Thursday, October 28, 2010

In praise of Sheldon

I only started watching The Big Bang Theory a few months ago in re-runs,but I have to say, I find much of it very funny. There's not much doubt that for most viewers the comedic core of the show is Sheldon, who Slate noted last year is (presumably, even though the writers deny it is deliberate) the first sitcom character with Aspergers Syndrome.

Despite the frequent sexual elements and jokes, I would say that the two funniest episodes I have seen concentrated on Sheldon and hence were pretty asexual. The first one was the story of how Leonard first came to move in with Sheldon, (The Staircase Implementation).

The second was on TV last night, featuring Sheldon deciding to stay safe in his bedroom until the singularity arrives and he can upload himself into a robot. In the meantime, he creates a tele-presence robot version of himself, which he get Leonard to drive to work. This sequence is currently on Youtube, and brought tears to my eyes.

Live long and prosper, Sheldon.

UPDATE: I am happy to see, from this recent LA Times episode review of the current season, that Sheldon's "girlfriend" Amy is still around. She has also been amusing me greatly in the couple of episodes I have seen in which she makes an appearance.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Slum life this is

The first of Kevin McCloud's 2 part doco "Slumming It," in which he spends a fortnight living with families in the middle of Mumbai's biggest slum, was great TV on the ABC last night. One minute appalled by the open sewer drains (full of mystery chemical sludge as well as excrement,) the visiting rats in the bedroom at night and the terrible working conditions in the mini industries in the slum, the next minute McCloud is marvelling at the apparent general happiness of the community and the high degree of social interaction of all age groups in such a place. (Well, the latter is kind of hard to avoid with things like 21 people sharing a tiny house. He also notes often that it is a million people living in about one square mile.)

As an architect, McCloud is interested in how the built environment works in a place like this. (He notes that many planners, and Prince Charles, have taken to saying that it has lessons to teach the West.) Yet the one factor he hasn't mentioned is the obvious high degree of religiosity of the people there, and the role that the degree of fatalism in the Hindu religion almost certainly has on the perception of the residents.

I also thought the show should be watched by the libertarian inclined as an object lesson in the limitations of self regulation of society. The industries there are completely unregulated and untaxed; a perfect little Randian experiment, I would have thought. And yes, the slum does show the inherent innovation and capitalist tendencies in self organised human societies. But it also shows that capitalism, at least in a culture such as India's, can be very slow to self correct for the abuses and poor treatment of its workers.

You can catch the show on the ABC’s iView still.

Salmon mystery

The BBC has a detailed story about the surprising strong return of sockeye salmon to their spawning rivers in Canada this year.  Last year only a million came back; this year, 34 million!

The problem is no one understands what is going on.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Islamic news

*  There’s always someone in the family who has an unusual conversion.  Tony Blair’s sister in law has had a conversion experience in Iran:

She decided to become a Muslim six weeks ago after visiting the shrine of Fatima al-Masumeh in the city of Qom.

"It was a Tuesday evening and I sat down and felt this shot of spiritual morphine, just absolute bliss and joy," she said in an interview today.

When she returned to Britain, she decided to convert immediately.

I could be wrong, but sudden conversions to this religion seem pretty rare,  unless you’re in an Indonesian prison.   Seeing she’s a TV journalist, I would have been more amused if she had started to insist on an on screen burqa instead of just a hijab.

*  There are two stories about men in legal trouble in the Middle East for using the internet for sexual purposes.   An Egyptian Imam in Dubai is alleged to have sent rude pictures of himself to women via Blackberry (and was the victim of a “sting” by a male policeman posing as a woman).   In Saudi Arabia a man who was making money by “renting” on line rooms in which women would strip is facing arrest.

I am curious:  just how large are the cyberpolice departments in these middle east countries?   If there are going to try to stop every man who sends a rude pic of himself from his mobile phone, they will be the biggest employment field in the region.   And if these countries don’t block overseas sites, when will they realise there is no holding back the tide?

Suffer, snow bunnies

Look, if people grow up in a snowy country, skiing is an unobjectionable past time.  But in Australia, where (if you live outside of Sydney or Melbourne at least) you can just about have 7 days in London (or, at the very least, a week in Tokyo)  for the same price as a long weekend on the skifields, it’s always struck me as an elitist hobby.  And besides, the couple of times I did try to stand up and move on skis, I fell over a lot.

So, being the jealous, nasty person that I am, if the Grammar school kids all end up with osteoarthritis, I’ll just snigger in the background. 

Not your average Parisian evening…

There was a story in the SMH yesterday which is notable for the fine sense of understatement in the final line.   First, I’ll edit the events (tragic as they are):

A baby was killed and several more people seriously injured when a family of 11 threw themselves from a third-floor flat to flee a man they mistook for the devil, French investigators said….

Among the injured they found an entirely naked man of African origin with a knife wound in his hand and two children, a baby and a two-year-old girl. The baby died later after receiving hospital treatment in Paris.

The assistant prosecutor from Versailles, Odile Faivre, told reporters the incident began in the early hours when a group of 13 people were watching television in an apartment and the naked man heard the baby cry.

"The man got up to prepare a bottle for the baby when his wife, seeing him, screamed 'It's the devil, it's the devil'," Faivre explained.

In the confusion following this apparent case of mistaken identity, the naked man's sister-in-law stabbed him in the hand and he was ejected through the front door of the flat. When he attempted to get back in, panic erupted.

"The other occupants of the flat fled by jumping out of the window," Faivre said. According to police, one man jumped with the two-year-old in his arms and crawled two blocks away to hide in bushes, screaming: "I had to defend myself."

And the final line:
"A number of points remain to be cleared up," Faivre said.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Things of note

I’m going to be pretty busy this week, and really should try to impose a ban on myself using the internet. But such attempts usually fail, so you may as well keep checking in and seeing what turns up here.

This morning, I recommend the following:

* quite a good, long article in The Guardian on daily life in the nearly completed International Space Station. (They don’t dwell on the toilet, but you already know all about that from my earlier posts.)

* yet another tragic case of erotic autoasphyxiation actually ends up teaching medical science something new.

* GQ, of all magazines, has a long article on suicide chat rooms, and the coming trial of a guy charged with encouraging suicides. All very chilling, although the article also claims that some suicide chat rooms have positive effects and can help talk people out of it. But surely you would have to look at the net effect. Actually, I see Mind Hacks links to another story (this one from the BBC) about suicide chat rooms, but I haven’t listened to it yet.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Friday, October 22, 2010

Lunar greenhouse to nowhere

At the University of Arizona, they're figuring out designs for hydroponic, easily transported greenhouse systems for growing vegetables on the moon.

What a pity there's no way of actually getting them there for the foreseeable future. Maybe they should sell them to the Chinese.

