Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Sex, murder, mayhem, bees

All of the cinematography on Life is great, and last Sunday I particularly liked this story of Australian desert bees where life is brutal, especially if you're a male:

They look a bit like the blue banded bees which the kids found in our garden last year, and the females of which also live in burrows. I wonder if their mating is such a disaster zone too.

Slow on science

So, Andrew Bolt picks up a story of a potential asteroid threat, but misses that it this was discounted by NASA 8 years ago after closer observation of its orbit.

If this is an indication of the attention as he pays to science reporting, I'm expecting he'll be a global warming convert by 2018.

Bring on the entrails

Seems to me that if you're going to say that a WA National who says he could never support a mining tax, but doesn't want to absolutely support the, um, national Nationals, is going to be counted as part of the Coalition seat count, you may as well count the Green who has already pledged he couldn't work with the Coalition as part of the Labor count.

So that leaves us with effectively 73 seats all, with 4 Independents trying to decide what to do.

Wilkie and Oakeshott seem dead keen on a carbon price. Windsor supports it too, but had big reservations about the ETS. (Colebatch's column this morning explains.) He also likes the soil carbon ideas of Abbott, even though no one really seems to know how to properly account for it in your CO2 abatement figures. Katter will do anything that he thinks will support farmers or the general population in his electorate, but a carbon price doesn't seem to help there.

Gillard ruled out a carbon tax before the election, but Bandt would presumably be pushing for it again rather than a revised ETS.

Abbott claims that he'll never have a carbon price of any form. I would have thought that this would factor large in the minds of Wilkie and Oakeshott, but maybe they are figuring that with Gillard's silly "peoples convention" on the topic, Labor is not planning on getting anything going during the current term anyway, so maybe it's really more of an issue for the next election.

So, this is all rather complicated.

I personally am leaning towards more traditional methods for selecting the leader. The Governor General in a white priestess gown slaughtering a duck on the forecourt of Parliament House and studying its entrails sounds a good start. Then Julia and Tony have to do a Masterchef cook off with the body to be judged by a team comprising Clive Palmer, Graham Richardson and a third independent person with absolutely no interest in the outcome. Perhaps a Chilean miner. (Sorry.)

One other factor should be taken into account: if you want stability, I think I know which leader is less likely to die of an accidental death during the next term of government, and it's not the one who was nearly wiped out by a semi trailer a few months ago, swims with the sharks, and goes bicycle riding nearly every day*. On the other hand, I think we can be pretty sure there won't be any repeat mystery Prime Ministerial disappearances at sea with Julia.

* I see cycling takes out around 30 -40 Australians a year. I don't know how many it leaves with brain injury.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Today’s miscellany

* It’s looks rather like a cross between George Jetson’s digs and a Bond eco-villain’s lair, but it is in fact a German house that generates five times the electricity it consumes. At least while the sun is out. Looks kind of cool, even if ridiculously expensive. But do they have a law against curtains in that country?

* Several English papers are mentioning the high death toll in northern Italy caused by picking mushrooms. Not poison mushrooms, just ill prepared people who keep falling off hillsides and tumbling down ravines. As the Guardian explains:

…this year most of the deaths have been caused by falls. In many cases, the victims had been trying to outwit rival gatherers by going into remote and steeply inclined woods before dawn.

"It's a problem of mentality, unfortunately," said Gino Cornelli, head of alpine rescue in the Fassa valley in the Dolomites. "Many arrive in the dark. They set off with lights on their heads, even though it is banned. They dress in grey or brown to disguise themselves from the others."

He told La Repubblica newspaper: "They do the opposite of what they should. Too many cock a snook at the rules, and unfortunately this is the result."

Dying in the unsuccessful pursuit of an inanimate fungus does seem a fairly ignoble way to go. But then again, I suppose there aren’t all that many noble choices around.

* There’s a long article by PJ O’Rourke in the Weekly Standard about a trip to Afghanistan that seems quite full of interesting observations in the O’Rourkian style, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. One assumes he has recovered fully from his embarrassing variety of cancer. Hat tip to JF Beck.

* Finally, who can resist a series of photos of a monkey and its pet /captive cat? I predict the cat will be out of there as soon as it realises this primate can’t operate a can opener.

Biggest Christian country of the future

The BBC ran a story recently about how the Chinese government (or some subsets of it at least) has decided it quite likes Christianity after all.  This comment piece from the Guardian discusses the report, and adds some more details.   It ends with this:

On its current trajectory and with state backing, as the former Time magazine Beijing chief David Aikman notes, within three decades there may be nearly 400 million Christians in China. The future of Christianity may well lie in the east.

Knock yourselves out, libertarians

I can safely predict there will be argument about this amongst the sweary, teenage boy libertarians  over at Catallaxy:

TEN years of suicide data after John Howard's decision to ban and then buy back 600,000 semi-automatic rifles and shotguns has had a stunning effect.

The buyback cut firearm suicides by 74 per cent, saving 200 lives a year, according to research to be published in The American Law and Economics Review.

The numbers game

It’s quite surprising, isn’t it, that the purpose of Russian “numbers stations” is still not known for sure.  According to Gizmodo, the numbers have changed recently.   As I imagine a lot fewer people now spend time listening to the shortwave band than when I was a youngster, perhaps fewer people know about them?

Hello, readers?

Well, after a large amount of visitors during the election campaign who came here looking for Julia Gillard's earlobes, the completion of the election itself seems to have caused a sudden precipitous drop in such hits, and indeed in any visitors at all.

What's wrong, y'all internet-ed out after watching it intensely during the election campaign? (I know I did.)

I gotta stop spending so much time on the net - I know I say that every couple of months, but this time I mean it. Sorta.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The intersection of physics, philosophy and religion

Discover magazine has just put online an article from April about quantum experiments that some physicists take as confirming the idea that the future influences the past, and it’s a great read.

