Friday, October 30, 2009

Chick lives

Trick or Tract: Satan, Jack Chick, and Other Halloween Horrors

If ever you had something even vaguely to do with some fundamentalist Christians, you probably have seen a Jack Chick cartoon book. I know I saw a few when I was in high school, although exactly where I got my hands on one I can't recall.

According to the above post, in America, some people like to give these to visiting kids as a Halloween "trick or treat" gift!

There's a link in the article to the Jack Chick publication website, from which I learn he is still alive, and still producing his idiosyncratic booklets in which he manages to make his preferred brand of Christianity look like humourless, creepy conspiracy-mongering. (You ought to read what he thinks about Catholics; many lines are very funny.) As Joe Carter aptly says, Chick produces fundamentalist tracts with cartoon artwork in the style of R Crumb.

Amazing, but not in a good way.

Mix up in the lab

IVF mother: 'I love him to bits. But he's probably not mine' | Life and style | The Guardian

There are, according to this story, increasing numbers of IVF mothers who fear they have been implanted with the wrong embryo. But they are then faced with the question of whether they get DNA testing to confirm their suspicions, because of the possible complications if it is not the mother's.

I seem to be the only person in the world, apart from the Pope, perhaps, who still actually considers the whole IVF industry as basically undesirable, and a poor reflection on a world with high rates of abortion of what would be adoptable healthy babies. Some fertility clinic practices have been an absolute scandal. Yet people are so swayed by seeing someone happy with their IVF baby that they don't give the bigger picture a second thought.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

An unpleasant man

James Cameron and “Avatar” : The New Yorker

You only have to read the first couple of pages of this l-l-long profile of director James Cameron to get confirmation that he is, indeed, a complete jerk.

His new movie, Avatar, seems to me to run a risk of failing because it looks like the biggest CGI-fest ever, just at a time I suspect the public is getting sick of films where all of the background (and many characters) are obviously not real.

We'll see.

Unusual connections

Did Portnoy's Complaint deserve the "Booker Prize"?

Mary Beard in The Times writes about a recent literary festival in which she was on a panel considering which books from 1969 should have won the Booker Prize. This entailed her re-reading Portnoy's Complaint, which she really disliked. (I have never read it, nor seen the movie, and have no interest in doing so.)

The point of this post, however, is to note this comment on her blog, which shows there are some quite unusual theories out there:
I cannot resist praising Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation (ZONE BOOKS, 2003) by my colleague here, Thomas Laqueur, which rightly links concern about masturbation with the development of ideas of credit in the eighteenth century.
What other sexual/financial connections might there be? The rise of cybersex is behind the global financial crisis, maybe?

Anyhow, this is curious enough to make me look for reviews of the Laqueur book. This one starts in way which I find funny, although I am not sure if that was intended:
Thomas Laqueur has been preoccupied with masturbation for more than a decade...
But for more detail on Laqueur's ideas, try this summary:
He sees the promise of abundance offered by the new commercial economy, with its reliance on credit, as strikingly similar to the lure of masturbation, with its addictive pull and reliance on the imagination; the consumer, the speculator, and the masturbator were thus all engaged in the same kind of activity...
I guess it's entirely appropriate that banker rhymes with ...... then.

I think Laqueur may have spent too much time alone.

The changing sea

Climate Change Caused Radical North Sea Shift | Wired Science |

Quite an interesting report in Wired about long term changes in the ecology of the North Sea. It's all about less fish and more crabs and jellyfish.

Sure, overfishing has played a large part, but a slight change in temperature seems to have also caused significant changes in the plankton mix.

I didn't realise the North Sea had been so well studied for so long.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Next time you are doing business with a used car salesman...

try spraying him in the face with citrus scented cleaner:
...research found a dramatic improvement in ethical behavior with just a few spritzes of citrus-scented Windex.
How odd. (OK, the study is not about used car salesmen per se, but it's still worth a try.)

Nice house

Aluminium House, Kanazawa City, Japan by Atelier Tekuto-- The Architectural Review

Here's a pretty cool looking Japanese house made, it would seem, almost entirely of aluminium.

I am told that steel frame houses in Australia are noisy due to the expansion and shrinking of the frame in hot weather. I wonder how an aluminium house would compare.

Of course, being a Japanese architect designed house, there must be a death trap involved. In this case, it's probably the roof top "yard". Don't let the dog chase a ball up there.

Close shave - with video

Asteroid blast reveals holes in Earth's defences - space - 26 October 2009 - New Scientist

Why didn't I read about this somewhere else before now?:

On 8 October an asteroid detonated high in the atmosphere above South Sulawesi, Indonesia, releasing about as much energy as 50,000 tons of TNT, according to a NASA estimate released on Friday. That's about three times more powerful than the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima, making it one of the largest asteroid explosions ever observed.

However, the blast caused no damage on the ground because of the high altitude, 15 to 20 kilometres above Earth's surface, says astronomer Peter Brown of the University of Western Ontario (UWO), Canada.

Brown and Elizabeth Silber, also of UWO, estimated the explosion energy from infrasound waves that rippled halfway around the world and were recorded by an international network of instruments that listens for nuclear explosions.

So how big was it likely to have been?:

The amount of energy released suggests the object was about 10 metres across, the researchers say. Such objects are thought to hit Earth about once per decade.

No telescope spotted the asteroid ahead of its impact. That is not surprising, given that only a tiny fraction of asteroids smaller than 100 metres across have been catalogued, says Tim Spahr, director of the Minor Planet Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Yet objects as small as 20 or 30 metres across may be capable of doing damage on the ground, he says.

People did notice this (and it presumably would have been a big flash if it had been at night):

The explosion was heard by witnesses in Indonesia. Video images of the sky following the event show a dust trail characteristic of an exploding asteroid.

I recommend having a look at that last link to see the big smoky looking trail it left in the sky.

The lessons: at any time, your city could be taken out by an unexpected small asteroid. (Unless you encourage government to spend money on more extensive searches.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Suitable for comedy

Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at - - Slate Magazine

I hope that link always works to the right page. If it does, I strongly recommend question 3 and the advice that follows.

It certainly sounds like a situation that, if shown on something like Seinfeld, you might find improbable.

Perfect for that Fail blog

Cop caught taking up-skirt videos during anti-pervert campaign

Still nutty

Film-maker Paul Haggis quits Scientology over gay rights stance | World news |

This story is noteworthy in two respects:

a. Haggis leaves Scientology over anti gay marriage statements by someone in the San Diego branch. This makes them "bigots, hypocrites and homophobes", and the organisation one "where gay-bashing is tolerated". Where once Haggis was dupe of a dubious religion, he's now a dupe of gay rights propaganda.

b. He also is upset that the organisation denies the policy of "disconnection", in which followers are encouraged to break off contact with those who have criticised the church. Says Haggis:
"I was shocked," wrote Haggis. "We all know this policy exists. I didn't have to search for verification - I didn't even have to look any further than my own home. You might recall that my wife was ordered to disconnect from her own parents … although it caused her terrible personal pain, my wife broke off all contact with them."
Um, how long ago did this happen, and is it not a much, much more important reason for doubting the bona fides of the group than its support for Proposition 8?

A not so arrogant Hitchens

What I've learned from debating religious people around the world. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

A little surprisingly, Hitchens does not come across as terribly arrogant in this account of his debates with the faith defenders of the world. I am even more-or-less sympathetic to his position in one respect:
Wilson isn't one of those evasive Christians who mumble apologetically about how some of the Bible stories are really just "metaphors." He is willing to maintain very staunchly that Jesus of Nazareth was the Christ and that his sacrifice redeems our state of sin, which in turn is the outcome of our rebellion against God. He doesn't waffle when asked why God allows so much evil and suffering—of course he "allows" it since it is the inescapable state of rebellious sinners. I much prefer this sincerity to the vague and Python-esque witterings of the interfaith and ecumenical groups who barely respect their own traditions and who look upon faith as just another word for community organizing. (Incidentally, just when is President Barack Obama going to decide which church he attends?)
He also points to some reason to be skeptical of polling about American's religious/scientific beliefs: soon discover that many of those attending are not so sure about all the doctrines, either, just as you very swiftly find out that a vast number of Catholics don't truly believe more than about half of what their church instructs them to think. Every now and then I read reports of polls that tell me that more Americans believe in the virgin birth or the devil than believe in Darwinism: I'd be pretty sure that at least some of these are unwilling to confess their doubts to someone who calls them up on their kitchen phone.

