Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Paris by Griff, and memories best forgotten

Griff Rhys Jones' series "The Greatest Cities in the World" has done New York and London, and I thought they were a little dull. The material was a touch too familiar, and Griff mugs a touch too much for the camera.

But the third one on Paris was very enjoyable. You can still catch it on ABC iView.

There was one long section in which he goes exploring under the city in the catacombs created by quarrying, and it made me realise I must still be capable of claustrophobia.

I once had a moderate attack of it while on a tour of some caves near Canberra. One section involved a narrow corkscrew type staircase, where the head height was pretty low, and it was while in this tight corner that the line of people ahead of me stopped, presumably while some goose ahead was admiring a particularly nice stalactite or something. There were people backed up behind me too, and it was this feeling of being stuck and being unable to move forward or backward in a space so confined that I couldn't even stand straight that suddenly made me feel panicky. I don't think I said anything, or maybe I did ask the people ahead of me if they could keep moving, but my heartbeat definitely rose and it felt a like a sinking feeling in the stomach. The line did start to move again soon enough, and I was able to complete the tour, as the cave opened up again a short time later. But I really wanted to get out as quickly as I could without making a scene.

This all came as a bit of a surprise to me, and for a couple of years later I was a little worried that it might come again in some other context. Would a aircraft make me feel like I have to rush to the door to open it at 30,000 feet? I did get a little worried on a couple of flights, but maybe it was worry about what would happen if I did get the claustrophobic feeling, rather than claustrophobia itself. Fortunately, that passed pretty soon, and long haul flights have not worried me since.

It made me feel a bit disappointed that maybe I was never cut out to be an astronaut after all, as per my childhood daydreams. (All capsules prior to the shuttle were an incredibly tight squeeze, and claustrophobia is something for which the astronauts are still definitely tested *.)

Anyhow, years later I did visit the Jenolan Caves, which I had been to as a boy with no trouble. I took a couple of tours and was OK; as long as there is plenty of headroom, I can get through it.

But last night, watching Griff wriggle down a hole that was the link between two underground tunnels gave me an instant reminder of the sensation of claustrophobia. It's been a while since I have felt that, but I think some other shows about cave explorers have reignited the feeling too.

For the same reason, I don't like to imaginatively put myself in the position of those Beaconsfield miners who survived the mine collapse in such a small space. Not that you would ever find me seeking work as a miner underground, but re-visiting in your mind a claustrophobic feeling is almost certainly not a good way to hope to avoid the feeling in the real world again..

For those who have worse attacks of it than me, it must feel very bad indeed.

* One site talking about being an astronaut as a career writes:
Astronauts-in-training participate in scenarios that simulate weightlessness, heavy gravity (excessive G-forces) and navigate nature's call in an unbroachable interstellar suit. Intensive psychological screening, required of all applicants, is supposed to weed out those with claustrophobia, but one or two are discovered annually in the program and dismissed.

Another article, talking about civilians who may be taking flights into space, writes this:

Jeff Feige, CEO of Orbital Outfitters, a commercial spacesuit developer, said that the training they envision for the use of their suits will range from basic classroom familiarization to simulated pressurization of suit and emergency egress from the vehicle while wearing the suit. Something as simple as testing putting on the suit can be useful for identifying people who have claustrophobia, he said. “A lot of people don’t realize they’re claustrophobic until that helmet is locked and they’re told they can’t take if off. And then all of a sudden they realize they are feeling a little uncomfortable and this isn’t exactly what they had expected.”

Aggressive agnosticism

The rise of the new agnostics. - By Ron Rosenbaum - Slate Magazine

I really like this article in which Rosenbaum argues that the New Atheism is too much like the old Theism, and that it's time that agnosticism re-asserted itself as the true home of intellectual honesty.

All quite correct, in my opinion.

Don't tell the Japanese

Humpback survey indicates growing population

A recent humpback whale count indicates a recovery in the population of animals migrating along the mid-north coast of New South Wales.

In five hours last Saturday, 109 humpbacks were spotted off Tacking Point near Port Macquarie.

Sue Phillips from the local National Parks office says that is a 10 per cent increase on last year....

"Recent DNA testing has shown that after the whaling years it seems as if the humpback whale population in eastern Australia got down to around about 115 individuals," she said.

"Now we think it's back up over the 10,000 mark."

First the good news…

All very large asteroids at risk of hitting Earth should be identified fairly soon:

"In a few more years, we'll be able to say that there's nothing out there to cause a global catastrophe,” said David Morrison, director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute and senior scientist for Astrobiology at NASA's Ames Research Center.

Then the bad news:

“But, there'll be a million that will be big enough to wipe out an entire city. It'll take a long time, if ever, to find them and figure out their orbits. The bottom line is, we could be hit by one of those small ones at any time, with no warning at all. Right now, I can say almost nothing about the probability of one of those small objects hitting us, because we simply haven't found all of them."

The article also notes that some scientists still think a nuclear bomb would be the best way of dealing with a large, threatening, asteroid.

Sensitive region

A new temperature estimate going back a few million years comes up with this conclusion:

"Our findings indicate that CO2 levels of approximately 400 parts per million are sufficient to produce mean annual temperatures in the High Arctic of approximately 0 degrees Celsius (32 degrees F)," Ballantyne said. "As temperatures approach 0 degrees Celsius, it becomes exceedingly difficult to maintain permanent sea and glacial ice in the Arctic. Thus current levels of CO2 in the atmosphere of approximately 390 parts per million may be approaching a tipping point for irreversible ice-free conditions in the Arctic."

But they taste good

Someone has written a book about how introducing rainbow trout to its non-native rivers around the world has (allegedly) been an ecological disaster. 

I am not entirely convinced; they taste good, look nice, and don’t muddy the water.

Don’t do it Julia

Julia Gillard is undecided as to whether she will have a Twitter account.  Please don’t.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Rounding up the porn

This is just about the silliest thing I have heard a Christian lobby argue:

The pornography industry and the Christian conservative lobby have united in opposition to a proposal to create a new domain name catering specifically for pornography on the internet….

Australian Christian Lobby spokesman Lyle Shelton says the group opposes the new domain because it sees it as further legitimising the pornography industry.

"Anything which further mainstreams and legitimises the porn trade is obviously not a healthy thing for children," he said.

"It is not a healthy thing for the wider society because it just continues to take us down this path where profiting off naked young women continues to gather acceptance in our society and of course we are seeing the pornification of culture seeping into our everyday lives."

Further legitimising the porn industry! I would have thought having porn sites spread across all possible domains gives it an ease of access which should be much more of a concern for them than any alleged “legitimacy” rounding it up into one domain would create. In fact, the porn industry agrees with this lobby but for entirely the opposite reason: it doesn’t what an internet porn “ghetto” created, because people might be able to avoid it easier.

The porn industry also fears that conservative politicians, especially in the US, will seek to force all current porn into the new domain.

Well, I fail to see what the problem with that would be, apart from porn producers facing loss of revenue because it would make voluntarily filtering access to it much, much easier. In fact, now that I think of it, surely a lot of their revenue comes from people paying for access to the “quality” material, and how much of that goes on at work or in any place other than a guy’s house, late at night? In other words, maybe the feared loss of revenue is greatly exaggerated. And besides which, is there some reason I should be concerned that this industry might lose money?

I don’t see it should at all be a significant concern that different governments could have different standards for what they would want in .xxx. Surely it would be a major improvement even if only explicit sex was required to go there. I don’t see street protests going on about why XXX Adult bookshop material is not allowed into the front of the local newsagent. If a country tries to force too much into .xxx, its a matter for renewed debate about censorship and classification, and this is often a topic of some debate for movies and other material, for example. That it may become a debate in relation to internet content, big deal.

