Tuesday, December 28, 2010

1980’s justified

Long term readers may recall that, apart from They Might be Giants, my other main pop music interest has been David Byrne and Talking Heads.

Tonight, I was looking at a Youtube of Once in a Lifetime, as I was going to show it my son.  But he was too busy hunting dinosaurs on the iPad, so he didn’t pay much attention.  I’ll get him to watch it yet.

But the thing of interest is that this upload of the clip (done in Jan 2010) is still attracting recent comments.  (I presume it must the version that everyone watches when they search for it.)

And generally speaking, nearly everyone commenting seems young, but very appreciative.   I like this one:

my parents will do the arm thing and say "same as it ever was" all the time!! LOLOL

And this comment:

Such a cool video even till today


 Best. Video. Ever

That’s nice.  I feel the 1980's doesn't have much to be ashamed of after all.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Dr Who Christmas

I'm not the world's biggest Dr Who fan, but still, I like to comment on it sometimes.

This year's Christmas special was, I thought, a very pleasing combination of mad, clever, funny and touching. It was also, I thought, much better directed than some of the previous season; it hung together pretty well.

Let's hope the forthcoming season works a tad better than the last, which had it moments, but not quite enough of them.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Must catch up with TMBG

My favourite band, They Might be Giants, spend a lot of time doing kids albums lately, which I don’t usually buy, even though they write some pretty catchy stuff that usually gets them a Grammy nomination.

But I think I will get the current one: Here Comes Science. Most of the songs seem to be up on Youtube, and I like many, including this one:

And I’ve also found a video for another song of there’s from a couple of years ago. Since we all like drinking and smoking puppets, it’s worth a look:

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Watch it while you can

It was a couple of years ago that I mentioned I had seen (and then bought) the DVD for the 1999 "movie" of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. As that happened around Christmas, it's become a minor family tradition to watch it at the this time of year; hey, it might not be Christian, but the story is not inappropriate for the season.

We all still really like it: as I've said before, I think it does a filmed musical stage production in about as perfect a way as I can imagine.

As for the musical highlight, I've always really liked this song (A Pharoah
Story) at the start of the second act, sung here by the lovely Maria Friedman. While this part is not staged in any way to give you an impression of what the rest of the DVD production looks like, it sounded pretty good through my computer speakers, so have a look.

I see that an earlier Youtube I had up has been pulled for breach of copyright. I expect the same fate this one too, especially as the guy seems to have put the whole movie on Youtube. That really must push the patience of Mr Lloyd Webber. So enjoy while you can:

Christmas Greetings 2010

dodo christmas2

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Three videos

1. Sega can be played in all sorts of places now (read the comments following this post too: quite witty.)

2. The funniest ads I saw all year, from Gruen Transfer.

3. I never cared for Rudolph anyway (you can skip through the first minute or so)

Not exactly Christmassy

I’ve been looking around The Guardian’s Comment is Free Belief section, and it’s pretty good.  (Generally speaking, I preferred The Guardian’s website when they gave more prominence to CIF articles on their main page.  Now you have to make the extra click, and I miss a lot of stuff there.)

This article about modernising Hinduism is pretty interesting.  Apparently, the Hindu America Foundation has a report that tackles the caste system head on.  I was interested to read this part:

Noting that there are defenders of the caste system, not just the curmudgeon and cruel among Hindus, but the likes of Voltaire and Diderot who fought against the monotheistic intolerance of Christians and Muslims, to sociologists like Louis Dumont who argued that the "distribution of functions leads to exchanges", to the great Indophile, Alain Daniélou who argued that caste does not equate to "racist inequality but… a natural ordering of diversity," the HAF report argues that a birth-based hierarchy is unacceptable, that inequities against and the abuse of the Dalits/SCs is a human rights issue, and that the solution to this social ill is available within Hindu sacred texts themselves, and that Hindus should be at the forefront of putting an end to the system of birth-based hierarchy as well as taking the lead in energising the Dalit community to fight discrimination.

It's always good to see how outsider intellectuals justified crap systems.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Another ocean issue

Oh, that's good. [Sarcasm] Another way in which ocean pH may be a problem:
Scientists already know that a drop in ocean pH affects the carbon cycle, reducing the carbonate ions that organisms like corals, mollusks and crustaceans use to build shells and external skeletons. Now, a new study shows that a CO2-induced increase in acidity also appears to disrupt the marine nitrogen cycle. The finding, to be published December 21 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, could have ramifications for the entire ocean food web.
But what practical effect this may have is completely unclear:
Nitrification decreased, compared to controls, in all experimental cases, with the effect ranging from an 8 percent reduction to a 38 percent reduction. "What we saw is almost uniform across the ocean, or at least in all the experiments we conducted, which seems to suggest this is fairly consistent effect," says Beman. Importantly, in some cases the change was quite large. "So it could have a pretty substantial effect on how nitrogen is cycled in the ocean," he says.

One potentially positive effect could be a reduction of nitrous oxide—marine nitrification is a relatively big source of this greenhouse gas. "But the larger, much more difficult things to predict are the connections to other organisms and processes," says Beman. Less nitrification would make fewer nitrates available to the plants and other organisms that use them to make vital proteins, making it more difficult for them to thrive. This in turn means less food would be available to the animals that eat those nitrate-using organisms, and so on up the food web.

Oyster and coral alert

Time for some ocean acidification news.

Oysters grown on the West coast of American have been having a hard time.  As this story noted in 2009:

In 2005, when most of the millions of Pacific oysters in this tree-lined estuary failed to reproduce, Washington’s shellfish growers largely shrugged it off.

In a region that provides one-sixth of the nation’s oysters – the epicenter of the West Coast’s $111 million oyster industry – everyone knows nature can be fickle.

But then the failure was repeated in 2006, 2007 and 2008. It spread to an Oregon hatchery that supplies baby oysters to shellfish nurseries from Puget Sound to Los Angeles. Eighty percent of that hatchery’s oyster larvae died, too.