A possible explanation

Further confirming my theory that global warming skepticism is probably caused by prostate* problems, I see that Clive James has come out as an AGW skeptic.

I'm not sure if my theory explains Bolt's and Blair's skepticism, but it would not surprise me at all if they take longer in the toilet than one might expect for men of their age. Anyone who ever seen them at a urinal can report here.

Meanwhile, I see that Lambert has a good post showing (once again) the highly selective use of someone else's work by Ian Plimer in his book.

I really wish someone would go through Plimer's pages on ocean acidification in the same way: I feel a high degree of confidence that he has done exactly the same in that area, but I am not willing to fork out the money to confirm it myself.

* I find it nearly impossible not to type "prostrate" instead of "prostate" despite my best intentions. Error has not been fixed.

Fair comment

Gerard Henderson today talks briefly and fairly about the political difficulty of dealing with unauthorised arrivals by boat. He ends with this point:
The unintended consequence of the Government's criticism of the Opposition on this issue has been to send out a message that Australia is now softer on border protection. In reality, Rudd's Indonesian solution may turn out to be tougher and crueller than Howard's Pacific solution. Australia had some say about how asylum seekers were handled in Nauru and Manus Island. We will have less influence about what goes on in Indonesian detention centres.
As Andrew Bolt points out, this makes no difference to some Rudd supporters, who will praise him for exactly the same things they condemned Howard.

An unapologetic recommendation

Annabel Crabb

Monday, October 26, 2009

Kimchi Christianity

BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Will South Korea become Christian?

An interesting article here on the success of Christianity in South Korea. Unfortunately, it would seem that the most successful church is one of the American style "prosperity gospel" churches. I wonder how Catholicism is doing there...

Incidentally, I recently saw the episode of King of the Hill called "Church Hopping", in which Hank and his family try going to a Megachurch. It was very funny while also giving (what I assume to be) a good insight to Texas style Christianity.

Pretending the complicated is simple

Something Mad about refugee policies

Leslie Cannold is typical of the kind of commentator who belittles the humanitarian aspect of the Australian government trying to stop people smuggling via boat. Bob Ellis is the same.

They both decry a supposed "lowest common denominator" "hysteria" about boat people.

Yet, I can't see how it is "hysterical" to say that people smuggling in boats places vulnerable people in dangerous, life threatening situations. It is not a hypothetical danger. Surely it is difficult to argue against the proposition that aggressive action to deter future people smuggling via boat actually saves lives.

There is a legitimate argument to be had over how "tough" that action should or needs to be to stop people smuggling. I was one of those of the view that the processes used by the Howard government were in some respects too tough. But the basic idea of keeping boats from reaching our shores is surely an important way of trying to stop such attempts.

For someone like Ellis to say that support for "toughness" is all about ignorant racism is a facile response to a difficult issue. (Indeed, the evidence of increased African migration we can all see in Australian cities indicates the government is hardly motivated by the colour of the skin of those who want to live here.)

Even though the Rudd government has modified the processes (with support from the Coalition), refugee advocates seem to think they haven't really "won" unless all people turning up on boats are given an easy run through our system. But making the process too easy is going to result in more arrivals via that method, and more drownings.

What about Bob Ellis saying that if we are so concerned about their safety on boats, the government should just let them fly in:
We put the people in physical danger by not letting them come here on aeroplanes and wait in Villawood for a month or so to have their claims assessed. We put them in danger by harassing the boats they were on, and at gunpoint ordering them to go back into stormy seas. We put them in danger by burning the boats others came in on the beach, which meant they had to buy new boats, cheaper and cheaper boats, to come here in. Does anyone have the right to burn another's boat? Isn't that piracy?
Again, he can only afford to say this because he is not a position of responsibility. By what criteria would Ellis have the government decide to let asylum seekers (probably many without papers) get on a 747 to Australia? Those that sign an affidavit saying they will get on a boat if we don't do it?

How many people does Ellis want to migrate here that way, compared to the number of refuges who have been assessed already by the UN and been waiting in a camp for years for a country to take them?

There is nothing easy about the issue, despite what these commentators claim.

It's complicated

Foreign capital | tax | Brazil | Australia | Kenneth Davidson

Ken Davidson talks about what's behind the rising Australian dollar, and to my uneducated in economics eye, appears to make some sense.

Certainly, it's a good time to be buying stuff from America, at least.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Moon cave found?

Found: first 'skylight' on the moon - New Scientist

A deep hole on the moon that could open into a vast underground tunnel has been found for the first time. The discovery strengthens evidence for subsurface, lava-carved channels that could shield future human colonists from space radiation and other hazards.

The moon seems to possess long, winding tunnels called lava tubes that are similar to structures seen on Earth. They are created when the top of a stream of molten rock solidifies and the lava inside drains away, leaving a hollow tube of rock.

Their existence on the moon is hinted at based on observations of sinuous rilles – long, winding depressions carved into the lunar surface by the flow of lava. Some sections of the rilles have collapsed, suggesting that hollow lava tubes hide beneath at least some of the rilles.

But until now, no one has found an opening into what appears to be an intact tube.

The problem of the floating space bowel

In The Museum: Toilet Training | Space Exploration | Air & Space Magazine

Having read quite a bit about the space program in my time, I knew most of the information in the above short article on the history of zero-g toilets, except this bit:
The space shuttle’s toilets are based on the Skylab model, and also operate with a fan and a vacuum. “No matter how much training you’ve had on the ground in how to operate it,” says Neal, “it’s difficult to actually use the first time. So when you finally do succeed, there’s a bit of celebration; they announce to everybody, ‘Okay, I went!’ It’s an accomplishment to master it in microgravity.”
On this ESA page about daily life in the International Space Station, the point is made that it is not just the contraption that is the problem:
Some crew members find the toilet difficult to get used to. As well as the device itself, they have to accustom themselves to the disconcerting fact that their bowels actually float inside their bodies - like the rest of their internal organs and of course everything else on board.
Is this a subtle way of suggesting that constipation is a problem in space? Yes, it appears that it is. A Google search brings a link to a book which comments:
Because the GI tract requires gravity assistance to function optimally, some astronauts suffer constipation which resolves in several days.
Apart from the always fascinating issue of space toilets, it did occur to me recently that we really don't see much on TV showing the interior of the ISS. It's usually just a short snippet on the news showing a bunch of astronauts greeting each other when there is a crew changeover.

In fact, the ESA website has some good pages of school educational material, and I particularly like this page with its videos of such interesting things such as an astronaut brushing his teeth, showing you the bathroom (including the toilet), getting some exercise, etc. It' s interesting to see the interior of the ISS is somewhat humanised by photos and other stuff that the astronauts have obviously brought with them. Well worth a look.

Don't inhale

How I Survived China - The Atlantic (November 2009)

James Fallows has a short but interesting comment on how bad pollution is in China.

Swiss cheese universe

Hey, who can resist an arXiv paper with an abstract that starts like this:
We present strong arguments that the deep structure of the quantum vacuum contains a web of microscopic wormholes or short-cuts. We develop the concept of wormhole spaces and show that this web of wormholes generate a peculiar array of long-range correlations in the patterns of vacuum fluctuations on the Planck scale.
Well, I can't, even though I need to converted into a more pop science format.

Master of my neurons?

You can control your Marilyn Monroe neuron

All sort of odd sounding, and probably has some deep philosophical implications for mind/body stuff, but you can go read it yourself.

Tough talk on Japanese men

The age of listless, wary, anxiety-ridden and insecure young men

A Japanese women's magazine notes:

The term “soshoku danshi” (herbivorous male, as distinct from the carnivores of earlier generations) has grown widely current since being coined in 2006 to describe the timid, emotionally stunted specimens now on the threshold of the prime of life. It’s hard to blame them. As consultant Takao Maekawa points out, with salaries stagnant and jobs, if you’re lucky enough to have one, insecure, “it’s enough to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for their work.”

