Sunday, February 28, 2010

An Anthony Lane moment...

Reviewing "Shutter Island", Lane complains:
The final twist is a fizzle; not because we see it coming (though we do) but because Scorsese, with a great weight of exposition dumped in his lap, struggles to keep it snappy. He even has a character stand beside a whiteboard and point out written clues. It’s like having “I Walked with a Zombie” interrupted by “Sesame Street.”

Run away! Run away!

Yang Guoxiang | Military Aviation | Air & Space Magazine

A good interview here with a Chinese pilot who, in 1971, couldn't get a test H Bomb to leave his aircraft, and decided to return to base with the dangerous load still attached. The reaction at the base was slightly comic, in retrospect:
There were 10,000 people on the airbase, although only a few knew about
the mission I was on. If anything went wrong, thousands would lose their
lives. The bomb under the fuselage would be hanging just ten
centimeters (four inches) above the ground as I landed....

No one could be sure whether or not the bomb would explode if it
touched the runway, but I was confident that I could set the airplane
down gently. So I landed with the H-bomb hanging under me. It was a
perfect landing. When I shut down the engine, there was total silence; I
was completely alone. The airfield was deserted. All 10,000 personnel
were sitting in tunnels under the ground. I could not leave the cockpit:
there was no ladder for me to climb down from the fuselage that was
high above the ground.

I called the tower and asked for help. The tower told me to work my
way back to the tail and jump. The people in the control tower were
angry; in their eyes I had put 10,000 lives at risk.

And I had caused a big mess. When I notified the tower that I was
returning with the bomb, the evacuation siren went off. It was lunchtime
at the airbase; everyone was sitting down and eating. They had to rush
out, put on gas masks and scramble into the tunnels. A big rice cooker
caught fire because there was no one left to take care of the kitchen.
Everyone there then still remembers my name: I could have brought them
their Judgment Day.

It took a long time for anyone to come near my aircraft. Our
procedures for dealing with the H-bomb meant we had to wear rubber shoes
and clothing that would not create static electricity. No metal was
allowed in the area of the bomb. In the nuclear weapons storage bunker,
all steel columns were wrapped in copper. Now that I had unexpectedly
brought the H-bomb back, there were no service vehicles equipped with
the required shielding. I sat out on the field for a long while.

Australians behaving badly overseas - 1945 to 1952 edition

I don't recall reading any Australian reviews of this 2008 book about the role of Australians in post WW II Japan, but it sounds pretty interesting:
Some 20,000 Aussies served for over six years in Hiroshima and environs, doing their part in the demilitarization, democratization and rebuilding of Japan. The British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), as the Australian contingent was formally known, made its presence felt, and not always for the good. ...

Predatory male sexual behavior? Yes, lots of that, often involving rape, assault and sometimes murder. Combing historical records and firsthand accounts, the author paints a sordid picture, explaining why local Japanese referred to the Australians as yabanjin (barbarian). Gerster writes: "Quite apart from the assaults and rapes was the ruinous cultural violence of men misbehaving because they could." More often than not, their antics were fueled by excessive drinking, which helps explain why so many Japanese pedestrians were victims of hti-and-run accidents. ...

Local women were discouraged from taking up with the soldiers by authorities who "warned that if they consorted with the Australians, they would give birth to kangaroos." Many apparently took their chances due to destitute circumstances and the shortage of Japanese men.
However, there is one line which makes me wonder about the author:
The Pacific War left a bitter legacy in Australia as many soldiers had suffered horribly as POWs. Even today, the author asserts, "anti-Japanese sentiment is endemic in the general community."
If there is any, I thinks it's fed by the whaling issue more than any other.

But still, the book apparently makes the point that:
It is all the more striking then to discover that many Australians developed respect for and intimacy with the former enemy, overcoming their prejudices in a way that left them out of sync with popular attitudes when they returned home.

Worth being reminded

This is not a new conclusion, but it would appear to be based on new modelling, and is worth bearing in mind:
The sun goes through an 11-year solar cycle during which its luminosity varies according to the number of sunspots appearing on its face. The normal cycle has a small effect on Earth's weather. But sometimes lulls in sunspot activity can last several decades, driving down the sun's luminosity to a "grand minimum". The Maunder minimum lasted from 1645 to 1715 and may have contributed to the little ice age.

Stefan Rahmstorf and Georg Feulner of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany modelled what would happen to temperatures on Earth if a grand minimum started now and lasted until 2100. They found that while temperatures would go down by as much as 0.3 °C, global warming would push up temperatures by 3.7 to 4.5 °C - more than negating any effect of a global minimum

Hadn't heard that one before

Jesus’s trip to Stonehenge and other bizarre notions - Catholic Herald Online

This is a pretty amusingly savage review of a book that promotes the idea that Jesus visited England (and specifically, Stonehenge!) during the "missing years" between his childhood and adult ministry.

I had heard of purported visits to India and/or Tibet before, and of post-crucifixion tourism to Japan. But Stonehenge: that's a new one for me.

Just wait 'til he works out what airplanes do...

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Proof that engineering and magic do not mix

Found via Scienceblogs:

Yes, but bad news for Australia's gas emissions

According to the ABC:
The lentil is commonly associated with the Indian dish dhal, flatulence and Neil the Hippy from the BBC comedy The Young Ones almost 30 years ago.

More recently though, the relatively cheap pulse has also emerged as one of the most lucrative crops to grow in Australia.
Last weekend, my wife tried a new recipe for braised lamb shanks, which featured mostly Indian curry-ish spices and lentils. The effects the next day were pretty dire.

Solar stuff up

At least in Victoria, putting solar on your roof top has not been going smoothly:
The Victorian Energy and Water Ombudsman, Fiona McLeod, said that six months ago there were 17 complaints a month but they had now reached 141 a month....
There are issues with the safety of some of the installations, but apart from that, there is the economic issue:
In November the state government lifted the rate Victorian households are paid for power they put back into the grid to 66 cents a kilowatt. But in switching to solar, many households have lost the discount rates they had for using off-peak power to run hot-water systems, reverse-cycle air-conditioners and in-floor heating.

The loss of those discounts has resulted in thousands of Victorian households being hit with higher power bills after switching to solar.
Yes, I would be mighty annoyed too if spending $5000 or more on solar resulted in higher electricity bills.

Apart from the link above, here's a longer article detailing the practical problems with installing solar. It includes this bit concerning the size of solar systems, about which I had been curious, because it seems that many companies lately have been advertising smaller systems, many just barely over one kilowatt:
Consumer Affairs Victoria and Energy Safe Victoria have been made aware of supposedly dodgy private operators who are either bringing in inferior panels from countries such as China, or installing the panels without adhering to the AS3000 standard for wiring.

These systems are not capable of generating the claimed one-kilowatt output.

A source at one power distributor told The Age homes with a standard one-kilowatt solar system, as recommended under Canberra's scheme, would ''very rarely'' contribute any power back to the grid and earn money for a household.

''Unless it's a sunny day, and a good quality panel, and not one of the cheap imports, a one-kilowatt system can barely power the fridge and hot water system, let alone feed any meaningful power back.''

Lots of problems yet to be sorted out.

Nuclear debate

Nuclear Power Plants Cost Too Much To Build

This article, and the comments that follow in rebuttal, makes for an interesting read on the issue of the economic cost of developing nuclear power.

Of course, it is only dealing with large power plants. It seems that virtually no one has looked at the costs of rolling out small scale nuclear (of the Hyperion type) on a large scale. (Yes I know, it seems only to be an option just starting to be available, although it also seems to me that small scale pebble bed may be a future option as well, if anyone will work on developing it.)

Friday, February 26, 2010

A long explanation

BBC News - Why is the car giant Toyota not Toyoda?

It takes a long time for them to explain, but it comes down to this:

"In 1936, the company held a competition for a new name. Toyota was a popular choice among many. "

According to the company, it received some 27,000 entries.

It says the winning design led to a change in the name of the automobiles and plants from "Toyoda" to "Toyota."

The name was chosen "because the number of strokes to write Toyota in Japanese (eight) was thought to bring luck and prosperity," it goes on.