It’s not about preventing access to porn to any adult who wants it; its about making it much easier to prevent access to it in places it undoubted should not be, such as workplaces and the kid’s bedroom.

As for loss of value in existing .com porn address, whereby people could argue that they have lost an asset overnight, couldn’t that be partially addressed by having the .com name become a simple referral page to the new .xxx address for the same enterprise? Those who want to get to formerly .com material can still find it, just by one more click.

Unless there is some vital technical aspect to this I am missing, round it up, I say.

Clean energy blues

A few items of interest about clean energy:

* Technology Review has a pretty balanced report on the German experiment in boosting solar power generation by generous "feed in" tariffs for your domestic solar cells. On the one hand:
The German grid now gets more than 16 percent of its electricity from these sources, and the government has raised its target for 2020 from 20 percent to 30 percent. The country avoided pumping about 74 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2009. The German environment ministry also touts a side benefit: nearly 300,000 new jobs in clean power.
But on the other hand, some say:
..the German policy is a government boondoggle. "It's not surprising that if you throw enough money at a certain technology, people will use it," says Severin Borenstein, codirector of the Energy Institute at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business. Yes, the incentives triggered a frenzy of renewable-power installations, but at "very high prices," says Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. The spending on photovoltaics has been especially cost-inefficient in terms of producing power, Lee adds, because "Germany is the cloudiest country in Europe." Despite the weather, Germany now accounts for half the world's 20 gigawatts of installed solar capacity. "What that gets you," says Lee, "is high prices for electricity, locked in for 20 years, from technology that will be out of date within three years." Concludes ­Borenstein: "That's a failure of public policy."
I do find it particularly odd that cloudy old (northern) Europe is the part of the world really going for solar. I remain sceptical of the wisdom of the program, although I presume it would all make more sense in places like the top half of Australia.

* Technology Review also has a long article about Zhengrong Shi, the Chinese businessman (but Australian citizen) and his hopes for improved solar cell efficiency in the not so distant future. Still no real talk in the article about how you store the electricity once the sun goes down, though.

* The 7.30 Report featured a story about an Australian company which is going off to Europe to build its ceramic fuel cells. These seem very promising, yet are getting little support from the Australian government because they run on natural gas. This seems pretty silly to me, especially if these claims are true:
Ceramic Fuel Cells claims its Blue Gen unit is much more efficient than the current power grid where up to 80 per cent of the energy can be lost in transmission and it says the unit produces two thirds less carbon dioxide emissions than coal fired generators.
Interestingly, the Greens think fuel cells should get feed in tariffs, and Senator Nick Xenophon points out that if the government is going to not pay feed in tariff for energy from natural gas, why do they pay renewable energy money on heat pump hot water systems, which run on electricity from coal? Fair point, and it certainly seems true that no single party has all the answers to sensible clean energy policy in Australia.

I first mentioned this Australian company here 2 years ago. Seems that they are moving slowing towards large scale production.

A surprise from the bottle

This is quite a surprising finding, I reckon:

Mothers who drink alcohol while they are pregnant may be damaging the fertility of their future sons, according to new research to be presented at the 26th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Rome today (Tuesday 29 June). Doctors in Denmark found that if mothers had drunk 4.5 or more drinks a week while pregnant, then the sperm concentration of their sons, measured about 20 years later, was a third lower in comparison to men who were not exposed to alcohol while in the womb.

The researcher is happy to be cautious about this study, though:

However, because this is an observational study we cannot say for certain that the alcohol causes the lower sperm concentrations. It is possible that drinking alcohol during pregnancy has a harmful effect on the foetal semen-producing tissue in the testes – and thereby on semen quality in later life – but our study is the first of its kind, and more research within this area is needed before any causal link can be established or safe drinking limits proposed.

But, if it turns out to be true, it might be the (or at least part of the) answer to the question of why semen quality seems to have been on the decline globally in recent years:

"If further research shows that maternal alcohol consumption is a cause of reduced semen concentration in male offspring, then we are a bit closer to an explanation of why semen quality may have decreased during the last decades and why it differs between populations. If exposure to alcohol in foetal life causes poor semen quality in adult life, we would expect that populations with many pregnant women drinking, possibly heavily, in pregnancy would have lower fertility in comparison with populations of where pregnant women do not drink."

Purple health

BBC News - Nitrate content 'behind benefits of beetroot juice'

A study in the US journal Hypertension found that blood pressure was reduced within 24 hours in people who drank beetroot juice or took nitrate tablets.

The higher the blood pressure, the greater the impact of the nitrates.

This research suggests there is hope of using a more "natural" approach to bring down blood pressure. Nitrates are found in a number of vegetables.

A previous study found that drinking a pint of beetroot juice lowered blood pressure significantly in people with normal blood pressure.

I'm not entirely sure I would enjoy drinking a pint of beetroot juice, but this must be good news for any farmer that particularly enjoys growing this vegetable.

Good old Bettina

Bettina Arndt (who, incidentally, has been married twice herself) comes out with a rather conservative take on the question of the role model effect of Julia Gillard being in a de facto relationship.   I agree with all of it.  Some extracts:

It's fine for Gillard - a 48-year-old woman - to live with her bloke. Yet as a popular role model for women, her lifestyle choice may influence other women into making big mistakes about their lives.

Cohabitation produces two groups of losers among women and children. Most women want to have children - Gillard is an exception - and some miss out after wasting their primary reproductive years in a succession of live-in relationships which look hopeful but go nowhere, leaving them childless and partnerless as they hit 40….

While the de facto lifestyle leads some women to miss out on having children, others are taking the risk of becoming parents despite these unstable relationships. A growing proportion of children is now born to de facto couples - up from less than 3 per cent in 1975 to 12 per cent in 2000, according to data from the Household Income and Labour Dynamics Survey.

It is often assumed these children will provide the glue to keep de facto relationships together, but sadly this is not so. David de Vaus, a sociology professor from La Trobe University, found cohabiting couples who have children are more like to break up than married parents, increasing their risk of the negative impacts of family breakdown.

She then makes this good point:

 Politicians today rarely question social trends, even when all the evidence is they are having negative social consequences. John Howard was the rare exception, when he went into bat for a child's rights to a father in the debate over single mothers and IVF.

Yes, I used to like that about John Howard. We all knew Paul Keating was personally conservative on the matter of gay marriage, for example, but he was politically constrained from saying it out loud. No such problem for John Howard.

As for Julia:  I think it is fair to say that very few people would take her relationship status as a reason for not voting for her.  However, it should be no shock, and a matter of social benefit, if she did marry her partner now or soon after winning an election.  I mean, she would be simply following a pattern that many others have, and I don’t see that it should be seen as a betrayal of feminist principles.    The fact that it would annoy some feminists is just an added benefit as far as I am concerned.

Richo agrees with me

Graham Richardson writes scathingly of K Rudd, the former PM now ordered to take a rest by Dr Julia*:

YOU didn't need a poll to know this tax was going down like a shower of the proverbial. Everybody from Julia Gillard down told Kevin Rudd the resource super profits tax was killing him and the government. But he wouldn't listen. He never listened. This genius actually believed he was the font of all wisdom.

No one moved against Rudd merely because he treated colleagues with total disdain. But it ensured that when the challenge came, success could be achieved at record pace. The margin, had a ballot occurred, would have been embarrassingly large. Faction leaders didn't make caucus members hate Rudd; no, that was all Kevin's own work.

Hate, by the way, was the right description. From lowly backbenchers to cabinet ministers, I have never come across such loathing towards a leader before, let alone a leader who achieved the biggest swing to Labor since World War II at the 2007 election.