Herbivorous—more or less passive, that is to say—attitudes toward courtship are a direct result. “Young men don’t have the confidence their fathers had that they will be able to support a family,” says Ushikubo. “That tends to drain a man’s romantic impulses.”

Adding insult to injury, women, with less vested interest in the way things used to be, are adapting better than men to the way things now are. “Seeing women emerge stronger than themselves,” observes Maekawa, “has further undermined many men’s confidence.”
The answer, apparently, is for women to offer:
"...generous doses of praise, encouragement, and understanding."
[I'm emailing the article to my wife now, as I figure what's good for the Japanese is good for me too.]

But in comments, readers beg to differ:
The listless, insecure young men of today are carbon copies of their fathers. Japanese men are as selfish, immature and emotionally underdeveloped as they have always been. That's simply the very nature of this beast.
I say on behalf of my Japanese brothers: Ouch!

Fusion: the third way

A novel form of fusion power: Psst, kapow! | The Economist

Hadn't heard this one before, but who knows if it will lead anyway.

Welcome back Annabel

I'm not sure why Annabel Crabb was missing from Fairfax for a month or two, but it's good to have her back. In today's column:
Rudd likes to portray his policies as tougher than they really are because, like most Labor MPs who were around in 2001, he clearly remembers the Atomic Wedgie that he and his colleagues copped back then over immigration.
His buttocks now flinch reflexively every time the subject comes up, which is why he keeps saying things like, "I make no apologies for my staring-eyed, extremist, hardline, definitely not soft or anything ideas about illegal immigrants."

And why he persists with describing his policy approach as "humane toughness", a deeply Ruddesque contradiction in terms that fits well with his scores policy (Responsible Drunkenness) and his fiscal policy (Conservative Recklessness).

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Listen to your fellow doctors

Womb transplants 'within two years' - Science, News - The Independent

This is just silly:
British scientists believe they will be able to carry out the first-ever successful womb transplant within two years. They have worked out how to transplant a womb with a good blood supply which could mean it lasts long enough to carry a pregnancy to term.
Um, do we know how the immunosuppressants affect babies? (Maybe we do: I suppose it is possible some young women on them have fallen pregnant.)

But even so, Smith, who has been practising this on rabbits, notes:
...there was little interest in the studies in the medical profession but the demand from patients was huge. He said: "There's a lot of dismissal in the profession in terms of this being a step too far in fertility management. But for a woman who is desperate for a baby, this is incredibly important."

Mr Smith, who presented his findings at the American Society for Reproductive Medicine conference in Atlanta, Georgia, said the womb would only stay in place until the woman had had the children she wanted. "The plan is that once a woman has had her children, the uterus comes out and she can come off immunosuppressants."

Mr (I assume it should be "Dr") Smith should spend more time telling patients to be more realistic and that medical science can't appropriately remedy all of life's misfortunes, rather than working on disposable uteri.

Life is simpler here

Get set for next year's overhaul of official kanji | The Japan Times Online

You get a good idea of the complexity of Japanese (and, I guess, Chinese) language when you read this article about a forthcoming government revision of "official" kanji next year. For example:
Vigorous debate about the list has taken place in committee meetings in the past four years. Japanese language educators have objected in vain to inclusion of such adult-themed kanji as 淫 (IN, lewd), 艶 (EN, charming, voluptuous) and 賭, (ka-keru, gamble). Two kanji much requested in a public-comment forum last spring were 鷹 (taka, hawk) and 柿 (kaki, persimmon), but the panel has decided not to include these. It has also elected not to axe forum participants’ least-popular kanji — 鬱 (UTSU, melancholy), written with an eye-popping 29 strokes.

Nearer but poorer

400,000 former Anglicans worldwide seek immediate unity with Rome

This seems all very complicated, this creation of a special branch of Catholicism to accommodate the conservative Anglicans who have lost the fight in their own church:
The Pope has made it significantly more attractive for Anglicans to move over this time by offering a universal solution that allows them to retain crucial aspects of their identity and to set up seminaries that will, presumably, train married men for the Catholic priesthood. But any serving clergyman would face a marked loss of income. A job as a clergyman in the Church of England comes with a stipend of £22,250 and free accommodation. Catholic priests earn about £8,000, paid by their parish and topped up by a diocese where the parish cannot afford even that.
That sounds a very small amount of money for a Catholic priest. Mind you, I have only the vaguest idea of how it all works in Australia. It's not something I have ever asked a priest about.

I have been told, however, that in Vietnam, being a priest can be quite a good earner, as the parishioners believe it is important to be very generous to their priests. (My source, himself a Vietnamese catholic, indicated that they usually are not shy about having girlfriends too.)

But back to the issue of married priests: if ever there was a simple action that could make the priesthood a much more attractive option, it would be for the Pope to allow all priests to marry. This would be unassailable in terms of Biblical prohibition, almost certainly lead to less situations of sexual abuse, and mean a much less lonely life for most priests. (I suspect that, at least from their middle age onwards, it may be the companionship of married and family life that priests regret missing more than the sexual side.) It is a much less controversial issue than women's ordination (and, of course, gay marriage), as it is reverting to a state the Church formerly accepted, rather than a novel invention.

The Eastern Orthodox Church has a compromise position: either get ordained single and commit to celibacy, or marry first and then get ordained. However, being ordained and married means no hope of being a bishop. But how many priests join for career progression anyway?

The Orthodox position sounds tough for those who fall in love after a "celibate" ordination, but at least it has the virtue of not encouraging priests to hang around single bars on a Friday night.

I reckon it's a good idea, with one additional benefit that it may well result in the average age of new priests being a bit older, but probably more mature, and less likely to drop out later.

Yes, the sooner the Pope goes Orthodox on this issue the better.

UPDATE: one of the reasons (I suspect) that the Church doesn't feel much pressure about this issue might be because it is obviously part and parcel of "progressive" Catholics' set of beliefs about sexuality. Of course if you want your neighbour's gay son to be able to have a wedding in the Church you are not going to have an issue with a priest having a wife. (Indeed, you would probably welcome your priest and his new boyfriend over for dinner too.) So, it's easy to dismiss it as part of a progressive agenda that just doesn't "get it".

Unfortunately, strong conservatives are inherently unlikely to have any reforming bent at all when it comes to the Church. They like things just the way there are (or were, in their childhood) thank you very much.

So, who are the Catholics who could effectively press for this reform? That is the problem.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Warming up the Arctic

Arctic Lake Sediments Show Warming, Unique Ecological Changes In Recent Decades

I didn't know this:
....recent warming around the Arctic is overriding a cooling trend caused by Earth's periodic wobble. Earth is now about 0.6 million miles further from the sun during the Northern Hemisphere summer solstice than it was in 1 B.C. -- a trend that has caused overall cooling in the Arctic until recently.
The study indicates marked increased warming since 1950. Although, I have to say, didn't we know that already from thermometers?

Real reductions

Club Troppo - It’s not easy being green

Ken Parish makes good points in his post on the uselessness of the Rudd government's ETS (with or without Liberal amendments.)

He also mentions an obvious way to make real CO2 reductions, by a rapid increase in natural gas for electricity generation.

Like Ken, I am not at all sure why this gets so little consideration as a policy measure. Is the ETS meant to make it happen anyway? It doesn't seem so.

Of course, there is also the issue of Labor's ban on nuclear power, which is mentioned in comments.

If Labor wants to be serious about CO2, they have to start debating nuclear. But instead, they'll probably ride the wave of sentiment that "at least they are doing something", which probably means they are actually quite a danger to real progress on the issue.

A good Henderson

Judges and juries called it as they saw it

This is a good Gerard Henderson column today. I wish I could find the Phillip Adams 2006 column he refers to.

Coral confusion

This seems like an important bit of research. Not all corals appear to stop calcifying with lower pH, and it would seem that the precise mechanisms for calcification are not as well understood as you might expect.