More on Morals

There's a short interview with Sam Harris at New Scientist, in which he's talking about his new book in which he argues that morality should simply be based on science. The interview includes this quote:
I happen to think that the scientific study of morality is the lever that, if pulled hard enough, will completely dislodge religion from the firmament of our concerns.
Why, yes, Sam, the first round of science's attempt to inform ideas of morality went just swimmingly well in the 20th century, didn't it?

Suicidal thoughts

No, no, I'm not having them personally, but if you are interested in a very detailed examination of the characteristics of the way people think or feel when they are susceptible to suicide, you could do much worse than read this long column by Jesse Bering* in Scientific American.

* For once, he is not talking about sex and its variations, and I wish he would avoid the topic more often.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You knew you were going to read this

Psychology Today notes that there is soon to be published evidence of people having a small, but apparently consistent, ability to be influenced by the future. The experiments sound quite interesting:
For example, we all know that rehearsing a set of words makes them easier to recall in the future, but what if the rehearsal occurs after the recall? In one of the studies, college students were given a list of words and after reading the list, were given a surprise recall test to see how many words they remembered. Next, a computer randomly selected some of the words on the list as practice words and the participants were asked to retype them several times. The results of the study showed that the students were better at recalling the words on the surprise recall test that they were later given, at random, to practice. According to Bem, practicing the words after the test somehow allowed the participants to "reach back in time to facilitate recall."

In another study, Bem examined whether the well-known priming effect could also be reversed. In a typical priming study, people are shown a photo and they have to quickly indicate if the photo represents a negative or positive image. If the photo is of a cuddly kitten, you press the "positive" button and if the photo is of maggots on rotting meat, you press the "negative" button. A wealth of research has examined how subliminal priming can speed up your ability to categorize these photos. Subliminal priming occurs when a word is flashed on the computer screen so quickly that your conscious brain doesn't recognize what you saw, but your nonconscious brain does. So you just see a flash, and if I asked you to tell me what you saw, you wouldn't be able to. But deep down, your nonconscious brain saw the word and processed it. In priming studies, we consistently find that people who are primed with a word consistent with the valence of the photo will categorize it quicker. So if I quickly flash the word "happy" before the kitten picture, you will click the "positive" button even quicker, but if I instead flash the word "ugly" before it, you will take longer to respond. This is because priming you with the word "happy" gets your mind ready to see happy things.

In Bem's retroactive priming study, he simply reversed the time sequence on this effect by flashing the primed word after the person categorized the photo. So I show you the kitten picture, you pick whether it is positive or negative, and then I randomly choose to prime you with a good or bad word. The results showed that people were quicker at categorizing photos when it was followed by a consistent prime. So not only will you categorize the kitten quicker when it is preceded by a good word, you will also categorize it quicker when it is followed by a good word. It was as if, while participants were categorizing the photo, their brain knew what word was coming next and this facilitated their decision.

There are other types of experiments as well. I see now that the actual paper is available, but at the moment I don't have time to read it.

The effect was apparently small but statistically significant and consistent, and also showed that some people showed stronger future influence than others.

Well, this is all pretty fascinating, isn't it? It would be great if this type of experiment can be repeated and holds up over time in different labs. Until now, I think it's fair to say that Ganzfeld experiments have been held up as the most convincing proof of a psi effect, as they have been repeated in many different labs and generally been considered to show small but positive results. (A good detailed history of this type of experiment, and the controversy over whether they really are showing a psi effect or not, is given in this Wikipedia article.)

However, as the examples that Dean Radin has been providing at his website lately show, there is always an element of interpretation involved in scoring the "hits". (In fact, in this example Radin gives of someone trying to guess the correct photo, what I find surprising is that all 4 photos seem to have elements the woman is "receiving", even though the "sender" only sees the target.) But clearly, it would be great to get away from experiments that involve interpretation of what constitutes a "hit" in proving a psi effect.

Of course, we are yet to hear the skeptic take on the new Bem studies, and I guess we do have to wait to see if other psychologist can replicate them, but they sound rather promising.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The origins of morality considered

There's a good article in the New York Times at the moment by Frans de Waal about the evolution of morals as a mammalian thing. He maintains a certain respect for religious views on morality too, however.

There are many things that could be said about this topic, but I don't have the time right now.

It did come to mind when I was watching the second episode of Last Chance to See on Sunday night, when they were showing two orphan chimps being introduced to a new chimp group. You can watch the clip here. The evolutionary aspect of human bonding and how touching we find it is illustrated well.

Can the sensible one come back now, please?

Has anyone else noticed how, while Tony Abbott has been doing things like travelling the world, shooting off  guns and his mouth, and changing his opinions more often than a Japanese astronaut changes his underwear,  Malcolm Turnbull has been doing things like, well, making sense. 

Yesterday it was his proposal to force the government into the proper investigation into the financial viability of the National Broadband Network.  Today, it’s an article emphasising the importance of spending money to get irrigation in the Murray – Darling system water efficient.

On the latter, I’ll admit it’s an issue I have not followed in detail, and it does appear to be both a scientifically and politically complicated one.  As far as I can tell, the Coalition is saying that Labor pulled back spending on water efficiency and is now wanting to concentrate purely on water buy back, but I could have that wrong.

During the angry scenes of rural meetings last week where the idea of 30% water allocations was going over like a lead balloon, the thought did occur to me that if we are talking of inefficient irrigation still existing on many of those farms, is it possible to still get the same yields with the lower allocation being compensated with increased efficiency in delivery?   Has the relevant body had Israel involved in how to grow stuff with minimal water?

Probably all this has been taken into account, but there’s no harm in asking.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Local hero

Maybe he’s had some media attention here before – but if so I’ve missed it.

In any event,  here’s the great story (in the Christian Science Monitor) of an old guy who has almost certainly saved a great many people from committing suicide at The Gap in Sydney. 

Even when he has failed, it hasn’t deterred him from continuing to approach people he fears are about  to jump and invite them in for a cup of tea.   He’s a real hero for many, many families, I am sure.

Give up, climate change skeptics! Kirk is against you.

Important news from Climate Progress.  (Even more important than 2010 being the hottest year on record so far, and the long list of countries that last link provides which have broken high temperature records this year.)

William Shatner is an environmentalist!  And he does ads for Sierra Club which sound rational and credible.

You know your on the losing side when Cap’n Kirk is against you.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Stellar mysteries

Two unusual stories of stars were in the news last week:

1.  a pulsar discovered that doesn’t seem to have the right type of surface magnetic field for the way pulsars are normally meant to work.   This means there is a bit of work to be done to see how this type of pulsar gets its power.  (My comment:  first alien artefact found?)

2. the Milky Way seems to have kinks in its arms, making it a bit more like a pinwheel than your usual Andromeda galaxy, curvy armed, classic shape.  Other galaxies that look like this have been seen before, so this is not considered completely weird, apparently.

