Thursday, September 30, 2010


Just testing a few things. You may safely ignore this post if it changes.

Who said hung parliaments were a bad thing?

I don’t think any commentator predicted the outbreak of good behaviour during Answer Time yesterday.   Annabel Crabb explains:

You see, Question Time used to feature common displays of rowdiness, after which the Speaker would ritually expel the troublemakers.

Some MPs were regular warmers of the bench; Wilson Tuckey used to be especially naughty on a Thursday, which cynics used to ascribe to the Qantas flight schedule to Perth (early sin-binning equals home by tea-time).

But in this new chamber, suspension from the House now entails more serious consequences than an early minute and the chance of a televised flounce-out.

These days, suspension or expulsion could mean the difference between winning and losing legislation in the Parliament.

But the best anecdote from her column is this:

Could the delicate balance of the new brevity requirements withstand its most gruelling acid test - a ministerial answer from The Hon Kevin Michael Rudd, MP?

The four-minute system met its nemesis at Question Twelve, when Melissa Parkes, Labor's Member for Fremantle, asked Mr Rudd to tell the chamber what was going on in Pakistan.

Mr Rudd rose, and opened with an acknowledgment of Australia's responsibility to help Pakistan recover from its dreadful floods.

"When you have a friend in need..." he began.

And then drew breath. Which gave an Opposition heckler just enough opportunity to holler: "Don't call Julia!" whereupon the place fell apart.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Nothing new, I think

Here's a skeptical take from the Washington Post on the National Press Club "UFOs have interfered with nuclear weapons" conference the other day.

The events described are interesting, and have been know about in UFO circles for a long time, but the main problem was the press conference did not (as far as I can tell) add anything substantially new to what was already known.

Reports of UFOs being “interested” in nuclear weapons facilities have been around for a long time.  As to the military’s general interest in them,  the sensible journalist and author Bryan Appleyard has commented that he's been told by sources he considers reliable that US radar tracks have been taken as convincing proof by some within the military that unexplained objects have zoomed around our atmosphere. (He's written a whole book about aliens, but I haven't read it, and it apparently is more interested in the cultural aspects of the phenomena.) In any event, it would seem logical to say that if nuts and bolts type of UFOs exist, the US military would have some evidence of them.

A tad speculative

New Scientist explains that there’s a new idea about the end of the universe around – it just runs out of time:

"We could run into the end of time," Ben Freivogel tells a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. Several colleagues seem nonplussed, and one Nobel laureate looks downright exasperated. "I'm aware that this sounds like a crazy conclusion," Freivogel admits, generating a round of what sounds like relieved laughter. But perhaps their relief is short-lived.

The nature of time, our perception of it and even whether it exists at all are hot topics for both physicists and philosophers. But Freivogel isn't pushing a strange new concept of time.

His idea is arguably even more baffling. He thinks that time, as described by Einstein's theory of general relativity, could simply end in our universe, taking us with it. He gives us another 5 billion years or so before the axe falls (see "Five billion years to go", below).

However, the article goes on to explain that this is all very speculative, and it seems not so many are convinced that it makes sense. Good. Although, I must say, if cosmologists came up with a theory in which time and the universe could end at any minute, it would probably be adopted by Christians as the justification for the Gospel expectation that the end of the world could sneak up on us at any minute, in the same way that Genesis is seen to be reflected in the Big Bang. (In fact, the idea that the universe is a giant simulation being run on someone else's computer already gives us that possibility, I suppose; but theologians probably don't want to run with that idea because it might mean that God is a pimply alien teenager.)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Tuesday's list

There doesn't seem much that is blogworthy at the moment, but there's always something:

* Discover magazine looks at a "zero carbon" city that has been partially completed in UAE. It links to a New York Times article about it, which is extremely critical of it being a "gated community". But there are not enough photos for my liking.

* Hey, there's another critic who doesn't care for Franzen and Freedom.

* A neuroscientist and writer explains why he likes to call himself a "possibilian". It's just a fancy name for an agnostic who likes science fiction ideas, I reckon. I think I count as a Christian with possiblian interests.

* Have a look at the video at this link to see a Japanese apartment in which you would never, ever want to wake up with a hangover.

Monday, September 27, 2010

That's the second biggest prize cup I've ever seen

From the Japan Times, a photo of the winner of the Emperor's Cup at the Autumn Grand Sumo Tournament:

That's ridiculous. Clearly, you have to be a Sumo wrestler to be able to hold the thing without falling over. (In fact, I suppose it explains why Sumo have to be so fat :) .)

Considering evil

I don't often think to check the City Journal website, so this may have been there for some time already, but I see that it has an essay by Theodore Dalrymple (an agnostic, I think) on the issue of evil. Good reading.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cautionary tales

John Horgan, writing in a Scientific American blog, says he’s “thrilled” that psychedelic drugs have been making a slow comeback as a possible way of treating various psychiatric disorders. But then he lists the significant reservations that Albert Hofmann, “the godfather of psychedelic research” had about LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs.

The post makes for interesting reading, explaining how Hofmann had bad trips. In fact, it seems that some of the “benefit” of the trips was from the relief of coming out of a bad trip.

There is also this important point:

Hofmann also worried about psychedelics' metaphysical implications. The fact that minute amounts of a chemical such as LSD can have such profound effects on our perceptions, thoughts and beliefs suggests that free will, which supposedly gives us the power to shape our destiny, might be an illusion; moreover, our deepest spiritual convictions may be nothing more than fluctuations in brain chemistry. To emphasize this point, Hofmann quoted from an essay that stated: "God is a substance, a drug!"

In other words, psychedelics can undermine as well as promote spiritual faith, and they can shatter as well as heal our psyches. We should keep these risks in mind as the psychedelic renaissance continues.

It does strike me as odd that some hallucinogens may give either a good or bad trip, yet I think other drugs may only have a uniformly bad effect on consciousness. I’m thinking of an anti-malarial which was renowned for causing nightmares. I’m sure this all means something about consciousness, but I don’t know what.

In any event, I remain very skeptical of any great beneficial potential in the use of a psychedelic drug, such as LSD, if the exact nature of the “trip” it delivers is always going to be uncertain at the outset.

Update: the real reason you shouldn't use drugs is disclosed in Rex the Runt, season two, episode 9 (Wendy's New Hairdo.) Vince discovers the true nature of reality starting at 5 min 4 seconds.

As I was saying...

This was found via Boing boing, and confirms I'm not alone in my puzzlement about the career of M Night Shyamalan*:

Saturday triumphs

* at the Famers Market (when on earth is Brisbane going to get a permanent version of these? I thought it had been mentioned as a possible part of redevelopment of the RNA showgrounds, but I haven’t anything about that whole topic for some time) tomatoes seemed to be in extremely plentiful, ripe and cheap supply. Today (Sunday) I will try using them in a very simple pasta recipe that I found on Salon. Report to come.*

* Getting a supermarket family size roast chicken for $5, 10 minutes before closing time.

* Watching the first Back to the Future with kids last night. (Son gave me the 3 disc set for my birthday, which was good as he had remembered that a long time ago I had picked this up in a shop somewhere and said to my wife “that’s a good buy”. Any gift that shows they have taken care to remember your tastes is pleasing.)

The kids are most familiar with Part III, which is arguably the best and perhaps most child friendly. They hadn’t seen the first one before, and despite the somewhat more adult themes, they seemed to enjoy it.

I did too: it’s a film I have rarely revisited, but viewing it retrospectively as part of a complicated trilogy does give a renewed appreciation for several things: the intricacy of the plotting, poor old Michael J Fox as a likeable but unassuming screen presence, and even the attention to detail in production design and set decoration. It’s also a reminder of the fun quality of much 1980’s cinema, and the pleasing youth market orientation of Spielberg’s producer role, which for me was much preferable to his current adult liberal iconoclastic interests as shown in the likes of American Beauty and (ugh) United States of Tara.

