Friday, July 30, 2010

Greatest scandal of 20th century revealed

Plastic Bertrand was more plastic that you knew. (Strangely, he's also morphed into Ellen DeGeneres.)

Behaviour modification required?

Last year I bought a cheap blood pressure machine from the pharmacy. I think I was a bit worried about the number of headaches my wife was having at the time, and as we don't often get our blood pressure checked, it seemed a sensible thing to do.

It indicated no big problem for either of us.

But due to a couple of mornings of dizziness on getting out of bed this week, I checked my own blood pressure again, and if this little machine is correct, it's up considerably since last year. But the readings it's giving for my wife are much worse, even first thing in the morning.

She's off to the doctor today to see if their machine agrees.

I should probably see my doctor too. There are several issues I can see that may need correcting in my current lifestyle:

1. Tony Abbott should stop improving his polling.

2. What? I can't spend a decade not bothering to get any particular exercise at all? I shake my fist at you fate. (Perhaps I shouldn't, that just made me dizzy.)

3. It's the evil influence of cheese. But is life with low fat cheese really worth living?

4. Salt. If, like me, your diet has a substantial Asian influence, salt is something that often comes in heavy doses. My impression is that nearly all men in Japan men go on blood pressure tablets from about the age of 42. (Their obligatory after work drinking sessions don't help too.)

5. Why am I cursed with a wife who is a talented baker, but with children who don't care for her cheesecakes, key lime pies (curse you, overly productive lime tree in the back yard), pecan pies, rhubarb cinnamon cakes, chocolate horns, etc? Hence, it becomes my duty to finish these desserts over 4 or 5 nights. (Neither my wife nor I actually consider ourselves to be fans of sugar or lots of cream; in fact if following an Australian recipe she often reduces the sugar by about one third and they still come out fine.) Seriously, I have asked my wife to stop making so many desserts, but she enjoys baking and resists my calls. It's a nightmare.

6. Blogging / the Internet. You mean I might be healthier by getting up and doing something, anything, physical, and going to bed a bit earlier. As well as avoiding irritants like the aggro commenters at Catallaxy? Well I'll be...

7. Lose weight. I'm pretty sure my calorie intake hasn't substantially increased over the last decade, but the kilograms surreptitiously increase anyway. We're not talking huge amounts, but photos catching me with a relaxed stomach now do embarrass me, and I know losing 5 - 6 kilos would put me in the normal BMI weight range. Maybe I should take up watching late night commercial TV for the latest exercise machine that I can pay off over four easy installments. Technology in them has improved over the last 10 years, hasn't it? In fact, the last time I lost weight was from a lingering stomach virus that reduced appetite for a good two or three weeks. Why can't that be an annual event?

8. Vitamin D. Yes, yes I am sure this is it. I get very little sun now. Happily, I see from an article in the New York Times that this is thought to be related to high blood pressure. I should be off to the pharmacy to see if vitamin D supplements will allow me to continue my sedate, sunless, salt, cheese and cheesecake eating lifestyle to continue.

Any other suggestions are welcome. Of course, we can also always hope the blood pressure machine is malfunctioning. That would be the best outcome of all.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Optimism in pigs

Can you ask a pig if his glass is half full?

Quite a charming bit of research here:

In an experiment reminiscent of Pavlov's dogs, the Newcastle team taught the pigs to associate a note on a glockenspiel with a treat -- an apple -- and a dog training 'clicker' with something unpleasant -- in this case rustling a plastic bag.

The next step was to place half the pigs in an enriched environment -- more space, freedom to roam in straw and play with 'pig' toys -- while the other half were placed in a smaller, boring environment- no straw and only one non-interactive toy.

The team then played an ambiguous noise -- a squeak -- and studied how the pigs responded. Dr Douglas said the results were compelling.

"We found that almost without exception, the pigs in the enriched environment were optimistic about what this new noise could mean and approached expecting to get the treat," she said. "In contrast, the pigs in the boring environment were pessimistic about this new strange noise and, fearing it might be the mildly unpleasant plastic bag, did not approach for a treat.

Crabb on those leaks

Annabel Crabb on those Labor leaks looks at the suspects in her own amusing way. I agree with her that the most plausible source seems Rudd. Or, I would add, persons close to Rudd who he would have the ability to call off.

Rudd's only response yesterday was via a statement from a spokesperson.

Would he not be capable of making a media appearance, not to answer questions, but simply to deny in person that he is the source of the leaks, and deny knowledge of the source, and to publicly call on the leaker to desist and get behind the re-election of a Labor government?

In any event, such anonymous leaks may perversely work (to a degree) in Gillard's favour, at least if their content is as ultimately unimportant as yesterday's. Everyone (even Laurie Oakes, I heard somewhere, although I don't know how to track down his articles on line) seems to agree that Gillard's come out fighting approach worked for her yesterday.

Real prediction vindicated

Real Climate has been running hot lately with:

a. a lengthy guest post by "Tamino" reviewing a book on the hockey stick controversy, and explaining in great detail why McIntyre is wrong. In comments, there is a full blown fisking of the Judith Curry's quasi-defence of the book and McIntyre, and she does not come out of it well.

b. a post noting the surprisingly accurate predictions of global warming from the mid 1970's by Wally Broecker, who even coined the term "global warming". The article notes:
To those who even today claim that global warming is not predictable, the anniversary of Broecker’s paper is a reminder that global warming was actually predicted before it became evident in the global temperature records over a decade later (when Jim Hansen in 1988 famously stated that “global warming is here”).
He wasn't the first to predict warming from CO2, though:
Broecker was not the first to predict CO2-induced warming. In 1965, an expert report to US President Lyndon B. Johnson had warned: “By the year 2000, the increase in carbon dioxide will be close to 25%. This may be sufficient to produce measurable and perhaps marked changes in climate.” And in 1972, a more specific prediction similar to Broecker’s was published by the eminent atmospheric scientist J.S. Sawyer in Nature (for a history in a nutshell, see my newspaper column here).

The innovation of Broecker’s article – apart from introducing the term “global warming” – was in combining estimates of CO2 warming with natural variability. His main thesis was that a natural climatic cooling

has, over the last three decades, more than compensated for the warming effect produced by the CO2 [....] The present natural cooling will, however, bottom out during the next decade or so. Once this happens, the CO2 effect will tend to become a significant factor and by the first decade of the next century we may experience global temperatures warmer than any in the last 1000 years.

The latter turned out to be correct.
For all the skeptics who thought it was only global cooling being considered in the mid 70's, this is well worth reading.

Past ocean acidification considered

Yet another study looking at what happened in a previous big event of volcano driven ocean acidification 120,000,000 years ago. Yes, shell making plankton survived, morphing into smaller sizes, but at the same time the rate of acidification, and the way it changed at depth, is very different to what's happening now:
It took at least 25,000 years for the new acidity levels reached in the surface waters to transfer to deeper waters, according to the research—and the ocean took 75,000 years to reach its peak acidity for that episode, as well as at least 160,000 years to recover. The length of this episode derives "most probably because several CO2 pulses [volcanic eruptions] contributed to ocean acidification," Erba says. Further, she plans to examine other high CO2 events in the geologic record to see "if the same causes—excess CO2, global warming, ocean acidification—trigger similar effects on marine calcifiers at different times."