Now, as the oyster industry heads into the fifth summer of its most unnerving crisis in decades, scientists are pondering a disturbing theory. They suspect water that rises from deep in the Pacific Ocean – icy seawater that surges into Willapa Bay and gets pumped into seaside hatcheries – may be corrosive enough to kill baby oysters.

Well, now it seems the suspicions of high CO2 having something to do with this may have been confirmed.  Someone had the good idea to actually takes measurements of the water used:

Increased pCO2 and decreased pH have been shown to negatively impact larval development in C. gigas (Kurihara, 2007). Periods of elevated pCO2 in May and June 2010 correlated with commercial losses at WCH.

In another study, decreased pH was shown to decrease shell strength of pearl oysters (although it doesn’t appear that they looked at the pearls themselves.)

And for corals, another recent study indicated that a combination of even modest water temperature increase and lower pH has a big effect on coral growth and survival:

Holger babysat 40 of the baby corals for 42 days under four different conditions: In the first tank, the researchers simulated 1C of ocean warming; in the next, they simulated ocean acidification by bubbling carbon dioxide through the tank to lower the pH by 0.25; the third combined this warming and acidification; and a fourth tank maintained current ocean conditions as a control.

“The different conditions had absolutely no effect on the ability of the larva to settle – to stick to the rock surface – which may be good news for people who are trying to grow coral gardens,” Aaron says.

But post-settlement, some of the young coral polyps were showing the effects ‘global warming’.

“The biggest surprise was that neither temperature alone, nor acidification alone had a big effect on the growth or survival rate [95%] of the coral, even though the warming prompted zooxanthallae expulsion as expected,” Aaron says. “Once we combined this moderate warming and acidification, though, we saw significant impacts: growth rate of the polyps – for both the skeletal and soft pulpy mass – plummeted to almost half of the rate seen under the other three conditions, and they were twice as likely to die [90% survival rate].”

The link to the actual study abstact is here.

And finally, if these Europeans have it right, the decrease in aragonite saturation (important for some corals and shellfish) is going to be on a rapid downward spiral this century right around the world:


If you want to read the tiny words, and look in more detail at the original, go here.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Sweet bug

It seems this has been on Youtube for a while, but it just made an appearance on Cute Overload.

I reckon it looks remarkably like how you would expect a kitten to act. (In reality, as some people at Youtube have noted, it was probably thinking they were aphids it was trying to kill. But then, kitten play is just build up to backyard wildlife murder, so what the hey...)

Seems a nice man

I recently mentioned Geoffrey Rush as an Australian actor who actually doesn’t bother me.  (He has managed to get through the insidious effects Australian films have on me.)  I see today that he has an interview in LA Times which is pretty interesting.  I liked this part about his first (short) trip to LA:

Tell me about the first time you ever set foot in L.A.
It was in 1996. James L. Brooks had seen a copy of Shine before it was released, and he asked to meet with me. So I flew over and spent six hours with him. He had a little camera, and I read and did improv, and then I just got back on the plane and came home. It was weird—there was a limo waiting to take me to my $500-a-week theater job.

What was your impression of the city from those six hours?
Well, I’m suddenly driving down Pico Boulevard. You see the palm trees, and you think, Oh my God, it’s just like Brisbane but bigger! It didn’t seem unfamiliar, because it’s known to us through so many movies. It just had a complete air of unreality, and I thought, This is kind of an adventure. [Brooks] gave me some Simpsons booty to bring back. I got [an animation] cel and some shirts and stuff. It was a fun, amazing weekend.

Must be a fantastic Happy Meal toy this week

Mum gives birth at Geelong McDonald's restaurant

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Climate notes from all over

Yes, it's cold in England and much of Europe, and climate change skeptics are poking fun at those who in the last decade predicted the virtual end of winter snow for those countries currently under a lot of it.

Yet, Real Climate has a post about the ways that it may indeed be all related to AGW, and in particular to do with sea ice over Canada way. But it's all very complicated and no one knows for sure.

Now, 2010 is bound to be high on global average temperatures, but it does seem a year most notable for sudden extremes in all aspects of weather - the Russian heatwave, the Pakistan floods, the one in a 1000 year flood of Tennessee. And now England and Europe being unusually cold.

Given the slow but (on the longer scale) steady progress of global temperatures (Tamino has an excellent post showing how all the temperature data sets collected and calculated in different ways are still all following the same path,) it will be interesting to see whether the public over the next year or two becomes convinced of global warming not so much due to high local temperatures, but more because of erratic weather swings.

Meanwhile, Judith Curry's blog continues to be a big puzzle. As someone commented somewhere, it's like she decided to rebuild climate science from the ground up. On the positive side, she doesn't dispute the very, very basics of CO2 as a greenhouse gas, but when she gets into anything else, it's actually very hard to tell where she is going. (In fact, some posts, talking about science generally, give the impression she is seeking to rebuild science itself from the ground up.) She seems to find many things "interesting" and worthy of her looking into further, but at this rate is seems she will come to some conclusion by about 2020.

None of her mainstream climate critics have said much about her lately, a bit to my surprise, but Judith went to the AGU meeting last week in San Francisco, and her post showing her slides ends with these two:

Slide 14

In conclusion: The drive to reduce scientific uncertainty in support of precautionary and optimal decision making strategies regarding CO2 mitigation has arguably resulted in:

  • unwarranted high confidence in assessments of climate change attribution, sensitivity and projections
  • relative neglect of defining and understanding the plausible and possible worst case scenarios
  • relative neglect of decadal and longer scale modes of natural climate variability
  • and conflicting “certainties” that result in policy inaction

Slide 15

A way forward is the decision analytic framework of robust decision making under deep uncertainty, which emphasizes scenario discovery and uncertainty analysis and identifying a broad range of robust decision strategies.