But – how does any galaxy get angles in arms like that?  I would have thought that nature (and gravity in particular) loves circles and curves.   Odd.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

New nuclear designs considered

There’s a really good article in Physics World from 1 October that discusses the “next generation”designs for nuclear reactors in a pretty straight forward fashion.

There are several paragraphs devoted to the pebble bed, noting this in relation to the recently ended South African program:

Opinion is divided on the significance of the South African project's termination. Stephen Thomas, an energy-industry expert at the University of Greenwich in London, calls it a "major setback" for the development of very-high-temperature reactors, since, he says, South Africa's efforts appeared to be more advanced than research being carried out elsewhere. However, Bill Stacey, a nuclear engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, disagrees with this assessment, adding that South Africa was "just one of many players and not one of the major ones". China, Japan, France and South Korea are also developing technology for high-temperature reactors, some of which is also designed to use pebbles.

For its part, the US is pursuing a variant of the pebble-bed design known as the Next Generation Nuclear Plant (NGNP). Intended to reach temperatures of 750–800 °C, the NGNP will allow for different fuel configurations, with the coated fuel kernels held either in pebbles or hexagonal graphite blocks. According to Harold McFarlane, technical director of GIF and a researcher at the Idaho National Laboratory, the US Congress approved the construction of a prototype NGNP in 2005 but has so far awarded funding only for preliminary research and development.

Spring sprung

It’s traditional at this blog at this time of year for some photos to appear from the garden.  This has taken longer than usual to happen in 2010, due to the very unseasonably wet and grey weather Brisbane has had for the last 6 weeks or so.

But, today is sunny and nice, the grass has already  been mowed, and here are some photos from this morning:


Butterfly edit

Rose 2010


Friday, October 15, 2010

Open access to climate change material!

I'm not sure if I have made the point before here, or only on other blogs, but...

I see from the Nature website that Martin Weitzman has a review of Lomborg's latest book. Yet it is behind a paywall and would cost $32 (!) to get the article. There are also a couple of studies reported about the role of CO2 as the key greenhouse gas. One is in Science, behind a paywall (but available here via a skeptic site!), the other "companion" study one will be coming out in a different journal, and will almost certainly also be paywalled.

Routinely, important new papers on climate change (and ocean acidification) are behind paywalls. If you're lucky, sometimes bloggers or others made a .pdf of the article available.

Look, if those who edit and own the major scientific journals feel that climate change is a serious forthcoming threat for the whole of humanity which is capable of a political response now to modify the threat, why don't they adopt a policy of making such material in their journals available for free? It would be a modest but important attempt to make important material available to the public, who are, after all, pretty damn important in the political process.

If they say they can't do it financially, ask governments, or Bill Gates, or Google, to cover the (surely modest in the big scheme of things) cost of doing this.

I'm sick of this current system on the biggest scientific/political issue that we've ever seen.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Space underwear to the rescue

The Japan Times reports on this important contribution to the Chilean mine rescue:

The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency sent high-tech "space underwear" last month to the 33 trapped miners in northern Chile, who on Tuesday local time started to emerge after 69 days underground, officials said Wednesday.

Developed by JAXA and fabric manufacturers, the underwear is effective at absorbing moisture and odors. Temperatures in the mine are reported to be around 35 degrees, the officials said.

The underwear is made of the same high-tech material as was worn by astronaut Naoko Yamazaki during a two-week mission in April aboard the space shuttle Discovery to and from the International Space Station, they said.

I have mentioned another Japanese astronaut and his long lasting silver impregnated Japanese space underwear before. (He said he wore the same pair for 2 months on the space station!) I wonder if you can buy them yet? ** People would be able to arrive at the office each morning and announce things like "day 35 and counting."

Lately, I've also taken to wondering about what they use for toilet paper in the ISS. I mean, according to this story at NASA, they get to change their "normal" underwear maybe every 3 to 4 days.

Given that frequency (especially if you're using Japanese underwear), one would imagine the need for a pretty good clean after using the toilet might be fairly important. And given the way the toilet works (air suction is meant to draw it away from your backside,) I'm assuming things might sometimes take a detour on the way "down", so to speak.*

So does mere paper do the job, or moist towelettes, or what? I think I may have found the answer. An astronaut talks about what he used for some seed sprouting experiment:
Lacking soil, you need some sort of substrate that will retain both seeds and water. I considered using an old shirt or sock but decided the Russian supplied toilet paper was best. This toilet paper is not like what you normally think of as toilet paper. It consisted of two layers of coarsely woven gauze, 4 by 6 inches in dimension sewn together at the edges with a layer of brown tissue sandwiched in-between. It works very well for its intended purpose.
This is the only reference to space toilet paper that I have found. So it's Russian. (So's the toilet.) And I presume it comes back to Earth:
Liquid waste is collected in 20 litre containers. Solid waste is collected in individual micro-perforated bags which are stored in an aluminum container. Full containers are transferred to Progress for disposal.
Your education has been enhanced.

* Updates: apparent confirmation in this description by an astronaut:
For number two, the seat lifts up, revealing a small hole. You’ve really got to get to know yourself, and get good at lining things up for this operation! The system again uses airflow to collect and hold things down where they’re supposed to go. After you’re finished, the bag is tied off and pushed down into the replaceable silver can.

Accidents do happen, and by international agreement, you clean up your own mess!

Is it worth it? One of my crewmates on Space Shuttle once told me that he wished that we could land every morning, so that he could take care of business there, before launching back into orbit. Yeah, it’s not pleasant, but you get used to the hassle of doing these hygiene tasks.

** Yes you can! A mere US$115, and with the AUD at parity, what a bargain.

Considering krill

The ABC is carrying a short report as follows:

Tasmanian scientists have released ground-breaking research which shows increasing ocean acidification is deadly for Antarctica's main food source.

The team at the Antarctic Division has studied the impacts of increased levels of carbon dioxide on the shrimp-like krill.

Scientists exposed the laboratory krill embryos to varying levels of carbon dioxide; from as little as 380 parts per million which is the current surface level, to 2,000 parts per million.

The embryos exposed to the highest level did not survive.

Krill Biologist Rob King says with carbon dioxide levels predicted to double by the end of the century, the next step is to find the exact tipping point.

Well, given that 2000ppm is (I think) never likely to be reached, I'm not exactly panicked about effects at that level. But, even if the effect at around the 500 - 800 ppm mean less successful reproduction, it could be a worry.

The hostile witness

Barrie Cassidy gives his forthcoming book on Rudd a bit of promotion, and tells the story of Rudd trying to make an early strike.

I expect we’ll hear more about extracts from the book, and it will be entertaining.

All mine

Danny Katz has a very amusing story of plagiarism on the internet in The Age today.

