Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Not your average school fete...

Decapitation: School fete turns violen:

Police in Papua New Guinea are hunting for a notorious criminal after violence at a school fete left eight people dead and a severed head hanging from a power pole.

According to local media, an armed gang attacked villagers gathered at the fete in Kainantu district last Friday, and killed four people.

One report said the gang's leader interrupted a speech by a local magistrate, produced a gun and shot him dead.

The villagers retaliated by killing three of the gang members. One was beheaded and the head hung on a power pole.

Speaking of old...

I noted yesterday (in a report about the Hugh Jackman and the mobile phone incident) that his co-star, Daniel Craig, is only 41. Wikipedia confirms this.

I think I have discovered a new benchmark for deciding you are getting old: when James Bond is significantly younger than yourself.

Cranky old man

Gore Vidal: ‘We’ll have a dictatorship soon in the US’ - Times Online

Is it possible for Gore to sound any crankier? A sample:
America has “no intellectual class” and is “rotting away at a funereal pace. We’ll have a military dictatorship fairly soon, on the basis that nobody else can hold everything together. Obama would have been better off focusing on educating the American people. His problem is being over-educated. He doesn’t realise how dim-witted and ignorant his audience is...

His voice strengthens. “One thing I have hated all my life are LIARS [he says that with bristling anger] and I live in a nation of them. It was not always the case. I don’t demand honour, that can be lies too. I don’t say there was a golden age, but there was an age of general intelligence. We had a watchdog, the media.” The media is too supine? “Would that it was. They’re busy preparing us for an Iranian war.”...

Has he met Obama? “No,” he says quietly, “I’ve had my time with presidents.” Vidal raises his fingers to signify a gun and mutters: “Bang bang.” He is referring to the possibility of Obama being assassinated. “Just a mysterious lone gunman lurking in the shadows of the capital,” he says in a wry, dreamy way.

Restless youth (with some justification)

Gulfnews: Saudi Arabia flogs teenagers after rare riots in eastern region
Saudi Arabia flogged a group of teenagers after a rare riot in the eastern region of the kingdom in which shops and restaurants were ransacked, a witness and local newspapers said on Tuesday.

Human rights activists and liberals condemned Monday's flogging, which Saudi newspapers said happened after groups of young people smashed windows of restaurants and shops in Khobar on Saudi national day last week.

Quite reasonably, the suggestion is that youth has nothing to do in that country:

"This terrible event reflects the need to allow more space for the youth in terms of sport clubs, movie theatres and recreation facilities," said columnist Abdullah Al Alami, who lives in Khobar.

Restaurants, movie theatres and concerts are banned in the Gulf state, while many restaurants and sometimes even shopping malls cater to families only.

Religious police roam streets to make sure no unrelated men and women mix.

"Young males are shunted to the street, with nothing to do and no place to go," former US diplomat John Burgess said in his Saudi blog "Crossroads Arabia".

A strange version of dementia

Younger onset dementia - Health Report

Here's an interesting article which deals with a type of dementia I hadn't heard of before: young onset frontotemporal dementia:

John Hodges: Frontotemporal dementia means it's affecting the frontal lobes predominantly and the main hallmarks of that are personality change and language deficits, which we call aphasia.

Lynne Malcolm: Give me an example of the sort of behaviour that might present in frontotemporal dementia?

John Hodges: Becoming socially inappropriate, saying embarrassing things, the type of things one might think but not say. You know, meeting somebody that you haven't seen for a long time and saying 'oh, you've put on a lot of weight,' or, you know, 'you're very fat since I saw you last time.' Or often rather sexually disinhibited comments, particularly the men, which is usually put down to, oh well, you know, one too many drinks. Because part of this disinhibition is that people often do start to drink too much alcohol. Problems with judgment, often making unwise decisions, becoming very gullible to scams and losing a lot of money, making bad investment choices, these are all symptoms that are related to us by families that we see.

This range of symptoms mean that the cause is often not recognised for some time. Instead, depression is usually first suspected. So what are the early signs?:
John Hodges: Well we don't want an outbreak of everybody with a little bit of an occasionally inappropriate thing being thought to have frontotemporal dementia, but I think a persistent change in character. I mean the one thing the families say about people with frontotemporal dementia is, you know, 'they are no longer the person they used to be. There's been a real change in their empathy and judgment.' So I think that's a very important hallmark.
And it turns out that a difficulty with understanding sarcasm is part of it too.

I wonder to what exact there is a degree of self awareness of the personality changes in the early stages.

Overall, a very unusual disease.

In other dementia news: playing a game in which you stand a good chance of repeated concussion is not a good idea.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Another Andy still alive

Andy Williams accuses Barack Obama of following Marxist theory

The only reason I link to this is because of my surprise that he is still alive. It's the same type of surprise I had last year when Andy Griffiths turned up still looking sprightly too.

Andy's face is looking suspiciously smooth, if that's a recent photo.

Different approachs

Scrubbing the Atmosphere - TierneyLab Blog -

Apparently, an article in Science notes that research into technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere is not getting government funding, but it may be able to make an economical contribution to the problem. Unfortunately, the article itself seems to be behind a paywall. (Is it about time that the science journals made all papers relevant to AGW and ocean acidification free to the public, as their contribution to public education on the topic?)

Another thing: a couple of year ago, I noted that there were a couple of suggestions on the 'net that CO2 from power stations could be turned into solid sodium carbonate. You would not have the problems associated with pumping liquid CO2 into the ground.

Is that idea completely without merit? Is that why we never seem to hear about it?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Not all ice after all

In my absence, I didn't get to mention how surprisingly pretty Iceland in summer looked in last week's Foreign Correspondent. It has grass and meadows? People swim there in summer? Who knew?

A question of maturity

Coming Out in Middle School -

I haven't yet spotted any conservative comment on this lengthy NYT Magazine article about the increasing phenomena in America of very young adolescents "coming out" during Middle School, so I'll have to make my own.

The article is written by a young gay journalist who, while apparently very supportive of gay youth, does at least admit to some surprise that kids at that age (the article mentions mainly from 10 to 14 year olds) should be so confident of knowing or understanding their sexuality.

Indeed. Apart from the girl who decided she was bisexual at 10, and apparently went on a "date" with a girl soon after, if you read some of the conversation that goes on as a few young folk take the journalist around their Middle School, you get a strong sense of the teenage immaturity on display:
All three were members of the school’s G.S.A. “Even though this is a liberal area,” Alison explained, “it’s still hard to be gay at this school. Most people won’t even come to G.S.A. meetings because they don’t want people other than their close friends to know they’re gay or lesbians, even though straight people also come to meetings. I get called a lesbian all the time even though I’m not.” She continued, “People are totally paranoid.” She suggested that they “come up with some code words on the down low so we can tell you what’s up without anyone knowing what we’re saying!” (They settled on “paw” for gay and “woof” for bisexual.)
Hmm. Already we seem to have a couple of 12 year olds with an unhealthy, gossipy interest in other's sexuality, and resenting the fact that some other students resist the idea of being "out". Let's see how this pans out:

As we walked past the gym, a group of boys came rushing out. Justin pointed to a short, muscular eighth grader in a baseball cap. “Paw!” he said.

Alison looked surprised. “Isn’t he a woof?”

“No, he just thinks he’s a woof,” Justin said.

Amelia looked confused. “What does woof mean again?”

A minute later, they fixed their gaze on a boy sitting against a wall listening to his iPod. “Paw,” Alison told me. “I mean woof!”

“Yeah, he’ll make out with anyone,” Justin confirmed. “Totally bisexual.”

“No, he’s not!” Amelia said, apparently distraught by the news.

“Oh, stop getting all mad just ’cause you like him,” Alison told her. “Everyone knows he’s a woof.”