Implications of such a strategy for climate research are an increased emphasis on:

  • exploring and understanding the full range of uncertainty
  • scenario discovery using a broader range of approaches
  • natural climate variability, abrupt climate change, and regional climate variability
Clear? No, it wasn't to me either.

But - I am happy to see that James Annan, who was strongly critical of Curry's "Italian flag" post several weeks ago (I don't think she has finished talking about them yet) saw her AGU talk, and has this to say about it:
He also emphasised the importance of only speaking in areas where you had earnt credibility based on your published record, which formed an interesting backdrop to Judith Curry's talk later that day. She devoted her time to accusing the IPCC of ignoring the tails of the pdfs of climate sensitivity that were clearly presented in the very figure that she repeatedly referred to and explicitly emphasised in the summary ("values substantially higher than 4.5C cannot be excluded"), then read out a few cartoons and finally, literally out of nowhere, concluded that therefore they had underestimated the magnitude of decadal variability and that their detection and attribution results were unsound! Really, I'm not making this up, it was actually how it happened. These latter topics were first introduced on her concluding slide and there was no hint of supporting argument. She also talked about the "modal falsification" of Betz 2009, (which I haven't read but just googled now, is there a free version somewhere?) so I asked if and how this "falsification" (and she used the scare quotes herself) was distinct from assigning a low posterior probability in a Bayesian sense. She replied that it could be considered the same, at which point some of the audience were shaking their heads and others were nodding in agreement. From which I conclude that nobody, including Judith, knows what Judith means. Unfortunately, she didn't seem to be anywhere to be found at the end of the session and I didn't see her at any of the other relevant sessions where people actually dealing with these sorts of issues were actually presenting concrete results.
So, I am not alone in not being able to make head nor tail of Curry, and my lack of science qualifications are not the reason why. Romm's description of her as a "confusionist" seems as apt as ever.

Friday, December 17, 2010


Well, it's good to see my complete puzzlement as to why Disney would chose to make a sequel to Tron is shared by many critics. As Dana Stevens writes:
The idea to make a sequel to the 1982 movie Tron—which was a hit neither with most critics nor with the public and which has amassed, at best, a campy cult following among a niche of gamers and sci-fi fans—is an arrogant overestimation of the original's value. The grandiose hype for Tron: Legacy (Disney Pictures) reminds me of those Manhattan "vintage" stores that try to trick you into paying $120 for a stained raincoat because, hey, it's old! Well, no, I don't want an expensive old raincoat that was unremarkable the first time around, nor do I want an expensive ($170 million) remodel of a 28-year-old matinee flick that was forgotten for a reason.
I agree totally, although I would add that I didn't realise there was a market for old raincoats in Manhattan.

Mind you, Disney has history with making sequels to bad movies. Recently, my wife borrowed for the kids the 1975 movie Escape to Witch Mountain. I had the vague idea that it had been a moderate success for Disney, as they had made a sequel (Return from Witch Mountain), which I had never seen either.

Well, I can tell you, Escape is an extraordinarily bad kid's film, even by the standards of the normal poor regard Disney had developed for its live action product in the 1970's (before the studio underwent its animation led recovery in the 1980's.) It has simply excruciating acting, and special effects that make those in (TV) Lost in Space look sophisticated. Yet, the DVD still has the "extras" on it, with interviews with the director, the child actors, etc. It's not even so bad that its good: it's just bad with no redeeming features.

But: do not get confused with Race to Witch Mountain, the recent Dwayne Johnson Disney vehicle, which really is quite good.

Ahead of the media

Jack Shafer in Slate notes that there has been recent US media attention to the illicit use of nutmeg to get high. He goes into the history of the use of the spice for this reason.

I would just like to point out that, for anyone who hadn't heard of this before, if you were reading my blog in 2006, you would have known this unusual fact already.

Stay ahead of the media, and learn oddball facts. Read this blog.

Saving time

This will only be understood by a limited number of people. The rest of you shouldn’t look.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

No holes, yet

Nature reports about the LHC:

Predictions of mini black holes forming at collision energies of a few teraelectronvolts (TeV) were based on theories that consider the gravitational effects of extra dimensions of space. Although the holes were expected to evaporate quickly, some suggested that they might linger long enough to consume the planet. But scientists at the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector now say they found no signs of mini black holes at energies of 3.5–4.5 TeV. Physicist Guido Tonelli, the detector's spokesperson, says that by the end of the next run, the LHC should be able to exclude the creation of black holes almost entirely.

That's good; but let's hope that it doesn't unexpectedly create a naked singularity or two: I don't think anyone has any sound idea what that could lead to.

Tolkien in Narnia

So, Voyage of the Dawn Treader has attracted very mixed reviews, and, I thought, was certainly the end of the series after the first weekend box office in the States was only about $24 million: half that of the first two movies in the series. 

Yet, overseas box office has been surprisingly strong, bringing the total take to over $100 million already.  The studio says it’s happy; so who knows, maybe  there will be another.  I can’t remember a single thing about The Silver Chair, though, so I have no idea how readily it might be adapted.

Anyhow, that’s not the main point of the post.  Narnia movies always stir up debate about whether the religious themes are too obvious or heavy handed.   (It’s a handy criteria for judging reviews of the films:  if they complain about them being so Christian, they can safely be ignored.  It’s like complaining to the waiter that there’s tomato in your bolognaise sauce.) 

This time around, I have enjoyed some of the comments in a Guardian story on this aspect of the movie.   Having the readership that it does, there are many who complain about the Christian element and virtually consider it a corruption of children to have such ideas appear in their fiction.  But I liked this response:

Still think its a bit amusing (and strange) how people complain about Christian themes being 'corrupting' when woven into the subtext of one narrative or another - yet Lady Gaga gyrating and wagging her bacon clothed crotch about while singing 'lets have some fun this beat is sick, I wanna take a ride on your disco stick' (And yes seven year old kids do mimic the dance moves and sing the lyrics completely innocent of any ulterior connotations) doesn't conjur nearly the same level of pompous ire. I ain't got a problem with Lady Gaga necessarily (though as you will have guessed I'm not much of a fan of her music), just think the contrast in response is amusing.