*  I wish someone would tell him to take a break from twittering, too.  All normal people over 50 should have the appropriately disdainful attitude to that silly use of the internet, but I’ll take it as a sign of vanity that Kevin doesn’t stop.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Still witty after all these years

Steve Martin can still be amusing, as evidenced by this video from earlier this year:

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Kant and rats

Hmm.  Kant keeps making an appearance in stuff I read lately.  Here he is again, in the context of new science about how rat brains get spatial cognition.  Cool.

Bunyip tales

A somewhat interesting article appeared in The Age recently about the Australian aborigines mythological bunyip.   I don’t recall reading this specific theory before:

Australian Museum naturalist George Bennett was first to suggest formally (in 1871) that the bunyip might be an indigenous cultural memory of extinct Australian megafauna, passed down through oral tradition. By 1991, the authors of Vertebrate Palaeontology of Australasia were postulating that, "When confronted with the remains of some of the now extinct Australian marsupials, Aborigines would often identify them as the bunyip."

And in 1998, geologist Greg McNamara told Australian Geo-graphic magazine his theory that the remembered bunyip was actually a prehistoric turtle, Meiolania prisca, "a most impressive beast" up to two metres long with a metre-long, bony club tail and curved 25-centimetre horns.

More Crowe stories

Maybe it's a bit unfair to keep repeating stories of stupid or strange things Russell Crowe has said or done, but it is fun. Today from The Age, it's Russell the film critic:
Howden reveals that Crowe had been originally ‘‘earmarked’’ to play the title role in Shakespeare in Love (1998), but then had problems with the script and decided not to be involved. Which is any actor’s prerogative, of course. But then Crowe continues: ‘‘I was f---ing right about that movie too. It was a 100 per cent f---ing home run, except the central character of William Shakespeare was not a f---ing writer ... He was some prissy pretty boy. What the f---? That’s so disrespectful.’’
LOL, as they say.

Very droll

Dating site RSVP has come up with an ad for our dear departed Prime Minister Rudd. The humour is pretty gentle, but it's a good idea. Click to see the first part below, or go to the link to see it all.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Even worse than salt and vinegar

Lung-on-a-chip | Science |

Space weather and you

Quite a surprise here as to how the sun may affect electronics to a much greater degree than previously realised:

Relatively minor space storms now appear to be behind a range of mysterious mishaps - railway signals malfunctioning in Archangel province in north-western Russia, for example, between 2000 and 2005. A study led by Eugenia Eroshenko of the Pushkov Institute of Terrestrial Magnetism, Ionosphere and Radio Wave Propagation in Troitsk, Russia, examined episodes when signals turned red for minutes or even hours though the track ahead was clear, then spontaneously reverted to green.

Eroshenko's team found that 16 malfunctions of this sort observed between 2000 and 2005 coincided with space storms (Advances in Space Research, DOI: 10.1016/j.asr.2010.05.017). "We were surprised by such a clear correlation," Eroshenko says…

As for transformers:

Intense power surges due to big space storms can heat transformers enough within minutes to damage the insulation needed to prevent short circuits, which can cause them to explode.

More recently, there are signs that transformers can be destroyed by smaller currents over a period of hours or more. A long-lasting 2003 space storm delivered only relatively low-intensity currents to the South African power grid, but damaged several transformers anyway, notes US-based storm analysis consultant John Kappenman.

What next? Tin foil hats work too?

The results are preliminary, but appear in the Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery and Psychiatry (sounds legit):

Applying magnets to the brains of Alzheimer's disease sufferers helps them understand what is said to them. The finding by Italian scientsts, who conducted a randomised controlled trial of the treatment, suggests that magnets may alter "cortical activity" in the brain, readjusting unhealthy patterns caused by disease or damage. The study was small, involving just 10 patients, and the results are preliminary.

Surprising, but it's not as if it was just a matter of putting magnets in a headband:

For the latest study, Maria Costelli and colleagues applied repetitive TMS – a rapid succession of magnetic pulses – to the prefrontal lobes of the Alzheimer's patients for 25 minutes at a time. Half the patients received daily doses five days a week for four weeks and half received a dummy treatment for two weeks followed by two weeks of TMS. Tests showed that those who had the full course of TMS had significantly higher scores on comprehension of what was said to them – up from 66 per cent to 77 per cent. The improvement was still evident eight weeks after treatment. The authors say the technique did not affect other language abilities or other cognitive functions, including memory, which suggests that it is "specific to the language domain of the brain when applied to the prefrontal lobes".

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Half my wish fulfilled

Recently, I indicated that my depression over what looked like the coming appalling electoral choice between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott would be resolved if Labor installed Gillard as Leader, and the Liberals went back toTurnbull.

Well, looks like half of my wish has come true.

Basically, Rudd suddenly imploded because he is a two-faced, control freak, vain, celebrity-seeking, boss-from-hell, media tart of a politician who was only installed as leader as a result of his smiley Sunrise appearances which gave Labor the feeling that he was just the right person to not scare the voters from blasting Howard out of the chair which he had unwisely decided to keep for one election too many. There always existed plenty of evidence for all of this; it is amazing that it took the public as long as it did to turn on him (and even now, that it has not turned as completely as it could,) but it is not really that surprising that Labor turned on him at the first possible opportunity.

Now, how am I to hope for Abbott to lose his position? The only way I see is for him to (literally) be caught with his pants down somewhere with someone other than his wife.* It's possible; I should never give up hope!

* Now that I think about it, I speculated once or twice on this blog during Rudd's puzzling rise to power that this was how he might come to grief too, but it was only with his ETS backflip that we all realised he had no testicles anyway. Maybe I'm just longing for another scandal as good as the Gareth Evans/ Cheryl Kernot one.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Odd headline of the day

French cannibal ate cellmate's lung in 'cry for help'

Bad Republican!

How Time and Life magazines helped turn America on to LSD. - By Jack Shafer - Slate Magazine

Well, that's interesting! I didn't know that the Time and Life magazine co-founder and his wife (Henry and Clare Luce) were right into LSD, and this explains why those conservative magazines gave oddly sympathetic coverage of the drug in the late 50's and into the 1960's.

One pleasing strange aspect of this:
Clare's acid trips, which she recorded in her papers now at the Library of Congress, were of the garden variety. She sorts mosaic glass by her swimming pool. She entertains herself looking through a kaleidoscope. During a March 11, 1959, trip, Richard Nixon telephoned Clare at her Phoenix home. An active Republican who served in Congress and as an ambassador, Clare declined to speak to Nixon. How history might have changed if she had shared a little acid with him!
It could have been a stranger conversation than the one Nixon had with Elvis.

It’s ours, all ours

In what would probably be a rare bit of good news for Australian professional astronomers:

MORE than 35 years after Prince Charles opened Australia's biggest optical telescope - a joint venture between our two nations to explore the southern skies - we are bidding goodbye to the Brits.

From next month, the Anglo-Australian Observatory near the NSW town of Coonabarabran will become the Australian Astronomical Observatory.

Its director, Matthew Colless, said the decades of collaboration with Britain had led to many big discoveries about the universe, including a measurement of the matter it contains.

But 100 per cent ownership of the observatory's four-metre telescope, which is still ranked highly in the world, would open up new opportunities for research in the coming decade.

I’ve been there once in the late 1980’s, and I recall it as having a pretty good visitor centre. Somewhere in a drawer I probably have a photo, but here’s one from the web.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Cheap real estate in Japan

We all saw on TV last year how you could buy abandoned houses in many parts of the US for a song. Unfortunately, it looked like many had been thoroughly vandalised, and were in neighbourhoods which might take a decade or so to feel safe and inhabited again. A house for a couple of thousand dollars in such a situation is not such a bargain.

But Japan is a different kettle of fish. (That’s a particularly apt expression for that country, come to think of it.)

