Saturday, January 31, 2009

Lesbian separatists of Alabama

Lesbian Communities Struggle to Stay Vital to a New Generation -

I could also have entitled this post "Nuttiest Lesbians Ever", and some people may have taken offence; but then, after reading the article, I suspect most people would agree with me.

The story is about some "womyn's" communities in the US which date from the 1970's, and comprise women who absolutely want nothing to do with men (and don't even trust transexual men who have had the operation). Some extracts:
Finding one another in the fever of the gay rights and women’s liberation movements, they built a matriarchal community, where no men were allowed, where even a male infant brought by visitors was cause for debate....

Ms. Greene trims branches of oak, hickory and sassafras trees and stops by the grave of a deer she buried in the woods after it was hit by a car. She named it Miracle. “I talk to Miracle every day,” Ms. Greene said. “That is one of my joys of living here.”
[Could Ms Greene care to explain whether she is aware of the irony of calling a deer hit by a car "Miracle"?]
....the women live in simple houses or double-wide trailers on roads they have named after goddesses, like Diana Drive. They meet for potluck dinners, movie and game nights and “community full moon circles” during which they sing, read poems and share thoughts on topics like “Mercury in retrograde — how is it affecting our communication?”...

There is strident debate within and across the womyn’s lands about who should be allowed to join. Many residents subscribe to strict lesbian separatism, meaning that men are permitted only as temporary visitors and that straight, bisexual and transsexual women are also excluded.
As the article notes, most of these communities are dying, as young lesbians don't see the need to set themselves up as isolationists from the rest of humanity.

UPDATE: spelling of Alabama corrected. I must stop posting late at night.

Doesn't sound like a failed state

No Injuries Reported in Iraqi Elections -

Victoria not coping well

Victoria without power for days

POWER outages caused by an explosion at an electrical substation wreaked havoc across heatwave-stricken Victoria last night.

All Melbourne train services were cancelled and about 500,000 homes and businesses were left without electricity in the city's west, some parts of the CBD and western Victoria....

Connex staff told thousands of commuters at Flinders Street Railway Station trying to get home at the end of the working week that they would have to find other means of travel because there was no power for trains.

A number of city buildings were evacuated, with the firemen called in to rescue office workers trapped in stalled lifts.

Traffic lights in the city stopped working and signals on the rail network also failed.

How about this potentially expensive offer:

Power retailer Jemena offered to pay $150 towards the costs of hotels for residential customers who have been without power for 24 hours.
I'll be waiting to hear the story of some poor family that leaves their powerless home for a night in an airconditioned hotel, only to get stuck in an unairconditioned lift for 3 hours.

Your odd quantum thought for today


This short paper up at arXiv seems to propose a simple quantum experiment that could have a puzzling outcome. In fact, the way it is described, it is hard to believe the experiment has not already been done, but I assume from the way this is written that it hasn't been tried.

All very odd.

Friday, January 30, 2009

An important read

The school Israel didn’t shell | Herald Sun Andrew Bolt Blog

As much as I disagree with Andrew Bolt's take on greenhouse gases, posts such as this one provide a valuable service to those who fail to exercise skepticism when it comes to media reporting of Israel's actions and Palestinian's claims.

They don't like it hot

There's sort of a vicious cycle of silliness going on about global warming and the day to day weather. It certainly started with proponents of warming (from Al Gore down) exaggerating the significance of particular weather events as being signs of global warming. The skeptics rubbished this, but then when the weather starts to turns cold, they start doing the same trick. Now that Melbourne and Adelaide are melting in (possibly) 1 in a 100 year heat, it's back to some on the AGW side (notably, Penny Wong) to claim it is "consistent" with warming. Which sets Andrew Bolt and the like back to the "no, it's only weather" argument again. (Until next winter, probably, when he may swing back to a run of cold weather being evidence of no warming.)

It's also particularly ironic that Andrew Bolt names his post on this "Wong wrong to pick that cherry", when his repeated claim that the warming has stopped since 1998 has long been criticised as the biggest cherry pick of all.

Everyone should just repeat the mantra: "Day to day weather is not climate. Day to day whether is not climate."

That said, would it be wrong for those on the AGW to at least say "well look, this is not proof itself of AGW, but this is what it will be like for longer according to the predictions of the vast majority of climate scientists." ? (Wong semi-qualifies her statements by saying it is "consistent with", but in my books that is still being a bit tricky. If she rephrased her comments in the way I suggest, then it would be completely unobjectionable, while still making the connection with AGW as a policy issue.)

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Where not to invest

Raising the Roof - Beijing suspends restrictions on foreign buyers

By all means, if you want your own holiday apartment in an unusual location, consider Beijing. But don't expect capital growth:
Last week the Beijing Statistics Bureau reported price growth declined for the ninth straight month. Prices could fall by 20 percent in the next few months, a recent report by the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences predicted.

"Change" going well so far

Ahmadinejad demands Obama apology - World -

In case you missed it: micro black holes are news again

I've been slack lately and not following closely the arXiv papers on black holes at the LHC.

As those who read Instapundit would already have seen, there is a new paper by some credible European physicists (original is here) in which they re-visited the question of how long a micro black hole created at the LHC may last. The previous perceived wisdom was that it would be a tiny, tiny fraction of second before they disappeared into a spray of decay particles, which (presumably) the LHC could detect.

As I understand it, the new paper suggests that for a certain model, the decay rate may in fact be many seconds, even minutes; time enough for a micro black to shoot off through the earth. But they still think there is no likely risk of accretion starting and overwhelming the much-slower-that-previously-thought-possible decay rate.

As some are commenting (see the second link above), this still seems a pretty big revision of what was considered possible from the LHC, even if the authors are still arguing that there is no danger.

I note that the authors of the paper acknowledge discussions with physicists Giddings and Plaga, who themselves still (as far as I know) are stuck in disagreement as to whether Plaga's warning last year that a micro black hole could be an explosive danger was fundamentally flawed or not. At the very least, it indicates that other physicists consider that Plaga is not to be dismissed as a nutter.

Also on the topic of danger from the LHC, New Scientist has an article about a paper looking at (if I can paraphrase it correctly) how to judge the probabilities of something going wrong when you are not entirely sure of what may you might create in the first place. The general gist seems to be that it is potentially riskier than you think.

The guy who runs the Physics arXiv blog is probably really getting up the nose of CERN now, as the effect of both of these recent papers is to make him start worrying about safety issues. Fox News's version of the story probably annoys them even more.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

"Chris, want to know who I just spoke to?"

Obama and Rudd discuss financial crisis - Yahoo!7 News

So, Obama finally got around to ringing our PM. I like to imagine Kevin doing a little dance in his office in celebration and relief. Then a phone call to Chris Mitchell to tell him all about it.

The trouble in Egypt

Gaza crisis threatens outlook for Mubarak - International Herald Tribune
Egyptians and Arab countries complained that Mubarak kept the official border crossing between Egypt and Gaza closed before and during much of the war. The most populous Arab country - and the first to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979 - Egypt has been subject to scorn in Yemen and Lebanon, where mobs have marched on its embassies in the past few weeks. It has also been the target of criticism from the tiny Gulf oil state of Qatar, as well as Syria and Iran. All support Hamas.

At the same time, Israel complained that the Egyptian police turned a blind eye to arms smuggled though hundreds of tunnels beneath the Gaza border.
Surely this issue with the Egyptian control of the border is not an insurmountable problem.

This is modern art (Part 1)

Kulik confounds critics with multisensory Monteverdi in Paris |

This is a somewhat amusing report on a very avant garde reworking of classical concert material in Paris:
Behold, the classical concert is reborn! Its saviour? A man whose career high until now has been crawling naked on all fours barking like a dog. The Russian artist Oleg Kulik is notorious for biting critics when his canine alter ego occasionally breaks the leash in galleries — now he has taken a nip at the heels of an artform that has been getting a bit doddery on its feet....

The resulting two-and-a-half hour "trip" – think William Blake meets Jean-Michel Jarre, crossed with Peter Greenaway's Prospero's Books – is either a flabbergasting reworking of one of the most sublime works in the classical repertoire, or what the dependably crusty French daily Le Figaro today called an "indigestible visual minestrone".
As for that dog act of Kulik, it sounds like he, um, role plays it to the extreme:
The critic accused Kulik of doing to Monteverdi what French police suspected the artist did to a dog in some of his "man-dog, couple of the future" photographs recently seized from a Paris art fair.


