Sunday, August 30, 2009

At last

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | 'Major win' for Japan opposition

Can you imagine the same party governing Australia for nearly 54 years?

Visit to Narnia (South East Queensland version)

Of course, I had to make the trip to Cleveland Point to have a look at the full-scale Dawn Treader, built for the third Narnia movie. It turned out to be a very pleasant family afternoon out.

Cleveland and the southern bayside parts of Greater Brisbane are not areas I get to all that often, but it is a very pleasant area for a drive. Lunch was had at a much better-than-average quality fish and chip place at Raby Bay, which has a row of nice looking outdoor/indoor eateries overlooking the boat harbour. Most satisfactory.

Then it was onto Cleveland Point. You can get very close to the ship:

and there are a lot of people making the trip to have a look.

Filming has not yet started on the ship, so I don't know how close people will be allowed when that happens.

Here is a better side view of the ship, although there is a fair bit of machinery in the way (as always, click to enlarge):

As you can see from the men standing on the ground on the far side of it, it's really full scale. Compared to the various book cover illustrations over the years, it certainly lives up to expectations.

You can't see it so clearly in the photo, but there does appear to be a purple furled sail on board now.

They were apparently testing the rocking mechanism for the ship today, as you can see from the (rather poor quality Blogger-ified) video below:

All terribly interesting, at least for someone who holds the Narnia films in high regard.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Famous actor sees famous ghost?

Patrick Stewart saw ghost performing Waiting for Godot - Telegraph

Would be good to hear it in Stewart's own words, though.

Noted for future reference

Patient Money - Treatments for Erectile Dysfunction Go Beyond a Pill -

An article all about alternatives to Viagra and similar drugs, which don't always work anyway:
Even among the name-brand drugs, which also include Cialis and Levitra, the medications do not work for about half of the men with E.D.
Just getting healthier can help:
In a recent study of men with E.D., or at risk for developing it, researchers in Italy found that the men could improve their erections by losing weight, improving their diet and exercising more frequently. After two years of significant lifestyle changes, 58 percent of the men had normal erectile function, according to the study, which was published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine in January.
But if that still doesn't work, you can always go for the needle:
If the pills don’t work for you, you might want to try self-administered injections of alprostadil, a drug that helps blood vessels expand and facilitates erections. Granted, this may sound onerous, but the shot, which is sold under the brand names Edex and Caverject, is done with a fine needle, feels no worse than a pinprick and produces an erection that can last up to four hours, according to doctors who recommend it.
Four hours? You would kind of start worrying at the 3 hour 45 minute mark, I reckon.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Fictional 1930's lawyer not modern enough

Atticus Finch and Southern liberalism : The New Yorker

As mentioned here before, I (like millions of other people) hold "To Kill a Mockingbird", both as a novel and movie, in very high regard. Thus, it is always interesting to read an article considering the work in a new way.

The above New Yorker piece starts well, explaining the nature of racial politics in the South in the 1950's.

But then it takes a strange turn when it starts noting, and seemingly agreeing with, criticism of the fictional Atticus Finch for not having the "top down" civil rights activist attitude that came into being in the 1960's. The article provides quotes from the novel that, quite accurately, show Finch as believing racism would be overcome by getting people to realise the error of not recognising the humanity of their black neighbours. As the articles says:
[In relation to the guilty finding in the centrepiece trial in the story] If Finch were a civil-rights hero, he would be brimming with rage at the unjust verdict. But he isn’t. He’s not Thurgood Marshall looking for racial salvation through the law. He’s Jim Folsom, looking for racial salvation through hearts and minds...
Finch will stand up to racists. He’ll use his moral authority to shame them into silence. He will leave the judge standing on the sidewalk while he shakes hands with Negroes. What he will not do is look at the problem of racism outside the immediate context of Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Levy, and the island community of Maycomb, Alabama.
How much sense does this make, though, when Mockingbird is set in the 1930's? The article mentions the period of the novel, but never seems to acknowledge that it may be quite unrealistic to have a small town lawyer sprouting a civil rights activist agenda in that setting.

Besides which, how can you really object to the philosophy of Atticus Finch when it is, at its core, the true explanation of racism? The book is so appealing partly because of the truth people recognise in that.

The article ends on what I think is a very peculiar note. It criticises the way the novel ends with Atticus Finch agreeing to let the Sheriff lie to the town about how the villain died. (He will say that it was an accidental self-inflicted stab wound, whereas the reader knows the reculsive Boo Radley did it to save Scout.) Here's what the article says:
“Scout,” Finch says to his daughter, after he and Sheriff Tate have cut their little side deal. “Mr. Ewell fell on his knife. Can you possibly understand?”

Understand what? That her father and the Sheriff have decided to obstruct justice in the name of saving their beloved neighbor the burden of angel-food cake? Atticus Finch is faced with jurors who have one set of standards for white people like the Ewells and another set for black folk like Tom Robinson. His response is to adopt one set of standards for respectable whites like Boo Radley and another for white trash like Bob Ewell. A book that we thought instructed us about the world tells us, instead, about the limitations of Jim Crow liberalism in Maycomb, Alabama.
This is just silly. Boo Radley is not your average citizen, for one thing, and the Sheriff's decision makes perfect sense, and is perfectly just, in terms of the story.

What the hell does this article's author want Atticus Finch to do - tell the Sheriff "No, no, that's not right. I want you to take Boo, the man who has been so cripplingly shy that he hasn't come out of his house in daylight for the last 20 years, but nonetheless just saved my daughter's life, down to your office in the morning for a good and thorough statement to be taken"? Yeah, like readers would think that makes emotional sense.

Admission of a creepy practice

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | China admits death row organ use

According to the China Daily newspaper, executed prisoners currently provide two-thirds of all transplant organs.

The government is now launching a voluntary donation scheme, which it hopes will also curb the illegal trafficking in organs.

The truth behind Andrew's holiday

What's this? Andrew Bolt unexpectedly up and left for a month long holiday in Europe to (ostensibly) celebrate his 50th birthday.

Yet at the very same time:
Britain's climate campers set up their annual protest camp yesterday on Blackheath, the historic London open space that was key in the peasants' revolt.

The 1,000-plus green activists are camped this morning on the fields where Wat Tyler's peasant army assembled for its assault on The City of London in June 1381. And they are planning their own assault – on what they see as the companies, institutions and government departments helping to cause global warming (or not doing enough to stop it).

Co-incidence? In my semi-comedic fantasies, Andrew mixes it up with a bunch of semi-feral climate change advocates, either as a convert or a spy.

Anyhow, his column on turning 50 contained a pleasing humility, I thought. The only odd thing is how it doesn't seem to extend to the prospect that his opinion on climate change might be wrong.

100% female domination

Ant has given up sex completely, researchers say

Add this to the list of things I didn't know:
The complete asexuality of a widespread fungus-gardening ant, the only ant species in the world known to have dispensed with males entirely, has been confirmed by a team of Texas and Brazilian researchers.

Most social insects—the wasps, ants and bees—are relatively used to daily life without males. Their colonies are well run by swarms of sterile sisters lorded over by an egg-laying queen. But, eventually, all social insect species have the ability to produce a crop of males who go forth in the world to fertilize new queens and propagate.

Queens of the ant Mycocepurus smithii reproduce without fertilization and males appear to be completely absent, report Christian Rabeling, Ulrich Mueller and their Brazilian colleagues in PLoS ONE this week.

"Animals that are completely asexual are relatively rare, which makes this is a very interesting ant," says Rabeling, an ecology, evolution and behavior graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin. "Asexual species don't mix their genes through recombination, so you expect harmful mutations to accumulate over time and for the species to go extinct more quickly than others. They don't generally persist for very long over evolutionary time."
If I was in a wittier mood, I guess I could come up with some comment about what a completely female ant society must be like to live in. But I'm not.