But the 25,000-year time lag between acidification of the surface waters and deeper waters is mysterious, points out geoscientist Timothy Bralower of The Pennsylvania State University, who was not involved in this study. "In the modern ocean, a similar input of carbon would involve a lag on the order of centuries," he notes. "So something is very different." And the nannoconids begin to disappear even before the fossil record indicates lighter volcanic carbon isotopes—in other words, presumably before the actual acidification.
Here's the crux:
"The current rate of ocean acidification is about a hundred times faster than the most rapid events" in the geologic past, notes marine geologist William Howard of the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Center in Hobart, Tasmania. Plus, the direct impacts of global warming may complicate the picture—just as modern coral suffer from increased bleaching thanks to warmer ocean temperatures as well as the reduced carbonate exoskeleton–building capacity brought on by ocean acidification. Bralower adds: "The big question is whether modern species will be able to adapt to what I expect will be much more rapid pH reduction in coming centuries."

Phytoplankton worry

Green wet stuff continues to make the news. A new study in Nature indicates a large decline in the amount of phytoplankton in the oceans over the last century:

Phytoplankton activity fluctuates widely according to season and location, making long-term monitoring of trends difficult. An earlier study2, based on satellite observations of ocean colour, suggested a link between climate variability and ocean productivity, but this was limited to observations from 1997 to 2006. Boris Worm, a marine biologist at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and his team have now combined satellite-derived observations of phytoplankton with historical shipboard measurements stretching back to the pioneering days of oceanography.

The research reveals an unsettling centennial downwards trend, superimposed on shorter-term variability. The scientists found that the average global phytoplankton concentration in the upper ocean currently declines by around 1% per year. Since 1950 alone, algal biomass decreased by around 40%, probably in response to ocean warming — and the decline has gathered pace in recent years.

"Clearly, 40% is a huge number," says Paul Falkowski, an oceanographer at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. "This implies that the entire ocean system is out of steady state, slowing down.
Something to worry about? Well, yes:
"This is severely disquieting," adds Victor Smetacek, a marine biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute of Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany. "One must really digest the very magnitude of this decline and its possible implications."
The culprit is believed to be ocean warming:
In most regions tested, the phytoplankton decline seems to be the result of a 0.5–1.0 °C warming of the upper ocean over the past century. The warming leads to enhanced vertical 'stratification' of ocean layers, thus limiting the supply of nutrients from deeper waters to the surface.

But ocean warming does not explain reduced productivity in regions, including the Arctic Ocean, where algal growth is mainly constrained by sunlight. So scientists must try to find out what other drivers, such as changes in wind and ocean circulation, might force the decline, says Falkowski.

No one is pointing the finger at ocean acidification yet, and (from memory) experiments with bubbling CO2 through phytoplankton have had mixed results. But there was this story recently that increased acidification may affect the availability of iron, which phytoplankton need to grow well. (There is more detail on that study at my earlier post.) So, I wonder if acidification over the last century is part of the explanation.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Fiddling with algae

The New York Times reports on a lot of work being done to genetically alter algae to make it better as a potential large scale source of biofuel.  This is being taken very seriously:


“There are probably well over 100 academic efforts to use genetic engineering to optimize biofuel production from algae,” said Matthew C. Posewitz, an assistant professor of chemistry at the Colorado School of Mines, who has written a review of the field. “There’s just intense interest globally.”

Algae are attracting attention because the strains can potentially produce 10 or more times more fuel per acre than the corn used to make ethanol or the soybeans used to make biodiesel. Moreover, algae might be grown on arid land and brackish water, so that fuel production would not compete with food production. And algae are voracious consumers of carbon dioxide, potentially helping to keep some of this greenhouse gas from contributing to global warming.

But some people are a little concerned:

At a meeting this month of President Obama’s new bioethics commission, Allison A. Snow, an ecologist at Ohio State University, testified that a “worst-case hypothetical scenario” would be that algae engineered to be extremely hardy might escape into the environment, displace other species and cause algal overgrowths that deprive waters of oxygen, killing fish.

And I guess I didn’t realise how important the humble green scum really is:

“About 40 percent of the oxygen that you and I are breathing right now comes from the algae in the oceans,” the genetic scientist J. Craig Venter said at a Congressional hearing in May. “We don’t want to mess up that process.”

 

Corals feel the heat (and the weed)

Sea surface temperatures in the Red Sea are routinely very high, I believe, but there are corals there that cope nonetheless.  There’s a convincing sounding study in Science that indicates their tolerance is approaching its limits:

Sea surface temperature (SST) across much of the tropics has increased by 0.4° to 1°C since the mid-1970s. A parallel increase in the frequency and extent of coral bleaching and mortality has fueled concern that climate change poses a major threat to the survival of coral reef ecosystems worldwide. Here we show that steadily rising SSTs, not ocean acidification, are already driving dramatic changes in the growth of an important reef-building coral in the central Red Sea. Three-dimensional computed tomography analyses of the massive coral Diploastrea heliopora reveal that skeletal growth of apparently healthy colonies has declined by 30% since 1998. The same corals responded to a short-lived warm event in 1941/1942, but recovered within 3 years as the ocean cooled. Combining our data with climate model simulations by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, we predict that should the current warming trend continue, this coral could cease growing altogether by 2070.

In other coral news, it's reported today that seaweed is encroaching on a significant number of reefs in the Great Barrier Reef, but the reason is said to be poor water quality. However,  I think it’s also worth noting that ocean acidification would be likely to increase that problem.

Her weddings must be interesting

As reported in the Geelong Advertiser:

A "witch" told a traffic cop she was above the law because she was "from another world" before dragging him at high speed down a busy street.

"Your laws and penalties don't apply to me. I'm not accepting them, I'm sorry, I must go, thank you," Eilish De Avalon said, before driving off with Sen-Constable Andrew Logan’s arm caught in her driver's side door, the Geelong Advertiser reports.

The officer was left seriously injured in the incident after being dragged nearly 200m.

De Avalon, who also told police she "had a universal name that is not recognised here", pleaded guilty in the Geelong Magistrates’ Court

And what does this local witch from another world do in her spare time?:

De Avalon, 40, a marriage celebrant who is also a self-confessed witch from the Geelong suburb of Highton

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Free will, Kant, the New York Times

There’s a pretty good essay in the NYT about how whether it is right to give up on free will as a result of the experiments which show that an outsider who can read a brain state correctly can know a person’s decision before the person knows it.

Kant gets invoked to argue that free will is still there, and that the free will conundrum basically arises from not realising the limits of reason.  (I think that’s a fair summary, anyway.)

All very interesting.

More details please

Phys.org has a short report up about a new proposed method for removing CO2 from the air, but its very short on details and says nothing about cost.

I did some lengthy posts looking at CO2 removal technology over the last couple of years; I'll link to them here when I have time.

The “pox on both their houses” election continues

Tim Colebatch provides does a good summary of why a large number of voters feel very disappointed by all parties this election.

I also see that  Tony Abbott has gone into “dog whistle” mode well and truly on the Julia as a single woman issue.   I can’t see this working for him.  

Dangerous nuts

According to this report, a prominent anti-vaccination group in New South Wales is not only spreading their mis-information via the Web; they are actively pursuing those who have suffered a tragedy:

When their four-week-old baby daughter Dana died from whooping cough Toni and David McCaffery sought love and healing to ease their grief.

Instead, they say they were subjected to a campaign of harassment and abuse at the hands of anti-vaccination campaigners, a group who were yesterday labelled a serious threat to the public's health and safety….

Its investigation was sparked by two complaints, one from Toni and David McCaffery, whose four-week-old daughter Dana died from whooping cough last year.

The couple, from Lennox Head, allege they were subjected to months of harassment and abuse by Ms Dorey and anti-vaccination campaigners, accusing them of lying about the cause of their daughter's death. They received anonymous letters and emails that said whooping cough was not fatal and vaccinations were not needed.