Last night I read this story:

Seven diners fell ill, one critically, after eating "fugu" globefish at a restaurant whose owner was unlicensed to safely prepare the notorious winter delicacy, police said Tuesday.

The seven consumed sashimi and fish testes at Kibun-ya restaurant in Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture, at around 6:30 p.m. Monday and one of them, identified as Asakichi Sato, 68, fell ill on the spot and was taken to a hospital, where he was listed in critical condition, the police said.

Then this morning I learn that:
Taiwan has a smorgasboard of theme diners, including one modeled after a hospital ward, one that holds puppet shows and two that seat customers on toilet bowls.
Am I the only person in the world to see the potential for a fugu restaurant done up as a hospital ward? (Or cut out the middle man: just locate it in a real ward.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Moral panic delayed

The Myth of Rampant Teenage Promiscuity -

The general gist of the article is that the number of teenagers having sex in American (including oral sex) is not as high as some recent reports have indicated. In fact, some participation rates have dropped over the last 20 years or so. For example:
A 2002 report from the Department of Health and Human Services found that 30 percent of 15- to 17-year-old girls had experienced sex, down from 38 percent in 1995. During the same period, the percentage of sexually experienced boys in that age group dropped to 31 percent from 43 percent.
This part of the report seemed particularly surprising:
The reality is that the rate of teenage childbearing has fallen steeply since the late 1950s. The declines aren’t explained by the increasing availability of abortions: teenage abortion rates have also dropped.
Damn. I hate it if a perfectly good moral panic is shown to be illusory.

The ever helpful drug

BBC NEWS - Aspirin 'could cut liver damage'

Yet another way in which aspirin may prove to have unexpected benefits:
A dose of aspirin may be able to prevent liver damage caused by paracetamol or heavy drinking, suggest researchers.
It only has been shown in mice so far, but still it sounds hopeful.

Here's a surprising figure from the report:
Rates of liver cirrhosis have risen in the UK in recent years as people drink more alcohol, and paracetamol overdose, both deliberate and accidental, accounts for well over 100 deaths per year.
That's more than I would have expected.

Have I mentioned here before that a nurse told me years ago that suicide by paracetamol overdose could be one of the most tragic ways to die, as the person (if not treated quickly enough) could wake up feeling relatively OK, realise what they have done and regret it, but may have irretrievably damaged their liver anyway. What may have been a "plea for help" type suicide attempt may therefore turn into the real thing, and the help they are offered won't make any difference. It's an awful scenario.

(Geoff can correct me if this is medically wrong.)

Bob Ellis to be with us for a while yet

Masturbation can be good for the over-50s - The Independent

He's a poet, but didn't know it

Praise song for the first day for the school year (Brisbane version)

Hooray, hooray, is the cry of a million parents, as we catch the joy in each other’s eyes.

The noise all about us at home for the last six weeks is finished, and a tidied house again may stay that way for more than one hour.

No more cinema queues to be endured for the latest movie about dogs.

No more cartoons every morning.

No more outings just to find time in airconditioning.

Say it plain: we love you kids, but jeez it’s good to get you out of the house again.

Learn well, and don’t expect us to do your homework for you. (Tell the teacher that too.)

Praise the day, that domestic peace rules again for 8 hours a day.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Nudge nudge, wink wink...

Grand Arabian nights Geert Jan van Gelder TLS

This is a long review on a new translation of 1,001 [Arabian] Nights, which I found of limited interest. However, being kind, I will extract for you the best bit:
Some readers will be delighted to learn some naughty Arabic, but surely English has a profusion of equally vulgar words for the sexual organs. It should be stressed, however, that obscenities, Arabic equivalents of English four-letter words, are few and far between in the original, where sexual intercourse is often simply expressed as “lying with” or more elaborately by means of metaphors martial (“storming the fortress”) or religious (“circumambulating the Kaaba”, “putting the imam into the prayer niche”), with the mildly shocking profanity that was common in pre-modern Arabic.

Naked science revisited

Do Naked Singularities Break the Rules of Physics?: Scientific American

Interesting article here arguing that a growing body of physicists are now not so sure that black holes always have an event horizon hiding their core from view. Some may be genuine naked singularities, the exact behaviour of which remains very unclear.

In September 2007, I mentioned a paper on arXiv which said that the Large Hadron Collider may also produce tiny naked singularities. Although the author was not worried that they would be dangerous, the issue of how a stationary one on the earth could behave has not, as far as I know, ever been addressed in the LHC safety reviews. (The general argument that cosmic ray collisions of higher energies have been safe for the earth is the only argument I suppose you could use, given the lack of knowledge about their behaviour. It's not a bad argument, except that the issue of whether there is a difference between moving and stationary ones would have to be addressed, as it was for micro black holes.)

Call me overly cautious if you want, but I am not entirely comfortable with the idea of a European lab possibly creating something the behaviour of which can only be guessed.

Bad ocean forecast of the week

Dramatic expansion of dead zones in the oceans

From the above report at PhysOrg:
A team of Danish researchers have now shown that unchecked global warming would lead to a dramatic expansion of low-oxygen areas zones in the global ocean by a factor of 10 or more.
The New Scientist version of the story adds this detail:

Under the worst-case scenario, average ocean oxygen levels will fall by up to 40%, and there will be a 20-fold expansion in the area of "dead zones", like those already discovered in the eastern Pacific and northern Indian Ocean, where there is too little oxygen for fish to survive. Even in the mid-range scenario, dead zones would expand by a factor of 3 or 4. Cold, deep waters will also be affected if warming stifles the currents that deliver oxygen to greater depths.

Shaffer's projections suggest that the oxygen content in surface layers will dip to its lowest levels during the 22nd century, and in deep water a thousand years later. Recovery to pre-industrial levels will be very slow: "Even after 100,000 years, oxygen levels will only have recovered by around 90%," he says.

Go to the links for more details. Not exactly encouraging, as it shows what is potentially at stake if the warming skeptics are wrong. (And it is an additional risk to that of ocean acidification, which of itself is a major concern for future ocean health.)

The problems on Broadway

BBC NEWS | Mary Poppins - a tale for our times

The article is all about the current woes of Broadway. Strangely, though, it doesn't mention the lack of likeable or memorable musicals written in the last 30 odd years.


How low can you go? : Nature News

This is pretty mind boggling, even if it is of no practical application (yet!):

The ones and zeroes that propel the digital world — the fording of electrons across a transistor, or hard drives reliant on electrons' intrinsic spin — are getting packed into smaller and smaller spaces. The limit was thought to be set: no more than one bit of information could be encoded on an atom or electron.

But now, researchers at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, have used another feature of the electron — its tendency to bounce probabilistically between different quantum states — to create holograms that pack information into subatomic spaces. By encoding information into the electron's quantum shape, or wave function, the researchers were able to create a holographic drawing that contained 35 bits per electron.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Warnings to my mother (a ramble about some movies)

Readers may recall that I have an active 85 year mother. One of her main forms of entertainment, when not spending a few hours every week on the internet following all of the Colin Firth fansites, (as well as admiring the large Colin Firth calendar on her wall just near the autographed photo of him: you getting the idea?) is to watch movies, either in the cinema or on DVD.

I see few adult movies these days, but I still like to read reviews and watch how successful some are. My mother doesn't follow the reviews much; she tends to go by what passes for star power these days. Hence, for example, she may well be the only 85 year old person in the country who ventured out to see the poorly received Colin Firth movie "St Trinians" last year. ("No girl or boy over the age of 12 would be attracted by anything so puerile" wrote the Financial Times. My mother agreed.)

This puts me in a position of having to warn her of the nature of certain movies which I can guess she may be planning on seeing.

Recently, for example, she brought a DVD of "The Departed". The reason: she quite likes Leonardo Di Caprio. But gritty, profanity-filled Scorsese gangsterfests are hardly my mother's favourite genre, and I could recall Margaret Pomeranz really disliking it. (She said "It's so violent, it's so vile in the language, you know, particularly the sexual language." That was enough to put me off seeing it too.)