On Venezuela

Venezuela: The true cost of cheap gas |

The Christian Science Monitor has a short item on the cost of gasoline in Venezuela:
Gasoline doesn’t flow from fountains in Venezuela, but it might as well. At 4 cents a gallon, the country has the cheapest gas in the world: Bottled water is 67 times more expensive.

But cheap gas comes at a cost, mainly for the government. The Chávez government is believed to be subsidizing consumption to the tune of $8 billion a year.

Chavez may be left wing, but he obviously hasn't yet caught on with the idea that carbon should have a price..

A few weeks ago, there was a whole half hour about the country on Foreign Correspondent. I didn't see all, but it was very interesting. It certainly showed it as a dirt poor country.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

People need gravity to reproduce?

Egg tests find space may be tough place for humans to conceive babies | The Japan Times Online

It is a fascinating topic if you have an interest in the long term prospects for humanity to expand off-planet: how will low gravity affect reproduction.

If this Japanese mouse study is anything to go by, sex in zero-gee might be athletic fun, but it may be bad for fertile eggs:

...the group reported that the growth of fertile eggs slows in a near-zero-gravity environment, lowering the birthrate by half when the eggs are put back into the wombs of mice.

The eggs of humans, as a mammal, could face the same problem, the scientists said...

"If we find out how much gravity is needed for a (human) fertile egg to grow, we may be able to know if a baby can be born at a lunar base," said Teruhiko Wakayama of Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Kobe, who headed the joint group with Hiroshima University.
What I'm most curious to know is whether mice (or humans) conceived and born on the Moon will look different and be capable of adapting to full Earth gravity. The suspicion could be that a low gravity human would grow tall and thin, but nature has a way of confounding such predictions, so maybe they would be small instead. As someone somewhere has suggested before, maybe grey aliens are the time travelling descendants of off-planet humanity...

Getting fat from fasting

Gulfnews: Warning against unhealthy eating habits after fasting

I think it has been reported often that the weird eating habits that the month of Ramadan fasting induces often leads to weight increase, which seems a little bit inconsistent with the point of the exercise. As the Gulf News article above notes:

People tend to get more obese and diabetic due to irregular eating and overeating after ending the fast, a senior doctor from the Ministry of Health warned, advising people to eat healthy during the Holy Month.

Fasting during Ramadan can improve a person's health, but if the correct diet is not followed, can possibly worsen it, it warns. The deciding factor is not the fast itself, but rather what is consumed in the non-fasting hours, the Ministry said.


But what about this new-age-ish claimed health benefit for Ramadan fasting:

Dr Prem Jagyasi, managing director of ExHealth, the organisers of the initiative, said Ramadan is a great opportunity to focus on bringing back a balanced and healthy lifestyle in people's lives who do not normally watch their eating habits. "Ramadan requires to give the stomach a break, and by doing so one will be able to break down and expel the collected toxins from body," he said, but notes that it is very important to understand the proper practice of eating healthy.

Is there any scientific justification at all for believing fasting eliminates "toxins" from the body? I would be surprised if there was.

The unlikely economics of carbon capture

Carbon capture project in West Virginia illustrates obstacles to 'clean' coal --
AEP executives estimate that the cost of carbon capture for a modest-size coal plant of about 235 megawatts would start at $700 million. That works out to about $100 for a ton of carbon dioxide, far above the projections made by the Environmental Protection Agency about prices under a cap-and-trade scheme similar to one passed by the House in June. MIT put the cost of carbon capture and storage at $50 to $70 a ton. (The Waxman-Markey bill would give the first six gigawatts of plants -- equal to about seven average-size plants -- a $90-per-ton subsidy in the form of free allowances.)

Capture-and-storage devices also require large amounts of energy. The Alstom approach uses about 15% of the power plant's energy output; other processes use as much as 30%. That means the utility must buy other energy sources to cover the shortfall. (The energy lost is part of the $700-million cost, AEP executives said.)
Obama is apparently being advised that "There is no credible pathway towards prudent greenhouse gas stabilization targets without CO2 emissions reduction from existing coal power plants."

I can't see it working.

Do not provoke the cows

Hoofed and dangerous: Britain's killer cows

Four people have been trampled to death by cows in just over eight weeks this summer, prompting British farmers and the Ramblers Association to warn yesterday of the potential dangers.

The spate of incidents is regarded as highly unusual; in the past eight years there have only been 18 deaths in total caused by cattle of all kinds – including incidents involving bulls, which have always been known to present risks.

When chickens ruled the earth

Canadian scientist aims to turn chickens into dinosaurs

Hans Larsson, the Canada Research Chair in Macro Evolution at Montreal's McGill University, said he aims to develop dinosaur traits that disappeared millions of years ago in birds.

Larsson believes by flipping certain genetic levers during a chicken embryo's development, he can reproduce the dinosaur anatomy, he told AFP in an interview.

I didn't think much was known about how to "flip" genetic levers, let alone specific ones.

I can't imagine the likes of PETA being too impressed with this, if it will involve lots of deformed chicks being born.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A quick quote

The 10 most historically inaccurate movies - Times Online

Mel Gibson movies keep featuring in this list, and I like this line from the article about The Patriot:
Gibson (rugby) tackles history again with his turn as an honest farmer drawn into the American Revolutionary War, which historian David Hackett Fischer claimed in the New York Times “is to history as Godzilla was to biology.”

Goldilocks revised

Anne Fine deplores 'gritty realism' of modern children's books - Times Online

So, one English writer of children's fiction says too much of it is too dark and depressing.

Another [Children's Laureate (!) Anthony Browne] disagrees, and tells us about his worryingly re-imagined Goldilocks:
“There are both types of endings, happier and unhappier. I prefer open endings. I don’t think we are living in an age of depressing, dark endings. If you look at Jacqueline Wilson, she does deal in gritty realism, but her books don’t lack aspiration.”

He recently changed the ending to his forthcoming book — Me and You, a retelling of Goldilocks and the Three Bears in which Goldilocks comes from an impoverished background — so that the ending was less miserable. “My original version had Goldilocks being chased out of the bears’ house and her ending up on bleak, dark streets. I decided to give it a more ambiguous ending, so now she is running toward something that may or may not be her mother.”

So, I suppose her impoverished background explains why she had to go into the bears' house in search of food? Here I thought kids liked to think she was just a naughty girl.

And what is this about her running towards "something" that might be her mother? Does he intend the book to be some sort of psychological test where you can judge your child's outlook by what they think the ending means?

Sack him, whoever has the job of appointing Children's Laureate.


Is Yemen Chewing Itself to Death? - TIME

Well, I knew little of the habit of khat chewing until reading the above fascinating article. Apparently, Yemen is hooked on this legal-for-Muslims alcohol substitute:
Khat is popular in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and the Horn of Africa, but in Yemen it's a full-blown national addiction. As much as 90% of men and 1 in 4 women in Yemen are estimated to chew the leaves, storing a wad in one cheek as the khat slowly breaks down into the saliva and enters the bloodstream. The newcomer to Yemen's ancient capital can't miss the spectacle of almost an entire adult population presenting cheeks bulging with cud, leaving behind green confetti of discarded leaves and branches. ...

At around $5 for a bag (the amount typically consumed by a single regular user in a day) it's an expensive habit in a country where about 45% of the population lives below the poverty line. (Most families spend more money on khat than on food, according to government figures.)...

"You sit up discussing all your problems and think you've solved everything, but in fact you haven't done anything in the last four hours, because you've just been chewing khat and all your problems actually got worse," says Adel al-Shujaa, a professor of political science at Sana'a University and the head of the Yemen Without Khat Association. Plus, he says, "all the decisions you've made are bad because you've made them while on khat."
And there are other problems, like the water it diverts from useful things, such as growing food. What a problem.

RealClimate looks into Plimer's questions

RealClimate: Plimer’s homework assignment

A detailed examination here of Ian Plimer's questions to George Monbiot, for those who are following the story.