Am I supposed to have explicitly claimed some form of copyright on my own blog?  I’ve sometimes idly wondered.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Missing George and the happy medium

There's a brief commentary piece in New Scientist making the same point I was thinking to myself yesterday. Namely, if the science community thought George W Bush's administration was anti-science, just wait til the Tea Party movement starts to exert more influence:

On the surface, the movement seems impelled by the economic pain Americans are feeling. But look more closely and it's hard to miss what historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid style" in US politics, marked by "exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy". An essential strand of that is anti-intellectualism and disdain for science.

Nearly every Senate candidate with Tea Party backing rejects the established reality of human-caused global warming, usually with gusto. "I absolutely do not believe in the science of man-caused climate change. It's not proved by any stretch of the imagination," Wisconsin candidate Ron Johnson has said. "I think it's far more likely that it's just sunspot activity, or something just in the geological aeons of time."

I think a lot of the complaints from lefty scientists about the Bush administration were concerning his attitudes to biology and stem cell research, informed by his pro-life position.

But in fact, while I am consider myself strongly pro-science (yes, despite the fact that I thought physicists were not taking the potential for danger from the LHC seriously enough), the field of biological research is exactly the one about which I think reasonable conservatives (like me!) have a right to be concerned. I'm not comfortable with the virtual routine use of IVF fertility treatments, let alone extracting stem cells from embryos. It's the philosophical and practical implications of the commodification of human life, (or proto-life, if you want,) that I think should concern more people than it does. For IVF, the strong desire to have one's own baby overcomes all such broader social and philosophical issues. I am similarly somewhat sympathic to the concerns of genetic engineering in plants and animals, and have my doubts that patents for genes is a good idea.

Yet it is, as with many areas of politics at the moment, just about impossible to find anyone who strikes the happy medium in the field of science policy. You either have a choice of pro-lifers who share my concerns about stem cells and all forms of fiddling with embryos, but they are almost certainly going to be climate change disbelievers who are happy to completely ignore scientific warnings of global scale dangers. Their opponents tend to be led by gung-ho culture warrior types whose attitude to the environment I can share, but little else. They are often arrogant about, and completely dismissive of, religious impulses, although they will live with a kind of woolly headed environmental spiritualism . And those with the strongest environmental concerns are often very uninterested in space exploration, yet in my view a truly long term view for those who would like to see humanity survive suggests it would be a good idea not to leave all of life's eggs in the Earth basket.

By and large, I guess I do agree with most Catholic sentiment regarding science, yet Catholic politicians in Australia and the US do not seem to feel particularly impelled to do anything about following such idea legislatively. And while the Church is often unfairly criticised for arguing that reliance on condoms is not the magic answer to HIV anywhere, it's much harder to justify from a logical point of view why it should teach that contraception that prevents fertilisation at all should be treated as being morally defective, at least if all other aspects of the sex are licit (like the couple being married.) So even within the Church you have this "all or nothing" kind of attitude that infects teaching with a scientific aspect.

Yes, it has become very hard to find the happy medium in the world at the moment. My installation as the dictatorial but benevolent political and religious leader of the Earth by alien invaders seems to be the only solution. It's a long shot, I know, but hope remains.

The Light on the Dill

Seriously, Tony Abbott’s capacity for cringe inducing rhetoric just never fails him. Yesterday, encouraged by Alan Jones, he tried to make political points by commenting on the controversial decision to prosecute some Australian soldiers for their actions in Afghanistan. This is dangerous territory for a politician to tread into, but no doubt his sense of opportunism again outweighed caution, and hey the soldiers let him shoot a Steyr over in Afghanistan last week, so I guess he owed them.

But the most cringe-worthy bit of the interview was about the allegedly appalling treatment he got from Gillard*, which somehow compelled him to make the lamest excuse since the dog ate his homework. The SMH reports it this way:

The clash came as Mr Abbott continued to claim that Julia Gillard had set him up by leaking that he had declined her offer to accompany him to Afghanistan.

This, he contended, had lulled him into making his infamous excuse that he rejected the offer because he did not want to arrive for a conference in London suffering jet lag.

While Ms Gillard said yesterday she no longer intended to comment on the saga and thus fuel it, Mr Abbott said he needed to keep defending himself because he was the gatekeeper of the nation's values.

''One of the things that so disappoints me about the election result is that I am the standard bearer for values and ideals which matter and which are important and … as the leader of the Coalition, millions and millions of people invest their hopes in me and it's very important that I don't let them down.

''When I am unfairly attacked, I've got to respond and I've got to respond in a tough way.''

Tony Abbott, standard bearer for politicians everywhere who can't think on their feet, and then whine about it.

* That is, inviting him to come with her on a visit to Afghanistan instead of making his own trip, and then not leaking about the invitation.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A commercial break

Time for some colour and movement:

Found via First Things. (While this parody is amusing, I remain a bit puzzled as to why the original was so popular, though. I didn't think it so exceptional.)

Might work

The BBC notes that there is some talk of using the International Space Station for something more than whatever it is they currently use it for:

The possibility of using the space station as a launching point to fly a manned mission around the Moon is to be studied by the station partners.

Letters discussing the concept have been exchanged between the Russian, European and US space agencies.

The Moon flight would be reminiscent of the 1968 Apollo 8 mission which snapped the famous "Earthrise" photograph.

The agencies want the station to become more than just a high-flying platform for doing experiments in microgravity.

They would like also to see it become a testbed for the technologies and techniques that will be needed by humans when they push out beyond low-Earth orbit to explore destinations such as asteroids and Mars.

Using the station as the spaceport, or base-camp, from where the astronauts set off on their journey is part of the new philosophy being considered.

Sounds expensive, though.

A special link for armchair pilots

That's amusing. My recent post mentioning JAL and flight simulator has somehow been linked to from this site. For any men who like Flight Simulator and who have wives who like to participate enthusiastically in their interests, you might care to have a look.

(Which reminds me, last time I was there some years ago, you could get fake Singapore Airlines flight attendant uniforms at some Changi Airport shops. I offered to buy one for my wife, but she declined.)

Chance to see Last Chance

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of Stephen Fry (people tend to be somewhat gushy in their praise of him,)  but he is an amiable enough host of documentaries.

On Sunday night, ABC started “Last Chance to See”, and it was very enjoyable. Set mainly on and around the Amazon, you didn’t really get to see all that much wildlife, but it served as a pretty good travelogue experience of the area.  It also had what might be called a surprise ending.

It can still be seen at iView, although I wouldn’t know for how long.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Cushiest parish around

The Catholic Herald reports:

On Wednesday September 22, at Westminster Cathedral, the Apostleship of the Sea (AoS) organised an awareness day to promote its cruise chaplaincy programme.