Population decline has already set in, and about the only places growing are the big cities due to people leaving the rural areas. I had been wondering if bargains in housing were to be had, and this fascinating article claims that there are:

So just how many vacant properties are there in Japan? According to the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry in 2008, there were an amazing 4.127 million unoccupied housing units, up 451,900 from 2003.

Some of these are old decaying abandoned homes which you wouldn’t want anyway, but it is still a big number, and it’s only likely to get bigger. The article goes on to provide a website which lists properties for sale as a result of tax foreclosures, but unfortunately it is in Japanese only, and is not exactly what you would call a glossy looking real estate site.

There is one major cultural difference about Japan which is odd to Westerners: except for apartments, modern Japanese do not expect houses to last long:

One reason why foreigners are a good fit to solve the vacant housing problem is that they are more willing to live in older properties and to perform their own maintenance. Japanese have been educated over the last 50 years that housing older than 25 years old should be demolished and rebuilt, leading people to really only want to buy new places. I know this firsthand, after a relative bought a countryside property, built a substantial Japanese-style post-and-beam house on the land (and which will last another 50 to 100 years), but being told by the bank several years ago that the house itself is now considered to already have zero value!

Some suggest that the Japanese expectation for the life of a house is affected by the number of earthquakes it might be expected to endure. But I am sure it is more than that. I was recently speaking to a Japanese couple, now Australian residents, who explained how surprised they were to find that renovated older homes (particularly in the Queenslander style) in Brisbane were expensive and highly valued. I think there is an idea that houses carry any bad luck that happened in them into the future.

Lots of websites say that there is no equivalent to our Foreign Investment Review Board restrictions on foreign purchase of real estate in Japan. (They also say that dealing with real estate agents may not be easy, but the article I linked to says there is a move afoot to encourage real estate agents to be helpful to foreign investors.)

All of this certainly suggests that you don’t buy a house in Japan with an expectation of making capital gain. But the idea of having a holiday home in the very pretty countryside of Japan might be a quite viable option for foreigners in the future.

Cheap books, electronic and otherwise

E-reader prices have taken a tumble in America due to the success of the iPad.

Recently I saw at Dymocks the Kobo e-reader for $199, but they have sold out and you have to place them on order.   I thought the screen was a bit small though, but then I thought the same when I saw a Kindle.

Anyhow, I’ll still wait for the next generation of them before buying.  I’m currently getting plenty of cheap reading by going to the Lifeline Bookfest held every 6 months in Brisbane’s convention centre. 

In January, as I have reported here before, I got Clive James’ first volume of autobiography which I had been wanting to read for years.   This time (on the Queens Birthday weekend) I got the second volume.  I am also getting more Graham Greene, including his autobiography, and he is difficult to find anywhere other than second hand book stores.

One thing you do learn from going to the Lifeline book sale is this:  there are a hell of a lot of Bryce Courtney novels sold in Australia.  Unfortunately, he has no appeal to me at all.

For readers outside of Brisbane who may not understand the size of this Lifeline second hand book sale, here’s a photo from the Brisbane Times which gives a good indication:


We like out second hand books in Brisbane.

Lucky planet

Summer solstice: Did a rampaging planet create Earth's seasons? -

Of course I knew of the idea that it was a collision that formed the Moon, but I either didn't know (or had forgotten) that it may also have given us the Earth's very convenient axis tilt that gives us the seasons:

Without that tilt, we might've ended up with more seasons than we could deal with over the course of Earth's history, suggests Neil Comins, an astronomer at the University of Maine. He's written substantially on what alternate Earths might be like and how hospitable they would be for the emergence of life.

The collision thought to have generated the tilt also created the moon, which is responsible for stabilizing Earth's spin axis. Without a moon, "the Earth spinning on its axis is an unstable system in which the tilt goes from straight up and down to far closer to the plain of it orbit than the axis is today," he says.

At its most extreme, this could leave Earth orbiting the sun and spinning on its axis like a chicken roasting on a spit with head and tail alternately aimed at the fire, rather than cooking the bird broadside. Earthlings from one pole to the equator would be in darkness during the solstice, while the other half would be in toasty sunlight. The poles would swap lighting conditions at the next solstice.

Moreover, the moon's presence and its effect on the oceans act as a brake on Earth's rotation rate. By some estimates one turn of the Earth on its axis some 4.5 billion years ago would have taken 6.5 hours, versus 24 today. No moon means a far more speedy cosmic rotisserie.

I don't think the importance of the moon in keeping the axis tilt stable was something that I realised before. Very neat.


BBC News - Tornado rips roof off sports arena in Montana

Some pretty impressive video here of tornado damage. Two things of note: the amount of rubbish a tornado can keep suspended in the air for a long time, and the cars and trucks that seem to be passing by quite close to it. (I would be speeding away as fast as possible, but these vehicles don't seem to be in that much of a hurry.)

Expensive brides

I commented a while ago that a documentary about a large restaurant in China seemed to show many Chinese women as being intensely materialistic, and a story about real estate in China seems to back this up:

Unlike in the United States, where home buying traditionally takes place after marriage, owning a place in China has recently become a prerequisite for tying the knot. Experts said securing an apartment in this market signals that a man is successful, family-oriented and able to weather challenging financial circumstances. Put succinctly, homeownership has become the ultimate symbol of virility in today's China.

"A man is not a man if he doesn't own a house," said Chen Xiaomin, director of the Women's Studies Center at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. "Marriage is becoming more and more materialistic. This is a huge change in Chinese society. No matter how confident a woman is, she will lose face if her boyfriend or husband doesn't have a house."

Dating websites are now awash with women stipulating that hopefuls must come with a residence (and often a set of wheels) in tow.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Medical technology's downside

A Pacemaker Wrecks a Family's Life -

This is a long but quite interesting story about how the use of pacemakers in the elderly in the US appears to be prolonging lives that do not want to be prolonged. It has apparently proved difficult to get permission to turn the things off.

It appears that only very recently has the American Heart Association issued guidelines that patients or their "legal surrogates" (people with Enduring Power of Attorney in Australia's case) could request the withdrawal of medical treatment, including implanted pacemakers, and that this would not be euthanasia or assisted suicide.

I wonder if there has been any similar uncertainty in Australia, or if this was largely a product of American concern over litigation. Tell us, Geoff.

That's hot

AFP: Kuwaiti MPs call for shorter work hours to save power

From the report:
Last week, the oil-rich OPEC member almost resorted to power cuts after a sharp rise in demand in response to record temperatures that soared to 52 degrees Celsius (125.6 Fahrenheit), the highest in more than 30 years.
Surely a dry heat of 52 degrees is not exactly healthy without airconditioning, so I am curious as to what happens to death rates when the power is cut off during a day like that. (Then again, I suppose people have been living in the desert for a long time. Why on earth did they stay there?)

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Interesting terms found on the Web today

1. Cat therapist. (From New York; not California as you might have expected.)

2. Sexually Satisfying Events. It's a medical term used in trials of libido enhancing drugs, apparently. I wonder if there’s a requirement that two people be involved?

Once a certain age is reached, perhaps a more relevant term is needed, such as "Sexually Satisfying Event Equivalent." (I expect most of mine to involve cheese.)

3. The Theory of Exclusively Local Beables. This is from arXiv, which is a bit of an obvious source for novel phrases: every second paper has a title with a term I haven’t heard of before. Anyhow, “beables” is a charming sounding word, and is described as follows:

J.S. Bell introduced the term “beables” (a deliberate contrast to the vaguely-defined “observables” which, he thought, played too prominent a role in orthodox, Copenhagen quantum theory) to name whatever is posited, by a candidate theory, as corresponding directly to something that is physically real (independent of any “observation”).

The paper talks of “pilot wave” theories to explain the quantum world, and is of some interest, especially in its introductory explanation of how such theories to explain the dual particle/wave characteristics of light were considered from the beginning by Einstein, but they lost out to the “tranquilizing philosophy” of Bohr’s Copenhagen interpretation. (The paper goes on to suggest that there is merit still in the pilot wave idea.)

