Monday, March 30, 2009

Detour ahead

Probably won't be posting much for a few days.

Yes, it's a tragedy I know. Tales of despair may be related in comments.

We shall not be moved (til 20 April, then we move)

Rebel priest Peter Kennedy expects congregation to follow him | The Courier-Mail

Won't the Trades and Labor Council take the Gay and Lesbian Choir too?

Friday, March 27, 2009

For your next masked party

Free Masks | News Groper

The instructions on each are the best feature.

Nitschke considered

Column - Nitschke’s troubling trail of death | Herald Sun Andrew Bolt Blog

A column well worth reading about Dr Nitschke.

A couple of days ago The Age gave front page publicity to a terminally ill woman who committed suicide with the help of Nitschke's Exit organisation, but gave a lengthy interview to be used to promote changes to euthanasia laws.

As usual, this is an area where it feels too much like tempting fate if one sounds too critical. I watched some of her interview, and she talked about having widespread secondary cancers in her bones, and how this caused much pain.

Yet, at the time of the interview, she clearly was not in any substantial pain, and to all appearances, looked well. (She had no gaunt appearance, for example.)

I do not doubt that bone cancer must be one of the worst ways to die, but to be honest, given the example of Nancy Crick, it would always be good to have independent verification of an illness when it is someone in the Exit publicity machine.

And really, if they do want to make a more compelling case for suicide, can't they at least pick people who look very ill in the videos?

Meanwhile, over in England, a new study suggests that euthanasia as a concept is not so popular amongst their doctors. It is interesting to note that the Dutch medical profession are different in this regard:

The fundamental difference of opinion is important, says Seale, because governments who have passed laws to enable assisted dying have only done so with the support of the medical profession, as happened in the Netherlands.

"The Dutch medical association in the late 1980s and 90s was moving towards the view that euthanasia was an acceptable way of dealing with certain forms of suffering," he said. "Dutch medical opinion was influential with the government."

Going quietly?

Deal struck to end St Mary's priest rebellion | The Courier-Mail

I wonder if there will be some tension within the congregation over this, and whether Kennedy himself will accept it and go peacefully.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

An unlikely solution

Condoms to be advertised round-the-clock on TV - Times Online

England has a high teenage pregnancy rate, so how do they solve it? With 24 hour condom advertising on TV, of course.

Um, I wonder just how many British teenagers there are who do not know that they can buy condoms?

The ads will probably run during shows like Shameless and Skins, shows which are full of lower income area teenagers having sex in all its variations.

Something is seriously wrong with that place.

Gone with the ...

Green energy plans in disarray as wind farm giant slashes investment - Times Online

Set your watches

Male circumcision reduces risk of genital herpes and HPV infection, but not syphilis

Once again, I will do a post on the benefits of circumcision, partly for the fun of waiting for the international anti-circumcision forces to post a rebuttal in comments.

Honestly, the argument appears to be over, at least in the African context:
"Medically supervised adult is a scientifically proven method for reducing a man's risk of acquiring HIV infection through heterosexual intercourse," says NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D. "This new research provides compelling evidence that circumcision can provide some protection against and infections as well."
The Pope has nothing against circumcision as far as I know, so a big push to fund safe and hygienic circumcision in Africa would have to be one of the more effective things the West can do to reduce AIDS.

Of interest

Hernando de Soto Says Toxic Assets Emerged From a Shadow Economy -

de Soto's take on what went wrong with the financial system sounds plausible to me. An extract:
At the beginning of the decade there was about $100 trillion worth of property paper representing tangible goods such as land, buildings, and patents world-wide, and some $170 trillion representing ownership over such semiliquid assets as mortgages, stocks and bonds. Since then, however, aggressive financiers have manufactured what the Bank for International Settlements estimates to be $1 quadrillion worth of new derivatives (mortgage-backed securities, collateralized debt obligations, and credit default swaps) that have flooded the market. These derivatives are the root of the credit crunch. Why? Unlike all other property paper, derivatives are not required by law to be recorded, continually tracked and tied to the assets they represent. Nobody knows precisely how many there are, where they are, and who is finally accountable for them.
It is hard to believe the financial institutions could not see the problem they were creating, or react to it earlier.

Doctors and their conscience

Obama weighs patient rights vs. doctor's conscience |

The Christian Science Monitor really does good journalism, I think, as this well written article shows.

I wonder: is it possible to have some sort of compromise that involves doctors being entirely free to exercise their conscience in certain areas, but if so they have to it clear to the potential patient that they reserve that right in terms of "treatment" offered.

I'm thinking, signage at the reception counter, or a clear statement of the receptionist to the effect "Dr X does have conscientious objection to certain types of treatment that other doctors may be prepared to offer in the fields of reproductive health, etc. You understand that he does not have an obligation to discuss this with you when presenting options, and if you have any concerns about the potential for this to affect your treatment, you should see another doctor."

If people understand they are seeing a doctor on that basis, I don't see the harm. The doctor still exercises his/her conscience, but the patient understood that he/she would be doing that.

Of course, people would argue that this doesn't work for those who are incapable of understanding the warning, but life isn't perfect. (It may also cause much loss of business, I guess, which would not make it popular with doctors. But if the choice is between that and prosecution or loss of funding because they won't refer a patient elsewhere, would they take it?)

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Unlucky and lucky

93-year-old man 1st person to be certified as survivor of both A-bombings
Yamaguchi was in Hiroshima on a business trip on Aug 6, 1945, when a U.S. B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the city. He suffered serious burns to his upper body and spent the night in the city. He then returned to his hometown of Nagasaki just in time for the second attack, city officials said.

Time to delay

When even John Quiggin acknowledges a fundamental flaw in the government's emissions trading scheme, and calls for change, it's definitely time to stop and delay the introduction of a scheme that virtually keeps no one happy.

I still think there is little point in introducing anything until we see more clearly the direction the US is going to take. And I still think a carbon tax is a better idea, even if it does not "guarantee" a set level of reductions.

For nearly any problem, Labor tends to be drawn towards gesture politics (the mere appearance of effective action) over steps that ensure actual results. Introducing the present CPRS in its current form would be a continuation of that dubious tradition.


Bryan Appleyard believes in global warming but doesn't think a blight of windmills on every hill in the land is the answer:
There is...absolutely no reason to believe at this point that wind power can do anything more than contribute a small fraction of our energy needs. Nuclear will be the answer once we have found our way through this crazy posturing phase.
Sensible chap, that Bryan.

A question or two

Lateline - 24/03/2009: US Govt plans to purge toxic assets

This segment on Lateline last night showed us one of the newly empty suburbs of America, where there are worthless "sub prime" houses the banks are happy to virtually give away.

One thing I don't understand is: where did the former occupants of these houses go? Was there an adequate rental market to absorb them immediately? You can't imagine the same thing in Australia, where housing demand is keeping rents up and vacancy down.

Another question: is there nothing much in the way of public housing in America? In Australia, I could imagine a push for governments to acquire a dirt cheap empty suburb or two as a way of boosting public housing.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Cold fusion comeback

'Cold fusion' rebirth? New evidence for existence of controversial energy source

Pretty clear evidence is given that a certain type of cold fusion device is producing neutrons. (If fusion is happening, there must be neutrons.)

Whether cold fusion ever proves useful for energy production is, however, another question.

UPDATE: the New Scientist version of the story goes into more detail, and provides an alternative explanation to fusion. (Not sure how credible it is, though.)

The limits of solar

The Solar Fraud -

Barry Brooks reviewed a skeptical solar power book last week, and thinks it has some value.

Brooks is promoting nuclear power quite strongly now, but whether or not he is making any inroads to the Green movement accepting it is another issue.

Still, if I were rich, having solar power to the house still appeals. Doesn't eveyone just like the idea of not being reliant on utilities?

Please let me see one...and in praise of Sony

How the Kindle will change the world. - By Jacob Weisberg - Slate Magazine

Meanwhile, here in the boondocks known as "Australia", there is no sign as to when epaper devices will arrive. Grrr. (I think I might prefer the Sony reader anyway.)