There was a very long appreciation of the Back to the Future trilogy in The Guardian recently, inspired by a re-release of the film in the cinema to mark its 25th anniversary. (Can’t see that that will be a success.) I think one of the comments is apt, even if weren’t a UK teen:

It reminds you of all the reasons a suburban UK teenager in the 80s wanted to be American. It had charm, values, humour and style, and still does. This movie was made in a boom, looked forward to a better time, and reminds us today of many things we have lost.

* A moderate success. Francis Lam suggested dicing ripe tomatoes, season and add olive oil, spread in bottom of bowl and add some green leaf and a single layer of very finely sliced salad onion. Put just cooked pasta on top and leave for 2 minutes, so the heat takes the edge off the onion and wilts the green. Add cheese and stir. It seems to work reasonably well, but as my wife noted, it could do with a herb to lift it a bit - probably lots of basil. Will try it again.

Not exactly comforting

Strangely enough, it was via the religious blog First Things that I found this video in which a bunch of physicists answer questions. Given that we are all supposed to trust physicists to judge that the LHC is not actually dangerous to the planet, I find it somewhat disconcerting that they don't know how to answer the question "what would happen if someone put their hand in the particle beam at the LHC":

Interesting viewing, and there are several other "big physics" questions dealt with too.

In other LHC news, I see that they may have found some unexpected behaviour already, even though it must (if memory serves me correctly) still be operating at substantially less than its highest power. The glass half full way of looking at this is that it's good that spending all that money has turned up something. The half empty perspective is along the lines: are their safety calculations reliable when they are turning up unpredicted stuff already?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Are we there yet?

Some fascinating stuff in this report of studies on the time slowing effects of relativity, which starts with the subheading:

As Einstein predicted, a slow drive or a step up a ladder is enough to warp time.

I think this might explain the common kid’s question while on a drive.

Moving extremely sensitive clocks is how it was tested:

Chou and his team used an optical clock invented in 2005. This uses laser light, which has a frequency some 100,000 times higher than microwaves. Optical clocks are thus tens or hundreds of times more accurate than microwave clocks — NIST's loses less than one second in three billion years.

And here I thought my Pulsar Kinetic (for which I haven't had to replaced the rechargeable battery since I got it about 9 or 10 years) was good. Anyway, this is what they did:

General relativity states that time speeds up for objects as gravity weakens. To demonstrate this, Chou and his colleagues raised one optical clock 33 centimetres above another. The slightly lower gravity at that height meant that compared with the reference clock, the raised clock ticked with a fractional boost in frequency of 4 × 10–17, equivalent to a gain of 90 billionths of a second over 79 years.

To demonstrate special relativity, which says that time slows down for moving objects, the researchers jolted the single atom in their optical clock so that it oscillated at relative speeds of less than 10 metres per second, or 36 kilometres per hour. This time, the clock's ticks seemed to drop by a fractional frequency of almost 6 × 10–16.


Death by vampire

Wow.  Vampires (of the bat variety) really can be dangerous:

A fifth child has died in Peru in an outbreak of rabies spread by vampire bats, say health officials.

The death in the northern Amazon region brings the total number of people killed in the outbreak to 20.

A local health official said 3,500 people had been bitten by the bloodsucking bats.

Well, technically, if I remember some old David Attenborough show correctly, I think they are more blood licking than blood sucking, but still...

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Suicide and rationality

I think I've posted before about how, in Japan, suicide pacts have been arranged with strangers via the internet. This appalling use of modern technology seems to have caught on in England, where a man and woman in their 30's, whose families did not know were depressed or particularly unhappy, met and killed themselves after arranging it all via a suicide newsgroup:
The fatal pact began on 13 September when Lee, using the username Heavens Little Girl, posted: "I'm desperately seeking a pact in the UK. I'm 34, female, and live in the Essex area."

She then explained her preferred method was gas and asked for a partner with a car who could pick her up. "My time frame is As Soon As Possible," she said. "If you are very serious, please email me."

The previous month she had posted about planning to kill herself in a cupboard or bathroom and other users shared tips about how to overcome practical problems she had encountered.

By 9 September she reported she was "looking into partners right now, hopefully I have found the right one," and last Sunday afternoon, Lumb, using the username Endthis, wrote: "I'm just saying goodbye … and to all you people suffering I hope you find what your looking for."

Eight fellow forum members wished him luck and bade him farewell, but none tried to dissuade him.
People who participate in such groups clearly think that suicide is a "rational" response to either their own problems, or even worse, the problems of strangers. And indeed, we know that many people don't oppose euthanasia for those close to death anyway, seeing it as a reasonable and rational response to suffering.

But for the depressed but otherwise healthy, like this English pair, there is a perfectly rational argument against suicide - namely that millions of people over the centuries have wanted, or tried, to commit suicide, failed and then later led happy lives.

I can understand why the non religious might reject a call to give up on suicide if it comes from a religious perspective about the inherent value of life and what God wants. But the real evil in these anonymous people instructing others about how to do suicide right is that they are not encouraging rationality at all, and it's not even their own families who will be affected. Yet they will think they can justify their role philosophically, I bet.

So that’s why they do it

I didn’t realise that frequent flyer programs could be a good little earner:

WHEN Qantas announced profit results last month, it revealed it had earned $328 million, before tax, from its frequent-flyer program.

How so?:

Reichlin says frequent-flyer programs are hugely profitable for airlines due to a combination of "enormous demand" and having control over supply.

"They get cash for the points [from banks] and then they control the supply of seats," he says.

Oh, I see.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Ocean acidification – the past, present and future clam

Time for more ocean acidification bad news. This report describes the results of a novel study that looked at what happens when you raise two different species of “commercially important” – I think that means we eat them - bivalves not only in water with predicted future levels of pH, but also in a tank with pre-industrial levels of CO2.

The surprise is not so much that the clams and scallops did worse under future conditions, but they did considerably better in the past conditions than they do today:

At the 750ppm level, basic shell structures like the hinge were severely malformed, while the surface of the shell had holes that were apparent when it was examined via scanning electron microscopy. There was also a significant drop in the viability of the larvae, and those that did survive were developmentally delayed compared to those raised at today’s concentrations. Matters got worse at the higher levels.

The interesting twist in the new work is that the authors also run the experiment under preindustrial CO2 levels of about 250ppm (actual levels were closer to 280ppm). For both species of shellfish, the mortality was much lower and development proceded more quickly. For the quahog, viability doubled (from 20 percent to 40 percent), while for the bay scallop, viability went from 43 percent to 74 percent. The animals made major developmental milestones more quickly—metamorphosis at day 14 occurred in half the animals at preindustrial CO2 levels, but that dropped to less than seven percent at modern levels.

In other words, it may be that even the current decrease in pH may be adversely affecting bivalves.

Overall, they suggest that population crashes in bivalves have been ascribed to a number of stresses, like overfishing and pollution, but it’s possible that ocean acidification has also been at work in these cases. Given that the Earth has experienced higher CO2 levels in the past, why are they being hit so hard now? According to the paper, it’s actually been over 24 million years since levels are likely to have been this high, and many shellfish have diversified more recently than that; any changes in CO2 in the intervening time have also been far more gradual than the current pace.

Not great news.

Why mice

Last week I mentioned a study on the importance of lab mice being handled nicely.  This week it’s a more fundamental question:  why are there so many lab mice anyway?

Neuroskeptic provides the answer.  Rats used to rule the roost, but then they worked out how to knock out single mouse genes.  A bit of bad luck for the mice of the world. 

Hello possum

The kids have noticed a possum has made a nest of sorts under the deck at home:


Cute, very.