And, of course, you can't have a discussion of Narnia without comparisons with Tolkien breaking out. Readers may recall that I belong to the (seemingly) very small club known as People Who Think Tolkien is Vastly Over-rated in Every Respect. The movies bored me;  before they came I had tried to read the first book of LOTR twice; and when that didn’t work tried the Hobbit. Bored and gave up for lack of interest every time. I haven't spent a lot of time trying to analyse why: I just think he's stylistically a dull writer, and I just don't understand what it is, thematically, that people respond to.

But now,  in this Narnia thread, someone made a comment that rang very true to me:

I like many posters on her, I grew up in an atheist family. I discovered the books through friends at school, and thoroughly enjoyed them, more than the Tolkein books as the main characters weren't exclusively male, and the adventures didn't drag on and on ad-nauseum, with battle followed by journey, followed by battle etc. Also, good and evil were things that could happen because of the choices a person made; not like the Tolkein books, where good and evil, are just depersonalised 'forces' which people either succumb to or not, which I think is a far more primitive, 'superntaural' take on morality, which avoids the truth, that people chose to act in a particular way, but can also change and chose not to.

I have to admit that, not having got more than about 100 pages into LOTR, I am not one to really judge, but that explanation of the treatment of good and evil in Tolkien sounds right to me, and may be why I don’t respond to him.

And now let’s end with a couple of Guardian readers who complain about the Anti-Lewis (Philip Pullman’s), books (which I haven’t read, but like to kick anyway):

Narnia might be a bit shit but The Golden Compass is the most preachy nonsense for years. My nieces/nephews all loved Harry Potter and Narnia, but really did think they were getting a lecture from PP

I couldn't agree more. I read his trilogy, which started off well enough, but not too far into book two I felt that at times I might as well just have had Pullman shouting "Religion is bad!" in my face. His message was as subtle as a kick in the balls and really put me off (even as an atheist).

Wednesday’s List

* Regarding Hugh:   So, Hugh Jackman nearly took out an eye in front of Oprah’s audience.   Which leads me to wonder:  why don’t I like Hugh Jackman as a screen presence?   He doesn’t seem to be the jerk in real life that I always half suspected Mel Gibson was.  Is it just that he has appeared in Australian films, to which I am famously allergic?  I don’t think so; Geoffrey Rush and Noah Taylor turning up in a foreign movie doesn’t bother me.   Is it because he has become the international poster boy for iced tea?   Maybe:  the only wussier product a some time action man could have chosen to endorse is Max Factor.   No, I’m not entirely sure, but there is something about him I don’t care for. 

Ross looks on the bright side:   Ross Gittins goes against the popular wisdom and tells Australia that selling minerals instead of making things is not that big a problem for our economy.  Must be an outbreak of Christmas optimism.

Image I’d rather not see:   for some reason, German doctors thought it would be a neat idea to watch a live human birth via MRI.  The resulting x-ray-ish image makes the world’s creepiest new born baby photo. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

An unusual explanation for the Holocaust

I have a vague recollection of reading before that Hitler might have had syphilis, but I’m not sure if I had heard of the theory that it was catching it this way which may have led to his anti-Jewish obsession: 

An encounter with a Jewish prostitute in Vienna in 1908 may have given Hitler neuro-syphilis and provided the 'deadly logic and blueprint for the Holocaust' as well as giving him a reason to attempt to eliminate the mentally retarded, according to evidence presented at the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

That theory supported by 'ample circumstantial evidence though no final proof', according to a team led by Dr Bassem Habeeb…

There has been speculation that Hitler had the infection since his personal doctor, Theo Morrell expressed his own suspicion in his private diary. But the theory has never been rigorously examined, say the researchers.

'But if Hitler's life is looked at through the lens of a
syphilis diagnosis, one clue leads to another until a pattern of infection and progressive infection emerges, a disease that may have defined him from youth as an outsider and that progressively ravaged his body and mind.

Hitler put syphilis high on his political agenda, devoting 13 pages to the disease in Mein Kampf. The job of 'combating syphilis… the Jewish disease… should be the task of the entire German nation,' he wrote. 'The health of the nation will be regained only by eliminating the Jews'.

The theory might hold up better if it were not believed by the very nutty Dr Morell.  In fact, I see from his Wikepedia entry that at least two of his treatments in 1944 may have directly sent Adolf over the edge:

During his interrogation after the war, Morell claimed another doctor had prescribed cocaine to Hitler and at least one other doctor is known to have administered it through eyedrops after he requested it in the hours following an almost successful assassination attempt on July 20, 1944. Cocaine was routinely used for medical purposes in Germany during that time but Morell is said to have increased the dosage tenfold - despite this the concentration was still weak as the eyedrops were only 1% cocaine. Overuse of cocaine eyedrops has been associated with psychotic behavior, hypertension and other symptoms; given the weak dosage, it's more likely they were caused by Methamphetamine of which these are also common symptoms. However historians have generally tended to discount any effects of Morell's treatments on Hitler's decision-making.

Anyhow, I can see a new poster slogan for safe sex: "Avoid World War! Use a condom."

Tuesday’s collection

Geosequestration – Just Give Up

A geophysicist talks about how pumping large amounts of CO2 into the ground is often likely to cause sesmic activity, and although it may not be much on the surface, it may be enough to break the resevoir itself. But the most obvious problem is the sheer scale you would need to make a difference:

The other complication, Zoback said, is that for sequestration to make a significant contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions, the volume of gas injected into reservoirs annually would have to be almost the same as the amount of fluid now being produced by the oil and gas industry each year. This would likely require thousands of injection sites around the world.

"Think about how many wells and pipelines and how much infrastructure has been developed to exploit oil and gas resources over the last hundred years," he said. "You need something of comparable scale and volume for carbon dioxide sequestration."...