The past remembered

Greeks mention the war in bitter German attack

Deputy Prime Minister Theodoros Pangalos said Germany had no right to reproach Greece for anything after it devastated the country under the Nazi occupation, which left 300,000 dead.

''They took away the gold that was in the Bank of Greece, and they never gave it back,'' he said. ''They shouldn't complain so much about stealing and not being very specific about economic dealings.''


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Yet another coming disaster

Disaster Awaits Cities in Earthquake Zones -

Andrew Revkin is writing on more than just climate change now, it seems, with a long and interesting article here on what a disaster a major earthquake in Istanbul will be.

He notes, for example:

Some of Turkey’s biggest builders have readily admitted to using shoddy materials and bad practices in the urban construction boom. In an interview last year with the Turkish publication Referans, Ali Agaoglu, a Turkish developer ranked 468th last year on the Forbes list of billionaires, described how in the 1970s, salty sea sand and scrap iron were routinely used in buildings made of reinforced concrete.

“At that time, this was the best material,” he said, according to a translation of the interview. “Not just us, but all companies were doing the same thing. If an earthquake occurs in Istanbul, not even the army will be able to get in.”

And this:

One prediction about a potent quake concluded that 30,000 natural gas lines were likely to rupture. “If just 10 percent catch fire, that’s 3,000 fires,” he said, adding that the city’s fire stations are able to handle at most 30 to 40 fires in one day.

As for the status of engineers there:

Dr. Bilham at the University of Colorado has estimated that an engineer is involved in just 3 percent of the construction under way around the world.

Peter Yanev, who has advised the World Bank and the insurance industry on earthquake engineering and is the author of “Peace of Mind in Earthquake Country,” noted that in Turkey and other developing countries, even when someone with an engineering degree was involved, that was no guarantee of safe construction because there was little specialized training or licensing.

I also didn't realise that Tehran was in such danger too:

In Tehran, Iran’s capital, Dr. Bilham has calculated that one million people could die in a predicted quake similar in intensity to the one in Haiti, which the Haitian government estimates killed 230,000. (Some Iranian geologists have pressed their government for decades to move the capital because of the nest of surrounding geologic faults.)
Pity God can't arrange for one just big and localised enough to take out some uranium centrifuges.


Why Clint Eastwood Is Ridiculously Overrated - The Daily Beast

I feel the same about Eastwood as I do about Mel Gibson: nothing they have ever done (that I have seen) strikes me as especially good. In fact, most of it I positively dislike.

Even if you don't agree with my assessment, I think the article is well argued and perhaps more generous than me, despite its title.

Local research news

Rising carbon snuffs coral

In a large experiment on Australia’s Heron Island, the team simulated CO2 and temperature conditions predicted for the middle and end of this century, based on current forecasts of the world’s likely emission levels and warming by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The results of their analyses of the bleaching, growth and survival of a number of organisms including corals indicates that a number of very important reef builders may be completely lost in near future.

“We found that coralline algae, which glue the reef together and help coral larvae settle successfully, were highly sensitive to increased CO2. These may die on reefs such as those in the southern Great Barrier Reef (GBR) before year 2050,” says Dr Anthony.

As Ove Hoegh-Guldberg is one of the researchers involved, Andrew Bolt will no doubt dismiss this. And, I have to admit, I think Ove does tend to the most pessimistic interpretation of anything that affects coral.

However, I am still concerned that he is right on the long term prospects.

Just wondering

BBC News - Whale kills SeaWorld trainer during Orlando show

The first report of this I saw this morning said it wasn't during a show. This more detailed report seems to confirm it was, and will presumably affect some of the witnesses for some time:
Park guest Victoria Biniak told a local TV channel that the trainer had just finished explaining to the audience what they were about to see.

At that point, she said, the whale "took off really fast, and then he came back around to the glass, jumped up, grabbed the trainer by the waist and started shaking her violently. The last thing we saw was her shoe floating."

However, officials say the trainer apparently fell into the tank whilst addressing an audience of guests, and was killed accidentally by the killer whale.

I am curious as to how much money a killer whale trainer is paid. Surely it would be worth a hell of a lot in danger money.

And for that matter, will they finally give up on training these animals at all? Sound like they are too dangerous to bother with.

Update: go to the Orlando Sentinel for more confusion over exactly how it happened, as well as a line which I think they should change to avoid very black humour jokes:
Other eyewitnesses who were in the park for the Dining with Shamu told the Sentinel that a female trainer was petting a whale when it grabbed her and plunged back into the water. The whale reappeared on the other side of the tank.
There's also a photo of the deceased trainer, doing something you wouldn't get me to do for a million bucks.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

An ever so slightly controversial teaching

A new religious opinion from Saudi Arabia:

Saudi religious figure Shaikh Abdul Rahman Al Barrak on Tuesday said that the mixing of genders at the workplace or in educational institutions was religiously prohibited on the grounds that it allowed seeing what must not be seen and engaging in forbidden conversations.

Those who refuse to abide by strict segregation between men and women should be put to death, he said.

This is, fortunately, not showing signs of being widely accepted:
However, Kuwaiti scholars said that such an edict could come only from "a senile person or someone who wants to sow sedition in the nation by allowing the killing of innocent people."

I didn't know that...(a long continuing series)

The mystery of the 100-tonne whale | Environment | The Guardian

From the above article talking about a stranded whale in England:
The carcasses can communicate zoonotic, or inter-species disease (as can live whales, a warning for anyone within spouting distance of a cetacean), or worse. The buildup of gases in an ­animal's stomach can cause a whale to expand to bursting point – in 1617, a sperm whale beached at Scheveningen in the Netherlands exploded, fatally infecting bystanders.

Brave new world indeed

Ministers admit failure over cutting ‘shameful’ teenage pregnancies - Times Online

Ministers accept that they cannot meet Tony Blair’s target, set in 1999, of halving pregnancies among under-18s by 2012. Figures today will show that Britain still has the highest teenage pregnancy rate in Western Europe.

About 40,000 such girls, or 40 per 1,000, become pregnant each year — a modest fall from the 1998 tally of 46.6 per 1,000. Back then Mr Blair called Britain’s record shameful.

So what great new ideas does the government have to reduce teenage pregnancies?:
Among plans to be announced today will be more access to long-acting contraception, such as implants and injections, and phone texts to remind girls to use contraceptives.
I reckon if Huxley had put this in his novel Brave New World, people would have thought it an appropriate part of his satire.

Some people in Britain have a better idea:
But critics say far more needs to be done to deter young people from having sex, rather than providing them with ever more free condoms and access to the contraceptive pill. The average age at which young people first have sex is 16, compared with almost 18 in the Netherlands, which has the lowest rate of teenage pregnancy.
I am surprised that no one is looking at the entire culture, where TV popular with teenagers features sex regularly. According to this report a couple of years ago, Sex and the City can be linked to higher rates of teenage pregnancy. However, I reckon it is the Channel 4 shows like Shameless, and that teenage soap featuring a lot of sex (the name of which escapes me for the moment) have as much to do with it as any American sitcom marketed for adults.

The sad story of the pebble bed reactor

Pebble-bed nuclear reactor gets pulled : Nature News

South Africa has stopped funding for the development of its own pebble bed reactor. (Actually, I thought there was a recent announcement of some energy funding to SA from Obama, and that it might have been going to help with the pebble bed demonstration reactor. But maybe that was just my guess.)

Anyhow, Nature explains what went wrong with the project in South Africa:
Runaway costs and technical problems helped to doom the project, says Thomas. "In 1998, they were saying that they would have the demo plant online in 2003" at a cost of 2 billion rands, he says. "The final estimate was that the demo plant would be online in 2018 and it would cost 30 billion rands." Furthermore, he adds, the PBMR has never been held to account for why costs rose every year, why the completion date was continually pushed back or the nature of its design problems.

In a final twist, the PBMR announced last year that it was indefinitely shelving plans to build a demonstration plant. The programme's demise will not help South Africa's goal of doubling its 35,000-megawatt power-generating capacity by 2025.