4. Everyone has two puberties. Recently I link to a list of very dubious ideas Kant had about life, yet today while reading a bit of a rambling article in The Guardian about marriage, I found this:

I think Elizabeth Gilbert gets somewhere close to it when she quotes Kant in his assertion that we humans are so emotionally complex that we go through two puberties in life: the first when our bodies are mature enough for sex, and the second when our minds are.

Sounds about right; good on you Immanuel. (But having reputedly died a virgin, I wonder how he assessed his own preparedness for it.) *

* At another blog earlier this year, I imagined a movie involving Kant (who, apart from alleged sexual inexperience, also never travelled more than 100 miles from his home town of Konigsberg) as actually being a secret prototype James Bond character, involved in political intrigue and bedding femme fatales all over Europe and the Americas in the 1770's. (Wikipedia says he had a "silent decade" in his 40's.) I await the grant for the script from the Australian Film Commission: God knows they haven't funded enough films involving improbable historical fantasies based in Prussia.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Big brother death throes

Charlie Brooker writes pretty amusingly on the final series of the British version of Big Brother. (Yes, it is a sure sign of the cultural sickness at the heart of that country that its BB outlived, and seemed to attract more attention, than its Australian counterpart.)

It’s small, but my favourite line in the article is towards the end:

Throughout the first series, broadcast in 1912, the contestants occasionally sang "it's only a game show!" to keep their spirits up.

The Japanese way

This was reported last weekend, apparently, but I missed it:

Britain’s Sunday Times reported in its online edition that Japan had bribed small nations with cash and prostitutes to gain their support for the mass slaughter of whales.

The International Whaling Commission (IWC) commissioner for Tanzania said “call girls” were made available at the hotels for ministers and senior fisheries civil servants during all-expenses paid trips to Japan, the paper reported.

The Sunday Times’ investigation revealed that officials from six countries were willing to consider selling their votes on the IWC. According to the report, the governments of St Kitts and Nevis, the Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Grenada, Republic of Guinea and Ivory Coast negotiated selling their votes in return for aid. One official said that call girls were offered when fisheries ministers and civil servants visited Japan for meetings.

A top fisheries official for Guinea said Japan usually gave his minister a “minimum” of $1,000 a day spending money in cash during IWC and other fisheries meetings, the paper reported.

A witty Glover

Friday, June 18, 2010

More floods = climate change?

String of floods raise climate change questions - Capital Weather Gang

I think this is a pretty balanced article about what the media can appropriately say about recent floods in the States and climate change.

Meanwhile, the UK Met Office says that even if CO2 dropped after its rise, rainfall changes caused by AGW would hang around for decades. Seems pretty academic to me: why bother looking at unrealistic theoretical drops in CO2? Anyway, their modelling for what rainfall changes AGW will cause indicates:

High latitude countries such as Canada and Russia would receive more rain and snow, whereas other regions such as the Amazon basin, Australia and parts of sub-Saharan Africa would receive substantially less.

As the oceans have huge capacity to store heat, releasing the heat relating to a temporary quadrupling of the man-made greenhouse effect would take many decades.

The Met Office computer model is known to project more drying of the Amazon than most others.

Last night's Catalyst had an interesting story on Western Australia being unusually dry for the last 30 years. They don't say it's all CO2's fault; changes to the ozone layer get much blame too.

All a bit of a worry.

In the news again

Bigfoot discovered? Virginia man says he's on verge of Bigfoot discovery -

I can't resist a Bigfoot story, but there's nothing much to this one. Still, it's an excuse to refer people to the Messin' with Sasquatch beef jerky ads from America, which have been around for some years, but I only found them recently. Here's the first, which sets the tone for the rest:

I suppose it's not dissimilar to the Betty White ad I featured recently: I find unexpected violence pretty funny. Sorry.

Also - if you want to amuse yourself (or your kids) by making a film with your webcam of a mini animated Sasquatch doing stuff on your desk - click on the very neat application "Living Sasquatch" on the Jack Links Messin' with Sasquatch website.

Congratulations Alexito...

..for making a witty comment following this article with a self-explanatory title: World Cup puts boot into suffering UK box office
I don't know what the multiplexes expect when they throw me out for trying to add a bit of atmosphere to Sex and the City 2 with my vuvuzela.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Making babies: highly questionable research

Is there any greater sign of the modern over-enlarged sense of entitlement than the ART ("assisted reproduction technology") business? [Yes, I know, I was lucky enough not to have go looking into that to have kids of my own, but high abortion rates means that it's not for a lack of embryos in the West that there is a shortage of babies born. Indeed, despite the problems inherent in international adoption, I would still prefer to see more of that than kids left in the pathetic orphanages that exist in some countries.]

There have been quite a few stories of interest about ART this lately, and some really bad reporting. This will be a long post.

First: Let's oversell "Two Mums is good". It was widely reported, as in this example from the Sydney Morning Herald short report, with the jolly title "Two Mums Better than Dad":
"..researchers found children born to and raised by lesbian couples were better off socially, academically and more competent than their peers."
All complete with happy photo of (impliedly) happy lesbian family, although as they are not identified, for all I know they could be a couple of Fairfax reporters who posed with the bosses' toddler.

Anyhow, the study was based on following 154 pregnant (from artificial insemination) lesbian women from the 1980's and comparing them to heterosexual families. Beginning to suspect this study might have some flaws? Your suspicions would be right. As economist blogger David Friedman notes, one obvious way it might be unreliable would be if the two groups of parents were not closely matched for other factors that may very well be relevant to having a "better off" child:
The two groups might differ in important ways other than their sexual preferences. Most obviously, since the lesbian parents had conceived via artificial insemination, their pregnancies were all planned and all desired. If the comparison group contained a significant number of children from unplanned and unwanted pregnancies, that might explain why more of them had behavioral problems. One could imagine a variety of other possible explanations as well—and the news stories did not provide enough information to confirm or reject them.
He then reads the paper and reports:
The two groups were not closely matched, due to data limitations, a problem that the authors noted. They differed strikingly in geographic location, since the lesbian couples were all recruited in the Boston, D.C., and San Francisco meteropolitan areas, while the data on children of heterosexual couples, coming from another researcher's work, was based on a wider distribution of locations. They were not matched racially—14% of the heterosexual couples were black, 3% of the lesbian couples were. They were not matched socio-economically—on average, the heterosexual couples were of higher SES than the lesbian couples.
As someone commented in the Sydney Morning Herald guessed:
This study may be more about the socio-economic than about gender! In that regard it simply confirms what we already know: advantaged parents are able to raise advantaged children. It is not that "2 mums better than dad". Rather, it is that "2 advantaged parents are better than 2 less advantaged ones".
David Friedman then finds another startling problem with the research:
Questionaires went, at various points in the study, to both mothers and children. But the conclusion about how well adjusted the children were was based entirely on the reports of ther mothers. A more accurate, if less punchy, headline would have read: "Lesbian Mothers Think Better of Their Kids than Heterosexual Mothers Do."
Friedman is not out to criticise the authors, as the inadequacies are there to see in the paper. It certainly seems to me, though, that the authors are not above overselling their report to the media, such as when they are quoted as follows:
"Our findings show that adolescents who have been raised since birth in planned lesbian families demonstrate healthy psychological adjustment and thus provide no justification for restricting access to reproductive technologies or child custody on the basis of the sexual orientation of the parents."
Hmm. Does that sound just a tad like they have the view that they have a message to sell? Their funding did come from lesbian friendly foundations. What a surprise.

I don't think many people expect lesbian couples to be atrocious at parenting; at the same time, this is a bit of peer reviewed research that proves nothing and is being oversold by its authors.