This paper reports that it would appear that what is crucial for good coral calcification (at least in one species) is bicarbonate concentration:
The corals responded strongly to variation in bicarbonate concentration, but not consistently to carbonate concentration, aragonite saturation state or pH. Corals calcified at normal or elevated rates under low pH (7.6 to 7.8) when the seawater bicarbonate concentrations were above 1800 μM. Conversely, corals incubated at normal pH had low calcification rates if the bicarbonate concentration was lowered. These results demonstrate that coral responses to ocean acidification are more diverse than currently thought, and question the reliability of using carbonate concentration or aragonite saturation state as the sole predictor of the effects of ocean acidification on coral calcification.
What is not explained is whether lower ocean pH has any consistent effect on bicarbonate concentration in shallow waters. It would appear from here that dissolved CO2 result in increased bicarbonate. However, I'm sure there have been lab based coral studies where they bubbled CO2 through the water and the coral calcified less. So what was the reason for that?

So: this may (or may not) represent relatively good news for the future of coral. But, let's wait for more news and analysis.

Bad algae

Killer algae a key player in mass extinctions

Today, just about anywhere there is water, there can be toxic . The microscopic plants usually exist in small concentrations, but a sudden warming in the water or an injection of dust or sediment from land can trigger a bloom that kills thousands of fish, poisons shellfish, or even humans.

James Castle and John Rodgers of Clemson University think the same thing happened during the five largest mass extinctions in Earth's history. Each time a large die off occurred, they found a spike in the number of fossil algae mats called stromatolites strewn around the planet....

"If you go through theories of mass extinctions, there are always some unanswered questions," Castle said. "For example, an impact - how does that cause species to go extinct? Is it , dust in the atmosphere? It's probably not going to kill off all these species on its own."

But as the nutrient-rich fallout from the disaster lands in the water, it becomes food for algae. They explode in population, releasing chemicals that can act as anything from skin irritants to potent neurotoxins. Plants on land can pick up the compounds in their roots, and pass them on to herbivorous animals.

Some CO2 skeptics like to argue that it is a plant food and that a lush world will follow from higher concentrations. But as I have suggested before, if it makes toxic algal more likely, that is not going to be a good thing.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Back to basics

Empirical evidence that humans are causing global warming

While my position is to concentrate on ocean acidification as sufficient reason to urgently seek a reduction in CO2, I have been complaining for some time that the popular skeptical pundits against global warming seem to show no interest at all in applying any degree of skepticism to the arguments that they think bolster their position.

So it's worthwhile going back to basics, and the always readable Skeptical Science blog has an excellent post (see above) on why it is known that CO2 is causing warming.

Handy information

Physicists Calculate Number of Parallel Universes
In a new study, Stanford physicists Andrei Linde and Vitaly Vanchurin have calculated the number of all possible universes, coming up with an answer of 10^10^16.
"Handy for what?" you might ask. I don't know - I'm working on that.

Pet peeve noted - please ignore if offended by the trivial

As I'm posting on the trivial today, and a blog is the ideal place to get a pet peeve that's bothered you for years off your chest, I note as follows.

For the first time in many years, I just had a strawberry milkshake (with malt.) The malt cost 50 cents extra, which must make it one of the more precious foodstuffs available at a milk bar, but that's not the peeve.

It's the fact that, after whisking the shake, the guy looked at the level in the container, and then topped it up with a bit more, unshaken, plain milk. Then it was served it to me.

I had forgotten about this fairly widespread and (to my mind) very irritating practice that I used to note when I was a more regular milkshake consumer. (We're talking university days now.)

I don't want my strawberry flavoured milk diluted at the last minute by the addition of more plain milk. It also doesn't do much for the frothy head either. If it is to be done at all (and it should not need to be if the original estimate was better) it should at the very least be put it back on the machine. But those who top up in this way never do.

I'm already planning my cranky old man tactic of just walking away when I see this done. (Unless, of course, I have already paid for it.)

A manly question

Nothing much to note in this interview with actor Robert Carlyle, except for the fact that he swears a lot and makes this observation about filming in deserts:
We were shooting in New Mexico in 117-degree heat for a week. You'd have to put sunblock up your nose and your ears because of the bounce. Transformers shot there before us, and one of the crew guys was going commando in shorts. He burnt his tackle badly. So we were very aware.
Which brings me to the point of this post. I have often wondered about how, since it made its appearance in Seinfeld (and, I think, Friends,) this "going commando" joke would appear to mean that some men actually do this as an occasional option.

Yet, it has never, in my entire life, occurred to me that not wearing underwear for the day would somehow make sense. Boxers instead of a more snug fit: well, I can see the point of that. I'll even allow for the logic of beach nudists who don't like sand in their swimsuit. But to wear your normal clothes without underpants? Why would any man since the invention of smooth woven cloth ever think that was a good idea?

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Weekend report

This weekend:

* Friday night: while channel surfing, I once again came in late to watching Love Actually. (I have never seen the movie in one sitting; I've watched bits and pieces over the years and figure I must have seen about 90% of it by now.)

I am curious to see it all because, based on partial viewings, it has always seemed an awful, awful film, displaying less emotional realism about love and romance than the first Shrek movie. Yet, it has its defenders, including friend and regular reader here Geoff.

Well, sorry Geoff, but after my longest stretch of viewing in one sitting, my opinion against it has well and truly solidified. I accept it may not be appropriate to judge it as a realistic film (apart from the ludicrous Hugh Grant as British PM, he appears to do the job from home in his spare time with a staff of about 3.) But, even allowing for 2 minutes of convincing crying from Emma Thompson, it just doesn't even ring true emotionally (for me, of course.) I actually find some of the plotlines rather creepy (oh, sorry, I have accidentally slipped into Hugh Grant talk), the use of the swelling orchestral score to make some scenes more "important" to be really irritating, and nothing in the film (unless it is in the 10% I still haven't seen) makes me laugh.

But don't worry, when appointed benevolent dictator, I will add aversion therapy to adjust errant opinions of this film to Medicare coverage. It is, after all, important that all people think like me.

* Sunday night: Speaking of partially watched movies, I saw some of Speed Racer. What an obvious dud of a film. How on earth was Lego ever convinced that there would be a market for a line of sets built around this film? (They were all heavily discounted after the box office failure.)

As many critics correctly noted, it is not possible to make car racing exciting when there are no laws of physics involved. Its directorial tricks were repeated endlessly, and it contains as much tension as watching an electric car racing set being played by a couple of kids for 100 minutes. Less, possibly.

* Sunday: Completing a movie theme post, the family went to Warner Brother's Movieworld for the first time yesterday.

It was an good enough day that the kids enjoyed, but two rides showed technical faults, and one needed some general cleaning up. One comedy routine was clearly in need of a re-write (no one watching laughed at any of the jokes), and the "character street parade" is embarrassingly short. (There are more characters from the Warner world than this, surely.)

As I suspected, if you have spent time in Disney theme parks, and seen the extraordinary commitment to perfection that they show, other theme parks suffer in comparison. It makes them just seem to not be trying hard enough.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Further proof of no credibility in Nobel Peace prize

A-ha to break up after 25 years

So, a band you assumed had broken up about 20 years ago was still around.

But what about this:
...after the commercial failure of 1993's Memorial Beach, the band went on hiatus, only reforming after being invited to play the Nobel Peace Prize concert in 1998.
Who's playing the 2009 concert...Cheap Trick?


Just How Sensitive Is Earth's Climate to Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide?: Scientific American

This article gives a good explanation of a couple of recent studies relevant to the issue of climate sensitivity to CO2.

It is not encouraging.

Feed the boy sheep

Meat and milk stop anaemia

Oddly, it would appear that in New Zealand at least, it is not uncommon for toddlers to be deficient in iron:
A survey carried out by Dr Elaine Ferguson at the University of Otago showed that up to 1 in 3 toddlers have low iron levels. Although severe iron deficiency is rare, these high levels of iron depletion are a concern because they increase a child’s risk of developing iron deficiency anaemia which can have serious consequences.
In a country full of delicious lamb, which most children seem to like a lot, this should not be happening.