I warned my mother; I think she was going to return it unopened.

Which brings me to another Di Caprio warning I have just issued to her. Revolutionary Road has received pretty good reviews, but I had to warn my Mum that, despite romantic looking scenes in the TV ads, it is a story entirely about a marriage break up.

Now I'll do my easily ridiculed trick of rubbishing a movie simply on the basis of reviews I feel are probably right. In the case of Revolutionary Road, about an apparently ideal 1950's middle class American marriage, and how stultifying the couple find it, it would seem that many reviewer's reactions are related to how "progressive" they are in their social views, particularly on the question of the importance of self fulfilment.

For example, Roger Ebert adores the movie, but writes:
Remember, this is the 1950s. A little after the time of this movie, Life magazine would run its famous story about the Beatniks, "The Only Rebellion Around." There was a photo of a Beatnik and his chick sitting on the floor and listening to an LP record of modern jazz that was cool and hip and I felt my own yearnings. I remember on the way back from Steak 'n Shake one night, my dad drove slow past the Turk's Head coffeehouse on campus. "That's where the Beatniks stand on tables and recite their poetry," he told my mom, and she said, "My, my," and I wanted to get out of that car and put on a black turtleneck and walk in there and stay.
Further down he says of the acting:
They are so good, they stop being actors and become the people I grew up around.
And he finishes with:
A lot of people believe their parents didn't understand them. What if they didn't understand themselves?
Comments such as this indicate that Ebert has residual disdain for conformism from his teenage years, and like many others, has fully absorbed the idea that happiness is reached via self-understanding and self-fulfilment. As such he is primed to admire movies on these sort of themes. Indeed, like most critics, he loved American Beauty, also directed by Sam Mendes. I found it terribly over-rated, theatrically directly, and far too contrived to be affecting.

The review of Road which sounds to me to likely be more correct is by Peter Rainer, the reviewer for the Christian Science Monitor, which opens with this:

What is it about the 1950s that brings out the worst in cultural historians? The received wisdom is that this era that gave us Mailer and Ginsberg and Kerouac and Brando and Dean was, in fact, a bastion of strait-laced – i.e., straitjacketed – conformity. People, suburbanites especially, lived lives of quiet desperation in their look-alike, ticky-tacky dwellings. Wives were obsessed with spotless kitchens. Commuter trains served up faceless men in gray flannel suits to the gaping maw of Manhattan and then back again, to the two-car garage and the 2.5 children.

The latest movie to plug into this cautionary myth is "Revolutionary Road," set in the mid-'50s and based, extremely faithfully, on the celebrated 1961 novel by Richard Yates. The director is Sam Mendes, who plumbed these shallows once before in "American Beauty," which, though contemporary, felt '50-ish. The new film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who previously appeared together in "Titanic." This is another kind of disaster movie, on dry land.

Rainer makes the point, as do other some other reviewers, that the well received TV show "Mad Men", dealing with men behaving badly in the same era, at least shows the characters as having some vitality. In my view, its even more instructive to watch some of the quality films or television made and set in the 1950s (rather than modern ones about the 1950's) to be reminded that people really did live then.

Although I am too young to know of the 1950's directly, this point about it being too easy to overlook the "vitality" of day to day life in earlier times is an important one to remember. Westerners today do feel greater freedom in all kinds of areas, such as sexual mores, career path, and preparedness to end a marriage. Yet such freedoms don't necessarily mean that there were huge numbers of people living in the 1950's sitting around in a blue funk all day because they didn't feel fulfilled. Sure, there were some people who felt unduly constrained then, but that will always be the case for some, no matter how many freedoms are allowed.

Apart from doubting that they accurately reflect the general zeitgeist of the pre-60's world, the other grounds upon which a more conservative soul dislikes such movies is that they show no skepticism of the modern mantra of the importance of self fulfilment and "self realisation". As I think I have written here before, most people today have forgotten that this 20th century Western attitude is a huge turnaround from historic views that developing good character was something to be worked at, not a matter of self-discovery, and to lead a good life involved large components of duty and respect for others which often necessarily involved self-sacrifice.

I do know something of the 1960's, and of course there are some ways in which society now is significantly better, but other good features of the period have sadly been lost and show little sign of returning. I won't go into detailing the particular rights and wrongs of the recent past right now, but suffice to say that I have an inherent cynicism of movies which paint too bleak a picture of the pre-1960's world, when as an era it featured growing populations, strong economies, the birth of modern technology, a greater sense of obligation and duty, and movies as enjoyable as those of Hitchcock at his peak.

Registering a complaint

Yesterday, January 24 2009, was remarkable even by Brisbane standards for its extremely unpleasant combination of high humidity, high temperature and near complete lack of breeze or air movement for most of the day (especially in the western suburbs). The air in the house felt as if it lacked oxygen. Unwisely, (but I was being social,) I had two mid-strength beers at lunch and that was enough to leave me with the slightly thick head that I usually suffer if I drink any alcohol in the middle of the day, especially in hot weather. I clearly don't have the constitution to be an all-day alcoholic.

The internet tells me that at least one other person felt yesterday was horrible too. Oddly, the weather bureau's record of observations for the day doesn't make it sound as bad as it was.

Still, it was not as bad as an week in (I think) either early 1997 or 1998. I believe it was in February of one of those years that there was a run of hot humid nights, with minimums of 27 or 28 degrees, and one evening I had to go and see a movie just to get into airconditioning. On leaving the cinema, after 11pm, my glasses immediately fogged up completely. That is not a common occurrence here, even with our routine high humidity.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Financial woes

Alan Wood gave a pretty good explanation of the international financial system problems in The Australian today.

I am told by a friend who returned from Taiwan recently that in China there is a new expression (which I can't recall, sorry) for the hundreds of thousands of suddenly unemployed people in the southern cities who are out of work but not yet returning to their rural homes (partly out of embarrassment, and partly out of hope they'll find a job somewhere in another factory.) They are just milling around the cities during the day, apparently. Transport for return home for Chinese New Year would usually be fully booked, but this year it is said to be not so crowded.

And worse times are coming, of course.

Conspiracy of the day

I think I spotted it in comments in Huffington Post yesterday, and the writer may have been joking. But it was to the effect that the fluffed Presidential oath was deliberate, so that the "real" oath taken in the White House could be secretly done with a Koran!

This has probably spread wildly through certain corners of the internet already, but I can't be bothered checking. It is pretty good as far as nutty conspiracy theories go, though. (I am waiting for 9/11 Troofers to start being disillusioned with Obama. It won't take long.)

(And Lefties have nothing to feel superior about. It was conspiracy all the way after the second Bush election.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Tiltshifting toy

Found via Red Ferret, I've been fiddling at with attempts at tiltshifting some photos. (Boing Boing had a fair few posts about it: the 'art' of manipulating normal photos to make them look as if they are really of models.) Here's my best result, which I think does have a bit of a model town appearance (it'll look better if you enlarge it):

The original photo appeared at an old post here.

Small things amuse small minds, hey. (Boom boom).

Oddest story of the day

Monks pledge lush new life for 'the Paris Hilton of cows' - The Independent

It's kind of hard to summarise, just read it. And don't miss this line:
The decision to kill Gangotri, a 13-year-old Friesian blue injured by an overly vigorous mating session, enraged Britain's Hindu community who claim that animal welfare officers and police distracted the monks to make a lethal injection "in secret".

An advance, of sorts

Instant syphilis tests to be offered

The Age reports:

Health authorities thought they had consigned syphilis to the history books but the disease is back, and in epidemic proportions.

In 2001, there was just one case of syphilis recorded in Victoria compared with the 1,000 cases seen in the past two years.

Nationally, the rise has been more than seven-fold since 2003, with the number of infections rising from 164 to 1,166 in 2008.

That surely must be taken as confirmation that safe sex campaigns are failing badly. The outbreak, incidentally, is almost entirely amongst men who have sex with other men.

The "advance" I mention in the title to this post: there is now a 15 minute pin prick blood test for it. And what's more, if you go to Melbourne's midsummer gay and lesbian festival, you can be tested for free. Huzzah.

As the Pope would say, kinda says something about a "festival" when one of its features is free STD testing, doesn't it?

