Saturday, December 31, 2011

A deep and meaningful end to 2011

Hegel and Hegel's God - The Philosopher's Zone - ABC Radio National (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

I read an article in Philosophy Now by Robert Wallace about Hegel's idea of God, and found it pretty interesting. He was in Australia last year and did an interview with Alan Saunders on the Philosopher's Zone, and it covers the same material.

I found it rather interesting, but you must read it all.

At GOMA today

It was time to make another school holiday visit to the Gallery of Modern Art today.  It's hard to dislike modern art when it's in such a nice building.  Some highlights included a exhibit by a Japanese avant garde artist who's infatuated with dots (I think I had heard of her before), and some Aboriginal dogs from North Queensland.   I'll just post the photos to give you an idea:

If ever you are in Brisbane, you must visit it.

Oiko oiko

Green Philosophy by Roger Scruton – review | Books | The Guardian

Here's a somewhat cynical, but nonetheless interesting, review of Roger Scruton's new book on his version of being Green.

You have to read it to understand the title of the post.

Here comes the AP1000

New Toshiba reactor model gets U.S. nod | The Japan Times Online

I meant to post about this before Christmas, but forgot:
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved Toshiba Corp.'s AP1000 reactor design, paving the way for the first new reactor construction license to be issued in more than 30 years.

The five-member agency voted unanimously Thursday in favor of certifying the reactor's design.Southern Co. and Scana Corp. are seeking permission to use the next-generation reactors to expand nuclear power output at existing sites in Georgia and South Carolina. The certification "marks an important milestone toward constructing the first U.S. nuclear reactors in three decades," Energy Secretary Steven Chu said Thursday in a statement.
Well, they certainly take their time with new reactor approvals. As the report goes on to note:
The biggest difference between the AP1000 and existing reactors is its safety systems, including a massive water tank on top of its cylindrical concrete-and-steel shielding building. In case of an accident, water would flow down and cool the steel container that holds critical parts of the reactor — including its hot, radioactive nuclear fuel.
An NRC taskforce examining the Fukushima nuclear crisis said licensing for the AP1000 should go forward because it would be better equipped to deal with a prolonged loss of power — the problem that doomed the Fukushima No. 1 plant.
Good to see better passive safety being considered so important in new designs, but I would assume you could better than having a water tank on top.

Anyway, you can have a detailed look at the design at the reactor's own Westinghouse/Toshiba website. It's full of reassuring statements like this:

The AP1000® pressurized water reactor works on the simple concept that, in the event of a design-basis accident (such as a coolant pipe break), the plant is designed to achieve and maintain safe shutdown condition without any operator action and without the need for ac power or pumps. Instead of relying on active components such as diesel generators and pumps, the AP1000 relies on the natural forces of gravity, natural circulation and compressed gases to keep the core and containment from overheating. However, many active components are included in the AP1000, but are designated as non safety-related.
Multiple levels of defense for accident mitigation are provided, resulting in extremely low core-damage probabilities while minimizing occurrences of containment flooding, pressurization and heat-up.
The AP1000 meets the U.S. NRC deterministic-safety and probabilistic-risk criteria with large margins. Results of the Probabilistic Risk Assessment (PRA) show a very low core damage frequency (CDF) that is 1/100 of the CDF of currently operating plants and 1/20 of the maximum CDF deemed acceptable for new, advanced reactor designs.
I hope they are right.

Friday, December 30, 2011

From The Guardian

The Guardian may have helped caused the closure of the News of the World by reporting some policeman's wrong theory about how voicemails came to be deleted from a murder victim's phone, and been in bed with Julian Assange until it decided he really was only in it for himself and filed for a divorce,  but I still find it one of the best newspaper websites around.   Take these items from its Comment is Free section, for example:

*  Stephen Kelly, a freelance journalist who still seems to like really big glasses, writes about the deification of Dr Who, which did become a key feature of the show under Russell T Davies, and continues under Steven Moffat.  He writes:
The Doctor, of course, isn't marketed outright as a messianic figure but it's all there: "the lonely god", more of an idea than a man, who resurrects himself in a crucifix position; who has, literally, defeated the devil, resisted temptation and forgiven his greatest enemy; "he's like fire and ice and rage", it was once said. "He's like the night and the storm in the heart of the sun. He's ancient and forever. He burns at the centre of time and can see the turn of the universe. And … he's wonderful."

Even the main premise of the show is built upon the concept of existential salvation: the idea that one day this wonderful being will drop out of the sky to rescue us from the crippling tedium of adult life, to make us believe that there is more to existence than work, bills and over-thinking popular tea-time television shows.
All quite true, but it has really started to weigh the show down.

Denis Alexander (a British biologist and Christian) has a short but pretty good attempt at reconciling Genesis with evolution and atonement through Christ.  Here's the key passage:
The tradition of interpreting the early chapters of Genesis figuratively – as a theological essay, not as science – goes back to two great thinkers from Alexandria: the first-century Jewish philosopher Philo, and the third-century church father Origen. In 248 Origen wrote that Genesis references to Adam are "not so much of one particular individual as of the whole human race". Figurative understandings of the Genesis text have been part of mainstream theology ever since.

The first mention of Adam in the Bible is clearly referring to humankind (Genesis 1:26-27) and the definite article in front of Adam in chapters 2 and 3 – "the man" – suggests a representative man, because in Hebrew the definite article is not used for personal names, with Eve being the representative woman.

The Genesis narrative tells the story of humankind going their way rather than God's way. On the day that Adam and Eve sin, they do not drop dead but proceed to have a big family, albeit now alienated from friendship with God, causing spiritual death. Nowhere does the Bible teach that physical death originates with the sin of Adam, nor that sin is inherited from Adam, as Augustine maintained. But the New Testament does teach that humankind stays true to type – all people sin by their own free will – and Christ dies for the sins of all. Christ is the second Adam who opens up the way back to friendship with God through his sacrifice for sin on the cross. The result is the "at-one-ment" that the first Adam – Everyman – is unable to accomplish by his own efforts.
I'm not sure I'm entirely convinced, but it seems this is a summary of an argument he puts in an entire book on the subject, and it may be worth the effort.

*  On a lighter note, kind of, a writer looks at the latest report of Japanese retreat from relationships, and brought to my attention this story from earlier in the year:
Virtual girlfriends became a sensation last summer, when Japanese game-maker Konami released its second-generation of its popular Love Plus, called, aptly, Love Plus +, for the Nintendo DS gaming system. Konami skillfully arranged for an otherwise deadbeat beach resort town called Atami to host a Love Plus + holiday weekend. Players were invited to tote their virtual girlfriends, via the gaming console, to the actual resort town to cavort for a weekend in romantic bliss. The promotion was absurdly successful, with local resort operators reporting that it was their best weekend in decades.
He ends on this point:
"Maybe we're just advanced human beings," says a Japanese friend of mine over dinner this week in Tokyo, who won't let me use her real name. She is an attractive, 40-something editor at one of Japan's premier fashion magazines, and she is still single. "Maybe," she adds, "we've learned how to service ourselves."
Seriously, if research leads to more advanced ways for men to derive more, ahem, pleasure from virtual interactions with their electronic girlfriends, Japan is over with faster than even currently anticipated.

The comments following the article, from (I assume) mainly English people complaining about the difficulties in relationships indicate that the Japanese may just be a bit ahead of the curve.

*  Finally, the marvellously named Morven Crumlish talks about the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay (the New Year party which is, apparently, pretty full on in the drinking and fighting.