Boat problems

Ken Parish from the far from right wing Club Troppo writes well about the problem of unauthorised immigrants arriving by boat. Welcome to the real world of hard decisions, Kevin Rudd.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

The power of TV

The grisly truth about CSI degrees | Education | The Guardian

I knew lots of people want to work in forensics now, but this is ridiculous:
Let's call it the CSI Effect: thanks to the uncontrolled proliferation of cop shows focusing on forensic investigation, including Bones, Silent Witness, CSI and its Miami and New York spin-offs, the number of degree courses in forensic science being offered in the UK has rocketed, from just two in 1990 to 285 this year.
I like the last line in this final paragraph of the report:
The biggest problem, however, is that crime has not kept pace with the explosion in TV detective shows. The government-owned Forensic Science Service currently finds 1,300 scientists sufficient for its crime-solving needs. The UK's largest private provider, LGC Forensics, employs 500 people. In 2008 alone, 1,667 students embarked on forensic science degree courses. In order to ensure there are enough jobs to go round, more than half of them will have to retrain as serial killers.
I must admit, I saw the "classic" version of CSI recently and was sufficiently amused that I might start watching it again, but only if the station doesn't stuff around with the timeslot, as is their wont.

And when will there be the long awaited episode in which the architects who built the Las Vegas CSI lab are sued for negligence for failing to provide adequate ceiling lights. It must be the only workplace in the world where they have to use torches inside every day.

Important robot news

Astro Boy Movie Reviews, Pictures - Rotten Tomatoes

Early reviews for Astro Boy are largely positive.

But why on earth is it being released outside of school holidays in Australia?

Vaccination silliness

Slate runs a useful article on how the far Left and far Right both circle around and bump into each other when it comes to silly reasons to distrust vaccination. Some of the history is interesting:
Indeed, there's nothing more universal than fear of shots. "I just think there are people wired that way," says Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. "They operate on the basis of emotion and anecdote—what they read at the University of Google—rather than a fact-based or data-driven point of view." In the 19th century, people thought the cowpox vaccine would cause pieces of cow to grow out of their arms. Canadian medical giant William Osler was widely mocked when he urged British troops at the beginning of World War I to get inoculated against typhoid fever. The French government stopped offering vaccinations for hepatitis B in schools in 1998 while it investigated the relationship between shots and multiple sclerosis. (Subsequent studies found no causation.)
As for some of the loopier bits of paranoia about the swine flu:
Several Web sites have suggested that H1N1 is a vehicle for the government to implant microchips in our bodies to detect "bio-threats." At least one site posits that the vaccine contains a "Bible Code" connecting swine flu to prophesies in the Book of Revelation.
It's all clear to me now.

UPDATE: Well, well. One of the vaccination doubters is none other than smug know-it-all atheist and alleged comedian Bill Maher. What a maroon.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

It's gold, gold, gold for Australia

Mungo MacCallum: Four decades in the fourth estate | The Jakarta Post

Mungo was in Bali recently, sharing this with out Indonesian neighbours:
I’ve known, personally, 12 Australian prime ministers and I can only say that three of them were chaste. The rest were adulterers of Olympic standards.
Of course, I assume John Howard was amongst the chaste, although there were scurrilous rumours put around about him at one time. Who would the other two be (especially if he is not counting Rudd as "personally known")?

Drinking the English way

Binge drinking spreads to Italy |

It's interesting to note how the Italians are blaming British and American tourists for spreading the contagion of youthful drinking to excess.

The Italian drinking age is, according the article, currently 16 (as it is in several European countries, although it seems there is a widespread movement to increase it). European countries have managed to live with that for some years. In Japan, the drinking age is 20, and although they are not everywhere, beer vending machines can be found in some places which anyone can access. Teenage drinking does not seem to be a significant problem.

In Australia, I've noticed the TV advertising against parents allowing their teenagers to start having a drink at home, on the basis that the gradual introduction of alcohol to immature teenage brains is now believed to be dangerous, according to recent research.

It's all a pretty fascinating area, this issue of drinking and culture.

UPDATE: By the way, that link to the Wikipedia entry on drinking ages around the world contains lots of interesting bits. In Denmark, for example, it says "There is no drinking age, only a purchase age, and an adult can buy alcohol for a minor. By tradition youths are privately allowed to drink alcohol after their confirmation" (That's one way to increase youth participation in church: put on a keg after the confirmation ceremony.)

Even more fun is the detail about UK drinking laws (assuming it is correct):
Children under 5 must not be given alcohol unless under medical supervision or in an emergency (Children and Young Persons Act 1933, Children and Young Persons (Scotland) Act 1937).[50][51]. However, children aged 5 and over may legally consume alcohol in their own home or someone else's as long as they are under the supervision of an adult.
Well it's good to know that the fine olde English tradition of giving children gin in the home can continue to this day!

Unexpected medical news

Shingles increases risk of stroke by a third - The Independent
The risk is significantly greater when the infection, caused by the chickenpox virus, involves the eyes.
Shingles affecting the eyes sounds mighty unpleasant, even without being associated with an increased stroke risk.

Important news from Dubai

gulfnews : Man cleared of groping woman in Dubai beach

The Gulf News website has had a makeover, and now looks very, um, Western and spiffy, but don't worry, all of the important news is still given extensive coverage. (See above.)

Interestingly, to be acquitted, it only took a strong denial from the accused, and a mere pointing out of witnesses who would support him:

Prosecutors accused I.A. of swimming behind the 27-year-old Filipina, B.B., into the deep waters where he touched her posterior.

"I didn't do that… I have witnesses who can counter her claims," he said in court earlier.

The accused pointed out at two defence witnesses whom he had brought to court to testify his claim. The judge refused to hear them saying: "It is not needed."

Such procedures could no doubt speed up trials in courts in Australia.

Obviously *

Wildlife expert claims gorilla dung is critical to containing climate change

* sarcasm

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Nuisance design students

Dezeen - Nuisance Machines by Andrew Friend

While I am sure there have been a million wacky ideas created by design students trying to come up with something original, there is an excellent chance that this is the silliest design student conceit ever. Congratulations Mr Friend!

Please follow the link. It is bound to amuse.

Oh dear...(or should it be "Arrggh"?)

Arrggh. My favourite cosmologist/physicist Frank Tipler continues his global warming skepticism in articles appearing in (of all places) Men's News Daily.

This recent article is just ridiculous, and indicates he should also write for that esteemed website of all things Carbon and green, CO2 Science, which promotes the philosophy that too much CO2 could never be enough.

Ah well, he is getting old after all. Hasn't everyone noticed that CO2 climate skepticism attracts people primarily on the far side of 50, and the degree of silliness such skeptics are willing to promote increases proportionately with increasing age? Add to age a conservative religious belief (as I think Tipler shares), and you have the perfect storm for an impervious skepticism that is, oddly, willing to risk the future wellbeing of the grandchildren they probably already have.

The only thing that consoles me is that, according to Tipler's own ideas, there is another universe nearby in which there is an alter-Tipler who is quite reasonable about climate science.

You read it here first (well, before this anyway)

Essay - The Collider, the Particle and a Theory About Fate -

Hey. For some reason the New York Times has an essay on the idea the future itself is interfering with the start up of the LHC.

Meh, you read about it here in February 2008.

Update: in another case of the media out-of-the-blue dealing with the big questions, there was a reasonable review of the idea of the multiverse in The Guardian recently.

Suicide champion

Why do so many Greenlanders kill themselves? - Slate Magazine

Interesting article on Greenland and the mystery of how it came to be (by far) the country with the highest suicide rate in the world. From an Australian perspective, it's interesting to see the role of welfare in indigenous community getting a mention:

It's true that the island's Inuit, who make up 88 percent of Greenland's population, suffer from the same rampant alcoholism that plagues many North American indigenous groups. On one evening in August, I stood in the checkout line at Nuuk's only supermarket and watched an obviously intoxicated man sing "Are You Lonesome Tonight?" to a display of Haribo gummi bears. A few minutes later, a woman tried to pocket a bottle of wine. Security nabbed her. Later, at the police station, where the woman sat on a wooden bench, laughing hysterically and giving spirited high-fives, a police officer blamed alcohol for Nuuk's three biggest public-safety problems: unsupervised children wandering the streets, theft, and people shooting themselves or one another. "Ninety five percent of our cases involve drinking in some way," he said.