Andrew Bolt seems to be avoiding it, for one.

Kennedy strikes a pose

St Mary's in Exile of the Trades and Labor Council has had a new website up for a few weeks now, but they seem very slow to post new videos of the weekly liturgies. It wouldn't be because, as far as I can guess from the last one I viewed, congregation numbers are dwindling somewhat?

Anyhow, for more amusement, have a look here to see Peter Kennedy in full Christ-like pose in a photographic work entered in the Blake prize for religious art. George Pell has noted "There is almost an element of kitsch about it", and he's not far wrong.

For more self-aggrandisement from the supposed leadership of the group, have a look at Terry Fitzpatrick's article in July Green Left Weekly:
On April 19, a huge mob of St Mary’s people made a pilgrimage out of a church and into the Trades and Labor Council (TLC) building, home of the Queensland Council of Unions.

They walked out of the church to the TLC, 200 metres down the road in silent vigil with candles and lanterns, banners and balloons - not unlike the Jews of the Old Testament escaping from the slavery of the Egyptians to the liberation of the Promised Land (minus the balloons).
As for the Church they didn't want to be told they were no longer a part of:
We too feel liberated from the shackles of a failing institution caught up in dogmas and creeds that belong to another age. We felt it was time to take a stand from the constant bullying we have experienced for many years.
He then goes on to list the things for which they have been "bullied": blessing gays and lesbian relationships, not using "sexist" language, signing a treaty with local aborigines.

With so much mistreatment, why did they ever want to stay?

Well deserved

Regular marijuana usage robs men of sexual highs - New Scientist
Stoners may be trading sexual highs for the chemical kind. Males who smoke marijuana daily are four times more likely to have trouble reaching orgasm than men who don't inhale, finds a new study of 8,656 Aussies...

Even though many male smokers experienced sexual problems, they reported more partners than non-smokers. Marijuana users were twice as likely to have had two or more sex partners in the previous year than men who didn't smoke pot.

Pitts' team found an even stronger trend for increased sexual activity among female smokers, who were also seven times more likely to have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted infection in the last year than non-smokers. However, female smokers had no more problems in the bedroom than abstainers, Pitts' team found.
It's interesting to read the comments that follow the story, many of which are somewhat amusing:
Perhaps stoners are just twats and that is why these problems occur. Yeah - from those I've known that hypothesis fits the data pretty well. I never met a stoner who wasn't a total wanker. Someone needs to do the necessary research to confirm it.
Here are my (unscientific) theories

1) more partners

the stoners just can't be bothered to put up with each other's crap all the time and thus split more readily

2)trouble reaching orgasm

the stoner just can't stop thinking about that new cushion recently purchased, how do they make them that fluffy!?

Can't help myself

Look, I'll stop obsessing about the fact that Inglorious Basterds got good reviews and has opened strongly. Any day now, I promise.

But in the meantime, I have a few observations:

* The geography of critical reaction is puzzling. Reviews from the United States were good overall, with the notable exceptions of the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the New Yorker and Slate.

Yet in England, it was hard to find a good review. The Guardian, The Times, The Independent, the Telegraph are all bad reviews. The Times, for example:
"When we finally get to it (Tarantino has never been one to cut to the chase when he can masturbate through endless pages of smarty-pants dialogue) , the film’s climax proves to be its downfall."
This surprises me, as I hate most other cultural movements in England at the moment, but at least their critics seem well and truly "over" Tarantino.

I thought the explanation may be that the closer you get geographically to the reality of the War, the more offensive the film may look. But in Germany, the reviews are apparently enthusiastic. Oh well, it's not as if German sensibilities were ever easy to comprehend. I suspect that giggling about the moustache alone would have prevented Hitler's rise to power in any other European country.

In Australia, it's all positive reviews as far as the eye can see. You would have thought, given our cultural position straddled somewhere between the United States and England, there would be some negative review somewhere, but there isn't, as far as I can tell. Odd.

* The fans are a worry: those sophisticates who aren't worried about the empty rattling sound made by the space in his head where Tarantino's maturity should reside should at least worry about the types of fanboy they are probably sitting next to in the cinema. I base this on the ridiculously aggressive response you see in comments whenever there is a bad Tarantino review. The worst ones I saw on Rottentomatoes, referring to a desire that the reviewer's wife be raped, have (I think) now been deleted. Let's face it, a lot of his fans get off on the violence.

Full marks to Kenneth Turan at LA Times who wrote:
"As it goes on and on, 'Inglorious Basterds' feels increasingly like the kind of hollow, fanboyish cinema that is all the rage these days."
"Hollow" seems the perfect word when talking about Tarantino.

* What is it with the Left and movie violence now? Back in the 1960's and 1970's, it seemed that it was primarily the Left that used to disdain unnecessarily graphic movie violence. Revenge and vigilante movies were (correctly I think) seen as an angry right wing phenomena, at a time in which there were still identifiable right wingers working in Hollywood.

Now, virtually all reviewers, and all of Hollywood, come across as Left wing, yet they have embraced a nerdy director with a revenge and violence obsession. They have also, more generally, made their peace with graphic violence and gore, no matter what the context or reason for for it. Even apart from Tarantino, think of the Saw movies and the other examples of an especially grotesque and sadistic slasher genre that has come into its own in the last 10 years.

Yet, as with the extensive amount of real sex in Shortbus, having seen something once or twice seems to mean critics - even those who presumably might be somewhat middle of the road in their politics - won't question the morality or wisdom of what's on the screen anymore. The only issue you will sometimes seen raised is the feminist aspect of a story. A movie perceived as anti-feminist will be still be in for an ideological hiding, but that's about the extent that lefties worry about movie morality now.

Well, that's just not right. Sure, some critics take Tarantino to task for his morally vacuous use of violence, but it's damn few, and to Lefty luvvies like David Stratton and Margaret Pomeranz it doesn't matter a hoot.

Grow some moral testicles again, Lefties, and make a call on the morality or social effect of what you are watching on the screen for a change.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Unpleasant household duties

Yes, that's how my Sunday morning was spent - in the roof space tracking down a dead animal which had chosen - with a sense of revenge, no doubt - to die directly above the linen cupboard. Hence, when getting new towels on Saturday night, we were greeted with a strong dose of dead animal smell. I don't think it has gotten into the sheets and blankets, but it's a little hard to tell.

At least this time the culprit was easily found: as expected it was a dead rat. They are frequent noisy visitors to the roof space during winter. Baits laid a couple of months ago evidently were still doing their job. It was full of maggots, so at least I got to it in time to avoid the mystery plague of flies getting through the exhaust fan into the house which we have had before.

On two previous occasions, dead smells from beyond the ceiling have been hard to find, mainly because there is fibreglass insulation up there. When you think about it, putting insulation in the ceiling, while no doubt sensible, must look to rats like a gigantic housing estate made especially for their benefit: rat-scale acres of nice, soft fluffy stuff under foot that's easy to tunnel through and make a nest out of.

Anyway, while I was up there I did move around more insulation, and found two other mummified rat bodies. If only they made roof cats....

Speaking of dead bodies, and apologies for making light of a human tragedy, didn't that American model who was (apparently) killed by her husband looked remarkably like an android kewpie doll, or something artificial, in the most common photo the media seems to be using.

A slight delay

Too busy to post til this evening, I think.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Tarantino antidote

The Dawn Treader – Now with Tail (Updated!) | Narnia Fans

While I continue to gnash my teeth over the fact that critical success presumably means Tarantino will get to make another film, I can take some solace from the fact that, not too far from my house, they have built a full scale Dawn Treader for the next Narnia movie.

Good pictures of it are at the link above.

They are also allowing people to visit and watch filming from 31 August.

Very cool.

UPDATE: this very Catholic blog, which you can get to via the above link, has many, many more photos. One thing I am curious about: as you can see from some of the photos, the tide goes out a fair way at this part of Moreton Bay, leaving an un-photogenic rock-and-mud flat behind. Even when the tide is in, the water is not particularly blue and clear close to shore. How do they get around that when filming? Special effect sparkling ocean inserted later?