I was particularly interested in the discussion of what this means for free will, to be found on the second page of the article. I’m not sure that reading this extract will make complete sense without reading what precedes it, but here goes:

The Rochester experiments seem to demonstrate that actions carried out in the future—in the final, postselection step—ripple back in time to influence and amplify the results measured in the earlier, intermediate step. Does this mean that when the intermediate step is carried out, the future is set and the experimenter has no choice but to perform the later, postselection measurement? It seems not. Even in instances where the final step is abandoned, Tollaksen has found, the intermediate weak measurement remains amplified, though now with no future cause to explain its magnitude at all.

I put it to Tollaksen straight: This finding seems to make a mockery of everything we have discussed so far.

Tollaksen is smiling; this is clearly an argument he has been through many times. The result of that single experiment may be the same, he explains, but remember, the power of weak measurements lies in their repetition. No single measurement can ever be taken alone to convey any meaning about the state of reality. Their inherent error is too large. “Your pointer will still read an amplified result, but now you cannot interpret it as having been caused by anything other than noise or a blip in the apparatus,” he says.

The error range in single intermediate weak measurements that are not followed up by the required post­selection will always be just enough to dismiss the bizarre result as a mistake.

Tollaksen sums up this confounding argument with one of his favorite quotes, from the ancient Jewish sage Rabbi Akiva: “All is foreseen; but freedom of choice is given.” Or as Tollaksen puts it, “I can have my cake and eat it too.” He laughs.

Here, finally, is the answer to Aharonov’s opening question: What does God gain by playing dice with the universe? Why must the quantum world always retain a degree of fuzziness when we try to look at it through the time slice of the present? That loophole is needed so that the future can exert an overall pull on the present, without ever being caught in the act of doing it in any particular instance.

“The future can only affect the present if there is room to write its influence off as a mistake,” Aharonov says.

I can’t think right now if there is a word for it theologically, but doesn’t this sound a lot like the idea that God does indeed influence the world, but only in ways that can never be clearly identified as such? This was what God said at the end of my favourite episode of Futurama. I suppose it’s like saying that the God of the gaps will always have a gap in which He can be concealed; it’s inherent in the nature of the universe.

Atheists will say “what a cop out”, but the quantum world seems so weird, I don’t think they’re really in a position to rule anything out.

The idea of backward causation is also relevant to Tipler’s Omega Point, in that the end state of the universe (essentially, eternal God) determines the beginning and what goes on in between. That Tipler manages to cram the miracles of Jesus into that as a necessary element is the stretch that nearly no one can swallow, but the big picture an eternal superintelligence pulling the universe towards it retains a deep appeal.

UPDATE: There was another recent paper on arXiv about quantum entanglement as a measure free will; but I find it rather hard to follow, even in this explanation of the paper.

Drug house update

In May, I posted extracts from Discover magazine about the surprisingly big problem of cleaning up American houses that had been used for illegal methamphetamine production.  

It seems the problem is cropping up closer to home, as these comments from an Australian group indicate:

“In New Zealand, they have recently torn down several houses where drugs were made because they were so polluted it would be hazardous for anyone to live there afterwards.

“So this is also a serious issue for landlords, who can find themselves facing legal action, clean-up costs of $150,000 or more, a huge drop in property values or even their building being razed to the ground, as a result of an activity which they knew nothing about.”

“Individuals who are exposed to drug lab contamination may experience dizziness, headaches and reactions, chemical burns, lung damage, and nerve damage,” he adds.

The most at-risk populations are drug ‘cooks’, and subsequent residents or neighbours of labs – but police, fire fighters, environmental inspectors and other public servants may also be exposed.

Interpretation provided

I recently noted a new paper on arXiv that had an intriguing title, and Max Tegmark as co-author, but I didn’t really know what it was about.

Now, New Scientist has an article explaining it.  Pretty interesting.

Lizards good for something

A trial is underway at University College London Hospitals in UK to establish whether the drug 'Exenatide' could be used to treat patients with the progressive neurological condition.

A synthetic version of this drug, originally found in the saliva of the Gila monster, is already an approved treatment for patients with diabetes.

However, laboratory evidence suggests it could also arrest the neurodegenerative process that causes Parkinson’s disease - potentially leading to a cure. Four independent groups around the world (including colleagues at the School of Pharmacy, London), have shown that this drug can improve symptoms of Parkinson’s and rescue dying cells in five different rodent models of the disease.

More details here.

Japan & Korea revisited

Recently, I referred to the interesting Foreign Correspondent episode that looked at ethnic Koreans living in Japan, and the tensions that continue between the two countries.

Now, there’s a good article in The Japan Times about the relationship, looking at recent apologies from Japan (there have been more than I realised) and why it is they don’t seem to be making much difference.  Here are some interesting points:

It is 65 years since colonial rule ended, but the scars of the past have not healed and bilateral relations remain vexed by history. Numerous apologies by Japanese politicians, and one by Emperor Akihito in 1990, have been undone by discordant voices of denial and unrepentant justification. These mixed messages reflect a lack of consensus in Japan about its colonial era. They also help explain why Koreans remain seething and indignant, unconvinced by Japan's sincerity and unwilling to extend a hand to the perpetrator…

Christian Caryl, contributing editor to the journal Foreign Policy, argues that, ". . . part of the problem is a Korean nationalism that is built around a deep-seated notion of Korean victimhood. Koreans need to get over this if they're ever going to have a healthy relationship with their neighbors."…

As the victims, the Korean governments are in a position to decide how to deal with the colonial past, and they see few incentives in reconciliation. Given that apologies are offered, but shunned, and gestures of contrition never quite measure up, the odds against reconciliation are high…

The perception gap remains a chasm, with a recent NHK/KBS poll indicating that 62 percent of Japanese have positive attitudes toward South Korea, while 70 percent of South Koreans have negative attitudes toward Japan. It is revealing that Japanese associate South Korea with a now-popular soap-opera actor, while South Koreans cite Hirobumi Ito when they think of Japan; light-hearted pop versus heavy history.