There are two sequestration projects already underway around the world, in Norway and Algeria, and so far they appear to be working as planned. But Zoback said 3400 such projects would be needed worldwide by midcentury to deal with the volume of carbon dioxide that we will be generating. "Finding that many ideal sites around the globe is not impossible, but it is going to be a tremendous challenge," he said.

*   Ron Paul – rants ahead

Slate notes that Ron Paul getting a position on a House financial committee is not universally welcomed by libertarians:

"Republicans stashed him in this job because they don't want him making more important decisions," said Megan McArdle, a prominent libertarian blogger and economics editor of the Atlantic. "He cares passionately about monetary policy, which most Republicans don't care about. But when you look at his speeches, he doesn't understand anything about monetary policy. He might actually understand it less than the average member of Congress. My personal opinion is that he wastes all of his time on the House Financial Services Committee ranting crazily."…

The anti-Paul case consists of one simple argument—he sounds crazy—and one complex argument, which is that he's distracted libertarians and Tea Partiers by focusing their ire on the easily demonized Fed.


* Colbert and the big kids

This was a pretty interesting, light hearted interview with Eisenhower’s grandson and Nixon’s daughter, who are married.  They’ve got a book out about Eisenhower coped with retirement:

The Colbert Report Mon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
David Eisenhower & Julie Nixon Eisenhower
Colbert Report Full Episodes Political Humor & Satire Blog March to Keep Fear Alive

Monday, December 13, 2010

Monday madness, and other stories

*   There is something seriously wrong with Liz Hurley.  A psychiatric consultation is strongly recommended, and if she doesn’t go voluntarily, a kidnapping intervention by her friends would not result in any conviction in any court of law.

Neil Armstrong writes an email talking about his trip to the moon.  He wants NASA to go back there.  The only thing standing in our way are politicians.

* There was a charming story in Slate recently about a 100 year old guide called “How to Write Fiction”.   Slate says “…much of Cody's advice remains startlingly recognizable: It's Writer's Digest with a handlebar mustache.” 

The article notes that there was a lot of advice around at the time directed to women in particular.  I liked this section:

The London women's magazine Atalanta launched a regular "School of Fiction" column, and its advice from 1893 on pitching remains as useful and unheeded as ever: Keep your pitch short, nail down a tangible story first, and for god's sake read the magazine before you submit to it. Ladies were then invited to try such spry writing exercises as an imagined 500-word dialogue "on the Equality of the Sexes, between Miss Minerva Lexicon, M.A., an apostle of Progress, and Miss Lavinia Straightlace, of the Old-Fashioned School."

* From the Christian Science Monitor, a story of, um, dedication to art (or at least controversy:

Swedish cartoon artist Lars Vilks, who became the target of an alleged international murder plot for his 2007 cartoons of Mohammed as a dog, again angered Muslims Tuesday by showing an Iranian film that depicts the Prophet entering a gay bar.

When Mr. Vilks showed a scene from the film at Uppsala University in Sweden, a protester charged the dais and hit him, breaking his glasses. Police were forced to detain or pepper-spray some unruly members of the crowd as other protesters yelled "Allahu Akbar" – "God is great."

For Mr. Vilks, who has booby-trapped his own house and says he sleeps with an ax beside his bed, the right to unfettered speech – regardless of whether it offends Muslims – is a point of principle.

I am kind of curious as to what Mohammed does in the gay bar in an Iranian film. 

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Science, gold and ducks

It’s kind of surprising that there is still a far amount of uncertainty about the formation of planet Earth.  I didn’t realise this, for example:

The planets formed when tiny rocks collided, forming ever larger lumps. Then, after Earth was born a second planet about the size of Mars crashed into it. This cataclysmic shock blasted a huge cloud of material into orbit, where it coalesced to form the moon.

This neatly explains the moon, but poses a problem. The collision re-melted the solidifying Earth, allowing heavy materials like iron to sink into the core. But some elements, called siderophiles, dissolve in molten iron, including gold, platinum and palladium.

"We shouldn't have any siderophiles in the crust or mantle," says William Bottke of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. "But actually we see them in surprising abundance."

The obvious solution is that they arrived after Earth cooled. If so then the moon should have siderophiles too, and it doesn't. Rock samples show that it has 1200 times fewer than Earth.

The article notes that the idea is that the earth was hit by a few, really big, gold bearing planetoid things, but they missed the moon on the way in.

This is a pity.  Having an gold bearing region on the Moon might make have made space exploration take a different path.

And, come to think of it, this reminds me of the classic Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comic “The 24 Carat Moon” which I read as a child.  No doubt this was why I wanted to post about this, before I even remembered the comic.  

Friday, December 10, 2010

An important paper

Real Climate has an important post up about a paper by Dessler out this week on clouds and climate sensitivity.   The actual paper can be read here.

Basically, it analyses satellite data and suggests that increased clouds will not protect the earth from increasing temperatures, as Spencer and Lindzen have argued.  Roy Spencer also had a paper analysing satellite data out recently; until now, response to it had been strangely quiet.

Dessler does acknowledge that it will be a long time before precise long term cloud feedback is pinned down with certainty.   But the post in Real Climate is  well worth reading because it seems to put Spencer’s opinion in its eccentric context:

After reading this, I initiated a cordial and useful exchange of e-mails with Dr. Spencer (you can read the full e-mail exchange here). We ultimately agreed that the fundamental disagreement between us is over what causes ENSO. Short paraphrase:

Spencer: ENSO is caused by clouds. You cannot infer the response of clouds to surface temperature in such a situation.

Dessler: ENSO is not caused by clouds, but is driven by internal dynamics of the ocean-atmosphere system. Clouds may amplify the warming, and that’s the cloud feedback I’m trying to measure.

My position is the mainstream one, backed up by decades of research. This mainstream theory is quite successful at simulating almost all of the aspects of ENSO.