Peter Bjerregaard from Denmark's National Institute of Public Health has noted that while Greenland's suicide problem began in 1970, almost all the deaths involved people born after 1950—the same year that Greenland began its transformation from remote colony to welfare state, as the Danes resettled residents to give them modern services and tuberculosis inoculations. Hicks, the Canadian researcher, said the correlation is present in other Inuit societies as well.

"It happened first in Alaska, then Greenland, and finally in Canada's Eastern Arctic," he told me. "It's not the people who were coerced into the communities as adults who began to exhibit elevated rates of suicidal behavior—it was their children, the first generation to grow up in the towns."

The lesson may be that you have to hunt to get your food, your days are too busy to get depressed. If you then move (with the encouragement of government to allow better delivery of services) to a town or mission, you become more welfare dependent and (especially for the young) bored and hopeless for the future.

As it is difficult to encourage aborigines to go back to being hunter/gatherers in the harsh Australian outback, the important thing in the communities would be to make sure there is the hope of social mobility for the young. Or, at the very least, meaningful, daily employment.

Why Australia is slow to go nuclear

Going fission

Here's a long article in The Age looking at why Australia is very, very slow to consider nuclear seriously. I didn't know this:
A poll conducted this year by the Uranium Information Centre found the 40 to 55 years age group most trenchantly opposed to nuclear power.
So, it's my own demographic which is the stupidest. How encouraging.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Nice TV

Just a quick note to observe that the 3 part nature documentary series "Ganges", which started last night on the ABC, was very spectacular. I see that it has taken a couple of years to make it to screen here, which is a pity.

I know this is a bit of silly prejudice, but I am always kind of surprised when India shows up on documentaries as having a lot of open space and natural beauty. You get so much concentration on the crowded cities on TV, you kind of expect the whole country to look like one giant stretch of humanity from end to end.

Sunday night ABC nature documentaries have become a family favourite at my house.

A new type of controversy at the LHC

Physicist working at CERN arrested : Nature News

This news broke last week, but I wasn't sure if the guy arrested was working on the LHC or not. Seems he was:
He is believed to be a postdoc at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL) who, since 2003, has been performing data analysis on one of four major experiments at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), the world's most powerful particle accelerator.

French antiterrorism police arrested the 32-year-old researcher together with his 25-year-old brother. The duo is suspected of passing along information about possible terrorism targets inside France to members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb — the North African wing of al-Qaeda.

There is no evidence that his work at CERN is connected to terrorism, according to laboratory spokesman James Gillies. All work at the laboratory is published in the open domain and is not military in nature, said a CERN statement.

Hey, maybe some al-Qaeda operative reads my blog and thinks mini black holes from the LHC have potential as a terrorist weapon. (Well, I did refer once or twice to the fact that some physicists talk of evaporating black holes having similar power to atomic bombs.)

It is also possible that my fretting about mini black holes contributed to a premature loss of virginity (this even happened in my own home town!).

Of course, given the number of readers this blog maintains, it's just as likely that I caused the election of Pope Benedict.

Pipe dreams

Technology Review: Carbon Capture Remains Elusive

Technology Review usually seems a wildly optimistic magazine, so when it has an article expressing doubts about CO2 sequestration, we should take note. Here are some reasons why government plans to rely heavily on this technology should be taken with a bucket of salt:

One of the geological challenges faced by Duke Energy and others investigating in CCS is ensuring that the pressure inside reservoirs deep beneath the surface of the earth doesn't climb too high as carbon dioxide is injected. "There are only certain safe levels that you can raise the pressure to before you get into issues of seismicity," Herzog says....

As I suspected, finding the right places to pump it in is the biggest problem, even in geologically diverse North America: of the biggest remaining questions is whether sufficient reservoirs exist to store all of the carbon dioxide that may be captured.

The best-studied storage deposits are former oil and gas reservoirs capped by layers of nonporous rock that kept the petrochemicals locked deep underground for millions of years. Yet of an estimated 3,947 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide storage capacity under the U.S., only 1 percent consists of depleted natural gas and oil reservoirs. The vast majority of capacity--3,630 gigatonnes--consists of deep saline formations that have received less scrutiny.

"We're at the place where there is no problem doing millions of tonnes a year, but to solve the climate problem we need to do billons of tonnes or gigatonnes a year, and at that scale, storage becomes a real issue," Herzog says.

The Greens Senator Christine Milne was on Radio National this morning complaining that the Rudd government's plan relies almost exclusively on CO2 sequestration coming on line in (I think) 2030, and it providing the actual reduction in greenhouse gases that Australia makes. Before that, it's all overseas permits.

Her criticism is very valid, but on the other hand the Green's solution (that Australia is capable of making a rapid changeover to run purely on renewable energy) seems wildly off the mark too. (Especially if you read Barry Brook's blog.)

Why is it impossible at the moment to find any political party in Australia that actually makes sense on CO2?


Better to be fat at 40 than thin: study | The Japan Times Online

Good news if you are slightly overweight. (Emphasis on slightly.)

Some secret

Two dead at James Arthur Ray The Secret sweat lodge retreat

Mr Ray appears to know everything except the fact that overheating can kill.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Anthony Lane moment

“The Invention of Lying” movie review : The New Yorker

The Anthony Lane review of Ricky Gervais' "The Invention of Lying", a high concept comedy based on the idea that religion is simply a lie, contains this final, somewhat biting, comment:
Audiences here should be reminded, at this point, that Gervais found his fame on the BBC, with “The Office” and “Extras,” and that the execration of religious faith, specifically Christianity—plus a reflex sneer at the fools who fall for it—has, in the past decade, become the default mode of British cultural life. It makes sense, I suppose, for Gervais to use his film to air such mockery, if spiritual belief genuinely strikes him as a lie like any other; the plan would carry more weight, however, if he didn’t use the rest of the film to air his transcendent belief in Ricky Gervais.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Why doesn't every Miss World win, then?

As the BBC says:
In awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian committee is honouring his intentions more than his achievements.
If he really wants to impress the world, Obama will decline to accept this, and tell the committee that he appreciates the thought, but he won't deserve it until he actually has some achievement to show for his efforts.

Lunar attack

Only an hour to go as I write this for the NASA LCROSS mission to smash into the moon. If it's lucky, the plume will show water or something else of interest under the lunar surface. Neat.

I'll be watching on NASA tv on the internet, unless I find a news show on cable is taking it live too.

Meanwhile, crashing a rocket into the moon is enough to bring out some, well, lunacy, in the form of blogs like "Do not bomb the moon". Amongst the comments by those who fear this is a bad, bad idea, I perhaps like this one best:

It’s a plot to destroy earth! A big enough chunk, like several tons of material, will be broken loose and since it’s between the moon and earth, it will eventually be caught up in earths’ gravity and flung into us much like a large astroid that wiped out all life on earth mellinium ago!

FInd a large deep cave to hide in and take enough food and for 4 years if you want to survive.

When I was bducted by aliens a few years ago, they warned me of this but nobody would listen. Now maybe they will.

UPDATE: well, that's it, and there wasn't a flash or anything to see visually. Funnily enough, on NASA TV after it, some guy admitted it wasn't clear what they had just seen - maybe the gain wasn't high enough. (In other words, he sounded as if he had expected to see something too.) Anyhow, information from other orbiting satellites will be sending back their observations soon.

Nuclear decay in your pocket?

BBC NEWS | Technology | Tiny 'nuclear batteries' unveiled


Thursday, October 08, 2009

The depths of racism

The discussion of racism and "blackface" that has been going on today reminded me of a BBC documentary I recently stumbled across and started watching.