Mmmm, polar bear - full of Vitamin C

Q and A - How Did People Avoid Malnutrition in Societies Where Historically There Was Little or No Produce?

Well, who knew this?:
The researchers, from the University of Calgary, also found that the fresh animal foods these Inuit ate, including fish, birds and animals like seal, whale, polar bears, musk ox and caribou, provided them with surprisingly high levels of vitamin C, in some cases more than a Canadian national study found in the diets of Inuit living in places with more access to processed foods.

Catholics with a fantastic advertising agency

I trust Currency Lad and Saint have seen this.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

More sensitive souls you would rather not meet

Edmund White on the French 19th-century poet, Arthur Rimbaud

Pretty funny in parts, this description of the early relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine. A highlight:
Rimbaud could certainly be as pitiless as a real assassin. He once had Verlaine play a "game" in which Verlaine would stretch out his hand on the table and Rimbaud would stab at his spread fingers. Verlaine thought the point of the game was to show that he wouldn't flinch, that he trusted Rimbaud. But Rimbaud quite simply stabbed him in the wrist.

Not just me, then

In my earlier post on the inauguration, I was too polite to mention that the parts of Obama's speech that I heard did not particularly impress. But I have always been cynical of his oratory skills (would he impress so much if he didn't have that voice?), so I did not feel I was in a position to judge.

But clearly, it was not just me.

(Incidentally, John F Kennedy did not that good a voice to listen to, but the eloquence of the words came through nonetheless. His inauguration speech is worth re-watching, but certainly the sense of it coming from a different era is very strong.)


It would appear that electric cars will be extremely cheap to power:
... the i-MiEV — which goes on sale in the UK later this year — is based on the i, Mitsubishi's existing city car. With room for four adults, it has a top speed of 87mph and produces the equivalent of 57 horsepower. Its lithium-ion battery has a range of 100 miles and can be charged from flat to 80% in 20 minutes using Mitsubishi's bespoke high-powered charger; otherwise, a normal mains electricity socket will charge the battery from flat to full in six hours. Mitsubishi estimates that the car can travel 10,000 miles on £45 of electricity at current UK domestic prices.
About AUD$90 for 16,000 km? It seems a Honda scooter will get you about 50km per litre, so 16,000 km at $1 per litre would cost around $320. And you get wet with it. On the other hand, scooters are cheap to buy, although some do look a little toy-like. (Actually, now that I look at the latest models, there now seems to be quite an effort to make 50cc scooters look "sporty". Have a look at the European models in particular. It must be a pretty funny job, coming up with designs that try to make a 60kph machine look fast.)

Anyhow, electric still looks promising.

Noticed in today's real estate listings...

A medieval castle once ruled by Charlemagne, the “King of the Franks,” is for sale in Italy, dungeon included.

Located (exactly) on the border of Tuscany and Umbria, the castle dates to 802...

Features include restored stone battlements with gun ports, four turrets, a moat and the dungeon, an add-on amenity reportedly built in 1500. Five buildings are clustered around the circular courtyard and the property includes about 32 acres of olive groves and woodlands.
There are photos too.

Well at last. I've been looking for a house with those features for the longest time.

How "Hollywood"

The Los Angeles Times has an inauguration day editorial that calls on President Obama to actively support gay marriage. Talk about a Hollywood set of priorities.

The first comment from a gay reader is also noteworthy for its less than black-friendly attitude on a day when one might have expected a more congratulatory tone:
As a gay man, I have been active in the fight for gay rights for the last 30 years. One thing I have learned is that African-Americans have never been interested in any other civil rights struggle but their own. They certainly have not been friends of the gay or Jewish communities, and their relations with the Hispanic communities have been strained at best. They do not even show much interest in the struggles of other Africans in countries such as Sudan. These battles are mostly fought by wealthy whites such as George Clooney. Barack Obama's rejection of gay marriage is in keeping with his culture and no surprise.

Congratulations America

So, Barack Obama has not (yet) been revealed as America's new alien lizard overlord in disguise, or even the Antichrist. (Will the Antichrist be capable of placing his/her hand on a Bible, I wonder? Maybe he can, but with wisps of smoke emerging from under his palm.)

But enough silliness, and no further snide remarks (apart from saying that the largely unseen invocation prayer by Gene Robinson a couple of days ago really was outstandingly awful,) and instead let's all be happy that the most powerful nation on earth remains a robust democracy which manages transitions of power peacefully and with considerable grace.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More on expert opinion and climate change

Further to my complaint that prominent greenhouse skeptic bloggers don't place enough emphasis on the question of qualifications and experience of the scientists they like to quote in support, here's a story of a recent survey designed to get a better idea of what those closest to the field think:
Doran found that climatologists who are active in research showed the strongest consensus on the causes of global warming, with 97 percent agreeing humans play a role. Petroleum geologists and meteorologists were among the biggest doubters, with only 47 and 64 percent respectively believing in human involvement. Doran compared their responses to a recent poll showing only 58 percent of the public thinks human activity contributes to global warming.

"The petroleum geologist response is not too surprising, but the meteorologists' is very interesting," he said. "Most members of the public think meteorologists know climate, but most of them actually study very short-term phenomenon."

He was not surprised, however, by the near-unanimous agreement by climatologists.

"They're the ones who study and publish on climate science. So I guess the take-home message is, the more you know about the field of climate science, the more you're likely to believe in global warming and humankind's contribution to it."

Of course, skeptics will say "well, that's just climatologists defending their funding", but honestly, doesn't the greatest fame in science often come to those who do the groundbreaking work that shows the established beliefs of the majority in his or her field are wrong? Why wouldn't that work to encourage those in climatology to publish work that disproves AGW?

The other point is: why are oil geologists such a contrary bunch? What is it about looking for oil that makes them think they know better on climate change?

The tunnel problem

There's a good article in Slate about possible technical solutions to preventing tunnelling from Gaza to Egypt. Unfortunately, there are no obvious easy answers, and a lot of ideas have been considered seriously, including building a moat! (It's amazing how hard it is to secure even a very short border, isn't it?)

While you're at Slate, it's worth reading Christopher Hitchens' "no regrets" column.

(And while I am at it, can someone tell me if I am placing that apostrophe correctly when a person's name ends in "s". I can't recall lately, and both choices look wrong to me.)

UPDATE: there's a follow up post at Slate in which Saletan expresses his annoyance at the way a Foreign Policy blog ridiculed the idea that technology can solve the Gazan problem.

Saletan's response is well argued (he never claimed it was the sole solution), but also, it argues along the lines I was suggesting recently. Namely, that the issue of the potential for legitimate "above ground" trade via Egypt is an important one, despite (I would add) it seeming to attract very little in the way of commentary from a media which is happy to keep running commentary that blames Israel for creating a "prison" state. (Only it's a prison with a potentially open door to goods from a neighbouring arab State.)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Improbable stories from the near future

[Yes, I have realised, I still don't know how to spell "Barack" correctly. So sue me. Anyway, what's wrong with being "Bruce" or "Barry" instead?]

Answer: None

If there is some award for the silliest "Jews are as bad as Nazis" comparison in the press, this one from an opinion piece by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in The Independent would have to be in the running:
How many Palestinian Anne Franks did the Israelis murder, maim or turn mad? Unless the Israeli state can see that equivalence there is no future for Palestine...
Let's remind ourselves from Wikipedia:
After the war, it was estimated that of the 107,000 Jews deported from the Netherlands between 1942 and 1944, only 5,000 survived.
The comparison with Gaza (for the current conflict) is about 1,300,000 with 1,298,700 survivors. Yes, I can see the similarity.

After all, as Yasmin likes to point out, Israel's blockades have created a Gazan prison, although she forgets to note that there is a border with Egypt. So I suppose it's a bit like that tragic situation in Holland in World War II when that long established Jewish country on the border wouldn't let Anne Frank or her family flee from the Nazis, or even let proper trade be established with the Jews.

Spookily similar, I say.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Fighting Arabs

Why the Arabs splinter over Gaza - International Herald Tribune

Not a bad summary here of the rivalries within the Arab world that has stopped them from having anything like a uniform response to the Gaza situation.

