot, is not smart enough as to realise that if you offer anything that apparently supports AGW skepticism, AGW skeptics will take it as confirmation that they have "won".

Worse, Stewart's "analysis" of the story was completely trivialising and misleading in exactly the same way AGW skeptics have dealt with it. Going on about the phrase "hide the decline" without knowing the context is completely misleading. (Even Trenberth's "the fact is we can’t account for the lack of warming at the moment and it is a travesty" comment is not the same worry that it first appears.) Stewart ended by saying that scientists shouldn't "cut corners" because it undermines the science. As far as I can tell, "climategate" suggests nothing about shortcuts at all. It does raise issues about the provision of data for scrutiny, but even then the context of the (often) harassing and time consuming use to which FOI can be put needs to be considered.

This is a worry because Stewart is (apparently) an influential source of news for his mostly young, hip audience. If even he is going to provide ill-informed or context-free discussion of the issue, he is misleading his audience in exactly the same way some of them probably first thought "hey, that's right. Why didn't we just set off an A bomb as a warning first?"

Someone (a scientist directly in the field, not just a political advocate like Gore) ought to be on the phone to The Daily Show and asking for a "right of reply" to put the emails in context. Stewart might claim "but I said I still believed in AGW", but there is no doubt in my mind that he has done harm to the promotion of good science and policy.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

State of play

BBC News - Climate science, from Bali to Copenhagen

This seems like a fairly well balanced account of the current issue in climate science.

Sports Illustrated covers more than I expected

Of course I don't read Sports Illustrated, but First Things posted about what is probably the oddest paragraph ever written in that magazine:
Whether you consider him genuine or fake, Tebow, at the end of the day, is a Heisman Trophy-, SEC- and BCS-title winning quarterback who goes to class, goes to church and circumcises people less fortunate than him. More people should be so intolerable.
Made me laugh, anyway.

Anything good from Copenhagen?

Barry Brook is feeling very, very pessimistic about anything at all useful coming out of Copenhagen:
In December, we’ll see politicians from all manner of countries strutting around on the world stage saying how seriously they take the climate change issue, why delay on action is unacceptable, and why the world must move towards a low carbon economy — “blah di blah blah blah“. They’ll most certainly earnestly commit to a definite emissions reduction target for some far distant date (probably 2050), and will probably also agree to some vague notion of an in-principle x% cut by 2020 (choose whatever value you want for x — it’s meaningless). Everyone will then head home, and the world will go on cranking up the carbon, much as before.

Then, as we continue to dither and meander our way through the next 10 or so years, the squeeze will start to be felt, with the grip of increasingly severe climate impacts (most notably extreme events and some unanticipated abrupt changes), and energy insecurity, inexorably tightening. Oil and natural gas prices will rise substantially, as unavoidable production shortages begin to seriously constrain business-as-usual. Those who can pay for the oil and its derivatives, or those who have the large remaining reserves, will be set inequitably apart from the rest. Continued rising temperatures, increasingly severe short-term events, persistent rainfall shifts (each with a decent chance of sudden step changes), and so on, will make the reality of global warming starkly apparently to all but the most delusional pea brains. At some point — well within the next two decades I suspect — humanity will, under considerable duress and societal upheaval, move at last into emergency mode.

The only problem with that scenario is that it does indeed appear possible that global warming might not take off again in a big way for 5 to 10 years, thereby failing to supply the crisis that Brooks thinks is necessary, and instead give the re-invigorated skeptics air to continue their campaigns.

In an ideal world, a hold in temperature increases for long enough could actually give some breathing room for the development and deployment of new technology. But, in the very real battle of science, human nature, and politics that is underway, its by no means certain how it is going to play out.

Winners(?) and losers

The Great Beyond: Climate change creates shell-size surprise

Nature reports that a new lab study of several types of sea creatures confirms that some actually grow bigger and better shells in lower pH sea water:
Ries and colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution grew 18 different species in tanks with differing levels of carbon dioxide. They found seven species had more shell under higher carbon dioxide: crabs, lobsters, shrimp, red and green calcifying algae, limpets and temperate urchins (image top – larger animal grew under higher carbon dioxide).

Another 10 species did worse: oysters, scallops, temperate corals, tube worms, hard and soft clams, conchs, periwinkles, whelks and tropical urchins (image lower – smaller animal grew under higher carbon dioxide). Only one species was unaffected, the humble mussel, they report in Geology.

That Nature link at the top will probably stop working soon, but the press release it is based on is here. The researchers note that this study is pretty preliminary, as the didn't account for nutrient levels. Moreover, the ecological effect of one species building a bigger, stronger shell is not at all clear:
“I wouldn’t make any predictions based on these results. What these results indicate to us is that the organism response to elevated CO2 levels is complex and we now need to go back and study each organism in detail.”