Thursday, August 20, 2009

The strangest bridge

300kg man trapped in Brisbane apartment

What makes this story noteworthy is that it was not your normal "apartment" that this guy had to be rescued from - it was a residence inside Brisbane's Walter Taylor bridge.

I think nearly everyone in Brisbane knows that the towers at either end of the old bridge are rented out and occupied. (I once drove over it while people were at a party on a balcony on the inner side of the towers.) But for people not from Brisbane who are curious as to what it looks like, here's a good photo.

It really seems a quite unique place. The fact that a person weighing nearly 4 times me lives there just adds to the fascination.

The navel gazed

The male gaze: I see it at Larvatus Prodeo

Well, Larvatus Prodeo has a long thread about why there are few Australian women political bloggers.

It is, without doubt, one of the most tedious threads ever to appear on LP. (Even a Tim Train appearance makes no difference.)

I'm feeling cranky today, so may I suggest: maybe it's because the current limited number of Australian women bloggers with overtly political interests come across as humourless and dour commentators who (as a group) span the political and feminist ideological field all the way from A to B? What women would want to join in that jolly crowd?

Further proof of English madness

Outdoor kitchens - the next 'in' thing - Telegraph

Fancy-smanchy outdoor barbies for outdoor entertaining in England? For those two nights a year the evening weather is enticing, I suppose. What a waste.


Microsoft asks court to hold off on Word ban
Microsoft Corp. is asking the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit to allow it to keep selling Word software as it fights an unfavorable patent ruling.

The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Texas found Microsoft infringed on a patent held by a Canadian company, i4i LLP. Last week, the judge ordered Microsoft to pay $290 million and to stop selling copies of its word processing program that use the patented technology within 60 days.

The patent relates to the way Word 2003 and 2007 let users customize document encoding.
I still get the horrors when I have to work in Word, compared to using my beloved Wordperfect.

You know what really annoys me? I sometimes have young people in my office who have only ever used Word, and think it bizarre that I am a holdout for Wordperfect. (Mind you, every Word user who tries Wordperfect picks it up with no training and find it quite intuitive.) But when I have a formatting problem with Word that I can't work out, and go to these university graduates who have used Word all of their lives, 9 times out of 10 they can't work out the problem either. They can't identify why Word is doing it, and either give up or (at most) suggest a complicated and arcane work around.

The big defenders of the product rarely know how to get around a problem when using it.

There's no way in the world anyone is going to convince me that Word is a better program than Wordperfect.

Just for the record

State of the Climate | Global Analysis | July 2009

The global ocean SST for July 2009 was the warmest on record for the second consecutive month, 0.59°C (1.06°F) above the 20th century average of 16.4°C (61.5°F). This broke the previous July record set in 1998. Sea surface temperatures during July 2009 were warmer than average across much of the world's oceans, with the exception of cooler-than-average conditions across parts of the North Atlantic Ocean and the southern oceans. Sea surface temperature anomalies in all Niño regions continued to warm during July 2009, where the monthly temperatures were more than 0.5°C (0.9°F) above average. If El Niño conditions continue to mature as projected by NOAA, global temperatures are likely to continue to threaten previous record highs. Please see the July 2009 ENSO discussion for additional information.
Mind you, there has been discussion in at least one skeptical blog about a new paper arguing that the net flow of heat in and out of the oceans switches around quickly, which (they say) is inconsistent with the proposition that the oceans contain heat that is "in the pipeline".

I don't think I have seen any commentary about this from the AGW side of the street, but I assume it is coming.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

When physics and philosophy collide

0901.4255v2.pdf (application/pdf Object)

The arXiv essay above is given the following abstract:
The claim that the observation of a violation of a Bell inequality leads to an alleged alternative between nonlocality and non-realism is annoying because of the vagueness of the second term.
Yes, this is one of the fun things about modern physics: they can't even decide what "real" means. Talk about going back to your basics.

For those with a spare $8 million

Third Most Complete T-Rex to Be Auctioned in Vegas

Of course, it could end up being bought by a museum, but not necessarily:
At least 20 institutions have shown interest, “but then there’s always the elite that have a lot of money and like unique and unusual items, especially the Hollywood types,” he said. “There are a couple of major actors that are collectors of dinosauria.”

The anaesthetisation of good taste continues

Inglourious Basterds Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes

Hey, what's this? Initial reviews from Cannes were very mixed, with quite a high degree of negativity in many. But now that more critics have seen it, the positive reviews are far outnumbering the negative. Yes, once again the director who is so easy to dislike both personally (have you seen him in interviews?) and aesthetically is still selling glossy trash and violence to the critics and they are still (by and large) lapping it up. (I'm not so sure it will be a huge hit at the box office, though.)

For me, the effect of his oeuvre is like a cultural anaesthetisation of good taste and decency in cinema. A movie can have tension, wit and excitement without being graphically violent and morally vacuous, but Quentin doesn't seem to know that.

Of course, there are some critics who have come to dislike him, and the best negative review so far is from David Denby in the New Yorker:
Like all the director’s work after “Jackie Brown,” the movie is pure sensation. It’s disconnected from feeling, and an eerie blankness—it’s too shallow to be called nihilism—undermines even the best scenes....

Moral callousness has been part of Tarantino’s style in the past. In “Pulp Fiction,” his merry roundelay set among Los Angeles lowlifes, the aggressive acts that the characters commit against one another are so abrupt and extreme that they become funny. The movie’s outrageous panache gave the audience license to enjoy the violence as lawless entertainment. But, in “Basterds,” Tarantino is mucking about with a tragic moment of history....

Tarantino’s hyper-violent narrative reveals merely that he still daydreams like a teen-ager....

The film is skillfully made, but it’s too silly to be enjoyed, even as a joke. Tarantino may think that he is doing Jews a favor by launching this revenge fantasy (in the burning theatre, working-class Jewish boys get to pump Hitler and Göring full of lead), but somehow I doubt that the gesture will be appreciated. Tarantino has become an embarrassment: his virtuosity as a maker of images has been overwhelmed by his inanity as an idiot de la cinémathèque.
I have never quite understood why the media gives such a juvenile director so much attention. For example, he gets a big spread by Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic this month. (It's worth reading merely to confirm how immature Tarantino sounds.)

Goldberg seemingly enjoys the movie as showing Nazi revenge that he used to fantasise about, but later has reservations:
When I came out of the screening room the night before our interview, I was so hopped up on righteous Jewish violence that I was almost ready to settle the West Bank—and possibly the East Bank. But when my blood cooled, I began to think about the morality of kosher porn in the context of current Middle East politics. Some of this was informed by my own experience in the Israeli army, in which I saw my fellow Jewish soldiers do moral things—such as risking their lives to prevent the murder of innocent Jews—as well as immoral things, like beating the hell out of Palestinians because they could.

When Tarantino asked me how I thought his film would be received in Israel—he’s visiting for the first time this summer, to promote the film—I told him that Israelis, who have actual experience with physical power (in a way that most Jews over the course of the past 2,000 years did not), might not take to the film in the way that many of their American cousins might. Some Israeli liberals, including the country’s many filmmakers, might not like his movie very much at all.

Well, revenge movies have never appealed to me. The only movie that I really liked that had a degree of a personal revenge as a theme was probably The Untouchables. (But even then, it was more a matter of spontaneous taking-justice-into-his-own-hands type of thing.) The whole vigilante/avenger thing with Charles Bronson or Clint Eastwood never appealed.

So I am sure there will be no need for me to reconsider the value of this latest movie. As for the rest of the world: I feel confident that the intrinsic low value of Tarantino's work will be fully appreciated in retrospect.