The article does make the point that it doesn't help that apologies are often criticised by nutty Japanese nationalists, but also other politicians who seem to just be acting opportunistically.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Careful with the crayfish

Another story about (possible) dangerous food in China:
....dozens of people in Nanjing were hospitalized with strange symptoms of unbearable muscle pains after eating crayfish since July. The doctor’s diagnosis was rhabdomyolysis (the destruction or degeneration of muscle tissue) serious cases even cause kidney damage. The speculation was that the “shrimp washing powder” (洗虾粉) which was popularly used by the sellers to make the crayfish look spanky fresh and clean could be the root cause.

Inconstant universe

It seems that there is new evidence that the fundamental constants of the universe are not so constant:
Today, John Webb at the University of South Wales, one of the leading proponents of the varying constant idea, and a few cobbers say they have new evidence from the Very Large Telescope in Chile that the fine structure constant was different when the universe was younger.

But get this. While data from the Keck telescope indicate the fine structure constant was once smaller, the data from the Very Large Telescope indicates the opposite, that the fine structure constant was once larger. That's significant because Keck looks out into the northern hemsiphere, while the VLT looks south

This means that in one direction, the fine structure constant was once smaller and in exactly the opposite direction, it was once bigger. And here we are in the middle, where the constant as it is (about 1/137.03599...)...

The implication from Webb and co's data is that the fine structure constant is continuously varying throughout space and is merely fine-tuned for life in this corner of the cosmos: the universe's habitable zone. Elsewhere, presumably well beyond the universe we can see, this constant is entirely different.

That's likely to put the cat among the pigeons.
If the work holds up, this is big news.

Heightened reality

The 100 year old colour photos of pre-revolution Russia which Tim Blair linked to yesterday really are worth looking at. It's amazing how seeing history in crisp colour makes the past feel not such a distant country after all.

Unusual help

Slate has an article about a book written by a guy who grew up with parents who were both Jungian psychotherapists. Apparently, most people who hear this assume he will have been driven mad by his parents psychoanalyzing everything, and when you read this bit of parental help the author received, I don't really wonder why:
Toub's parents .... actively brought their Jungian practice into their parenting technique. There was a lot of dream analysis in the Toub household, of course, and also exercises in the Jungian technique of "active imagination," which Toub explains is "deliberately exploring one's imagination and fantasies by … acting them out verbally or physically to read the message that one's unconscious is trying to communicate." In one memorable scene, Toub's mother encouraged him to "be" an erection in order to help him get over a bout of teenage impotence. To accomplish this, she took young Micah to a local park and had him pretend to be his own boner. "Your name is not Micah, you are not a human being," she told him. "You are an erection. What words come into your head?" He visualized himself as a "victorious penis," running around the park triumphantly.[*] Laugh away, but the treatment worked: Micah is no longer plagued by an uncooperative member.
Apart from the therapy, I am surprised by two things: a. a teenager can suffer impotence? and b. a teenager would tell his parents he is suffering impotence.

Update: * I also get the feeling the exact same visualization was being used by Tony Abbott to try and win the election.

Meaning unclear

For no reason I can think of, this morning, while walking to the car, the theme music for Gigantor came to mind. I am hoping that this later proves to be a meaningful co-incidence; but preferably not by a giant Japanese remote controlled robot appearing in my city.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Pebble Bed returns?

Pebble Bed Advanced High Temperature Reactor at UC Berkeley – low cost nuclear?

Well, I haven't heard anything about the South African pebble bed reactor development lately. (Probably, I learn right now, because it has definitely gone belly up.)

Yet a new type of pebble bed reactor is discussed at Brave New Climate: one that uses molten salts as a coolant. Reporting on a visit to UC Berkeley:
So, back to Per’s lab. He has various engineering models set up to test movement of TRISO pebble fuel through a fluoride salt coolant, whereby the pebbles are inserted in the inlet pipes and rise up through the reactor module over time, and then are put back through 5 or 6 times. This allows for very high burnup — exceeding 50 %, high power density due to the heat capacity of the liquid salt, and high temperatures thanks to the durability of the pebbles. This is a big (potential) advantage over the current Pebble Bed Modular Reactor technology (PBMR), because in that design, the gas coolant has a very low power density. He’s flipped the problem on its head. The reactor also has various inherent safety design features, such as control rods that sink naturally in response to elevated coolant temperature, thereby passively regulating reactivity. Very safe!
Of course, this does not sound as modular as the South African design was intended to be, but it is still being explored as means of making cheaper nuclear designs than the current designs. (The article explains that the cost of new nuclear is still providing prohibitive for its expansion in the US.)

So it's a case of the pebble bed is dead...long live the pebble bed!

At least it's amusing

I've said this on another blog, but repeat it here.

Regardless of who ultimately forms government, I'm finding it very amusing to watch Tony Abbott, whose promoters loved him for his aggressive approach to Opposition (he brought down Kevin Rudd! He united his party! He didn't bite a Labor opponent during the election campaign, like everyone thought he might!) having to present a new face - conciliatory Tony - due to having to deal with independents to gain government.

So in recent days it's all "yes, Parliament is unnecessarily confrontational, isn't it" and "sorry Andrew for the way the last government I was in said you were nuts". Looks distinctly unlike the "real Tony" to me, but we haven't heard any of that from the "how many Julia's are there" crowd yet.

Some time ago I jokingly noted that Tony might do better as a eunuch, as some academic had suggested they had historically (in many societies) been able to play an important role in government by not being so distracted by testosterone. Seems the joke had more truth in it than I realised at the time.

Attack of the flash drive

This is pretty interesting. An enemy attack could be bound up in something as simple as a USB flash drive inserted in a laptop on the other side of the world:

The most serious cyber attack on the US military's networks came from a tainted flash drive in 2008, forcing the Pentagon to review its digital security, a top US defense official said Wednesday.