After pointing out a handful of girls who are “definitely woofs,” Alison turned to me and recalled a recent “lesbian moment” of hers. “I totally had the hots for this girl in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ” she said with a giggle. “I was, like, ‘Whoa, I’m really attracted to you right now!’ ”

“Jesus was hot in that, too,” Justin offered.
(Odd that the last comment was left in, given the ire it will raise in some Christians.) But further down:

As we came to the end of our tour, we approached a handful of boys sitting in a circle on the pavement eating lunch. “Woof, woof, woof, woof, woof!” Justin said, barely able to contain himself. “They’re all woofs.” One boy heard him and turned to us. “What’s a woof?” he asked us.

“Never mind,” Justin said.

“I don’t think he’s really a woof,” Alison told me, referring to a boy in the circle. “I think he’s straight but just confused.”

“He’s not confused,” Justin assured her. “Hes confused,” he said, referring to another boy in the circle. “He doesn’t know what he is. He changes his mind a lot.”

I was certainly confused trying to keep track of it all, but Alison told me not to worry. “We can’t even keep up with who’s gay or bi and who’s into who, and we go to school here!” she said.
Are we supposed to feel good that there is an large support group movement (the GSA - Gay Straight Alliances - which are popping up in many American Middle Schools) for youngsters like this who spend their time assessing every passing person's sexuality? Justin, who I assume we are to believe is a gay boy in need of support, comes across as a pretty offensively immature individual who is happy to engage in exactly the type of labelling that is at the heart of "straight" bullying of "gays."

I'm not alone in finding the article doesn't exactly do some of the kids any favours by quoting them so clearly:
I have no doubt that the author meant to champion their pride and their cause, but along the way, certain passages (and especially quotes) come off as glib and disrespectful of the kids’ views of sexuality, magnifying their immaturity and forwardness for impact and humor.
If you ask me, the goal of preventing bullying (a worthy enough thing of itself) has swung way too far in the other direction if it is encouraging kids in the pre-teen to early teen range to concentrate on their sexuality, of whatever kind, at that age. Effective and strict rules against bullying on any grounds, including sexuality, should not be that hard to teach and enforce, surely, without the need for groups that seemingly encourage pre-pubescent sexuality self-analysis. The article, perhaps inadvertently, supports the concern that many kids simply do not at that age have the maturity to usefully engage in, or act upon, that sort of self analysis.

You should see the bathtub this goes with

Duck! › Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion

Follow that pod

Are Magnetically Levitating 'Sky Pods' the Future of Travel?

Of course it's a good idea: it's futuristic, involves levitation, and means you can say "I'm catching the pod today". Everyone wants to travel by pod, don't they?

Nomination for Nobel prize

I had often wondered who had invented the suitcase with wheels, as it has always seemed to me that he or she deserved fame, riches and the travelling public's eternal gratitude. Now I know: In the bag

Going up

Paul Sheehan makes some very good points which I had not realised about Australia's growing population, and the Rudd government's role in this.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Week end catch up

I haven't posted for a week, but the lure of the internet remained too strong to resist. Here are some stories I would normally have posted about:

* What on earth does it take to get Channel Nine to sack Sam Newman? I'm appalled that there aren't enough people appalled by his recent, absolutely 100% offensive "monkey" comments to achieve the end of his career. What is wrong with the people of Melbourne in particular?

* Slate ran a review of a new book on "Greek Love" and suggested that it contained lessons for the current gay marriage debate:
In short, there was no single "traditional" way to conduct same-sex relationships in ancient Greece. This fact in itself might make us leery of any claims about what a "normal" or "traditional" domestic setup might look like. Love comes in many guises and gets culturally legitimized in many ways, and that has been true since antiquity. Any claim about "the way things have always been" is liable to be false.
Hmm. The only thing overlooked is that same-sex relationships have historically been "culturally legitimized" in "many" ways except marriage. See, it's not just old fuddy duddy conservative Christians saying gay marriage makes no sense, even the pagans were on side with that one.

* Let's not get overly excited about the reports of water on the moon. The quantities are not big:
So far, the water does not appear to be very abundant – a baseball-field-sized swathe of lunar soil might yield only "a nice glass of water", Pieters told New Scientist.
I'm still pinning hopes on underground ice at the poles.

* I did the truly pointless and got involved in a thread about theodicy at the Evolution blog at Science Blogs. How does Science Blogs get to pick its members? Do they have to pass some test of anti-religious sentiment before they can join the group?

* The dust cloud in Brisbane of last night (Saturday) was nearly as unpleasant in smell and sinus irritation as the day time one on Wednesday. I can recall no precedent for these at all for Brisbane. Let's hope they do not become a regular spring feature.

* Yay! Free will seems to not have been experimentally disproved after all. Always did have my doubts about the Libet experiments. (Funnily enough, the atheists calling me an idiot at Evolution blog seemed to find the idea of free will, upon which a lot of theodicy is based, a concept also not worthy of belief. Keep them away from moral philosophy, and don't let really serious scientific materialists sit on juries, I say.)

* Finally, especially for Geoff, I thought the middle section of this comment about transhumanists was very funny:

Transhumanists are like the eccentric uncle of the cognitive science community. Not the sort of eccentric uncle who gets drunk at family parties and makes inappropriate comments about your kid sister (that would be drug reps), but the sort that your disapproving parents thinks is a bit peculiar but is full of fascinating stories and interesting ideas.

They occasionally take themselves too seriously and it's the sort of sci-fi philosophy that has few practical implications but it's enormously good fun and is great for making you re-evaluate your assumptions.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Warning issued: blog to be ignored

Now that I have again warned you all about the (possible) end of the world, I have to go for a while and meet with the time travellers from the future who will help prevent this disaster.

The other possible explanation is that I have to stop wasting time on the internet and get serious about raising money at work.

You may choose the explanation that gives you the most satisfaction. I know which I would prefer.

See you soon. (A week should do it.)

Revisiting micro black holes from the LHC

On the potential catastrophic risk from metastable quantum-black holes produced at particle colliders

I have been meaning to link to this for some time, but keep forgetting.

In August, physicist Rainer Plaga put out a revised version of his paper (see above) in which he raised a possible scenario via which the LHC could create a dangerous mini black hole. Basically, it's the original paper with another couple of appendices to it, responding to criticism by the physicists who had done the earlier papers giving reasons why the LHC could not do that.

It is hard for me as a lay person to read papers at this level and understand their maths and arguments. However, again I have the impression that Plaga is arguing in a reasonable fashion, and appears to be making points which are not receiving much attention.

He is apparently no longer working in astrophysics, and his attitude to criticism, and past changes of opinion, have been noted here.

However, the tone of Plaga's paper and response to its criticisms does not sound unreasonable to this lay reader. I just wish there was someone who could go through all three or four papers relevant to the issue, and tell me if my feeling is accurate.

Given the technical problems with getting the LHC running, my concern about this have been somewhat diminished lately. But I would still like to know the answer, as they are likely to get the thing working correctly some time or other.

Spotted in the newsagent today

As much as I like being around airports, I remain surprised that there is a magazine devoted to them: Airports of the World: Today's Gateways to the World

Why can't I get the New York Times?

For a good few days now, I have not been able to get onto the New York Times website, either via my bloglink, or a Google search, or even links from other websites. Is there any obvious reason why that should be?

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A good line

You, Too, Can Write a Bestseller
Dan Brown, who is to history what Rasputin was to anti-coagulant therapy, has a new book out.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Scant attention

Gulfnews: More than 80 civilians killed in Yemen air raid, witnesses say

I've noticed for quite a while, via my visits to Gulf News, that there has been a lot of internal turmoil within Yemen. Now we get this alleged incident:
Details have emerged from a government air strike on a refugee camp in the Yemeni province of Amran on Wednesday, leaving more than 80 civilians dead.

Many of the victims were women and children according to witnesses on the ground.