One problem was that the design became too ambitious, says John Walmsley, past president of the South African branch of the Nuclear Institute, a professional society for nuclear engineers. The PBMR hoped to push the reactor's operating temperature as high as possible to enable not just electricity generation, but also 'process heat' applications such as turning coal into liquid fuels, he says. It also aimed to boost the power output to the very limits of the design to make the reactor more economical. "They tried to build a BMW when they maybe should have started with a Morris Minor," he says.

Even the passive safety feature of the design may have been overstated, it appears:

Although many scientists had hoped that the safety system of the pebble-bed design would win over opponents of nuclear power, a 2008 report from the Jülich Research Centre cast doubt on those claims, suggesting that core temperatures could rise even higher than the safe threshold.

Tsinghua University in Beijing now hosts the only operational prototype pebble-bed reactor, although similar reactors are being developed in the United States and the Netherlands. But the PBMR's problems are not unique, says Thomas. "Every nuclear nation in the world has had a programme to commercialize this type of reactor, and they all got nowhere."
Well, I'm not giving up yet, as long as some company somewhere is still looking at them.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Too good to be true?

Will Bloom box replace power grid? Details on Wednesday

A bit of a publicity splash is starting for a fuel cell that (allegedly) has already been used by some companies and works well.

It is said to run on natural gas, bio-gas and solar energy (?).

However, as I've noted before, Japan has been quietly deploying natural gas fuel cells for houses for a couple of years. I assume this American version is meant to be significantly better. This part sounds a bit optimistic:
Sridhar said the chemical reaction is efficient and clean, creating energy without burning or combustion. He said that two Bloom boxes - each the size of a grapefruit - could wirelessly power a US home, fully replacing the ; one box could power a European home, and two or three Asian homes could share a single box. Although currently a commercial unit costs $700,000-$800,000 each, Sridhar hopes to manufacture home units that cost less than $3,000 in five to 10 years.
Elsewhere, the article indicates that the amount of gas used by one of the commercially trialled one is half that which would be used if the gas was used in a normal power station. Interesting, but we will see.

Laptop, textbook, pistol

Colorado students fight for gun rights - Americas, World - The Independent

What seemed like common sense to some is nothing less than an assault on the US Constitution to others, which is why a governors meeting at Colorado State University today to approve a ban on students bearing concealed weapons on its main campus in Fort Collins is likely to be rowdy.

Preventing bloodshed is the first thing on the board's mind. It is three years since the shooting rampage at Virginia Tech that took the lives of 32 students and staff and just under two weeks since Amy Bishop, a professor at the University of Alabama, allegedly shot six of her colleagues, killing three of them.

Yet there has been such a push-back against the plan that the board may defer a decision today to await further public comment.
According to the article, "the student's governing body voted overwhelmingly to resist the gun ban." Sounds like student unionism in the US is a very different creature from student unionism here.

This part is also surprising:
Since the Virginia shootings, state legislatures across the US have debated a variety of laws concerning guns in lecture halls, but few have taken significant action. The most recent big change came in Utah in 2004, which voted to lift a decades-old gun ban for the 44,000-strong University of Utah.
Even if you allow any student with a gun licence to bring it to campus, just how many would do it as a precautionary measure for the next student/lecturer massacre? How many times have we ever read of individual with their own concealed weapon taking decisive action against a workplace/school/university shooting?

Dubious at best

Polluting pets: the devastating impact of man's best friend

According to the article, dogs have a very high "carbon footprint", but don't think your other pets get off lightly:
Cats have an eco-footprint of about 0.15 hectares, slightly less than driving a Volkswagen Golf for a year, while two hamsters equates to a plasma television and even the humble goldfish burns energy equivalent to two mobile telephones.
I can imagine someone somewhere telling the kids "it's the plasma, or the hamsters; one of them has to go." The trauma that could cause...

Cultural issues (cont.)

I didn't catch all of Four Corners last night about the tradition of "boy play" of Afghanistan, but it certainly was a remarkable show, painting a picture of pretty routine paedophilia between older men and young teenage boys in the north of the country. (My post yesterday mentioned the Pashtans and their routine homosexuality in the south. Seems there is little escaping it.)

There seems to be virtually none of the secrecy that men with such interests in the West keep. Who knew that Ancient Greece was alive and well just down the road and around the corner? I had thought that talk of Arab/Muslim countries where interest in boys was high had probably been exaggerated; now that generous view seems wrong.

The overall impression was not so much shock; more that this was a really weird culture. I mean, it would appear that the standard wedding feast entertainment for men is to sit in a room and watch a 15 year old boy dance; although fully clothed, this appears to hold much erotic interest for the men. (The younger boys watching just look rather puzzled.) Is this what happens as a result of centuries of the subjugation of, and separation from, women?

The height of modernity is apparently to ask your wife if you can have a boy to live in the house in the spare room. Of course, traditionalists couldn' t care less about the wife's views.

I also can't help feeling how good this must make the young, conservative Marines from mid-West America feel when they are trying to save the country from the bad guys. A greater cultural divide would be harder to imagine.

More on dealing with waste

Technology Review: GE Hitachi's Answer to Nuclear Waste

Rather than update my previous post on the topic, I'll just park this here. They are still talking reactors with sodium: an idea even I feel nervous about.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Burning the forests by proxy

Yet another depressing story about forests and palm oil noted in this blog post from the AAAS meeting:

Holly Gibbs, a researcher at Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment, also showed data that attempts to help clarify one aspect of the climate debate. Two papers published last year suggested that clearing tropical forests to plant biofuel crops might actually worsen climate change, but that planting biofuels crops on "degraded" land - such as abandoned agricultural land - offers a net benefit to climate. Gibbs analyzed satellite images taken from 1980 to 2000 to try to answer the question of whether tropical crops are largely being planted on deforested or degraded land. She found that the majority of new crops were planted on freshly deforested rather than degraded land.

Gibbs said she could not tell from her data whether the new crops were planted for food or fuel. But she added, "What we know is that biofuell use is definitely fueling deforestation." She said when biofuel prices increase, the amount of deforestation increases as well. She said she would personally estimate that between one-third to two-thirds of deforestation over the past couple of years has been due to the planting of biofuel crops.

I guess that in the argument about the role the market should play in plans to reduce CO2, this example would indicate that direct action is better in some cases.

Another depressing drugs story

The 10p cocaine by-product turning Argentina's slum children into the living dead

Here's the story of a drug that is causing mayhem in the poor neighbourhoods of Argentina:
A toxic and highly addictive mixture of raw cocaine base cut with chemicals, glue, crushed glass and rat poison, paco is the curse of Argentina's urban poor. And consumption of this bastardised, low-grade drug is eating away at the vitality and hope of the most deprived neighbourhood areas of the capital.

Essentially a chemical waste product, paco is what remains from the narco-kitchens producing cocaine bound for US and European markets. Since its appearance on the streets of Buenos Aires in the late 1990s, the drug has taken a deadly grip in slums such as Itatí. ­Levels of addiction rose by more than 200% in the first part of the decade and more than 400,000 doses are now being consumed daily.

Users are witheringly referred to as the muertos vivientes – the living dead – of Buenos Aires. Addictive after one or two hits, the drug systematically destroys the nervous system. Users quickly become skeletal and ravaged, resorting to crime, violence and prostitution to feed their habits. Enormous numbers die in short order.

If there's enough money to be made from selling this to the very poor, I imagine that the old "just legalise drugs" argument may not cut it with this one.

Had I read this before?

AAAS 2010 Annual Meeting News

Bisphenol A has been under investigation for all sort of possible endocrine interference, but I am not sure if I had heard this before (the link is to a discussion just held at the AAAS meeting in the States):
In an interview with Science Update, AAAS's 60-second radio show, neuroendocrinologist Heather Patisaul of North Carolina State University says bisphenol A exposure disrupts reproductive development in both rats and humans.

"What happens with our rats is they go through puberty too early," Patisaul said, "and this mirrors what we’re seeing in girls in the U.S., where the age of puberty is getting lower."
Her concern is also:
The experimental tools and approaches that have traditionally been used by toxicologists to screen compounds for estrogenic effects are not sensitive enough or appropriately geared to detect these subtle types of changes. Therefore, to adequately conduct human risk assessment, it is imperative that endocrine disruptor screening paradigms be updated to more comprehensively examine the impact of these types of compounds.
All a bit of a worry.