Speaking of Sony, here's an observation. I have been pounding away at work for the last 7 years or so on the same Sony laptop. (It is only used for wordprocessing and browsing the internet. With an upgrade of RAM, it still works fine.)

I type a fair bit everyday, yet I have recently noticed that there is absolutely no sign of wear or deterioration in the letters on the keyboard at all. This is quite different to the wireless keyboards in the office, as well as a couple of other brand laptops at home. It seems that for most keyboards, after a year or two, the most popular characters start to wear off, until some completely disappear.

How does Sony make their letters so tough? Why can't all keyboard manufacturers do that?

Crossing lines

Australian Story :: A Bitter End - Part 1

Australian Story over the last two weeks has been about the recent high profile euthanasia/murder case involving Graeme Wiley.

The shows are well worth watching to get an idea of the people and issues involved. It is done with the usual "Australian Story" soft bias, in the sense that hard questions are not asked or pursued, so that nearly all participants are allowed to put their own spin on events without challenge. (There was a bit of counterpoint by one of the daughters in this case, but I still reckon there was a general air of sympathy towards Caren Jenning, who has since killed herself.)

One of the things about the show that struck me was that, even allowing for my feelings against euthanasia as a wise policy, it always seems very hard to like the character of the people who get involved with the issue in a major way.

For example, Wylie himself, who apparently at least at some stage wanted to kill himself, was made to sound like an intelligent but stubborn bombastic type even by those close to him. To me, Caren Jennings came across a know-it-all busy body, and despite many people willing to sing her praises as a generous helper throughout her life, her good character did not extend to telling the truth to the police in the segment of the record of interview we heard.

The de facto of Mr Wylie (Shirley Justins, who is still alive) seemed, well, a little dim, and it is not clear whether some incidents she described were truthful or not. They were re-enacted in the show, which gives the viewer the impression they must be true, but they were certainly self-serving and later the daughter indicated she doubted them. But Justins portrayed herself as being somewhat manipulated by Caren Jennings, and one could imagine how that could be the case. However, it seemed they might have both been involved in the late change to Wylie's will, benefitting Justins, made at a time where his mental capacity was clearly going to be extremely doubtful.

And of course there was Dr Philip Nitschke, as usual hanging around any high profile case of a person who wants to kill himself for any reason. (He has a surprisingly short entry in Wikipedia; there is a lot more that should be inserted to give a true feel for the radicalism of his views.)

Many parts of the show were just a touch creepy, such as the bit where Nitschke and Jennings re-create for the camera the jolly meeting where (it would appear) he gave her a gift of alcohol to take after she swallows Nembutol. The issue of who may have supplied her the drug was never pursued in the show. (As I said, it is a "soft" version of events.)

Maybe it takes a certain aggressive character to be involved in euthanasia as a issue, and I generally react against that in people anyway. But I think they themselves might find it harder to get political support simply because of a reaction against their character. (Even though, logically, having fewer annoying suicide-inclined people around might be an argument for allowing euthanasia!)

Like the modern aggressive atheists, they allow for no shades of grey. Their view of the issue is right, and everyone who disagrees is an soft minded idiot.

More on solar disasters

Last August, I noted a Scientific American article about the great danger that a large solar storm of could cause to modern infrastructure. A big event of the kind that last happened in 1859 could cause massive disruption for weeks or months.

Now New Scientist visits the issue, as a result of a new NASA sponsored study that looks at the possible disaster.

The basic problem is the nature of the damage to the electrical system:
According to the NAS report, a severe space weather event in the US could induce ground currents that would knock out 300 key transformers within about 90 seconds, cutting off the power for more than 130 million people (see map). From that moment, the clock is ticking for America....

The truly shocking finding is that this whole situation would not improve for months, maybe years: melted transformer hubs cannot be repaired, only replaced. "From the surveys I've done, you might have a few spare transformers around, but installing a new one takes a well-trained crew a week or more," says Kappenman. "A major electrical utility might have one suitably trained crew, maybe two."

Within a month, then, the handful of spare transformers would be used up. The rest will have to be built to order, something that can take up to 12 months.

That's an amazing thought, isn't it?: a huge part of the world having a permanent black out for months. As the study notes, a blackout of that length affects everything; water supply, fuel supply, food supply. As least survivalists would finally feel their preparation was worth it.

The article notes that the main satellite which would give short warning of the coming storm (and perhaps allow some electricity utilities to take some action to limit damage) is aging and no replacement is planned. Sounds very obvious that this is one early warning system that should not be allowed to lapse.

Monday, March 23, 2009


The Vatican's harmful views about condoms | Sex and sensibility | The Economist

The Economist's article on the Pope's African comments on condoms is not very fair, but I don't particularly care to go into that debate here.

Instead, I'll pray for forgiveness for trivialising a serious issue by joining in the question already asked by some Economist commenters: who is that person with the mountainous red hair standing next to the Pope?

By the way, I wonder how Quentin Bryce's African sojourn is going. If she needs a visit to the hairdresser while there, the result could be interesting.

(You can see photos of her visit here. For a moment there, I thought I spotted a pic which did not feature the GG herself. But no, when you enlarge the thumbnail, there she is on the poster in the background.

Ah no! I stand corrected. There is a pic without her image in any form whatsoever. A breakthrough!)

UPDATE: It appears that the Amazon women with red hair was earlier identified at Tim Blair's, but that massive hat concealing that massive hair makes her look slightly different.

Obama's fresh start getting stale already

Venezuela's Chavez calls Obama ignoramus | U.S. | Reuters

More weekend viewing

Guardian Angels - Landline - ABC

Cute story on Landline yesterday about big white dogs that guard chickens and penguins in Victoria from foxes. It kept putting me in mind of the Looney Tunes sheepdog/coyote cartoons, except I didn't know that dogs were happy to guard birds too. (Actually, I see that it was sheepdog/wolf, just that the wolf looked almost exactly like Wile E Coyote.)

Cat lovers, show us what useful things they do, again?

Innovative insurance companies

Sunday Night Videos - Yahoo!7 TV

That Sunday night magazine program with the obvious name ("Sunday Night") actually had an interesting story yesterday on Vancouver's success with using "bait cars" to dramatically reduce car theft in the city.

The police and insurance companies work together to put highly favoured "bait cars" on the street; when they are stolen, a command centre monitors where it is and can disable the engine when the police are close enough to nab the driver.

Excellent idea.

There must be more innovative ways insurance companies can reduce claims or costs.

There was a lot of comment recently about the relatively low number of houses that were insured in the Victorian countryside, but what innovative means could be used to encourage taking up insurance? Gangs of masked men from the insurance companies wielding flaming torches appearing at random in front of houses they know are uninsured, maybe?

I guess the insurance companies could buy cheap houses, slap a fresh coat of paint on them, burn them down and then have the pretend owners bemoaning in the media how they didn't have insurance. Maybe a bit of an expensive exercise, though.

I'm sure there's a good idea lurking somewhere in the back of my mind, but it's not coming out yet.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Watch out for the snails the size of dogs, though

Look! Miniature Garden

The waterless way

Waterless urinals: Cheap. Green. But many think ‘gross’ |

Here's an interesting article (honest!) about a device that's becoming more common. They are cleaner than regular urinals, apparently:

“In traditional urinals, the surfaces on the inside are wet much of the time, and you get biofilms of growing organisms,” says Prof. Charles Gerba, an Arizona State University microbiologist who has researched surface contamination in public restrooms.

Flushing further creates a spray that lands on the rim and floor, creating a breeding ground for microorganisms.

“If easily-maintainable, water-free urinals had been developed first, no one would use conventional urinals because of all the contamination they cause,” he adds.

Maybe. But they don't stop the problem of men who miss or drip onto the floor near the urinal itself.