Second: Let's not report a survey that indicates some kids are not so happy about not knowing their Dad:

OK, OK, this is not a peer reviewed bit of research and it comes out of a conservative foundation and was partly conducted by a person with a personal interest in the issue. But it got a run in Slate, which was kind of brave of them, as it would clearly upset many liberals because, you know, everyone is entitled to get knocked up via an anonymous sperm donor and who are we to question whether that's a wise thing to do?

The report is a survey which compared attitudes between 3 groups: "18- to 45-year-olds includes 485 who were conceived via sperm donation, 562 adopted as infants, and 563 raised by their biological parents." Some of the findings:
Regardless of socioeconomic status, donor offspring are twice as likely as those raised by biological parents to report problems with the law before age 25. They are more than twice as likely to report having struggled with substance abuse. And they are about 1.5 times as likely to report depression or other mental health problems.

As a group, the donor offspring in our study are suffering more than those who were adopted: hurting more, feeling more confused, and feeling more isolated from their families. (And our study found that the adoptees on average are struggling more than those raised by their biological parents.) The donor offspring are more likely than the adopted to have struggled with addiction and delinquency and, similar to the adopted, a significant number have confronted depression or other mental illness. Nearly half of donor offspring, and more than half of adoptees, agree, "It is better to adopt than to use donated sperm or eggs to have a child."

Of course, there may well be biases in the selection of the subjects here (although I haven't read anyone pointing out precisely how yet), and it's not "peer reviewed", but is it all that surprising that some adults from anonymous sperm donation would worry about things like whether someone they meet might actually be their half sibling? This is particularly so in America, which for some reason is still allowing anonymous donors to remain anonymous all their life. (This has been changed in Australia and much of Europe, with the result that very few men are now willing to be sperm donors. In Australia, the donor can't even be paid!)

Everyone knows that adopted kids, as adults, often feel that the fact of their adoption is an important issue about their life, hence all the shows and stories about the desire to re-unite with their biological parents. It makes many of them feel more complete.

So it should be no surprise at all that many sperm donor kids should feel the same way.

I reckon there is likely to be more truth and accuracy in this study than the lesbian parent one.

Of course, if you are going to allow companies to provide this service, the anonymity should be illegal. It is cruel to deliberately create a kid with this uncertainty in its future.

Yet, of course, it wasn't mentioned in the media much at all.

Third: just how many defects does ART create in babies?

There was some reporting of a new study that at first sounds like it should be a big worry for those considering IVF:
Slightly more than 4% of babies born via assisted reproductive technology such as in vitro fertilization (IVF) may have major birth defects, such as heart and urogenital tract malformations, according to a new study...

The major birth defects seen in babies born via IVF and/or ICSI included heart defects and malformations of the urogenital tract, such as hypospadias (an abnormality in the position of the opening of the urethra in boys). In the study, 110 children had genetic disorders, including six children with Beckwith-Weidemann syndrome, which is marked by body overgrowth, and may increase risk of certain cancers. Five children also had bilateral retinoblastoma (cancer of the eye's retina).

Children born via assisted reproductive technology had a five times higher rate for minor birth defects such as angiomas (a benign tumor of small blood vessels causing a red growth on the skin). Angiomas were twice as common in girls as in boys, the study found.

U.S. experts are quick to point out that these risks are not much different from what would be expected in the general population. And the risks are much lower than what has been found in some other studies of babies born as a result of fertility treatments.
This research came from surveys in France, and the lead authors Geralidine Viot (see above link) is quoted as saying:
"our results are not so different from the general population and I consider them rather reassuring as some previously reported studies showed increased risk of major malformations around 9% to 11%," she says.
Wait a minute: why is so much discrepancy between the rate of defects in these studies? Just how hard is it to record defects from babies from IVF?

And what's going on here: in the report of this study from The Independent, we read:

The study, the largest of its kind, found evidence of a higher-than-expected rate of serious congenital abnormalities.

Research leader Geraldine Viot said: "We found a major congenital malformation in 4.24pc of the children, compared with the 2-3pc that we had expected from previous published studies.

"This higher rate was due in part to an excess of heart diseases and malformations of the uro-genital system. This was much more common in boys.

Those comments regarding what they expected from previous studies doesn't seem to match the earlier quote, where she was relieved that their rate was half that of previous studies.

There's some explaining that needs to be done about all this. There are studies from Australia indicating defect rates "twice" that of naturally conceived children, and an American report from 2 years ago that found:
The CDC reports that certain birth defects -- including heart wall problems and cleft lip/palate -- may be two to four times more common among babies conceived with assisted reproductive technology (ART) than babies conceived naturally.
They are also keen to note:

The study doesn't prove that ART was to blame for the birth defects.

"Subfertile women might have a higher risk of having a child with a birth defect regardless of whether infertility treatments are used," write Reefhuis and colleagues.

So it may not be the ART process itself that "causes" it, instead it may be the decision to use ART to get a baby with a higher risk of a major defect when your natural infertility would have prevented it. Well, I hope that IVF clinics make this subtle "it's not us, it's you" distinction known to their clients.

In fact, it seems to me ART doctors are dead keen to downplay the significance of increased rates of defects. For example, this is from the Melbourne Herald Sun report on the recent French study:

Dr John McBain, Melbourne IVF director and head of reproductive services at the Royal Women's Hospital, said the definition of "major" congenital abnormalities was contentious, and included conditions such as clicky hips and club feet.

He said it was difficult to compare the health of children conceived naturally and through ART.

"The children born from assisted conception have more rigorous physical examinations," he said.

This is self interested excuse making, if you ask me.

And funnily enough, when you go to the glossy IVF Australia website and search it for terms such as "birth defects", "congenital defects" or "birth abnormalities", you score nothing that talks about increased rates of these for IVF babies. (That's not to say that they don't give appropriate information to those who contact them, but I would be curious as to how they explain the risks, given the apparent conflict between results of studies over the last decade.)

I remain very cynical about virtually all aspects of "Assisted Reproductive Technologies", but it's a good little earner I'm sure.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

A jelly education

Jelly clinic: how to deliver a quiver | Life and style |

This article from The Guardian, by a couple of authors flogging their book about jelly, does make some interesting points:
Jelly is the ultimate party food, an animal-based dessert that predates Christ and was eaten by Henry VIII for both the first and second course of his 1521 Garter Banquet.
Jelly predates Christ? Given the lack of refrigeration, how did they get them to set? Or is this just a Brisbane-centric lack of understanding, as I guess in many countries leaving it out overnight may well be enough. What about this claim:
Slap a jelly on your dinner table and guests will be hypnotized by its lewd wobbling and your kitchen prowess.
Easily hypnotised, those English.

I like the start of the next paragraph:
The origins of jelly are shrouded in mystery..
Wait a minute. This article has already referred to "before Christ" and "mystery." Clearly, this is material for the next Dan Brown novel. The secret of the origin of jelly is almost certainly being covered up in the foundations of the Temple in Jerusalem. I can see an important plot revelation already: you know those bits of paper being stuck in the Wailing Wall? - they're jelly recipes! You heard it here first.

The article then explains more history:
With sugar wildly expensive, sweet jelly became a potent status symbol. It remained at the centre of the tables of the rich and powerful well into the early 20th century. Ingredients, moulds, ice for refrigeration and the labour to clarify weird gelling agents like hartshorn and the swim bladders of sturgeon were all expensive.
I think this is something to share with the kids with great gusto when they are next served jelly: "You're eating like a King or a millionaire, you know!" "Bill Gates has swimming pools filled with jelly, it always impresses his guests."