There has been no government comment yet on the strike. Yemen has entered its fifth week of fighting between the government and the Shiite separatist rebels in the northern provinces.
Yet it seems that the Western mainstream media is paying scant attention. Given that it borders Saudi Arabia, I would have thought we should hear more about it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Chips cashed in

BBC NEWS | Americas | US 'shelves Europe missile plan'

I thought the idea was that the US would pull back on the missile plan in return for Russia changing its tune on Iran.

Instead, apart from getting entertainment from this oddly graphic metaphor:

Russia's ambassador to Nato, Dmitry Rogozin, said the move was "a breakthrough" for US-Russian relations, although they were waiting for official confirmation from the US.

"It's like having a decomposing corpse in your flat - and then the mortician comes and takes it away.

"This means we're getting rid of one of those niggling problems which prevented us from doing the real work," he said.

there doesn't seem to be any trade off from Russia.

We'll have to wait and see, but if the world takes it as a sign of US weakness, I wonder if this may be seen as the start of a re-run of the Carter presidency.

Unhelpful thinking

Lightning kills five Cameroon children - Yahoo!7 News

A lightning bolt killed five children at their school in northwest Cameroon as they were preparing to begin their school day, a local doctor said on Wednesday.

Some 58 others were taken to a hospital near the small village of Bamali, which is some 460 kms northwest of the capital, Yaounde....

Several witnesses, including a prominent traditional ruler, said they believed the event had mystical roots. Belief in witchcraft is common in the West African nation, and a thunderbolt is traditionally seen as a way of settling disputes.

Belief that natural disaster can have a supernatural origin in God is one thing; it may be completely mistaken, but if the belief is in a fundamentally good God, surely the most likely result is self examination as to what sin the person or community has committed so as to deserve punishment.

But belief that accidental death and illness is almost always initiated by your enemy or rival is a different kettle of fish entirely: presumably such thinking is only destined to cause never ending cycles of disputes, fighting, bloodshed or torture in societies where the idea is widespread.

To the extent that Christianity does not have a particularly strong biblical basis for belief in the personal control of supernatural powers for evil purposes, its adoption is presumably an advance in such societies.

Of course, excessive belief in possession, which does have a strong basis in scripture, can be harmful in its own way. I would still think it an improvement for society overall to have some unfortunates mistreated for possession rather than a semi-permanent state of fighting between clans, etc.

Jungian thoughts

Carl Jung and the Holy Grail of the Unconscious -

I was interested in Carl Jung for a time and read a couple of his books. Certainly, some of his ideas are at least culturally significant, and his conflict with Freud (in which an allegedly paranormal - or at least highly co-incidental - event featured) is pretty important in the history of the ways to think about the mind.

Yet, he didn't exactly lead an exemplary life himself, and some of his self reported dreams (a gigantic God defecating on a church for example) tend to just make the eyes roll.

What's more, he became a popular figure amongst new age nuns and others who want to just talk vague spirituality instead of facing the rigours of morality that traditional religion expects. I expect he was popular for a time amongst those at St Mary's in Exile, although I get the impression liberal Catholics have moved on a bit from him.

Anyhow, this is all preamble to referring readers to the long article in the New York Times Magazine about the release of a journal he kept during his (somewhat early) mid life crisis. Apparently it's full of lurid art and accounts of his hallucinations, and reader's reactions will probably depend on whether they are already an acolyte or not.

An interesting read anyway.

As I was saying

Too much radiation for astronauts to make it to Mars - New Scientist

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

In praise of Lileks

James Lileks is a fine writer. The only thing that stops me visiting him each day is that he is too much of a fine writer; i.e., he writes vast vistas of words and blog pages that are just too time consuming to keep up with.

In any event, this passage, about cleaning up around home, is a good example of his wry style:
And that’s another thing: out go the old colognes. I use the stuff very sparingly, but I’ve been dealing with two fragrances I can’t bear to toss because the containers are so cool, and the fragrances so distinctive. They’re so distinctive I cannot tell whether I like them or not. They have a top note of pepper and musty fireworks. Both came from the Bath & Body Shop; both were quickly discontinued, which makes me suspect they’re either really awful or cause genetic mutations. Back to the fall classic: a dash of Bay Rum slapped on the cheeks after a shave. I need only a straw boater and a celluloid collar; wear that stuff, and people wonder if you’re also wearing spats.

Deadly african lakes

Methane mining could trigger killer gas cloud - New Scientist

Interesting story about the potential for deadly gas outbursts from a Rwandan/Congo lake. The number of people at risk: only a couple of million!


BBC NEWS | Health | Genes blamed for early first sex

This study claims to have likely identified a significant genetic component behind the age at which teenagers first have sex:

Jane Mendle, professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, who led the study said: "The association between father's absence and children's sexuality is best explained by genetic influences, rather than by environmental theories alone.

"While there is clearly no such thing as a 'father absence gene', there are genetic contributions to traits in both mums and dads that increase the likelihood of earlier sexual behaviour in their children.

"These include impulsivity, substance use and abuse, argumentativeness and sensation seeking."
If true, how is sex education ever going to adequately address those issues?

Some others question the conclusion of this study:

Simon Blake, from the sexual health charity, Brook Advisory Centre, took issue with the idea that genes were the overriding factor in early sex.

He said: "We know from research that factors associated with young people having first intercourse at a younger age are: lower educational achievements; friends and the media being the main source of information about sex education; socio-economic status; early sexual experience and the earlier age at which girls start their periods.

On that last point, I'm not sure if it is widely accepted that father's presence in the house seems to somehow delay the start of menstruation. I wonder how big a factor that alone may be for accounting for early sex in girls?

Teenagers are very odd animals.


Weddings? I prefer funerals - they're far more real

Catherine Deveny, who I have previously observed as having the entrenched views typical of the most irritating kind of 15 year old, confirms this again today in her spray against the very concept of marriage.

The best part was this:
Me? No. Never have, never will, never wanted to. Better dead than wed. Wouldn't I like to be princess for a day? No thanks, I'm a princess every day.
Yes, the one with the title "sourest princess on earth".

I have a relative, quite the atheist (well, perhaps agnostic, I'm not certain) who became a civil marriage celebrant. She observed that it was extremely common for a quasi-cynical partner to say in the pre-wedding meeting that marriage didn't mean that much to them, as they had been living together for so long anyway, only to find at the wedding that they were often the ones who went all gooey and emotional.

Complaining about Tiger

A sting in the tail with $49 Tiger Airways flight | Fees | Fine print

There seems to have been a serious outbreak of complaints about Tiger Airways in the last few weeks. The latest, in The Age, does appear to have a strong grounding, at least in terms of a lost item and bad advice.

I have flown Tiger twice now (on return trips) from the Gold Coast. Both times were quite satisfactory, and at extraordinary low cost.

You can't judge its performance in the same way as a major airline like Qantas. At most, it is comparable to Jetstar I suppose, with the same strict cut off times for checking in and (presumably) strong compliance with baggage weight limits.

It is obvious, isn't it, that airlines that offer their cheapest prices on the basis of carry on only are going to be ruthless about checking weights? Same if your check in baggage increases the cost incrementally according to its weight. Anyone who complains about trouble with rearranging luggage at check in to make it comply with the rules are just careless, lazy or incompetent.

I would have also thought it obvious that an airline as small as Tiger which has (I think) the one plane doing the one return route, say, three times a day, is going to have more delays than larger airlines, with presumably longer delays as the day progresses. In my case, the flights have mainly been morning ones, and they were only slightly late.

You have to come to Tiger with very low expectations, because you really are just catching the equivalent of a flying bus with some strict rules. But the price can make it worthwhile.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The slow burn

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal and Christopher Hitchens in Slate are pretty much on the same wavelength when it comes to pessimism about Iran and the prospects of the West stopping its nuclear advance.

Beautiful but mad

Dezeen - 55 Blair Road by Ong & Ong

It's been a while since we've looked at a fancy bit of house architecture at Dezeen, but here we go.

The re-design of a Singaporean house shop looks beautiful in a blue/white sort of way (even the books on the shelf have been given white covers so as not to ruin the purity of the look.)