Interestingly, I see that they share the Japanese idea of cleaning up the house for the New Year.

But in comments, there are many people of Scottish heritage who say they are over the whole thing.  I liked this one:
Once you get out into the rural areas hogmanay is more community based with first-footing and the meeting up with friends. But in the big cities it has lost its main meaning. The Edinburgh hogmanay parties are just ugly vulgar spectacles packed out with interlopers and freaks, whereas in the west of Scotland the neds and radge use it has an excuse to act out the Battle of Helms Deep from the Lord of the Rings using tonic wine bottles has props. If memory serves the A&E departments in the West of Scotland at hogmanay and new years days are swamped with an insane amount of stab victims in the 18-24 demographic.

For once i think Glasgow council done the right thing this year by stopping the paid celebrations in George Square. theres a lot of people who are on the poverty line and cant afford a big swanky doo at Hogmanay. If anything the first-footing tradition of the lump of coal and mini bottle of grouse carries more symbolism than any amount of drunk hussies on Princes street.
Call me ignorant, but I can't say I've heard of "first-footing" before, so here we go:
"First footing" (that is, the "first foot" in the house after midnight) is still common in Scotland. To ensure good luck for the house, the first foot should be male, dark (believed to be a throwback to the Viking days when blond strangers arriving on your doorstep meant trouble) and should bring symbolic coal, shortbread, salt, black bun and whisky. These days, however, whisky and perhaps shortbread are the only items still prevalent (and available).
 The website I got that from goes on to explain some ever odder old Scottish New Year's traditions:

The traditional New Year ceremony of yesteryear would involve people dressing up in the hides of cattle and running around the village being hit by sticks. The festivities would also include the lighting of bonfires, rolling blazing tar barrels down the hill and tossing torches. Animal hide was also wrapped around sticks and ignited which produced a smoke that was believed to be very effective to ward off evil spirits. The smoking stick was also known as a Hogmanay.

Some of these customs do continue, especially in the small, older communities in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland where tradition, along with language and dialect are kept alive and well. On the Isle of Lewis, in the Outer Hebrides, the young boys form themselves into opposing bands, the leader of each wears a sheep skin, while a member carries a sack. The bands move through the village from house to house reciting a Gaelic rhyme. On being invited inside, the leader walks clockwise around the fire, while everyone hits the skin with sticks. The boys would be given some bannocks - fruit buns - for their sack before moving on to the next house.

OK.  I think we've all learnt something today.  Unless, of course, you are smarter and better read than me.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Chlorine and spirits - a ramble around Spring Hill

As it looked as if a storm might be on the way this afternoon, and the normal Council pools are not good places to be when lightning is around, I took the kids to the Spring Hill Baths in Brisbane today.

I hadn't been there for nearly 30 years, I reckon.  Built in 1886 and (seemingly) not changed much since, it's a good little bit of history tucked away in the inner Brisbane suburb which I have always liked.  Here's a photo of the interior, with the changing booths lined around the perimeter.  You can't see the "women only this side" and "men must not loiter at the end of the pool" warning signs, but they are there:

That photo, incidentally, is courtesy of a rather distinctive looking fashion blog, presumably run by a Brisbane woman.  Not my cup of tea, but worth a quick look.

Now that I look at other, older photos, I see that it has changed quite a bit inside:

The photo is from 1910, and one suspects that life preservers were necessary at pools at the time due to women being pulled under by the weight of their wet bathing suits.

More about the history of the pool is found at the Queensland Heritage website, and I see it did have a very practical aspect:
Constructed for the Corporation of Brisbane in 1886 at a cost of £2,526, the Spring Hill Municipal Baths provided the city with its first inground public baths. They replaced in popularity the older floating baths in the Brisbane River, and provided an important hygiene/sanitation facility in Spring Hill....

On the evening of 9 December 1886 and amid great ceremony, the baths were opened by the Mayor of Brisbane, James Hipwood, who took the first plunge.

One of the principal reasons for establishing the Torrington (Arthur) Street bath was its location above the Spring Hollow (Water Street) drain, installed in 1884, the waste water from the baths providing a daily cleanse. River water from Petrie's Bight was pumped to a small reservoir at the top end of Albert Street, then gravity fed down Spring Hill to the Hollow, where it was stored in holding tanks (now boarded over) at the far end of the baths. Each evening the pool was drained and every morning the water was replenished in a process lasting several hours. This system of flushing the Spring Hill drain was employed for three-quarters of a century. Not until 1914 did the city council install a salt water supply scheme to which the baths were linked. As the Brisbane River grew more polluted, chemicals were added to the pool water, and finally a filtration system was installed in 1961.
Interestingly, when you look at the history of swimming pools at Wikipedia, it seems pools only really started being built in England around the late 1830's, with swimming clubs taking off about 30 years later.  Brisbane was relatively quick to get into the act.

The pool was also socially advanced: the Queensland Heritage article I linked to before notes that in 1927 it was one of the first pools in Australia to allow mixed bathing.

Given the age of the pool, it did get me thinking about when they might have started chlorinating it.  As you can see from the above extract about its history, the answer is not readily available; but then again, when did any pools start getting chlorinated?  The answer has not been so easy to find.

According to a brief article from America (which, incidentally, notes that the first American swimming pool was built in 1887 -  a year after the Spring Hill Baths opened):
....the first attempt to sterilize a pool in the United States using chlorine was at Brown University in 1910.  The 70,000-gallon Colgate Hoyt Pool was chlorinated by graduate student John Wymond Miller Bunker.
But it doesn't then go on to explain when it started being used more widely.  It does note, though, that:
Prior to the introduction of sterilization technologies most swimming pools were filtered to keep them somewhat clean and the water was changed frequently.
Given that the Spring Hill Baths were used as a daily iant flush of the Spring Hollow drain, this is obviously the way it was kept partially clean.

Oh, here we go:  I've found the full length article on the history of chlorination in pools that my earlier link only summarised:  it would appear that in the US, chlorination was introduced commercially in the 1920's, and by 1930, most high school pools used chlorine in one form or another.

So there's another small gap in my knowledge filled.

Anyway, after the swim and an ice cream, I took the kids down the road to the Spring Hill Spiritual Church.  Why would I do that?   Well, because (as mentioned at this very blog in 2006, but you probably weren't paying close attention), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle visited it in 1921.  I was hoping that the plaque recording this was on the outside of the Church, but it doesn't seem to be.  Oh well.

I can't find any photo of his visit either.  The best I can come up with of his trip to Brisbane is a photo of him visiting a Goodna bee farm.    The John Oxley Library blog entry on the visit notes that not only was Brisbane pretty fast at building a bathing pool, it had some surprisingly early enthusiasts for spiritualism too:

In closing Conan Doyle observed that he’d been told he could expect only “one person” at his Brisbane lectures.  In fact the city had a strong core of devotees and one of Conan Doyle’s special honours during his visit was to lay the foundation stone for the Brisbane Spiritualist Church. Already in the early 1880s a weekly magazine The Australian Spiritualist was being published in Brisbane and there were practitioners like the daughters of German-born musician Professor A. Seal who recorded musical scripts transmitted to them by their father from the grave.
This reminds me:  I think it was on a tour of the Noosa River many years ago, that I heard there was a historic house on it which was famous for its owners being heavily into spiritualism.

Oh.  It would appear to be on the island that Richard Branson built his mini resort.   Maybe it's haunted.

So, that's it for now.  I was going to mention my long time admiration of the Queensland Transport building at Spring Hill, but that will have to wait for another day.