Drug policy considered

There’s a good and sensible opinion piece on the appropriate response to illicit drug use in the Sydney Morning Herald today, arguing that a combination of both prohibition and treatment of it as a health issue is the correct approach. The arguments are set out clearly, and fully take into account the unintended consequences of often suggested reforms.

I certainly have complained for a long time that, at least in the Australian context, those who talk of major drug law reform often leave the impression that the “health problem”approach has been ignored. Yet, as far back as about 1980, I knew first hand that heroin users in Queensland were able to get on the methodone program and visited pharmacies to get their daily dose.

In fact, reader Geoff should be able to enlighten me here. If anyone turns up at a GP practice in Queensland today and says they want help to stop using heroin, speed, cannabis or alcohol, are they able to be readily referred to a free or cheap health program relevant to them? (Not just the alcoholics/drugs anonymous type that have been around forever, and are done in a group context that (I expect) may put some people off.)

I get the impression that methodone programs might not always have been as readily embraced in all Australian States, but also that access to at least some type of health programs to help drug addiction has been readily available for some time, regardless of whether people are in the criminal justice system or not.

Moral revolutions reviewed

Slate has a review of “The Honor Code”, which looks at how significant social moral changes have happened. The abolition of slavery, Chinese footbinding and English duelling all get a mention, and while the reviewer does not entirely agree with the author’s idea that it was changes in the sense of honour that led to reform, it still sounds like an interesting read.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The author has no clothes?

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom has been highly praised ("the novel aspires to be a portrait of America on a Tolstoyan scale" said Slate), yet descriptions of its themes have made me very suspicious that it is really a novel about nothing terribly important - like most current literature. Here's how someone at NPR sums it up:

Franzen tells the story of a deteriorating middle class family in Minnesota. The mom, Patty, is a former college athlete, a sort of basketball Emma Bovary who suffers from deep depression and a long unrequited longing for her husbands best friend from college, a successful rock 'n' roller named Rick Katz.

The husband, Walter, is a naive corporate do-gooder, oblivious to his wifes pain and his own. Their son Joey finds life more appealing in the house next door and he moves in with the neighbors, beginning an affair with their teenage daughter that extends throughout the entire novel.

Franzen tells this story in a form thats rather odd, marked by long sequences of exposition and a long middle section written by Patty for her therapist, which she composes in the third person.*

So it's good to see that my suspicions may well be right: there's a very negative review of the book (and Franzen's writing style) in The Atlantic. It certainly sounds like the sort of book I would dislike, and it seems extremely likely I should not bother following this writer.

* That reviewer finds the writing often "brilliant", but still finds the book unappealing. The pretty savage conclusion:
...every line, every insight, seems covered with a light film of disdain. Franzen seems never to have met a normal, decent, struggling human being whom he didnt want to make us feel ever so slightly superior to.

A depressing (and depressed) Monbiot

George Monbiot writes about the complete failure of the Kyoto protocol and the unlikelihood that there will be anything effective to replace it. Any claimed national reductions, he says, are in fact illusory.

What depressing reading. Fortunately, 2010 global temperatures don't seem to be dropping nearly as quickly as skeptics expected. Seriously, the world needs some more really bad weather that is consistent with AGW to change the international politics of this. (Particularly American politics, where climate skepticism on the Tea Party/Republican side is likely to get more power soon.)

Don't mention the M word

There's an interesting post (and comments following) at The Economist about Christine O'Donnell and her "laughable Catholicism". (I'm taking that from the title.) Take this, for example, talking about her claim that she wouldn't even lie to a Nazi to protect the life of a hiding Jew:

Is this the Catholic line on lying? I didn't think so, leading me to believe for about 20 minutes that Ms O'Donnell might be a devotee of the great Prussian moral philosopher, Immanuel Kant. (Compare their views on lying to murderers and "wanton self-abuse".) However, further Googling led me to conclude that Ms O'Donnell's take on lying does indeed conform to the teachings of the Catholic Church. One Catholic encyclopedia reports:

The chief argument from reason [against the permissibility of lying] which St. Thomas and other theologians have used to prove their doctrine is drawn from the nature of truth. Lying is opposed to the virtue of truth or veracity. Truth consists in a correspondence between the thing signified and the signification of it. Man has the power as a reasonable and social being of manifesting his thoughts to his fellow-men. Right order demands that in doing this he should be truthful. If the external manifestation is at variance with the inward thought, the result is a want of right order, a monstrosity in nature, a machine which is out of gear, whose parts do not work together harmoniously.

Sounds like Ms O'Donnell paid attention in confirmation class!
There are many amusing comments too, including one that is just this quote:

"Kant was probably the worst writer ever heard of on earth before Karl Marx. Some of his ideas were really quite simple, but he always managed to make them seem unintelligible. I hope he is in Hell."

- H.L. Mencken

The article notes that, with respect to masturbation, she is only speaking the Church's line:
Could it be that Catholic doctrine is a risible barrier to office only if one is willing, as Ms O'Donnell clearly is, frankly to defend it in public without a hint of embarrassment?
The answer does seem "yes", but then again you do have to take into account that this is the consequence of having church teaching that is not sufficiently informed by nature. As for masturbation as a political topic, one commenter has it right:

How can we reconcile the idea that Ms. O'Donnell's views on masturbation are risible, with the fate of Joycelyn Elders who was fired for airing the opposite views?

Is it just political suicide to mention masturbation at all, whatever you say about it?

For those with toddlers

Children swallowing a “disc battery” face more risk of injury than you might think:

"A disc battery is an increasingly common foreign body ingested by children," the authors write as background information in the article. The American Association of Poison Control Centers reported a total of 2,063 disc battery ingestions in 1998; the number increased 80 percent during the next eight years. When the battery is lodged in the esophagus, its alkaline contents can leak, causing tissue death and burns from electrical discharge.

Ancient germs

From New Scientist:

WITH a hibernation period of up to 100 million years, bacteria discovered on the Arctic sea floor may have longest life cycle of any known organism.

Casey Hubert from the Geosciences Group at Newcastle University, UK, and colleagues came across the bacteria while studying biological activity in sediment samples from the sea floor off the Norwegian island of Svalbard.

There might be another explanation for what he found, but I like this one.

China moon

The Guardian reports:

China could put an astronaut on the moon in 2025 and launch probes to explore Mars and Venus within five years, according to the boss of a Chinese space programme.

Ye Peijian said China could make its first manned moon landing in 15 years, send a probe to Mars by 2013 and to Venus by 2015.

"China has the full capacity to accomplish Mars exploration by 2013," he added.

It's entirely possible they could get there before Americans return. I suppose that if they open a takeaway, it won't be such a bad thing.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Questioning masculinity

Slate has an interesting, if somewhat rambling, essay on the history of political "gay baiting" in American politics. It's interesting to see how long this sort of stuff has gone on:
In the 1840s, supporters of Whig presidential candidate William Henry Harrison described incumbent Democratic president Martin Van Buren as "luxury-loving." Boston's pro-Whig Atlas described Van Buren as a "dandy" in "nicely plaited ruffles," who was "leading off a minuet" while Harrison fought the War of 1812. The Harrison slogan "Van Van, you're a used-up man," suggested squandered masculinity—whether on frivolous pursuits or fellow men was left to the imagination. ...