[Speaking of which, for years now, I have been wondering who it is was who thought up the terrible design of metal urinals that extend down and below floor level, with a metal grid on which to stand. For any women reading this who haven't partied with Rugby League players, the idea is for the man to stand on the grid so that any drips fall through it and into the urinal tray which extends below your feet. These are, I think, a universally unpopular design, as the tray beneath the feet does not usually drain well and smells, and the grid itself gets urine soaked and grotty anyway, to the extent that some men - especially if wearing thongs or other insubstantial footwear - will stand back from grid anyway, ensuring that the point of the design is completely lost.]

But there's something else to be learned from this article. If you are a journalist who gets an invite to attend the next WTO meeting, make sure you go to the right one:
In rural regions of the third-world where sanitary infrastructure is nearly nonexistent, these urinals present the option of leapfrogging past systems that use up precious water, says Jack Sim, an advocate of compost toilets. In 2002, he launched the World Toilet Organization, a nonprofit group based in Singapore and committed to improving toilet facilities worldwide.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Election fizzer

The Queensland election has turned into a fizzer for the LNP, with a swing about half of what had been predicted and way too little to get close to winning government. So ends my alternative career as electoral pundit...

But, as I said in 2007:
People need to remember that the voters of Queensland are, shall we say, different. Look at how long Bjelke Petersen hung around, and Goss and Peter Beattie's respective electoral loss and win which neither of them deserved.
Save for one short hiccup, it seems like Queenslanders only like to change governments about once every 20 years or so. Maybe the heat makes the incompetence or corruption of governments take an unduly long time to reach the collective brain of the electorate, rather like a brontosaur's (alleged) slow reaction to feeling its backside was on fire. But essentially, it's all a bit of a mystery to your humble blogger.

Finally, I saw little of the election coverage on TV, but what I did see of Treasurer Andrew Fraser confirmed what I had heard on the radio. If you thought Kevin Rudd could be robotic, Fraser appears to be the perfect political android, but with less charm than Asimo. (He does have a wife and two kids at the age of 32, which I guess proves he is human, but you wouldn't guess it from his media manner.)

Friday, March 20, 2009

A funny Japanese cubby

Dezeen - Takasugi-an by Terunobu Fujimori

"Mum, Dad's up the tree again."

Talking up LEDs

The next generation of electric lights | A brilliant new approach | The Economist

This article from the Economist talks up the promise of cheaper LED lights in the future, with a new manufacturing method potentially makes the process about 10 times cheaper.

But here's a figure that's handy to keep in your head for the next lull in a conversation:
About 20% of the world’s electricity is used for lighting. America’s Department of Energy thinks that, with LEDs, this could be cut in half by 2025, saving more than 130 new power stations in America alone.

Ayn going nowhere

Thought Experiments : The Blog: Ayn Rand: Meditations on a Crock of ....

Good post from Bryan Appleyard succinctly critiquing Ayn Rand.

Against the wind

Wind energy blowing hot air - On Line Opinion - 20/3/2009

It's been quite a while since I've linked to a decent anti-wind power article, but this one is quite good.

Things we learned from last night's Q and A

No transcript is up yet, but should appear here.

1. Peter Kennedy is pro-choice on abortion. What a surprise.

2. Peter Kennedy acknowledges that St Mary's doesn't run like a normal parish catering to local Catholics. It caters to the disgruntled left leaning Catholics of Brisbane, which makes the claimed "vibrancy" of the parish (700 or so attending masses on a weekend) not so impressive.

3. Peter Kennedy could not answer why it is essential that the church he (barely) presides over could not be run from virtually any location in Brisbane. The union building he has already been offered for weekends is probably less than 100 meters from the physical church he presently uses.

4. As already noted in this blog, the charitable projects for which his parish claims much credit are in fact primarily outsourced government funded projects. (I think he said government funding is $10 million, local parish support is $40,000. Maybe some parishioners work for free for this as well, but if so I would like to know the details.)

5. Peter Kennedy wants the Catholic Church to become a democracy in which women play a large role, because he thinks that is the way to make a church more relevant and vibrant, etc. I guess that explains why the Anglicans are doing so well then.

6. Tony Abbott is surprisingly soft on liberal Catholics. George Pell needs to smack him around a bit and toughen him up.

As a final note, Kennedy really did seem old and inarticulate at the start, but warmed up and sounded more "with it" later. But he clearly isn't going to be around forever, and "his" parish is going to have a succession crisis sooner or later in any event.

I certainly can't see why he would be considered charismatic, though.

Gadget time

World's First Color E-Book Reader Goes on Sale | Gadget Lab from

Hey, I didn't even know that coloured e-paper displays were in the pipeline.

This new Fujistsu e-book reader sounds pretty sexy, if expensive. But in Australia, no one is even selling black and white e-paper devices such as the Sony Reader or the Kindle. What gives? I just want to be able to see one in a shop, not necessarily buy it.

I am surprised that the Greens do not push the adoption of technology such as this as a way of reducing paper production.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

A festival best avoided

The New York Times has an article on the small but enthusiastic culinary following in parts of America for "mountain oysters":

The cooking of testicles — also known as calf fries or lamb fries — is a living tradition on ranches throughout rural Nevada and the Intermountain West down through Central Texas (the annual fry here is nicknamed the “testicle festival”). ...

Liz Chabot, 77, who grew up on a ranch near the fly-speck town of Paradise Valley, Nev., described the delicacy as “a taste like none other,” and recalled how the fries were thrown into the fire at branding time, pulled out with a stick and then peeled and eaten like a fresh fig.
But hey, there's an Australian connection!:
Seven teams of up to four chefs each had two hours to prepare dishes using 20 pounds of the jiggling raw ingredient (flown in from Australia this year).
Evidently our testicles are world class quality.

Even Ken prefers a carbon tax

A carbon tax is the way to cut emissions |

The very Green left Kenneth Davidson supports carbon tax over emissions trading. Will he support the Liberals blocking Rudd's ETS then?

Do this experiment

Plus, a large yellow orb in the sky burned me somehow - Daily Telegraph Tim Blair Blog

It's funny that Tim Blair should post about the travel complaints of the British.

Just the other day, after spending quite some time on Tripadviser reading hotel and resort reviews in various Australian and near Australian locations (just how much of Kevin Rudd's generosity is going to spent supporting the economy of Fiji, I wonder) I observed to my wife that it is a pretty confusing exercise. Often a resort or hotel will have many good visitor reviews, but suddenly someone will give it 1 star and complain that it was absolutely filthy and the most disgusting room they have ever been in. On the other hand, a disproportionate number of one star reviews (often the first one in the list) seem to be by someone from England.

Here's an of example: The Warwick Fiji: the first 20 reviews give it 5 or 4 stars. It clearly pleases many people. In the second set of reviews, there are two 1 star reviews: one from England, and the other (go on, guess): a New Zealander!

The Outrigger on the Lagoon: first page has 5 star reviews, one 2 star (by an Australian honeymooner), but the first 1 star review is from Norfolk (England, I assume.) She's even moved the bed to take photos of the dust bunnies beneath it. (Sad to say, I have to admit the bathroom photo doesn't look flash, though.)

Still, even if the bad review is not from England, I find the words often automatically play in my head with an English accent, for some reason.

UPDATE: I was just checking random Australian hotel reviews on Tripadviser, and I must say reviewers of all countries, when they have an unhappy experience at a hotel, really like to talk it up. For example, someone (an Australian, but maybe her parents were English) says of the mid-range SeaWorld Nara resort:
The website is very flashy, as is the foyer of the resort. That's where it ends. When you walk out past the reception and foyer you land in a block of flats out of a Dickens novel.
I haven't actually stayed there myself, but that comment has just a touch of exaggeration about it, I think.

Then there is the person from Sydney who had this experience at the Holiday Inn Surfer's Paradise:
We arrived in the room and had a quick sleep for an hour, when I woke, the eye which was touching my pillow could barely open, it was so swollen. My eye was perfectly normal before coming into contact with their bed and I don't suffer allergies to frangrances or lotions or anything, so it is unlikely to be a reaction to the laundry detergent.
Dangerous bed linen?