The famous landing

As I have missed all TV news since Friday, I hadn't seen 'til tonight this video of the actual river landing in New York. It's very impressive:

Friday, January 16, 2009

Bourdain on Saudi Arabia

I happened to see an episode of Anthony Bourdain's culinary/travel show No Reservations this week, in which he travelled to Saudi Arabia.

It was pretty interesting, as we virtually never see that country through the eyes of a Western tourist. Bourdain seems to be surprised to find that people there can laugh and have a sense of irony, even without alcohol, and in a way I can understand his reaction. It's hard to think of a country with a bigger reputation for inhibiting fun, but of course life no where is completely without some pleasures.

But still, I did get the feeling that the country and culture ended up being treated too softly. for example, his female host is said to be the first woman film maker allowed to move around with her camera crew and not have a male relative with her. That would explain such oddities as Bourdain and her being able to eat together alone in the Saudi equivalent of Kentucky Fried Chicken in the "family" area, I suppose.

Anyhow, it's not a bad show. You can see how they cook baby camel and eat the huge carcus with their fingers. (OK, so I am being too sensitive, but I didn't find the way the skeleton is gradually revealed as the gathering eats the flesh especially appealing.)

You can see all of the episode on Youtube.

Staying awake sometime helps

Mind Hacks: I struggle, fight dark forces in the clear moon light

So, a study in Schizophrenia Research has found a relationship between insomnia and paranoia in both the general public and people with psychosis. That's hardly surprising.

But here's something I hadn't heard before:
Sleep has an interesting relationship to mental illness. While sleeplessness and disturbed circadian rhythms have been linked to mood disorders for many years, sleep deprivation is known to have an antidepressant effect and is sometimes used to treat the most severe cases of depression.
Sleep deprivation in short bursts only, I assume they mean.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

That'll teach them

Venezuela breaks off ties with Israel | International | Jerusalem Post

Go to the link to see the great photo of Chavez in a decorative tea cosy. At least, that's what I think it is.

Venezuela's Foreign Ministry said Caracas also plans to denounce Israel's military actions at the International Criminal Court and the South American nation "will not rest until it sees them punished."
Expect lack of rest, then.

A suggestion

A love vaccine might be just the thing - International Herald Tribune

From the report:
In the new issue of Nature, the neuroscientist Larry Young offers a grand unified theory of love. After analyzing the brain chemistry of mammalian pair bonding - and, not incidentally, explaining humans' peculiar erotic fascination with breasts - Young predicts that it won't be long before an unscrupulous suitor could sneak a pharmaceutical love potion into your drink.
The report speculates that an "anti-love" potion could then follow.

Maybe it's been done before, perhaps in some 1950's or 60's Doris Day movie that I can't recall, but doesn't this sound like a good premise for a comedy movie?

How to blow $10 billion in one hit

Peter Martin: We've only just begun to try to stimulate the economy

Hmm. Peter Martin today explains why the Rudd government's Christmas bonuses were never likely to have lasting effect on holding off a recession, and didn't even really work to keep retail strong. (Adjusted for inflation, Christmas retail figures were not as good as they first sound, and in fact were barely above the preceding level.)

Funny, I thought he was pretty supportive of the idea when it was announced, although I must admit he did note that its effect would "fade" early this year. (This didn't seem to be an actual point of criticism though.)

Now he says:
Professor John Taylor of Stanford University devised the so-called Taylor Rule used by central banks to set interest rates. He told the American Economic Association's annual meeting in San Francisco this month that neither of the Bush government's two emergency tax rebates in 2002 and 2008 had made any difference to consumer spending. The problem was that they were temporary. We adjust our spending based on what we think we are going to be earning, not on the dollars that happen to fall into our pocket on any given week.
Given that the first of these failed rebates was in 2002, weren't Peter and other economics commentators aware that they did not make significant change to consumer spending? (I didn't know either, but economics is not something I profess to know much about.)

On 16 October last year I wrote:
I am still waiting to see more criticism of the short fuse of this spending too.
It seems economics commentary is a game anyone can play at these days.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

A dissident on China's woes

A tidal wave of discontent threatens China | Wei Jingsheng - Times Online

The whole article is worth reading, but there was one point which surprised me:
China has a $2 trillion foreign currency reserve but it also suffers from a huge disparity between the rich and poor: while 0.4 per cent of the people hold 70 per cent of the wealth of the country, a fifth of the population - more than 300 million Chinese - have daily incomes of less than one dollar.
Now that's wealth disparity.

UPDATE: according to Wikipedia, the equivalent figures for the USA are: the end of 2001, 10% of the population owned 71% of the wealth, and the top 1% controlled 38%. On the other hand, the bottom 40% owned less than 1% of the nation's wealth.
So, does this mean that wealth concentration is roughly 20 times worse in China than the US? Gosh. Good thing they are communist, or who know hows bad it could have been!

Another observation

Has anyone else noticed how relaxing it is not to have Kevin Rudd's face or voice on TV for a protracted period. (I suppose Laborites used to feel the same when Howard was on holiday too, but he wasn't the media tart that Rudd is.) It's a bit like the relief when you stop and remove an irritating pebble that's got into your shoe.

High density good or bad?

In comments a couple of posts back, I noted how the writer of the Slate article about environmentalism claimed that the "greenest" way of living was in a high density city like New York; not by being in a city with lots of suburbs.

But today, in the Sydney Morning Herald, someone from an organisation "Save our Suburbs" argues with figures that high density development in Sydney would make more CO2, not less. Here's some of his arguments:
The Australian Conservation Foundation's consumption atlas shows people living in high-density areas have greater greenhouse gas emissions than those living in low-density areas. A study by EnergyAustralia and the NSW Department of Planning shows the energy used by a resident in high-rise is nearly twice that for a resident in a detached house. Think of all the lifts, clothes dryers, air-conditioners and lights in garages and foyers. ...

Research in Melbourne shows people squeezed into newly converted dense areas did not use public transport to any greater extent and there was little or no change in their percentage of car use.

There is not enough difference in the emissions of public versus private transport to counter the increased emissions of high-density living. For each kilometre CityRail carries a passenger, it emits 105 grams of greenhouse gases, while the average car emits 155, and modern fuel-efficient cars such as the Toyota Prius emit just 70.

I am a little suspicious of the slant being put on some figures here. In the second paragraph, for example, he talks of little change in "percentage" of car use, but is that taking into account the much shorter distances that may be being driven when you live close to the city, even if you still use your car to get to work?

Similarly, given that air-conditioning is so popular now, I would expect that one saving in energy use would be that small apartments don't take much energy to heat or cool, and are insulated by the other apartments around them.

On the other hand, suburban gardens and plants must be given some credit for absorbing CO2, I guess.

Maybe (just guessing here) to get full credit as a low CO2 emitting city, you have to reach a threshold level of density where a very large proportion of residents almost never have to rely on a car, such as in New York or Tokyo.

I'm sure someone's looked at this, but I don't have time to find the answer now.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Not the wisest investment

Many home turbines fall short of claims, warns study | Technology | The Guardian

Here's an amusing bit of Green perversity:

Home wind turbines are generating a fraction of the energy promised by manufacturers, and in some cases use more electricity than they make, a report warns today. The results of what is thought to be the most comprehensive study undertaken of the industry show the worst performers provided just 41 watt-hours a day - less than the energy needed for a conventional lightbulb for an hour, or even to power the turbine's own electronics.

On average the turbines surveyed provided enough electricity to light an energy-efficient house, but this still only represented 5%-10% of the manufacturers' claims, said consultants Encraft. ...
It found the best performing turbines would generate "clean" electricity equivalent to that needed to manufacture them in less than two years, while the worst performing ones would take 40 years.

Nothing to dislike, except the price

Toyota pulls wraps off all-new Prius
Toyota says the new car, revealed Monday at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, will achieve an estimated 3.7L/100km in the city and 4.0L/100km highway, for a combined rating of 3.8L/100km. The first-generation Prius was rated 4.6 L/100km combined fuel consumption, the second generation was 4.1....

Toyota says the 2010 model, which goes on sale this spring, has the lowest drag coefficient of any mass production car - 0.25. A normal sports car often has a drag of 0.32 or higher.
According to the Courier Mail, it will cost $40,000 here.