The thumb drive, which was inserted in a military laptop in the Mideast, contained that "spread undetected on both classified and unclassified systems, establishing what amounted to a digital beachhead, from which data could be transferred to servers under foreign control," Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs.

The code was placed on the drive by "a foreign intelligence agency," Lynn wrote.

"It was a network administrator's worst fear: a rogue program operating silently, poised to deliver operational plans into the hands of an unknown adversary."

Previous media reports speculated that the attack may have originated from Russia.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mouse guard needed

Saudi Arabia is seeking to stop just any old mufti from issuing "absurd fatwas" by decreeing that they can only be issued by the Council of Senior Religious Scholars.

An example of an absurd fatwa:
Shaikh Mohammad Al Munjed, a Syrian scholar living in Saudi Arabia, said that Mickey Mouse should be killed because he is a mouse and mice are considered unclean in Islam.
I take it that Disney Riyadh won't be opening any time soon.

Wartime disaster noted

World War II was so chock full of dramatic death and disaster, there are still examples of it which I haven't heard of before. From The Independent, noting in a obituary the death of one of the survivors:
Wednesday 23 August 1944 began like any other day in the sleepy Lancashire village of Freckleton. Situated on the banks of the River Ribble, once the traditional haunt of smugglers, during the Second World War it played host to a large contingent of American airmen, based mostly at the neighbouring Warton aerodrome.

At its heart lay Holy Trinity primary school where 176 children, many of them evacuees, were in their second day of a new term....

At 10.30am, an American Liberator Bomber 42-50291 took off from Warton on a routine test flight. Eleven minutes in, a huge explosion, thought to have been sparked by a bolt of lightning, tore the huge plane apart. Large parts of the fuselage rained down on the village, hitting the school and a neighbouring snack bar. In the ensuing inferno, 61 people were killed, including 38 members of that infant class; it was the greatest loss of civilian life outside London during the Second World War.

Science additions

I've added two science blogs to the roll: Erin, who is doing science communication but has much better hair than Bernie Hobbs, has started "Buzzing Universe", at which she hopes to concentrate on controversy in cosmology. What a good person to know.

I've also added Backreaction, the long running blog of physicist Sabine Hossenfelder. She's always been good to read, and seems a lot less of a culture warrior than many physicist bloggers (like those at Cosmic Varience, who just love getting upset with religion all the time.)

Rent a poor womb

A disturbing article is here at Slate about how popular the use of surrogacy in India has become as a way for poor, often illiterate, women to make a large amount of money:

It is not uncommon for surrogates to authorize contracts with a thumbprint as opposed to a signature because they are illiterate. Even those who are literate often aren't able to read the contracts, which tend to be written in English. Lack of technological understanding among rural Indians also breeds misconceptions about surrogacy. Many, for example, thought that it would be necessary to sleep with another man in order to conceive. Even the pricing structure of surrogacy perpetuates social inequality: Many religious Indian surrogacy clients would prefer for their child to be birthed by an upper-caste brahmin, so high-born surrogates can get paid up to double.

And how about this as an example of the appalling excuse making that some in the reproductive technology business undertake:

The country is romanced by the idea of selling human capital as its next great commodity. So surrogacy resonates not as an old problem of exploiting the poor but as an inevitable part of the "new India," where the locals provide much needed services for the new global economy. This kind of forward-thinking economic liberation dovetails with an ideology of personal freedom. "I think women should be free to choose what they do with their bodies," says Dr. Aniruddha Malpani, a fertility specialist in Mumbai. "We shouldn't treat them as stupid just because they are poor."

Going back a few months, I never got around to posting about the Melbourne woman who was off to Thailand to have sex selecting IVF to get a girl. I doubt she had much public sympathy: oh, except probably from some in the IVF industry. As was noted in Eureka Street in April, before that Melbourne mother's case was publicized:
In recent weeks, several reports have appeared in the media that Australia's ban on couples using IVF to choose the sex of their children for social reasons or to balance their families might soon be lifted.

Most stories quoted 'IVF pioneer' Professor Gab Kovacs, who is said to be 'leading the charge' or 'leading the lobby'. A number of other fertility doctors are also involved.

This seems to be a pre-emptive attempt to sway public opinion. The inquiry has not yet commenced. And supporters of this view know that many of us are not comfortable about parents choosing the sex of their children. So ahead of time, they're trying to change our minds.

Your urine powered future

Lots of jokes to be made at the expense of this article about research into using urine to generate useful amounts of electricity.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The problem with helium

The Independent explains how the world's helium is running out:

Scientists have warned that the world's most commonly used inert gas is being depleted at an astonishing rate because of a law passed in the United States in 1996 which has effectively made helium too cheap to recycle.

The law stipulates that the US National Helium Reserve, which is kept in a disused underground gas field near Amarillo, Texas – by far the biggest store of helium in the world – must all be sold off by 2015, irrespective of the market price.

The experts warn that the world could run out of helium within 25 to 30 years, potentially spelling disaster for hospitals, whose MRI scanners are cooled by the gas in liquid form, and anti-terrorist authorities who rely on helium for their radiation monitors, as well as the millions of children who love to watch their helium-filled balloons float into the sky.

Further down, though, the article says all the helium may be gone within 100 years.

So how much should a helium balloon cost?:

Professor Richardson believes the price for helium should rise by between 20- and 50-fold to make recycling more worthwhile. Nasa, for instance, makes no attempt to recycle the helium used to clean is rocket fuel tanks, one of the single biggest uses of the gas.

Professor Richardson also believes that party balloons filled with helium are too cheap, and they should really cost about $100 (£75) to reflect the precious nature of the gas they contain.

Soon it'll be hydrogen balloons for the kiddies, but only if their parents don't smoke.