Ries concurs that any possible ramifications are complex. For example, the crab exhibited improved shell-building capacity, and its prey, the clams, showed reduced calcification. “This may initially suggest that crabs could benefit from this shift in predator-pray dynamics. But without shells, clams may not be able to sustain their populations, and this could ultimately impact crabs in a negative way, as well,” Ries said.

In addition, Cohen adds, even though some organisms such as crabs and lobsters appear to benefit under elevated CO2 conditions, the energy they expend in shell building under these conditions “might divert from other important processes such as reproduction or tissue building.”

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

No surprise

Peru officer suspended over human fat killers 'lie'

I didn't post about this story when it broke, as it had too much of the smell of an urban myth about it. Seems my hunch was right.

Another case of "as I suspected"

Quote mining code : Deltoid

Tim Lambert has a careful look at the claim exciting Boltians and others that there was "proof" of data manipulation in some code including in the leaked CRU files.

Appears to be nothing of the sort. But will Andrew Bolt look at this? I doubt he would ever deem it worthy of his time to look at sites which present the other side of a claim made by a AGW skeptic.

The very old party base and email

Climate scorches Liberals' unity

In my arguments about the "grassroots" campaign apparently waged by Liberal Party rank and file to get Turnbull to delay the ETS, I have mentioned that the average age of the party members was pretty old, and older people are much more likely (for unclear reasons) to not believe in AGW.

Well, it seems I was certainly right about the age of party membership:
When the Victorian Liberal Party conducted a review after the Howard government's defeat, it found that the average age of its members was 60-plus. Few younger Australians are climate change sceptics, and a party that retreats to an unrepresentative base is unlikely to be elected.
The other curious thing, though, is that various Liberals have been claiming to have received "thousands" of emails from concerned constituents. Paul Sheehan writes today:
''I have never seen anything like it,'' said Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells when I called to ask why she publicly abandoned Turnbull's leadership on Friday. By yesterday afternoon her office had logged almost 8000 emails and calls opposing the proposed emissions trading scheme.
There is something pretty fishy about this, if you ask me. As the average age of the party member seems to be so old, surely there is a smaller proportion of them who are internet users in the first place.

Paul Sheehan explains how Alan Jones was leading this anti-CPRS campaign in Sydney. I wouldn't mind betting that there has been some young Jones acolytes behind the flood of emails, and that it significantly over-represents the size of the concern.

UPDATE: James Farrell at Club Troppo also worries about Alan Jones undue influence in national affairs. Here are the key paragraphs:
...if it’s true that Jones inspired the letter campaign, it raises two issues. One is the ability of radio ranters like him to exert influence vastly out of proportion to their knowledge and wisdom. This influence corrupts the democratic process: ideally, citizens take information from a range of sources (including the superior blogs) in the market for ideas, and weigh them up, rather than adopt fully formed opinions from one shrill source. It’s not just that these broadcasters are propaganda tools for vested interests; the type of individual whose opininated ravings rate highly also tends to be motivated by quite arbitrary personal prejudices and preoccupations.

In Jones’s case a relevant foible is that he can’t happen to stand anyone who refuses to be sycophantic. He is vindictiveness itself when not shown due deference. It was astounding to see Turnbull stand up to him in the interview last month (read Sheehan for some highlights), and I confess to having lazily thought to myself, it’s nice to see a federal leader refusing to be cowed by this demagogue. What I’d forgotten is that they grovel for a good reason, and in the last week we may have seen the chickens coming home to roost. Now, it’s possible that Jones helped destroy Turnbull at the behest wealthy and powerful interests, but — and this is my point — it may just have been because Turnbull got under his skin. And that isn’t a healthy basis for determining the course of climate policy.

I've never understood Jones' appeal as a broadcaster.

Ziggy agrees with me, at last

Over the last couple of years, I have been saying that part of the problem with converting the Australian public to use nuclear power is that large nuclear power plants usually use large amounts of cooling water, and in Australian would therefore probably be dotted around the coast. This was certainly the suggestion in Ziggy Switkowski's report on nuclear commissioned by John Howard. The image was of 25 gigantic stations taking up nice bits of coastal views (not to mention warmed water being pumped into the ocean.)

As Australians are, I think, particularly fond of a bit of unspoiled coast, planting nuclear power on them is unappealing.

But, I said, what about smaller, new types of nuclear which do not use water, and can be deployed away from the coast and more discretely? It would seem logical that they can also start making a difference faster than all the planning and building that goes into huge nuclear power plants.