UPDATE: a Salon blog goes at length into the Goldberg article and the question of whether this movie is "good for Jews". Certainly the comments that follow indicate that a large number of the public hate Tarantino and see through him better than your average critic. It also links to an amusingly vicious take on Tarantino and Inglorious Basterds in particular.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Power to the Moon

Technology Review: A Lunar Nuclear Reactor

Thank you for not suggesting that

I like this bit from the MSNBC story on some more recently released British Defence UFO files:
The head of the ministry's UFO desk wrote briefing notes in 1993 reporting a spate of sightings in southwest England and speculating whether they might be connected to Aurora, a secret U.S. spy plane whose existence has never been officially admitted.

Atop one of his letters, someone scrawled: "Thank you. I suggest you now drop this subject."

G&T considered

Gin and tonic: the drink that puts the fizz into Britain - Telegraph

Yes, here at Opinion Dominion we have long considered the gin and tonic the perfect pre-dinner drink.

As someone in this article notes, lime is the better citrus to use, which basically means that, unless you are in a very upmarket bar, you will make a better one at home. (Unlike beer, where the quality runs in the opposite direction.)

In fact, it was just last weekend that I was using home grown lime in my G&T, and commented to my wife how good it was instead of lemon. Cheers.

Mixed up man

Richard O’Brien: Rocky Horror? It was all about my mother - Times Online

The success of Rocky Horror, and its continual revival on stage, has always been a major puzzle to me. It has one catchy song, and is not very funny. Its point, or aim, is distinctly fuzzy. Why dedicated heterosexuals with no inclination to cross dress flock to it makes very little sense.

Last year (I think) it's writer, Englishman Richard O'Brien, appeared on ABC's amusing quiz show Spicks and Specks, and was as camp as could be. Well, I was hardly surprised.

Yet, as this interview in The Times above shows, he is even more confused and confounding than expected. (Has a son, even.)

I still don't forgive him for Rocky Horror, though, no matter how unpleasant his mother was.

Bad methane news

As Arctic Ocean warms, megatonnes of methane bubble up - Environment - New Scientist
Over 250 plumes of gas have been discovered bubbling up from the sea floor to the west of the Svalbard archipelago, which lies north of Norway. The bubbles are mostly methane, which is a greenhouse gas much more powerful than carbon dioxide.
Interestingly, though, the methane in this particular area is not making to the top of the ocean. Instead, it dissolves and partly contributes to ocean acidification:

None of the plumes the team saw reached the surface, so the methane was not escaping into the atmosphere and thus contributing to climate change – not in that area, at least. "Bigger bubbles of methane make it all the way to the top, but smaller ones dissolve," says Minshull.

Just because it fails to reach the surface doesn't mean the methane is harmless, though, as some of it gets converted to carbon dioxide. The CO2 then dissolves in seawater and makes the oceans more acidicMovie Camera.

And it is possible that other, more vigorous plumes are releasing methane into the atmosphere. The team studied only one group of plumes, which were in a small area and were erratic.

"Almost none of the Arctic has been surveyed in a way that might detect a gas release like this," Minshull says.

I wonder, though, whether this is something that might have been going on before the waters increased in temperature by 1 degree. Maybe just no one was looking before.

Continuing the bird theme

Man v bird: the brush turkey battle

Brush turkeys are headed south, apparently. This article talks about how they live:
...with female brush turkeys laying 20 to 30 eggs a year, the population is sure to continue thriving, even though mysteriously, no-one looks after the chicks.

"These are very unusual animals. Basically, the eggs get laid into the bottom of a combust heap, they dig their way to the surface and simply no-one looks after them - absolutely no parental care," he said.

"There's no parents to teach them what a cat looks like or what food is, or anything.

We had a chick turn up in our yard earlier this year. Unfortunately, it became a victim of our dog, right in front of the kids too.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Reviewing fun

The Time Traveler's Wife. - By Dana Stevens - Slate Magazine

Eric Bana's latest movie is receiving some pretty bad reviews in the States. This is not an entirely bad thing, as it allows critics to be pretty witty. This opening paragraph from Dana Stevens, for example:
Physicist Dave Goldberg has a fascinating Slate piece this week on how The Time Traveler's Wife stacks up against other movies with a time-travel theme. In a survey of physicists' speculations on the possibility of time travel, he mentions one theory involving "gargantuan cosmic strings […] of matter of almost unimaginable density and length." That about sums up The Time Traveler's Wife, adapted from Audrey Niffenegger's best-selling novel by Bruce Joel Rubin (who also wrote Ghost, another metaphysically inflected love story). I'll take Goldberg's word that the movie obeys the laws of Einsteinian physics (no alternate universes, you can't change history, etc.), but it's in flagrant violation of the rules of narrative logic, character development, or the most basic audience satisfaction.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Surprising bird news

BBC - Earth News - Blue tits embrace 'aromatherapy'

No, it's not from the files of Benny Hill, Naturalist; it's the story of research into why blue tits like to put nice smelling herbs in their nest:

They found that aromatic plants, including lavender (Lavandula stoechas), apple mint (Mentha suaveolens), the curry plant (Helichrysum itlaicum) and Achillea ligustica significantly change the composition of bacterial communities living on blue tit nestlings.

"They reduce the number of different bacterial species, and the total number of bacteria, especially on chicks that are most vulnerable because they are both highly infested by blow fly larvae and carry great amounts of bacteria on their skin," says Mennarat.

In more local bird news, the Courier Mail last week ran this photo, apparently showing three pigeons co-operating to each get a drink and a bath.

I'm impressed.

We've had a bird bath in our back yard for about 6 months now; it's visible from the kitchen and dining room. Watching birds bathe is pleasing.

The coming disaster in Japan

Shaken and stirred in Tokyo's quakes

Here's an ABC journalist's first hand account of the recent, relatively mild, Japanese earthquakes. He notes:

But thankfully it was not the much-dreaded Great Tokai Earthquake. That is the big one, the terrible tremor which hits central Japan about every 130 years.

The problem is, it is overdue.

The last Great Tokai Earthquake was in 1854 when a massive magnitude 8.4 quake struck.

More about the coming Tokai Earthquake can be found here.

It is, of course, a typically Japanese thing that when you go to the website of the Japanese Meteorological Agency page about the Earthquake Early Warning system, they have a cute little graphic for it:

If I am not mistaken, that would be based on the underground catfish that the Japanese folklore says causes earthquakes. Cute but deadly.

UPDATE: lots of information about the history of Japanese giant-earthquake-causing-catfish lore can be found in this essay.

The ugly tourist

In Philippine town, the U.S. airmen are long gone, but the tawdry streets remain

The LA Times has a story about the prostitution that continues near the former Clark Air Force base, even though the Americans left there in 1992.

The picture painted by this article is very ugly - quite literally in the sense that it seems most of the clientele are greying sex tourists from all over the world chasing extremely young girls.

There is also mention of an Australian buying some Viagra from a street vendor. Travelling to another country for exploitative sex, but even then having to use Viagra to achieve it with girls about whom he also says:
"You can get a young girl here to do anything if you promise to marry her"
strikes me as a very special form of depravity.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Science fiction fodder

Here's a fun paper on arXiv: Are Black Hole Starships Possible? (Tentative answer: yes. However, the means of creating a useful sized black hole are somewhat far off into the future.)

Interestingly, the paper also notes that alien spaceships using such technology might be detectable by gamma ray telescope. (The suggestion is not new in regard to possible anti-matter powered ships.)

Flying books

Eerie occurrences at naval museum attract ghost hunters -

A brief report on poltergeist type phenomena going on in a US Museum.

Ghosts and hauntings interest me, but I have no interest whatseover in the "ghosthunter" style TV shows with their ridiculous bunch of mediums and "sensitives" walking around with night vision cameras following them.

Which reminds me - I think I saw an ad on ABC TV a few weeks ago for a one off show that (as far as I could make out) may have been about a stone throwing poltergeist story in outback Australia. I missed it, and now am having trouble googling any details about it.