The newspapers of the late 1700s were filled with verse mocking bachelors' supposed moral degeneracy. But mentioning a politician's single status didn't necessarily suggest that he slept with men, says historian John Gilbert McCurdy. The implication was slightly more pronounced in the 19th century. When James Buchanan, the only bachelor president in American history, ran for office in 1850, the press alleged that his unmarried status made him an unfit executive. "He had no taste for matrimony, which plainly implies a lack of some essential quality," declared the New York Herald. "If he is elected, he will be the first President who shall carry into the White House, the crude and possibly the gross tastes and experiences of a bachelor." It's not clear to historians whether "gross tastes" meant sodomy or just loose women.
I don't believe I had heard of this particular incident from the 1950's before:
The early 1950s were consumed by not just the Red Scare but what scholar David K. Johnson refers to as the "Lavender Scare." In 1950, the State Department fired 91 "peculiars" solely on the basis of their suspected homosexuality. The Republican Party distributed a letter to thousands of members informing them, "sexual perverts … have infiltrated our government," and were "perhaps as dangerous as the actual Communists." The equation of homosexuality with communist sympathy was a favorite refrain of Joseph McCarthy, who said in a speech he gave in 1950 to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, "Communists and queers … have American people in a hypnotic trance." According to Johnson, amid the fear mongering of the 50s, this correlation seemed plausible to the public. Both communism and homosexuality, Johnson writes, "seemed to comprise hidden subcultures with their own meeting places, cultural codes, and bonds of loyalty."
But given the prominence of gay intellectual traitors in Britain at the time, I find it hard to fault other nations' intelligence services for being (at the very least) extremely wary of homosexuality in sensitive work areas at the height of the Cold War.

Lately, Rob Oakeshott has been getting the same masculinity questioning name calling from the likes of the right wing commenters at Catallaxy. (Admittedly, Oakeshott has been behaving in an irritating fashion ever since his "dance of the seven veils" speech when he announced he would support Labor. He is clearly unsuited to be Speaker of the House of Reps.) Yet, on the other side of politics, Labor's (and Gillard's) quite recent "mincing poodle" jibe at Christopher Pyne was equally schoolboy-ish.

Issues of propriety in one's private sex life can have a genuine relevance to political life, and it can be difficult to draw a line. If it had come out while he was Police Minister, for example, that the married David Campbell was secretly frequenting gay saunas, it would have been hard to argue that he wasn't placing himself in an eminently blackmail-able position in a foolishly public way. (If, on the other hand, he was having a very discrete affair with one man - or woman - he would probably just have been following the conduct of numerous other Police Ministers.) The fact that he was in the less sensitive Transport Ministry at the time led to more public sympathy than one might have expected.

But carrying on about a politician, straight or gay, because he doesn't sound manly enough, is just childish in my opinion.

Rail gun to space - cool

According to the Christian Science Monitor:
....a group of NASA engineers is seriously studying the possibility of using a rail gun as a potential launch system to the stars, and they are looking for a system that turns a host of existing cutting-edge technologies into the next giant leap spaceward. Stan Starr, branch chief of the Applied Physics Laboratory at Kennedy Space Center said that nothing in the design calls for brand-new technology to be developed, but counts on a number of existing technologies to be pushed forward. He said developing such a system would be a “major technology revolution.”

Monday’s list

1. Good work if you could get it:

The restored grave of the last known "sin-eater" in England has been at the centre of a special service in a Shropshire village churchyard.

Campaigners raised £1,000 to restore the grave of Richard Munslow, who was buried in Ratlinghope in 1906.

Sin-eaters were generally poor people paid to eat bread and drink beer or wine over a corpse, in the belief they would take on the sins of the deceased.

Frowned upon by the church, the custom mainly died out in the 19th Century.

2. I do wish this Bieber watching would just go away. If ever there was a safe bet, it's that young Justin will have a troubled adulthood; it has the inevitability of train approaching a blown up bridge, while the whole world sits on their folding camp chairs watching and videotaping. But meanwhile, I suppose there is some fun to be had imagining how bad an idea this is:

Justin Bieber plays a "criminal mastermind" in his acting debut. The Baby singer started having acting lessons earlier this year to prepare for his debut in US TV series CSI, in which he plays a criminal called Jason McCann. Explaining the role to Teen Vogue magazine, Bieber said: "It seems like I'm this sweet and innocent kid, and then it turns out I'm the mastermind behind everything.

3. Australians: buy those books and CDs you want from the US right now, it seems.

4. Bet the Tea Party didn’t know about the videos under the control of natural enemy Bill Maher. Ha.

5. The Pope’s visit seemed to go very well. Geoffrey Robertson and Richard Dawkins can’t be all that happy about leading a bunch of condom obsessed, play time dress up demonstrators, can they?

6. Last night I had a dream in which the character of Ted from Scrubs was in the cast of ER. Pity I woke up during it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Taking “marriage of convenience” to new heights

Islam can be a very odd religion, and a very, very convenient one for men, if this report from Saudi Arabia is anything to go by:

With the end of summer — a time when many weddings take place in Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries — the local media is rife with reports announcing religious edicts surrounding marriages.

Under new forms of marriage including Misyar, Misfar (travel), Misyaaf (summer), Siyahi (tourist), friendship and lastly Wanasa (conversation), many Saudi and Arab Gulf tourists — who spend their summer holidays abroad — are reportedly engaging in temporary marriages with young girls and divorcing them before returning home. All of these new forms have stirred religious, ethical and social controversies.

Shaikh Saleh Al Sadlan, a member of the Saudi Supreme Council of Senior Scholars and professors of higher religious studies at the Imam Mohammad Bin Saudi Islamic University, stirred a controversy by approving the Wanasa form of marriage, which does not include sexual relations between a man and his wife.

Al Sadlan said that scholars of the past had approved such a form of marriage, which focuses only on talking, without having sex.

This, he said, used to happen between old men, who needed attention, and young women who didn't mind giving it in return for the status and security associated with marriage.

I think we’ve all heard of the  short term "away from home" Islamic marriages before, but not "summer" and "tourist" categories.  (How does a “tourist” marriage differ from a “travelling away from home on business” marriage, I wonder.)  And isn't it funny how the article concentrates on whether the sexless marriage is legitimate or not. The ones in which the women is treated as a mere short term sex outlet are those which I would have thought should draw a little bit more attention.

A disturbing sight

Several people in New Jersey claimed they saw a person falling from the sky with no parachute, but an extensive police search has turned up no evidence, NBC Philadelphia reported.

Witness Kelly Hale and two of her co-workers at Shore Veterinarians in Egg Harbor Township said they watched from their office windows as a human fell head-first from the sky on Tuesday.

But there were no reports of missing skydivers.

That report was from MSNBC, and as far as I can tell, no body (or explanation) has been found yet.  Sites like Gawker are making jokes about it. but I’m not sure that’s appropriate unless it was a dummy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Melbourne UFO mystery

Last night, I caught up with Westall '66, a documentary first shown a few months ago on the Sci Fi Channel about a pretty intriguing UFO "close encounter" in the Melbourne suburb of Westall in 1966, when I were but a lad.

I’ve read a fair few UFO books over the years, but this case had escaped my attention. A large number of high school children saw a classic flying saucer disc shaped thing hovering beside their school. It came down behind some trees, apparently landed, then took off again, leaving at high speed according to some. It is said to have left a grass swirl on the ground.

It seems only one teacher is around who saw it too. His report is apparently a little different in some detail, and for some reason he declined to appear in the documentary. I suspect part of his story is a muddle with some more mundane aerial action from the not too distant airport. (See my link to a skeptic’s take on the events below.) Yet he apparently also claims to have been threatened by a couple of military visitors to not talk about it.

However, the documentary turned up a couple of other, off school, adult witnesses who saw the disc, and their version of events does not seem to differ significantly from the students.

Witnesses say that military personnel turned up very quickly after the sighting, and apparently insisted on taking the camera of the one teacher who took photos. More than one student say they were under distinct pressure to not publicise the sighting, and they were adamant it was not a balloon (the explanation suggested in The Age the next day) or any known type of aircraft.

Nearly all of the witnesses in the documentary come across as quite credible and genuinely puzzled about what happened.