But, as is often the case with sexy architect designed interiors, when you look at the layout of the place, there is something just wildly impractical. (In Japan, it will usually be a disastrously steep staircase with no rails and sharp edges.) In this case, it seems to be that every walk from the living area to the kitchen involves going across 'stepping platforms' over the pool, and appears to be open to the sky. This in a country which, if my short visits are a guide, seems to have a thunderstorm about every second day.

Children, or even the ever so slightly tipsy, need not apply. But it's pretty, there's no denying it.

A director of literature writes...

Books will survive, but not on paper - On Line Opinion - 15/9/2009

This section caught my eye from the above article:
For a number of years, the Australia Council has funded online journals and we are viewing with particular interest the rise of the well-written blog. Canadian blogger Christian Lander's Stuff White People Like was picked up by Random House for print publication and subsequently optioned for film. Our own Marieke Hardy was the key speaker at this year's NSW Premier's Book Awards.
A blog was optioned for a film?

Marieke Hardy gets to speak at book awards? Her blog was unreadable.

Big in Japan

Regurgitator hope to savor big-in-Japan feeling again

I didn't even know they were still around. Hoodoo Gurus are doing what sounds like a birthday party gig with them in Japan. Odd.

Gropers beware

Tokyo police launch weeklong anti-groping campaign on trains
The Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department launched an anti-groping campaign on Monday, with some 200 high school girls handing out fliers and tissues at Ikebukuro station and plain-clothed officers being posted aboard trains on lines which run through Tokyo.
Just in case you are wondering, the handing out of tissues has nothing to do with the private habits of the gropers. Free pocket tissues, for advertising anything from mobile phone deals to English language schools, are commonly handed out in Japanese cities.

Harassing for respect

Gee, people sometimes have the hide to complain about how Australia treats visitors and residents from Asia. Have they read the Jakarta Post recently?:
Dozens of NGO activists dubbing themselves Relawan Ganyang Malaysia (Anti-Malaysia Activists) Tuesday conducted a raid on a street in Central Jakarta in a hunt for Malaysian nationals until the police halted their activities.

Starting from 10 a.m., about 40 activists, sporting red-and-white attire and paraphernalia, stopped pedestrians, motorcyclists and cars in front of their office on Jl. Diponegoro in the plush area of Menteng.

They asked them to show their ID cards or passports to prove they were not Malaysian citizens.

No Malaysian citizens were caught in the raid.
And from another report last week, perhaps referring to the same incident:
Dozens of activists from the Ganyang Malaysia (Crush Malaysia) Volunteers conducted a street sweep against the neighboring country’s citizens on Jl. Diponegoro, in Central Jakarta, on Tuesday...

One of the volunteers, Aji Kusuma, said the group initiated the sweep as they were disappointed with the government's slow response to Malaysia’s repeated claims on Indonesian cultural heritage.
Last Saturday, and the idea is spreading:
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s call for an end to excessive reactions against Malaysian nationals has fallen on deaf ears as a Betawi (Jakarta native ethnic) group reportedly plans to harass citizens of the neighboring country.

Barisan Muda Betawi (BMB) activists said they would conduct an ID check targeting Malaysians in a show of protest against the government’s failure to take tough measures against Malaysia’s disrespect for Indonesia.
And the cause of all this:
The harsh reaction against Malaysia was triggered by last month’s Discovery Channel’s TV advertorial program Enigmatic Malaysia that featured Balinese Pendet dance as a Malaysian art form.

Both the Discovery Channel and the Malaysian Tourism Ministry have apologized over the polemics.

The world is sinking beneath the waves

Credit crunch signals end of The World for Dubai’s multi-billion dollar property deal -Times Online

It's about Dubai; it's about failure. Of course I'll blog about it.

The showerhead of doom

Daily bathroom showers may deliver face full of pathogens, says study
It's not surprising to find pathogens in municipal waters, said Pace. But the CU-Boulder researchers found that some M. avium and related pathogens were clumped together in slimy "biofilms" that clung to the inside of showerheads at more than 100 times the "background" levels of municipal water. "If you are getting a face full of water when you first turn your shower on, that means you are probably getting a particularly high load of Mycobacterium avium, which may not be too healthy," he said.
Just lucky this research wasn't done while Howard Hughes was around to hear it.

Engineers and terrorism

September 11 Reflections: Terror and Technology - Edward Tenner

Edward Tenner reminds us that engineering has figured pretty prominently as the career of choice of several Islamic terrorists.

Well, anyone who has worked with engineers knows that they are often, shall we say, a bit of a worry.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Unintended consequences

Elton John wants to adopt Ukrainian orphan who 'has stolen his heart' - Times Online
The international children’s charity EveryChild yesterday condemned Sir Elton’s plans, claiming that they could result in more youngsters being abandoned. Anna Feuchtwang, its chief executive, said research showed that news of adoptions by wealthy foreigners encouraged mothers to place their children in care in the hope that they would get a better life. “The actions of celebrities such as Madonna, and now possibly Elton John, could be actually increasing the number of children in children’s homes in countries like Ukraine,” she said.
Mind you, any international adoption from countries with serious levels of poverty, even by run-of-the-mill Western parents, runs the risk of initiating abandonment of children. Foreign Correspondent has a story tomorrow night about this happening in Ethiopia , and it goes on in India too.

I'm not sure the answer is clear, although not giving aging pop stars publicity about their adoption intentions would be a good place to start.

Germany gets the "no-nuclear" wobbles

Germany's energy debate: Nuclear power? Yes, maybe | The Economist

As the Greens think Germany is an outstanding example of a nuclear nation vowing to go non-nuclear, it's good to see that its plans look likely to fall into disarray.

How true

Hey, I do believe xkcd is satirising Ender's Game, which I only read a few years ago and came away utterly puzzled as to why it is held in high regard by many science fiction fans. It was, in my view, just awful.

All the popular topics

Sex in space could be the key to the survival of humans | The Japan Times Online

Here's an article made for this blog: it features rats, sex, space flight, and the future of humanity.

I didn't know this:

In 1979, the Cosmos 1129 space mission, also known as Bion 5, was a joint collaboration between the United States and the Soviet Union. It was primarily a biomedical program, and on this particular mission male and female rats were sent into space and allowed to do what comes naturally.

Whatever problems there might be with having sex in microgravity, floating in space, the rats managed it. I'm not surprised really. If you've ever dissected a male rat in biology class you'll have noted the size of their testicles: I'm sure that given a sniff of a female, even a rat floating in orbit round our planet would try to get it on.

Two other species were on board Bion 5, by the way: the Japanese quail, and some carrots. But my concern here is with the rats. When they returned to Earth, the female rats were examined. Two had become pregnant, but they did not give birth. Apparently the space-embryos were reabsorbed.

The concern is that humans may not reproduce well under less than 1 G.


Currently reading: A Wrinkle in Time (last read in primary school - it's even more Christian than I remember), Julian Barne's quasi-memoir Nothing to be Frightened Of, and that book about Life and Leisure in Ancient Rome (it can be picked up and put down with gaps of weeks at a time without losing track.)

Currently sick of: politics. I find nothing of interest really going on in Australian Federal politics at the moment. I feel much better about it whenever Kevin Rudd is missing from the TV screens for any length of time. (If he disappeared entirely for 3 months, I am sure his approval ratings would be even higher.) I find Lindsay Tanner the most likeable Labor politician. Tony Abbott has a strange sense of public decency for a serious catholic: the more "s*it" he speaks, the less likeable a significant section of the community will find him.

Current movie viewing plans: see Up. Probably next weekend.

Current problems: work. Too busy, yet I want to check this blog and the internet about 12 times a day.

Something currently feeling vindicated about: my brother who is a semi-regular visitor at St Mary's in Exile in South Brisbane acknowledged it seems to be "losing its way," and attendances are probably down. (The last few sermons I have watched on the internet certainly indicate the place is still in intense navel gazing mode, and is just as dull in its own way as any "traditional" parish with an old priest who re-reads sermons from 30 years ago.)