Only in Japan

Could 'Godzilla cherry blossom' save Japanese culture? | The Japan Times Online

Japan nuclear scientists have used cyclotron to irradiate the famous cherry blossom tree to see if they could turn up useful mutations.

It seems they have, making one which can bloom more than once a year.

Problem is, this could cause cultural mayhem, given the amount of partying that happens during cherry blossom season.

Interestingly, though, they are blooming earlier every year:
Last year the "blossom front" (constantly reported on television weather programs) reached Tokyo five days ahead of schedule at the start of April — the fourth year in a row that it has been early.

Cultural issues

A couple of weeks ago, Fox News carried a story which started:
An unclassified study from a military research unit in southern Afghanistan details how homosexual behavior is unusually common among men in the large ethnic group known as Pashtuns -- though they seem to be in complete denial about it.

The study, obtained by Fox News, found that Pashtun men commonly have sex with other men, admire other men physically, have sexual relationships with boys and shun women both socially and sexually -- yet they completely reject the label of "homosexual." The research was conducted as part of a longstanding effort to better understand Afghan culture and improve Western interaction with the local people.

The research unit, which was attached to a Marine battalion in southern Afghanistan, acknowledged that the behavior of some Afghan men has left Western forces "frequently confused."

Well that's all very interesting, I thought. What would they think of openly homosexual Western soldiers, then? Share some understanding, or hate them for being "gay"? In any event, it seemed odd that no other big news outlet talked about the study. And it is Fox News after all. Could their reporting be trusted?

Well, it would appear so. I see on Four Corners tonight they have a whole show on boy sex slaves of Afghanistan.

What an odd country.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Bye bye David

The last two Doctor Who episodes featuring David Tenant were distinctly underwhelming, I thought. I don't think it's good writing when, in about 130 minutes of television, you only have the plot explained at about the 80 minute mark.

In fact, it's pretty clear that Russell T Davies stayed on about a season too long. (I never took to Donna.)

It will be interesting to see where the series goes from here, though. I do hope we get an end to things like the Doctor playing cupid to gay guys, which was one weird little aspect of last night's show.

Imaginary eye witnesses to history

Doubts Raised on Book’s Tale of Atom Bomb -

It appears certain that the late Joseph Fuoco, written up in a new book on Hiroshima as a witness to the dropping of the atomic bomb, was not on the bombing run at all. (He was on the recon trips before it, but there is very strong evidence that he was not on the actual bombing run.)

Apparently, the claim to have been on one of the planes involved is quite common:

Mr. Gackenbach, the flight’s navigator, said the misrepresentations of Mr. Fuoco were unusual only in that they showed up in a book. He said many former servicemen had falsely claimed to have flown over Hiroshima on the famous bombing run.

If all of them had actually been there, Mr. Gackenbach added, the aircraft “could never have taken off.”

How odd.

Burying your problems

Climate Feedback: Gut reactions to carbon storage

Annoying, this interesting post at the Nature Climate Feedback blog* has a couple of links to paywall protected articles in Nature about CO2 sequestration. (If I had any influence at all in the world of science, I would start a campaign to have all the major science journals make all climate change papers and article available for free as a public service on a vital issue.)

Anyhow, the post notes that residents in both Europe and the USA are protesting carbon sequestration near their homes; while other people want it to be buried on their land. (Why I don't know; can they make money from it?)

The post contains this observation:
At current rates of progress, asking about your gut reaction to practical carbon storage is a purely hypothetical question. But the schedule that the International Energy Agency have set the industry is staggering. By 2050, the volume of liquid carbon dioxide that must be injected underground for permanent storage each year would be three times the annual amount of petroleum we currently use (85 million barrels).
I remain very skeptical of the benefits of even attempting this.

*by the way, has anyone ever found a harder website to understand than the site? I found this Feedback blog some weeks ago, didn't bookmark it, then took ages to re-locate it.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Problems with new nuclear

Scientific American talks about the problems with fast neutron reactors.

I haven't paid much attention to the issues with this type of reactor, which are supposed to help with reducing the disposal problem. But combining sodium and nuclear reactors not only sounds dangerous; it's been proved dangerous:
The most prevalent type of fast-neutron reactor, so-called because the neutrons used to initiate the fission chain reaction are traveling faster than neutrons moderated by water in conventional nuclear reactors, operate at temperatures as high as 550 degrees Celsius and use liquid sodium instead of water as a coolant. Sodium burns explosively when exposed to either air or water, necessitating elaborate safety controls. Nevertheless, as far back as 1951 at Idaho National Laboratory, such a sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor produced electricity.

But attempts to make that technology commercial have largely failed, mostly because of difficulties with controlling sodium fires and the steam generators that transfer heat from the sodium to water. Japan's Monju sodium-cooled fast neutron reactor caught fire in 1995—and has just received permission to resume operation this month after years of technical difficulties in repairing it, along with legal challenges to its restart. The French Superphenix sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactor operated successfully for more than a decade—but only produced electricity 7 percent of the time, "one of the lowest load factors in nuclear history," said nuclear consultant Mycle Schneider, an IPFM member during the call. An accident at the plant cost one engineer his life and injured four other people when a leftover tank with roughly 100 kilograms of sodium residue exploded, according to Schneider.
It's not like they haven't tried to improve them:
As far back as 1956, Adm. Hyman Rickover, who oversaw both the Navy's nuclear-propulsion efforts as well as the dawn of the civilian nuclear power industry, cited such sodium-cooled fast-neutron reactors as "expensive to build, complex to operate, susceptible to prolonged shutdown as a result of even minor malfunctions, and difficult and time-consuming to repair." That judgment remains despite six decades and $100 billion of global effort, according to physicist Michael Dittmar of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich who wrote, "ideas about near-future commercial fission breeder reactors are nothing but wishful thinking" in a November 2009 analysis.

"For that $100 billion we did learn some things," remarked physicist Thomas Cochran of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, during the IPFM call. "We learned that fast reactors were going to cost substantially more than light-water reactors…[and]…that, relative to thermal reactors, they're not very reliable."
The article goes on to note that Bill Gates has been promoting a new type of reactor, the travelling wave reactor, which would have cores that contain fuel for 30 years. Trouble is, the materials needed for that aren't developed yet.

Thorium breeder reactors get a bit of a pessimistic hit too:
Wrapping highly fissile plutonium in a thorium blanket could produce enough nuclear fuel indefinitely, according to the vision laid out by the architect of India's nuclear program, physicist Homi J. Bhabha, in 1954. The Indian government is currently building such a prototype fast breeder reactor, despite limited success with a precursor, said Princeton physicist M. V. Ramana during the IPFM call. "The cost of electricity is 80 percent higher than from heavy-water reactors," he added. Uranium prices would need to increase 15-fold from current levels of roughly $80 per kilogram to make it economically attractive.
Nothing with nuclear is terribly easy, it seems.

It's also interesting to note that a French nuclear company has bought a major US solar thermal company. Maybe it pays to diversify.

How not to do tourism

Insensitivity makes waves with Japanese tourists

Most of the observations in this article about why Japanese tourism to Australia has dropped off seems true. Some of the points make are a bit amusing:

BEFORE Noriko Mochizuki travelled to Australia, she had heard about koalas, kangaroos, beaches, and strange men in cars who killed backpackers.

By the time she returns home to Tokyo, the 25-year-old will tell her friends that - the infamous Ivan Milat backpacker murders aside - Australians are relaxed, kind and sometimes very rude.

''Sometimes you go to buy something at a coffee shop and they don't want to understand or they just ignore you,'' she said during a surfing lesson with Surfs Up near Cronulla.

''The customer service is much, much better in Japan.''

Unfortunately, the customer service in Japan is probably the best in the world, so most Japanese travelling need to take that into account. (But I think most do to an extent.)

As for Australia's attempts to attract tourists again:

Professor Orito said Tourism Australia had done nothing to help itself with the disastrous 'So where the bloody hell are you?' advertising blitz, "whose meaning was lost on the Japanese".

"The campaign last year based on the movie Australia was an even bigger flop."