I wonder what is environmentally best for a moderate driver living in a family home: spend around $20,000 on a 3 year old Camry, and use the other $20,000 to put solar hot water and a small-ish solar cell system on the house, or buy a Prius?

Rationalist Vs Romantic Environmentalists

Environmental writing since Thoreau. - By Johann Hari - Slate Magazine

Here's an interesting discussion of the two branches of environmentalism. The romantics see it as a spiritual crisis which could be solved by most people living in caves again; the rationalists see despoiling the environment as simply a physical problem that doesn't need spirituality in response.

Hari makes an interesting point:
I'm with the rationalists. And yet this division—which seems so plain and irreconcilable to me—keeps being muddied by the contributors to this collection. Wes Jackson offers the most romantic fantasy of the book—but he is a distinguished scientist. Al Gore offers the most lucid popular summary of hard climate science we have—and then attributes the disaster, in an unexplained leap of logic, to a "spiritual crisis." Almost all the rational accounts here let romantic tropes seep into their writing as rousing quasi-religious end lines. Why? It feels as though the rationalists don't have enough confidence in their own intellectual tradition to inspire and rouse people. It's an old Enlightenment fear: Are we too irrational and poorly evolved a species to respond to neat reason?
I would say that opposition to nuclear being a substantial part of the response to greenhouse gases is largely based on the romantic view, yet typically it will be dressed up by Greens with facts and figures (talking about the long half life of isotopes, for example) to give it a more rationalist sheen.

The same is probably true for opposition to geo-engineering ideas, although they are all so novel in concept that there is plenty of room for debate by the rationalists as to whether the cure will be worse than the disease.

I guess the thing the romantics have on their side is that nearly any urban dweller (with the exception of people like Woody Allen, I guess) likes at least some connection with nature, whether it be by having a garden with birds, or just visits to a nice beach or national park every now and then. Still, going wholeheartedly into the clutch of romanticism is bad for humanity overall. (The ultra romantics don't want us here at all!)

Monday, January 12, 2009

An observation

Fierce Focus on Tunnels, a Lifeline for Gazans -

Like many bloggers, I have resisted getting involved in commentary on the current Gaza/Israel war. It's hard coming up with anything original to say, but the above article in the New York Times (well worth reading despite its title which sounds somewhat biased) does raise an interesting question.

Why does the fact that Gaza has a significant border with Egypt seem to attract so little attention? The talk is always of Israel controlling Gaza's borders and even sea access, but it doesn't control the border with Egypt. If Israel imposes a blockade, and Egypt does not provide much in the way of legitimate access to aid via its border, why does Egypt seem to never attract much in the way condemnation from the EU and others for not assisting the Gazans?

Yes, Egypt does not want to encourage Hamas either; but if it is good to criticise Israel for creating a humanitarian crisis, why be so silent on Egypt's role?

The apparent use of tunnels to import food and other goods would hardly be necessary if Egypt allowed it to regularly enter via the above ground border, would it? So why doesn't that happen? Is it because a search regime to ensure trucks are not smuggling weapons along with other goods would be too hard to implement?

I am also not talking about the issue of what assistance Egypt should give right now; I am questioning the longer term issue of how Egypt deals with Gaza. If there is a (literally) underground economy, why not make it a legitimate "above ground" one instead, at least if you can guarantee that it is not involving supplying Hamas with weapons?

This Pajamas Media article from 2 January also raised the issue of why the Western media does not question more why Hamas dithers about opportunities to take Egyptian assistance (in this case, to take some of the wounded.) It's worth reading too.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

What do you suggest?

I knew my relative anonymity here would come in useful one day.

For the last couple of months, my wife and I have been suffering with new neighbours in the rental house next door. It's a father and his 18 year old daughter. The owner of the house, with whom I had contact before these new tenants arrived, told me that she was letting it to a "mature age" man, suggesting that this was a good sign. It has proved anything but.

The problem is, the father, perhaps because he is a smoker (or perhaps he was raised in a tent, or some other reason I can't fathom) virtually lives in the outdoor entertainment area that is very close to one end of my house. He also speaks, and argues, with the volume set permanently on "11". His relationship with his daughter is, um, erratic in the extreme. By which I mean: on any given evening, there may be several shouting matches, much swearing at each other, demands from the father that the daughter respect him, shouted demands from the daughter that the father stop drinking and asking for her money, screams from the daughter (on the few occasions he has actually entered the house) that he is "hurting" her, but then also at random points during the evening the sounds of the daughter laughing and teasing him. The father has told other people on the phone that he thinks the daughter is on drugs. However, it is always the daughter who at least has the common sense to know that her father's voice may be disturbing the neighbours. She repeatedly tells him to keep his voice down; he never does.

This has made one end of our house (where the childrens' rooms are) virtually uninhabitable before about 10 pm. Being summer, this has not proved a huge obstacle yet, as the children are spending a lot of time sleeping in the air-conditioned room at the other end, but it has been clear for some time that I have to either:

a. have a calm, try-to-keep-it-cheery type talk to the father during the day along the lines that he should really realise that he talks very, very loudly, and my house is very, very close at one end to his, and sound travels very well of an evening. I could suggest that I now know so much about him that I could write his biography, and if he has any desire for privacy at all he should really try to spend his evenings inside his house; or

b. start calling to them from the kid's window of an evening that for God's sake they have to stop yelling and carrying on at each other every bloody night, as they are invading my privacy.

I came close to taking option b tonight. In fact, I also came close to calling the police because the daughter was again shouting and saying that he was hurting her, this time repeatedly. Yet, I still had the feeling from the tone of her voice that nothing really serious was going on. I suspected he may have had her arm and was trying to force an apology for something or other out of her.

Still, it went on long enough that I did attempt to ring the police, but not as an emergency. Maybe the constabulary just turning up to check them at any point in the evening might make them realise they can't carry on this way all the time. However, while waiting on the line, the daughter went silent. Then, both of them were outside, and the daughter was clearly not under threat.

However, this is still where it becomes more disturbing in a way. The daughter and father had a prolonged conversation about what the father was going to do about some man, who had "crossed the line". Her side went like this "you keep talking about breaking his legs, but I don't want it to be physical. I do want his life ruined. I want him in jail, and he has to know he can't live in Sydney. I want to live in Sydney. I want you to tell me exactly what you are going to do. You can't get anything physical done to him, because it will be traced back to you. But he has to be threatened, he has to have his life ruined; he has to know that what he has done is wrong, that he has crossed the line, and he can't live in this country. I was born in this country, he wasn't."

The father's responses was along these lines: "Don't worry I can arrange it. I can get him threatened all right. It's not so easy for me to get the physical stuff done now anyway. But I don't want you taking a phone call from him and then changing your mind and being manipulated by him again. Don't worry, I'll look after it" etc.

This would be followed by reassurances from the daughter that she was well and truly finished with the man (presumably an ex boyfriend), followed by more requests to have her father detail and promise exactly what he would do to him.

Ludicrously, the daughter frequently told the father to "just whisper" what he would do, as she didn't want the whole neighbourhood to know about this. She, however, was not shy about detailing her desires for (apparently criminal) action in a normal speaking voice so close to my house.

So, what do I do now? It half crossed my mind that I could simply tell them from the darkened window I was standing near: "well, too late now. I've heard all of this; I know who you work for and that they may not take kindly to this information. If you chose in future to live quietly inside your house for the rest of your lease, I may not have reason to pass on the information on." Maybe that could result in them both deciding against doing anything serious to the un-named Sydney man, as well as living more quietly. (I suppose it could also mean some threat being made to my well-being.)

I did not do that.

Now, I am left with information that a neighbour is apparently planning some serious interference with the life of some Sydney migrant, and while the father was indicating that he would not in fact arrange to "break his legs," it also sounded like what he does intend to arrange may well escalate into violence. Furthermore, the daughter insisted several times that she wanted the guy "in jail". How did she expect that to be achieved? The father did not make it clear exactly what he would do, but he did keep reassuring her that it would be something serious, and she had better not change her mind. There was, at the end, the suggestion that they would talk more about it in the morning.

Of course, if acting out of pure self interest, it would suit me to see the daughter move to Sydney.

I also can see the police not being particularly interested in an overheard conversation if it did not end up detailing exactly what the father would arrange to "ruin" this guy's life.