But maybe I should apologise to the English after reading these comments from someone in Redfern (Sydney) reviewing Brisbane's Sofitel:
The bathroom, similarly was five star standard but what is that poor suffering piece of ornamental bamboo in a vase about....doesn't clutter equal lack of clarity about customer service....
Oh diddums, that ornamental bamboo ruined your five star experience? He also takes exception to the (usually rhetorical) matter of being asked if he would like something fixed. This is what happened when he tried to get into the Club Lounge:
One needs to swipe ones room card, and mine didn't work. Imagine my pleasure as the staff stood inside looking out at me like fish in a bowl...while I signaled to them..then it became my problem that the card didn't work. 'Would Sir like me to fix the card?' 'You bet he would, immediately, and why do you need to ask?' Strike one.
"One needs to swipe one's room card." No, is still sounding English to me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Teaching art

Olivia Cole writing in The Spectator (about her annoyance at the peculiar way Britain's big galleries now try to interest schoolchildren in art) has a witty line:
Online, the National Gallery’s kits for teachers show how very far they have come from the ‘visceral’. Monet’s ‘The Water-Lily Pond’ is an excuse for a lesson in engineering; ‘compare ornamental bridges with industrial ones’ is one teaching instruction. With this approach, presumably ‘The Raft of Medusa’ offers lessons in boat-building.

On bereavement and related matters

Dreaming of the dead. (1) - By Meghan O'Rourke - Slate Magazine

I've been meaning to mention the very insightful and well written essays appearing in Slate dealing with bereavement. The link above should take you to the first entry, in which O'Rourke writes:

Nothing about the past losses I have experienced prepared me for the loss of my mother. Even knowing that she would die did not prepare me in the least. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. She is the shell in which you divide and become a life. Waking up in a world without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable. What makes it worse is that my mother was young: 55. The loss I feel stems partly from feeling robbed of 20 more years with her I'd always imagined having.

I say this knowing it sounds melodramatic. This is part of the complexity of grief: A piece of you recognizes it is an extreme state, an altered state, yet a large part of you is entirely subject to its demands.
That second paragraph rings very true. It is frustrating when undergoing grief to have a rational understanding of it, but still find that such knowledge doesn't seem to help at all with overcoming the emotional reaction.

I found a similar thing when, some months after my father's death, I began feeling a pain in the same location as where he first felt the effects of his cancer. It feels a little silly saying to a doctor "of course I know it is very, very likely this is a psychosomatic grief reaction, but the pain is still there."

O'Rourke's latest entry (number 5 in the series if that link stops working) talks about dreams of her late mother. Hers sound a bit different from mine. As far as I can recall now, most of mine were of the type where I found my father was alive, not dead after all, and that the news of his death had all been a terrible mistake. However, the effect of these on waking was mainly one of disappointment; not peaceful comfort. I suppose they are a little like the "visitation" sense that O'Rourke describes, but she also says that hers were comforting upon waking.

One thing they made me think about was whether such dreams were a plausible explanation for the origin of the belief in the resurrection of Christ. Did someone in his circle talk to a friend of being "visited" by Jesus during the night, and through a series of Chinese whispers it became a story of a physical occurrence?

It sounds plausible in an academic way, but it seemed to me after experiencing grief dreams to not be very likely. After all, people in Jesus' day presumably had more exposure to death in the family at a younger age, and therefore probably knew more of grief dreams than people do today. I suspect that this may have increased their skepticism of a report of physical visit of a deceased person, rather than making them more accepting of such a story.

I don't deny that it might have been a near universal belief then (as it still is for many people) that grief dreams are a real visit by the spirit of the departed. But the gospels spend a fair bit of time emphasising that it was not a purely spiritual body that was appearing. The conversion of a story of a spirit visit from Jesus during the night into a daytime bodily visit seems a rather improbable path to me.

This is not intended to convince any reader in any substantial sense, and of course I am aware of many of the other speculations on the origin of the resurrection accounts. It is just an explanation of my thoughts on the matter, perhaps of interest to a handful of readers.

Death in (or near) the bedroom

Some months ago, before leaving on a holiday, I bought one of those automated insect spray machines (like this example, although the brand is different) that squirt a bit of spray in the air every so often. (You can vary the timing: I set it for about every 30 minutes.)

This is supposed to kill all hapless insects within a considerable range of the machine. I bought it for the walk-in robe that separates the bedroom and the ensuite toilet. Silverfish like it in there, and they were the main target.

One problem I have found with the device is that it makes a bit of a whirring sound every time it goes off. It seems to know when to do it to maximise surprise, such as the other night as I was passing through the robe to make a mid-morning visit to the toilet. I know I can turn the thing off at night, but never think to. Besides, insects are active at night.

The other thing is, given the small amount of stuff it squirts out, I have been very sceptical that it can possibly be effective, unless the bug happens to be within a very small radius of the device. In fact, I was going to do a post about my suspicions that, as a class of product, they might be a great con job. Had any consumer organisation actually tested their effectiveness? (I still haven't looked up that point.)

But then this morning, I found a large, dead cockroach in the ensuite. I assume the spray was the cause of death.

This is enough to make me keep using it, although I still feel I am being unscientific, and it continues to enjoy making me jump at quiet times when I am near it.

That's all I wanted to say.*

* This is officially rated "APoLC." (A Post of Little Consequence).

Oz as economic allegory?

BBC NEWS | UK | Magazine | Secrets of the Wizard of Oz

I hadn't heard this theory before, but it's kinda interesting:
...the story has underlying economic and political references that make it a popular tool for teaching university and high school students - mainly in the United States but also in the UK - about the economic depression of the late 19th Century.
Read the rest of the article to get the details. It does seem odd, however, that no one published the idea until 1964.

I just always thought that the story was quite anti-religion, with its strong themes of self reliance and the revelation that the Wizard has no clothes, so to speak. Sort of a gentler expression of Philip Pullman's themes.

Which leads me to note that a Pullman interview was recently in The Times. There is one comment he makes that I have some sympathy with:
When people talk of his books and about those characters of his who carry their daemons like visible souls, they talk also of spirituality. They may know less of his views than of his creations, but it is a good job he can't hear them as this is what he says of the S-word: “I never use it. I never know what it means. It could mean any one of a whole raft of things, from vague feelings of emotional uplift...and then you're off into the realms of the ‘intense inane', as Shelley called it. I find it almost unbearably stupid when people talk about exploring their spirituality because I don't know what the f*** they mean. I think they mean ‘I'm no end of a fine fellow and you ought to respect me because I've got a higher dimension than you material people'.”
I also tend to be rather leery of the usage of "spirituality" these days, but I don't have well thought out views on this, so it will have to await another post.

Gold flush

Japan's sewers paved with gold - Telegraph

This story appeared in the news last month, but it was dealt with on Radio National's AM this morning (no link available yet.)

Seems the gold in Suwa is either from the gold plating industries, or from the water from the local hot springs, as there used to be a gold mine in the area.

But the main reason to post about it to have fun with a pun.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

This is Modern Art - Part IV

What has art got to do with beauty these days? | Roger Scruton - Times Online

A good article here by Roger Scruton, although I must agree with one comment that follows it that the meaning of one sentence is obscure.

I have been intending to write about my own conflicted feelings about modern art, after being prompted to think about it by a a couple of visits to the new-ish Gallery of Modern Art in South Brisbane. It's a fine building in a great location, and together with the adjoining Queensland Art Gallery, State Library and Queensland Museum, it's a very impressive precinct indeed. (My criticism of the museum will have to wait for another post, however.)

GOMA pretty much becomes a playground for children during the Christmas school holidays. While many of the activities are fun for them and their parents, their connection to art can be extremely tenuous, to say the least. These last holidays, for example, one installation invited kids to take a quiz on a touchscreen about pretend aliens, with success giving you an alien embassy swipe card. The card activated some video machines sited throughout the building. The videos featured the artist, who appeared to be aboriginal and sounded gay, talking cheerfully about what aliens like, with someone dressed up as a silly green alien dancing around and kids also featuring in the short videos. As I say, fun for kids under about 9, but connection with art? (No kid is going to cotton on to the aboriginal/gay/alien connection which I assume was at least partly its inspiration.)