Seven priests who will be undertaking cruise chaplaincy over Christmas on P&O cruise ships met to discuss the benefits of their work and the possible difficulties they will experience at sea, especially over the Christmas period, which can be very lonely for seafarers away from family and loved ones.

This'll be interesting

If Coorey is telling us the truth (and why wouldn't he?) it seems that Tony "Putin" Abbott will remain the one to come out worst of this episode.

As The Age reports:

However, the reporter who broke the story of Ms Gillard's offer to Mr Abbott said that the disclosure did not come from the Prime Minister or her office.

"I did not learn about it from the government," The Sydney Morning Herald's Phillip Coorey said yesterday, implying that Mr Abbott was making a serious charge against Ms Gillard based on a misunderstanding.

So, Coorey finds out that Abbott had been invited. If this led to other journalists asking the PM's office to confirm, so what if they answered honestly?

Next, Abbott is asked about the invitation, giving what he now calls a "lame" excuse, and this is met with universal condemnation. He assumes (right from the start, it seems) that it was Gillard's office who initiated the leak and was trying to score political points out of it.

Well, of course, this then gave her the opportunity to make her mild crack at Abbott's excuse; but really, this was handed to her on a platter, and who can blame her for not coming to his rescue?

Then Hockey attempted to cover for his boss' lame brain by giving out hints that Putin (sorry, Abbott) was about to make his own trip. (Apparently, Abbott cannot think fast enough to say something like " I will explain in detail when I return to Australia why I declined the PM's offer, and I am sure the Australian public will understand.")

I can understand now why Abbott did not say "It is not advisable for security reasons that the PM and Opposition Leader travel together": that would look lame given that we now know how indifferent he is to safety in that he wanted to be "embedded" with Australian forces. This request speaks more of Abbott's self-aggrandizement and poor judgment.* We just had nearly two hours of a journalist on the front line on Four Corners: I hope Defence Chief's just told him to just go and watch that rather than bother them with the worry of not getting himself killed.

Gillard also denied clearly that Abbott's trip had a set date at the time she offered the trip. Given that politicians don't usually make outright lies when they know there are many people out there who know the truth and call them out on it, I expect there will be almost certainly be enough "wriggle room" in Gillard's statement so that it cannot be an outright bit of dishonesty.

So I expect more interesting exchanges in the media about this during the week. As I say, it'll be interesting.

* Indeed, Abbott's statement that he received plenty of admiration for his electoral performance from his British visit again sounded vain. And remember his "why can't Australia have an Iron Man PM" style comment after his completed that race before the election?

The Doctor's timetable noted

The BBC carries news of next year's season of Doctor Who:
It has been announced previously that series six has been split into two blocks, with the first airing on BBC One in spring 2011 and the second block showing in autumn 2011.
The first season of the Matt Smith doctor was quite a mixed bag, but Smith himself and Karen Gillen did have a certain charisma which came through. Hopefully, it may yet have episodes as good as some in Tennant's reign.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Arabian embarrassment

The Gulf News reports:

Saudi police raided a secret Catholic mass in Riyadh last week and arrested a dozen Filipinos and a Catholic priest, charging them with prosyletising, a local daily reported on Wednesday.

The raid took place as some 150 Filipinos were attending the mass in a Riyadh rest house on Friday, the second day of the weekend in Saudi Arabia, Arab News said.

The twelve Filipino men and the priest, whose nationality was not specified, were "charged with prosyletising," the daily quoted an official from the Philippine embassy in Riyadh as saying.

They were all released Sunday on guarantees by sponsors or embassies, the report said.

Saudi Arabia bans the practice of any religion aside from Islam. However, small, low-key prayer services inside expatriate compounds and in Filipino gatherings are tolerated by officials.

With more than one million workers in Saudi Arabia, Filipinos comprise the bulk of the Christian community inside the kingdom.

Look, I suppose they know what they are getting into when they take work there, but it is pretty galling that the terms upon which Saudi Arabia will let in people to be their maids, servants and labourers excludes their freedom of religious practice for one hour a week. 

Thanks, Tim

Tim Robbins, in a Q & A session with The Guardian, ends with a joke I’m guessing I’ve heard before, but had forgotten:

Why didn't Hitler drink gin? It made him angry.

Good work if you can get it

For some reason, it appears JAL used to be the most generous airline in the world when it came to pilot salaries:

JAL pays pilots more than any other company in Japan except ANA, and a lot more than almost any other carrier in the world, for that matter. The average salary for a JAL captain in 2008 was ¥18 million a year  [currently about AUD $223,000] regardless of how many real hours he spent in the air (the standard is 65 hours a month). The new pay system would do away with this guarantee, effectively making pilot pay dependent on hours flown, which has increasingly become an industry norm. In real terms it will mean that JAL pilot pay will drop 20 to 30 percent to about ¥12 million a year..

I must see if I can get a JAL aircraft skin for Flight Simulator. It will make me feel more comfortable.

Not healing themselves

I mentioned recently some Australian research on doctors and their higher rate of suicide.

Now there’s a article in the New York Times on the same topic in the American medical system.  It contains some pretty surprising information, such as this:

For several decades now, studies have consistently shown that physicians have higher rates of suicide than the general population — 40 percent higher for male doctors and a staggering 130 percent higher for female doctors. While research has traced the beginning of this tragic difference to the years spent in medical school, the contributing factors remain murky. Students enter medical school with mental health profiles similar to those of their peers but end up experiencing depression, burnout and other mental illnesses at higher rates. Despite better access to health care, they are more likely to cope by resorting to dysfunctional behaviors like excessive drinking and are less likely to receive the right care or even recognize that they need some kind of intervention.

The widespread biped

The ABC says that some Chinese “scientists” (I wonder what their normal day job is, though) are going to look for their version of the “wild man” again:

Over the years, more than 400 people have claimed sightings of the half-man, half-ape Yeren in a remote, mountainous area of the central province of Hubei, state news agency Xinhua said.

Expeditions in the 1970s and 1980s yielded hair, a footprint, excrement and a sleeping nest suspected of belonging to the Yeren, but there has been no conclusive proof, the report added.

Witnesses describe a creature that walks upright, is more than 2 metres tall and with grey, red or black hair all over its body, Xinhua said.

It’s somewhat interesting, this widespread popularity of bigfoot type mystery creatures in different parts of the world. Although, now that I think about it, I suppose you only hear about them from Tibet/China, North America and Australia. Or do you?

Of course, the internet can answer me, turning up this information in a flash:

Folklore from Europe tells of a creature called the wildman. Like Bigfoot, the European wildman looked something like a human covered all over with a thick coat of hair, and it lived in the wilderness. Beyond these facts, there is not much resemblance between wildmen and Bigfoot. Wildmen could sometimes talk and generally seemed more human-like than Bigfoot.