Mrs McCaffery, whose daughter was too young to be vaccinated when she caught whooping cough, said Ms Dorey also tried to get her baby's medical records from the hospital without permission. ''Instead of love and healing in the weeks after Dana's death, we got ugliness … it has been terrible,'' she said.

It doesn’t explain why the parents were in contact with the group in the first place, but still this sounds like an appalling story.

I mentioned this anti-vaccination group late last year after they appeared on the 7.30 Report under a post headed “Immunisation Dills”.  It deserves the upgrade to “Dangerous Nuts”. 

Monday, July 26, 2010

Important advance (we hope)

There’s  a pretty big story out about how Australian based researchers have made some fundamental advances in understanding Alzheimer disease, and have been able to treat it in mice.  (Yes, I know, stories like this about potential new treatments for various diseases in humans come out all the time, but this one does sound distinctly more important, it seems to me.)

Bring on the cure, please.

Weekend update

*  Tried to make a cream and tomato pasta sauce, but using mostly low fat evaporated milk instead of cream.   (Hey, my wife fed me pork belly the previous two nights – there has to be the occasional attempt at low fat cooking while my middle age spread continues its winter growth.)  It didn’t work properly – the milk seemed to separate into solids or something, although the taste wasn’t bad.    More investigation into evaporated milk recipes needed.

*  Oh no!  Robin Hood series 3 ended on Saturday night, leading to tears not by the kids, but from the parents.   (I had actually shed a tear at the end of series 2 as well.)     It really was a quality family show – great production values, good acting,  action every episode, sometimes funny, all violence bloodless, and characters believable enough to upset you when they unexpectedly die.   (It was pretty good at the unexpected death.)   It will be missed.

* The debate between Gillard and Abbott on Sunday night (pretty much a draw I thought, although I was not sitting watching it every minute) has led to another surge in Gillard earlobe Googlers coming to this blog via my  my 2007 post-election night comment about it.  (Over a thousand a day.)   Even Channel 9 has noted that her earlobes, which looked particularly large during the debate,  had evidently become a distraction to many people on Twitter.  There is a facebook page about it (nothing to do with me), which seems also to have been created immediately after the 2007 election.   I’m not sure, but I think my mention might be a day or so earlier than the creation of the Facebook page.  Hence I am waiting for  Annabel Crabb to interview me about being the first blogger (I think) to be silly enough to note it.    

Sunday, July 25, 2010

You've seen the photo; now see the video

The BBC has put up video of that remarkable incident of the whale that decided to have an on board tour of a passing yacht. As I can't embed BBC video directly, I'll put the Youtube version of it here. It's worth watching:

This week's hard to understand physics

Another week, another arXiv paper that seems important, if only I could follow it properly.

This one is about how to understand the quantum "delayed choice" experiments, which on one interpretation can be thought to show "backwards time influence".

This, according to the paper, is not the right way to think about collapsing wave functions. The crucial section of the paper seems to be this:
Although the above expressions are all very simple, the result is, upon second thought, very non-trivial. It shows that in general, the relative time ordering of measurements on separated (but possible entangled) particles A and B doesn’t matter at all....

This makes explicit that a measurement on one particle does not at all influence the other one. (I.e. the operator 1 acts trivially.) The only effect a measurement has, is changing probabilities of other measurements into conditional probabilities, as explained just above. More important, these conditional probabilities hold regardless of the moment at which you perform the measurement on the other particle. Whether it occurs later, earlier or at the same time - that doesn’t matter at all. This forces us to abandon the (popular, but incorrect) view on the wave function collapse as an event stretching out along a space-like slice. Even though this view is appealing, it creates a wrong intuition about the physics involved.
I understand the idea that he says is wrong; I don't understand the alternative way of looking at it that he is suggesting.

By the way, whatever happened to John Cramer's "backward causation" experiment? It's taking a long time for any results to come out.

Friday, July 23, 2010

She amuses me

Yet another great article by Annabel Crabb on the curious current state of the election campaign.

Pot head objections

Time magazine has a quite lengthy, quite balanced article summarizing recent research on the very complicated issue of the relationship between marijuana use and schizophrenia.

It could not be called a sensationalist or one sided article at all. Yet you can always guarantee, whenever anything in the media ever appears which looks at the issue, there'll be many comments by readers like this:
"This is the stupidest thing I have read. There own stats show no increase even though more people today are smoking pot. What kind of idiot even publishes garbage like this."
Or this:
Pot could replace something like 20% of pharmacueticals prescribed in the USA - do you know how much MONEY that would be? Doesn't take long to figure out where the propaganda is coming from when you follow the money.
It's the "it's the wonder drug of nature" crowd that really make me laugh.

White roof wonders

Climate Progress talks about the rather simple, but apparently very effective, plan to increase white roofs in America to help address warming.

Is this too complicated for Australian politicians to consider?

Pine nut alert

The LA Times mentions "pine mouth", an odd reaction which is "a bitter metallic taste in the mouth that develops after eating pine nuts and lasts for several days."

Given so much pesto is eaten nowadays, it's a wonder it doesn't happen more often.

On the menu in Vietnam

Oh. I knew there was a bar-b-q rat industry in Vietnam. I assumed that they probably ate dog. But I didn't know this:

While it is widely known that dog meat is eaten in Southeast Asia, Mr. Doan says some Vietnamese restaurants also offer cat on the menu. To keep thieves from catching an unsupervised cat to eat or sell to a restaurant, pet owners keep their felines close.

Eating cat is traditionally thought to bring good luck, according to Mai Pham Thi Tuyet, the director of the Asvelis veterinary clinic in Hanoi. But this practice is becoming less common, she says, because the improvement in the standard of living, particularly in the cities, has enabled more people to keep animals as pets.

Seems high

We're not talking America; we're talking England:
Almost one in five girls say they have been pregnant at least once by the age of 18, according to a Government survey published today.

Just under half (46 per cent) decided to keep their baby, while more than a third (36 per cent), had an abortion, the figures show. ...

The survey concluded there was a "noticeable trend" between the young women who fell pregnant by 18, and their GCSE results.

A third (33 per cent) of those who gained between one and four GCSEs at grades D-G had been pregnant at least once by the time they were 18, compared to just 6 per cent of those who scored eight or more GCSEs at Grades A*-C.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Time for some Colbert

This clip from a couple of weeks ago becomes particularly funny in the last part, regarding another egregious example of American fast food overkill:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Thought for Food - Kentucky Tuna & Grilled Cheese Burger Melt<a>
www.colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full Episodes2010 ElectionFox News

Maybe you won't notice how dirty it is

Boeing's new long-range jet: Dreamliner becomes reality - The Economist

The Economist notes that the Dreamliner has more internal height, bigger windows, cabin lighting that can change from blue to orange, and this peculiar feature:
The new plane also has noticeably bigger toilets with lighting adjustable for mood, which is bound to be useful in some situations.
Useful in what situations, exactly?

Climate change items of note

Nature has got three stories of interest about climate change at the moment:

1. a report summarising some of the complexities and uncertainties in studies about the fate of the Amazon rainforest.