I know there have been one or two real life stories in Australia, so I would have liked to have seen it.

Does any reader know anything about it?

Strange photo from Saturn

Like the fist of an angry god | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

Worth a look.

Mayhem in space planning

NASA should avoid a straight shot to Mars, panel says

There is plenty of speculation about how NASA should proceed from here: scrap Ares as a flawed design, not enough money to go to the Moon again, certainly not enough for Mars. Even "let's do other deep space stuff instead - how about an asteroid?"

But - I didn't realise this:
The budget would delay the first Ares I flight until December 2018. That is almost three years after NASA currently plans to send the International Space Station careening towards Earth to burn up in the atmosphere and plunge into the ocean. The current budget projections have also not set aside money for the space station's end-of-life plans.
Bloody hell. The thing seems barely to have been finished (in fact, is it really finished now, it's hard to keep track) and it is only supposed to last another 5 years?

The only thing it seems to have achieved is giving astronauts experience at piecing together big things in space. I guess that's something of value in itself, but all those astronauts doing it are probably at the peak of their career anyway and won't be on the next wave of exploration.

NASA had better start publicising some science done on board if it wants to maintain some credibility for its planning.

And finally - readers know I am strongly of the view that going back to the Moon is a practical, achievable thing that is relatively low risk to astronauts (compared to all the radiation exposure they will have on a trip to Mars). It's rarely spoken about, but isn't there a partial science justification in terms of good astronomy to be done from there? Perhaps radio astronomy from the dark side, or your usual astronomy from anywhere.

Would be easier to do the type of sky surveys required to spot deadly (but relatively small) asteroids that were mentioned here recently from the Moon? You at least are assured of long, clear nights!

Update: a NASA page, containing some links, that talks about lunar astronomy as a possibility. People seem to like Hubble photographs so much, I suspect they would be impressed by similar quality photos from the Moon.

If it is a good place to search for earth approaching asteroids, even better: you can sell a return to the Moon as an insurance policy for the future of civilisation.


Bird specimens stolen from national collection - Crime, UK - The Independent

Thieves have stolen a priceless collection of tropical birds from the Natural History Museum.

Curators said almost 300 brightly-coloured specimens were taken from a collection in Tring, Hertfordshire.

They said the birds, some of which are more than a century old, are a priceless part of the world's ornithological heritage.

Well, I suppose this means that the next time a stranger approaches you in the car park and offers a really cheap price on a rare 19th century stuffed spangled drongo from the back of his van, you should immediately call the police.

It's also interesting to note this bit at the end about the extent of the collection:

The Natural History Museum holds 70 million specimens brought together over 350 years. The majority are held at its South Kensington headquarters.

The ornithological collection in Tring is one of the world's largest and holds 750,000 birds representing 95% of known species.

750,000 stuffed birds?! Maybe a few more live ones would be around today if the collectors of the past were a little less enthusiastic.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Mocking chicken

Today's lunch comprised a fried egg, tomato and cheese sandwich.

It's a curious thing, isn't it, how the combination of egg and tomato seems to result in a completely new, distinctive, taste.

It put me in mind of a party dip from my childhood, "mock chicken", eaten on Jatz crackers, which I haven't seen for a very long time. Recipes for it are on the internet, although there are variations, and I am not sure which most accurately represents what was once common in 1960's Brisbane. I'm sure the essential components were egg and tomato, but whether it also had cheese and onion, I don't know.

Incidentally, I am drawn to any recipe with "mock" in the title. I recall years ago, when visiting somewhere historic in Australia, looking at a reproduction of an old, simple Australia cookbook, maybe dating from early last century or perhaps even colonial times. It had a recipe for mock duck, which, I swear, went like this: "Take large piece of beef steak. Tie in the shape of a duck. Bake." That was it.

While on the topic of food pretending to be something it isn't, I have a confession to make: I don't mind many of the vegetarian sausage products made by health food companies. They could fairly be called mock sausages, although the marketing departments prevent truth in advertising. We serve them to kids sometimes as a healthier version of a hot dog. With tomato sauce, they don't really seem to know if it is meatless or not, and I am happy to eat them too.

I even had a period in my life when I used to buy TVP, textured vegetable protein, and make a chilli con carne recipe which was on the side of the box. Buried in a chilli tomato sauce, I thought the cubed version of TVP did have a resemblance to meat. But the digestive consequences of beans, chilli tomato sauce and TVP in the once dish were, shall we say, nothing short of explosive. I didn't even like being around myself the next day, so, kind husband that I am, I haven't cooked it since I got married. I don't think you can even get the cubed version of TVP now, anyway.

I'm tempted to try making some mock chicken soon, but anyone who can remember their mother's version of it is welcome to comment.

Spotting the influence of aliens

Newfound planet orbits backward -

This story reminds me of something I have been meaning to post about for a while.

Astronomers keep finding signs of planets around other stars. Yet they all seem to be pretty weird in one way or another, and don't resemble our solar system at all.

My question: has anyone seriously put their mind to the question of how odd a planetary orbit or solar system would have to look to be indicative of alien mega-engineering?

Presumably, thought has been given to what a Dyson sphere or "swarm" would look like (or a Niven "ringworld"), but isn't it possible for there to be other planetary engineering, on a less grand scale, that may be visible from Earth?

Would a weird enough orbit of something assumed to be a planet be enough?

Update: another "backwards planet" found.

By the way, just to be clear, I am not suggesting that a retrograde orbit alone is anything to be very suspicious of. Seeing we have a retrograde moon in our own solar system, it can just happen. Still, what would it take to assume alien engineering?

Credibility own goal

Plimer resorts to attack as the best form of defence | Environment |

Ian Plimer agreed to be asked, in writing, a series of questions by George Monbiot about apparent errors and uncited claims in his book. Plimer has not yet responded, except to provide a list of convoluted questions back to Monbiot.

If Plimer merely does this, and does not answer Monbiot's direct questions, it will be pretty much impossible to read it other than having the subtext "hey, I am a Professor, I know so much more than you, mere journalist, that I don't have to provide citations for any claim, or explain any apparent error."

I hope Andrew Bolt is reading this exchange.

Update: this comment in the thread following Monbiot's post provides a good "translation" of what Plimer's questions mean.

A peculiar case

Piracy fears off UK coast after cargo ship disappears in English Channel - Times Online

I have no comment: it's just a very strange case of a missing ship, possibly hijacked by somewhat mysterious parties.

Why acupuncture seems to work

Chinese Acupuncture Affects Brain's Ability To Regulate Pain, UM Study Shows

I find it remarkable that sticking fine needles into skin seems to genuinely help with various aches and pains. This study suggests the brain mechanism behind it, but I guess it still doesn't explain why the fine needles (which you can barely feel, from the one time I had some in me) in skin cause that reaction in the brain. (To be more specific, maybe it's not surprising they cause some reaction in the brain, but that it should be big enough to have effect of other aches and pain still seems very odd to me.)

Discouraging news

Earth could be blindsided by asteroids, panel warns - space - 12 August 2009 - New Scientist
Existing sky surveys miss many asteroids smaller than 1 kilometre across, leaving the door open to damaging impacts on Earth with little or no warning, a panel of scientists reports. Doing better will require devoting more powerful telescopes to asteroid hunting, but no one has committed the funds needed to do so, it says.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Waiting for the return of a spouse

Modern Love - Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear

I found this via the Catholic blog "First Things". Although the writer's response to being told by her husband:
“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. I’m moving out. The kids will understand. They’ll want me to be happy”
was not apparently motivated by faith, the idea of not immediately abandoning a relationship for that reason has obvious appeal to those who believe marriage is truly "til death do us part".

It is an interesting column, and has many comments following it, the great majority of which praise the writer for her simple "I'm not buying it" response. I am surprised that there has not been more of a liberal backlash against it.