In fact, European folklore assigned a different origin to the wildman that we do to Bigfoot. The wildman was not a different species. It was thought that any man or woman who wandered in the wilderness, acted like a wildman and ate acorns would gradually grow a thick coat of hair all over the body. Day by day, this person would become less human. The end result was another wildman or wildwoman. This transformation was permanent and could not be reversed, even if the wildman were captured and forced to live according to the rules of civilization.

Well, be careful with the acorn recipe I linked to in the previous post.

Anyway, other sites, like this page from Monstropedia (a handy reference, by the sounds) note that bigfoot-like creatures have been claimed to be seen in many other parts of the world, such as South American and Hawaii. It also notes what I have mentioned here before as one of the most fascinating things I find about sightings of mystery night creatures: how they have often been claimed to be associated with foul smells.

Of course, one explanation could be that they are the citizens of an alternative earth that keep stumbling through the portals between worlds. In which case, on their version of the planet, they keep having mysterious sightings of strange, short, relatively hairless bipedal creatures that come in all sorts of weird colours.

Nuts are our friends

Walnuts seem a particularly good nut to eat, according to this study:

Eating a diet rich in walnuts or walnut oil could help your body deal better with stress, according to a new study from a team of Penn State researchers.

Following other studies which have shown that omega-3 fatty acids -- like the alpha linolenic acid found in walnuts and flax seeds -- can reduce bad cholesterol, Penn State researchers examined 22 healthy adults with elevated bad cholesterol (LDL) levels to see what effect a diet of walnuts and walnut oil might have.

The researchers found that including walnuts and walnut oil in the diet lowered both resting blood pressure and blood pressure responses to stress in the laboratory. To "stress" the participants, researchers had them give a speech or submerge a foot in cold water. "This is the first study to show that walnuts and walnut oil reduce blood pressure during stress..

And in other nut related news: as they don’t make an appearance in this part of the world, I didn’t know you could eat acorns. The New York Times provides a Korean recipe for acorn jelly. It explains:

Acorns were once a dietary staple wherever oak trees took root. Native Americans used acorn flour for baking; Germans roasted the nuts as a coffee substitute, and Berbers in North Africa pressed the fruit into oil.

These days, besides survivalists and squirrels, Koreans are among the few who’d think to find dinner on the front lawn.

You don’t just gnaw on any old acorn, though:

Acorns in their raw state are full of tannins, which are toxic in high doses. To avoid death by dinner, the nuts must be rinsed with water until the compound is thoroughly leached out. Processing time varies depending on the type of oak you choose.

Steve Brill, who leads edible foraging tours of New York City parks and is known as Wildman, says acorns from white oaks are generally less astringent than those from red oaks. He advises avoiding the red variety altogether unless you have access to an unpolluted freshwater stream.

“The ideal process is to put acorns in a weighted sack and set them in the running water for a few weeks,” he said.

And what do you do if you don't have a stream handy? Mr Brill has an eccentric domestic solution:

Mr. Brill...alternatively suggests placing the sack in a toilet tank for a month. Each flush will provide a quick rinse. “The tank isn’t contaminated with sewage,” he said, “but be warned that the tannins will turn the toilet water brown.”

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Must stop talking about it

There seems to be an inordinate amount of talk about matters sexual here this week, but it just seems to be the season for odd/interesting reports about it.

First, Mind Hacks referred recently to a column in Psychology Today which gives a quick rundown on the history of “self pleasure.” It is, I think, mainly a summary of the ideas in the book "Solitary Sex: A Cultural History of Masturbation," which I have read or heard about before, but despite my feeling that it has already had mention here, my (somewhat unreliable) blog search function can’t find it.

So, the core idea of the book is that a couple of centuries of cultural/medicalised hyperbole about the dangers of a near universal male practice was kicked off by a opportunistic crank and his successful book “Onania; or, The Heinous Sin of Self Pollution and all its Frightful Consequences,…etc” in 1715. But the cultural reason why it caught on so readily is explained this way:

The book, it appears, had hit a nerve by tapping into the zeitgeist of a cultural shift, where concerns about privacy were becoming paramount. Masturbation, along with reading printed books--a new technology at the time--had become a symbol for the uncontrolled, uncensored private lives of individuals, including women. Such private power was felt to threaten the social order. The social keepers of the order--the politicians, aristocrats, and professional classes--hence hurried to proclaim the potential dangers embodied in this newly shamed and shameful act.

Sounds as good a theory as any. The rest of the column is full of interesting bits, most of which I've heard of before, and so I will assume most readers have too. But although I knew of the historical connection of hysteria with women’s sexuality, I don’t think I had heard of this extra detail:

Interestingly, masturbation was not considered proper or safe for women even during those times when some were given masturbation treatments by their doctors. Yes, in the late 19th century, doctors occasionally masturbated women who were suffering from ‘hysteria.' It was a nifty Victorian trick: Suppress and deny female sexual knowledge and expression, and when the resulting misery erupts through general manifestations of bodily and emotional discomfort, diagnose the women as ill and have them get sexual release through the desexualized digital (and later mechanical) manipulations of male physicians. All in a day's work!

And for my final un-family friendly story for the week, the New York Times had a story on the village of Puttenham, notable for its ancient church, friendly pub, and being incredibly popular for visitors wanting to have (or simply view) outdoor sex.

This is starting to get up the nose of the locals. (Perhaps an unwise expression in the context, now that I think of it.) Naturally, this is mainly a male activity, and has become a high tech hobby in Britain. The report explains as follows:

Public sex is a popular — and quasi-legal — activity in Britain, according to the authorities and to the large number of Web sites that promote it. (It is treated as a crime only if someone witnesses it, is offended and is willing to make a formal complaint*.) And the police tend to tread lightly in public sex environments, in part because of the bitter legacy of the time when gay sex was illegal and closeted men having anonymous sex in places like public bathrooms were routinely arrested and humiliated.

* well, given the mutual consent involved, that’s hardly surprising.

Anyhow, the residents who would like the Council to do something about the bit of field they feel is too close to town and schools which is prime “dogging” territory are getting limited sympathy. I think this was the most ludicrous line by far:

“It was like, ‘Are you taking this seriously?’ ” Ms. Paterson said. “One cabinet member said, ‘If you close this site, there could be an increase in suicides because these people have nowhere else to go.’ ”

Well, why stop there? As a public anti-suicide measure, councils could designate each local “public sex participation area” by big neon signs, and have red or green lights on public toilets to indicate what use they are currently available for. [Insert symbol for rolling of eyes.]

Friday, October 08, 2010

A spectacular case of a double life

A report in The Guardian, which tells a story so remarkable, I’ll copy it here in full:

The lawyer for a military commander who flew the Queen and other dignitaries around Canada has said his client will plead guilty to murder, sexual assaults and break-ins.