Dr. Spencer, on the other hand, is as far out of the mainstream when it comes to ENSO as he is when it comes to climate change. He is advancing here a completely new and untested theory of ENSO — based on just one figure in one of his papers (and, as I told him in one of our e-mails, there are other interpretations of those data that do not agree with his interpretation).

Thus, the burden of proof is Dr. Spencer to show that his theory of causality during ENSO is correct. He is, at present, far from meeting that burden. And until Dr. Spencer satisfies this burden, I don’t think anyone can take his criticisms seriously.

It’s also worth noting that the picture I’m painting of our disagreement (and backed up by the e-mail exchange linked above) is quite different from the picture provided by Dr. Spencer on his blog. His blog is full of conspiracies and purposeful suppression of the truth. In particular, he accuses me of ignoring his work. But as you can see, I have not ignored it — I have dismissed it because I think it has no merit. That’s quite different.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Something comes from nothing (take that, Rogers and Hammerstein)

An article at PhysOrg describes a way of making a heap of particles out of nothing. Takes a fair bit of energy though, so I don’t think we’ll be building a second earth this way anytime soon.

In other “where did this all come from?” news, I meant to note last week that Roger Penrose and a collaborator had published a paper showing nice circles in the universe’s cosmic background radiation, with the following implication :

The discovery doesn't suggest that there wasn't a Big Bang - rather, it supports the idea that there could have been many of them. The scientists explain that the CMB circles support the possibility that we live in a cyclic universe, in which the end of one “aeon” or universe triggers another Big Bang that starts another aeon, and the process repeats indefinitely.

However, according to physicist (and irritating anti-religion polemicist in the culture wars) Sean Carroll, there are two papers out already saying that the circles mean no such thing. Most interestingly, he writes how he’s got his hands on Penrose’s (recent, I think) book, and just can’t see how Penrose’s idea of a cyclic universe is supposed to happen. (Unlike the old view that the universe would contract to a Big Crunch, and maybe bounce back from that, it would seem everyone is now accepting that the universe dies in an ever expanding wimper.):

The basic point is this. The very early universe is smooth. The universe right now is lumpy, with stars and galaxies and black holes all over the place. But the future universe will be smooth again — black holes will evaporate and the cosmological constant will disperse all the matter, leaving us nothing but empty space. (Just wait about 10100 years.) So, Penrose says, we can map the late universe onto a future phase that looks just like our early universe, simply by a conformal transformation (a change of scale). Do this an infinite number of times, and you have a cyclic cosmology — the universe goes through a series of “aeons” that start with a smooth Big Bang, get lumpy as structure forms, smooth out again, and then gets matched onto another smooth Big-Bang-like phase, etc.

If you’re sketchy on that last bit, join the club. Sure, mathematically we can map the smooth late universe onto the smooth early universe. But what physical process would actually cause that to happen? Despite having the book in my hands, I’m still unclear on this. (I absolutely confess that the answer might be in there, but I simply haven’t read it carefully enough.) While the early and late universes are both smooth, they are very different in other obvious ways, such as the energy density. What causes the low-density late universe to come alive into something like the high-density early universe? Something like that happens in the Steinhardt-Turok cyclic universe, but in order to make it happen you need to specify some particular matter fields with very specific dynamics. This isn’t a trivial task; there are things you can try, but they generally are plagued by instabilities and singularities. I don’t see where Penrose has done that, so I’m not even sure what there is to be criticized.

Penrose is getting old, but he remains a well respected figure. But it would be good to know how he thinks his cycles may happen.

Very true

Hmmm.  Seeing that a couple of weeks ago, when we had people over for lunch, I brought down the iPad and demonstrated its abilities, Danny Katz’s column today rings very true.  

And later, when using it with the kids, I found somehow the site Cute Overload, a handy way to get all of the cute, usually baby, animal photos and videos you could ever need.  This creature is not a Japanese toy, it is real, as you will see from the videos on its Facebook page.   And I did not know that dogs would do this in snow (the best parts are in the second half): 

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Brooker on privacy

This anecdote from Charlie Brooker in The Guardian, in a column about how privacy has disappeared with modern technology, was pretty amusing:

Not so long ago, a tourist couple stopped me in the street and asked me to take a snap of them grinning in front of something vaguely picturesque (this being London, probably an especially colourful pavement puke-puddle or a tramp with a funny neck tumour). But unfamiliar as I was with the workings of their phone, instead of taking their picture, I inadvertently brought up the gallery of previous photographs, and was treated to a view of one of them in the shower, followed by a series of close-up views of various biological and overwhelmingly intimate occurrences involving the pair of them.

As I fumbled with menus, trying not to betray my embarrassment, I glimpsed at the man and something in his eyes told me that he knew, somehow, what had happened, but couldn't snatch the phone off me for fear of embarrassing his girlfriend, who remained oblivious. Eventually I took the photo. His smile was fixed and unconvincing. I handed the device back. She thanked me. He stared at the ground. We went our separate ways in silence. Somehow, it was as if we'd all taken part in a terrible threesome....

... By the year 2022, there'll be a naked photo of everyone on the planet lurking somewhere in the interverse. You might as well take a really good one this afternoon, while you're young and pliable, and upload it yourself before some future peeping-tom equivalent of WikiLeaks does it for you.

It got 5 stars from Benedict

From a column in the Catholic Herald, noting that in the long interview most noted for its condom comments, Pope Benedict also mentioned that he felt priests should live in communities.  The column then notes:

There is no need to cite the obvious dangers arising from isolation; this and its consequent loneliness are quite bad enough in themselves. Even Pope Benedict – who might be described as a kind of ‘prisoner in the Vatican’ – fondly describes his own little “community” within its walls: he, his two secretaries and the four nuns who look after them, share meals, watch DVDs together and join in the celebration of Mass and each other’s birthdays. I am sure this small community helps to make the burdens of his office more endurable and less lonely.

Funny, but I never imagined the Pope's domestic life as being a bit like a (celibate) university student share house. I hope they share a beer while watching the latest overnight hire DVD from Vaticanbuster.