Back to science

Here’s a good article on the very surprising (apparent) finding that solar neutrinos – or another mystery particle from the sun - affect radioactive decay on Earth.  (I’m sure I mentioned this here before a long time ago.)  Much work remains to be done, though.

Monday, August 23, 2010


I went and saw Inception yesterday, partly for the rare treat of seeing a well reviewed adult movie, and partly to see whether my hunch was right that the weekend election was a dream within a dream. I'm leaning to the theory that soon Malcolm Turnbull will wake up and resume his rightful place as Prime Minister.

Anyhow, I have to say I was pretty disappointed.

Christopher Nolan's career has coincided with my young child raising years, so I still haven't seen his well regarded Momento or even The Dark Knight. But if Inception is any guide, it certainly appears he doesn't do ordinary human emotion very well. It's flashy film making with money and CGI effects galore, but its over-riding fault is how very cold [update: probably more accurate to say "unengaging", as did the WSJ review] it feels at an emotional level. In that respect, it seemed rather like a Kubrick effort, but lacking that director's more careful pacing and powerful set piece imagery which usually more than compensated for the artificial quality of much of the acting.

There was one element that came close to feeling emotionally real and being an interesting plot point - the DiCaprio character's unresolved guilt over the fate of his wife - but the details of it were revealed far too late in the film, and not resolved in any especially memorable way.

Here's a list of other problems I had with it:

* no wonder it's said to have taken 10 years to write. It's supposed to be an adage of good filming making that it is better to show character and story rather than have protagonists explaining it, yet this would have to be the most "explained" cinema event since An Inconvenient Truth.

* talk about your cursory attempts to portray a new technology. Group dreaming involved a briefcase sized device with what seemed to be intravenous lines into the wrist, although even that was not so clear. The drugs involved seemed to come from a backyard operation. Come on, if the participants had a least a electronic mind wave reading skull cap on, it would have had some vague plausibility, but just linking up via the wrist?

* the action scenes were, by and large, just poorly directed, with editing that was too choppy to tell what was really going on, and who was in danger. And because a lot of the figures being shot or crushed were merely dream characters, there was not the same sense of danger that you get from "real life" action.

* the near climatic action around a snow bound fortress looked extremely similar to the snow chases and gunfights we've seen many times in James Bond films. Why did Nolan think this would look particularly interesting? It was actually hard to tell who was who during parts of this segment.

I would guess that Nolan was heavily influenced by Jungian ideas on the subconscious and dreaming, which makes his lack of emotional involvement all the more puzzling, given my impression that Jung was a "warmer" character with less of the cool intellectual approach of Freud.

This is a film that would have been better served by a lighter touch, a shorter length, and director better with emotion. People like to complain about Spielberg's sentimentality, but the way he dealt with adult emotional material in the very serious science fiction of AI and Minority Report left you feeling something at least, unlike this effort.

It also reminded me of another film dealing with fights inside dreams - Dreamscape from the 1980s. I remember very little of its plot now, but do recall enjoying it as a bit of a romp, and that's about as much as you should expect from this implausible type of science fiction. (Amusingly, on the question of originality of Inception, I have just read the Wikipedia entry I linked to above, which notes that the central idea is very similar to the plot of an Uncle Scrooge comic! I see the Kubrick similarity has been noted by others too.)

Gee, now that I have put down my issues with it, it sounds like I really hated it. That's not quite true either, but as you can see I spent a fair bit of time thinking about why it wasn't working for me. I also tend to react more strongly against a very big budget film that I consider a failure than a more modestly scaled one, for the obvious reason that it feels more of a waste when it has sucked money away from (say) 3 smaller scale examples of science fiction which could well have been more enjoyable.

So maybe that's it for my adult movie viewing for another year. I'm half tempted by "Salt," but it's hard to believe I could really like an Angelina Jolie film.

Update:   It's me, from the future, finding that I enjoyed it more on the second viewing.  Huh.

Election comment

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Sad accident

As far as horrible hospital accidents go, this one is spectacularly bad:

Grace Wang's spinal canal was injected with powerful antiseptic instead of anaesthetic, in what should have been a routine epidural to ease the pain of her first child's birth.

The Herald understand the two substances had been transferred to separate metal dishes on the sterile table, contravening the standard practice of drawing them directly from their packaging into a syringe to avoid confusion.

The devastating medical mistake - inconceivable in its magnitude - has poisoned her nervous system, leaving the 32-year-old distressed, confused, in shocking pain and unable to walk or even sit.

Friday, August 20, 2010

How inconvenient

Nature reports:

The capacity of plants to act as a carbon sink could be on the decline.

As global temperatures have risen in recent decades, the amount of atmospheric carbon being converted into plant biomass has increased in step. However, in a paper published today in Science, ecologists Maosheng Zhao and Steve Running at the University of Montana in Missoula report a surprising reversal of this trend over the last decade, despite its having been the warmest on record.

The reason appears to be drier conditions in the Southern Hemisphere.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Limited responsibility

Well that's good. Due to a change in my electorate's boundaries, I am now living in what appears to be one of the safest Labor seats in Brisbane. Previously, I was in a seat that swung from side to side, and my vote actually mattered. Given the appalling choices this election, I kind of like the sensation of irrelevancy, at least for the moment.

The Senate remains a problem. The Greens have exactly one policy I support, but it's an important one - a carbon tax.

Both Labor and Liberal say there will be no carbon tax. Brown thinks he can force one through, and he supports a mining tax, but wants to increase the amount that can be gained from it. I generally support the mining profits tax, but don't really trust Brown's fiddle with it.

The Coalition really can't be trusted on environmental issues while there are under the sway of Abbott and his supporters.

The likely line up of independents seems very up in the air, except I think everyone expects the slightly loopy Fielding to go. I don't know anything about independents running in Queensland.

I think it is looking like, in the mix, I would probably be best off supporting Labor in the Senate, while at the same time hoping Brown wins eventually on the carbon tax.