2. the US National Research Council has put out a report which :
sets out the consequences — from streamflow and wildfires to crop productivity and sea level rise — of different greenhouse-gas emissions scenarios. It also concludes that once the global average temperature warms beyond a certain point, Earth and future generations will be stuck with significant impacts for centuries or millennia.
That seems quite a big ask. But they seem confident based on more recent work since the last IPCC reports:
Besides synthesizing data included in the Fourth Assessment Report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007, the NRC report includes new information. For example, carbon-dioxide-induced warming is expected to be nearly irreversible for at least 1,000 years, according to two studies published in 2008 and 2009 (refs 2,3). "There is more certainty [in this report] than we've seen before," says Steve Cohen, executive director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University in New York City. "It is blunt, direct and clear. Unlike the IPCC reports you don't see any hedge words."
And what do they find?:
....the report shows that each 1 °C of warming will reduce rain in the southwest of North America, the Mediterranean and southern Africa by 5–10%; cut yields of some crops, including maize (corn) and wheat, by 5–15%; and increase the area burned by wildfires in the western United States by 200–400%. The report also points out that even if the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide is stabilized, the world will continue to warm for decades. If concentrations rose to 550 parts per million, for example, the world would see an initial warming of 1.6 °C — but even if concentrations stabilized at this level, further warming would leave the total temperature rise closer to 3 °C, and would persist for millennia.
Bad, bad predictions for our descendants, that's for sure. Which will be studiously ignored by most Australian politicians. Bah.

3. OK, so we'll geoengineer our way out of trouble? Not so fast. A study that has tried to model the effects of pumping lots of sulphate aerosols high into the atmosphere says it won't work uniformly across the globe:
In a paper published today in Nature Geoscience1, Kate Ricke, a climate physicist at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and her colleagues show, by modelling, that not only could solar-radiation management lead to declines in rainfall in the long term, but its effects will also vary by region. Some places will be over-cooled by atmospheric changes that are too small to be effective for their neighbours....

The new study found that it is fairly easy to design sulphate-injection scenarios that keep the temperature stable until 2080. But, unfortunately, the change in sunlight alters other weather patterns. "It changes the distribution of energy in the troposphere so that it becomes more convectively stable," Ricke says. The result: decreasing precipitation.
Better to keep carbon down, then.

China Catholics

NPR has an interesting story on Catholicism in China, and how the "unofficial" and "official" branches of it seem to be in the process of reconciling.

In other NPR news, that gay prom kerfuffle ends up with the School District paying $35,000 to settle, plus attorney fees. Another triumph - for lawyers.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Disturbing advance in robotics

Self-sustaining robot has an artificial gut (w/ Video)

UK researchers have developed an autonomous robot with an artificial gut that enables it to fuel itself by eating and excreting. ...The robot eats meals of partially processed sewage, using the nutrients within the mash for fuel and excreting the remains. It also drinks water to maintain power generation.

Undigested matter passes via a gravity feed to a central trough from which it is pumped back into the feeder tanks to be reprocessed in order to extract as much of the available energy as possible. The waste is then purged every 24 hours by a peristaltic pump that works like the colon, using pressure waves to expel the waste from the tube into a litter tray.

Director of Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Chris Melhuish, said MFCs had been tried before but an artificial gut was needed to solve the problem of previous models, which was that humans had to clean up the waste left by bacterial digestion. Melhuish said the robot was called Ecobot III, but admitted “diarrhea-bot would be more appropriate, as it’s not exactly knocking out rabbit pellets.”
Astroboy used to eat, but had the good grace to empty his stomach himself.

Apple's going rotten

Apple's condescending iPhone 4 press conference. - By Farhad Manjoo - Slate Magazine

I didn't really pay any attention to this press conference, apart from noting how unhealthy Jobs still looks. But Manjoo reckons that it can be summarised as follows:
....if you want to be a total jerk about it and keep insisting there's a problem with your magical iPhone, Jobs has an offer for you. "OK, great, let's give everybody a case," he said. Happy now, whiners?
Manjoo later continues:
He could have admitted a problem, offered a fix, and said, "We're sorry for any trouble we caused you." Instead, he sounded wounded and paranoid, as if we were all being ungrateful for not recognizing Apple's contributions to the world. "We love our users so much we've built 300 Apple retail stores for them," he claimed at one point. Wow, thanks, Steve—all this time, I thought you built those stores just to sell stuff! ...

Just lose the attitude, Steve. You screwed up. We know it. You know it. Just admit it.

Chris on Mel

Mel Gibson's tirades are the distilled violence, cruelty, and bigotry of right-wing Catholic ideology. - By Christopher Hitchens

Well, as you might expect, Christopher Hitchens has no sympathy for Mel Gibson. So this article is really no surprise, but it does contain this entertaining example of Mel's father theology:
I have some of old man Gibson's books on my shelf, including his self-published classics Is the Pope Catholic? and The Enemy Is Still Here!, which essentially accuse the current papacy of doing the work of the Antichrist. My favorite sample of his prose style is the following: "Our 'civilization' tolerates open sodomy and condones murder of the unborn, but shrinks in horror from burning incorrigible heretics—essentially a charitable act." He attacks the late Pope John Paul II for having said, in one of his "outreaches" to the Jewish people, "You are our predilect brothers and, in a certain way, one could say our oldest brothers." Hutton Gibson's comment? "Abel had an older brother." I don't think that there's much ambiguity there, do you?

Crabb on Abbott

Oh good. Annabel Crabb is sufficiently off parental duties to start writing regularly about the coming election. Her explanation of Tony Abbott's relationship with the truth is both amusing and accurate.

Yesterday Tony Abbott looked so bad, it seems hardly worth his while continuing with campaigning. (Of course, I may live to regret that prediction; the weirdness of the Queensland electorate especially makes election prediction a risk.)

But still - with Newspoll already showing a handy Labor national lead, it's near impossible to imagine anything other than the Coalition going backwards in the next couple of polls. As I have written elsewhere, Tony Abbott is the perfect example of the Peter Principle in politics. He was reasonably competent as a Minister; he was prepared to do the "dirty work" at times under John Howard, and no doubt earned Howard's gratitude for it. But it has always been clear he was not Prime Minister material, and those who voted him leader on the basis of his opportunistic and new found climate skepticism are only going to get their just reward. I hope.

Growing up

I'm not going to turn this blog into a cute kid story sort of place, but here we go anyway. (The topic is not exactly cute in any event.)

As when I was his age, it seems fair to assume that my son is getting his first exposure to fictional sex by watching James Bond movies. Listening to his reactions during the recent string of Saturday night 007 movies has been interesting. Last week, it was "oh, so that's what adults do", but this was only when the girl-ish iceskater was trying (unsuccessfully) to get Roger Moore into her bed in For Your Eyes Only. So what his comment meant in terms of interpreting the scene: well, I didn't care to ask.

This last Saturday night, his comment was "oh no, not again" when an even older Roger Moore ended up in bed with some woman he just met in Octopussy. Maybe even he is recognizing that the aging Moore was not exactly a good catch for his younger partners. But with any luck, it might also mean that he already guesses that sleeping around a lot is not really what responsible adults do. I just kind of remember the Sean Connery Bond sexual elements as being a bit of a boring interruption until the next bit of fighting and explosions.

Then, on Sunday night, there was a somewhat interesting documentary on monitor lizards on the ABC. It seems to me that nature documentaries are much more graphic about sex now than they were when I was a child. Hence, on just about every nature show, there's some form of coupling which raises the question "what are they doing?!", which again I would just as soon not have to deal with yet, especially when it's a species that partakes in the equivalent of mass orgies.

Curiously, this one on Sunday started with a viewer warning that it contained scenes of animals hunting and devouring prey; viewers must have started complaining about this, I assume. Yet there was no warning of the graphic lizard love that was to come.