Learn something

'Inside of a Dog - What Dogs See, Smell, and Know,' by Alexandra Horowitz - Review -

You will probably learn something you didn't know about dogs if you read this book review.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday, September 11, 2009


Mighty Mouse takes off – thanks to magnets - New Scientist

Sometimes I really wish I had become a scientist:
With the aid of a strong magnetic field, mice have been made to levitate for hours at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. The floating rodents could provide a valuable insight into how astronauts are affected by extended spells in zero gravity.

Refer to Peter Singer

Mind Hacks: Brain scanning unborn babies

Scientists can now do MRI on unborn babies. Peter Singer, who now just seems to bang on about social justice, but presumably is still of the view that even newborn babies "do not have the same right to life as a person", should read it.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ocean acidification update, part whatever..

Some recent studies report:

* subtropical corals showing a net loss of calcium carbonate under decreased ocean pH:
These experimental results provide support for the conclusion that some net calcifying communities could become subject to net dissolution in response to anthropogenic ocean acidification within this century.
* the results of experiments on a couple of planktonic foraminifera (which are a small critter that produces calcium carbonate shells) do not like more CO2:
At the [CO32−] expected for the end of the century, the calcification rates of these two species are projected to be 6 to 13% lower than at present conditions, while the final shell weights are reduced by 20 to 27% for O. universa and by 4 to 6% for G. sacculifer. These results indicate that ocean acidification would impact calcite production by foraminifera and may decrease the calcite flux contribution from these organisms.
* bivalves in Antarctic waters (the first predicted to suffer increased ocean acidification) don't take it well either:
After 5 weeks the shells and thallus of the coralline alga had suffered significant dissolution when compared to controls. Moroever, one of the shells of the bivalve L. elliptica in acidified seawater became so fragile it fragmented into multiple pieces. Our findings indicate that antarctic calcified seafloor macroorganisms, and the communities they comprise, are likely to be the first to experience the cascading impacts of ocean acidification.
* Pteropods, and important fish food, show significantly reduced calcification at pH levels predicted for 2100:
This result supports the concern for the future of pteropods in a high-CO2 world, as well as of those species dependent upon them as a food resource. A decline of their populations would likely cause dramatic changes to the structure, function and services of polar ecosystems.
Remember, boys and girls, reducing CO2 is not just about warming.

All about hoki

An Unlikely Star Among Seafood Causes a Row -

I knew about orange roughy, but until now, didn't know anything about hoki, despite it being a pretty popular fish in the freezer compartment of the supermarket.

Well, now I know.

Just ridiculous

Astronauts could reach Mars in 2020s, panel says

Apparently, it is being suggested that it may be a worthwhile thing to not bother developing landing vehicles for Mars, but just send a crew to orbit around the planet and get close to its moons.

(Or alternatively, go and doodle around an asteroid.)

Is there no limit to the silliness of suggestions that are being put up at the moment?

Using current rockets, a manned trip to Mars is going to be long and tedious, as well as dangerous due to the unresolved issue of how to provide adequate protection from radiation. That you would even think about doing it just to provide more pictures from orbit is about the most ridiculous idea I have ever heard.

If you aren't going to land on the planet, moon or asteroid, you just wouldn't seriously contemplate it.

Naughty names

Teachers believe Callum, Connor and Jack are the naughtiest boys in class - Telegraph

Researchers also found that teachers keep a close eye on those called Chelsea, Brandon, Charlie, Courtney and Chardonnay.

A study of 3,000 school teachers formulated the 'Teachers Pet and Pest Name Chart' which showed that more than a third of teachers expect children with certain names to be more trouble than others.

Just lucky I didn't go ahead with plans to name my daughter Pinot Gris, then.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

AIDS and belief in Africa, and related notes

The New Atlantis - AIDS Relief and Moral Myopia

This article is a great read that I can't recommend highly enough. It paints a very convincing picture of how the typical African "world view" of the importance of the spiritual world, and the nature of sexual relationships, means that Western faith in the condom as the solution to the spread of AIDS just doesn't work.

In fact - oh horror, it's just like the Catholic Church likes to say - behavioural and psycho/social change in that continent is ultimately the more important issue.

The article is also interesting in that it seems to suggest that the Pentecostal Churches, which psychologically are more "in tune" with traditional African belief in witchcraft and routine miracles, is not helping much.

Anyone interested can go back and look at my earlier lengthy post prompted by criticism of the Pope's comments on Africa and AIDS earlier this year.

In another AIDs story of interest, The Age ran a long article about a nun in New Guinea who has had a major role in limiting HIV spread in that country. (And she makes it clear she has no problem with condom use for the infected.)

Finally, in Australia the number of new HIV infections every year is still roughly 1,000. 64% of that are men who have sex with men. Obviously, warnings are not being heeded.

Mind you, on the heterosexual side of the ledger, the same article points out that there are 58,000 new cases of Chlamydia annually, mostly in the young, which is a number heading in the wrong direction. Condoms don't appear to be too popular in the youth demographic, then, despite sex education presumably being more widespread and detailed than ever before.

On pointless challenges

How can I resist commenting on the misfortunes of Jessica Watson, the 16 year old who wants to be the youngest person to sail around the world, but has trouble avoiding large freighters before her boat even gets to the (metaphoric) corner of the block?

The public reaction is interesting. Apart from the armchair sailors debating maritime right of way (kind of an academic point if your boat starts sinking, I would have thought,) the comments in the Courier Mail (see at the end of the above link) are split between those who think:

a. she's clearly too young and inexperienced, and what the heck are her parents doing encouraging her to do this anyway; and

b. she's an inspiration, living her dream, seizing the day, full of courage, etc, and all you naysayers should be ashamed.

I note that within category b is one prominent politician:

Premier Anna Bligh urged Jessica to continue her "big dream" once she has recovered from the accident.

Ms Bligh said Jessica was "a determined young woman" who would almost certainly continue her quest.

"There's been a lot of discussion about whether this young woman is up to it; I think she is".

One suspects that there's a bit of "Girls can do anything" motivation there that would not be present if she were a he.

I can't say that I have spotted any comment that reflects my position, which is:

1. People, at least if they are adults, should be free to set themselves whatever pointless personal challenges (PPCs) they want to in life and attempt them. (Subject to their not expecting inordinately large public costs to be incurred in rescue services or medical treatment.)

2. PPCs are, however, indeed pointless.*

3. The undertaking of a PPC is therefore rarely worthy of admiration. Maybe some are technically interesting, but not admirable. "Following your dream" is rather overstated as a sensible motivation in life.

4. Indeed, being the youngest by a few months or a year to achieve something inherently dangerous and which has been done before by umpteen others is probably the most pointless form of PPC possible.

Sorry, but Jessica has negative admiration in this corner of the woods. As for her parents - I find it hard to fathom their mindset. If she comes to harm, I guess they'll run the "died while doing something she loved" line.

* To clarify: personal challenges which involve an actual or potential income, such as striving for sporting excellence, are not entirely pointless. Nor is being the first person to explore a corner of the earth - who knows what you may find. But being the first to do something that has already been done, just in a more difficult way; that's pointless.

Busy, but someone book me a cruise

Cruises to Alaska, Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico and the world on Holland America, one of the best cruise lines

Is it just my ignorance, or are the prices for the cruises from this company - which is advertising heavily on the internet at the moment - unusually good value?

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

How generous

BBC NEWS | Middle East | Saudi cleric urges prayer reform
A leading Saudi cleric has called on Muslims not to pray for the destruction of unbelievers.

A supplication to that effect is often reiterated at the end of every Friday prayer in Arab countries, something critics say can radicalise youth...

It is very common for the Friday prayer in Arab societies to end with the Imam calling for the destruction of the "kuffar", the un-believers, to which the worshippers respond "Amen".