An army historian on the show made the good point that the quick appearance of the military at the scene is strong evidence that they had pre-knowledge of what was seen. (An extensive search of Australian defence force files has never found any material relevant to the case.) He seemed inclined to think it might have been an experimental craft, presumably that had got into trouble. (That would make more sense than a deliberate test of a secret craft over the suburbs of Melbourne. )

What a puzzle! You would think there must be some of the military people involved out there still who could shed some light on the defence involvement. If it was a balloon and there is no mystery, surely they could confirm that. It's hard to imagine why a top secret balloon would be landing in Melbourne, given that all US enemies were up in the Northern Hemisphere (and perhaps harder to see how it could take off at high speed after landing.)

A skeptical take on the event can be found here, but it’s not actually clear if the writer had seen the documentary before writing it. When you see the documentary, it makes some of his arguments seem implausible. He emphasises the fallibility of memory a great deal, but the documentary covers enough different (and newly found) witnesses to persuade that they can’t all have become so muddled.

A Facebook page created by the doco makers indicates some further information will be forthcoming (including the location of a girl who fainted and was taken away, never to be seen again by a fellow student!) (I am guessing that will have a mundane explanation.)

Anyway, it’s a great local mystery, and let’s hope its solved one way or another.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Transgenic fish - is this strictly necessary?

New Scientist has an article about transgenic salmon and other fish, and the care that has to be taken to make sure they don't escape with unforeseen consequences to the wild population.

It also mentions how China has done a lot of work on transgenic fish too, including on carp. (Hmm, yes, like the world is crying out for a bigger muddy tasting fish. In fact, if it's China involved in anything to do with food safety, I think we can work on the assumption that it's dangerous.)

I'm just skeptical that this is worth all the effort. Inserting genes into plants is one thing that is uncertain enough. Directly mucking around with the genes of animals, and then having to take steps to sterilize them because you don't really know what would happen if they escape, just doesn't inspire me with confidence.

Taxes and politics

So, BHP has come out and said that it wants Australia to have a carbon price, even before there is any international agreement regarding same. As Mark Davis points out in The Age, given that Garnaut has changed his position, this means a carbon tax instead of an ETS. As the Greens seem to favour a tax too, there does seem a real hope that the complicated ETS of questionable value may be replaced with something better. Who said this election result was a disaster? (I’m looking at you, jtfsoon.)

Davis also points out that Turnbull sounding all responsible and economically reasonable on broadband sort of highlights the fact that it is his party that is the economically unreasonable on carbon pricing.

There is one other aspect of the current situation which I think is pretty remarkable: BHP also agreed in principle with Labor for a mining profits tax. So, now we have big business accepting taxes that aren’t in their direct interests, but are regarded by most economists (I think that applies to the mining profits tax) as beneficial to the nation.

And the party and leader opposed to these tax changes: the Coalition under Tony Abbott.

Labor may have a problem with the way it spends money, but it’s currently the party that makes more sense about taxes.*

* The same can be said about the Democrats and Republicans at the moment.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Working with bear

In one of the silliest posts ever seen at Watts Up With That, Anthony Watts recently criticised a Nissan electric car ad for making a polar bear look cute and (literally) cuddly.  Watts seemed to fear it would cause some people who happened to find themselves near a real live polar bear to put themselves in danger by trying to hug one, and put up videos of polar bears attacking people to show just how misleading the ad is. 

As Joe Romm wrote, we can now presumably wait for Watts’ denunciation of the creators of Yogi, Smokey and other fictional bears (those in the outrageously inaccurate The Golden Compass come to mind) for creating a public safety hazard.

In any event, this is just a preamble to show the video of how they made the Nissan ad.  They actually used a live polar bear more than I thought:

Screening simplified

It’s hard to keep up with the controversy over wide scale PSA screening for prostate cancer, and whether it causes more harm than good.

My general impression is that there is pretty good evidence for the nay-sayers (see this brief report last year), yet you still get things opening like a new Prostate Screening clinic in Brisbane just a couple of months ago, so clearly some think promoting widespread screening is worthwhile (although perhaps mainly for the clinic’s pockets?)

Anyhow, this report from the Guardian indicates that maybe you get just as well by getting just one PSA test done at the right age:

Professor Philipp Dahm and colleagues at the University of Florida reviewed six previous screening trials involving 387,286 participants.

They found routine screening aided the diagnosis of prostate cancer at an earlier stage, but did not have a significant impact on death rates and raised the risk of over-treatment.

A second study headed by Professor Hans Lilja, showed a single "prostate-specific antigen" (PSA) level test at age 60 strongly predicted a man's risk of diagnosis and death from prostate cancer.

The team found 90% of prostate cancer deaths occurred in men with the highest PSA levels at age 60, while men with average or low PSA levels had negligible rates of prostate cancer or death by age 85.

The findings suggested at least half of men aged 60 and above might be exempted from further prostate cancer screening.

Sounds reasonable.

A warning for the eyes

The ABC’s Dr Norman Swan has written a first hand account of his recurring bouts of retinal detachment, and it’s well worth reading just to be aware of what to look out for.   (Swan himself didn’t pay enough attention to the warning signs the first time he had it.)

He mentions that the short sited are more likely to get it.   I’ll be keeping it in mind.

Even more about ancient beer

Further to my recent post about ancient beer in Israel and elsewhere, here's a pretty fascinating story about how it seems beer drinking Nubians were getting hefty doses of antibiotic from their beer:

Armelagos was part of a group of anthropologists that excavated the mummies in 1963. His original goal was to study osteoporosis in the Nubians, who lived between about 350 and 550 A.D. But while looking through a microscope at samples of the ancient bone under ultraviolet light, he saw what looked like tetracycline — an antibiotic that was not officially patented in modern times until 1950.

At first, he assumed that some kind of contamination had occurred.

"Imagine if you're unwrapping a mummy, and all of a sudden, you see a pair of sunglasses on it," says Armelagos. "Initially, we thought it was a product of modern technology."

His team's first report about the finding, bolstered by even more evidence and published in Science in 1980, was met with lots of scepticism. For the new study, he got help dissolving bone samples and extracting tetracycline from them, clearly showing that the antibiotic was deposited into and embedded within the bone, not a result of contamination from the environment.

The analyses also showed that ancient Nubians were consuming large doses of tetracycline — more than is commonly prescribed today as a daily dose for controlling infections from bad acne. The team, including chemist Mark Nelson of Paratek Pharmaceuticals, reported their results in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology.

The theory is that it was from grain used for beer making that was contaminated with tetracycline producing mold.

In my previous post it was mentioned how some anthropologists believed beer drinking was very important in the development of human society. Well, if beer gave other tribes healthy doses of antibiotics, it probably can't hurt that theory.

Pork wars

The New York Times reports on serious efforts underway to reduce the amount of antibiotics fed to pigs as a precautionary measure (and to make them fatten up faster). As the article notes, medical scientists have been warning about the dangers of this practice for decades (for making drug resistant microbes that are hard to treat in humans), but only now is the FDA making a strong move against it. Yet the pork industry and some vets are still resisting.

I wonder what the position is in Australia.

Up close and personal with the bonobo

Last night’s Foreign Correspondent was initially about the bonobos in the Congo, and was interesting for several different reasons:

* I didn’t realise before, but the famously pan-sexual primates are pretty ugly. The female genitalia and backside look as if they are permanently engorged and virtually dragging on the ground, and even the males seem to have a more prominent penis than do regular chimps or gorillas. But apart from that, even their face and head shape are a bit different from regular chimps, and not for the better.

* The show continued the “bonobos are the peaceful hippies of the jungle” meme, seemingly indicating they are vegetarians and do nothing nasty. But in fact, as I’ve noted before, they do eat other primates and mammals from time to time. Just because they seem to spend half their day having sex and are run by the women doesn’t mean they are the Bob Browns of the animal kingdom.

* The second half of the show concentrated on the people who live near the bonobos, and the efforts to improve their living conditions. Conditions in the Congo do look extremely basic. A “new”medical clinic featured in the show with dirt floors and an operating table (of sorts) that looked like it had been salvaged from a car wrecker’s yard. The amount of monkey meat on sale in the towns was pretty disturbing too.