I've only seen the first 15 minutes or so, but in that part (starting around the 7 or 8 minute mark) there is a pretty extraordinary section about lynch mobs in the United States in the 20th century. This is a topic of which I know little, so I had always imagined lynch mobs as comprising of maybe a few dozen men, most of them in KKK get up, getting their murders over and done with by stealth. But as the video shows, there were lynchings in which hundred or thousands of well dressed town folk turned up to view the spectacle, with many of them posing with glee in front of the corpses. Then photographs of the event were often later sold around town as postcards:

It's interesting to note that the person talking about this, James Allen, says that this aspect of American history is not one that the southern States are all that keen on being reminded of. (The introduction at this website indicates the same thing.) If you want to, you can see a flash movie of many of the lynching postcards which Allen has collected. (Although I must admit his narration is, in places, too self reflective.)

A general history of lynching in the US is also to be found on Wikipedia here.

It's remarkable to think that there could well be people in their old age today who, as a child in the first half of the 20th century, may have been taken to see the aftermath of a lynching.

It's worth being reminded as to why current American society is still getting over the legacy of this period in their history.

A proposal

Let's just save time, money and effort now, shall we, and do a deal with Kevin Rudd that he doesn't have to bother with the next election if will accept the status quo for another term? The Liberals can say that that money can be used to pay down our debt, and as such they are doing something good for the nation.

There would not be a half-interested voter in the nation who thinks that there is even the remotest possibility that the present rabble of a Coalition could win the next election.

As Alexander Downer was saying on the radio today, a change of leadership is not going to make one bit of difference. In fact, it will likely make matters worse, yet that is what the likes of brilliant mind Wilson Tuckey wants.

Andrew Bolt is again playing a disingenuous role in this: he writes well and is surely regularly read by most on the conservative side, but is encouraging the cultural divide within the party between those (who knows how many? - it seems damned few most of the time) who will accept there is a need to do something serious about CO2 and those who don't. I feel sure that, regardless of his promotion of all things skeptic about AGW, he is not convincing younger to middle age voters, and as such there is a political need to deal with the issue seriously regardless of what individual doubters about the science believe. He is naturally inclined towards conservatism, but is doing them no favours by encouraging this hopeless division.

Something in the water at Channel 9?

Hey Hey it's controversy | Herald Sun

The strangest thing about the Hey Hey show last night (apart from the evident lack of post- 1980's hair stylists in whichever part of Queensland Jackie McDonald now lives) was definitely the "is this meant to be blackface or not?" skit.

The make up did not include the 'traditional' white mouth and eyes, yet was so thickly black it was impossible to avoid the impression that it was the blackface you use when you can't quite bring yourself to do classic blackface. And then, to further add confusion, it was revealed that they were all doctors, this morning we hear two are Indian, and a clip from when they first did the skit 20 years ago indicated that at that time, their face makeup looked less "blackface" than this time.

What on earth were they thinking then? And what was Channel 9 (or the Hey Hey production staff) thinking? In the paper this morning a doctor from the group says:

"All six of us discussed this at length whether or not we should put this on because we realised it may be controversial," he said. "We did go to the trouble of checking with the production staff and they seemed to OK it."

So was there an ironic intent then - an element of "look at what we could away with 20 years ago"? Was the risk of offence to any visiting (or viewing) American completely overlooked by Channel 9, and a bunch of adult doctors? Did they only consider that it might be too soon after Jackson's death?

This is all very strange if you ask me.

I actually found Sam Newman's performance last month worse in that there was absolutely no other way to interpret it other than as 100% racism with intent. Yet that appears to have attracted much less condemnation. Let's show Harry Connick a clip of that event and see what he says.

In any event, there is something very peculiar about management in Channel 9 and their inability to see racist offence coming, if you ask me.

UPDATE: Also, is it only me, or did Daryl Somers suddenly look older last night compared to last week? Maybe it was Jackie McDonald's hair that somehow unbalanced the show into an unwelcome time warp, compared to last week's nostalgic one. All very odd.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Your bad ocean acidification news for the week

Poor Malcolm Turnbull. He sounds half reasonable to me on the topic of CO2 emissions but is caught in a bind. Even though the Rudd ETS is probably an extravagant waste of time from a scientific point of view, as is probably about 95% of all nations' approaches to greenhouse gases, people like the idea of doing something better than the idea of doing nothing. Politically something has to be done, but a divided Coalition is giving every reason for the public to think they can't be trusted to do a damn thing.

Why do no politicians talk of ocean acidification as an independent reason for taking action? Here's some more depressing news from the ocean acidification blog:

* two studies indicating bad news for corals due to effects on important symbiotic relationships

* some reef fish don't seem to like it either

* another study showing a couple of bivalves (clams and scallops) don't take lower pH well.

I saw Malcolm Turnbull on Insiders last Sunday arguing that action on AGW was the prudent thing to do given the weight of science. Quite right; but why not also mention ocean acidification, given that it appears increasingly well founded that future changes to ocean chemistry are a gigantic ecological crapshoot.


Fries with your Mona Lisa? Big Macs move on Louvre

They'll be protesters in the streets of Paris threateningly waving french sticks around over this one. But as the story notes:
The French seem to love McDonald's. While business in brasseries and bistros is in free fall, the fast food group opened 30 outlets last year in France and welcomed 450 million customers.
As for my current opinion of McD in Australia, I note:

* the Angus beef burgers are surprisingly bland. Neither my wife nor I were particularly impressed. I would stick to the McFeast if I were you.

* the deluxe cheeseburger is good for a quick lunch

* the hot coffee from the machine is pretty good, but the new iced coffee is just a premix from a bottle and is not so good

* some of the crispy chicken burgers are pretty good.

By the way, it would seem that the Australian menu is significantly more extensive than the one in France, especially when it comes to chicken choices.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

In praise of cities

The Green Case for Cities - The Atlantic (October 2009)

Evolving goodness (and yes, back to God again)

Frans de Waal's The Age of Empathy. - Slate Magazine

Further to today's lengthy post on the ultimate value of emotions, it's worthwhile reading this article on the increasing research into the animal predecessors to the "good" human emotions.

(You should at least read it to see how empathy is not evenly spread around the primate world. Baboons are apparently not very nice.)

Such "bottom up" arguments for the evolution of a human sense of morality are used to attack the "top down" (god derived) arguments for our sense of morality, of which CS Lewis was a notable proponent. In Mere Christianity, Chapter 2, Lewis tried to answer "objections" that morality is really all about instinct by arguing that if you have competing instincts in facing a particular situation, there is a third bit of your mind by which you judge one of those instincts as more worthy than the other. He has various ways of proposing why it is not merely a case of the strongest instinct always winning, but I don't really have time to set them out here.

Lewis' arguments still seem to me to be quite clever, but given the mystery of the workings of the inner mind, I can certainly see how they are also far from conclusive.

In any event, I'm not sure that increasing evidence of animal instinctive kindness is necessarily threatening to Catholic style belief in God, which by and large has accommodated evolution. Why should it surprise us that what we value in our feelings should be shared in some instinctively understood way by our closest animal relatives? The real issue (and here I guess I am more or less following the Lewis line) is how our human rationality deals with those instincts, and whether there is reason to believe that there is God who cares about those choices.

Against the silence

It's pretty quiet around here lately. Sure, Tim still comments sometimes, but Geoff and Caz haven't for a while, and I don't know what's happened to MCB. I get the occasional new commenter, which I don't always respond to. Is that impolite? Maybe I should start replying to the spam comments that turn up. WOW Gold, indeed.

Just feels a bit like rattling around an empty house on a Sunday afternoon here sometimes. (I never got the hang of Sunday afternoons. They still strike me as unsatisfactory.)

In praise of Stop Making Sense

Talking Heads: 'Stop Making Sense' 25th anniversary Blu-ray release: How well does the concert film age?

Extremely well, says this article, and I am sure I would agree. Anyone care to buy me a Blu Ray device and the disc in return for a review? No, thought not.

The difficulty of preserving forests

UN's forest protection scheme at risk from organised crime, experts warn | Environment |

Worth reading.

More God talk, sorry about that

'The Case for God,' by Karen Armstrong - Review -

Well well. I had my own extended comments on Karen Armstrong's latest book back in July, in which I doubted her characterisation of early Christianity.