Safer, cleaner, nicer

We have drift off: Balloons to the edge of space - New Scientist

New Scientist looks at a Spanish company that is actively developing civilian flights in helium balloons that would take the joyriders 34 km high before descending in on a guided parachute:

There is no doubt that it is possible, because it has been done many times before. In the 1950s and 1960s, more than a dozen crewed balloons journeyed to near-space. In 1957, for instance, Joe Kittinger of the US air force ascended to a height of 29 kilometres in a capsule attached to a helium balloon. He enjoyed the ride so much that when ordered to descend, he replied: "Come and get me."

Zero2Infinity hopes to spread that joy to the civilian population. The company has carried out several test flights of uncrewed balloons, and earlier this year got the funding needed to carry out its first flight carrying people.

The plan is to use a massive helium "bloon", as the company likes to call it, to carry a pressurised capsule with space for two pilots and two passengers up to 34 kilometres above the Earth. You can book now - but at €110,000 per ticket, you'll need a little spare cash.

Sure sounds like a safer option than Virgin's joyrides, which I predict is a business that will go defunct as soon as a fatality occurs.

The New Scientist article also points out that one study indicates that the Virgin rocket (which has particularly dirty exhaust) could have very adverse effects indeed:

All rockets inject pollutants directly into the stratosphere, which has various effects. In particular, hydrocarbon-fuelled rockets, such as the kerosene-powered Soyuz, produce a lot of soot, which warms the planet by absorbing the sun's heat. While soot in the lower atmosphere usually rains out after days, it can remain in the stratosphere for a decade or more, massively amplifying its effect. In 2010, Martin Ross and his colleagues at The Aerospace Corporation, a non-profit institution based in El Segundo, California, modelled the effect of 1000 sub-orbital launches each year with a rubber-burning engine like that of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. The study concluded that the climatic effect of this kind of space tourism could be on a par with that of all commercial aeroplane flights put together.
Why hasn't this very anti-Green aspects of Richard Branson's vanity project ever had more publicity?

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Japanese Jesus

Behold! Christ's grave in Shingo, Aomori Prefecture | The Japan Times Online

The Japan Times article on the (alleged) Japanese tomb of Christ is worth looking at, if only to see the road sign in Shingo pointing the way.

Kind of Christmas-y

Evolution of Angels: From Disembodied Minds to Winged Guardians

I see National Geographic had a story about angels for this Christmas, but it's a pretty quick overview that concentrates on Christian ideas of angels. This part reminded me of CS Lewis' Screwtape Letters:
Of course not all angels are angelic, according to some Christian traditions. Satan himself, it's been said, was once an angel named Lucifer.

The fact that angels can fall from grace is an important point, Catholic University's Root said—it implies that they have free will.

"You even had some theologians in the medieval and the early modern periods who thought that there was an adversarial angel, a fallen angel, assigned to each person as well as a guardian angel—though this was never an official thought," Root said.

The next part is also a bit novel to me:

As early as the second and third centuries, Christian scholars such as Origen of Alexandria saw important roles for fallen angels, Notre Dame's Cavadini said.

"For Origen and a lot of church fathers, angels participated in the governance of the universe at God's will," Cavadini said.

"That also meant that the fallen angels were intended to participate in the betterment of the universe, and that you have to take them very seriously, because they still did participate—but in a negative way."

Jewish ideas of angels don't get a mention, but I see Wikipedia gives a brief outline.

Some holiday reading in The Economist

Two articles from The Economist are worth a look:

*  a look at the "invention" of modern science fiction by Hugo Gernsback and his serialised novel Ralph 124C 41+ which appeared 100 years ago.  I have heard of Gernsback before, but not his clunky novel.  (Its title puts me in mind of Lucas' THX 1138.)

*  a somewhat amusing article on euphemisms around the world.   As some people not in comments, the writer doesn't quite get American practice in this regard exactly right, but I hope his other examples are valid.  Some highlights:
Some Chinese euphemisms also stem from squeamishness. Rather than inquire about a patient’s sex life, doctors may ask if you have much time for fang shi (room business). Online sites sell qingqu yongpin, literally “interesting love products”.

But Chinese circumlocution is often a form of polite opacity. Chinese people don’t like being too direct in turning down invitations or (as many journalists find) requests for interviews. So they will frequently reply that something is bu fangbian (not convenient). This does not mean reapply in a few weeks’ time. It means they don’t want to do it, ever. If they don’t want to tell you what is going on they will say vaguely they are bu qingchu: literally “I’m not clear.”...

A prostitute accosting a client on the streets of Cairo will ask Fi hadd bitaghsal hudoumak ? (Literally, “Do you have someone to wash your clothes?”)

Even the most straight-talking obfuscate that line of work. Swedes, like many others, refer to v√§rldens √§ldsta yrke (the world’s oldest profession). A brothel in Russian is a publichny dom—literally a “public house”, which causes problems when British visitors with rudimentary Russian try to explain the delights of their village hostelry. In China many hair salons, massage parlours and karaoke bars double as brothels. Hence anmo (massage), falang (hair salon) or a zuyu zhongxin (foot-massage parlour) can lead to knowing nods and winks. For obscure reasons, Germans call the same institution a Puff. In Japan, such places are called sopurando, (a corrupted version of “soapland”) or a pin-saro (pink salon).

Christmas Day, with a modest proposal

Well, after my last grumpy sounding post, I feel I should point out that Christmas Day itself was very pleasant.  We had 4 relatives over, which just made for a comfortable sized Christmas lunch, which I also thought notable this year for its relative economy. 

On the menu:  2 Coles cooked chickens cut up and served cold ($10 each); some rare sliced roast beef also served cold (my wife bought and cooked it, but she tells me it was only $10); a kilo of Crystal Bay prawns bought from Aldi (of all places) for $20 (this was the real economy triumph of the day, given that the fish shop near Aldi was selling prawns for an extraordinary $47 this year - I have no idea why they were so expensive); a green salad made with a bag of salad leaves from Coles (about $3) some grape tomatoes (about $2.50) and some half a packet of feta cheese (price unknown); some home made potato salad that I would estimate as costing barely $6; another salad involving chinese cabbage and noodles (not sure, but probably around $7); some bread rolls from Woolworths;  and that was about it for the main meal.  (OK, allow some cost for the cocktail sauce, mustard for the beef, etc.) 

My sister brought a trifle for desert, another sister made some vanilla slices and an ice cream type desert, and my wife had made a Christmas cake for the first time and it was very successful.  There were some lychees (quite cheap this year - under $10 a kilo) and cherries too.  Someone brought chocolates and nuts so they were floating around in a basket too.

Add the sparking wine, the most expensive of which was French but only $13, with the follow up being Australian sparkling under $10, and you have what I think as a remarkably good but economical cold Christmas lunch which was more than enough plenty for 6 adults and two children.  (In fact, we are finishing the last meat leftovers today.)  Of course, the other reason I enjoyed Christmas lunch so much this year could be because I didn't have to watch my drinking because of an upcoming drive home, for once.

The other fantastic thing about Christmas this year was having it on a Sunday, so that Christmas Eve was not a mad rush of trying to finish work earlier so as to get to the shops before they shut for last minute items of food or gifts.   It seemed to me that even the supermarkets were better prepared than other years, with heaps of food still available on Christmas Eve.

I propose a modest change to the calendar, such that December 25 becomes a floating date which must fall on the nearest Sunday.   So, for example, what would have been Sunday 22 December becomes 25 December, and the next Wednesday becomes the 22 nd.