So when a couple of large Thai water monitors started at it, the boy's reaction was "what are they doing? Is that, um, sexual..... ?" to which I gave a tentative "yeess." His next comment - "oh no, it's just like lizard 007's! Yuck." This is either a derisive comment on Roger Moore again, or a simple sign of age appropriate aversion to the very idea of sex, which with any luck will continue until he's 25. (Hey, it's better than being a teen father.)

These events have led me to start looking around the internet for appropriate, um, educational material for this allegedly important discussion that fathers are supposed to have with sons. I know there are books out there, but really, shouldn't there be something available for free on the 'net? Why hasn't someone made an appropriate Powerpoint presentation available which a parent can start, then promptly leave the room for 15 minutes assured that the material will answer as much as a "tween" approaching puberty should know?

Well, as far as I can see, there isn't anything like this out there. It's struck me that it could be sort of amusing writing my own, especially if I use my pathetically drawn dodo's to illustrate it. My wife might have something to say about that, though.

As another father said to me last year, the problem with talking to your kids about this is that you don't want them to be completely ignorant (and, for example, be ridiculed for saying something silly in front of their mates), yet at the same time you don't exactly want them to be the most knowledgeable kid in the class either. Finding that right level of information to provide at what age is what makes it tricky. (Oh, I know, the books will say you take your kid's level of inquisitiveness as a guide, but really, some kids don't want to make their parent uncomfortable, and so it's no reliable guide if you ask me.)

Ah well. It'll be dealt with, some day. And I promise not to post about it.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

An emotional story

I saw Toy Story 3 today with the kids. It was very good, I thought. I still think Toy Story 2 was forgettable, and they could’ve skipped straight to this one.

I knew from this article that the movie was said to make some men teary by the end, and I could see why, although I didn’t succumb myself.

At dinner, I asked my kids if they felt sad or teary at the end. Neither did, apparently, but I pressed further, saying that I found it odd that I had never seen either of them cry at any movie; not even classic tear inducing ones like ET.

My son then said only one movie had made him cry; it was a Robinson Crusoe one (which version I don’t know) when he had to farewell his dog which had to stay on the island alone. He then had to leave the table due to sudden teary eyed embarrassment!

All may be well in the emotional reaction stakes after all.

Time travel re-visited

There’s a new paper up on arXiv by a international group of  physicists which has an abstract starting with this:

This paper discusses the quantum mechanics of closed timelike curves (CTC) and of other potential methods for time travel. We analyze a specific proposal for such quantum time travel, the quantum description of CTCs based on post-selected teleportation (P-CTCs).

A middle section that includes this:

If it turns out that the linearity of quantum mechanics is only approximate, and that projection onto particular states does in fact occur – for example, at the singularities of black holes – then it might be possible to implement time travel even in the absence of a general-relativistic closed timelike curve. The formalism of P-CTCs shows that such quantum time travel can be thought of as a kind of quantum tunneling backwards in time, which can take place even in the absence of a classical path from future to past.

And a conclusion that ends with this:

In Sec. IV we have argued that, as Wheeler’s picture of positrons as electrons moving backwards in time suggests, P-CTCs might also allow time travel in spacetimes without general-relativistic closed timelike curves. If nature somehow provides the nonlinear dynamics afforded by final-state projection, then it is possible for particles (and, in principle, people) to tunnel from the future to the past.

Unfortunately, as I seem to be finding with some arXiv papers lately, it has a very layperson friendly introduction, but for the rest of the paper, it would help to be a physicist.  I don’t know why they don’t make the conclusion a lay reader friendly version of  what their paper means. 

Still, any arXiv paper that even mentions people tunnelling from the present to the past is noteworthy!

An announcement

I like watercress salad.

Further updates later.

Update: it was a simple recipe: watercress, apple (red, although the recipe actually said Granny Smith), blue cheese and some salad onion. It was also meant to have some chives, but I forgot to add them. Dressing - simple vinaigrette (white wine vinegar, olive oil, clove of garlic, salt, pepper, bit of sugar.)

I think roasted walnuts would go well in their too - I love them in pear, blue cheese and bacon salad.

Watercress never seemed to be around when I was kid, but then again I suppose nor were a fair few things now common in the greengrocers. Some Vietnamese shops near my area sell large watercress bunches for a dollar. It was all we ate (with bread) for dinner last night. Nice.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Eight legged oracles

Gillard's chances get a legs-up

It's hard not to be amused at the way everyone now wants to consult octopodes as oracles. Is there a quatrain from Nostrodamus that predicted this development?

"The Nations will fight on the field of the beasts
The spawn of the Kraken will foretell the outcome
The true prophets of the universe are revealed
My book sales plummet"

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Whinging Pom located

According to a (largely) favourable  article on the BBC website about Brisbane as a place to live:

Surprisingly, it's not Sydney's stunning harbour views that are pulling them in, nor the lure of seeing the Ashes battled over once again at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. Instead, record numbers are making their way to Brisbane, halfway up the east coast where, according to NatWest's recently-published Quality of Life Index, every 10th person is a pommy.

In the comments following the article, quite a few people from the UK say they like the place, but this comment sounds so stereotypically “whinging Pom”, it’s not a send up, is it?:

 I've been here for 50 years and have regreted it ever since I arrived and would have liked to return home but have never been able to afford to, but in my will I have requested that my ashes be returned to my country of birth and scattered on English soil. This place might be ok for a holiday but that's all.

Electric options

Yamaha has a new electric motor scooter out in September in Japan, and then onto the world. (Well, at least Taiwan, Europe and China.) Not sure about the performance, though:
The EC-03 can travel 43 kilometres (26.6 miles) on a single six-hour charge from a household power outlet, which costs about 18 yen (cents) in Japan, far less than the cost of powering a conventional 50cc scooter, it said.
Meanwhile, what was that ad for an electric Mitsubishi car I saw today wrapped around the front of The Australian?  Must be about this small shipment due soon of i-MiEVs, which are only destined to lease to government bodies and companies anyway. The car did get a pretty good review, though. It does 140-160 km on a single charge, and can go up to 130kph. Acceleration is fine with a full, 4 adult, load. Nice.  Just  got to wait for the price to come down.  A lot. 

Hating Tara

What on earth do people enjoy in The United States of Tara? I watched the first episode of the first series, and saw little bits of subsequent episodes. Surprised that it was renewed for a second series, I watched an episode from that last night.

It's a show that works on absolutely no level. An example of this weird genre of quirk dramedy that is not funny or dramatic in any realistic sense, it lives solidly in what has become a cliche-ridden field of liberal takes on diversity in family. Outwardly normal looking family with dark secret - check; gay son - check; slutty daughter getting hypocritical mixed messages from parents - check; nice gay neighbour couple - check; mental illness induced by mistreatment in family - check.

And do middle class families in America really now use "f**k" in every second sentence, no matter who they are talking to? Doesn't someone ever say to them that it's a complete bore when any word becomes just a verbal tic?

I don't find any of the characters particularly likeable, except perhaps the son who is sensitive (as all gay teenage boys are - excuse me while I roll my eyes a bit.) Yet even the storyline last night involving him attempting to get sexually experienced with a girl did not ring true. (A lame and unrealistic attempt at humour when he tries to put on condom while completely un-aroused.)

The mental illness the show is based on is a diagnosis that is widely disputed, and I think virtually never takes as extreme a form as shown here. The relationship between the parents is more than a touch unbelievable, if you ask me. (Last night featured sex in the yard in the middle of the day following Dad getting screamingly upset with his dishonest wife.)