Because it will annoy Philip Pullman

There's a so-so review of Voyage of the Dawn Treader that has this comparison between three current fantasy series, which amused me quite a bit:
To describe the overall series comparatively, Narnia is the dorky Bible-basher at the back of the class whilst Harry Potter is the popular, apolitical kid who gets all the attention. His Dark Materials is, of course, the atheist drop-out brooding over a gun collection.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

More miscellany

Spies:    the US secret orbiting shuttle-lite returns to earth.   I expect a villain holding a cat was inside.

Fooling the Nazisthe BBC has an article about that famous deception involving floating a dead tramp in Spanish waters with fake invasion plans.   I see he had been kept on ice for three months before embarking on his mission.

Holiday destination I could happily avoidAnother BBC story on a salt lake in Djibouti, which has summer temperatures of 55 degrees (and 34 degrees in winter.)    Yet some people like it that way:

Like Ali, Mohamed says he is pinning his hopes for the future of Lake Assal, on tourists coming to look at it.

The first plush hotel has sprung up in Djibouti. It has two swimming pools and hot and cold running water.

But the water still smells of desalination chemicals and tastes of salt.

Its guests are mostly foreign military on rest and recuperation, visiting diplomats, and NGO staff.

I ask Ali why he and the other families do not leave and look for work in Djibouti town.

He says: "We were born here. We love Lake Assal. We like the heat, we just want more water."

Bacteria in the news

The Science Show has an good story on the strangeness of the arsenic utilising bacteria that NASA announced last week.  Interestingly, the woman who found them had predicted they should exist.  Very clever.  Physicist author Paul Davies was involved too.   He summarised the discovery as follows:

This is the first time that any living organism has been found that can operate outside of the six basic elements on which all hitherto known life depends, which is carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, sulphur and lastly phosphorus. It's replacing phosphorus with arsenic. And it's doing this not just in a casual way, not just by stripping the energy out. We have known organisms that will do this. The way I best describe it is that they smoke the arsenic without inhaling it. These are organisms that take the arsenic into their innards, into their vital biological machinery, incorporating it into their biomass. So what we're dealing with here is a radically new type of organism. It's not just an outlier on the known spectrum of life.

And in other new bug news, it turns out that it is bacteria that are eating away the poor old Titanic:

Microorganisms collected from a "rusticle" – a structure that looks like an icicle but consists of rust – are slowly destroying the iron hull of the liner on the seabed 3.8km (2.36 miles) below the Atlantic waves where it plummeted, killing 1,517 people, in April 1912.

The newly identified species, while potentially dangerous to vital underwater installations such as offshore oil and gas pipelines, could also offer a new way to recycle iron from old ships and marine structures, according to the researchers from Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada, and Seville University in Spain. The discovery of the bacterium, now named Halomonas titanicae, will be reported in the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiologyon Wednesday. When the researchers tested its rusting ability in the lab, they found that it was able to adhere to steel surfaces, creating knob-like mounds of corrosion products.

I wonder if some new bug that would be helpful for terraforming Mars will be found soon. 

Monday, December 06, 2010

Catch up time

Three other things of interest to your humble blogger over the last week:

* Religion: Ross Douthat’s essay on contraception and the Catholic Church (inspired, of course, by a certain Papal comment on condoms) has been around a couple of weeks now, but it is the best commentary on it I have read. He is a very good writer, and I should remember to read him more regularly.

* Science: a too detailed by far article from arXiv on working out whether the entire universe, including space-time “is emergent from the quantum-information processing”. I see that Wikipedia has a fairly long article on the “ it from bit” idea, but I haven’t read it yet.

* Sex: Prostitution is, apparently, incredibly popular in Spain:

Prostitution is so popular (and socially accepted) in Spain that a United Nations study reports that 39 per cent of all Spanish men have used a prostitute's services at least once. A Spanish Health Ministry survey in 2009 put the percentage of one-time prostitute users at 32 per cent: lower than the UN figure, perhaps, but far higher than the 14 per cent in liberal-minded Holland, or in Britain, where the figure is reported to oscillate between 5 and 10 per cent. And that was just those men willing to admit it.

The article suggests that this has something to do with Franco, which I think is a bit of a stretch. Given its embrace of gay marriage, as well as commercial straight sex, I’m sure this country must be a big disappointment to the Pope.

Dawn Treader noted

The family had a pleasant day out seeing Voyage of the Dawn Treader yesterday.

To my surprise, my son said afterwards that it was the best of the trilogy, but he’s got a bit of a thing going about ships at the moment. I found it a very mixed bag. My main problem is that, whereas I felt the first two movies were very well directed by former animation director Adam Adamson, there is nothing noteworthy at all about the direction of Michael Apted in VDT. Maybe this should not have mattered, given that it is less of an action/battle story than the first two, but I think it does account for some of the attempts at humour really just falling flat with the audience, and the action scenes that are there are just not as well done as they have were in previous movies. (Honestly, the one-on-one, near climatic, fight between Peter and Miraz in Prince Caspian made a worthy comparison with anything Ridley Scott has done.)

My other major concern for the film is that, based on some internet comments, I saw it in 2D, as the 3D version was only decided to be made in the post production conversion process that many critics claimed was unbearable in Clash of the Titans. To do 3D well, you have to plan for it from the start, and be sure that scenes are not over-edited so as to allow time for the brain to “see” the 3D clearly.

Even though I was watching it in 2D, I felt sure I could see where the problems of the 3 D version would exist, and I think many more critics (once reviews from North America start appearing) are going to be dissing the 3D version. I would not be surprised if that hurts its box office.

On the good side: although it’s been decades since I read the book and I recall little about it, the changes made to the story appeared reasonable to me, and as with the previous movies, are within the spirit of the source material. It was always going to be a challenge to make an episodic storyline into a smooth flowing movie, but they succeeded in that pretty well. The movie does not drag at all. That’s not to say the script is perfect; I’m sure I would have suggested some changes if I were in charge.