Yes and no

Fundamentalism will damage society, says top scientist - Science, News - The Independent
Lord May of Oxford, the president of the British Science Festival, said that although religion may have once helped to stabilise human societies, the rise in fundamentalism could make it more difficult to bring about the sort of high-level co-operation needed to tackle the global problems of climate change and a growing human population.
Actually, I suppose fundamentalism could help if a religion has a new revelation from God telling them to stop making so much CO2!

But I can't be too critical: I did make some comments here recently worrying that religious inspired fatalism (eg, encouraged by the belief that the world is about to end) acts as a disincentive for big projects to help ensure the survival of humanity.

To that extent, fundamentalism could be a danger to environmental causes. But there is one comment in the article that seems far off the mark:
The rise of fundamentalism, not just in the Muslim world but in the United States, and within the Catholic church, could actually make global co-operation more difficult at a time when an unprecedented level of teamwork was needed, Lord May said
I don't see a hell of a lot of evidence for a surge in "fundamentalism" in the Catholic Church.

Why liquids are banned on flights

The drink bottle that could have downed a plane | UK news |

A lot of people ridicule the liquids ban on international flights, but the evidence at the trial of the would-be terrorists in England indicates that this was exactly the method being planned by them:

According to the prosecution the plan involved a syringe being plunged into the bottom of a Lucozade or Oasis bottle and the liquid removed. The tiny hole in the plastic would then be resealed so that even if it was inspected at an airport security check it would appear unopened.

The original contents were to be replaced with a homemade liquid explosive before a dye was added so it appeared to be the same colour as the original drink.

The liquid explosive was to be based on hydrogen peroxide, used extensively by terrorists because its constituent parts are easily available.

Tests by government scientists, played to the jury, produced videos of the devices producing an explosion powerful enough to punch a hole in an aircraft fuselage. The handwritten notes and diary entries written by members of the terror cell and recovered by police showed the sophistication of the terrorists' devices and extent to which they had thought how best to bypass airport security.

The cell planned to use household and everyday items that would appear innocent to airport security guards. Pornographic magazines would be packed in their hand luggage to distract airport security staff.

Pornography used in the course of terrorism: that's novel.

Home, home on the pond

Half of the fish consumed globally is now raised on farms, study finds

Why does aquaculture interest me? I don't know: it just does.

Tired doctors

Patients dying at the hands of doctors working for days on end | The Courier-Mail

Public hospital doctors in Queensland certainly got a lot of publicity yesterday about their long work hours and the mistakes they are leading to. Even though this is all part of a pay and conditions campaign, I doubt there is much reason to doubt the stories of overwork and its dangerous consequences.

On talkback radio, and in comments in the paper, many people make a pretty valid comparison: we have tight laws to try to prevent long distance truck drivers from falling asleep on the job, yet there is no equivalent for hospitals, despite the life and death nature of what they routinely do.

Part of the issue with junior doctors and long hours seems to have been a reluctance of older doctors, who had it tough when they were an intern, to agree that young doctors should have better conditions. And in fact, in the comments in the Courier Mail following the story, there is still evidence of a "suck it up" attitude:
I am actually a doctor at one of the large hospitals in Brisbane and it has been blown out of proportion all this safe hours rubbish. I have not worked over 60 hours in a week for more then 5 years. Most of the doctors are complaining that they do not work enough because they now don't get enough experience. Going to see a senior doctor is not goign to be as safe in a few years time becasue instead of seeing hundreds of different cases on a specific illness he will have only seen 20 or 30 because of all these safe hours hysteria. There are a few exceptions to the rule but in the majority junior docotrs don't get enough experience anymore.... I am sure if you check those doctors records who make the mistakes I have a feeling you would see they probably make mistakes if they are tired or not....
I suspect "Joan" is a crusty old nurse offering her support to that anonymous doctor:
I agree with the doctor in comment 99. Most of the junior doctors are gone by 5pm - regardless of what is happening medically with their patients.The really long shifts disappeared a generation ago - and now those doctors ( as the senior consultants) are actually the ones filling in the gaps left by the "safe hours" campaigners amongst the junior doctors. Without enough experience these junior doctors will never reach the same level of skill that more senior doctors achieved during their early training years. Maybe the problem is that since medicine became a post graduate degree, the young enthusiastic junior doctors have been replaced by older more militant ones. Maybe the current junior doctors can't function under stress - which surely should be a prerequisite in their job.
In a few subsequent comments, many doctors dispute Joan's account of what a breeze the hours now are.

Of course, having more doctors in the system would help too.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Various comments on CO2

Clean coal: Miracle or mirage? - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Four Corners devotes an entire show tonight to the issue of "clean coal" and it would appear from the preview at the link that it will confirm all my suspicions that it is not going to work.

Meanwhile, in the Australian this morning, the much derided Bjorn Lomborg makes the point again that concentrating on CO2 targets without putting adequate investment into new technology is going to ensure the targets are not met. (I would also add that concentrating on a establishing a system which has a built in incentive to invent phoney offsets - such as an ETS - is not going to help either.)

He appears to advocate a very low initial carbon tax but (if I read him correctly) all of the money thereby raised would be going into new technology development. I guess the problem with this is that it would be a case of governments trying to pick winners out of a range of potential useful technology, which has its own risks of failure. But if the problem is urgent, I don't know that we have much choice.

Besides, to a significant degree, we already know one thing that would help - ramping up nuclear power. And my inclination - much repeated here - is to go with small systems that can be quickly deployed. The next generation of big reactors, which do have their advantages, can follow through later.

Fran Barlow has been making comments a lot at John Quiggin and LP about nuclear power. Like Barry Brook, she appears to be a lefty (well, I assume Brook is - he is a scientist who believes in AGW, after all) who has become completely convinced of the need for nuclear to be involved in reducing CO2. Yet, she thinks it is pointless to politically promote this in Australia.

I made a comment at an LP thread about this a couple of weeks ago, to which I think no one replied. I'll make it here then:
I must say I am somewhat puzzled with the attitude that seems to be “sure, we know nuclear would be good, but we may as well forget it as we can’t get it through politically in the foreseeable future.”

Seems a very defeatist attitude towards changing Labor Party policy from a bunch of people who are (I presume) Labor supporters! Of course, you’ll never get the Greens on side, but if you actually had Labor policy change you’re not going to have a problem with the conservative side of politics. That would then render Green control of the Senate irrelevant.

So the crux of the matter is getting Labor to accept the inevitable sooner rather than later. What percentage of sensible Labor Party members do you need before they’ll have the temerity to challenge Labor policy on this?

Barlow's big concern is that, even with the Liberals and Labor both "on side", enough Labor voters will desert to the Greens to be a major problem. But surely not enough to prevent a government being formed in the House of Reps, and to allow for a combined conservative and Labor Senate vote to get it through there?

So when will prominent Labor identities start the push to get their policy changed? Dithering around on blogs about how it is needed is not going to be enough.

UPDATE: if anything, I thought the Four Corners show last night was a little too soft on clean coal. For example, there was very little talk of the practical challenges of how many places around a country are geologically suitable for carbon sequestration, and how you get the CO2 to those spots. I think it could have had more detail on that and other aspects.

UPDATE 2: As I have a rare link here from LP, I'll point people back to this previous post about clean coal from 2007, which may be of interest. This post was pretty worthwhile too, if I do say so myself!

A touch of Dubai in Australia

It would appear that practices common in Dubai have been given a run in Sydney. (Namely, exploiting immigrant labour.)

Presumably, we'll be a bit quicker to do something about it.

(By the way, I was talking to some Australian Dubai residents recently, who claimed that a lot of exploited migrant labour there was used by "reputable" foreign companies that would never try it in their home countries.)

Sunday, September 06, 2009

As expected

Bryan Appleyard (who seems to have gone walkabout from his blog without explanation - he does that from time to time) warned in July that a silly public art idea in the middle of London (people get to stand on a plinth and do whatever they like and call it art) was "an invitation to the exhibitionist streak in the British public".