There is nothing to like about the show. Yet liberal viewers appear to lap it up, because, you know, all families are swearing, dysfunction car wrecks of equal validity.

I hate it.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Dial 000 and ask for emergency massage therapy

Whisker stimulation prevents strokes in rats, study finds

This is a very surprising story. Stimulating the right whisker in a rat has remarkable effects on blocked blood flow in its brain:

A stroke usually happens when a main artery bringing oxygen and nutrients

to the brain either ruptures or is blocked by a clot, causing partial brain death. The key to preventing strokes in rats whose main cerebral artery has been obstructed, UCI researchers found, is to stimulate the middle part of the brain.

The team discovered that mechanically stroking just one whisker for four minutes within the first two hours of the blockage caused the blood to quickly flow to other arteries - like cars exiting a gridlocked freeway to find detours.

But unlike freeway off-ramps, which can quickly clog, the alternate arteries expanded beyond their normal size, opening wide to allow critical blood flow to the brain. The technique was 100 percent effective in preventing strokes in rats with arterial obstruction.
This is going to be hard to test on humans, as ethics committees probably have something to say about experiments involving deliberately induced strokes. But as the researchers say:
In people, "stimulating the , lips or face in general could all have a similar effect," says UCI doctoral student Melissa Davis, co-author of the study, which appears in the June issue of PLoS One.

"It's gender-neutral," adds co-author Ron Frostig, professor of neurobiology & behavior.

He cautions that the research, funded by the National Institutes of Health, is a first step, albeit an important one. "This is just the beginning of the whole story," he says, "with the potential for maybe doing things before a victim even reaches the emergency room."....

People believed to be suffering a stroke are currently told to lie still and stay calm in a quiet environment. Frostig says a good massage, listening to a song or otherwise stimulating the right nerve endings might work better.

Kleinfeld cautions that the rodent findings might not be relevant to humans. But with such clear evidence that strokes in rats were prevented, he says, "it would be criminal not to try" controlled human studies. That could be tricky, since it's not possible to predict when someone will have a stroke.

North Korea in Japan

Last night’s Foreign Correspondent, on ethnic Koreans in Japan, and the support they have received from North Korea, was particularly interesting.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Needs a bottle of Drano the size of the Empire State Building

The Independent reports:

Enough fat to fill nine double-decker buses is being removed from sewers under London's Leicester Square.

A team of "flushers" equipped with full breathing apparatus has been drafted in with shovels to dig out an estimated 1,000 tonnes of putrid fat…

Danny Brackley, the water company's sewer flusher, said: "We're used to getting our hands dirty, but nothing on this scale.

"We couldn't even access the sewer as it was blocked by a four-foot wall of solid fat."

In praise of the scum of the earth

Green machine: A new push for pond scum power - tech - 12 July 2010 - New Scientist

New Scientist reports on why making biofuel from algae seems to be a good idea, but also notes the problems. On the one hand:
"Ten million hectares of algae could supply all US transportation fuel," says Greg Mitchell of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. That's less than 3 per cent of the area farmed in the US – and algae can live in seawater in the desert.
On the other hand, the penultimate paragraph takes quite a lot of the gloss off the concept:
And ultimately, production will require suitable climate, land, water, nutrients and CO2, all at one site. Even using waste land, seawater, sewage and smokestack CO2, Benemann thinks this will limit the potential for algal biomass to the equivalent of 1 per cent of the CO2 now being released, or less. "But that's still a gargantuan amount. Let's hope we can do that much."
Hmm. Not exactly going to save the Earth, then; but maybe can make a worthwhile contribution?

Techno-optimism remembered

Tom Swift and the birth of American techno-optimism � Climate Progress

I should be doing something else, but can't help linking to this post about the Tom Swift novels, which have a much longer history than I realised.

I read the later incarnation of these (written in the 50's and 60's) when I was a child, and remember enjoying them a lot. As I have noted here before, there was a lot of basically optimistic science fiction written for the youth market in that period. Now that's been replaced by futuristic novels set in dystopias or otherwise pessimistic about the future, social realism about children dealing with broken families and such like, or fantasy that may be well written, but only connects with reality when dealing with relationships.

If I were a commissioning editor, I would be very interested in trying to re-establish the genre of techno-optimism for the youth market. You see, I haven't quite given up on that idea; just become depressed about the lack of political and social will to pursue it. Telling children not to expect science to help in the future is not a good way to break that cycle.

While I’m busy, consider the tortoise

Various issues are pre-occupying me at the moment, but while I am distracted, someone has written about the rise of pets, in particular tortoises, in England in the journal Post-Medieval Archaeology:

As Dr. Thomas says, "Although we have archaeological evidence for terrapins and turtles from the 17th century, this is the first archaeological evidence we have for land tortoise in Britain. It seems very likely that this specimen was imported from North Africa or the Mediterranean; by the later 19th-century there was a dramatic rise in the commercial trade in tortoises from these regions to satisfy the growing demand for pet animals".

The morality of keeping pets was considered highly suspect in the strict religious doctrines of Medieval and Early Modern society, and although there was an avid fascination in exotic creatures at the time, this seems to have curiously bypassed the tortoise.

Attitudes towards pets began to change in the 17th century, particularly under the famously dog-loving Stuart kings, and the reputation of the tortoise had certainly risen high enough by the early 17th century for the ill-fated Archbishop Laud to have kept one.

During the 18th and 19th centuries a more 'modern' attitude to pet animals gradually emerged. The sculptor Joseph Gott created sentimental statues of dogs during the 19th century, and in 1824 the Society (later Royal Society) for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was founded.

Here’s something I didn’t know:  the great tortoise trade of the 20th century:

As Dr. Thomas reveals, "Unfortunately, this interest in keeping exotic pet animals resulted in the capture and translocation of millions of wild tortoises each year during the 20th century. The animals were crated in ships and kept in appalling conditions; countless tortoises died during this journey and those that survived fared little better, given away as fairground prizes and kept by people with little knowledge of their upkeep. It was not until an EEC regulation in 1988, that this trade in wild tortoises was prohibited".

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Medieval report

Guess where we went yesterday?

It's a place where men oil themselves and wrestle, while other men watch:


It's a place where walking tree/wood nymph thing-ees wander:



It's where a hell of a lot of people dress up and wander around



and a woman can indulge her favourite past-time: firing replica breach canons, causing much smoke and sound,



while men dress up as old soldiers and hit each other for fun and (sort of) entertainment:

video

(I would move that crappy video to the centre if I could work out how.)

Yes, it was the Abbey 2010 Medieval Tournament, held just north of Brisbane.

It's been going on for years, but I've never made it there before.

One of the most interesting thing about it was that it made me realise the number of medieval themed club-like groups that must be around, lurking beneath the veneer of normal society. I spoke to one guy who was showing me how to make authentic medieval shoes and asked him: if one has a desire to be a medieval craftsman/soldier/musician, how does one go about finding entry into a group who can teach you how?

It does seem to come down to who you know, and (I suppose) attending these tournament events and begging entry into a quasi-secret society that catches your fancy. Then you too can dress up and yearn for the old (really old) days at least once a year.

Actually, it was all good fun, and next year I plan on attending as Thomas Aquinas.

Starfish Prime revisited

Bad Astronomy linked to a recent NPR story* with video of the 1962 Starfish Prime nuclear explosion in outer space. Interesting.

By the way, I've never been to the NPR news homepage before, but it has a very clean look that appeals.

* This is also, as it happens, how I found an NPR story on an old porn star. Just in case you were wondering.