If you can put up with the monkey sex that is briefly featured, it’s worth watching.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Tiny electric plane

Have a look at this tiny French airplane and its cute l'il battery powered engines that still manage to make it fly and sound like a mosquito:

Not that it has much range yet, but I am still surprised it flies at all. More details at Popular Science.

Babies via courier

I know this sort of thing has been around for a while, but I am still surprised at the number of women happy to avoid the whole outrageously complicated and icky business (that was sarcasm) of actually meeting someone they like and trust enough to be the father of their child. Instead, it's the livestock option: anonymously inseminated via courier. The details are in this story of the prosecution of an illegal business in Britain:

Two businessmen earned £250,000 through an illegal fertility company providing women with access to sperm donors, a court heard today.

In the first case of its kind, a jury was told that Nigel Woodforth, 43, ran the firm from the basement of his home in Reading, Berkshire, with 49-year-old Ricky Gage.

Nearly 800 women signed up to use the online service provided by the company, operating under various names including Sperm Direct Limited and First4Fertility.

Their website introduced would-be donors to women trying to conceive, Southwark crown court in London was told.

Philip Bennetts, prosecuting, said: "In short, the website introduced men who wished to supply sperm to women who wished to use the sperm to impregnate themselves in order to have a child."

The women, having paid an £80 joining fee and £300 to use the service, would then choose from a list of men before the sperm was delivered to their homes through a courier company at £150 per delivery.

To put it mildly, this does not speak well of modern attitudes to child bearing and raising.

Surprising medical fact of the day

Big baby boys are more likely to be earlier maturing, bed hopping young adults, so it seems. But the main surprise is this:
"Most people are unaware that male infants in the first six months of life produce testosterone at approximately the same level as an adult male," said Christopher W. Kuzawa, associate professor of anthropology in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and author of the study. "We looked at weight gain during this particular window of early life development, because testosterone is very high at this age and helps shape the differences between males and females."
Clearly, internet porn filters are needed from a very early age.

Oceans not understood

Nature has a brief report on a new study which shows that the global "conveyor belt" circulation of ocean water is more complicated than previously thought. This would seem to be relevant to the issue of where ocean heat is going.

Hawking, God, etc

I haven't really bothered talking about the Hawking comments on "physics shows there is no need for God" because anyone who knew about Mr H knew that he never believed in God, and the statement was a mere publicity blurb for a book.

But there are a few commentary pieces on Hawking and the book which are worth following:

* Paul Davies, who has also made more than a few dollars by talking about God and physics, is always worth reading.

* Roger Penrose, despite getting on in the years, talks about the book and some past big statements made by SH.

* Peter Woit, whose site Not Even Wrong is always pointing out that media releases claiming that some scientist has just found a possible way to test string theory are invariably wrong, looks at the book and strongly criticizes the scientific position Hawking seems to have put himself in. He also makes it sound like it definitely not going to be a best seller.

Smarter than the average economist?

Nicholas Gruen seems a nice enough guy, for a (no doubt well paid) chess playing economist who writes easily mocked boring articles on how exciting Web2 and Gov2 are. (Just go through Club Troppo to see what I mean.)

But, it amuses me to see that I seemingly can outsmart him when it comes to Tiger Airlines. As I recently noted, my family and I have triumphed in 3 return trips with the rule-ridden discount airline over the last few years, all the time watching only other people (like Nicholas) lose their temper and arguing at the check in desk.

Politics, politics

Gosh there is an unusual amount of noteworthy political commentary in the papers today:

1.   News Limited is no doubt disappointed that it didn’t persuade the public with its “Coalition for government” post election campaign.   Shanahan has to sheepishly concede that Newspoll indicates a large majority of voters approve of the independents going for Labor.

2.  Niki Savva usually provides fair commentary (not that I agree with all of it), and today she makes some recommendations to Tony Abbott about cutting dead wood, and reinstating Turnbull to finance.   Fair enough, but as far as I’m concerned, there’s a hell of a lot of dead wood to be pruned.

3.  Michael Stutchbury explains why a carbon tax is a better idea than all the mixed direct action steps that Labor has imposed (and more of which we would have had under Liberals.)   This makes sense, and again shows how bad an idea it was for Abbott to promise to never introduce any carbon pricing.    If he doesn’t change that line, it’s hard to see why he should ever be  seen to have economic credibility.

4.  Meanwhile, over at Fairfax, Maxine McKew writes an article that promotes a higher density, more populous, Sydney on environmental and economic grounds, and in doing so shows some smarts which she failed to do while she was an MP.  Too late now, Maxine.

Monday, September 13, 2010

The science of mice handling advances

Nature reports on a study about the best way to pick up a lab mouse:
Picking up mice at the base of the tail is standard practice in laboratory research, but whether this is the best method is unclear. Researchers now suggest that cupping a mouse in the hand or carrying it in a small tunnel reduces stress and encourages cooperation.
I like that last bit about mouse co-operation. Has a pharmaceutical company ever had a meeting in which its scientists said to them "sorry the new drug tests failed, but you know we're not entirely sure the mice were co-operating"?

It is, however, a little surprising to me that these science types haven't tried to standardize mice handling before:
"The paper has made me rethink some of the things we do," says Scott Russo, a behavioural neuroscientist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York. His lab members routinely clutch mice by the tail, even though they investigate the effect of stress on anxiety, depression and addiction. "Tail handling could absolutely influence the effects we observe," he says. Anxiety behaviour in mice is notoriously inconsistent — it fluctuates across strains, and even across days, he says. "If this is a way to reduce inter-experimental variability, this would be a very important finding."

Just not cricket

Odd story for the day:  cricket farming is in crisis

Just thought you should know.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Flying humour

Given that my main birthday gift featured all the equipment I need to become a Microsoft Flight Simulator tragic (thank you, kind wife) I found this video quite amusing:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Information of uncertain significance

I've always liked this They Might be Giants song, but there are only audience videoed live versions on Youtube with dubious sound quality, and you can't hear the lyrics clearly. So instead, let's listen to a recently posted ukulele version, with a vocal performance which I find oddly endearing. (It's not great, but may still be better than what I could achieve):

Thanks faceless singer.

By the way, the song is particularly apt for today, which may, or may not, record my entry into my 6th decade (yes, yikes!), depending on whether you are counting in Earth or Mars years. On the upside, I feel much wiser and benevolent already. On the downside, I did have to pluck hair from my ears on Thursday, extract nose hair yesterday, and shave the odd patches of hair on my shoulders this morning.

Relax: death by rogue planet kinda unlikely

As it happens, my wife and son were watching 2012 last weekend. (I was moving in and out of the room, but from what I saw, it did look every bit as silly and bad as I expected.)

Of course, I have reassured the son that it's just a silly story and the science in it is just ridiculous. He doesn't seem concerned. Now I can show him a paper by (I think) an astronomer, inspired by some of the apocalyptic theories about what might happen in 2012, with the great title:

Is it plausible to expect a close encounter of the Earth with a yet undiscovered astronomical object in the next few years?

Short answer: no.