I think its fair to say that this review in the New York Times, while not entirely unsympathetic to Armstrong, pretty much supports my take. First, remember that her key argument (as summarised in the review) was that the Christian Church fathers:
...understood faith primarily as a practice, rather than as a system — not as “something that people thought but something they did.” Their God was not a being to be defined or a proposition to be tested, but an ultimate reality to be approached through myth, ritual and “apophatic” theology, which practices “a deliberate and principled reticence about God and/or the sacred” and emphasizes what we can’t know about the divine.
The reviewer notes that this claim needs to be highly qualified:
Armstrong concedes that the religious story she’s telling highlights only a particular trend within monotheistic faith. The casual reader, however, would be forgiven for thinking that the leading lights of premodern Christianity were essentially liberal Episcopalians avant la lettre.

In reality, these Christian sages were fiercely dogmatic by any modern standard. They were not fundamentalists, reading every line of Scripture literally, and they were, as Armstrong says, “inventive, fearless and confident in their interpretation of faith.” But their inventiveness was grounded in shared doctrines and constrained by shared assumptions. Their theology was reticent in its claims about the ultimate nature of God but very specific about how God had revealed himself on earth. It’s true that Augustine, for instance, did not interpret the early books of Genesis literally. But he certainly endorsed a literal reading of Jesus’ resurrection — and he wouldn’t have been much of a Christian theologian if he hadn’t.

Which is to say that it’s considerably more difficult than Armstrong allows to separate thought from action, teaching from conduct, and dogma from practice in religious history. The dogmas tend to sustain the practices, and vice versa. It’s possible to gain some sort of “knack” for a religion without believing that all its dogmas are literally true: a spiritually inclined person can no doubt draw nourishment from the Roman Catholic Mass without believing that the Eucharist literally becomes the body and blood of Christ. But without the doctrine of transubstantiation, the Mass would not exist to provide that nourishment. Not every churchgoer will share Flannery O’Connor’s opinion that if the Eucharist is “a symbol, to hell with it.” But the Catholic faith has endured for 2,000 years because of Flannery O’Connors, not Karen Armstrongs.
I quite agree.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Divine thoughts. (Warning: God talk and stuff)

Did God give me the hiccups? The Guardian

A pretty amusing anecdote from an atheist here. I like to think the answer to the question is "yes". It's just the right level of divine action towards an atheist about to go out proselytising: enough to make them wonder a little, even though no harm was done.

While we're on the topic of God and atheists, I finally finished Julian Barnes' "Nothing to be Frightened of". It is, by and large, a pretty enjoyable rambling bit of self-analysis and family memoir dealing with why he's always dreaded death. Most reviews note that it starts with the unusual line "I don't believe in God, but I miss him". (Well, maybe not so unusual. I see from another recently read book that a similar line of thought is expressed by one of the characters in Catch 22.)

Barnes has never been a believer, but he can understand the attraction of faith. He moved from youthful atheism to middle aged agnosticism. I suppose on that trajectory, he might end up a believer by the time he dies, even though he would not see that as at all likely.

I quite liked this passage about a commonly repeated theme in modern atheism:
Atheists in morally superior Category One (no God, no fear of death) like to tell us that the lack of a deity should not in any way diminish our sense of wonder in the universe. It may have all seemed both miraculous and user friendly when we imagined God had laid it on especially for us, from the harmony of the snowflake and the complex allusiveness of the passion flower to the spectacular showmanship of a solar eclipse. But if everything still moves without a Prime Mover, why should it be less wonderful? Why should we be children needing the teacher to show us things? The Antarctic penguin, for instance, is just as regal and comic, just as graceful and awkward, whether pre- or post-Darwin. Grow up, and let's examine together the allure of the double helix, the darkling glimmer of deep space, the infinite adjustments of plumage which demonstrate the laws of evolution, and the packed, elusive mechanism of the human brain. Why do we need some God to help us marvel at such things?

We don't. Not really. And yet. If what is out there comes from nothing, if all is unrolling mechanically according to a programme laid down by nobody, and if our perceptions of it are mere micro-movements of biochemical activity, the mere snap and crackle of a few synapses, then what does this sense of wonder amount to? Should we not be a little more suspicious of it? A dung beetle might well have a primitive sense of awe at the size of the mighty dung ball it is rolling. Is this wonder of ours merely a posher version?
You can, of course, extend this line of scepticism about the sense of wonder to every thought or emotion any human ever has, and argue that atheists, if consistent, should really all end up being nihilists. (Wikipedia says "Most commonly, nihilism is presented in the form of existential nihilism which argues that life is without objective meaning, purpose, or intrinsic value.") Most modern atheists don't take this line: they deny that their lack of belief is any detriment to the enjoyment of life; indeed, many argue that lack of belief in God is liberation to really enjoy all that life has to offer. The idea is that they are better off both intellectually and emotionally.

But if you take a merely naturalistic view of the universe, what intrinsic value does any emotion really have? Not much, when you get down to it. In a 1995 Richard Dawkins' interview for a Christian publication, he pretty much acknowledges this:

You would say that love is a spurious purpose?

Well, love is not a purpose, love is an emotion (which I certainly feel) which is another of those properties of brains.

A by-product?

Well, it's probably more than just a by-product. It's probably a very important product for gene survival. Certainly, sexual love would be, and so would parental love and various other sorts of love.

But to say that love is the purpose of life doesn't in any way chime in with the understanding of life which I feel we have achieved.

I will dip my toe into the dangerous world of theodicy now (and before doing so again offer my usual silent prayer that I not be personally tested by any intense experience of tragedy.)

It seems to me that atheists should really all intellectually be Zen Buddhists when it comes to the question of suffering. (Indeed, Susan Blackmore, the UK psychologist pretty popular in skeptic circles, follows Zen philosophy while not signing up fully with the religion.) That is, life is suffering, but it is ultimately all an illusion caused by desire which can be overcome by understanding the true nature of the universe.

But when they get into arguments on Christian style theodicy, it seems few atheists can avoid arguing as if the emotional power of suffering is itself the knock out blow against the idea of a good God. In doing so, aren't they elevating the emotional far above what their beliefs about the nature of the universe mean intellectually?

You could say that when it comes to Christians who suffer a crisis of faith due to (say) the death or suffering of a child, they also are experiencing a disjoint between their previous intellectual understanding of the universe (which accepts that a good God can allow suffering) against the intense pain and sense of injustice suddenly experienced in their own life. But at least in their case, the crisis has started from a belief that the love they have for the child is subset of the true, universal Love that is more than a passing emotion caused as by-product of the selfish gene. The Christian cannot undervalue love, hence the interference with the experience of it now is all the greater challenge.

Both atheists and believers having a faith crisis may feel that some forms of theodicy are like an insult, in that in attempting to intellectually explain their pain, it seems to be excusing or devaluing the depth of their emotional experience. But, without intending any insult or demeaning of their emotions, isn't it true that atheists have an intellectual understanding that downplays the significance of emotion in the big scheme of things anyway?

Maybe the argument is that, by religion giving people hope that love does triumph, it is setting them up for greater sense of loss when the world doesn't seem to pan out that way. I can understand the point, except that it is also starts from the assumption that their atheism is clearly true, and that all sensible people, like children who give up belief in Santa Clause, will ultimately end up at that position. I don't accept that assumption and consider that, at most, if you are not going to believe in God, agnosticism is the only really intellectually defensible alternative. Agnostics tend to let believers be, and some, like Julian Barnes, seem to even allow for a degree of envy.

Ultimately, I agree with the view that few atheists are rigorous in following their beliefs where they should intellectually take them, yet they are not inclined to admit it.

And finally, I see that soon after his book about death was published last year, Julian Barne's wife died. Presumably, this was a sudden and unexpected event, as he gives no indication in his book or in interviews that his wife's health had anything to do with his writing about death. I have to admit to an intrusive, and some would say, morbid interest in how Barnes has coped with this, and whether it has changed his attitudes in any way. As with other examples I can think of (CS Lewis having a shot at theodicy in The Problem of Pain, and then suffering badly when he finally fell in love and his wife promptly died), it certainly encourages the superstition that it is bad luck to talk about such things at all, and hence I should stop right now.