UPDATE: courtesy of Antony Green's election site, I now have a good idea of what's going on in the Senate at Queensland level. Hey, Barnaby Joyce is up for re-election. As well as George Brandis.

Joe Ludwig is also on the card for Labor.

The game of who to put last is always a challenge. This time, it looks like a contest between both of them in the Climate Sceptics Party and the perpetual protester Sam Watson of the Socialist Alliance.

What do you know: the Australian Democrats still exist! I expect they hold their conferences in one of the meeting rooms at the local Council library.

Well, this is going to take some studying.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Rat dad research

The Brains of Our Fathers: Does Parenting Rewire Dads?: Scientific American

Just in time for Father's Day, here's talk about some research into rat fathers which might indicate why human fathers are important too:
While it appears the seed of the father-child bond is planted by supplemental neurons in a new dad, it seems a child, on the other hand, may be born with a brain that expects this bond to form in the first place.

To prove this, a few recent studies turned to a rodent that employs a remarkably familiar nest structure. Degu rats are biparental animals, which means parenting duties are split between the mothers and father. Degu fathers behave just like human fathers. They spend the early days of their pups’ lives helping with basic care, like warming and grooming. And as the pups get older, the degu fathers begin actively playing with their toddler offspring.

Researchers reasoned that absent fathers in the degu nests would create a true social and emotional void for the offspring, just as a missing dad would impact the dynamic of a human family. They found that if a rodent father remained in the nest with his pups – presumably due to the newfound bond with his offspring – his babies’ brains developed normally. But if the father was removed from the nest shortly after the birth of his pups, his newborns’ brains started to break down at the level of synapses, which are short chemical junctions in the brain that allow brain cells to communicate with each other.

All quite interesting. And you can also expect people who don't give a toss about who gets to make babies via reproductive technology to have a problem with it.

How does it smell?

Garlic good for blood pressure
Research trials by Dr Karin Ried and her colleagues from the University of Adelaide's Discipline of General Practice show that garlic could be used as an adjunct to conventional drugs for hypertension.

However, raw or cooked garlic, and garlic powder are not as effective in treating high blood pressure as aged garlic extract.

In a 12-week trial involving 50 people, Dr Karin Ried's team found that those with systolic blood pressure above 140 who took aged garlic extract capsules experienced an average systolic blood pressure 10.2mmHg lower than the control group, who took a placebo.

Sounds like a pretty good result. But how does aged garlic extract make me smell?

Cheer up, doc

A study on mental health issues shows suicide and depression are more prevalent in the medical profession than in the general public.

Research commissioned by the national depression initiative Beyond Blue has found women in the profession are two-and-a-half times more likely to commit suicide.

The study - to be presented in Adelaide today - also suggests rates of suicide for men in the medical professional are 25 per cent higher than the general public.

Story here.

Dangerous days

While in Sydney last week, we visited the Maritime Museum for the first time, and paid the extra to go on board the replica Endeavour. The photo a few posts back was of one of the windows into the (relatively large and well appointed) "Great cabin".

This proved to very interesting, and what I found most remarkable about it was the lack of headroom in the rear midshipmen mess/officers cabins. This leaflet from the museum doesn't make it clear how low it is, although it does mention that one area the marines slept in was 1.2 m high. I think the area I am talking about is a little higher, but believe me it's cramped, especially given my aversion to spending time in areas where I can't stand up straight. It was due to the ship having an extra deck built into it to accommodate the large crew to be taken on his expedition.

I was also surprised to be reminded of the large body count that Cook's most famous voyage racked up. Looking over the Wikipedia entry, we find:

* a sailor dragged overboard when he got entangled in the anchor chain

* two of Bank's servants freeze to death while trying to return to the ship in a snowstorm after rounding Cape Horn

* after stopping in Batavia, 30 (in a crew of 94) died from dysentery or malaria (including the ship's surgeon, and his brother)

* the museum leaflet linked above also mentions a marine who committed suicide by jumping overboard

Life was quite different in the 18 th century, hey? A wife saying goodbye to her husband at the dock when he set off on a long expedition seemingly had a pretty good chance of never seeing him again.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Torture not required

Reading terrorists minds about imminent attack: Brain waves correlate to guilty knowledge in mock terrorism scenarios

Yeah, the story's been out for a couple of weeks and maybe you've already read it, but I want to note it here for my own records.

It was pretty fascinating, if you missed it.

Both sides of the fence

I didn't get to see Four Corners last night, but I see from this report that Abbott is still trying to walk both sides of the fence, by making statements that will appeal to climate skeptics, but still making out that he is satisfied enough to spend money on reducing carbon.

If you ask me, as with his "I'm not a tech head" attitude to selling his broadband policy, Abbott comes across as lazy on detail. He'll grab a "big idea" of his own, such as his parental leave plan, and run with that as far as he can, but when it comes to anything with science content, it's all a shrug of the shoulders and admissions that he hasn't read much about it. (He said he started Plimer's disreputable book but didn't finish it. That in fact might be a good thing, but there is no indication that he has read material on the other side of the fence.)

Out there physics

Here's a paper on arXiv that I haven't had time to try and read yet, but I like the title:

Born in an Infinite Universe: a Cosmological Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics

Max Tegmark is one of the authors, and I certainly recognize his name.

Why I like the Tiger

Last week's trip to Sydney was taken on Tiger Airways again. This is at least the third time I've flown them: once to Adelaide, Melbourne and now Sydney.

The reason I fly them is, of course, the incredibly cheap fares you can find by subscribing to their email sale notifications. Apart from that, their generally bad reputation for reliability and service gives me a perverse thrill every time I take a successful trip on them.