A final important point:
Yes, jellying today is ridiculously simple. But you must respect the jelly.
We always stand to attention and salute while the bagpipes play during the ceremonial Presentation of the Jelly at our house.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Time for the annual "why are there so many movie sequels this summer" post

Film - An Old Pairing - Summer and Movie Sequels -

AO Scott talks a lot about how many sequels there are coming out this year, but I get a distinct sense of deja vu while reading it. Doesn't an article like this appear in one of the major American media publications every summer?

Which is a pity because: oh my God why are there so many sequels to movies that don't deserve sequels coming out this year?

Of the bunch, perhaps I will see Toy Story 3, but even then I am not holding my breath; even though I loved the first Toy Story and am generally a pretty big fan of Pixar, I found Toy Story 2 very forgettable.

There is one sequel worth waiting for this year, and that's Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But it's a Christmas release, so it at least its not coming out with all the summer sequel dreck.

By the way, the first trailer for VDT comes out with Toy Story 3, and will be released on the web this Thursday. Yes, the fact that I know that is evidence of my Narnia fanboydom, I guess

All praise the Mockingbird

BBC News - Why is To Kill A Mockingbird so popular?

As this year is its 50th anniversary of publication, maybe there will be more articles like this around.

The only thing I find odd is this:

On the eve of its 50th birthday, To Kill A Mockingbird still has a generation of schoolchildren transfixed, while regularly figuring high on lists of the country's "favourite books".

A poll for World Book Day placed it fifth, behind Pride and Prejudice but ahead of the Bible. A similar BBC one puts it sixth.
I can only assume that more women answer World Book Day polls than men.

Parasites as friends

How the parasitic worm has turned

I've mentioned before the apparent benefits of having a good dose of intestinal worms for your immune system. The story has been turning up in various forms for a few years now, but it's apparently discussed recently in a Science article:

Professor Roberts, whose work is published in Science, explains: "It is like a three-legged stool - the microbes, worms and immune system regulate each other.

"The worms have been with us throughout our evolution and their presence, along with bacteria, in the ecosystem of the gut is important in the development of a functional immune system."

Professor Grencis adds: "If you look at the incidence of parasitic worm infection and compare it to the incidence of auto-immune disease and allergy, where the body's immune system over-reacts and causes damage, they have little overlap. Clean places in the West, where parasites are eradicated, see problems caused by overactive immune systems. In the , there is more parasitic worm infection but less auto-immune and allergic problems.

"We are not suggesting that people deliberately infect themselves with parasitic worms but we are saying that these larger pathogens make things that help our immune system. We have evolved with both the bugs and the worms and there are consequences of that interaction, so they are important to the development of our immune system."

I don't know: it seems he is suggesting that catching them is a good idea. Here's more:
Intestinal roundworm parasites are one of the most common types of infection worldwide, although in humans increased hygiene has reduced infection in many countries. High level infections by these parasites can cause disease, but the natural situation is the presence of relatively low levels of infection. The team's work suggests that in addition to bacterial microflora, the natural state of affairs of our intestines may well be the presence of larger organisms, the parasitic roundworms, and that complex and subtle interactions between these different types of organism have evolved to provide an efficient and beneficial ecosystem for all concerned.
There's no mention of how you might get the benefits of a gut full of worms without actually having a gut full of worms, but I am sure someone must be thinking about it.

Colebatch on debt

Monday, June 14, 2010

The quite spectacular looking fireball re-entry of the Japanese Hayabusa space probe can be viewed on this Youtube:

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Leave Kanty alone!!

I think I might have read this a few months ago when it came out, but forgot to post about it.  Philosophy Professor Eric Schwitzgebel did a post listing Kant’s most peculiar and'/or odious views.   (I knew about his view of masturbation as being worse than suicide, but the Professor extends the list, and indeed one of the comments also throws in racism.)

Of course, there might be some excuse making to be found in the state of science was at the time.   Still, despite my general high regard for him, Kant did have some spectacularly odd views.  It also turns out that one writer has suggested that Kant wrote under the influence of a “massive left prefrontal tumor” which biologically prevented him from having proper empathy for people when he wrote his major works.

Somehow, I think that’s an unlikely scenario.  Reason can lead philosophers to all sorts of spurious and silly conclusions, as shown in my recent posts about the idea that people (even with the most “normal” lives) should logically think it would be better if people didn’t exist.  In that case, maybe it is excessive empathy that is leading to the result, but the conclusion is just as silly as anything Kant wrote.

Another Chinese problem

An increase in the use of prostitutes (and the number of bisexual men) is being blamed for some pretty startlingly bad figures on the recent rise in syphilis in China:

Syphilis was almost wiped out in China 50 years ago, but has increased 10-fold over the past decade to emerge as one of the country's top five infectious diseases, the China Daily said, quoting the ministry of health.

The rate of mother-to-child transmissions jumped alarmingly to 57 cases per 100,000 newborns between 2003 and 2008, from a previous seven cases per 100,000, it said.

What's the rate in Australia, I wonder? This site paints a very mixed picture:

The rates of syphilis in Australia are about 10/100 000, nearly double that in New South Wales, and up to 140/100 000 in the Northern Territory, with a national indigenous rate of 300/100 000.  Despite remaining fairly stable in the heterosexual community, syphilis rates continue to rise in homosexually active men.  Other groups in Australia at risk of syphilis include rural and remote indigenous communities and those from overseas. Most infections are detected in the late latent phase, when the patient is asymptomatic, having passed the early infectious stages unrecognised and undiagnosed. 

The total rate in China, according to this graph that was in the New England Journal of Medicine article that is that basis of this story, indicates a rate of about 20 per 100,000.   So, in fact, the national rate is not all that huge, although I see that some Shanghai is a particularly bad place for it.  But the sharp rise in congenital cases is remarkably steep.  According to the NEJM:

…more than half of pregnant women with syphilis have a spontaneous abortion or stillbirth; and babies with congenital syphilis may have serious, irreversible sequelae with rates of death in infancy of more than 50%

That’s pretty sad.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Crowe stories

A rude awakening

The Sydney Morning Herald has run a story from The Telegraph by the author of a new book on the now (as I understand it) existing-in-name-only Dreamworks studio.  It's all pretty interesting, but as we all love a "Russell Crowe is a vain, preening idiot" story, it's mainly worth reading the bits near the beginning about him, such as this:
While filming [Gladiator] in Morocco, he walked off the set twice. For ''fun'', he challenged crew members to foot races only to lose and then complain for days that he couldn't ''run in the sand in sandals''. Years before the actor would become famous for the kind of short-tempered fuse that launched airborne telephones in the direction of hotel receptionists, his diva antics were already at a remarkably impressive level: upset that his assistants' pay wasn't high enough, he placed an angry call to Gladiator  producer Branko Lustig at 3am. Lustig, in turn, called Spielberg in Los Angeles: ''Steven, I'm leaving. Russell wants to kill me.'
But by far the most detailed first hand account of, shall we say, Crowe's personality "issues" was by Jack Marx in 2006, and happily it is still available at Fairfax.

Why bother existing, revisited

I could put this as an update to my post a few days ago about philosophers (and others) who think it's not such a bad idea for people to just, you know, go away from the universe, but who's going to notice if I do that?

Hence, I'll point out here that the ridiculously productive blogger James Lilek has also visited the story, with pretty much the same reaction that I had, but expressed in wittier form:
You have to love this: let’s say everyone agreed not to have children. Then is there anything wrong with this scenario? The obvious answer is “yes; no children” but since the childless future with no humans at all, just birds and fish and bugs, doesn’t mean any human suffering, then the net amount of suffering is reduced, and we can all have a party. This is also an argument for smothering everyone under 15 so they don’t suffer broken hearts and angsty 20s, which happen to everyone. But don’t worry; he’s just asking questions.
It's all worth reading.