Somehow, I can imagine computer programmers having a problem with this, but if they could handleY2K with nary a plane falling out of the sky, this should be a snip.

UPDATE:   Gosh, this is a bit of serendipity:  my suggestion is not as insane as first thought.  Physorg notes that a scientist and an economist have come up with an idea for a "perpetual calendar" that is the same every year, with this key feature:
"Our plan offers a stable calendar that is absolutely identical from year to year and which allows the permanent, rational planning of annual activities, from school to work holidays," says Henry, who is also director of the Maryland Space Grant Consortium. "Think about how much time and effort are expended each year in redesigning the calendar of every single organization in the world and it becomes obvious that our calendar would make life much simpler and would have noteworthy benefits."
Among the practical advantages would be the convenience afforded by birthdays and holidays (as well as work holidays) falling on the same day of the week every year. But the economic benefits are even more profound, according to Hanke, an expert in international economics, including monetary policy.
Now this would be useless unless 25 December is a Sunday, but have a look at this graphic of the Hawke-Henry Permanent Calendar - and yes it is!!

The only problem with it - instead of a extra day added in leap years, you need leap weeks every 5 or 6 years.   Well, that seems to change the suggested simplicity of the system somewhat, doesn't it?   Maybe those weeks can just be international holidays.

The only problem with this proposal, which, by the way, almost sounds like an Aprils Fool's joke come early, is that it has got publicity at the Cato Institute.  There's a rule of thumb that's good at the moment that if a libertarian thinks it's a good idea, it probably isn't; either that or it's wildly impractical, so it is probably the best sign that this is a silly idea. 

Actually, now that I read that Cato article, the far sillier idea they have is that the world operate on Universal Time, and they suggest that in a country like Russia, the banks open at the exact same time so they can all work with each other, even though that would mean some banks permanently opening at the crack of dawn.  I'm not entirely sure they are serious...

Anyway, if it means Christmas Day is permanently a Sunday, I suggest a political party be instituted to get calendar reform going.

Boxing Day viewing report

I invited the kids to join me in watching Tintin in 3D yesterday.  (Actually, my son had been waiting for months to see it; my daughter was not so keen, but I refused to take her to the third Chipmunks movie after the dire experience of the second one.)

The big cinema was nearly full, and the audience seemed in a very good mood.  They cheered when the 3D filter was belatedly put on a few minutes after the "please put on your 3D glasses" slide had appeared.   (This delay happened last time I was at Southbank Cinema a couple of weeks ago when we saw Puss in Boots.)  And they seemed to enjoy the movie, as indicated by a smattering of applause at the end. 

But me?  Sad to report, I was pretty underwhelmed.

On the first issue of whether it demonstrated that motion capture has overcome the "uncanny valley":  well, yes, more or less.  But the odd consequence of this is that, if you then use it for characters are "cartoony" in appearance such as the Thompson twins, it becomes rather the equivalent of using real actors with ridiculously obvious prosthetic noses, etc.  The eyes look pretty real: the rest of the face doesn't.  

The other problem in motion capture is still to do with physics.  There is scene in the trailer you may have seen where the Thompson twins are running down the street and one hits a lamp post and recoils backwards.  You can tell exactly how this was done with a wire on the actor from the mere look of the physics.  Motion capture, it seems to me, is an unhappy attempted mix of the freewheeling visuals of cartooning but with a continual and unavoidable connection to the physics of the real world that acts as a restraint on what it can do. I mean, I was more impressed with the imaginative action in The Incredibles than with anything I have seen in motion capture.

I also have a problem with getting any sense of danger in this technique.  I haven't really worked out why this should be so - perhaps it is simply an inability to stop being aware of how it was made - but I feel more capable of feeling completely animated characters as being in danger than I do with motion capture ones.  There is one scene in particular in Tintin which is meant to evoke an Indian Jones style of encroaching danger to the hormonally challenged title character; but for me, it just did nothing.

So colour me unconvinced:  I am really having trouble envisaging ever liking this way of making films.

I also didn't think the 3-D added much, which surprised me, because I thought Spielberg might have novel ideas for its use.  In fact, unless it was just the cinema I was seeing it in, I felt for the first time that it was making the screen darker than it should.  This is a problem that some people have noted about the current technology, but perhaps it is because I have only ever seen computer animated films in it that I haven't noticed any issue with the brightness of the image.   (Yes, Tintin is animated too, but still, it seemed to be murkier looking that I expected.)

Another issue I had with the film is with the screenplay:   I just didn't think it was so clever.   Some of the exposition (with Tintin working out various connections) just seemed clumsy and  capable of being done better.  But part of the problem may be with the source material:  I have never read the comics in detail but they have always struck me as sort of dull.  Sure, they are colourful, and their appeal to many boys is undeniable, but I grew up on Scrooge McDuck adventures in the classic Carl Barks period, and they seem to me to have a more continual element of wit and humour which I couldn't really see happening enough in Tintin.

I wonder if my problem with the screenplay lies with the involvement of Steven Moffat.  Last night, the family watched the Dr Who Christmas Special written by him, and I thought it was awful.

I usually enjoy these specials - even last year's with the flying shark pulling a sleigh had a kind of inspired madness, I thought.

But last night's was just terrible in nearly every respect, except for the fact that Matt Smith does fine with the role.  I mean, the very first few minutes were a warning sign, with the Doctor shown to have an ability to survive and shout for minutes in the vacuum of space.  (There are some breaches of physics in films I am loathe to forgive, even in Dr Who.)  I've grown tired of the Moffat returns to the World War II period, the whole "lifeforce" needing to find a strong person to use as a lifeboat, and that being the mother, was just sort of corny and made no real emotional sense to me.  I didn't even think the acting by the mother was particularly convincing.

I think the episode is just further evidence that Steven Moffat is burnt out with the show and he needs to leave.  (Or even the show needs another break from its current incarnation.)    Oddly enough, many Guardian readers say they did feel moved by the episode.  But on that blog, there are some people who seem to share my feeling that the show has lost its way, and Moffat is probably at the heart of the problem.

So, that's a cranky sounding Boxing Day report, isn't it?   It's not all bad:  my son did enjoy Tintin (although he seemed pretty cool on the Christmas episode too), and my daughter perhaps liked the movie more than she expected.  Even I would say it's not a terrible movie; just a disappointing one with which I disagree with quite a lot of what critics have said about it.

 My hope is that War Horse might be better than Tintin, but it's about a horse.  What a worry.

Monday, December 26, 2011

A fun new past time

We should scour the moon for ancient traces of aliens, say scientists | Science | The Guardian

Paul Davies makes a fun suggestion:

Prof Paul Davies and Robert Wagner at Arizona State University argue that images of the moon and other information collected by scientists for their research should be scoured for signs of alien intervention. The proposal aims to complement other hunts for alien life, such as the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (Seti), which draws on data from radiotelescopes to scour the heavens for messages beamed into space by alien civilisations.

"Although there is only a tiny probability that alien technology would have left traces on the moon in the form of an artefact or surface modification of lunar features, this location has the virtue of being close, and of preserving traces for an immense duration," the scientists write in a paper published online in the journal Acta Astronautica.

The only thing is, they doubt there is much point in using crowd-sourced examination of the photos due to the potential for disagreement over what is or isn't significant. There is also going to be a lot of material to look through:

The scientists focus their attention on Nasa's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which has mapped a quarter of the moon's surface in high resolution since mid-2009. Among these images, scientists have already spotted the Apollo landing sites and all of the Nasa and Soviet unmanned probes, some of which were revealed only by their odd-looking shadows.