I don't think any other airline in Australia is as ruthless with weight limits for both check-in baggage and carry on. What's more, the explanation of their rules in this regard on the internet is incredibly complicated. In some respects it seems to me that their website is positively misleading (referring to having to check baggage in 2 hours before the flight. In fact, no one will be at the counter in many of their terminals until 2 hours before the flight.) Telephoning them seems to end up putting you in contact with an overseas call centre, and the "telephone tree" didn't seem to recognize my number selections. Checking my reservation on line to make sure that I had paid for 15 kg of luggage when I booked the trip 9 months ago did not make it clear whether I had or not. (Hence the need for the lengthy call to the call centre.)

When you check in, there is normally some passengers at the desk having to do a rushed re-arrangement of the contents of their check in luggage to keep within the weight limits, or arguing over the fees they have paid.

Yet, all this means that when one successfully manages to book, pay for, and get on board a flight without drama (well, my wife had to give me some books from her carry on luggage to keep hers under 7 kg) there is the pleasant sensation of triumph over adversity, having dodged a bullet yet again, and flown this bus in the sky for a ridiculously cheap price.

Yes, I quite like Tiger Airways.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Photos from down south






More details to come.


I've been away again, and now have to work to pay for it. Trip report to come.

One thing I always notice when I get back from a holiday is that going through one's regular internet haunts to catch up over a week or so only takes up a small fraction of the time that one can waste on checking the same sites every day. Perhaps if the World Wide Web was open only on Sundays, work efficiency globally would increase sufficiently that a double dip recession could be avoided.

As for politics:

* Tony Abbott gave a very crook interview on Radio National this morning, sounding particularly evasive and devious about the company levy to pay for his Swedish parental leave plan. Labor should use parts of it for last minute advertising.

* I had been contemplating making an informal vote this election*, but now that Mark Latham has endorsed that idea, even that has become unappealing. Now I need to arrange to be bedridden with some 24 hour illness so that I can not vote without appearing to be taking a lead from a walking spleen vent. (By the way, I reckon Latham looks meaner and scarier now that he doesn't wear glasses. Must be the Superman effect that previously softened his appearance somewhat.)

* at least for the House of Representatives. For the Senate, the temptation to vote all over the enormous paper just to make life difficult for the vote counter may be too much.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Things to do

I'm going to be pretty busy this week.

Here are some things to do while I'm busy and (probably) not posting:

* watch a chemo affected Christopher Hitchens talk about his illness and God stuff here. (He doesn't get upset with people praying for his recovery, by the way.)

* read about Astana, the brand spanking new capital city of Kazakhstan. As the article says "it is the world's latest example of a rare but persistent type, the capital from zero. It is in a line that includes St Petersburg, Washington DC, Canberra, Ankara and Brasilia. " As it happens, I really like planned-from-scratch cities. I just wish some country would let Disney do their capital. Then again, when you look at this photo gallery of Astana, it does look quite a lot like that already. Cool.

* Contemplate my mistake in thinking that competitive eating was as silly as competitions get. Little did I know that Finland was out-stupiding America by hosting the Sauna World Championships, which has just killed one "competitor" and sent another to hospital. Funny what can happen when the test is to see who can last longest in a 110 degree C heat:
Ladyzhenskiy and Kaukonen had made it through to the final ahead of more than 130 other participants, but six minutes into the contest, judges noticed something was wrong with the Russian, and dragged both competitors from the sauna.

Both middle-aged men were seen to have severe burns on their bodies and were given first aid after they collapsed.
* watch some video of the aftermath of a huge mudslip/flood in a part of China.

* put in an offer for a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Pasadena. The price has already been reduced 35%; you might just get a bargain.

* be charmed by the twitching nose and rapid pace of the Rufous elephant shrew in this excerpt from the great documentary series Life currently showing on ABC on Sunday nights:

Friday, August 06, 2010

Concern from the other side of the world

The Independent runs a story about some evidence given to a Northern Territory inquiry about the pretty hopeless state of child welfare in aboriginal communities there.

It certainly does seem that resources are remarkably smaller than what I would have expected:

Claims that children are starving, or "failing to thrive", were contained in a submission to the inquiry in Darwin by child protection staff from the Northern Territory. They said resources allocated to indigenous communities were "grossly inadequate" and the spectacle of children who were failing to thrive was, to them, familiar.

The Darwin-based team covers a vast area and looks after 14,000 people, but has to make do with four welfare workers and four Aboriginal community workers. That level of staffing, combined with a "fly-in, fly-out approach", allows for "little more than superficial child protection responses", the inquiry submission said.

Staff also complained about the "incredible" volume of paperwork they had to plough through, saying: "We spend more time sitting at a computer than we do with our clients and their families."...

Meanwhile, Alice Springs Hospital has told the inquiry it is used by child protection workers as a "storehouse" for children awaiting foster placement. "[We are] an acute care facility, we are not able to provide appropriate supervision of children and their families," the hospital's submission said.

Dan Baschiera, a veteran social worker, told the inquiry he had seen child protection staff fresh from years of study and training "burn up" after a few months working in Aboriginal welfare. He accused the Northern Territory government of starving the child protection system of funds.

So, what's going on?

I didn't stay at the office yesterday, fearing the local clouds of wattle pollen. But then, the day before I felt generally ill, perhaps with a chill in the evening and feeling particularly tired. Is it in fact a virus, or was the tiredness from the (according to the woman in the pharmacy and the outside of the box) a non-drowsy antihistamine tablet that I took in the morning? (Strangely, the leaflet inside the box warned that for some people, it might make them sleepy anyway.)

Anyway, the nose didn't run much at home yesterday, and I generally felt not so bad while doing some work on my laptop on the dining room table. From that position, I got to watch the birds that come to the seed we leave outside (and to use the birdbath.) We now seem to have three regular types - a couple of bossy lorikeets, a pair of spotted doves, and now some top notch pigeons too. The lorikeets can't stand sharing the seed with the doves, and spend a lot of time trying to chase them away by hopping aggressively towards them. We've tried putting two plates of seeds out, then watched the lorikeets chasing pigeons away from both of them. [And now, as I type this, a spotted dove and top notch pigeon are having it out over a plate as well.] It's hard to make different species realise there's enough for everyone.