Well, I am happy to report that Ziggy agrees. In his column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, he writes:

Compact reactors are expected on the market by about 2015. These reactors are appealing because they are gas cooled (and therefore do not require access to water), can be incrementally extended, are perhaps the size of two shipping containers, can be built underground, and are much less intimidating than a full-scale installation.

The introduction of nuclear power via these smaller installations may be the path which wins Australian community and political support earliest.

Well, about time you caught up with me, Ziggy.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Sounds about right

Why single-sex schools are bad for your health (if you're a boy)

This study from England will apparently show:
....that boys taught in singlesex schools are more likely to be divorced or separated from their partner than those who attended a mixed school by their early 40s.
I am not surprised. I went to a small Catholic primary school and then a State (mixed sex) high school. Many of my former primary school (male) friends went to a Catholic single sex high school. It always seemed to me that their experience gave them a peculiar, competitive and overall unpleasant attitude towards girls. It's hard to describe it exactly, but it still seemed quite distinct to me. Regular religious instruction in high school seemed to have an extremely limited influence on sexual behaviour, too.

I am not sure that it is a good idea for girls either. I was told by a woman I was dating once about how much she hated the social experience of her Catholic high school due to the incredible level of, well, bitchiness between the girls. One might have thought that, in the absence of males to directly compete about, there would be less of that, but apparently not.

It's a small sample, I know, but it's enough for me to want to make sure my kids both go to mixed sex high schools.

Let the healing begin.....ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha

So the Liberal Party chooses a new leader, who, even before last week's meltdown, no one has ever thought electable as PM, and who has now set himself up as the puppet of the do-nothing AGW skeptics, yet has to work out what policy on the topic he can credibly bring to the next election.

Farce on a spectacular scale!

Possible good outcome: by losing by one vote, will Malcolm be convinced to wait around and have again after the next election? Would he happy leading an Opposition of about 30?

Monday, November 30, 2009


I'm typing this while watching my very own local MP Michael Johnson being interviewed on Lateline. He is a complete goose. I will enjoy not voting for him next election.

You may go back to what you were doing.

Appleyard on AGW

Global warming is real - Times Online

Bryan Appleyard explains how he came around to believing in AGW. That's a relief. He's not exactly conservative, but he is philosophically leery of much of science. If he had come out as a skeptic, I would have been disappointed.

Annabel Crabb on Malcolm's "crash or crash through" tactics

The mad splendour of King Malcolm - ABC News

What's this Annabel Crabb piece doing on the ABC site? Anyway, it's a pretty amusing, even though I still can't bring myself to criticise Turnbull for his tactics. For example:
Watching Laurie Oakes' interview with Mr Turnbull yesterday was to watch a man carefully, deliberately and coolly securing bomb belts around every inch of his person....

All year, he has seemed dull and muffled, as he struggled to placate the warring sides of his party and arrive, through a grim series of manoeuvrings and tactical dodges, to avoid the chasm that lies at the centre of this policy debate for the Liberal Party.

Now, out on his own, increasingly friendless and bristling with self-timed explosive devices, he's never seemed more alive.

Many people have said that his getting stuck into Minchin was a problem because Minchin is held in high regard by many in the party. Why?? Any goodwill people may have borne towards him should be overcome by his forcing a coup because his side lost in the party room.

When is telling the truth acceptable in politics?

I've been thinking. I am strongly of the view that the Liberal Party's current crisis was instituted by Senator Nick Minchin and his skeptic buddies, for no clear reason, telling the truth to Four Corners about their disbelief of the science of AGW. (Yes, I know, they would claim they are the ones interpreting the science correctly, but I would be willing to bet money that their main source of information is Andrew Bolt and his completely one sided, and completely irresponsible, assessment.)

But since Malcolm Turnbull went on TV yesterday and set out in exact detail what he thought of Minchin and his ilk and the disastrous course for the future of the party if they had their way, commentators are suggesting that he went too far in his truthful assessment. For example, Milne writes:
Support for Mr Turnbull was haemorrhaging even before he embarked on a damaging series of media interviews over the weekend, including with the Nine Network's Laurie Oakes, in which he lashed Nick Minchin, Tony Abbott and "cuddly" Joe Hockey.
I have to agree that the use of "cuddly" was not wise.

But every commentator and pollster in the land agrees with Turnbull's assessment of the coming disaster if Hockey takes over and does not get an ETS passed before the next election.

Everyone accepts that politicians lie in the course of leadership fights. Crises are denied, loyalties are pledged, and positions switched in extremely short order.

That's why the sudden outbreak of truth from Turnbull is something I find hard to criticise, even though I suppose it guarantees that even if did win, he'd only be able to pick a cabinet from about half of the party room.