In any event, as is usual in modern art, even the "adult" exhibits and installations are often more about simply attracting attention to themselves as a high brow concept, rather than displaying particular skill in their creation, or (as Scruton writes) having much in the way of connection with beauty.

The initial reaction can therefore justifiably be cynical. But on the other hand, the "gee, even I could have done that" thought can be taken in a positive, democratising sort of way: everyone can be an "artist" if they think about what they are making and create anything with forethought. It may not be particularly fair that some can make a living out of mere concept separated from any particular skill, but there will always be the unjustifiably rich and successful in the world.

The result is that I find it hard to resent the modern art I have seen at GOMA, and even if I think a particular installation is a waste of space, I still enjoy the ironic amusement derived from wondering how the artist has managed to receive recognition for their dubious work.

There are lines to be drawn, however. I will still object to the outright ugly as a legitimate form of conceptual art. (The dissected animals of a British artist, for example, or the digestion machine designed to make fake human excrement.) Conceptual art can become mere ugly tosh, there is no doubt about it.

But conceptual art in moderation, when it avoids mere ugliness or the incredibly facile, can be kind of fun:

Update: speaking of grotesque attention seeking as "art", the blood cooking guys from England (where else) are on their way to Melbourne.

Quentin's listening tour (and a grumble about sport)

Here's how Governor General Quentin Bryce recently described her African trip:
I’ll be taking a message of goodwill and renewed engagement, letting African countries know that Australia is ready to listen and learn from them, as well as to contribute to their progress and prosperity.
I await her report in the coming months on what Australia has learnt from Africa via Her Excellency's ear.

By the way, in another recent speech, the GG lavished praise on women's cricket, saying this:
This is a great achievement for cricket and will mean a lot to the 650,000 females playing cricket around the world. In Australia there are more females playing now than ever before – 70,000 – this has increased significantly over the last 4 years.
650,000 females around the world play cricket? This must only be if you count schoolgirls, as the BBC was reporting in 2001 that there were 640,000 girls playing cricket at school in the last 12 months, but only 4000 who played "at club level".

Quentin also claims:
I have observed that many successful achieving women have played cricket. It’s a sport that develops character.
Yeah? I reckon she's just buying into a generic sport's stereotype there: that it's inherently "good for character".

I've never quite understood that. When anyone thinks about their high school experience, for example, how many can honestly say "yes, all those jocks on the football team pretty clearly had the best character of all the people I knew." From my observation, they were in fact more likely to be the one showing their 15 year old girlfriend that they had a condom ready in their pocket for the evening's date, as well as being the most likely to be drinking underage and underperforming academically. They could be mocking of people with no sporting prowess (yes, that's me!) and although they could be reasonable people to meet again as adults, it was only with the additional maturity that they became reasonable conversationalists.

For every famous sportsperson of apparent good character, there is always someone you can find one who is the opposite. Seems to me to be self evidently, at best, a neutral influence on character.

Taking part in any group activity makes people feel well socialised and less isolated, so if I had a teenager who dressed as a Goth and spent most of his time in the bedroom writing poetry, I guess I would be happier if he was playing cricket. (Only just.)

But honestly, any group activity that didn't involve drugs would have the same effect.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Doctor behaving badly

A Medical Madoff: Anesthesiologist Faked Data in 21 Studies: Scientific American

The article notes that it took 12 years before a routine auditing of his studies revealed widespread fabrication.

The article makes a makes a good point at the end:
In hindsight, Anesthesia & Analgesia editors Shafer and White admit that it should have been a "red flag" that Reuben's studies were consistently favorable to the drugs he studied.

Theological question of the week

As posed by daughter (in Grade 1) last Sunday: "why can't I see God? Is it because he's camouflaged?"

(She also occasionally claims that God is not real because he doesn't give her every toy she prays for. Oh for a good Presentation sister to set her right in her religion instruction!)

It's off to court we go

The barristers will surely have little in the way of pleading precedents to rely upon as they draw up the application to have sacked but immobile parish priest Peter Kennedy taken to court in order that the Church can physically get St Mary's back.

According to the report, it's gone this way because Kennedy will not take part in the mediation the Archbishop proposed.

I happened to drive past St Mary's last weekend. As expected, a couple of tents have sprung up right in the front, occupied (I expect) by Sam Watson or other aboriginal figures who want to buy into the dispute. Or I could be wrong; it might be Raelians.

Speaking of Peter Kennedy, this week's "Q&A" on ABC television features him on the panel, together with Tony Abbott. (I hope they are separated, as Abbott seems to be exactly the robust kind of Catholic who might be tempted to lash out and hit him.)

And just so it's not all religion and politics, they also have sex covered too, in the form of panelist Bettina Ardnt. Thus it is covering every topic which it can be unwise to raise at a dinner party with people you've only recently met.

It's one episode I don't want to miss.

The real slippery slope

If harvesting embryos is OK, how about fetuses? - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

This story seemed to have much more limited coverage than it deserved. (And oddly enough, it seems it was the more "down market" media such as the Daily Mirror and Melbourne's Herald Sun which ran this story. Searches I've done on The Guardian and The Times appear to confirm they haven't mentioned it. What the hell's wrong with them?)

The story is that at a conference, Oxford professor Richard Gardner made it clear that he has no particular issue with the idea of using aborted fetal tissue to grow replacement kidneys or livers in adults who are awaiting organ donation. It works in mice, apparently.

The Daily Mirror quotes another professor, Stuart Campbell, as saying he has no ethical objection either:
He said many babies were aborted quite late, 'and if they are going to be terminated, it is a shame to waste their organs'.
As the First Things blog said "Slopes don't get much slipperier".

Although this would not be the first use of fetal cells in attempted treatments, the idea of directly using their partially formed organs (if ever adopted) would surely mean that the scale of fetal organ tissue harvesting would be massively increased.

Ethicists (if that is not too kind a word for it) like Peter Singer have been musing openly for quite a while that there is no real problem with the suggestion. But now it seems the doctors are getting enthusiastic about the idea too.

The culture war is are going to get more sharply defined as this century goes on.

Needlework defended

The British Medical Journal group is taking over publication of "Acupuncture in Medicine", and the doctor editor makes these interesting comments:

"One of the major problems facing medical acupuncture is preconceived notions. The perception is that acupuncture is all about chi and meridians.

"In the past, it was easy for scientists to dismiss acupuncture as highly implausible when its workings were couched in these terms. But it becomes very plausible when explained in terms of neurophysiology. Unfortunately, the scientific approach just isn't as sexy."

Scientific evidence had been building for 30 years showing that acupuncture stimulated the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, releasing "feel good" chemicals such opioids and serotonin.

Research also showed that needles placed outside of the traditional meridians also had an impact. Studies comparing needles placed according to traditional teaching and those placed randomly have shown similar effects.

"Points don't have any magical properties. They are simply convenient locations to needle," Dr White said.

I wonder why tiny needles stimulate that reaction in the brain? Does it happen with any perceived injury? But hitting your thumb doesn't make a sore back feel better, does it?

Saturday, March 14, 2009


Jimmy Fallon Ratings Win: "Late Night" Tops, Besting Conan Average

I haven't seen much of it, but from I have seen, I thought he was awful in this format.

Meanwhile, here's an amusing clip from Colbert Nation this week (featuring Mahmoud Ahmadinejad):

Send a crate load to Hoyden About Town

Lady tester › Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion

I told you there was something seriously wrong with England

Michael Jackson's 50 London concerts sell out - News, Music - The Independent

How to over-analyse

Soccer Is Ruining America -

Look, I find soccer pretty boring to watch too, and don't really understand the appeal of a game where the scoring of a "good" match is so low. (Incidentally, basketball has the opposite problem: too much scoring means too little drama til the last few minutes.)

But this column is still a severe case of over-analysis (with little sign of any sense of humour). For example: is a liberal's dream of tragedy: It creates an egalitarian playing field by rigorously enforcing a uniform disability.