I've also noticed that spotted doves seem a particularly amorous breed. Doesn't matter what time of year it is, they seem up for it. But as far as nest building goes, they have extremely rudimentary ideas of what might be adequate. Lorikeets seem to be very private about their love life; we've never seen them do anything in or near the backyard. Maybe it's the mile high club only for them. Pigeons will try it anywhere.

I know getting wild birds too used to feeding is not supposed to be that good an idea, but we're only talking 6 regulars here, so I can't see we are going to cause any crisis to the local ecology.

So that's yesterday went; watching the local bird wars and amorous activities. Oh yeah, and peering into the computer as well. There are worse ways to pass the day.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The dreaded yellow flower

Near my office there are a few wattle trees. Every year, around this time, I either get sinus pain, or (as in this year) a full blown case of hayfever. It's then that I notice the wattles are in flower. They are evil.

Silly Brits

"Wild swimming" is apparently becoming popular in cold, polluted British waterways.  I did notice that Griff Rhys Jones seemed unusually keen on swimming in any murky brown stuff in his recent TV series about British rivers.  Odd people.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Short answer: no

The Christian Science Monitor asks the question "is the moon really a 'been there done that' world?"

The answer, of course, is "no". There was a forum at NASA last month which went into the details of why, and you can read about it at the link.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Powered by the sun

A solar salamander : Nature News

It turns out that a particular salamander incorporates photosynthetic algae in its cells:
Kerney reported that these algae are, in fact, commonly located inside cells all over the spotted salamander's body. Moreover, there are signs that intracellular algae may be directly providing the products of photosynthesis — oxygen and carbohydrate — to the salamander cells that encapsulate them.
This reminds me of the greenish, genetically engineered super bodies that were given to the aging soldiers in John Scalzi's "Old Man's War". If you're going to get into transhumanism, then incorporating chlorophyll would seem to be a good idea.

Babies at risk

Killing babies

Mary Beard discusses here on the practice in the Greco-Roman world of exposing unwanted babies. It's an unpleasant topic, but interesting.

Space airconditioning issue

I know very little about how the International Space Station works, despite my interest in all things spacey, but they have a cooling system that has gone on the blink:

The crew of the International Space Station have been forced to reduce power after half the cooling system suddenly shut down over the weekend.

Nasa officials insisted the three Americans and three Russians aboard were not in danger.

Urgent spacewalk repairs are being discussed for this week…

Flight controllers tried to restart the disabled ammonia pump early on Sunday but the circuit breaker tripped again.

Any repairs later this week almost certainly will involve replacing the faulty ammonia pump, a difficult job that would require two spacewalks, AP adds.

Two spare pumps are stored on the outside of the station.

Sunday, August 01, 2010


A noteworthy addition

China Hush is a good quality blog that seems to have a new post almost every day about some odd or unusual story from China, so I’ll add it to the blogroll.

Two recent examples of its content: the proposed “straddling bus”concept which, if ever implemented, would make the morning drive alone its route pretty disconcerting; and the jarringly cutesy animated abortion ad that shows that China and huge slabs of the West are, at least in certain aspects, still culturally very far apart.

Get it while it’s hot

In Japan, eel is seen as an energy reviving summer food. This Japan Times blog post notes that no one is sure how this idea developed, although one rather mundane theory is that it was an early marketing ploy by the fishmongers of the Edo period who were having trouble “moving” their eel catch. I hope the true reason is at least a little more romantic.

Anyhow, the other reason the article is blogworthy is because it discusses eel farming . (Most eel sold in Japan is farmed.) It had never occurred to me before that the odd life cycle of the eel does not make it an ideal candidate for farming:

It’s impossible to grow unagi from eggs because despite the fact that unagi is designated as a fresh water fish, it lays its eggs in the ocean. (Anago, another eel species that is a popular dish in Japan, live in seawater their whole lives.) Their life cycle is the opposite of salmon, which lay eggs in freshwater but live their lives in the sea. In fact, no one knows precisely where unagi lay their eggs, though the most common theory is some place in the vicinity of the Marianas. After hatching the fry make their way back to Japan waterways and are caught in nets. These fry are then sold to unagi farms where they are raised to adulthood.

So that's how they do it. But it would be having a significant impact on eel numbers in the natural waterways of Japan, wouldn't it?

Germs and smarts

I missed this story when it came out in May, but I heard it being discussed on the radio today.

In mice at least, eating a common soil bacteria seems to make them learn faster.  From the Science Daily report:

"Mycobacterium vaccae is a natural soil bacterium which people likely ingest or breath in when they spend time in nature," says Dorothy Matthews of The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York, who conducted the research with her colleague Susan Jenks.

Previous research studies on M. vaccae showed that heat-killed bacteria injected into mice stimulated growth of some neurons in the brain that resulted in increased levels of serotonin and decreased anxiety.

"Since serotonin plays a role in learning we wondered if live M. vaccae could improve learning in mice," says Matthews.

Matthews and Jenks fed live bacteria to mice and assessed their ability to navigate a maze compared to control mice that were not fed the bacteria.

"We found that mice that were fed live M. vaccae navigated the maze twice as fast and with less demonstrated anxiety behaviors as control mice," says Matthews.

In the radio interview today, the researcher said they really have no idea whether the same thing happens in humans.  But all the same, it's an intriguing idea that being too hygienic may not only be bad for allergies, but might make learning slower too.

Add this to the “things I didn’t know were possible”list

Simon Dexter, a consultant at Leeds Teaching Hospitals and Meeta's surgeon, said that although it was a major operation it was possible to live without a stomach.

That’s from a BBC story about a couple of sisters in England who, due to their genetic susceptibility to stomach cancer, had theirs removed as a precaution.  Unpleasant.