However, given that I know what the father does for a living, it is conceivable that he does have connections to arrange something bad for the guy. The funny thing is, he has talked to his daughter of the moral corruption of young people these days, and how his work has really "opened his eyes" to this.

I am inclined to talk to the police tomorrow anyway. Anyone else have any other suggestions?

UPDATE: police spoken to, note taken of general concerns about domestic violence possibly taking place. Headed home for my regular dose of evening shouting and swearing. Swearing becomes particularly loud and agitated at around 10pm. I go to the end of the house where I can hear all: daughter had put Tabasco sauce in father's mouth (I think) while he slept. Reason remains unclear (she swears as much as he does, so it presumably wasn't punishment for using naughty words). I think I heard her say from inside the house "you weren't breathing," but I could be wrong.

Maybe I should arrange for the Sydney guy's legs to be broken so she can move to Sydney and I can get some peace and quiet.

UPDATE 2: last night's outdoor discussions under my window went something like this:

Father: you manipulate me.
Daughter: no, you manipulate me.
Father: you lie too.
Daughter: I don't lie, or if I do, I learnt it from you. You lie all the time.
Father: So I lie, do I?
Daughter: Yes you do, you lie all the time, and you manipulate...
Father: it's you who manipulates
Daughter: Stop f****in interrupting me! You do that all the...
Father: You're the manipulator...

[Repeat with minor variations for the next 20 minutes.]

As for the fate of the Sydney fellow, things are looking up. It would appear that the daughter (aged 18) up and went to Sydney over Christmas to visit him, not telling her father where she was. (She was actually upset last night that her father had gone to a party on the second night of her absence, instead of staying at home and fretting about where she was.)

But, crucially, at one point of the daughter/father love in last night, she complained that, despite their discussions for days, her father had not yet arranged to "frighten" him. The father said he wouldn't, because she was still infatuated with him. (A point she strenuously denies.)

So, Ahmed of Sydney, (from Turkey originally, I think,) you may be spared an intimidating visit yet.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Holiday movie report (like you care)

Here's my short takes on 3 current holiday movies:

* Madagascar 2: many good jokes, including one Twilight Zone reference early on which made me laugh a lot, but no one else in the cinema seemed to understand. The penguins are certainly given a larger starring role, but I don't rate it as highly as the first, mainly because I missed the more measured pacing of the original, and a key part of the plot (how the giraffe is in love with the hippo) just doesn't make much sense.

* Bedtime Stories: horrible mishmash writing that tries desperately to maintain adult insider jokes (including references to Paris Hilton being a slut, and Howard Hughes' phobias) while getting most of its kiddie appeal by repeated cuts to a CGI hamster with fake big eyes. The story features the lamest idea for creating a dramatic climax that I think I have seen for a couple of decades. You would have to adore Adam Sandler's schtick to like this film if you are over 10.

(Speaking of Sandler, I found him remarkably unfunny in a recent Leno interview, and the joke at 2min 40sec manages to be both in very poor taste and very stupid, although I thought Leno's response was appropriate.)

* Tale of Despereaux: The pick of the bunch so far. I am surprised to see it's had a mixed reception, but I am certainly on the side of those who found it extremely charming. For once, I felt I had an understanding of what it means to see an animated film that is well directed. It is very distinctively cinematic and clever, the animation is really outstanding, and the facial expressiveness really seemed right on the spot.

It also has a surprising moral seriousness by the end. As some reviewers have noted, it has no pop-culture gags at all, and that in itself is rather refreshing in quality animation.

The storytelling could have been tightened a little (one plot point really deserved an explanation that was never given) but it still seemed to be well received by the audience I was with.

Highly recommended.

More on sabotage from the future

The apocalypse has been postponed | Science |

The Guardian has a handy page (above) with links to articles relevant to the issue of whether backwards causation from the future is the reason why the LHC broke down.

One of the papers I was familiar with (the one where a couple of physicists suggested drawing cards to decide whether to turn the thing on!), but the other article about vacuum collapse is new to me.

In any event, my idea is more dramatically satisfying: that it is active interference from humans in the future that is caused the blow up.

Since I made my first post about this, I have remembered reading Gregory Benford's Timescape novel, which involved tachyon messages from the future to prevent ecological catastrophe involving the oceans. (I didn't care for the novel much: like too much "hard" science fiction, it was technically of interest but the characters were just not very likeable.) Maybe it is the subconscious influence of that novel that lead to my interest in ocean acidification too!

My suggestion is very close to that, although the idea of direct sabotage from the future is a little different. (And, almost certainly, is the subject of another science fiction story somewhere.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

One of those "apropos of nothing" posts

I recently saw a story on Japanese TV about the incredible mechanical dolls of the Edo period, and while Youtube doesn't have that particular clip, it does have this one from a chat show last year. I promise you, these dolls are amazing. (You will also see why Japanese chat show formats can be quite irritating):

I see from Wikipedia that the Japanese inventor who made these (Tanaka Hisashige) also started what eventually became the Toshiba company in 1875. Store that away in your brain somewhere, it might just one day come in useful. Or not.

More odd features of the libertines

Doing It: Books: The New Yorker

Didn't a new edition of The Joy of Sex come out a year or two ago, with updated text and pictures? I have a vague feeling of reading about that then, but there is a current New Yorker article about a recent edition, and it's fascinating and funny.

It seems that, to be at the forefront of sexual liberation, it helps (like Alfred Kinsey), to be quite the oddball in your private life. Take this for example:
Comfort had a tendency to focus single-mindedly on a given notion or project at the expense of any kind of balance: while he was a student at Highgate School, in London, he became convinced that he could concoct a superior version of gunpowder. He blew off much of his left hand. By the time he was finished with his experiments, his thumb was the only remaining digit. Later in his life, when he was practicing medicine, he said that he found this claw he’d created “very useful for performing uterine inversions.”
Of course, it is also important not to get too hung up about fidelity in marriage:
For more than a decade, Comfort had been sleeping with Ruth’s best friend, Jane Henderson. (Comfort met both women at Cambridge.) Comfort and Henderson took dozens of Polaroids of their erotic experiments, which they gave to the publisher Mitchell Beazley along with Comfort’s manuscript—originally titled “Doing Sex Properly.” The artists Charles Raymond and Christopher Foss were charged with transforming those photographs into pencil drawings, although the couple they depicted looked nothing like Comfort and Henderson.
And naturally, you wouldn't be on the conservative side of politics:
Comfort and his wife, Ruth, divorced shortly after “Joy” came out: the unpleasantness of his infidelity seems to have been heightened for Mrs. Comfort when her husband became internationally known as “Dr. Sex.” In 1973, a few months later, Comfort married his mistress and muse, Jane, and the two moved to Santa Barbara so that Comfort could assume a post at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions, a liberal think tank. The move also gave them closer proximity to the Sandstone, a clothing-optional community of utopian swingers in Topanga Canyon, which was reportedly visited by Timothy Leary, Sammy Davis, Jr., Betty Dodson, and the porn star Marilyn Chambers, and which Comfort and Jane had frequented since 1970. “Often the nude biologist Dr. Alex Comfort, brandishing a cigar, traipsed through the room between the prone bodies with the professional air of a lepidopterist strolling through the fields waving a butterfly net,” Gay Talese wrote in “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.”
Of course, conservatives are just as capable of infidelity, but it has long seemed to me that for those on the Left (especially politicians), their scandalous predilections are usually ones of scale (sleeping with large numbers of different people), whereas those on the Right tend more towards fewer bodies but kinkier sex.

In other sex news: Opinion Journal reports on the wrong-headed spin that the media recently gave a study about teen pledges.

You too can play President

In hard times, White House replica goes up for sale


We'll see

'Big Bang' machine to be ready by summer - The Independent
The £4bn "Big Bang" machine, which suffered a catastrophic malfunction soon after being switched on last September, is expected to be restarted in June.
Not if my call to time travelling agents from the future to intervene works again.

(Well, OK, if you insist, I did not actually send out a specific call that led to the first breakdown, but I like to think they read my blog.)

More big statues needed

Rio's famous Christ statue faces bigger rival

So, a Brazilian town wants to build a bigger statue than Rio's famous one.