But here is a really important point that has been poorly reported: I only understood yesterday (from watching Lenore Taylor on Insiders) that the party room numbers, when you include Cabinet members (and why shouldn't you?) did vote by a clear majority to pass the ETS (49 to 46, even including the Nationals. Exclude the Nationals and it was an even clearer win within the Liberals) That Minchin and Tuckey came out arguing that Turnbull did not have the numbers is based on a creative interpretation that you only count backbenchers when deciding party policy. How much sense does that make?

In other words, this entire leadership spill is, as Turnbull has been saying, simply about the losing side on a hard-fought policy issue refusing to accept the party room decision. As I have been saying over at Catallaxy, it seems that it's all about how they did not like the way Turnbull announced his win.

Well, if that is the calibre of the Minchin rebels, they actually deserve to be purged from the party, I reckon. If the party can't bring itself to split, I certainly hope that the electorate achieves the same result.

UPDATE: another point I forgot to make, and virtually no media commentator seems to have mentioned it either: Peter Dutton as deputy doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense when it's very unclear that he can hold onto his own seat, does it? If people thought it was a bad look for the party that Howard lost his seat last election, we now have the prospect of both a new leader and his deputy going down. It would be good for a gloat, but as even most Labor supporters would say, not having a reasonably strong opposition is usually bad for the country in the long run.

And another point: with all of this hoo-har about the (in truth, fake, right wing radio jocks led) Liberal grass roots uprising against the Party supporting the ETS, who exactly are those people going to rush to vote for in the next election anyway? The Climate Skeptics Party? (I am dying to see the quality of their candidates, and the loopy ideas they'll drag along behind them. It'll be One Nation all over again.)

UPDATE 2: Lenore Taylor in The Australian looks at the policy options the Liberals have, assuming the CPRS does not get passed after a Senate enquiry.

At some point, if they want any credibility at all, the party would have to come up with some policy that puts a price on carbon. And in whatever form you do it, you can call it a "tax on everything", as the Minchin followers are doing for the CPRS.

Given their rhetorical, the Minchin rebels have undercut the credibility of any alternative the Liberals can come up with, even if in fact it may be a better proposal than the Labor policy.

What will happen to the power stations of Victoria

Power giants crying foul? What a joke!

Kenneth Davidson reckons the panic being promoted over problems in the Victorian power industry is just a beat up. I suspect he is right.

His alternative to an ETS also has a pleasing simplicity about it:
The flawed CPRS should be replaced with a broad-based carbon tax. If it was set initially at $10 a tonne it would be hardly noticed, it would raise $5 billion a year and all the money could be spent on green infrastructure instead of the financial bubble if the CPRS goes ahead.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Let's not forget... ocean acidification

It's been a couple of weeks since I mentioned ocean acidification. You'd think that someone, even George Monbiot, might mention it in the context of "Climategate" (which I still reckon will amount to nothing in the long run) as the other big reason why rapid CO2 increase is Not a Good Idea.

So, what's new from the Ocean Acidification blog?:

a. a couple of types of plankton (two species of coccolithophore) show reduced growth under increased dissolved CO2, even when the increase is more gradual than in some of other experiments;

b. another study on 4 different strains of coccolithophore indicates that they respond differently to increased CO2, presumably on a genetic basis. This is possibly a good thing, if you assume the ones that take increased CO2 in their stride replace those that suffer decreased calcification. But it's going to be very difficult to experimentally tell if that is what will happen in the oceans, I would have thought.

c. a report from an unlikely source (iStockAnalyst!) says that the waters off Japan are showing lower pH:
A group of scientists, led by Takashi Midorikawa of the Meteorological Research Institute in Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture, has checked the pH readings of surface seawater off the Kii Peninsula at 30 degrees north latitude that have been made since 1986. They have found that the pH has dropped by 0.04 during this period, a considerable change. Such ocean acidification has been observed elsewhere as well, such as off Hawaii.
It seems that this is the 3rd report of long term (20 plus years) measurements which are indeed showing that ocean acidification is happening as predicted:

a. the Hawaiian study from earlier this year;
b. the Icelandic ocean study, which has just been updated, and
c. now Japan.

While there seems to be a considerable divergence in the actual rate of acidification, water temperatures and other factors presumably have a role.

Still, it seems that the skeptic response that ocean acidification can't happen (or isn't happening,) which seemed to be the position of Ian Plimer and Bob Carter, for example, just isn't sustainable.

4. Here's an interesting report on current work underway with coring coral in the Caribbean to see if growth rates can be correlated to decreasing pH. It will very interesting if they replicate the findings of a study on Australian coral.

5. Cuttlefish (and other cephalopod?) eggs are affected by decreased pH, but it seems unclear whether in a good way or a bad way. (They absorb less cadmium, but more silver.) All kind of complicated, isn't it?