The problem has been compounded by a series of misguided tourism campaigns, which culminated last year in the ''Aussie Oji" competition, designed to lure Japanese women to Australia to look for their oji, or prince - a message a Japanese tourism expert described as "insensitive''.

One Japanese tourism operator in the Gold Coast said there was no point offering constructive criticism to the Australian tourism industry "because they ignore our complaints about the treatment of tourists. Nothing is going to change."

I think everyone would have to agree that the current New Zealand tourism campaign in Australia is really very good. Why can that little place manage it while we've been failing for more than a decade now?

Friday, February 19, 2010

You don't see that every day...

Have a look at this fascinating sky effect caused during a recent NASA rocket launch. (It happens around the 1.52 mark.):

It is apparently caused by acoustic shock wave travelling through a "sun dog". Looks cool whatever it was.

Drive by wire

Should we be worried that our cars are controlled by software? - By Farhad Manjoo - Slate Magazine

I didn't realise the extent to which cars had become "drive by wire" until the recent Toyota problems. This article explains all.

Can kitchen gadgets get any sillier?

Autonomous Saucier – auto-stir bot makes for perfect sauces

And here I thought that a cheese heater was about as over-specialised as a kitchen device could possibly be.

A bit of a surprise

An ibuprofen a day could keep Parkinson's disease away, study suggests

The research involved 136,474 people who did not have Parkinson's disease at the beginning of the research. Participants were asked about their use of non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including aspirin, ibuprofen and acetaminophen. After six years, 293 participants had developed Parkinson's disease.

The study found regular users of ibuprofen were 40 percent less likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people who didn't take ibuprofen. Also, people who took higher amounts of ibuprofen were less likely to develop Parkinson's disease than people who took smaller amounts of the drug. The results were the same regardless of age, smoking and caffeine intake.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Things not greener on other side of our fence

Aid workers earning more than Rudd | The Australian

According to the article, being an Australian technical adviser to a near neighbour (and having your salary paid by government aid) can be very, very profitable.

But the reason I post about this is more because of this line:
...AusAID believes it is necessary to pay such amounts to persuade people with the needed skills to work in a place such as Port Moresby, recently listed by The Economist as the third-least liveable city in the world.
And to think, when I was a kid, there were always advertisements on TV for holidays to PNG.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

How the market works in Dubai

Pepsi, Coke prices in UAE likely to increase

Why on earth is the government of UAE involved in this at all?? Are they scared of fizzy drink riots in the streets if the price of Pepsi and Coke gets too high??:
The Ministry of Economy will decide on a price increase request for Pepsi and Coca-Cola products by the end of next week, a top official said.

"We have received the request from both companies and we will send it to the higher committee of consumer protection for approval," Ahmad Abdul Aziz Al Shehi, director-general of the Ministry of Economy (MoE) told Gulf News in a recent interview.

Though the two companies have not stated the price yet, Al Shehi said that if approved, the increase would be less than 100 per cent.

So, as the current price of a regular can is Dh1, its new price would be under Dh2.

In all GCC countries except the UAE and Qatar, Pepsi and Coca-Cola prices have increased. While the proposal for an increase was given a year ago, the situation has changed and the companies have a better argument at this point, Al Shehi said.

Al Ahlia Gulf Line, manufacturer and distributor of Coca-Cola products in the UAE, said that it had several meetings with the MoE for a price increase request.

"We have maintained our price in [the] UAE for the past 22 years but with an increase in almost all raw materials and costs involved in the manufacturing of products ...there should be now a price review," Antoine Tayyar, Public Affairs and Communications Director for The Coca-Cola Export Corporation, Middle East said in a statement.


Things that make me happy, No 3

Series 3 of The IT Crowd is on ABC.

With the first episode last week, I thought it may be approaching shark jumping territory. The laugh track seemed way too pumped up for the jokes, and Jen had a very strange hair style.

But tonight, the second episode was much better. If you know the show, you'll understand how funny this bit was.

Mad clinic design

Dezeen MD. net Clinic Akasaka by Nendo
Japanese designers Nendo have completed the interior of a mental health clinic in Akasaka, Tokyo, where none of the doors open and patients and staff instead move around the building by opening sections of the walls.
Yes, because we can all imagine how people attending a psychiatric clinic would like to be confused and tricked by a bunch of fake doors.

You can see photos of the place, which looks to me more like some sort of trick house from Disneyland than a medical clinic, at the link above.

Conspiracy corner

David Aaronovitch’s ‘Voodoo Histories’ - Review -

This review of The Times columnist's book on 20th century conspiracy theories sounds like it could be a good and entertaining read. I like this extract:
Of those who claim that the Pentagon was not hit on 9/11 by a terrorist-piloted American Airlines Flight 77, Mr. Aaronovitch sarcastically observes: “But there is always the possibility, however extraordinarily remote, that DNA might have been planted to the exact specifications of the missing passengers, crew and employees, that wreckage might somehow have been placed at the scene within minutes of the crash, and that the real occupants of the missing Flight 77 might have been spirited away to some unknown place, there to be butchered or to live in the world’s weirdest witness protection program.”

Ocean Acidification and the PETM

An Ominous Warning on the Effects of Ocean Acidification by Carl Zimmer: Yale Environment 360

Quite a good article here explaining a recent paper that compared the rate of acidification 55 million years ago during one gigantic natural disaster to the current circumstances.

Here's a key paragraph:
Ridgwell and Schmidt found that ocean acidification is happening about ten times faster today than it did 55 million years ago. And while the saturation horizon rose to 1,500 meters 55 million years ago, it will lurch up to 550 meters on average by 2150, according to the model.

The PETM was powerful enough to trigger widespread extinctions in the deep oceans. Today’s faster, bigger changes to the ocean may well bring a new wave of extinctions. Paleontologists haven’t found signs of major extinctions of corals or other carbonate-based species in surface waters around PETM. But since today’s ocean acidification is so much stronger, it may affect life in shallow water as well. “We can’t say things for sure about impacts on ecosystems, but there is a lot of cause for concern,” says Ridgwell.
Ocean acidification skeptics from Plimer down are always arguing that the oceans didn't die when CO2 was much higher than today. The answer to that point is again explained clearly in the article:
A hundred million years ago, there was over five times more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and the ocean was .8 pH units lower. Yet there was plenty of calcium carbonate for foraminifera and other species. It was during this period, in fact, that shell-building marine organisms produced the limestone formations that would eventually become the White Cliffs of Dover.

But there’s a crucial difference between the Earth 100 million years ago and today. Back then, carbon dioxide concentrations changed very slowly over millions of years. Those slow changes triggered other slow changes in the Earth’s chemistry. For example, as the planet warmed from more carbon dioxide, the increased rainfall carried more minerals from the mountains into the ocean, where they could alter the chemistry of the sea water. Even at low pH, the ocean contains enough dissolved calcium carbonate for corals and other species to survive.

Today, however, we are flooding the atmosphere with carbon dioxide at a rate rarely seen in the history of our planet. The planet’s weathering feedbacks won’t be able to compensate for the sudden drop in pH for hundreds of thousands of years.

An interesting case to follow

Ray Gosling refuses to talk to police after confessing he 'killed lover'

It'll be pretty interesting to follow what happens here. He has said he won't repeat this to the police, but there is no reason why a confession to a third person can't be used. The police will presumably be able to track down the doctor who Gosling says impliedly invited him to smother his lover:

In an interview today, Mr Gosling said that the doctor on duty that afternoon had effectively invited him to do something, by deliberately leaving him alone with the dying man.

"Yes, of course the doctor knew (what I had done)," he said.

"There was this moment and the doctor said to me something like: 'I will pop out and have a fag now' or 'go to the canteen' or 'go to another ward – and will you still be here when I get back, Ray?' And I said, 'Ye-es'.

"It was an invitation. Why do doctors leave extra morphine for people who are in extreme pain? 'It's in the drawer, just in case you need it' ... Doctors are doing this every day."

Not sensible doctors, I reckon.

Update: The Independent's article on the matter notes this:
He said the man wasn't even his partner, but "my bit on the side"...
Mr Gosling was suitably vague about both the date, mentioning only that it was in the early days of Aids (presumably the mid-late 1980s), and the location (placing the hospital outside but not too far from Nottingham). He offered no other detail, and assuming he declines to help the police with their enquiries, they will soon be free to close the file and return their attentions to the gun crime of which Nottingham is said to be our capital.