Actually, it is interesting to note from the paper that there has been a fair bit of work on what might be lurking around in interstellar space. I was aware of "brown dwarfs" possibly being loose out there, but didn't know (or had forgotten about) the possibility of rogue planets that could unexpected wander into a solar system:
Concerning the existence of free-floating planets of smaller mass, Stevenson (1999)
noted that, under certain circumstances, Earth-sized solid bodies wandering in the
interstellar space after being ejected during the formation of their parent stellar systems may sustain forms of life. Again as a consequence of three-body interactions with Jovian gas giants, Debes & Sigurdsson (2007) have recently shown that during planet formation a non-negligible fraction of terrestrial-sized planets with lunar-sized companions will likely be ejected into interstellar space with the companion bound to the planet. Debes & Sigurdsson (2007) yield a total number of free-floating binary planets in the Galaxy as large as 7×108. At present, no planets like them have yet been detected. Proposed microlensing surveys of next generation will be sensitive to free-floating terrestrial planets (Bennett & Rhie 2002); under certain circumstances, they may be able to yield 10100 detections of Earth-mass free-floating planets (Bennett & Rhie 2002). One to a few detections could be made with all-sky IR surveys (Debes & Sigurdsson 2007).
Anyhow, the paper goes on to list the reasons why we would already know about it if something was about to zoom into the solar system by 2012.

What a relief. :)

A kind of vindication, and vague reason for optimism

Here's a slightly altered version of something I just posted at Catallaxy:

Over at Skeptical Science, Roger Pielke Snr (quite a favourite of climate change skeptics for many a year) been actively commenting in a recent post which criticised him for overstating the case on what’s been happening with ocean warming since 2004. (He says there is none; everyone else says there is no reason to be so confident based on the short timeframe and doubts about the adequacy of the measuring system).

Most interestingly, at two different points he says:

“Thus to conclude that I have ever not been concerned about the addition of CO2 and how it affects the climate system misrepresents my perspective. I am particularly concerned with respect to the biogeochemical effects of added CO2.” and

“In terms of CO2, we do not even need to discuss global warming to be concerned by uncontrolled increases in its atmospheric concentration. We see directly from observations of atmospheric concentrations of CO2 that humans are increasing its levels. If global warming were not occurring at all, we should still be concerned.”

Which is what I have been saying since, oh, 14 Nov 2006. (Although I have been persuaded since then that AGW itself is also a serious concern.)

I note that Pielke does not make it clear what biogeochemical effect he is talking about: the one I have concentrated on is ocean acidification, but I can't see that he has ever made reference to it at his blog. Is there another that he is referencing? He does talk about biogeochemical effects in relation to anthrogenic land cover change, but it doesn't sound as if this paper talks about CO2 causing biogeochemical effects.

So what his precise concerns are remains a bit of a mystery to me, but certainly I still believe that, like his son, he is being disingenuous by letting his warming skepticism (or in his son's case, glee over IPCC mistakes) be promoted all over the blogosphere and thus encourage policy inaction on CO2, when in fact he claims it's a "reason to be concerned."

Meanwhile, I see that a new study that did the exercise of looking at what would happen to CO2 levels and temperature if you never built another CO2 emitting device. The answer is a bit surprising:
The researchers found that atmospheric concentrations of CO2 would stabilize at less than 430 parts per million (ppm) and the increase of global mean temperatures since preindustrial time would be less than 1.3°C (2.3°F).

"The answer surprised us," says Davis. "Going into this study, we thought that existing sources of CO2 emissions would be enough to push us beyond 450 ppm and 2°C warming." In light of common benchmarks of 450 ppm and 2°C, these results indicate that the devices whose emissions will cause the worst impacts have yet to be built.

Of course, it's impossible to turn off the new CO2 making device switch, but it does emphasise that aggressive action on CO2 production has a vague chance of working to limit temperature increases.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Not keeping it nice

What's the latest trend in England? Old people getting STD's:
The figures showed that 45 to 64-year-olds saw the biggest rise in syphilis, herpes, chlamydia and genital warts between 2000 and 2009. They also saw the second-biggest rise in gonorrhea cases, beaten only by the over 65s.

Cases of syphilis in 45 to 64 year-olds rose ten-fold from just 52 in 2000 to 503 in 2009. In the over 65s, cases more than quadrupled from just 7 in 2000 to 32 in 2009.

Gonorrhea fell in all age groups between 2000 and 2009 except for the over 45s.
Whatever happened to "no sex please, we're British"?

I was also surprised to read recently that a very popular show there is a medical reality one called "Embarrassing Bodies" in which people, for some reason I find hard to fathom, are happy to come on and show their oozy, swollen, warty crevices and appendages on national TV. One of the doctor stars says:
"I didn't think piles and verrucas would be exciting to a Channel 4 audience," he says, "but I soon realised that people hadn't seen the novelty of haemorrhoids before, because we're usually pretty crap about talking about this stuff. Yes it's a bit gross, but we never treat it in a sensationalistic way...."
As the Guardian article (which I am quoting from) notes, while the show may encourage some people with conditions that really deserve treatment to go to their doctor, there are concerns that the show's attitude to plastic surgery is not helpful:
One of the surgeries Jessen recommended on an episode in 2008 was a patient's labioplasty. In her book Living Dolls, Natasha Walter details how uneasy this made her feel. "[In this episode] a young woman consulted a doctor about the fact that her labia minora extended slightly beyond her labia majora and that this caused her embarrassment. Instead of reassuring her that this was entirely normal, the doctor recommended, and carried out, surgery on her labia. The comments left on the programme's website showed how this decision to carry out plastic surgery to fit a young woman's body to a so-called norm made other young women feel intensely anxious. 'I'm 15 and I thought I was fine, but since I've watched the programme I've become worried, as mine seem larger than the girl who had hers made surgically smaller! It doesn't make any difference to my life, but I worry now that when I'm older and start having sex I might have problems!' one girl said.
There are plenty of gross and normally private things to be seen on the show's website. (Including vulva, penis and breast galleries over which 15 year old teenagers can either feel encouraged, or, just as likely, fret.)

Look, I obviously can't say that the show is all bad for the reason already mentioned; and I don't think I count as prudish about non-sexual nudity. (See my previous comments about Japan.) But it still seems that the show is a symptom of a distinct change in the British psyche over the last 40 years or so from instinctive reserve to exhibitionism. How else can you read comments like this (from the Guardian again):
Natasha, who wants to talk about irritable bowel syndrome. Her boyfriend, Peter, waits patiently by the fence. "We love the show," he tells me. "My mother died of skin cancer this year and the programme showed me the warning signs to look out for. Plus all the blokes with their tackle out – they ask questions I wouldn't dare!"...

Kelly Coulter, who's brought her 18-month-old son to the truckstop to talk about a problem with his gums, says she'd "absolutely get my breasts out on the show if I was guaranteed a boob job". ....

Rosie and Kelly are 13 years old, and so excited to be in the presence of Dr Christian that they're quivering, visibly. .... they're recalling their favourite episode from the three series so far. Was it the episode with the interior designer's oversized labia? Was it the one about the woman with the udder-like breasts? The one with Christina's anal warts? They remember all of those, but their favourite was the episode where Dr Christian stood in a locker room to compare the penis sizes of a whole rugby team.
I'm glad it's a version of reality TV that has not caught on here.

Definitely Jungian

Back in my recent review of Inception, I guessed that the movie was based on Jungian psychoanalytical theory. It seems I was more correct than I knew. A post at Mind Hacks goes into a lot of detail about how the movie reflects Jungian ideas.

Say a prayer

Here at the Dominion we like any study that suggests prayer is a Good Thing.  Mainly because it annoys atheists, but also because prayer research is just inherently interesting.

The Economist ran an article recently  about study that showed the benefits of praying daily for your romantic partner.    It makes you like them more.

It’s an odd study, sure to have holes poked in it by godless killjoys, but I like it.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Urban heat island, meet rural cool island

Here's something I hadn't heard much about before. Global warming skeptics go on a lot about urban heat islands causing a significant part of temperature increases over the 20th century.

But there is another effect - increased irrigation causing an artificial cooling:

Scientists are just beginning to get a handle on irrigation's impact. In a hundred years, the amount of irrigated has grown four-fold, now covering an area four times the size of Texas. Puma and his coauthor, Benjamin Cook, a climatologist at Goddard and Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, are the first to look at the historic effects of mass watering on climate globally by analyzing temperature, precipitation and irrigation trends in a series of model simulations for the last century. They found that irrigation-linked cooling grew noticeably in the 1950s as irrigation rates exploded, and that more rain is now falling downstream of these heavily watered regions. ..