Career choices of the older but not so wise

This whole stupid “cougar” business has to stop soon, doesn’t it?  NPR reports:

Diana Grandmason is a 50-year-old redhead who once ran an investments business in Florida. Perhaps an unlikely performer in adult films — but until a year and a half ago, she starred in X-rated movies, including Seduced by a Cougar.

Grandmason says she got into the porn business to follow her daughter, Bess Garren.

"Basically, she called me at work and said, 'I'm gonna go do this,' and I said, 'No you're not.' And she said, 'Mom I'm 21, this is a courtesy call, I'm doin' it.' So what choice did I have?" she explains.

But then, she decided to follow Garren.

"Originally it was signing up just so I could accompany her, and then I kinda got sold on the idea myself," Grandmason says.

Geeky hobby success

Amateur metal detecting as a hobby never seems to have taken off in Australia the same way as it did in America or (apparently) Britain. Metal detectors have featured in the ads sections of geeky American science magazines for decades, but here, apart from the occasionally opportunistic aging coin hunter going over the beach sand in the evening, I’ve never noticed them much. Maybe it’s because there is so little history in this country waiting to be discovered. No pirate treasure from the Caribbean is likely to have found its way to the beaches of Coochiemudlo Island*, after all.

Anyhow, in England, the hobby can really pay off. At least for a museum:

The largest single hoard of Roman coins ever found in Britain has been unearthed on a farm near Frome in Somerset.

A total of 52,500 bronze and silver coins dating from the 3rd century AD – including the largest ever found set of coins minted by the self proclaimed emperor Carausius, who lasted seven years before he was murdered by his finance minister – were found by Dave Crisp, a hobby metal detectorist from Devizes, Wiltshire.

Crisp first dug up a fingernail-sized bronze coin only 30cm below the surface. Even though he had never found a hoard before, when he had turned up a dozen coins he stopped digging and called in the experts, who uncovered a pot bellied pottery jar stuffed with the extraordinary collection, all dating from 253 to 293 AD – the year of Carausius's death.

As I said it’s good for museums, not so much benefit for the discoverer:

The archaeologists praised Crisp for calling them in immediately, allowing the context of the find to be recorded meticulously. When a coroner's inquest is held later this month in Somerset, the coins are likely to be declared treasure, which must by law be reported. Somerset county museum hopes to acquire the hoard, which could be worth up to £1m, with the blessing of the British Museum.

* A quiet island in Moreton Bay, which makes for a pleasant enough day trip if your expectations are not high; actually, they should be somewhere between low and a touch below moderate. I thought I had previously posted this photo after a visit last October , but maybe not:

Coochimudlo island

Good lines, Richard

My favourite paragraph from Richard Glover’s column today, about prejudices against men:

Why are we accused of not doing our share of the housework? Men are assiduous about this sort of stuff. For example, many Australian men clean out their online browsing history almost every day. Don't thank us; we're just naturally tidy.

My second favourite bit:
What's the story with the ABC and the interminable bonnet dramas on Sunday nights? Is there any Thackeray left? Just how many books did Dickens write? Are five versions of Pride and Prejudice enough, or could we squeeze in one more? Oh, oh, Mr Darcy, oh, oh. Really, how much more of this stuff are we expected to endure?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Pathetic weaklings

Health alert in high temperatures and humidity - Home News, UK - The Independent

I love the way the British go into a heat fearing panic as soon as temperatures reach some startling figure, like 30 degrees.

But wait - what if the minimum temperature never goes below 20! Panic!:

The first heat-health alert of the summer was in force today as parts of the country faced several days - and nights - of sweltering conditions

Highs of up to 31C (87.8F) are expected as temperatures peak across East Anglia and south-east England today and tomorrow.

But it is not the hot sunshine of the day that people need to be wary of, but roasting night-time temperatures of at least 20C (68F) in some parts which pose the most threat.

Head of health forecasting at the Met Office Wayne Elliott said: "While there is the possibility of daytime temperatures reaching trigger thresholds, it is the night time values which are of real concern.

Pathetic former rulers of the world!

Tales of Christian intrigue

Rowan Williams under siege over gay bishop veto | UK news | The Guardian

The intricate ties between State and Church in England leads to all sorts of strange political intrigue, such as in this story.

First, within the Church itself, there's a name leaking spy, and Rowan wants to know who it is:

Dr Jeffrey John, the dean of St Albans, was in the running for the senior position at Southwark until his name was leaked, enabling conservative clerics to stop the appointment. An embattled Williams has now launched an inquiry at Lambeth Palace to find out who divulged the name .

The archbishop was appalled that John's name was disclosed in a successful attempt to derail his candidacy, exactly seven years after he was forced to stand down as the prospective bishop of Reading following a previous outcry by conservative evangelicals against John's sexuality. Fingers are being pointed at the same evangelical hardliners who orchestrated the 2003 campaign.

Now the liberals in the Church want the PM to step in:

John's supporters called for David Cameron to demonstrate his gay-friendly credentials by overruling the Crown Nominations Commission and insisting that John's name be considered further. They accused the archbishop of betraying his old friend a second time.

One senior cleric said: "The time of reckoning has come for Rowan. The events of seven years ago have bitten him hard in the very week women bishops comes to the crunch. He should realise there are greater considerations, like truth, justice, openness, fidelity to the rules and all those things the church proclaims. Many are dismayed by his constant capitulation to the fringe noisemakers.

"He could recover some credibility if he went mitre in hand to the PM and asked him to intervene and use his constitutional prerogative to consider the second name, whoever that is, and then to reject both if he so chooses."

The "mitre in hand" bit sounds a bit threatening, if you ask me. Reminds me of "The Bishop."

Now to be even handed (for once), I'll also link to a story of the (not intended to be) rich and famous from the Catholic Church:

To his congregants, he lived the humble existence of a pastor.

But a high-flying Connecticut priest was charged this week with first-degree larceny in the theft of almost $1.3 million from his church's coffers to fund a lavish double life that included swanky hotels and male escorts, said Capt. Chris Corbett of the Waterbury Police Department in Connecticut.

Father Kevin Gray, 64, a former pastor at Sacred Heart Church in Waterbury, allegedly embezzled money from the church over the course of seven years.

He used it to pay for fancy restaurants, clothing, vacations, hotels, a New York City apartment and a male companion's tuition at Harvard University, according to an affidavit obtained by CNN affiliate WTIC and filed with the Connecticut Superior Court.

The affidavit says that between June 2003 and March 2010, Gray spent about $205,000 at high-end restaurants, $132,000 in hotel stays and $85,000 at clothing stores. While in New York City, he frequented the Waldorf Astoria, Omni Berkshire, and the W Hotel Times Square, among other posh hotels, the affidavit states.

I wonder if his male "companions" knew he was a priest at all?

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Stupid games

The depravity of Major League Eating. - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

I've never quite understood how grotesque eating contests have become popular in America. William Saletan looks at the issue, and the weird fact that food companies sponsor these events, and ends this way:
Fifty years from now, when historians are looking for a moment that captures the depravity of our age—the gluttony, the self-destruction, the craving for worthless fame—it won't be bathhouses, Big Love, or AdultFriendFinder. It'll be Joey Chestnut stuffing that 68th hot dog down his unresisting gullet, live on ESPN. Or, worse, it'll be the guy who broke his record.
He could well be right.

That octopus

I see Spain beat Germany in the World Cup last night, as predicted by Paul the German psychic octopus.  (I didn’t know his name til this morning.)