They may even conclude that Mr Gosling made the whole thing up, much like the magazine publisher Felix Dennis when he mentioned in an interview how he summarily executed a wife-beater of his acquaintance by shoving him over a cliff.

Yes, an investigation in circumstances that vague may not come to much.


Barack Obama gives green light to new wave of nuclear reactors | Environment |

It would seem from the article that the cost of a nuclear reactor in the US is about $4.4 billion. It's also interesting to note this:

The Southern reactors are to be built with the new Westinghouse AP1000 design, which Chu said was safer and more economical than the older generation of reactors. "If you lose control, it will not melt down," he said. "Three Mile Island was a partial melt down. It was serious, but on the other hand the containment vessel held."

Chu also disputed a report from the Congressional Budget Office that put the risk of default on loans to the nuclear industry as high as 50%. "We are looking at ways to increase ways of building these projects on time and on budget," he said.

Yes, I would have thought the risk of default on building a power plant would be pretty low.

Waste of time

Bill of rights

A PROPOSAL for Australia to adopt a human rights act appears to have hit the fence after widespread opposition within the federal cabinet.

Senior sources have told the Herald that the proposal, sponsored by the Attorney-General, Robert McClelland, met stiff opposition because it had the potential to shift power from the executive to the judiciary.

No final decision has been made but there is little prospect of an act being adopted.

''Put it this way, there's not a great appetite for a major transference of power from Parliament to the courtroom,'' a source said.

Err, why didn't someone tell McClelland and Father Frank Brennan this before the committee toured the country consulting the tiny fraction of the community that actually had any interest?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Grand Tour recommended

Just a quite note to say how much I have been enjoying Kevin McCloud's Grand Tour documentary series on ABC. It traces the origins of English neo-classical architecture and decoration, explaining that it all arose through the popularity of Italy as a destination from the 1600's onwards for architects (and men of all types) who, as well as having a generally debauched holiday, spent a lot of time sketching and copying ideas to incorporate buildings back in England. Tonight's episode in and around Naples was particularly entertaining, featuring as it did a very eccentric 83 year old woman who seemed to only want to talk about sex.

The episode is currently on iView, and is repeated soon on ABC 2. McCloud is a great host for a travel show like this: enthusiastic, humorous, and able to speak the language.

Hot in Brisbane, and elsewhere

I've long been making the observation that the worst of summer in Brisbane now routinely seems to come in February. This seems different from the 60's and 70's, when I would have said January was the hottest month. But then again, I didn't have quite the same interest in noting the weather as I have now.

Brisbane also gets some periods when the weather feels much hotter than the Weather Bureau seems to be saying it is. This used to be because temperature on the TV and radio came from Brisbane Airport, which is right on Moreton Bay. But they changed that some years ago, so that temperatures were taken from somewhere in the city. In the last few days, however, I have heard the radio referring to Brisbane Airport a lot again. I don't know why.

In any event, the last few days in Brisbane have been stinking hot and humid, despite the Weather Bureau giving out maximums of only 31 degrees or thereabouts. Yesterday was particularly unpleasant. I see that Ipswich had a maximum of 36 degrees, while Brisbane recorded nearly 31. I was somewhere between them, and would say it was definitely close to at least 35 degrees.

We got the edge of a storm last night, and this morning it is ridiculously humid again.

As I have remarked here before, the hottest, most humid nights I have even been through in Brisbane were in a February in a year I couldn't quite recall, but a reader reminded me that it was in 1998. The last few days have not reached quite those heights, but 1998 was an El Nino year as this one is.

Which reminds me, I don't think I posted on the record January temperature that the UAH satellite recorded. To his (very, very slight) credit, Andrew Bolt did note this. Yet strangely, this figure does not seem to have received much attention in the mainstream press, which instead in currently in an obsessive cycle of beating up on errors in any IPCC reports which are ultimately not very important. Real Climate's posts about this are useful as a corrective, and I am sure everyone who reads Andrew Bolt rushes there to see what climate scientists actually say about the issue. (Ha!)

So how hot will February be according to the satellite? I see from this page that it looks like February is on track to be very hot indeed. Will we finally see the 1998 record broken?

Finally, for all of the cheering about "Climategate" from the right wing skeptic/denialist corner of journalism and blogs, you would think that absolutely no one in Australia is supporting the government's ETS. In fact, even to my surprise, today's Newspoll indicates 57% support for it still. Amongst the young and Labor voters, support is still very strong. The weakest support (and the strongest denial of AGW generally) comes, as I always suspected, from older men. (Although, again to my surprise, the figures for "warming is at least partly caused by humans" is pretty high even in that group.)

This gives me some cheer that Australians might not be as easily swayed as the British and Americans, and perhaps this supports my argument that, apart from the current rubbish journalism, the snowy winter in those places has been very persuasive on public opinion.

Still, as the average audience for a Christopher Monckton talk has shown, it would appear that retired men don't have sheds to potter around in any more. Instead, they sit on their computers listening to a skeptic echo chamber all day.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sounds about right

Alexander McQueen | Fashionistas are freaks

I don't know who George Pitcher is*, but his rant against the fashion industry following the death of Alexander McQueen (a name that previously escaped this blog's - and I suspect most of the public's - attention until now) has appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald (originally from The Telegraph.) It's a rant worth repeating:
...the fashion industry that he dominated is one of the least attractive legal activities on earth, populated by weirdo artists, freakish PRs and emaciated and mentally disordered models. To be even tangentially exposed to it is to enter a world of phoneys and airheads, mutually massaging the pointlessness of each other's professional existence, self-regarding to a degree that would make Narcissus blush, committed only to ripping off a market made docile by cocaine, champagne and the odd canape. Fashion is a chimera of a real industry, the absence of which would harm no one other than its self-serving catamites and courtesans. It is a disgusting place to make a living.
* I see now from Wikipedia that he is a journalist and has worked in PR, and is now an Anglican priest. As a priest he is apparently not conservative, but not gay either.

Another career path overtaken by technology

Sexing chickens: Hey little hen | The Economist

According to the article, chicken sexing is a huge industry (needed to determine the fate of unfortunate rooster babies before they get fed too much.)

Yet a technology to sniff out the genders while they are in the egg has been perfected.

3D TV not so likely?

ABC The Drum Unleashed - Keep doing that and you'll go blind

Interesting article here by someone who should know the problems with 3D technology (seeing he was working on a Sega system which was never deployed.) He reckons that long term exposure to 3D is likely to be bad for the brain.

I just find it very hard to believe that 3D TV would be a worthwhile experience. I still haven't seen Avatar, but probably will some day. The only recent 3D movie I have seen is Monsters V Aliens, and as I wrote here before, the effect to me seemed to be of watching action on a intricate diorama, especially when there are action sequences taking place in the city. This is curious effect and enjoyable enough in its own way (it was like watching a movie unfold on the world's biggest train set) but it didn't in any particular sense make it feel "more real". Of course, it was a cartoon, so that may be an unrealistic expectation, but I am a little curious as to whether Avatar induces a similar feeling in me.

In any event, even with a 90 minute film, I found the 3 D system a bit tiring, so I am not at all sure how I will go with Avatar in 3D.

I just can't see the point of wanting to view most things in 3D on TV.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Shellfish can mess with your mind

Neuroskeptic: Beware The Clam of Forgetfulness

Fascinating story here about a rare problem with clams and mussels:
It turns out that there's a neurotoxin, domoic acid, which can indeed cause brain damage including memory loss. It's produced by certain algae, and can accumulate inside shellfish, especially mussels.

Domoic acid is responsible for amnesic shellfish poisoning, which struck a cluster of over 100 people in Canada in 1987; 4 died, and several others suffered permanent neurological symptoms, including epilepsy and most notoriously, anterograde amnesia, the inability to form new memories.
This could be a useful plot device in a movie:  criminal scientist tracks down witnesses to some evil deed he has committed and makes them forget by giving them doses of domoic acid.  [Maybe he has them over for mussels :) ]

Anyhow, I can apparently rest assured that I won't be killed by mussels or have my memory erased:
Since 1987, there have been no further cases in humans, thanks to shellfish harvesting regulations.
I certainly hope that's a failsafe system they have in place now.