Globally, irrigation's effect on climate is small—one-tenth of one degree C (about 0.2 degree F). But regionally, the cooling can match or exceed the impacts of greenhouse gases, say the scientists. For example, the study found some of the largest effects in India's arid Indus River Basin, where irrigation may be cooling the climate up to 3 degrees C, (5.4 degrees F) and up to 1-2 degrees C in other heavily irrigated regions such as California's Central Valley and parts of China. The study also found as much as .5 degree C cooling in heavily watered regions of Europe, Asia and North America during the summer.

Irrigation has increased because it boosts crop yields, supporting many millions of small farmers, said Upmanu Lall, head of the Columbia Water Center at the Earth Institute. But concern is growing that groundwater supplies in India and China may not keep up.
So, use up your groundwater, and suddenly you may find your local area quite a bit hotter than before.

I trust Watts up With That will post on this soon. They had better, after spending so much time on urban heat islands.

A new government. Yay.

This is, at the very least, going to be a very interesting term of Federal government to watch. 

Labor is lucky not to have to run everything past Bob Katter.  If it were up to him, I expect it would be decaying spaceports and opera houses on Cape York in 20 years time, and stalled development of a revolutionary baby formula using freeze dried bananas and barramundi oil.  

Now Julia Gillard should prove her conservative social views claim by quickly getting married to Tim. 

Her parents turned up on ABC 24 hour news channel yesterday, and they seem very nice.  It also became clear that Julia gets her over-endowed earlobes from her mother.   Sadly, the computer I was watching it on did not have an easy screenshot save on it, so I missed that. [ Hopefully, mentioning Julia’s earlobes will again cause a 500 extra visitors over the next couple of days.]

And how’s this for a perfect picture for a caption competition today:

Gillard and Pell-420x0

If I had enough time I would supply a few myself, but I’m late for work.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Dawn of D Day

So, we should know who the independents will support in government by this afternoon.

There seems to be a late swing of opinion that maybe the Coalition will get their support after all, despite many reports over the weekend that it had pretty much given up hope. Well, with Bob Katter involved, anything could happen.

Never has the matrix of the good, the bad and the ugly of political policies on offer at an election been so hopelessly mixed between the parties. I've already disclosed this elsewhere, but I voted informal in the House of Reps, and a Labor - Liberal mix in the Senate. I made sure the Greens were far down the list, as even though they have one good idea (a moderate introductory carbon tax) I am loathe to give them too much power to implement their mostly objectionable policies.

By rights, this means I have no real grounds to complain about the election outcome. But I still think a severely chastised Labor has the better chance of making a good government than an Abbott-led Coalition. I simply don't trust Abbott's instincts as leader, and the substantial rump of climate change skeptics who form his support base make me very pessimistic about the party as a whole. His Swedish style parental leave plan is a folly introduced in exactly the same self centered way Rudd would get some of his flakier ideas up. His is similarly populist on immigration limits, and there were clear errors (and hidden elements barely noticed by the electorate - such as big savings in pharmaceutical benefits) in their policy costings.

On the other hand, I couldn't quite bring myself to be seen to be rewarding the large amount of rushed, barely justified policy making of Labor. I think the NBN, while sounding all shiny and impressive, is overkill for Australia, and the ideal solution is almost certainly one that falls between the Coalition and Labor extremes (probably closer to the Coalition plan). To take a couple of other examples: a laptop for every student was a populist waste from day one, and the insulation scheme had absolutely hopeless implementation in the face of plenty of warnings.

One hopes that the way these policies were developed (seemingly on the back of a Rudd envelope) will not be repeated with the removal of uber control freak Kevin.

Also in Labor's favour, I have to say that, regardless of the exact amount it will raise, I don't understand why any government should not proceed with a mining super-profits tax if you have in principle agreement from the major miners. My impression is that, as with nearly all new taxes, it is likely to raise more than expected rather than less.

Perhaps this indicates I should have voted for Labor anyway, but although I like her personally, there wasn't a Gillard led government record to vote on. I share the view of the Labor strategists who now say that going to the election early was a mistake.

With any luck, if Tony Abbott does not become PM he'll have another burst of self doubt and not be leader next time around. No one seems to think that will happen, because he has been deemed a success merely by not being entirely the mistake ridden campaigner that everyone expected. (The all running, never sleeping action man image was as shallow as the Kevin 07 campaign really, although I always knew there was an element of deceit in the latter's public persona.) I still consider Abbott a policy flake, too willing to change on a whim, and in that respect, he is actually close to the Rudd model in terms of policies he will run, even if he is much more collegiate in dealing with his Parliamentary colleagues. (Mind you, no one else would have run a government like Rudd, not even Turnbull.)

Ha ha

The new green Germany can't afford to be so Green after all:

The German government has decided to extend the life spans of the country’s 17 nuclear plants while alternative energy sources are developed, a move that is also likely to create windfalls for both power companies and strained government coffers. ...

New taxes levied on utility companies as part of the deal will be used in part to help develop renewable energy sources, Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday. But she said Germany could not afford to get rid of nuclear power as planned because the amount of renewable energy available would not be sufficient to fill the gap.

Nuclear energy is a bridge,” she said.

Under a German law, passed by a previous government in 2002, the last nuclear power plant was to be shut by 2022. That decision, bitterly resented by the nuclear energy companies, was largely supported by the German public, which has a deep aversion to anything nuclear, a sentiment that intensified after the nuclear accident at Chernobyl.

Recent polls have shown attitudes shifting, however. A survey by Forsa, an independent polling institute, in July found that 81 percent of Germans said the country could not do entirely without nuclear power, up from 59 percent five years ago.

Bad writers

The Independent has a long-ish article listing the ways in which several prominent British children’s authors were, in their private lives, not very nice people.

It spends most of its time on Roald Dahl, as there is a new biography of him out. I think I have read before about his famous rudeness, but it takes some talent to write to your publisher threatening to leave it and get this responce:

"Let me reverse the threat," he wrote to Dahl. "Unless you start acting civilly to us, there is no possibility of our agreeing to publish you. Nor will I – or any of us – answer any future letter that we consider to be as rude as those we've been receiving."

I think I have read elsewhere that he was nice to his children, at least when he was home and not sleeping around town, but that might one of the few examples of considerate behaviour.

The article then gives shorter histories of other British authors who it is a pleasure not to have known. Even Enid Blyton gets a serve, with one of her daughters writing:

"The truth is," wrote Imogen later, "Enid Blyton was arrogant, insecure, pretentious, very skilled at putting difficult or unpleasant things out of her mind, and without a trace of maternal instinct. As a child, I viewed her as a rather strict authority. As an adult I pitied her."

The unifying theme is that they pretty much all had tragedy in their early lives. Maybe that’s why I don’t care for Harry Potter: a mere divorce is hardly enough for Rowling to be a good writer.

On a related matter, I recently read the short autobiography of Graham Green “A Sort of Life”. (This was another of my triumphant finds from the Lifeline Book Fair.) It was well written and pretty interesting, dwelling a lot on his unhappy teenage years in school and how he ended up in therapy for a time.

Greene clearly recognized as an adult that he had always had mental health issues, describing how boredom had always felt like a ballooning pressure inside his head which led to both reckless behaviour (Russian roulette to make him feel more alive) and extensive travel. Given that he is now well known for his rampaging sex life, it was a little disappointing that he only relates his very first erotic feelings (when seeing some actress in a play) but then says nothing at all about how or when he lost his virginity.

It also ends rather abruptly, and although I know he did a second volume of autobiography, I can’t say I have ever seen it around. But still, a good read.