More than having to do with its origin, soccer is a European sport because it is all about death and despair.

Soccer penalizes shoving and burns countless calories, and the margins of victory are almost always too narrow to afford any gloating. As a display of nearly death-defying stamina, soccer mimics the paradigmatic feminine experience of childbirth more than the masculine business of destroying your opponent with insurmountable power.
Hence, it is un-American.

God knows what he would make of cricket.

Pigs and drug resistant Staph

Our Pigs, Our Food, Our Health -

Here's something new to worry about over the weekend. (But the story is to be continued in Sunday's NYT.)

Friday, March 13, 2009

Black holes at CERN - a short update

This recent post noted a paper (by credible physicists) indicating that mini black holes that might be created at the LHC might live for minutes, rather than the previously popular suggestion of minuscule fractions of a second. They still did not think that there could be danger from such micro black holes (they still could not start serious accretion).

I see that the authors of the paper appear to have revised it to make it sound more emphatically safe than the wording used in first version indicated. (One suspects on the suggestion of physicists at CERN?)

This led me to wondering what Rainer Plaga was up to, given that he had defended his early "danger warning" paper from criticism that he had made a fundamental mistake in the formula he had applied.

So, I emailed him. (Gotta love the internet.)

He responded saying that he is working on a further appendix to his paper, which will refer to the Casadio/Fabi/Harms paper about the minute-long black holes. He says they use basically the same approach as him, and he notes that the Mangano/Giddings safety paper did not refer to this approach at all. (Remember Casadio and co acknowledge discussions with Plaga in their paper, indicating that he definitely has credibility.)

So, more to come yet on the issue.

The BBC on ocean acidification

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | 'Coral lab' offers acidity insight

Go to the link to find a series of pages which provide a quite balanced treatment of the issue of ocean acidification.

As usual, the news is nearly all bad. (There are a couple of quasi-dissenting scientists noted, but still no one who seems to think the oceans and reefs are going to be OK.)

Something I didn't know

France moves to raise drinking age to 18 - International Herald Tribune

The drinking age in France varies depending on the type of alcohol involved and the place of sale. But anyone 16 or older can order beer and wine in bars.

French teenagers who suddenly find themselves underage may grow jealous of neighboring countries such as Germany or Italy where the legal drinking age is still 16 for beer, wine or liquor. Europeans overall take a more liberal view of alcohol than, for instance, the United States, where the legal drinking age is 21. In most of Western Europe, it ranges from 16 to 18.

And yet it is the British with the worst reputation for drunken yobs on the streets. So how do the French teenagers manage:
A study of French 16-year-olds showed an overall rise in regular alcohol use from 1999 to 2007, going from 8 percent to 13 percent. In 2007, almost one in five boys, and one in 10 girls, reported at least 10 drinking episodes during the month, according to the French Monitoring Center on Drugs and Addiction.
I don't find that too shocking, compared to what one imagines what would happen in Britain if the drinking age was lowered to 16.

I like the reaction from businesses in France:

Café owners complain that they cannot play the role of the police, checking everyone's identity. Some with a large under-18 clientele say business will suffer.

"Ten-year-olds, 12-year-olds, I agree. But to forbid 16-year-olds? You can't take people for idiots," said Anais Chettrit, owner of the café Le Molière in eastern Paris.

Chettrit said that 60 percent of the clients at her busy café, near two high schools, were under 18 and that it was "certain" raising the drinking age would cut into business.

Obviously, I need to spend more time in France observing society.

Better left unsaid

Doctor apologizes for saying people should smoke themselves to death › Japan Today
A doctor has apologized after saying that people should smoke themselves to an early death to save the country money on elderly care, according to his hospital. “It is clear that medical costs will increase if non-smoking spreads,” the doctor said last week, according to Ida Hospital in Kawasaki City. “It’s better that people smoke a lot and die early.”
Maybe he was an economics student before he did medicine.

In any event, did you realise how popular smoking still is in Japan?:
Japan’s overall smoking rate is declining. The rate for men was 39.5%, still high among developed countries but half of the rate of four decades ago, according to a 2008 survey by Japan Tobacco Inc. The rate for women was 12.9%, down from 15% in 1968.
I see that Australia was at that rate for men in 1980. (In 1945, 72% of Australian men smoked.) We're currently at about 22%. Japan has some way to go.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Prediction: Labor in Queensland gone

Clean oil spill by hand or stop, Sunshine Coast council told - ABC News

In case you hadn't heard, there's quite a big oil spill off the Queensland coast, affecting first Moreton Island, and now some of the nicest beaches on the Sunshine Coast.

You can't blame the Labor government for that, but I suspect the very slow and bureaucratic reaction to the clean up is quite likely to be the final nail in the coffin of the Anna Bligh government at the forthcoming election:

The Sunshine Coast Regional Council on the south-east Queensland coast has been ordered to stop the clean-up of 8.5 kilometres of beaches that have been coated in fuel oil that leaked from the ship Pacific Adventurer.

The ABC has learned that Maritime Safety Queensland has told the council it is inappropriate to use machinery on the beach to clean up the oil slick and that staff should use hand tools.

Sunshine Coast Mayor Bob Abbot says he can not understand the ruling.

"We're just thinking that's a bit ridiculous," he said.


Mark Bahnisch says today that Labor is in deep trouble. That's good. There really was no way that Labor deserved to win the last election, but a hopeless performance by the Liberals in particular just meant that people couldn't bring themselves to vote for the Opposition.

The timing of this election for the LNP is good. The awful situation in the Bundberg public hospital with wildly over-enthusiastic surgeon Patel, although known before the last election, is in the news again thanks to his commital trial. The Health Minister made himself sound a completely insensitive idiot by saying he should be the one receiving an apology following a long delayed report on how one of his nurses came to be raped. (The core security problem is also still to be fixed!) The police minister Judy Spence has always looked and sounded incompetent. The 30 year old Treasurer Andrew Fraser might be a smart guy for all I know, but it's not a good look to be in that position just as your State's finances take a nosedive, no matter whose fault it is.

Anna Bligh is trying to keep all the attention on herself, but she doesn't have the same roguish appeal of Peter Beattie. (Although, that said, it's hard to imagine him being able to overcome the "it's time" factor of this election either.) Her appearances with Prime Minister Rudd, who manages to maintain popularity by sending voters large cheques every 3 months, do not seem to be doing the trick.

A surprising number of people that I know who generally appear to be Labor inclined have said that they don't mind Lawrence Springborg. (In fact, they seem to like him more than I do.) I think he just has to pretty much keep his head down and he's in.

I suspect that most people will vote with the attitude that the LNP could not do any worse, and it is time for a break from Labor. It's not an unreasonable way of looking at it.

And it is, of course, always a delicious irony that it's Labor that keeps putting up women Premiers who promptly go on to lose government as soon as they have to face the electorate. (Maybe they will eventually cotton on that they should put one up as leader of the Opposition first and let them get into power that way.)

People of Queensland: let's keep up this proud Australian tradition. It is fun to annoy electioneering feminists, after all.

Gift solicited

Bitten: True Medical Stories of ... - Google Book Search

Looks to be a fun read:
We’ve all been bitten. And we all have stories.
The bite attacks that Pamela Nagami, M.D., has chosen to write about in Bitten take place in big cities, small towns, and remote villages around the world and throughout history, locales as familiar as New York or Hollywood, or exotic as Africa, the Middle East, or Indonesia. They include a six-year-old girl who descended into weeks of extreme lassitude from a tick bite; a diabetic in the West Indies who awoke to find a rat eating two of his toes; a California man who developed “flesh-eating strep” following a penile bite; and more.
Be the first reader to send me a gift in (nearly) 4 years of blogging! Postal address provided on request.

Breath will not be held.