Just how long has this octopus been getting soccer right?  According to Salon:

Paul, who's been calling the outcomes of German football matches for the last two years, has only failed once, unsuccessfully ripping into the German-designated mussels before the Euro 2008 final went to Spain. His predictions are so revered that they're carried live on German television, giving Europeans something to preempt reruns of "Baywatch."

He has his own Wikipedia page, which gives some more details of the numbers:

Paul is reported to have correctly chosen the winner in five of Germany's six UEFA Euro 2008 matches.[10] He predicted Germany to win every match except a loss to Croatia. He incorrectly predicted Germany over Spain in the final in 2008.[11] He has correctly chosen the winner in each of Germany's six matches in the 2010 FIFA World Cup.[12][13][14][15] He also correctly predicted Spain's victory over Germany in the semi-final of the World Cup 2010 in South Africa.[16]

That is a surprising record.  I am curious how this affects the betting market.  Wouldn’t they have an interest in seeing him gone?  

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Travel in Morocco

Airport organisation leaves a lot to be desired in Morocco, apparently.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

A short Greene note

I just finished reading Graham Greene’s “The Heart of the Matter”, which, according to the blurb on the back, is “widely considered one of his finest novels.”

I beg to differ.  As with Brighton Rock, there’s a deep psychological improbability about the main character.  Worse still, many of the musings on God and theology are so cryptically expressed, I can’t even understand them.  Evelyn Waugh, as a very Catholic writer, was much easier to understand in this regard.  

It’s interesting to note that I can broadly agree with George Orwell’s review of the book, to which Wikipedia conveniently links.   (I would feel even better about that if I liked 1984, but I am amongst the handful of people in the world who can’t stand it.  And while we’re on Orwell,  why does comedian Will Anderson seem to be taking styling tips from him?)

This is the fourth Greene that I have read.  I liked two, and thought the other two were bad.  I might give one more a go.  The Quiet American, perhaps? 

Housing should be cheap in Russia soon, too

Population Decline in Russia

Inspired by a report that large numbers of (probably drunk) Russians have drowned during this year's heat wave, I did a Google and came up with the above recent report on Russian demographics. The situation there is much worse than I expected:
Russia has a very high death rate of 15 deaths per 1000 people per year. This is far higher than the world's average death rate of just under 9. The death rate in the U.S. is 8 per 1000 and for the United Kingdom it's 10 per 1000. Alcohol-related deaths in Russia are very high and alcohol-related emergencies represent the bulk of emergency room visits in the country.

With this high death rate, Russian life expectancy is low - the World Health Organization estimates the life expectancy of Russian men at 59 years while women's life expectancy is considerably better at 72 years. This difference is primarily a result of high rates of alcoholism among males.

Wow.

As for the low birth rate, they have a pretty "big government" way of tackling that problem:
Health Minister Tatyana Golikova said 14-year-olds will undergo more intense medical checks at school starting next year, which could help reveal possible reproduction problems and start treatment on time.

"More intense medical examinations of teenagers are planned to start from 2011 with the goal of examining their reproductive function and recommending individual medical courses, which would identify and treat reproduction problems," Golikova said.

....she said illnesses among schoolchildren rose 9.3% in the past decade, with more than 20% of schoolchildren having chronic illnesses and over 50% of teenagers having health problems that could affect their reproduction ability in the future.

Golikova also highlighted growing alcohol consumption and smoking habits among children.

Sounds like a depressing place.

Tuesday miscellany

There have been quite a few stories around lately worth noting, even if I don’t have time to do full posts on them:

*  A scientist cautioned against burying CO2, again. 

*  Ziggy takes the Gulf oil disaster as an opportunity to favourably compare nuclear to fossil fuels.   Some good figures included in there.

Last night’s Four Corners, the first of a two part show on the Australian soldiers in Afghanistan, was great viewing, and the soldiers and officers interviewed presented as  intelligent, compassionate and competent.    The country itself presented as pretty much the opposite and, frankly, hard to care about, but the problem is it can be good at exporting trouble.

*   A Melbourne woman discovers that not drinking 8 cups of coffee of day changes her personality for the better.  She should be shaking less, anyway.

Julia Gillard makes her first major policy mistake.  She decides to be a Twitter. 

*  Slate examined the novel idea that our favourite mind altering parasite, toxoplasma gondii, may help soccer performance.   Don’t tell your kid’s coach, especially if he has access to kitty litter.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Revisiting ocean acidification

I’m pretty busy this week, but if I can get readers to look at one article, it would be the very balanced one that appeared in The Economist on ocean acidification.

The article’s subtitle is “ocean acidification threatens the world’s oceans, but quantifying the risks is hard”, which is probably a fair statement given the current state of play in the research.  

It has always been suggested that there will likely to be winners and losers in the ocean from acidification, and this year some researchers have proposed that a meta-analysis of studies to date indicate that sea life may be more resilient than originally thought.  This has been immediately attacked by other researchers pointing out the complexity of the problem:  you have to look at how lower pH affects organisms at all stages of life, as well as warming ocean temperatures, and nutrient levels too.

There are still studies just coming out which have tried to work out more details as to different species’ responses.   Here are a few:

*  it’s still not looking great for the pteropods, one of the major fish foods of the cold oceans, although this study got some results a bit different from previous ones, and much uncertainty seems to remain.  (In fact, my general impression from reading  about this topic for a number of years now is that there is still a surprising lack of detailed knowledge about the detailed bio-chemistry of  sea creatures that build shells, in particular.) 

*  for the blue mussel, the effects on the larval stage are not good.

* on the other hand, for one species of clam, lower pH seemed to do no harm at all.

The problem with some of these studies must surely be how hard it is to accurately replicate the ocean environment in the lab for certain creatures, particularly if they don’t just float at one depth all day, as is the case (I seem to recall) with pteropods.

There has also been renewed comment about how widely the pH of ocean areas (particularly near the coast, I think) changes naturally in a short space of time.  The suggestion is that if creatures can survive that already, they are possibly resilient to forecast lowering of pH.  Yet, surely a significant drop of the  average pH a creature experiences during the day could be very important, even if the same creature spends part of its day/week at such a lower pH already.

Anyhow, as I said, The Economist article does a good job at explaining the current uncertainties, and suggests that it may well be coral reef studies that come up with the definitive proof that acidification will have major effects.  Here are the concluding paragraphs:

If reshaping food webs marginalises the pteropods, the salmon will have to adapt or die. But though the mesocosms may shed light on the fate of the pteropods, the outlook for the salmon will remain conjectural. Though EPOCA is ambitious, and expensive, the mesocosms are too small to contain fish, and the experiments far too short to show what sort of adaptation might be possible over many years, and what its costs might be.

This is one of the reasons why the fate of coral reefs may be more easily assessed than open-water ecosystems. The thing that provides structure in open-water ecosystems is the food-web, which is hard to observe and malleable. In reefs, the structure is big lumps of calcium carbonate on which things grow and around which they graze and hunt. Studies of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef show that levels of calcification are down, though it is not yet possible to say changes in chemistry are a reason for this. Current research comparing chemical data taken in the 1960s and 1970s with the situation today may clarify things.

But singling out the role of acidification will be hard. Ocean ecosystems are beset by changes in nutrient levels due to run off near the coasts and by overfishing, which plays havoc with food webs nearly everywhere. And the effects of global warming need to be included, too. Surface waters are expected to form more stable layers as the oceans warm, which will affect the availability of nutrients and, it is increasingly feared, of oxygen. Some, including Dr Riebesell, suspect that these physical and chemical effects of warming may prove a greater driver of productivity change in the ocean than altered pH. Wherever you look, there is always another other problem.

No reason for complacency, I say.