How true. The BBC reports some bloke just took the opportunity to strip off and stand there for his allotted time. He wasn't the first.

The BBC story then sidetracks into what it is that determines whether or not public nudity is prosecuted as an offence. It seems fair to say that it's all just "a vibe" sort of thing. Claimed artistic intent appears to count for a lot, even in the centre of a public space like Trafalgar Square.

Yet, as the BBC notes, a nutty naturist who goes hiking in the nude, not particularly seeking attention, will cop a fine.

Maybe it ought to be decided not on the basis of offence, but rather annoyance, caused to others. That is, I suppose, why no one objects to streakers during important sporting matches getting prosecuted. And it would also provide a basis for artist exhibitionist gits in the middle of London to face the law too.

By the way, that Appleyard post is well worth reading in its entirety for what he says about the "art is what I say it is" movement.

A death noted

Popular ABC radio conservationist Ric Natrass dead at 60

I guess this won't mean anything to any reader outside of Brisbane, but I was sad to read that Ric Natrass had suddenly died. He was mainly known through radio over the years, where he would take calls about about all types of local wildlife and its behaviour. Extremely knowledgeable, entertaining and with a distinctive and cheery voice, he will be missed.

Mystery ship explained

Missing channel pirate ship carried Russian arms for Iran - Times Online

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Natural shielding

Earth could shield Moon colonists from radiation | COSMOS magazine
For about seven days a month, the Moon’s orbit carries it inside the protective cocoon of Earth’s magnetic field, where it is partially shielded from the Solar System’s turbulent space weather. Could future colonists use this to their advantage?

A new study suggests that space agencies could use this natural radiation screen when constructing lunar bases or planning the moonwalks of future astronauts.

“The terrestrial magnetic field provides a significant amount of shielding for energetic particles incident on the Moon,” said Robert Winglee, a physicist at the University of Washington in Seattle, USA. “An astronaut, especially if he was far off from base, would be very well protected.”

That's encouraging.

Talking of whales

There's an interesting article in Japan Times talking about whaling history in Japan.

"The Cove", the critically successful documentary about the dolphin slaughter in Taiji, gets a mention too.

One thing that interests me about this is the number of people who seem to never have heard of this event until now. The Japan Times article linked to above points out it has critically reported on this event many times over the years.

Indeed, this little blog first posted on the Japan Times articles it in August 2007, and linked to a Foreign Correspondent program on it which appeared in 2005!

Yet on ABC Radio, Phillip Adams on Late Night Live said he had never heard of it, and Fran Kelly on the breakfast show seemed to be just as surprised.

Hey, Radio National folk: read this blog, or even try watching your own current affairs programs. You might learn something.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Modern toilet trends

'Urinating' Queensland cop shocks onlookers
A QUEENSLAND police officer is being investigated after allegedly being caught urinating on a poker machine inside a Sunshine Coast nightclub last night.
Well, I blame all those fancy-smancy urinal designs you get in modern clubs or restaurants now. No wonder a man gets confused when the real urinal might be a glowing, colour changing part of the wall, as it was in a restaurant I went to a few months ago.

I meant to review that restaurant at the time, as the food was disappointing, the service inadequate, but the toilets were worth talking about.

Apart from the glowing translucent urinal, for the toilet stalls, there was a unisex area, and the door and wall to the toilet cubicle were clear glass until you went in and locked the door, whereupon it went (sort of) opaque. (I had read about this glass before. I think turning or off an electric current changes it from clear to opaque.)

But the problem was it wasn't completely opaque. Men or women sitting in this open area (I think there was a sort of lounge to sit on in the middle if all the stalls were full) could still make out the outline of a person sitting on a toilet through the magic glass.

This is clearly inadequate to anyone wanting complete privacy, and would be particularly inappropriate for any rugby league player who had just met some women he liked at the bar.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A long debate at The Economist

Europe and Islam: A treacherous path? | The Economist

Wow. After a somewhat favourable review for a book worrying that Islamic migration is changing Europe, there are 790 comments. No time to plough through them now, but might be worth a look.

Japanese solar

Solar power's bright future in Japan: Land of the rising subsidy | The Economist

The Economist reckons that the Japanese solar panel industry is well placed to weather the glut of solar power panels that is driving down the price. Good.

Hamas and its little, tiny problem with history

Hamas Objects to Possible Lessons About Holocaust in U.N.-Run Schools in Gaza -

You have to laugh at the broad sweep of this statement, made in response to the suggestion by the UN that maybe they could talk about the Holocaust in the schools they run in Gaza:
"Talk about the holocaust and the execution of the Jews contradicts and is against our culture, our principles, our traditions, values, heritage and religion," Jamila al-Shanti, a Hamas legislative official, said in a statement distributed Tuesday after a meeting among elected leaders of the radical Islamist group and the head of the Hamas-run Education Ministry in Gaza.
Found via First Things.

Immunisation dills

There was a worrying story on last night's 7.30 Report on the very low immunisation rates for whooping cough (and other childhood diseases) in parts of Australia.

The anti-immunisation campaigner who was shown giving a talk inside a church (which, incidentally, should take more interest in the harm the use of their premises may be contributing to a healthy society) came across as real dill, dismissive of serious medical research and doctors generally. How's this for a self serving statement:
MERYL DOREY: Just because someone is a doctor doesn't necessarily mean they're an expert on every area of medicine, and unless they've actually done some independent research into vaccination they may not know more than the average parent who's read a few articles and a book or two about vaccinations.
Yet I thought the response to her from the doctors was really too mild. I wanted them them to be far more incendiary in their attack on her organisation.

I had thought, obviously incorrectly, that government here had really forced the hand on immunisation by requiring it for child care benefits and other reasons. Obviously, however, it doesn't work well enough in some areas of Australia.

Quite right

Survival rests on social revolution | The Australian

Greg Sheridan's discussion of Japan's survival problem seems spot on.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

A stepping stone to the green cheese -- Mouse Hotel Opens on Space Station

Hey, why isn't this getting more publicity? The current shuttle trip to the International Space Station has delivered a half dozen rodent residents who will stay there for 3 months:
The mice are living in a special experiment drawer delivered to the station late Sunday by astronauts aboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery. The drawer is split into partitions to give each mouse ample living room.

"Each mouse is in its own little compartment," Robinson told "The compartments have screens around them so the mice can hold on with their feet so that they're in control of their they're not stressed out."

It is hard to imagine how a little mouse brain reacts to permanent weightlessness. Do they just cling motionless to the screens for the first 48 hours thinking "what the hell?"

NASA must have video of mice in space already:
Mice have flown in space countless times before, even on space shuttles headed for the International Space Station. But the critters always stayed aboard those shuttles and returned home, said NASA's space station program scientist Julie Robinson. The longest any mouse has lived in space has been about 30 days, and that was while flying on an unmanned satellite, she added.
However, the only video I could find on the 'net is from a 1950's science fiction film, where they view what appears to be real footage of mice having a parabolic ride on a missile. As expected, the mice looked somewhat alarmed.

We can only hope that one or more of them will escape during their sojourn on the ISS. That would gain a lot of publicity for NASA.

Philosopher gets comic treatment

Bertrand Russell: The thinking person's superhero - The Independent

Some amusing quotes from this favourable review of a comic book treatment of Bertrand Russell:
His bitterly lonely childhood (he contemplated suicide) was enlivened, he said later, by thoughts of sex and glimpses of a totally logical world available through Euclidian mathematics. But even Euclid's maths rested on shaky assumptions and unproven "axioms", so how could it lead to certain knowledge of the world?

Through GE Moore at Cambridge, he discovered Leibniz and Boole, and became a logician. Through Alfred Whitehead's influence, he travelled to Europe and met Gottlob Frege, who believed in a wholly logical language (and was borderline insane) and Georg Cantor, the inventor of "set theory" (who was locked up in an asylum) and a mass of French and German mathematicians in varying stages of mental disarray. Back home he and Whitehead wrestled with their co-authored Principles of Mathematics for years, endlessly disputing the foundations of their every intellectual certainty, constantly harassed by Russell's brilliant pupil Wittgenstein. ...