Nasa has made more than 340,000 LRO images public, but that figure is expected to reach one million by the time the orbiting probe has mapped the whole lunar surface. "From these numbers, it is obvious that a manual search by a small team is hopeless," the scientists write.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Saturday, December 24, 2011

All jobs can be stressful

Tintin cartoonist Herge: Georges Remi is the subject of two new biographies. - Slate Magazine

The Slate article above gives a very brief outline of Tintin creator Herge's life.

One likes to imagine that making a career out of comics would be good work - doing something you love, in your own studio, that sort of thing.

But it didn't work out that way for Herge, apparently:
As the strain of producing the Tintin strip, as well as other assorted other projects, took its toll on him, Remi suffered an array of psychosomatic symptoms, including outbreaks of eczema and boils, and was plagued by recurring nightmares of whiteness. (Evidently there was nothing more terrifying than a blank page.) Remi seems to have retained an unhealthy distance from his own life, disappearing into his work until the work itself became the problem.
Ah well, being untalented at art has its up side after all.

The short back and sides Son of God

Was Jesus Christ’s hairstyle normal for his time? - Slate Magazine

Well, I don't recall reading about this topic before - what hair length was common for Jewish men in Jesus' time? Seems short hair was more common, hence the popular depiction of Jesus with long flowing locks is thought to have more to do with emulating the image of the old top Roman gods.


Friday, December 23, 2011

Mad scientist update

While everyone is getting slightly worried that scientists have been busy creating killer bird flu, I note on a smaller scale that this photo appears in Nature's slideshow of striking images from 2011:

 And the explanation:

Rats don’t deserve their bad name, but this ball of fury won’t win over many murophobes. Russian scientists bred this aggressive rat strain to compare it with more docile creatures in a study on domestication that has teased out several genetic regions linked to tame traits.

Great.  All we need now is for them to escape and be capable of carrying killer bird flu, and we've got bio-apocalypse for Christmas.

Not exactly Christmas-y

I can't stop talking about movies this week.

Most nerd excitement is directed at the Hobbit trailer, a movie in which I have no interest whatsoever.   At least, I assume, this is the last bit of Tolkien anyone will be putting on screen.

On the other hand, I am kind of interested in Ridley Scott's prequel to Alien, even though it would seem it's a movie very unlikely to have much in the way of a happy ending.  It looks as if it may be visually very impressive, though:

Busier than ever

Christopher Plummer Gets Oscar Buzz -

Here's a nice interview with Christopher Plummer, whose movie career seems to have really taken off since he turned 70.

I remember his 2008 memoir, mentioned in the interview, got good reviews; and while I am rarely interested in celebrity autobiography, his life sounds interesting.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Shared tastes

A Christmas movie story: from merriest to muckiest | Sarah Hughes | Film |

The Guardian film blog notes the best, and worst, Christmas films, and in the process shows I am not alone in certain tastes.

First, it opens with "You already know to avoid CGI Tom Hanks when selecting a Christmas movie..." referring to The Polar Express. I was half watching it the other night when the kids had it on, and it seems from my blog search that I might have previously overlooked commenting on my puzzlement with that movie.

My big, big issue with it, apart from the waxwork manikin look of the people, is the creepy, empty, sort of rococo Stalinist design of the elf city at the North Pole, complete with massed, brainwashed looking elf-dom in the main square that is so reminiscent of a "dear Leader" rally in North Korea.

Who on earth came up with that art design? Is it copying the book, but done on such a vast scale that it changes into unsettling? It doesn't seem to bother children, I admit, but I just can't over the emotionally cold feeling that this gives the movie.

Anyway, back to the Guardian: I tend to agree with those that I have seen of the "best list", although I have to admit to having never seen It's a Wonderful Life. I don't know how this has happened, but it doesn't seem to be repeated all that often in this country.

In the "worst" category, the problem is that everyone (including me) knows to avoid bad Christmas movies, and most never made much money. But it does start with this view of Richard Curtis:
I toyed with including Love Actually but decided that my near-pathological hatred of Richard Curtis counted as bias
Well, there you go, I am indeed not alone.

In fact, the biggest worry by far about Spielberg's War Horse movie is that Curtis is a co-writer! This movie is getting to be classic example of intensely mixed feelings: Spielberg adapting a successful book and play - but it's about a horse and has Richard Curtis. The old joke about a mother-in-law driving a husband's Mercedes over a cliff has nothing on this.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Final destinies

Hitchens and Hell -

Ross Douthat (gee, I can never remember how he spells his surname) takes the death of Christopher Hitchens as an opportunity to talk about the mysteries and divisions in Christianity regarding "salvation theory". I've always been partial to the "hell as purgatory for most people" theory of CS Lewis.

Duty fulfilled

An Interview With Steven Spielberg -

I consider it my duty to note interviews with Steven Spielberg, especially when it is another unusual year when there are two of his products out at the same time*. (To be honest, he doesn't say anything all that interesting, though.)

War Horse is getting pretty good reviews, but not universally so. This may be a good sign: some Spielberg films have been over-praised, most notably Saving Private Ryan, and that can lead to a sense of disappointment.

But it will be an achievement if Spielberg can get me to cry at a horse movie. Ugh.

In other movie news: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is great. Brad Bird does turn out to be a good action director, as I had predicted. The movie has a lighter tone than all of the earlier ones, but it works. My wife (and even my son) felt it was a bit tiringly over-frenetic, but I really just found myself wanting to watch it again to note the action more carefully. And I probably will.

* it is reminiscent of the grand year of 1982, when both ET and Poltergeist (OK, he only produced and co-wrote that one, but it was rumoured he may have done a bit of directing on set too) were both at the Forum twin cinema in Albert Street in Brisbane. I told friends that I was going to go there in a robe and with a censer (the incense burning thing in a Catholic church) to give honour to the significance of this event. (I am inordinately fond of Poltergeist as well as ET.) My failing to do so resulted in the cinema closing down and being turned into a very nice Borders store, which now sits empty.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Roger is Green

Bryan Appleyard - Scruton: the Right Wing Green

Bryan Appleyard talks to and about Roger Scruton, who turns out to be rather Green.

Unfortunately, this brand of conservatism (you know, the responsible type) is still far from the current shores of the US, and even Australia.

Bye bye Kim

Changing of the guard is no relief for long-suffering North Koreans

Hamish MacDonald's summary of how North Korea has operated seemed worthwhile to me.

Saturday, December 17, 2011


A very jolly Julia Gillard Christmas greeting may be found at Dodopathy.

"Hating" Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens’ death: David Corn on sharing a tiny office with Hitchens. - Slate Magazine

Nearly everyone is sad to see the loss of Christopher Hitchens. He was a great essayist even if you did not agree with him on everything (and, frankly, there are probably very few who could do that.)

This account by David Corn about what it was like working with him in a tiny office in the early 1980's is quite amusing and affectionate.

Resigning the top job

Pope Heads Into Busy Christmas Season Tired, Weak -

Interesting report in the New York Times that quotes a few close observers who say that Pope Benedict seems to be getting frailer lately.  It also notes that he has been open in the past about his view that a Pope should resign if he feels not physically up to the job.

There is not a lot of precedent for such resignations, however, as the article notes the last one happened about 600 years ago.