Culinary notes

It seems to have been quite a while since I tried a new Saturday night recipe which was an unqualified success. (Well, one child didn't care for it much, but just how often can you bring a new dish to a wife and two kids under 10 and have all of them approve?)

Last night it was a whole snapper that had to be cooked, and I had grown tired of always grilling them Asian style (you know, soy, honey, ginger, sesame oil, spring onions and some chilli on the part the grown ups will eat.) So I tried Mediterranean style baked fish, from a recipe in the gigantic Stephanie Alexander book (which most Australians who have any interest in cooking would know about), and it was very good. It's pretty straight forward and goes something like this:

* cube some potatoes
* saute in olive oil for 10 minutes
* add finely sliced red onion, garlic, and chopped seeded and peeled ripe tomatoes
* cook for another 5 minutes
* pour over seasoned fish, and drizzle more olive oil and the juice of a lemon over top
* start baking
* about 10 minutes before fish is done, throw a handful of black olives over the dish as well.

For a recipe that is pretty simple, the results are quite delicious.

And here's something I have been meaning to ask since I first tasted them:

Where have you been all my life Sicilian green olives??

I think it was about two years ago that I first tasted these on an antipasto plate at an Italian restaurant, and I immediately liked them. I asked the waiter what they were, as I could not recall having such nice, fruity, not-so-salty olives before.

Since then, they have started appearing in deli's and even Coles supermarkets, but I swear they were unknown in Brisbane 5 years ago. (The Coles ones with lemon aren't the best example of the genre, by the way.)

Maybe stuffed green olives have always been of the Sicilian kind? I wouldn't know, because somehow I have never liked the looked of stuffed olives. What I am talking about is the plain, un-pitted Sicilian green.

Brisbane is not exactly ground breaking when it comes to selling new foodstuff to the general public, so I am curious as to whether they have always been sold in Melbourne or Sydney, and for some reason they have just come across the border? I don't recall any TV cook ever talking about them, so that probably doesn't account for their sudden appearance.

In any case, they are delicious, and a small deli in the shopping centre near my house sells them. I have to keep buying them every week in a show of support.

Try them if you never have before.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A dubious move

Wi-Fi Turns Arizona Bus Ride Into a Rolling Study Hall -

In Arizona:
Morning routines have been like this since the fall, when school officials mounted a mobile Internet router to bus No. 92’s sheet-metal frame, enabling students to surf the Web. The students call it the Internet Bus, and what began as a high-tech experiment has had an old-fashioned — and unexpected — result. Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.
I'm not at all sure this is a wise move.

Hardly a dump

Better Homes and Gardens - Yahoo!7 Lifestyle

Haven't various Prime Ministers over the years complained about The Lodge as being a pretty inadequate official residence? Or was it mainly Paul Keating?* I see that in 2007 Bettina Arndt (?) was writing in the Canberra Times that the house is a "shameful" official residence, although how often and why the sex therapist may been visiting there is probably an interesting question of its own.

Anyhow, last night's Better Homes and Gardens (see link above for the video) had a segment showing some of the house and the gardens, and it seemed to me be to a perfectly fine looking shack for our PMs.

* Actually, a quick Google search indicates that Tamie Fraser instituted some big renovations in the late seventies, and as of 1979 the government decided to plan for a new prime ministerial residence.

Friday, February 12, 2010

That's the anti sport spirit!

Why the Olympics and Other Sports Cause Conflict -

Yay. Christopher Hitchens seems to dislike sport of all varieties just about as much I do. (Is dislike too strong a word? I certainly ignore 99.9% of it, and am very cynical that it is "character building" in any sense at all. Building stadiums is just about the biggest waste of government money ever invented. Now that I think about it, maybe I hate sport.)

Anyway, it's a fun read.

Why not to love the (Iranian) bomb

Debunking the nutty theory that Iranian nukes are a good thing. - By Fred Kaplan - Slate Magazine

Pretty good article here debunking some of the recent opinion pieces that suggest Iran having the bomb might be a good thing regionally.

I'm not sure that Kaplan's optimism about how much time is left is right, though.

How Kevin lost his mojo

I won't bother providing links to support my claims in this post, but here goes.

It seems that many people sense a sudden turnaround in the image and political fortunes of one Kevin Michael Rudd. It's not just News Limited journalists either, whose changes of tune often seem strangely uniform after hints appear from the lips of the boss, but commentators such as Michelle Grattan, Bernard Keane, and even the folks at the lefty blog Larvatus Prodeo.

The climate change skeptics of the media and blogosphere think that Tony Abbott's ascension to being Leader of the Opposition is the explanation. But that seems far too simple and easy to me. I admit I pretty much despise Abbott for the opportunistic way he trashed climate change policy he previously supported to grab the leadership, but I still feel that Rudd's sudden tarnished image is more one of his own making than as a result of change of leadership. Here's my list of what's gone wrong for him:

1. Copenhagen: Rudd expected to be welcomed as a hero and to have an important role in negotiations. He took an enormous delegation with him to cheer just in case the leaders of 90% of the rest of the world said "who's he?" Instead, the conference showed all the dangers of any process organised by the UN, being hijacked by a bunch of mismanaged countries more interested in shaking down the West than talking about emissions, and one big powerful country (China) playing a spoiler role because it can.

So, it turned into a PR liability very quickly.

I did not expect it to go so badly either, but it was Rudd who put a lot of political eggs in the basket on this one.

2. He took a holiday. For once, Kevin stopped appearing on TV for a few weeks in January. He gave clear air for Abbott to turn up on whatever TV or radio appearance he wanted, with little government response following. If this was a deliberate tactic, it didn't work. Even though there was nothing significant policy-wise said in this period, all these "action" shots of (Tony in his speedos, Tony in his lycra cycling gear), at least give people the impression that he might be someone who can get things done. Which leads to the next point:

3. A sudden realisation that Rudd hasn't got all that much done. It seems to have taken a hell of a long time for the polls to reflect a cynicism in the public that Rudd is all waffling talk and light on the ground on actual results, but it finally seems to have kicked in.

Maybe it's the realisation that we're close to an election and (amongst other things) few students have got their free laptop; aboriginal housing is being fixed at a glacial pace and at huge cost; nothing obvious has changed in the State hospital system and any Federal 'takeover' is receding into the distance; even industrial relations changes seem to have taken a long time to become fully effective.

4. Now that Rudd has started to appear in the media again, he is doing it in a Presidential style which serves to highlight his deficiencies as a speaker and advocate. His weekly sessions on Sunrise to answer viewer questions is an appallingly dull format, and I don't understand why his media advisers (and the shows producers) haven't changed it completely already. (I missed it this morning, but could hear it in the background and suspect it may have tweaked already.)

I missed his "Q&A" show, but take it that it didn't go over so well. And when will some adviser be brave enough to tell him "Kevin, you simply have to stop with the 'and you know what'?" and his other rhetorical cliches which people are well and truly sick of.

Oddly, from what I see of his parliamentary performance, he's actually still looking confident there, but this counts for little just at the moment.

5. He never was very likeable but people seemed to give him the benefit of the doubt. That attitude is drying up fast.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Consumer revolt

The Cost of an E-Book Will Be Going Up -

It does seem odd that, just at a time there is an expectation that e-book readers are really going to take off, the cost of e-books is expected to go up. But as noted, this is meeting stiff consumer resistance in the States.

Meanwhile, it would be good to be able to get more than just a Kindle in this country. Grr.

Fun reading ahead

Psychiatry's draft new 'bible' goes online - health - 10 February 2010 - New Scientist

It seems the draft new version of the DSM-V, the bible of mental health diagnosis, is now available on line.

Lots of potential fun there is trying to pin down what exactly is wrong with some of my fellow bloggers. :)

Legs astride the barbed wire fence

Rowan's apology falls short

I see that the Archbishop of Canterbury continues to try to do the impossible task of keeping the Church of England from splintering over sexuality, saying he's sorry to gays and lesbians if they feel he hasn't done enough for their recognition, while telling them they should still wait.