Colonel Russell Williams was the commander of Canada's largest air force base until he was charged this year with the murder of two women, the sexual assault of two others and 82 break-ins during which he stole women's underwear.

The case shocked the country, hurt soldiers' morale and prompted fears that the commander of Canada's most high-profile military base and the man who once flew the country's prime ministers could have been a serial killer.

In 2005 Williams, who was born in England and raised in Canada, was pictured with the Queen and Prince Philip while he served as their pilot during a visit.

Williams waived his right to a preliminary hearing in August and was ordered to stand trial. The 47-year-old is charged with the murder of Jessica Lloyd, 27, whose body was found in February, and Marie Comeau, a 38-year-old corporal under his command who was found dead in her home last November.

He is charged with attacking two other women in separate incidents in September 2009. Most of the homes Williams was accused of breaking into were in Ottawa, where Williams has a house with his wife, and in the Tweed, Ontario, where he lived while he worked at the Trenton military base.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

More wacky, deadly, Japanese architecture.

I’ve mentioned here before the fondness modern Japanese architects seem to have for precipitous stairways without rails, balcony levels with low walls, and generally anything that any sensible client would recognize as a death trap for them or their house guests.

Well, I think this distinctive set of apartments in Tokyo probably takes the cake.  Why bother waiting for the resident to slip off the edge of rail-less stairs when you can actually build large holes in the floor!

As I said in a comment at Dezeen, the next logical step is hidden, spring loaded trap doors in the floor, to keep clients on their toes.

Animal thoughts

There’s a really great interview in Salon with the author of a book “Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat” (good title, hey?) about the complicated relationship humans have with animals.

It’s full of fascinating details, such as this bit of history (mentioned particularly in light of the recent puppy drowning Bosnian girl video):

I've been thinking about this. I just went back this morning, and I uncovered a piece in the New York Times from 1877. And it's actually fascinating. They had a stray dog population, so what they did is they rounded up 750 stray dogs. They took them to the East River, and they had a large metal cage -- it took them all day to do this -- they would put 50 dogs at a time, 48 dogs at a time in this metal, iron cage, and lower it into the East River with a crane.


Until the animals drowned. And then they would pull them out and they sold the carcasses for their leather, for a dollar each. And then they'd put another 50 dogs in there. And they started doing this at 7:30 in the morning, and they did it well into the afternoon. And so drowning animals was actually an acceptable way of dealing with pet overpopulation in 1877. Now it seems horrifying. I watched that girl toss those puppies into the river, and it was just horrifying.

Yes, times have changed. The author, Hal Herzog, also explains how he thinks the link between animal cruelty as a child and violent, sociopathic behaviour as an adult is a bit overblown:

So the question is, how predictive is this? What I do in the book is, I went around and asked my friends, "Hey, did you ever abuse an animal?" And what I found is what other researchers have found; that, yeah, a lot of people have a history of cruelty.

Margaret Mead once said, "The worst thing that can happen to a kid is to abuse an animal and to get away with it." Because that's going to give him license to be like that later. I don't think the link is as strong as some of the link proponents. I think we should be concerned with childhood cruelty, but not necessarily because these kids are going to turn into sociopaths. I found a striking statement in Darwin's autobiography where he says, "I beat a puppy when I was a child just for the power of it." Charles Darwin.

And earlier in the interview, he explains that the reason it’s hard to “think straight” about animals arises (perhaps unsurprisingly, I suppose) because we love meat. Even most vegetarians:

The fact is, very few people are vegetarians; even most vegetarians eat meat. There have been several studies, including a very large one by the Department of Agriculture, where they asked people one day: Describe your diet. And 5 percent said they were vegetarians. Well, then they called the same people back a couple of days later and asked them about what they ate in the last 24 hours. And over 60 percent of these vegetarians had eaten meat. And so, the fact is, the campaign for moralized meat has been a failure. We actually kill three times as many animals for their flesh as we did when Peter Singer wrote "Animal Liberation" [in 1975].

I wonder if his book addresses one issue: why does it seem that culturally the Chinese (specifically, I mean, those who currently live in China) seem so disinterested in animal welfare?

And one final bit that I had not really reflected on before:

Katherine Grier, who wrote probably the best history of pets in America, said that pet keeping really took off among the middle class between the 1800s and early 1900s was because it was a movement to make children better people. That raising a dog or a cat in your family if you were a kid was actually a way to learn nurturing skills and responsibility and all this stuff. I think there's some truth to that.

Makes sense, I think.

Well, that’s confusing (temperatures up no matter which way you look at it)

There are reports of a new study out in Nature of satellite data of the Sun’s recent behaviour, indicating that despite being in a “quiet”period, it still probably warmed the Earth. 

Here’s the short version in New Scientist, and the longer version in Nature News.  From the latter:

Contrary to expectations, the net amount of solar energy reaching Earth's troposphere — the lowest part of the atmosphere — seems to have been larger in 2007 than in 2004, despite the decline in solar activity over that period.

The spectral changes seem to have altered the distribution of ozone molecules above the troposphere. In a model simulation, ozone abundance declined below an altitude of 45 kilometres altitude in the period 2004–07, and increased further up in the atmosphere.

The modelled changes are consistent with space-based measurements of ozone during the same period.

"We're seeing — albeit limited to a very short period — a very interesting change in solar irradiation with remarkably similar changes in ozone," says Haigh. "It might be a coincidence, and it does require verification, but our findings could be too important to not publish them now."

Meanwhile, Roy Spencer’s most recent satellite data shows September was very hot globally, and Roy is puzzled as to why.   (The on set of  la Nina should mean temperatures heading down.)

Gee, at some point he might even have to revise his just published book (arguing that warming will be minimal).  Ha.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Under the sheets

Not much science attracting my attention this week, so it's back to the bedroom. Or car or playground, or where ever it is teenagers engage in an activity at too young an age:
The survey of 8800 year 10 and year 12 students in 300 schools around Australia was taken in three snapshots between 1997 and 2008.

The proportion of year 10 boys who had had sex rose slightly from 23 per cent to 27 per cent between 1997 and 2008, while for year 10 girls the rise was more significant, up from 16 per cent to 27 per cent.

In year 12, the number of boys who reported having had sex dipped slightly from 47 per cent in 1997 to 44 per cent in 2008, while the rate for girls rose from 48 per cent to 61 per cent.

Regardless of what you think about teenagers and sex (although my readership is probably unlikely to include hipsters without children who like to say "well, what's wrong with teenage sex anyway. As long as it's safe and done responsibly, I wouldn't mind my teenager ...etc,) surely everyone would have to be a bit puzzled about figures suggesting that the rate of school age girls reporting sex is much higher than for boys the same age.

And of course, the other thing is that they are not doing it so responsibly anyway:

Condom use had not increased since 1997, with 51 per cent of respondents in 2008 reporting they always used condoms.