It would be an interesting thing to happen again; if anything, I think people would acknowledge a resignation as very reasonable and preferable to watching a slow decline.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Unsporting rodent based entertainment

I was looking around the net for rat related stuff when I stumbled onto this bit of history I hadn’t heard of before: in Victorian England, “rat baiting” in rat pits around the city was a popular form of betting entertainment. Wikipedia notes an account from a participant:

A hundred rats were put in it, large wagers went back and forth on whose dog could kill the most rats within a minute. The dogs worked in exemplary fashion, a grip, a toss and it was all over for the rat. With especially skilful dogs, two dead rats flew through the air at the same time...

The Wikipedia article has lots of illustrates of the set up at these disreputable venues, like this one:


This must have been the toff’s night at the rat pit. Other venues seemed to have looked rather rougher:


Anyway, the last rat pit was close in 1912.  

I did not know that this was a Victorian form of entertainment.

Update: Here's a blog post about the last rat pit in New York, shut down in 1870 by the SPCA. I can't see anything about rat pits in Australia on Google, though.

A bunch of old interests

Well, looking around the net this morning, there are a bunch of stories about some of my long term interests, as previously mentioned on this blog:
1.    Methane apocalypse soon?    A Russian scientists tells the Independent that he hasn’t seen such large methane plumes in the Arctic Ocean before:
"Earlier we found torch-like structures like this but they were only tens of metres in diameter. This is the first time that we've found continuous, powerful and impressive seeping structures more than 1,000 metres in diameter. It's amazing," Dr Semiletov said.
"I was most impressed by the shear scale and the high density of the plumes.  Over a relatively small area we found more than 100, but over a wider area there should be thousands of them," he said….
Another scientist doing the research says:
"Methane released from the Arctic shelf deposits contributes to global increase and the best evidence for that is the higher concentration of atmospheric methane above the Arctic Ocean," she said.
"The concentration of atmospheric methane increased unto three times in the past two centuries from 0.7 parts per million to 1.7ppm, and in the Arctic to 1.9ppm. That's a huge increase, between two and three times, and this has never happened in the history of the planet," she added.
Well, that’s far from encouraging.
Update:  both Revkin and James Annan say this was a beat up.  I hope so.

2.  Small nuclear shows some promise.   Another study indicates that making small, modular nuclear power may be a better way of deploying nuclear quickly, rather than building the expensive mega plants of old.
This is what I suspected on a hunch.   Why aren’t I running the world? 
If the world was serious about greenhouse gases, there ought to be a scientific and technological commission either run by the US, or preferably, internationally, to identify the most promising path to rapid deployment of nuclear with systems that have as a primary feature passive safety.  But a lot of things have to be considered:  sources of uranium and efficiency of uranium use, the type of waste they make and its recycling and disposal, new nuclear designs and how far off testing and certifying they are; ease of export of the technology, etc.   This is the sort of leadership needed:  not just leaving it up to the hopeless mishmash of competing ideas around at the moment.
3.  Marijuana does hurt the brain.   Some pretty interesting research from Melbourne, in which 12 year olds had brain scans, and then they were re-scanned at 16, after some of them had started using marijuana.
The most surprising thing is that the size of part of the brain at 12 seemed gave an indication as to whether they would try it:
“What we found is that only the OFC predicted later cannabis use, suggesting that this particular part of the frontal lobe increases an adolescent’s vulnerability to cannabis use. However, we also found no differences in brain volume in other parts of the brain that we have shown to be abnormal in long-term heavy cannabis users, confirming for the first time, that cannabis use is neurotoxic to these brain areas in humans.”

The OFC plays a primary role in inhibitory control and reward-based decision making; previous studies of adolescent cannabis users have demonstrated subtle deficits in problem-solving, attention, memory and executive functions.

“In adult cannabis users, decreased activation of the OFC has been associated with faulty decision-making, suggesting that a reduced ability to weigh the pros and costs of one’s actions might render certain individuals more prone to drug problems,” Professor Lubman said.
I guess in a hundred years time, school career counsellors will just be examining scans and assigning kids to jobs.
4.   Primordial black hole search.   Some scientists are looking at Kepler satellite data to see if they can pick out small, primordial black holes as a possible source of missing dark matter.  I kind of hope they don’t find it, as I don’t want the Earth to bump into one.
5.  Ocean acidification and the Bering Sea:  Skeptical Science looks at ocean acidification and its apparent (or potential) effects in one part of the world.  Not good.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Another AGW is bad for fish study

Expansion of oxygen minimum zones may reduce available habitat for tropical pelagic fishes

The abstract:
Climate model predictions1, 2 and observations3, 4 reveal regional declines in oceanic dissolved oxygen, which are probably influenced by global warming5. Studies indicate ongoing dissolved oxygen depletion and vertical expansion of the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ) in the tropical northeast Atlantic Ocean6, 7. OMZ shoaling may restrict the usable habitat of billfishes and tunas to a narrow surface layer8, 9. We report a decrease in the upper ocean layer exceeding 3.5mll−1 dissolved oxygen at a rate of ≤1myr−1 in the tropical northeast Atlantic (0–25°N, 12–30°W), amounting to an annual habitat loss of ~5.95×1013m3, or 15% for the period 1960–2010. Habitat compression and associated potential habitat loss was validated using electronic tagging data from 47 blue marlin. This phenomenon increases vulnerability to surface fishing gear for billfishes and tunas8, 9, and may be associated with a 10–50% worldwide decline of pelagic predator diversity10. Further expansion of the Atlantic OMZ along with overfishing may threaten the sustainability of these valuable pelagic fisheries and marine ecosystems.

Big ideas by Newt

Apocalypse Newt

So, Newt Gingrich is known for having hi-tec dreams of everything from lunar colonies to space based missile defence to geo-engineering. I remember reading on his (Pournelle's) blog that Jerry Pournelle used to be have some association with him (as an advisor, perhaps) and that would probably explain Gingrich's fondness for all things "space".

In fact, after taking climate change seriously, Gingrich has now flipped to being a skeptic, just as Pournelle always has been. But Jerry Pournelle is getting on (age 78): it seems to be built into the natural psychology of aging males that believing in AGW gets harder and harder for them over the age of 65. How old is Gingrich, by the way? 68, I see. Well, that explains that.

But even Romney is 64: he probably will start genuinely stop believing in AGW next year.

(And just why do Republicans so often go with the old dudes as presidential candidates? OK, so George Bush was an exception, but Reagan, Dole, McCain, Bush Snr?)

Anyway, as a fan of the return to the moon myself, this should make me feel more generous than I do towards Gingrich. But I find the guy hard to like. Seems far too flip floppy on everything (not just climate change), and doesn't really have the right image of a leader, especially against a more youthful Democrat.

Honestly, if the Republicans want to look dynamic, they should chose Huntsman. But he's poison to the doomed idiot wing of the Republicans known as the Tea Party, due to having done terrible things like genuinely believe in AGW (before having to semi-recant for political purposes) and being sophisticated in his knowledge of foreign affairs.

The Republicans are a lost cause, for now.


This New Yorker article notes that he has written quite a lot in the alternative history genre too.

It also argues that this is what's behind his sudden popularity:
Gingrich’s sudden rise and special appeal to the emotions of “the base,” one suspects, stem less from his vaunted “big ideas” than from his long-cultivated, unparalleled talent for contempt. In 1990, when he was not yet Speaker, he pressed a memo on Republican candidates for office, instructing them to use certain words when talking about the Democratic enemy: “betray,” “bizarre,” “decay,” “anti-flag,” “anti-family,” “pathetic,” “lie,” “cheat,” “radical,” “sick,” “traitors,” and more. His own vocabulary of contempt has grown only more poisonously flowery. President Obama’s actions cannot be understood except as an expression of “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” Liberals constitute a “secular-socialist machine” that is “as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.” There is “a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us” and “is prepared to use violence.” In this campaign, Gingrich’s performances in televised debates have been widely deemed effective. But what has won him his most visceral cheers from the audiences in the halls—audiences shaped and coarsened by years of listening to talk radio and watching Fox News—is his sneering attacks on moderators, especially those representing the hated “liberal” media.