What a hopeless task.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Quite beautiful

Have a look at this mesmerising 4 minute film. (Watch it in full screen is best.)

The "making of" video shows how it is largely a digital construct, pretty much like Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow, which was very much underappreciated.

Something to watch out for

The Ghostman of Skye | Ghostwatch | Fortean Times

True life ghost stories told by sincere sounding people can be both intriguing and entertaining, but as this review of a recent BBC documentary notes, television's treatment of this topic in the last few years has been dominated by appallingly silly ' psychic ghosthunter' style programs which no sensible person can watch.

But I'll have to look out for this doco. Some of the spooky stories are described as follows:
Among the most remarkable accounts were sightings of a ghost car on the Portree to Sligachan road, which have caused something of a sensation on the island. One driver described how he had pulled in twice to avoid what he believed was a real vehicle approaching, only to see the headlights mysteriously vanish. On a third encounter, he instead drove boldly towards the headlights, much to the discomfort of passengers in the car, only to find the lights unaccountably vanishing once again. An elderly ex-policeman told of seeing a headless lady in green; where the head should have been it was “vacant, missing”. Other stories told of strange lights associated with road accidents and drownings, which were seen as omens.

A phantom child, five or six years old, was seen by two men out walking. The vision occurred about an hour and half before the discovery of a body of a child who had drowned in a loch, and for whom neighbours were searching that night. An account from a John McGillivray told of a light seen climbing up from the shore and moving up the hill. This was reportedly seen at a spot where a body was later discovered, with the light moving along the track where the body was later carried to the nearest graveyard.

Not encouraging

Climate 'Tipping Points' May Arrive Without Warning, Says Top Forecaster

"Many scientists are looking for the warning signs that herald sudden changes in natural systems, in hopes of forestalling those changes, or improving our preparations for them," said UC Davis theoretical ecologist Alan Hastings. "Our new study found, unfortunately, that regime shifts with potentially large consequences can happen without warning -- systems can 'tip' precipitously.

"This means that some effects of global climate change on ecosystems can be seen only once the effects are dramatic. By that point returning the system to a desirable state will be difficult, if not impossible."....

Among the Holdren listed were: the complete disappearance of Arctic sea ice in summer, leading to drastic changes in ocean circulation and patterns across the whole Northern Hemisphere; acceleration of ice loss from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, driving rates of sea-level increase to 6 feet or more per century; and ocean acidification from carbon dioxide absorption, causing massive disruption in ocean food webs.

Coming soon

What the LHC could find at half-power - New Scientist

There's no mention in this short note as to whether half power is enough for mini black holes. The answer will be somewhere on the internet.

Missing Annabel

I had been wondering why Annabel Crabb, my favourite political commentator of late, had gone to the ABC then promptly disappeared. The Australian has the answer, when Caroline Overington wrote about Insiders:
It will be a different kind of show this year, since the sharpest wit, Annabel Crabb, last week gave birth to a son, Elliott James, who is now undergoing 24-hour worship with his happy mum at home.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Betty still busy

This was one of the superbowl ads, and features Betty White, who I've always found funny:

She's 88 years old (!) and as sharp as a tack. You have to admire her.

Technical problem in the sky

Burj Khalifa observation deck incident is minor case, says official

The mystery reason as to why the Burj Khalifa 124th floor observation deck was suddenly closed is given some more background:
Michael Timms, a 31-year-old telecommunications engineer from the US, said: "I was walking around the observation deck when I heard this really loud noise and what looked like smoke or dust coming out from one of the elevator doors. There were at least 60 people on the deck at the time. Employees and security staff were telling people that everything was ok. But once it became clear we were not being allowed back down, some people got really angry while others started crying."

Timms added: "Civil Defence, paramedics and the police all arrived on the scene. One of the elevators had not reached all the way to the 124th floor and I saw some people climbing a ladder from the elevator up on to the observation deck." Timms said they were given an offer to return for free.
The elevators seem a bit problematic:
Fourteen people were also trapped in one of the Burj Khalifa's elevators for over an hour last month.

He should've travelled via robot camel

gulfnews : Dubai's Arabic-speaking robot takes a flight to Riyadh

A bit of silly stuff here about a robot taking a plane trip. I hope security gave him a thorough body cavity search first:
A first for Emirates, Ibn Sina, one of the world's most advanced robots, travelled as a First Class passenger on the flight accompanied by Dr Nikolaos Mavridis, Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the UAE University College of Information Technology in Al Ain where the machine was developed, along with two of his assistants.

Able to verbally interact with people, Ibn Sina stunned fellow passengers as he was checked in at Emirates' dedicated First Class check-in counter and relaxed in Emirates' First Class lounge prior to boarding his flight.

More justification for my ETS cynicism

David Prosser: Carbon prices are going the wrong way - The Independent

Right now, the carbon price is heading in the wrong direction. The House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee said yesterday that £88 per tonne was the lowest price necessary for investment in green technologies to become economic. In the EU scheme, the price for the right to emit one tonne of carbon dioxide is currently £13, having fallen back from closer to £20 since the middle of last year.

There have been two reasons for this decline. First, the free emissions allowances for the scheme were set prior to the recession: in a slowdown, emissions fall, so there has been less demand for additional allowances than was anticipated. And second, with the failure in Copenhagen to secure an international agreement on emission reductions, one crutch for the carbon price – that fewer free allowances might soon be available – was kicked away.

One of the few positive effects of the global recession has been lower-than-expected emissions. But the gain from that benefit will be more than wiped out by higher future emissions if the result is that the low carbon price makes it impossible for private-sector organisations to justify committing themselves to investing the huge sums necessary to build renewable energy plants with scale, or nuclear facilities.

When will the simpler idea of fixing a price on carbon via a tax so as to give investment greater certainty going to start getting more political support?

Growth area

South Brisbane And West End Population To Increase Three-fold

Over the last year I've spent quite a lot of time at West End and South Brisbane on Saturday afternoons while the kids attend a local class.

West End to me still has too much of the seedy feel that New Farm used to have (until the large number of boarding houses started closing down.) It seems pretty rare to walk down the main shopping street without seeing some drunk (or possibly drug addled or otherwise mentally disturbed) person on a bus bench or elsewhere. There are a large number of the artistically inclined living in the area, but I am not sure that modern artists necessarily make the best neighbours. The little enclave on the main street that is left as a aboriginal meeting place just serves to remind people of the seemingly listless and alcohol centred life of a large number of the urban aboriginal residents.

Still, I can see that it could have a bright future with more and more redevelopment of what is currently industrial land.

Must praise Malcolm

ABC The Drum Unleashed - Turnbull: why I will vote for Rudd's CPRS

I can't let Malcolm Turnbull's speech go without comment.

Even though I have always been cynical about emissions trading schemes, and doubt that they will work as well as economists like to think they could, Malcolm Turbull's speech yesterday was the best presented and most logically argued justification for an ETS for Australia that I have ever heard.

But of course, logic and reason (and principled stands on issues) don't count for much in politics. You have to take into account "the vibe", and with lots of TV images of lots of snow in America and Europe, and a lot of poorly understood reports on "Climategate", public opinion is swinging away from taking any serious action on CO2 emissions for the moment. There is still a majority supporting action, but the skeptics/disbelievers/deniers (there is no good term for them collectively) are feeling very buoyed at the moment.

The public is fickle on this topic, which is an inherently hard one to explain. (By that I mean not only emissions trading schemes, but climate change science itself is not "intuitive".) That the Right is increasingly identified itself with those who disbelieve a consensus view of science is a major tragedy.

To revive political will on the subject, we actually have to hope that 2010 is demonstrably a hot year globally, and the early indications are that this may turn out to be true.

As for convincing people that ocean acidification is a major issue: I don't know how you do that when it'll be a while yet before clear evidence of its effects on the ocean ecosystem can be irrefutable. It is clear that ocean pH is lowering, but will it take proof of the population of some sea creature falling as a result to overcome ignorance based skepticism of the topic? But then again, how did scientists manage to convince governments that the ozone hole depletion was a major issue before they could show ecological effects actually happening? Maybe that example of science successfully convincing the public of a need for action is reason to not be completely pessimistic.