And still, I remain a sucker for the emotional power of Aslan whenever he makes and appearance in the films. It’s not that the books were important to me as a child; I only read them as a young adult after I read most of Lewis’ serious books. But the realisation of Aslan in the films, being as it is entirely consistent with the robust view of Christianity that Lewis held, is their best achievement.

Interestingly, at the end of the film yesterday, the audience was surprised when, just as the credits started, an earnest young man down the front stood up and announced loudly that he was there to tell us all that “Aslan is Christ, and He wants each of you to know him…” etc. The volume of the title song then tended to drown him out, but it was the first piece of cinema preaching I had ever encountered. I would have preferred a more subtle form of evangelising (perhaps quietly hand out invitations to church), but I couldn’t condemn his effort anyway.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Drinking ages considered

Oh.  I had missed the fact that:

A wave of respected medical opinion has signalled its support for raising the legal drinking age since the proposal [to raise drinking age to 21] was brought up in the NSW Parliament more than a week ago.

The article notes the effect of raising the age in the States:

Professor Swartzwelder cites a decade's worth of research from the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, which followed the drinking patterns of 18- to 20-year-old students. The research found that the raised legal age of 21 had created extremes in behaviour.

The law not only increased the proportion of students abstaining from alcohol but also the proportion of students engaging in illegal and dangerous binge-drinking episodes.

I find that a little odd:  why drink quicker and heavier just because you shouldn't be drinking?

Anyhow, it’s an interesting question, the effectiveness of drinking age prohibition in different cultures.  I’ve mentioned before how Japan enthusiastically runs on alcohol, to the extent that advertisements for imitation beer for the kiddies can  appear on television.  While it has a drinking age of 20,  it still seems to be the case that, even though underage drinking has been increasing in the last decade or so, it is still not in the same league of problem that it is in the US.  Certainly, it is not such a significant problem that beer can’t (famously) still be found in vending machines on the street.  (The number of machines has been wound back, though.)   

I wonder if part of this might be because they do make more of a fuss of "coming of age" generally.  It's a holiday every January:

Coming of age ceremonies (成人式, Seijin-shiki) are generally held in the morning at local city offices. All young adults who turned or will turn 20 between April 1 of the previous year and March 31 of the current one and who maintain residency in the area are invited to attend. Government officials give speeches, and small presents are handed out to the newly-recognized adults.

I guess it's hard to import one cultural celebration into another (although it works if it's something like Halloween,) but this sort of public endorsement of the importance of the transition to adulthood is something pretty much lost in the West  (if it ever really was there, I suppose.  I don’t think celebrating 21st birthdays was ever really as significant as the Japanese system.)  

I’ll mark this down as something to institute upon my much anticipated ascendancy to benevolent dictator of Australia, together with an increase in drinking age to 20.  That’s one way to put the dampener on Schoolies Week.

Christmas Dinner at the Assange house

I don’t really understand how people can think there is a justification for Wikileaks releasing thousands of diplomatic exchanges, and letting the fallout, um, fall where it will.  I mean, I know that there is an initial pleasure of hearing secrets, and having nation’s real assessments of their friends and neighbours made perfectly clear, but surely it doesn’t take much reflection to realise that international diplomacy is very similar to ordinary personal relationships writ large.   Just as it doesn’t pay to always be upfront about your feelings and assessments when you’re, say, having Christmas lunch with a relative whose company you don’t particularly relish, there are reasons why nations says things between themselves that are best kept secret.

I was happy to see that this was brought out in a recent Q&A in the Guardian when Julian Assange was asked:

I am a former British diplomat. In the course of my former duties I helped to coordinate multilateral action against a brutal regime in the Balkans, impose sanctions on a renegade state threatening ethnic cleansing, and negotiate a debt relief programme for an impoverished nation. None of this would have been possible without the security and secrecy of diplomatic correspondence, and the protection of that correspondence from publication under the laws of the UK and many other liberal and democratic states. An embassy which cannot securely offer advice or pass messages back to London is an embassy which cannot operate. Diplomacy cannot operate without discretion and the protection of sources.

In publishing this massive volume of correspondence, Wikileaks is not highlighting specific cases of wrongdoing but undermining the entire process of diplomacy. If you can publish US cables then you can publish UK telegrams and UN emails.
My question to you is: why should we not hold you personally responsible when next an international crisis goes unresolved because diplomats cannot function.

To which the boy of many hair styles  non-answers:

Julian Assange:
If you trim the vast editorial letter to the singular question actually asked, I would be happy to give it my attention.

Maybe Julian is all high-minded and a devotee of Kant at his most idealistic, who argued there was never any room for lies, ever.  If so, I hope Assange is consistent, and has Christmas days like this:

Mother:  Julian, so nice that you could make it.  Look, your brother George and his new partner Andrea are here.

Julian:  George!   Yet another woman who’s moved in with you?  Let’s see if it can last more than a year this time; they usually suss you out before then, don’t they?   I hope you’ve had the chlamydia you caught from the last one treated.  (Yes, guess which department the last leak came from.)  And don’t worry, the string of bastard children you’ve left behind you are on the public record already; it’s not like they’re a secret from anyone.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Curse you, advertising (a brief observation)

It was quite a few years ago now, I think, that there was an advertisement on TV in Australia for some new, small-ish car (perhaps a Nissan?) aimed at the Gen X set which actually showed as a feature a hook on the side door from which you could hang the plastic bad holding your takeaway food while you speed home to your inner city apartment. 

Ha, I laughed.  What a ridiculous idea that someone would buy a car for a gimmicky hook to help carry take away food.

But now, whenever I am bringing Chinese or Thai food home, and trying to turn corners gently so that the stack of plastic containers in the plastic bag doesn’t topple over, open and start spilling green curry (or some such) on the floor, I think to myself “gosh, it would useful to have one of those fast food hooks in this car.”

I feel certain this is going to haunt me for the rest of my life.