In March, at the Cornerstone Church, in San Antonio, Gingrich declared, “I am convinced that, if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America,” his grandchildren will live “in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.” Last spring, this was a kind of right-wing performance art. Now it is the language of the man leading in the Republican polls, a man who—in the real world, not the alt-world—could, not inconceivably, become President of the United States. Imagine that.

What a country...

How Do You Prove Someone's a Witch in Saudi Arabia? - By Uri Friedman | Foreign Policy

An amazing article about the ongoing prosecution and punishment of witchcraft in Saudi Arabia. Some highlights:

....the Saudi Interior Ministry announced on Monday that it had beheaded a woman named Amina bint Abdul Halim bin Salem Nasser for practicing "witchcraft and sorcery." The London-based al-Hayat newspaper, citing the chief of the religious police who arrested the woman after a report from a female investigator, claims Nasser was tricking people into paying $800 per session to have their illnesses cured.

So, how did Saudi authorities prove Nasser was a witch? The government hasn't gone into detail, but a look at the kingdom's past witchcraft cases suggests the bar for proving someone guilty isn't very high. Witch hunting is fairly institutionalized in Saudi Arabia, with the country's religious police running an Anti-Witchcraft Unit and a sorcery hotline to combat practices like astrology and fortune telling that are considered un-Islamic.

Huh. A country with a sorcery hotline. Just how often do people use this for mere revenge against someone who annoys them? The article does note that foreigners need to be particularly careful:

A Human Rights Watch researcher tells The Media Line that foreigners in particular are often the targets of sorcery accusations because of their traditional practices or, occasionally, because Saudi men facing charges of sexual harassment by domestic workers want to discredit their accusers.

The evidence arrayed against witchcraft suspects typically revolves around statements from accusers and suspicious personal belongings that suggest the supernatural, in a country where superstition is still widespread. In 2006, for example, an Eritrean national was imprisoned and lashed hundreds of times for "charlatanry" after prosecutors argued that his leather-bound personal phone booklet with writings in the Tigrinya alphabet was a "talisman."

A year later, Saudi authorities beheaded an Egyptian pharmacist who had been accused by neighbors of casting spells to separate a man from his wife and placing Korans in mosque bathrooms.
What a great country to avoid.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Don't plan on this solution

Chemically scrubbing CO2 from the air too expensive

From the link:

Someday the world may be in a position to lower the concentration of heat-trapping carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by chemically removing it from the air.

But not soon; the process is simply too expensive, say scientists from Stanford and MIT.

A study published in the , co-authored by Stanford and environmental researcher Jennifer Wilcox, concludes that if air-capture of carbon dioxide with chemicals is ever used, it will be far in the future.

For now, it is much more economically efficient to capture the carbon dioxide that enters the atmosphere from the smokestacks of large centralized sources such as , , fertilizer plants and .

After a detailed comparison, the research team concluded that the cost of removal from air is likely to be on the order of $1,000 per ton of carbon dioxide, compared with $50 to $100 per ton for current power-plant scrubbers.

Monday, December 12, 2011

More on rat thoughts

What do animals 'know'? More than you may think

Rats are getting some unusually good PR lately. Last week, it was studies that indicate empathy for other rats, this week, their thinking seems deeper than we, um, thought:
"Rats often make and behave as if they're rational creatures," said UCLA associate professor of psychology Aaron Blaisdell, a member of UCLA's Brain Research Institute and senior author of a new study published in the December issue of the journal Psychonomic Bulletin and Review.

"To make a in the face of uncertainty, rats call on prior history and reasoning," Blaisdell said. "They apply what they know to a situation where they are uncertain. The rats are not necessarily thinking like little humans, but they have learned through experience. A lot of animal behavior seems to be rational. Their behavior follows logical inferences."

You can read about the studies suggesting this at the link.

These studies took their time

Acidic oceans threaten fish : Nature News & Comment

I've become slack about posting items concerning ocean acidification. This is partly because a lot of the studies being reported at the Ocean Acidification blog have become very technical in nature - examining in minute detail the biochemistry of marine organisms and trying to tell exactly how ocean chemistry affects it - and also because there doesn't seem to have been much reported lately on the rate of acidification.

But still, I should go back and catch some of the stories that I have missed.

Anyway, today there is a Nature report (see above) about a couple of studies indicating that young larvae of a couple of fish do not do well under acidification.

Skeptics will no doubt have a couple of objections: firstly, some coastal waters where fish breed already have a really high range of natural pH. I doubt that this is a valid objection, as an increase in acidification from the atmosphere just means that the range is going to shift its mean and peaks to the high end, so it still may be a problem. The second issue will be whether natural selection will mean fish will be able to evolve quickly to adapt to the new acidification regime.

Quick adaptation to warmer sea warmers was indicated in a recent Australian study, but whether this will apply to acidification is anyone's guess.

On the downside of the warmer water story, another study recently indicated that fish parasites can do better in warmer water, which just shows how complicated it is trying to work out the net effect of warming oceans and increasing acidification.

Still, it surprises me somewhat that it took this long for a studies on fish larvae mortality under increased acidification took this long to be done.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Big rain

John Nielsen-Gammon has had a series of posts up about material he has found interesting at the AGU conference last week.

As the the extensive floods in Queensland last year made me consider the impact of floods as a major issue with AGW, I will reproduce Dr J's post from Climate Abyss about possible record heavy rains to come:
Probable maximum precipitation (PMP) is a commonly-used design input value for water projects such as dams for which failure is not an option. It’s estimated, in effect, by assuming that all possible factors contributing to heavy rain (upstart speed, moisture content, duration) come together at the same time and place to produce the flood to end all floods.
Ken Kunkel noted that in a warming climate, one of these is expected to change more than all the others: the moisture content of the air. What about the worst case scenario: the peak moisture content of the air at any given location? Kunkel showed evidence that the peak has indeed increased over time across most of the United States, though there are data quality issues that need to be worked out (historical weather balloon water vapor measurements are pretty dodgy). More importantly, the climate models are consistent in showing increases in the future.
We’re talking about increases of 10% every few decades. This would correspond directly to 10% increases in PMP. And increases much greater than 10% in the cost of new projects. And even greater expenses for retrofitting. That’s unless we decide that we are willing to tolerate a greater risk of man-made catastrophe from dam failure than before.

Dateless in Kyoto

The Japanese government takes its dwindling birth rate seriously enough to conduct surveys on how its people are feeling about relationship.  The latest one indicates the population issue is not going to solve itself any time soon:
According to the poll in June this year by the National Institute of Population and Social Security Research, a record high 61.4 percent of unmarried men between 18 and 34 reported having no girlfriend, up 9.2 percentage points since 2005. Unmarried women with no boyfriend in the same age group hit a record 49.5 percent, up 4.8 percentage points. The very idea of having girlfriends and boyfriends seems to be on the way out.