Everyone likes giant statues, don't they? Yet not many people seem to know about the giant white Kannon statue in Sendai, Japan. There is a series of photos of it here. (My own date from pre-digital days, but if I can find them in a drawer somewhere, I'll scan one.)

The statue is hollow and you can walk up ramps looking at various vignettes about Buddhist thoughts. All quite impressive.

Yes, the world needs more giant statues. The UN should designate "Giant Statue Day" to raise awareness of this important issue.

Update: here are photos of the 9 biggest statues in the world. There are a few in there that I didn't know about before. See - there is clearly a need for increased giant statue awareness.

Some further thoughts: in this era of every city having a giant ferris wheel observation platform thingee (I predict they will go out of fashion overnight,) I would much prefer that each city have their own giant statue. Much community interest, and probably shed blood, could be generated by competitions for the preferred theme of the statue, which must incorporate a human shape. Sydney clearly is the perfect place for a new equivalent to the Collosus of Rhodes, straddling the Harbour Bridge. I can see Paul Keating offering to be a face model for it.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

A cool Japanese house

It's been a while since I linked to a nice bit of archi-porn, but this one is well worth the "click". (Although, it is reminding me of some other building I can't quite recall. It could even be something from a Gerry Anderson show I am thinking of.)

Oh. It's just occurred to me that 1960's puppet shows have been a significant influence on my taste in architecture.

Furry love

Here's a pretty remarkable video of interspecies fondness:

I found it via this post at one of the Scienceblogs, where the writer wonders whether the rat loves the cat because it has toxoplasmosis (a favourite topic here at OD). I tend to agree with one commenter, though, that it seems much more likely a case of animals that were socialised together while young. If toxoplasmosis were the explanation, wouldn't it mean that every house cat on the street would be being chased by adoring wild rats?

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

The Artistic life

Desperate Romantics: The Private Lives of the Pre-Raphaelites by Franny Moyle review

It's hard to resist reading about the erratic and convoluted sex lives of famous artists or writers. From the review above:

Desperate Romantics opens in 1848 with the ambitious art students Hunt, Millais and Rossetti founding the mysteriously named PRB in order to represent poetic, religious and mythical stories in a bold, realistic style. They joked that the sign on the studio door would be interpreted by the uninitiated as “Please ring the bell”, but for the raffish associate member Walter Deverell, PRB stood for “Penis rather better”. A moot point perhaps, as far as the priapic Rossetti was concerned, but the same could not be said of Ruskin. In the year that the Pre-Raphaelites formed, the critic who would do more than anyone else to champion the Brotherhood married 19-year-old Effie Gray. Their honeymoon night, as Moyle puts it, “did not go well”.

What happened when Effie removed her nightgown has kept biographers occupied for decades, and Moyle suggests that the groom was overcome by innocence as much as horror. Either way, Ruskin's inability, or refusal, to consummate his marriage runs parallel to the inability, or refusal, of Rossetti to resist seducing everyone he met.

It is hard to tell which was the more lethal, Ruskin's fear of the female form or Rossetti's fetishistic obsession with it. Ruskin told Effie that he would make her “his wife” when she was 25, at which point he housed her with Millais in a cottage in the Highlands and placed himself in a hotel on the other side of a bog. Within a year, the breakdown of the Ruskin marriage was discussed more than the Crimean war and Effie had become Mrs Millais. Ruskin's next infatuation was with the 10-year-old Rose La Touche. After being besieged by Ruskin for 17 years, Rose starved herself to death.
I always have the impression that the number of famous artists who married once, were faithful to their spouse, raised a happy family, and died financially secure at home must be very small. Instead, their private lives usually seem to be a walking disaster zone for themselves or those around them.

Tipler and crackpottery

The Varieties of Crackpot Experience | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

Oh dear. My favourite physicist Frank Tipler has come out as a global warming sceptic. (Well, just remember I don't pin the need for CO2 reductions on global warming anyway.)

This post about him is not very fair, but it's by Sean Carroll, a physicist who (despite his group blog moving to Discover magazine) keeps bringing up politics, religion and gay rights in a typical leftie atheist scientist fashion in a blog that is ostensibly about science and physics. The paraphrase of Tipler's comments on global warming make his comments sound much worse than they are.

Still, part of the reason I like Tipler is because it is never 100% clear whether (or at what point) he has truly fallen into crackpottery. (He also answered a couple of my emails years ago.) Certainly, it would seem he was stretching the credibility way too thin with his last book in which the miracles of Christ were given quasi-scientific explanation. He gets up atheist's noses by talking about the Omega Point God as a scientific fact.

Still, I suspect that his science work is more important than is usually acknowledged.

But there is no reason in particular to expect that a moderately famous physicist who has made his name in work on relativity and cosmology should have any special expertise in atmospheric physics and climate studies, so I don't think anyone skeptic should be too heartened by his views.

Maybe I should email him with some of the anti-Skeptic blogs that are around...

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

More about small nuclear

Backyard reactors? Firms shrink the nukes. |

I see the idea is to bury them about 100 feet underground. I assume earthquake survivability is factored in, then.

The comments following the article are interesting too.

The English are strange

Icy four-day queues for beach huts - This Britain, UK - The Independent

Around 50 people queued in sub-zero temperatures for up to four days to get their hands on a beach hut lease today.

Lets on the wooden huts on Avon Beach, Mudeford in Dorset come up annually on a first-come, first-served basis for the summer period.

They have no electricity, running water and it is forbidden to sleep in them ....

But that did not stop two families setting up camp four days ago and queuing in shifts for the leases which went on sale today.

Only following the lead of Chairman Kev

Beijing urges firms to 'purify' Web from porn - International Herald Tribune

If he turns up to collect his Oscar, I'll really be impressed

Michelle Williams admits being haunted by Heath Ledger's ghost

Kinda hard to fit into the taxi, though

Guide horses for the blind? - International Herald Tribune

(Great cartooning opportunity here for someone).

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Back to the serious stuff

AIMS Media Release January 2, 2009

It’s official: the biggest and most robust corals on the Great Barrier Reef (GBR) have slowed their growth by more than 14 per cent since the "tipping point" year of 1990. Evidence is strong that the decline has been caused by a synergistic combination of rising sea surface temperatures and ocean acidification.

A paper* published today (Friday 2 January 2009) in the prestigious international journal Science and written by AIMS scientists Dr Glenn De’ath, Dr Janice Lough and Dr Katharina Fabricius is the most comprehensive study to date on calcification rates of GBR corals...

On current trends, the corals would stop growing altogether by 2050.

"The data suggest that this severe and sudden decline in calcification is unprecedented in at least 400 years," said AIMS scientist and principal author Dr Glenn De’ath.

And here I was thinking that the Americans had cornered the market in really strange surnames.

But I shouldn't make light of him: it sounds as if his work is a pretty significant milestone for showing that the Great Barrier Reef really is in serious trouble. (And as for the ocean acidification component, it will happen regardless of air temperature.)

By the way, Tim Blair and his readers seem to take profound pleasure in their ignorance lately, when it comes to ridiculing any and all geoengineering concepts for dealing with CO2. For example, iron fertilization of the oceans as an idea has been around for a long time, and has often been discussed in popular science magazines like Discover or New Scientist. Sure, many scientists are sceptical of it being a good idea, but it has been tried on a small scale, and calling it the equivalent of a madman's idea is just displaying ignorance. It also shows an attitude more appropriate for a certain class of annoying self centred teenager, where ridicule is the easier option than actually trying to understand something. (Overly idealist teenagers who think they will change the world overnight are also annoying in their own way, as Blair knows.)

As with Andrew Bolt, Tim shows no sign of even a vague attempt at informing himself as to the real issues of climate change and ocean acidification, and just accepts any skeptical opinion with open arms. (He recently provided a link to "electric plasma" fan Louis Hissink, a well known climate skeptic at Jennifer Marohasy's. His fondness for Velikovsky's eccentric - although admittedly fun to contemplate - ideas puts him well outside the geologists' mainstream. )

I've said it before and will say it again: taking shots at exaggerations and media reporting on the "warminist" side is one thing, as is scepticism that carbon trading is going to work, or that the answer lies in a few million windmills.

But don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.