What a country

Christians burned to death in Pakistan - Catholic Herald Online

Eight Pakistani Christians were killed, 50 homes destroyed and two churches burned when a rampaging mob of up to 3,000 Muslims tore through the town of Gojra, in eastern Pakistan, last Saturday.

The victims, who included two young children, were either burned alive or shot. ...

The mob gathered after rumours had spread that children had cut up a schoolbook which included verses from the Koran. The children had supposedly been making confetti for a local wedding.

As well as those killed, more than 20 people were injured in the attack as the mob, carrying sticks, clubs and a small number of firearms, took to the streets last weekend.

The attacks came two days after a related incident in the nearby village of Korian where gangs set fire to more than 70 Christian homes and two small Protestant churches.
I missed a lot of media over the weekend, but I don't know that this got widely reported.

Make your own lunar air

Scientists Make Oxygen Out of Moon Rock
Based on experiments with a simulated lunar rock developed by NASA, the researchers calculate that three one-meter-tall reactors could generate one tonne of oxygen per year on the Moon. Each tonne of oxygen would require three tonnes of rock to produce. Fray noted that three reactors would require about 4.5 kilowatts of power, which could be supplied by solar panels or possibly a small on the Moon.
I wonder, how long does a tonne of oxygen last for, say, a dozen people?

Presumably, find frozen water on the Moon would make oxygen production easier.

There was a lengthier version of this story on Nature News, but I think their stories still disappear behind a paywall after a short time.

The perpetual teenager

Pew, that was a lucky escape |

Catherine Deveny writes about Catholicism, her childhood religion, with all the subtly and wit of a 15 year old know-it-all flaunting a new-found sexuality and atheism to annoy her parents. (That is, with none at all.) Trouble is, she's 40.

I also wonder about this section:

The priest, obviously drawn by the unusual sight of new people, approached us to welcome us to his flock. I shot out my hand. "Hi, I'm Catherine."

All the blood drained from his face. "You're that writer?" "Yes," I replied. I happily introduced my sons, who, in an uncharacteristic display of manners, shook the priest's hand and said, "Nice to meet you." The priest wandered off in a daze. Or was it a trance? Maybe it was religious melancholy.

Why would the priest even recognise her? Unless she gave warning of her attendance (and why would she bother doing that?) I would be quite surprised that she would otherwise be known to him.

She's seems profoundly proud of her kids being brought up as free thinking libertines:
After surveying the ''good news'' of carnage and damnation on the wall, the 11-year-old asked what a virgin was. I explained. Then he said, "Is there something wrong with sex?"
We know what her answer would be. One gets the impression from previous columns that she intends to be terribly non-judgemental and open-minded to the point of quasi-encouragement to experiment, probably as a continuation of her resentment of her parents trying to set some boundaries for her. (Just a guess, there, but she does write in her column today how a comment made in the car by her father, about another family, made her want "to jump over the front seat and ram my father's head into the windscreen".)

If there is any justice, at least one of her kids will have a conservative rebellion and end up very religious. It will, hopefully, annoy Deveny no end.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The real Big Day Out

Time for a report on the trip to the Brisbane Exhibition last Sunday.

If it was up to me, I would arrive at 9am and leave at 9.30pm, but my wife is not from these parts, and considers that to be just a ridiculously long day. (You have to be born and raised in Brisbane to have the inordinate fondness for the place that quite a few of us here share.) I think she actually threatened last year to just leave me to take the kids this time, but somewhere in the intervening 12 months she changed her mind, and ended up a relatively happy participant. She missed my daughter - now 6 - telling me in the afternoon, without prompting, that it was "the best day ever". I passed the message on to my wife with a small degree of smug satisfaction.

[Later in the day, I observed to my wife that it is pleasing to see a lot of Asian and other immigrants at the show. She claimed it was because Brisbane was short of entertainment anyway, and people just go to whatever is on. As you can see, the brainwashing has some way to go yet.]

Before I leave the topic of the marital dispute over the exact degree of enjoyment an adult can appropriately extract from the Ekka, I should also mention that I took my aged mother along this year too. (She resisted getting in the car at first, but after a bit of shoving she accepted her fate.)

We arrived at about 11am, and left after the fireworks at 8.45.

So this year's highlights:

* new lambs in the sheep birthing place were cute (but we didn't actually see one being born)

* I get happiness from the fact that my kids chose relatively cheap buys in the show bags, yet were very satisfied. The boy takes the show as an opportunity to weaponise himself for the following 12 months, and this year he was happy with one $10 machine gun that, I must admit, I would have liked as a boy too. The girl went for a cutesy pet bag with lots of stationary in it.

* the "jet truck" was new and kind of slow and pointless, except it did make a very big flame that is pretty spectacular.

* we all decided that the latest rides look downright dangerous, and potentially not just to the riders. The current new types seem to involve variations on a theme of long arms which spin people sitting at the end around in a vertical circle. Why anyone thinks this is fun is beyond me; I can barely stand the roller coaster type rides at Disneyland, where one feels Uncle Walt surely wouldn't scare you to death. (Space Mountain is probably the strongest ride I have ever been on.) Not being a fan of the falling sensation, this looks particularly horrendous to me:

It's also clear that if there is a catastrophic failure, then, depending on the exact point of the circle it happens, the passengers could end up some distance away and take out many passers-by. I certainly did not like to stand in the plane of the ride, just in case.

Anyhoo, a pleasant day was had by all, even though my mother elected to stay the night but by the end decided she really was too old to spend that much time there. I pointed out that she was giving up to easily: there is always the wheelchair option when she's 90. (She's only got 5 years to reach that milestone.)

Finally, I note that big re-development of the site is finally going to get underway, which means that residential units and some all year round commercial use will be allowed on parts of the land. (As I recall, it is all owned by the Royal National Association, and the Council and State government have been lusting after the re-development potential of the place for decades.) This report gives an idea of some of the changes. I am not sure how it affect the Ekka itself; it's hard to imagine some of the old buildings gone. But the upside is: maybe I can retire there, as one of the blessed 10,000 residents. Not quite like living in Disneyland, but still...

Talking about solar

I see someone in the Economist talks about his options for domestic solar power in the US, and how it has become significantly more affordable in recent years.

I know that everyone says that solar power does not make economic sense at the moment, but there is one thing I think people don't factor in: the strong appeal of semi-independence from the grid.

On the weekend, I made my annual pilgrimage to the Brisbane Ekka (a longer post will follow), and I did notice a lot of people asking at this company's display about its domestic solar cells. I think the price was something like $2,995 for a 1.5 KW system. (After rebates I presume?)

I've never looked into it much, but from what I can gather, anything less than 2 KW is hardly worth the effort. Still, I think people just like the idea of not being so reliant on the grid, even if the cost is no where near going to be recovered in electricity savings.

If (as seems certain) an ETS is going to send up electricity costs pretty quickly, the appeal of solar is surely going to increase, although again it may not actually make economic sense. If an ETS encourages more people to install solar, and thereby reduce the drain on coal fired plants, that appears to be a good thing. The issue, I suppose, is at what cost to the government, as I presume that solar will still only succeed (in the sense that many people will buy it) with heavy government rebates.

If the money the government spends on supporting solar could be spent in other ways that are more effective at reducing CO2 from coal fired plants, then it's not such a good idea.

All I am saying is that experts should not overlook the inherent appeal of free electricity from the roof.

Appleyard takes on the Godless (again)

Bryan Appleyard reviewed a book "The Evolution of God" in The Times on the weekend, and now has followed up with an entertaining and interesting post on his blog.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Rich on US woes

Op-Ed Columnist - Is Obama Punking Us? -

Frank Rich has an interesting column on Obama and the increasing perception that the US system of government is more-or-less corrupted wholesale by lobbyists. He ends with this:
The best political news for the president remains the Republicans. It’s a measure of how out of touch G.O.P. leaders like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner are that they keep trying to scare voters by calling Obama a socialist. They have it backward. The larger fear is that Obama might be just another corporatist, punking voters much as the Republicans do when they claim to be all for the common guy. If anything, the most unexpected — and challenging — event that could rock the White House this August would be if the opposition actually woke up.