Shopping underground

Salon, of all websites, has an article about renewed interest in the recreational and commercial use of underground spaces in the US.  I like this paragraph:
Historically, developers have spent a lot of time trying to make underground spaces feel like they’re not underground. But the weirdness of an underground park is exactly why we like it. It’s intriguing and strange and a little bit spooky. “The underground can be claustrophobic, but it can also be this cozy, Fantastic Mr. Fox layer of reality,” says Barasch. So, rather than turn underground spaces into sterile retail or prefab food courts, ablaze with primary colors and piped-in pop music, developers could instead embrace the natural state of these spaces — their “undergroundness” — when designing for them. This doesn’t mean making them cheerless, it simply means respecting their subterranean identity, much like the High Line kept in place some of the former railroad’s industrial decay.

Movies to see

After a year of not too much to get excited about, it's surprising to see that there are at least 3 movies of interest which are about to be released in Australia and are getting strong reviews:

1.  early reviews of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol are very good, and as I anticipated, Brad Bird has apparently made an excellent live action director.  A couple of reviewers are actually calling this the most enjoyable MI movie,  so I am keen to see it.

The NYT has an interesting article about Mr Bird in which it's noted that Tom Cruise contacted him after The Incredibles and asked, if ever he wanted to do live action, to direct him.  There you go - Tom has good intuition about some things, at least. 

2.  Tintin starts on Boxing Day, and it's likely my family will be there to see it at the earliest opportunity.  The reviews remain mostly strong, and I see it has already made a couple of hundred million dollars in Europe.  (It seems particularly popular in France - I am a little surprised at the weakness in the English box office.  Maybe some people did pay attention to the relentless and bizarre Guardian obsession against the film?

3.  Spielberg's War Horse also gets released on Boxing Day, and although it seems to me to be getting very little in the way of pre-publicity,  some preview audiences have been pretty impressed.  I am pretty sure I will have to overcome my horse aversion as see it.

Saturday night cooking report

Why did it take me so many years to get around to cooking a version of paella?  I've like the idea of this dish for a long time.  I think I have rarely eaten it, but I have always like watching how it's made on cooking shows.

Finally, I was prompted by a Slate article headline I saw this week: 

Paella Is a Party! Stop wasting your time with risotto.

So, last night I finally got around to making a relatively straight forward chicken and prawn paella, and it came out pretty good. The recipe was based on one from from (which had many, many versions to try), but I did vary it a bit:

Ingredients (serves 6)

  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 6 chicken thigh fillets, halved
  • 12 medium green king prawns, peeled leaving tails intact, deveined
  • 2 chorizo sausages, coarsely chopped
  • 1 brown onion, coarsely chopped
  • 1 red capsicum, seeded, coarsely chopped
  • 2 cups arborio rice
  • 2 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 2 tsp ground smoked paprika
  • 1/2 tsp saffron threads
  • 400g can diced tomatoes
  • 1 litre chicken stock
  • 1 cup water
  • Fresh continental parsley leaves, to serve
The chicken is cooked in the olive oil first (and set aside), then the prawns (also set aside) and finally the chorizo.   Leave the chorizo in and add the onion and capsicum and cook til softened.  (Actually, I think next time I would just add the choriso, onion and capsicum at the same time.)  Add the rice, garlic, paprika and saffron (personally, I don't think the absence of saffron is going to be noticeable) and stir for a minute, then add the tomato and stock.  Leave to cook under low heat for 15 minutes (no stirring is important) Add the chicken gently and let cook for another 10 minutes.  

Now, the recipe then calls for the cup of water, add the prawns on top, cover and cook for 5 minutes.  This reheats the prawns, but I think you would always have to leave the cover off again to let all the additional water be aborbed/steam off.

I changed the water to half a cup of white wine and water, but even then, I think next time I would try a bit less liquid at this stage. 

This receipe is also devoid of green (well, save for the parsley, which I didn't have.)  So we added a cup of frozen peas that had been unfrozen in boiling water, and stirred it in at the last minute.

Some recipes note that it is important to let paella rest for 5 or 10 minutes after cooking, and I think there is  something to that.

I'm not sure that arborio rice is really the best for this too; next time I would be inclined just to try any old medium grain rice; but don't get me wrong, it tasted pretty good even with arborio.

Anyway, even the kids found it acceptable, and my wife liked it too, although we both agreed a little bit of chilli flake would be nice too if we were cooking it just for ourselves.  In any event, it was another happy Saturday night when a new recipe is successful.

Friday, December 09, 2011

The kind rat

Helping your fellow rat: Rodents show empathy-driven behavior

Rats will try to free trapped fellow rats, it seems. How nice of them.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Higgs interrupts my busyness

Is the Higgs boson real? | Ian Sample | Science |

The Guardian reports on rumours of a significant Higgs announcement, and helpfully provides some physicists' commentary.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Monday, December 05, 2011

Climate change not in retreat

Three-quarters of climate change is man-made : Nature News & Comment

Interesting new study with some interesting conclusions, using a new method:

Knutti and Huber found that greenhouse gases contributed 0.6–1.1 °C to the warming observed since the mid-twentieth century, with the most statistically likely value being a contribution of about 0.85 °C. Around half of that contribution from greenhouse gases — 0.45 °C — was offset by the cooling effects of aerosols. These directly influence Earth's climate by scattering light; they also have indirect climate effects through their interactions with clouds.
The authors calculated a net warming value of around 0.5 °C since the 1950s, which is very close to the actual temperature rise of 0.55 °C observed over that period. Changes in solar radiation — a hypothesis for global warming proffered by many climate sceptics — contributed no more than around 0.07 °C to the recent warming, the study finds.
To test whether recent warming might just be down to a random swing in Earth’s unstable climate — another theory favoured by sceptics — Knutti and Huber conducted a series of control runs of different climate models without including the effects of the energy-budget parameters. But even if climate variability were three times greater than that estimated by state-of-the-art models, it is extremely unlikely to have produced a warming trend as pronounced as that observed in the real world, they found.

The Kevin problem

Julia Gillard rallies as Tony Abbott's rating falls, while Kevin Rudd blasts Labor conference |

Is it just me, or does News Ltd seem especially keen to talk up "Kevin Rudd is bound to challenge" stories i the last few weeks?

I would assume he was upset at not being mentioned by Gillard at her conference speech, but surely the point is that no commentator seems to think that Rudd has more than a handful of rusted on supporters within the Parliament. Maybe he is also smarting over not being recognized for priming Slipper to take over the speaker role: but then again, he denied he was directly involved in a plot.

Anyhow, I would have thought that most Australians at this time of year were not playing too close attention to the Labor conference, and for those that did, it seems to me that they probably got the impression of Gillard coming out of it pretty well.

Sure, the party now supports gay marriage, but no expects that it will pass on a conscience vote. There - those that want it can now blame the Coalition for not doing a similar thing, as I wouldn't mind betting that the few Labor people who would not vote for it might be matched by the few Coalition that would cross the floor. A conscience vote on this seems to me the right thing to do on a matter that a large section of the community does think relates to a very ancient tradition and matter relating to morality.

Uranium to India was a clear Gillard win, and the endorsement of a disability insurance scheme is a real Labor style reform that might go over with the electorate as very worthwhile.

But what to do about Kevin if he maintains his unhappiness in the new year? I mean, until the pokies reform is bedded down (probably by a compromise of some sort), I can't see Gillard's approval, or Labor's primary vote, climbing too high just yet. So Kevin will still have something to agitate over.

Yet with a hung parliament, he can't afford to resign and have a by-election, even if a plum UN job was beckoning him.

He is, basically, the unsolvable problem, at least for the next 6 to 12 months.