Study co-author Anthony Smith said the increase in the proportion of students who had had more than one sexual partner potentially posed serious public health risks.

And back to The Age's version:
One of the authors of the La Trobe University research, Paul Aguis, said the lack of condom use was worrying because sexually transmitted infections among young adults had risen dramatically in the past 10 years and the survey showed only moderate knowledge of the infections. He said the rate of teenage pregnancy in Australia was also among the highest in the developed world. ''The notifications for chlamydia have risen year on year for the last decade and show no real sign of slowing,'' he said.
Meanwhile, if you want a highly detailed account of current sexual practices in America, William Saletan has a somewhat salacious article on it in Slate.

What's most surprising in it is the extent to which it would appear that sexual experimentation is indeed on the rise, and that bisexual experience is more common than I would have expected. As Saletan notes:
Apparently, a lot of people try gay sex, but only about half stick with it. By ages 18-19, 10 percent of men say they've performed fellatio. That number drops among men in their 20s and 30s. But among men in their 40s and 50s, 13 percent say they've done it, and 14 percent to 15 percent say they've received it from another man. Meanwhile, 11 percent of men aged 20-24 say they've received anal sex. For unknown reasons, that number declines in the next higher age bracket but then steadily rises in succeeding brackets, leveling off at 9 percent among men in their 40s and 50s.
I don't know, but those figures seem a bit suspicious to me. Are we sure there was even the correct understanding of the question here?

If they are accurate, I guess the other thing they mean is that, if Americans are like the English, few of them having the occasional same sex encounter would class themselves as "gay". It's probably a case of score one for Foucault, I think. (See the summary of his position in this interesting article by Keith Windshuttle.)

UPDATE: reading The Guardian's take on that American survey, I'm even more suspicious of some of the figures:
Of the 14- to 16-year-old boys and girls surveyed, only around 10% said they were engaging in any kind of sexual activity with a partner – whereas 62% of boys, and 40% of girls, in the same age group were happy to admit to masturbating on their own during the last year.
Oh come on. The true figure for that age range of boys who masturbated in the last year would easily be double that. That's right - 124%. (Female readers may be surprised by the figure, but if so, you're underestimating teenage boys.)

In the other direction what about this?:
Nearly 15% of women in their 30s, for example, reported having performed oral sex on another woman at least once in their lifetime, while 13% of men over 40 said they had done the same to another man and 50% of men aged 50-59 said they had received it.
Half of the men who were teenagers in the 1960's say they have received it from a man? I remain deeply skeptical.

I wouldn't mind betting that this has something to do with it:
(rather than through face-to-face interviews, the new survey was carried out online, a method believed to encourage more open and honest responses)
It's also easier to brag, misunderstand, or not pay attention.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Religion, sex and politics

Let’s talk about all those things that are dangerous to mention at a dinner party with people you’ve only recently met:

* Here’s a bit of trivia, but I have been meaning to say this for some time: this painting of John Henry Newman always reminds me of a young Jonathan Miller. Am I right, or am I right?

* I recently found an article on why Catholics don't go to confession anymore which I thought was pretty good. (It noted the recent change in the concept of sin from the strictly personal to more "corporate" or social sense as being in large par responsible.) But now I can't find it again. In any event, I was going to add that I think the power relationship between priest and penitent is also now an issue, with people no longer confident of the confession of sins as an anonymous exercise which does not change the relationship between them and their parish priest. (And, sure, you could travel out of your parish to get true anonymity, but that is a bit troublesome.)

So, I thought, couldn't the internet help out? Confessions by Skype to an anonymous priest who could be anywhere in the world? But it seems Rome has already dismissed this as a possibility back in 2001. Yet, would it be better to have some form of one-on-one confession than none at all? I think the fact that sins are stated out loud is important, rather than merely thought about during, say, the penitential part of the Mass. (Just in the way that the spoken declaration of love carries more power to the person saying it than the mere thought of it.)

Hence my wish list for reform of the Catholic Church grows: relax celibacy rules for priests; and get with the internet for a real revival of confession.

* A few weeks ago, there was a news story about the rate of HIV amongst American gay men which I forgot to mention:

One in five sexually active homosexual men in the US has HIV, and almost half of those who carry the virus do not know they are infected, a study has found.

The Centres for Disease Control and Prevention tested more than 8000 men in 21 cities in 2008, and found that even as infection rates were climbing among men who have sex with men, young, sexually active gay men and those in minority groups were least likely to know their health status, while the rates of other at-risk groups - heterosexuals and intravenous drug users - were falling.

Aren’t they just extraordinarily high figures after all these years of attempted education and behaviour modification?

* In other news I overlooked noting earlier, everyone was also surprised last month that a big survey indicated that Britain was not as gay as it seems. (1% identifying as gay, .5% as bisexual.) People say that, as it was based on doorstep and telephone questioning, there may well be some under-acknowledgement, but no one seems to expect that the “true” rate is dramatically higher.

It certainly seems that the gay lobby has a political and general agenda setting clout far beyond their numbers.

* I’ve taken to trusting Tim Colebatch’s economic/political commentary of late, and today’s column talks about the issue of cutting back government spending. He seems to believe it is more a case of tax reform needed, rather than urgent spending cuts.

* Green preferences to Labor were no higher in the recent election than at the 2007 election. In fact they were slightly less. That’s a bit surprising.

* Finally, I liked Charlie Brooker’s column on the Franzen book mix up, where some file mix up meant the wrong version of Freedom was published in some numbers. Charlie writes of his own technique:

At first glance, this looks like an almighty disaster, albeit an understandable one. Like anyone who's ever suffered the traumatic loss of the only copy of a crucial file, whenever I'm writing scripts I tend to end up saving about 1,500 different versions along the way, leading to a directory full of bewildering titles such as FINALSCRIPT2a.DOC and FINALSCRIPT1b-IGNORE-ALL-OTHERS-AND-USE-THIS.DOC and FINALSCRIPT1c- I-AM-SPARTACUS.DOC.

Monday, October 04, 2010


Went away for the weekend. Feel tired.

Four Corners looks interesting tonight. Most likely will be a post due after I see that.

Friday, October 01, 2010

The assimilation begins...

Now look, I wouldn't go out and buy one, OK?

But, if through a particular deal that seemed good anyway, a sales rep was going to throw one in, I wouldn't knock one back.

I found out last night that it enables me to do something in bed that I have never done before, and it gave me considerable pleasure. My wife was able to join in too, but really, even if she wasn't there I would still have enjoyed it. Perhaps in a different way, but it would still be enjoyable.

Strangely, but it may be their normal practice, I suppose, it comes with no instructions. I think it is assumed that everyone is so used to using it, of course instructions are not necessary.

I'll report later once the novelty has worn off. In the meantime, I will be away a short time while I am being assimilated.