Child brides of India

High Prevalence Of Child Marriage In India Fuels Fertility Risks

....nearly half of adult Indian women, aged 20 to 24, were married before the legal age of 18, and that those child marriages were significantly associated with poor fertility outcomes, such as unwanted and terminated pregnancies, repeat childbirths in less than 24 months, and increased sterilization rates.
I'm not entirely sure why they included "increased sterilization rates" under the heading "poor fertility outcomes", but in any event, it's the terminated pregnancies that are of more concern.

So, how young are they getting married in India?:

The study found that 44.5 percent of women ages 22 to 24 were married before age 18. More than one in five – 22.6 percent – were married before age 16, while 2.6 percent were married before age 13.

India, the largest and most prosperous nation in south Asia, raised the legal age for marriage to 18 in 1978.
Evidently, it's a law that isn't enforced.

These figures are pretty surprising. On the up side, it's good to see some fertility/sexuality issues for which no one can blame the Catholic Church!

Pope doesn't surf the web all that often

Pope embraces internet in apology over Holocaust bishop -Times Online
The Pope has admitted fallibility over the Vatican's handling of a Holocaust-denying bishop and has vowed to make full use of the internet to make sure the Holy See is not caught out again.
I guess we'll know he has embraced the internet when we see him start Twittering during Mass in St Peter's.

Less than zero photons?

Quantum physics and reality | I'm not looking, honest! | The Economist

Not all that many places picked up on this report that appeared in The Economist, of all places, probably because it is hard to understand what it means.

It seems that a team of clever Japanese physicists have confirmed another team's experiment in which they, in effect, directly observed a quantum paradox (called Hardy's paradox. No, I hadn't heard of it before either.)

The implications, according to the magazine are:
They managed to do what had previously been thought impossible: they probed reality without disturbing it. Not disturbing it is the quantum-mechanical equivalent of not really looking. So they were able to show that the universe does indeed exist when it is not being observed.
Well, that's encouraging, I suppose.

But the physical meaning of what they observed seems very unclear:

What the several researchers found was that there were more photons in some places than there should have been and fewer in others. The stunning result, though, was that in some places the number of photons was actually less than zero. Fewer than zero particles being present usually means that you have antiparticles instead. But there is no such thing as an antiphoton (photons are their own antiparticles, and are pure energy in any case), so that cannot apply here.

The only mathematically consistent explanation known for this result is therefore Hardy’s. The weird things he predicted are real and they can, indeed, only be seen by people who are not looking. Dr Yokota and his colleagues went so far as to call their results “preposterous”.
That word appears in the abstract to the paper:
Unlike Hardy's original argument in which the contradiction is inferred by retrodiction, our experiment reveals its paradoxical nature as preposterous values actually read out from the meter.
The Science Daily version of the story doesn't add much.

This is all very interesting, but it seems to me that no one is doing a good job of explaining what it means from the point of view of the understanding of quantum physics and reality. I have some questions:

1. Is this relevant to the question of whether the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics is correct?

2. Is it relevant to the more famous quantum paradox of Schrodinger's cat? (My initial hunch is that it tells us the cat is really there, and it is both dead and alive!)

Philosophers of the quantum world, get to it!

The tiny, tiny radio

The World's Smallest Radio: Scientific American

Carbon nanotubes have already successfully been used as tiny radios, apparently. The implications:
The nanotube radio, its fabricators say, could be the basis for a range of revolutionary applications: hearing aids, cell phones and ­iPods small enough to fit completely within the ear canal. The nanoradio “would easily fit inside a living cell,” Zettl says. “One can envision interfaces to brain or muscle functions or radio-controlled devices moving through the bloodstream.”
I'm not entirely sure what the memory of an ear canal iPod would be based on, but it's a neat science fiction-y idea.

I like the first comment after the story:
Now the tinfoil hat battalions have something new to worry about; never mind the "implant that the ___ put in to control my brain", they can now fantasize about receiving nanoradio control devices from every vaccination or blood test!

Cats making people mad (and otherwise ill)

Research supports toxoplasmosis link to schizophrenia

Dr McConkey says: "It's highly unlikely that we will find one definitive trigger for schizophrenia as there are many factors involved, but our studies will provide a clue to how toxoplasmosis infection - which is more common than you might think - can impact on the development of the condition in some individuals.

"In addition, the ability of the parasite to make dopamine implies a potential link with other neurological conditions such as Parkinson's Disease, Tourette's syndrome and attention deficit disorders, says Dr McConkey. "We'd like to extend our research to look at this possibility more closely."

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An unexpected finding

Older father, younger mother, bad idea for baby? - Science, News - The Independent
The offspring of older fathers are more likely to do less well in intelligence tests than the children of younger men, scientists say, and it may be the result of genetic problems with the sperm of men over 45. The children of older mothers, by contrast, tend to fare better in intelligence tests than children with younger mothers. The researchers believe this may be the result of better nurturing by more mature women.
It is one of the anomalies of modern life that bodies are best for healthy procreation at a relatively young age, but emotional maturity lags quite far behind.

Stem cell musings

You just won the stem-cell war. Don't lose your soul. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

Saletan is routinely an interesting writer on science and bioethics, and this column is no exception.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Useless research update

Belief and the brain's 'God spot' - Science, News - The Independent
Scientists searching for the neural "God spot", which is supposed to control religious belief, believe that there is not just one but several areas of the brain that form the biological foundations of religious belief....
"Religious belief and behaviour are a hallmark of human life, with no accepted animal equivalent, and found in all cultures," said Professor Jordan Grafman, from the US National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke in Bethesda, near Washington. "Our results are unique in demonstrating that specific components of religious belief are mediated by well-known brain networks, and they support contemporary psychological theories that ground religious belief within evolutionary-adaptive cognitive functions."
Well, I am not entirely sure how one would ever be certain that there is "no accepted animal equivalent". We can be pretty confident that cats are atheists, but a good case could be made for dogs worshipping their owners.

But really, why does anyone really think that this research is worthwhile or beneficial? There are surely many psychiatric illnesses which are worth investigating very thoroughly with MRI and other probes; why waste time and money on research which is always going to be inconclusive and of no potential benefit?

You heard it here first (or elsewhere, maybe. And if it doesn't happen it wasn't mentioned here at all, OK?)

Famed pastor predicts imminent catastrophe

(Actually, there is another alleged prophesy I have been meaning to post about, and I will as soon as I can find it on the web again.)

More on Carbon Tax Vs Cap and trade

Technology Review: The Real Price of Obama's Cap-and-Trade Plan

Obama is planning on generating a lot of money from a cap and trade system. Sounds like building a budget on shaky foundations to me.

Anyhow, here's a good article listing succinctly the pros and cons of carbon tax vs cap and trade.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Remember, you saw it here first

There has been an unusual trend lately for Tim Blair, and now Andrew Bolt, to be posting the same videos that have appeared here months ago:

* Andrew Bolt today posts Youtube of dog with a ball throwing machine. Same video posted here in March 2008.

* On March 4, Tim Blair last week posts video of newscast in which a hamster is identified as a murder suspect. Same video had appeared here on 4 February 2009.

* Tim Blair posts the Youtube of the Mitchell & Webb "Bad Vicar" sketch on February 28, 2009. The same video was posted at Opinion Dominion on 11 April 2008.

At this rate, I figure that both Tim and Andrew are due to start believing in ocean acidification and the need to reduce CO2 by about May 2010.

Time for your bad ocean acidification news of the week

Proof on the Half Shell: A More Acid Ocean Corrodes Sea Life: Scientific American

The shells of tiny ocean animals known as foraminifera—specifically Globigerina bulloides—are shrinking as a result of the slowly acidifying waters of the Southern Ocean near Antarctica. ...

The researchers found that modern G. bulloides could not build shells as large as the ones their ancestors formed as recently as century ago. In fact, modern shells were 35 percent smaller than in the relatively recent past—
Not encouraging.

Getting down to the nitty gritty

Moon base: Location, location, location |

A pretty good article here speculating on the location and other practical details of a lunar outpost.