This'll be interesting

Let battle commence! Climate change denialist ready for the fight | George Monbiot

Monbiot tells us that Ian Plimer has accepted his challenge to a debate, first in writing, and then in person.

George has posted at the link above his list of questions to Plimer.

The response shall be very, very interesting.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Hardly worth the effort

Does wind power reduce carbon emissions? -

Barry Brook quotes at length from some work indicating that wind power in Australia in practice will save little in carbon.

Sunday scandal

Sex scandal behind Brideshead Revisited - Times Online

Quite a detailed re-telling here of the English aristocratic sex scandal which gave the inspiration for Brideshead Revisited.

This part shows a somewhat relaxed attitude to what was permissible in staff interviews those days:
Boom — as Beauchamp was known, ostensibly because of his foghorn voice — was said to have “exquisite taste in footmen”. His interviewing style was unique. He would pass his hands over their buttocks, making a similar hissing noise to the one made by stable lads when rubbing their horses down. If the young man was handsome and pleasant, the earl would remark: “He’ll do well. Very nice indeed!”
The true life story was much more scandalous than what goes on in Brideshead, though.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

That's useful

Israel to blame for Arafat death: Fatah | The Australian
THE ruling faction of the Palestinian Authority has formally blamed Israel for the "assassination" of Yasser Arafat, one of the founders of the Fatah party.

At the party's conference in Bethlehem yesterday, delegates unanimously passed a resolution blaming Israel for Arafat's death and setting up a committee to investigate the death.

Well, that'll help things move forward. Maybe they are just annoyed that a significant part of the world believe the rumours that it was AIDS.

But the Saudi King makes some blunt comments that (except the "criminal enemy" quip) are useful:
Saudi King Abdullah said: "Even if the whole world agreed to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state, with all the needed support and backing, it will not be established as long as the Palestinian house is divided."

And referring to Israel as "the criminal enemy", King Abdullah wrote: "I'll be honest, brothers. The criminal enemy could not over long years of continued aggression have inflicted as much damage to the Palestinian cause as did the Palestinians themselves in a matter of a few months."

Over at Gulf News, there was an opinion column earlier this week (I can no longer see it) which urged Palestinians to make alternative plans for what happens if a two state solution is never achieved. The writer did not give any clue as to what the alternative for the Palestinians might be.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sad Hollywood news

John Hughes, director of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and writer of Home Alone, dies - Times Online

I mentioned him here last year, and he was only 59. I can't think of anyone from Hollywood who has replaced him as a source of witty entertainment that (nearly always) could be enjoyed by adults, teenagers and younger children together. (It's better to put it that way than to use what has become a semi-derogatory phrase: "family entertainment".)

It's a miracle!

Opinion: Do you believe in miracles? - opinion - New Scientist

I'm still pretty busy, but in the meantime, readers of a philosophical bent can go read the above article about the issue of miracles.

I've only read it quickly, and while it's not as clear as it could be, it seems to make some decent points.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Comet or volcano?

Was there a comet impact in AD 536? Maybe.

Doodling discussion

Playing with a graphics tablet is a lot of fun, but I have some trouble finding the best software to use when wanting to do my somewhat pathetic and rushed attempts at cartoons.

My natural inclination is to go for freeware, but I can't say I have found anything I like much. I've tried Dogwaffle, and it is OK, but sometimes hard to find things easily. (One point I want to make is that, when you are using a stylus to move around the screen, the "left click" or "right click" functions are no where near as natural feeling as when you use a mouse. I therefore find software that requires those to bring down menu options quite annoying. (Although you can just tap the screen sometimes in lieu of a left click.)

I have also tried the free version of Art Rage, but for simple pen or pencil functions, I don't care for it.

The best software I have found is actually Art Dabbler, which came bundled with an old tablet before my current one. I find its interface very natural and easy to use. (You open a "drawer" to find your different tools.)

I also find it makes reproduces very smooth lines - something which Dogwaffle, Painter and and free programs do not always achieve.

Sadly, Art Dabbler was sold to Corel and is no longer available. I do have Corel's Painter Essentials (came with current tablet), but there is a bit of a learning curve involved, and it is just not as easy as I would like. (All I want to do is draw nice lines with a "pen" or "pencil" and be able to colour it easily.)

I am sure this is all very boring for people who have never used a tablet to draw, but if anyone has used freeware with their tablet which they are happy with, please let me know.

Lots of steam

World's Largest Solar Cooking System Installed in India

If poorer countries are going to reduce their CO2, while still cooking food, then systems like this will presumably have a role to play:

India already had the previous world's largest solar-powered cooking system, serving 15,000 pilgrims daily at the Tirumala temple in Andhra Pradesh. But now that one has been been one-upped, Taragana reports. The new system has been installed at the shrine of 19th century saint Sai Baba in Shridi and can feed up to 20,000 people per day:

The system generates some 3,500 kg of steam daily, which replaces on a yearly basis 100,000 kg of cooking gas.
3,500 kg of steam? That's how you measure steam?

Anyhow, it would be interesting to know whether the cost is worthwhile in terms of gas savings.

Turnbull and the amazing, all-knowing Rundle

Turnbull's solid case may fail to rescue credibility

Michelle Grattan in The Age is pretty forgiving in her assessment of Turnbull and the "utegate" affair. As she says:
...most honest journalists would have to admit that, presented with Grech and his document, they would have thought they had a pretty watertight story. Especially given that the evidence points to a long relationship with the Opposition.
The worst commentary on this is from Guy Rundle in Crikey (which is the subject of a LP post here), yet because it is a silly exercise in psychoanalysing all the major players and condemns Turnbull and everyone around him, the people at Larvatus Prodeo think it's great.

I don't begrudge that the leftie readers of LP think that Turnbull has shot himself in the foot in a major way. But what really annoys is that they (and in particular, Mark Bahnisch, who reproduced the article) do not call out the obvious flaws in the Rundle article as a piece of analysis. I mean, really, it starts:
It should have been obvious to anyone who came into contact with him that Godwin Grech was not a man whose robustness could be assumed. Apparently frail and ill from childhood, a solitary type who joined the CPS directly from university, he clearly found in public service a framework for his existence, and a meaning for a life he reasonably assumed would be foreshortened.
He can also tell how meetings he never saw must have gone:
Most people would have spotted instantly that someone like Grech was out of his element, in crisis, that there was a point at which to stop.
And Turnbull's decision to run with the issue:
...contributed to the ruination of a man whose one hope for a meaningful and rounded life, for a life that made sense, was to have been, and been remembered as, a dutiful and effective public servant. Turnbull was the stronger man. It was his fault.
As for Turnbull and Abbott:
Like many of a certain type of Roman Catholic, and Turnbull is the same, Abbott is a man without a soul who outsources its provisioning to the most dependable outfit around — and one that, unlike protestantism or Islam, doesn’t demand that you make much of an effort to change your nature.
You can bet your bottom dollar that Bahnisch, if reading some equivalent armchair psychoanalysis of Labor figures would be calling it as overheated rubbish and pathetic as an exercise of alleged serious political analysis.

The point is, Mark likes to get annoyed about the quality of political journalistic analysis, but only when it is against his side of politics.

Small black holes delayed

Large Hadron Collider Struggles, Adding to the Mysteries of Life -

The LHC is currently planned to be turned again in November, but its major, major teething problems mean it won't be working at its intended full strength for some time (maybe never):
.....scientists say it could be years, if ever, before the collider runs at full strength, stretching out the time it should take to achieve the collider’s main goals, like producing a particle known as the Higgs boson thought to be responsible for imbuing other elementary particles with mass, or identifying the dark matter that astronomers say makes up 25 percent of the cosmos.
The report goes on to explain the technical nature of the problem, for those interested.