Depends how you define "disaster", I suppose

This is, of course, a very fair and reasonable blog, and although it has long decided that the world ought to be working hard to urgently limit CO2 reductions, it's not above pointing out some of the confusions and exaggerations which occur on my side of the argument.

Hence, regular readers might recall that in January this year, I noted that papers talking about the effect of loss of glaciers in the Himalayas on water flow in Indian and Chinese rivers seemed to be using some pretty confusing figures which were hard to reconcile.

Well, my confusion was justified, it seems. Nature reports on a new paper which tries to put the issue of glaciers and water flow in that area more into perspective. It starts with the heading "Global warming impact on Asia's rivers overblown", which appears to be part of environmental journalists new campaign not to be caught exaggerating again, even when the thing they are reporting on is quite seriously bad. Here are some extracts:
Although global warming is expected to shrink glaciers in the Himalayas and other high mountains in Central Asia, the declining ice will have less overall impact on the region's water supplies than previously believed, a study concludes.

It's an important finding, says Richard Armstrong, a climatologist at the US National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, who notes that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had previously predicted dire restrictions on water supplies in Asia. "There clearly were some misunderstandings," he says.
Yes, well, OK, but while the current study did find that the importance of glacier meltwater is not so important for some rivers, it's still pretty important for others:

The researchers behind the latest study began by calculating the importance of meltwater in the overall hydrology of five rivers: the Indus, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, and the Yellow River and the Yangtze in China1. The authors found that meltwater is most important to the Indus, with a contribution roughly 1.5 times that from lowland rains. In the Brahmaputra, meltwater flow is equivalent to only one-quarter of the volume supplied by lowland rainfall, and, in the other rivers, it forms no more than one-tenth of the input.

Furthermore, the study found that in the Indus and Ganges basins, glacial ice contributes only about 40% of the total meltwater, with the rest coming from seasonal snows. In the other three rivers its contribution is even lower.

OK, so with some model's predicted changes to rainfall/snow, what effect might AGW have?:

Climate change will therefore have two effects, Immerzeel says. One will be to reduce the contribution of glaciers to total run-off. The other will be to change weather patterns, including rain and snowfall. Combining these and looking at averages from five climate models, Immerzeel and colleagues concluded that the change in upstream water inputs will range from a decrease of 19.6% for the Brahmaputra to a 9.5% increase for the Yellow River. The latter, he notes, is due to increased winter rains. "The Yellow River depends only marginally on meltwater," he says, "and, on average, the models project an increase in winter precipitation in the Yellow River basin."

What this means, Armstrong says, is that river flows are dominated by seasonal rains. "The glaciers are tiny, compared with the monsoon," he says.

All sounding relatively comforting, kind of, until you hit the next paragraph:
Nevertheless, the study concludes that climate change will reduce water supplies enough that by 2050, declines in irrigation water are likely to reduce the number of people the region's agriculture can support by about 60 million — 4.5% of the region's present population.
So the previous over-estimation of how many in India may be badly effected by AGW within 40 years is downgraded to a mere three times as many as the population of Australia.

How very comforting for them.

Of course, precise predictions of changes to rainfall is one of the rubberiest areas of climate science at the moment, but still, it would seem a fair bet that one of the worst hit areas from human induced climate change will be the relatively helpless poorer people in parts of Asia.

Mysterious programming

I see that in 2008, I mentioned how enjoyable I was finding the BBC's current incarnation of Robin Hood. (One suspects it gives much more pleasure than Russell Crowe's movie version.) It's one of those rare programs that is sufficiently sophisticated for adults, yet is enjoyable for the younger family members too.

After the traumatic ending of series 2 (it really was a surprise, and quite moving, and if you have no intention of watching it, you can find out what happened here), I was aware that a third series was in production and was on the look out for it on Australian TV.

Well, sad to say, ABC has decided to run it on ABC2, which I don't always think to check on Saturday night, and as a result I've come in late to this series 3.

I still think it's a good show, although it's probably right that it ends with this series. It's hard to see where else it could go.

Free speech in Kuwait

Kuwaiti activist's detention extended until June 21

A Kuwaiti court on Monday extended the detention of Kuwaiti lawyer
and columnist Mohammad Al Jasem until June 21.

The court said that it would hear the testimony of an investigation
officer on the case that has divided the Kuwaiti society and sparked
international calls for the release of the 54-year-old detainee.

Al Jasem, charged with damaging national interests, told the court
that his detention was illegal and his team of lawyers called for his
immediate release, according to Kuwaiti media.

The court kept the defendant in police custody, but agreed to have him
examined by a medical team to assess his health condition. His family
said that he had had heart problems in the past.

The public prosecutor last month imposed a gag on the coverage of the
trial of Al Jasem who last November was detained for 12 days in a
separate case initiated by the Kuwaiti prime minister who accused him of

I assume America, which took more than a little effort to help this place, is making representations.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Helen's legacy

Gosh, it's been a slow news week as far as I'm concerned. There just hasn't been anything much that I have deemed blogworthy.

But, Colbert's handling of the Helen Thomas resignation amused me:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Helen Thomas's Reputation
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

I also thought that the next segment on Colbert, in which he dealt with the Israeli "aid flotilla", was pretty remarkable in that it managed to be funny without being offensive, and even featured the Israeli ambassador to the US in one of Colbert's interviews which manage to amuse but let some real information and commentary in too.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reversable eunuchs

BBC NEWS | Europe | 'I was chemically castrated'

In light of Poland introducing compulsory chemical castration for some sex offenders, the BBC has this interview with a Canadian sex offender who found his voluntary undergoing of the procedure quite helpful.

Interestingly, he talks about how, now that he is out of jail but still undergoing the chemical castration, he has a girlfriend, and he's trying to work out how to tell her about his background. (His plan is to stop the treatment at some point.)

Talk about delicate topics to bring up over your dinner date!

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

MRI videos

I forget what I was looking for when I found these, and they have been around for some time.

But - here a few videos about MRIs that interested me:

* here's a staged demonstration of the powerful magnets in them;

* here's what appears to be the un-staged consequences of forgetting about the powerful magnets;

* here is the latest in Japanese MRI's (it's silly, but I still find it pretty funny.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Philosopher thinks himself out of existence

Should This Be the Last Generation? -

This is kind of amusing. Peter Singer looks at the big question of whether it is better to exist or not exist, and notes one recent ultra pessimistic book:
Schopenhauer’s pessimism has had few defenders over the past two centuries, but one has recently emerged, in the South African philosopher David Benatar, author of a fine book with an arresting title: “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence.”
Singer sounds quite sympathetic to the arguments, but in the end outs himself as an optimist after all. That's a shame in the way; I would find it quite funny if he joined a philosophical movement that seemed to want to apologise for drawing breath, and causing a new icky human life form to trod the earth.

Reasons he drinks

It's interesting to read Christopher Hitchens explaining in detail his drinking routine, and his very cheery view of the habit.

An odd connection

Gut bacteria may contribute to autism - health - 07 June 2010 - New Scientist

Children with autism appear to have a characteristic chemical signature in their urine which might form the basis of an early diagnostic test for the condition.

The finding also adds weight the hypothesis that substances released by gut bacteria are contributing to the onset of the condition.

The researcher is keen to point out that this has nothing to do with the discredited idea that vaccination causes autism.

More research is coming:
The next step is to confirm the results in a much larger group of age-matched children, as well as following high-risk children from birth in order to identify whether there are markers that precede the development of autistic symptoms.

Colebatch on the mining tax

Rudd In Fight Over 40% Mining Tax

Once again, a good, clear column by Tim Colebatch on the fight over a mining tax.

Meanwhile, Niki Savva makes a suggestion for Tony Abbott that makes a lot of sense to me: don't just resist all mining taxes; take up the miner's suggestion that they could afford to pay more tax and work out a deal with them.

But would Abbott be smart enough to do this?