Doxiadis and his team make us feel how cataclysmic was the moment when Kurt Godel, the mathematician, in a lecture, announced: "There will always be unanswerable questions," and proved that arithmetic is "of necessity incomplete" – pulling the rug from under the study of logic. ("It's all over," remarked Russell's friend Von Neumann at the conference, meaning the whole of philosophical reasoning.)

The sinking tax haven

Bankruptcy threat brings new concept to the Cayman Islands … taxes

Oh, forgot to collect taxes, diddums?

A very peculiar suggestion

New Scientist has finally run an article talking about a recent proposal as to why the arrow of time always seems to move forward, rather than backwards as the laws of physics would allow.

The idea is that things do happen "backwards", it's just that in so doing, quantum mechanics if applied on a big enough scale means they leave no information behind that they have happened.

I keep trying to work out how this relates to the "tree falling in a wood with no one to hear it" question. Of course it still makes a sound; the lack of observation doesn't stop that. In the same way, I suppose, just because a "backwards" event can't be detected might not mean that it hasn't happened.

On the other hand, any scientist who believes this idea doesn't have much right to be a ridiculing atheist who criticises believers because they can't prove their God exists.

The Guardian's explanation of the idea, which apparently quotes the author of the paper directly, makes it sound a much more implausible idea, as it would appear to allow for memories to be created but subsequently erased:

He argues that quantum mechanics dictates that if anyone does observe an entropy-decreasing event, their memories of the event "will have been erased by necessity".

Maccone doesn't mean that your memories will never form in the first place. "What I'm pointing out is that memories are formed and then are subsequently erased," he tells me.

When you observe any system, according to Maccone, you enter into a "quantum entanglement" with it. That is, you and the system are entangled and cannot properly be described separately.

The entanglement, Maccone says, is between your memory and the system. When you disentangle, "the disentangling operation will erase this entanglement, namely the observer's memory". His paper derives this conclusion mathematically.

Yes, the Guardian's headline for the report appears most apt then: "Is quantum mechanics messing with your memory?" But are they quoting him accurately?

Drunk hamsters

How Alcohol Blunts Ability Of Hamsters To 'Rise And Shine'

Big surprise! (That was sarcasm): the more hamsters drink, the more it disrupts their circadian cycle.

Hamsters like their alcohol:
The animals were divided into three groups, differing only on what they drank. The control group received water only. A second group received water containing 10% alcohol and the third group received water containing 20% alcohol. Hamsters, when given a choice, prefer alcohol, which they metabolize quickly.
I would kind of like to see how a drunk hamster acts, but the researchers aren't into such voyeurism. Anyway, there's a cute hamster photo at the link.


This will no doubt be an interesting trial as it progresses, as the claims being made sound, at least in part, a bit like the repressed memory ritual child abuse cases:

A FORMER school teacher has emerged as a key witness to the alleged sexual assaults of students, amid allegations that paint a picture of ''rampant pedophilia'' at St Stanislaus College in Bathurst.

The allegations, including that students were forced to have group sex and were hypnotised to have sex with teachers, were heard during a bail review for Brian Joseph Spillane, a former chaplain at the school.

A sensible teacher who observed abuse is obviously important, but claims of hypnotism being used in any criminal endeavour tweak my scepticism antenna somewhat.

A problem long identified

Lay off the linguistics to address English lag | The Japan Times Online

Another suggestion is offered as to why Japanese language teaching is ineffective (teachers have to study linguistics, which is more about analysing a language rather than how to teach it.)

But really, this is just part of the basic problem that has long been identified: they have an obsession about teaching the technical rules of English rather than the its practical application.

Yet nothing much seems to change. Maybe a new government will actually let some fresh ideas blow into all corners, including this one?

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Trouble ahead

UK could face widespread seventies style blackouts - The Independent

The UK faces widespread power cuts for the first time since the 1970s, according to the Government's own predictions.

Demand for electricity from homes and businesses is set to exceed the available supply within eight years....

The latest figures cast doubt over the Government's pledge that renewable sources can make up for lower output from nuclear and coal.

They were slipped out in an appendix to the Low Carbon Transition Plan, which was launched in July. The main document set out a target for "clean" technology - such as wind, wave and solar - to supply 40% of the country's power by 2020.

But the extra section suggests that there will be a shortfall by 2017, when the "energy unserved" level is predicted to reach 3,000 megawatt hours per year...

By 2025 the situation is expected to worsen, with the shortfall hitting 7,000 megawatt hours per year.

That would be equivalent to an hour-long power cut for half of Britain over the course of a year.

Actually, in some recent stormy summers in Brisbane, we've had a lot more than an hour-long power cut in a year.

Yurts for all

Why a yurt is better than a country cottage - Times Online

Here's an article in the Times about a family that uses a yurt as its holiday home. The kids have to find firewood to boil the kettle, and there is no toilet, which is getting just a little too "back to Nature" for my taste.

Still, reading about yurts reminds me of my widely ignored thought that maybe the neverending problem with providing adequate housing for remote aboriginal communities is due to the inappropriateness of trying to provide permanent housing for remote aboriginal communities.

When I read about the current controversy over the cost of a current program to improve housing in the Northern Territory, I can't help but feel I was onto something with my half-baked idea. According to that last linked news report, some people think that it is going to end up costing $1 billion to provide 750 new houses, 230 "rebuilds" and refurbishment to 2,500 other existing houses.

Let's see: a company in Bangalow will sell a 10 metre diameter yurt with a heavy canvas cover for around $20,000.

Let's be generous, and allow another $20,000 for changes in design, some sort of decent flooring, etc. (A clan's bunch of yurts could share a central, simple ablutions block, but admittedly I have no idea how to estimate the cost of that.) Maybe $10,000 to get it there and put it up? Rough figure - $50,000 per yurt. Pretty expensive for a tent, but...

If you assume the 750 new houses will take 1/2 of the billion dollars that may be spent on the current program, you can get ten thousand $50,000 yurts for that price. Let's say that my back of the envelope figuring is way out - surely 5,000 is still in the ball park.

At that rate, it hardly matters if you have to replace them every five years.

Maybe I should start the Yurts for All Party as a way of publicising this idea.

Good TV

Last night's Australian Story was a nice one about competitive paper airplane throwing (and a brain tumour.) Happily, the subject recovered from the latter, and has many years of competitive paper plane folding and throwing ahead of him. (I did get the feeling, though, he would be a bit annoying to live near, as your yard or balcony would always be littered with paper planes.)

The episode can be watched here. (After this week it will be archived as "Fly with Me".)

Last Friday's documentary on the Last Day of World War One was also good. Michael Palin makes an good narrator of serious material, and he recounted many stories of soldiers who were, with great pointlessness, ordered on the battle field in the 6 hours or so between the announcement of the ceasefire agreement being signed, and the time it came into effect (at 11am on 11/11.)

It would seem that the full documentary can be viewed via the link here.

Another African problem?

Interesting claim made here that pornography is behind a lot of sexual violence (and lack of safe sex practices) in Africa.

Occasionally there is talk of the similar effect of pornography in remote aboriginal settlements, but the problem never seems to get detailed reportage.

More notes for future reference

Study debunks daily aspirin to guard heart | The Australian

The study on alcohol, carried out on 8830 people in Britain, Scandinavia and the US, found those who drank the equivalent of 10 standard drinks a week - about 15 units - had an 80 per cent higher risk of having an irregular heartbeat diagnosed within five years.

And the study of aspirin found that healthy adults who took a daily aspirin for up to eight years did not significantly reduce their risk of a heart attack or stroke, but did increase their risk of stomach bleeding.

I think I would average 5 to 7 standard drinks a week, so I trust I'm OK.