The lunar south pole still looks good:
The allure of Shackleton Crater is that it is relatively hospitable and practical. Explorers perched on its rim would experience a night of only 2 Earth days and 4 hours. The crater’s proximity to the moon’s day-night boundary – called the terminator – also makes it an ideal place to test technologies and find out what works and what doesn’t in both environments.
And here is a suggestion for another problem:

But habitats aren’t the only pieces of hardware that must be warmed. Robotic rovers and their batteries also need to survive. “We have a hard time keeping … trucks working in Siberia,” Dr. Ramachandran says. “We have no experience working at minus 150 degrees.”

The solution could be a “wadi” – a patch of lunar surface somewhat larger than a rover and covered with what is in effect a reflective tent. During the day, lenses would heat these strategically spaced wadis. As night nears, hardware would extend a reflective cover over the area – like tin foil over a turkey, shiny side down.

Sounds simple. But one of the main problems for humans is dealing with radiation for anyone needing to stay there for any length of time.

I don't know if this is being considered at all, but my idea is that building a covered framework over which a little bulldozer can gradually pile up a deep mound of dirt for cosmic ray protection might work. (The covering material itself could be airtight, or the whole interior could be sprayed with a sealant.) I would assume that the lower gravity means the framework can be considerably lighter than what you would need on earth.

This seems a lot simpler to me than the idea of baking lunar bricks in situ. You could be lucky and build such a shelter over a pre-existing little crater. Or maybe you just work on a low rise dome type structure. Maybe geodesic domes would work well?

I would be curious to know if this has been considered. Just send the cheque in the mail, NASA.

From the Jerusalem Post

My Word: In the holiday spirit | Columnists | Jerusalem Post:

In an op-ed in the Post on March 3, Michael Bar-Zohar noted that a survey published last month by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center indicates that 46.7 percent of the Palestinians believe that Hamas defeated Israel in the recent fighting in Gaza. On a visit to Egypt many years ago, I was taken aback to discover how many places marked the October 6 War 'victory.' I am not, however, surprised that Egypt - which did nothing to improve life in Gaza during the decades in which it was in control - does not want anything to do with its Palestinian brethren there even now. Let Israel open its border with Gaza, Egypt can't risk it, goes the common thinking in the Egyptian capital.

The terror attack in Cairo a week ago, in which a French schoolchild was killed, shows yet again that they do have reason to fear Islamization. Global jihad is, after all, global. But don't say it too loudly in London or Paris - you might offend the local Muslims.

Nothing like humility

Architect of desire: Frank Lloyd Wright's private life was even more unforgettable than his buildings

I recall from some documentary on him that FLW was an eccentric character with a convoluted love life that featured a gruesome axe murder, but I did not remember how much he liked himself:
When questioned about his vanity, Wright justified himself by saying: "Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility; I chose honest arrogance."

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Why not to believe in carbon capture & storage

Carbon capture and storage | Trouble in store | The Economist

Here's a detailed article from the Economist explaining the huge uncertainties and problems with carbon storage and capture. Some key points:

In 2005 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists that advises the United Nations on global warming, came up with a range of $14-91 for each tonne of emissions avoided through CCS. Last year, the IEA suggested that the price for the first big plants would be $40-90. McKinsey, a consultancy, has arrived at an estimate of €60-90, or $75-115.

Either way, that is more than the price of emissions in the European Union: about €10 a tonne. America does not have a carbon price at all yet. A bill defeated last year in the Senate would have yielded a carbon price as low as $30 in 2020, according to an official analysis. So CCS might not be financially worthwhile for years to come....

Omar Abbosh, of Accenture, a consultancy, says that carbon trading as practised in the EU and contemplated in America does not give enough certainty about future carbon prices to justify an investment in a CCS plant. Mr Paelinck of Alstom agrees: no board would risk spending €1 billion on one, he says, without generous subsidies.
The article indicates that the cost of individual CCS plants could be anything from $1 billion to $1.8 billion US dollars. (And that might be based on the fact that the USA apparently has a pre-built system of pipelines in their oil areas that could be used for transported the CO2. I assume Australia does not have anywhere near as extensive a system.)

And will it even work long term? Even small leaks would be a problem:
Carbon dioxide forms an acid when it dissolves in water. This acid can react with minerals to form carbonates, locking away the carbon in a relatively inert state. But it can also eat through the man-made seals or geological strata intended to keep it in place. A leakage rate of just 1% a year, Greenpeace points out, would lead to 63% of the carbon dioxide stored in any given reservoir being released within 100 years, almost entirely undoing the supposed environmental benefit.
That CCS is being promoted so heavily seems simply to be a triumph of an industry's self preservation instinct over common sense.

Turnbull worth reading

PM's cheap money shot | The Australian

Malcolm Turnbull's take on the origins of the economic crisis, and Rudd's silly summer essay on the topic, is pretty good.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Hooked on worms

Can Parasitic Hookworms Help In Treatment Of Multiple Sclerosis?

Get this for a cute acronym:
The WIRMS (Worms for Immune Regulation in MS) study ...
Some doctor probably sat up in bed and had a "eureka" moment when he thought of that.

Anyhow, the study itself is kind of interesting:
The £400,000, three-year project funded by the MS Society, aims to determine whether infection with a small and harmless number of the worms can lead to an improvement on the severity of MS over a 12 month period...

The 25 worms are microscopic and are introduced painlessly through a patch in the arm. They are then flushed out after nine months.
Given that cancers can be fought by the immune system too, is there any anti-cancer parasite out there to be found?

Watchmen not recommended

Geek boys everywhere who are into graphic novels seems to be all a-Twitter about the movie version of Watchmen, a movie with the odd distinction of featuring (amongst others) the first blue nude male superhero.

I'm no fan of the whole superhero genre, despite quite liking the last Spiderman. But Anthony Lane's review of Watchmen certainly puts me off any idea of seeing it (and is pretty funny.) Some highlights:
One lord of the genre is a glowering, hairy Englishman named Alan Moore, the coauthor of “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” and “V for Vendetta.” Both of these have been turned into motion pictures; the first was merely an egregious waste of money, time, and talent, whereas the second was not quite as enjoyable as tripping over barbed wire and falling nose first into a nettle patch...

“Watchmen,” like “V for Vendetta,” harbors ambitions of political satire, and, to be fair, it should meet the needs of any leering nineteen-year-old who believes that America is ruled by the military-industrial complex, and whose deepest fear—deeper even than that of meeting a woman who requests intelligent conversation—is that the Warren Commission may have been right all along...
But here's the reason I won't see it:
The result is perfectly calibrated for its target group: nobody over twenty-five could take any joy from the savagery that is fleshed out onscreen, just as nobody under eighteen should be allowed to witness it. You want to see Rorschach swing a meat cleaver repeatedly into the skull of a pedophile, and two dogs wrestle over the leg bone of his young victim? Go ahead.
Thanks, but no thanks.

UPDATE: here's Dana Stevens in Slate on the violence in the movie:
Whenever a fight begins (and there's one about every 15 minutes in this 160-minute movie), brace yourself for an abundance of narratively pointless bone-crunching, finger-twisting, limb-sawing, and skull-hacking. These extreme sports are often filmed in Matrix-style slow motion, a technique that tends to grind the story to a halt. Like the money shots in porn movies, Snyder's action scenes are an end in themselves—gratifying if you like that sort of thing, gross if you don't.
Yet the movie is getting a 65% approval rating at Rottentomatoes. Do you ever get the feeling that reviewers (and the public at large,) have become just too immune to graphic movie violence?

UPDATE 2: The two Salon movie reviewers discuss the violence in this video. (One of them thinks highly of the movie, the other doesn't.) Whenever you get a reviewer talking of a violent sequence being "right on the edge" of what's acceptable to depict, (and that is from the guy who likes the movie,) it's almost certainly a sign that it is, in fact, highly objectionable and over that edge.

UPDATE 3: To my surprise, both David Stratton & Margaret Pomeranz on At the Movies liked it a lot, and hardly mentioned the violence. Oh well, just confirms my view that they are both fairly erratic reviewers. I can't say that I reliably find either of them align with my tastes.