Monday, February 28, 2011

The itch

When I saw this headline on a Physorg story a couple of weeks ago:

Tiny 'microworms' could be implanted under the skin for continuous medical monitoring

it immediately struck me as something you would not want a potential sufferer of Morgellons disease to read. But, if you did have a delusional belief that you had itchy fibres under your skin, wouldn't it be more comforting to believe they are a high tech monitoring device implanted by aliens (or time travelling doctors) rather than a mystery bug or fungus? I'd go for the high tech explanation; it would make me seem more special.

In any event, I've just noticed that Neuroskeptic has a long and interesting post about the "disease". Well worth reading, if you like strange diseases of the mind.

By the way, while I'm certainly a Morgellon's skeptic, I have had this persistent itchy spot on my left shoulder blade for years. If ever I start talking about finding fibres coming out that of it, readers are authorised to email me with strong recommendations to see a psychiatrist.

Carbon taxing

There are three opinion pieces about pricing carbon today which are of interest:

Henry Ergas runs the “traditional” arguments against acting unilaterally.  In The Australian (of course.)

Kenneth Davidson goes apocalyptic and believes the Australian scheme and targets are a pittance anyway, and arguments that people should get used to the fact that much, much more to reduce CO2 will be necessary:

A safe climate scenario requires that the present global warming of just under 1 degree not be exceeded. Globally, this requires the end of the fossil fuel industries.

According to David Spratt, co-author of Climate Code Red: the case for emergency action, ''This requires emergency action, and probably 10 per cent or more of world production will be required for a sustained period to build a new energy system and economy. This is huge but is about a third of the production countries such as Australia, the United States and Britain diverted to defence production during World War II.''

The latest scientific modelling of climate change suggests that if the globe warms by 4 degrees - the likely result if the commitments made at Copenhagen in 2009 are all that is done - the consequences would be far more serious than if the allies were defeated in WWII.

According to Professor Kevin Anderson, director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change in Britain, ''If you have got a population of 9 billion by 2050 and you hit 4, 5 or 6 degrees, you might have half a billion people surviving.''

Well, we all hope it's not as bad as that.

Phillip Coorey speculates (in a plausible way, I think) about the future politics of all this. 

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Galaxies, worm holes and spoilsports

It was reported last week that a new study showed that the MOND theory (the modified gravity theory that some astrophysicists are still pursing despite it not being widely accepted) works well with yet another class of galaxy.  This got some mainstream media attention, which really annoyed physicist Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance.    Carroll complains about the reports said this theory challenges the existence of dark matter.  Not so, said Carroll, pointing out that MOND works well at galaxy level, but everyone knows it doesn’t work at the scale of galactic clusters.   What’s more (he says) it’s not an elegant theory at all – it’s ugly, and we all know how physicists hate “ugly”.  (Except when it comes to string theory, in a large number of cases.)

So the short story is:  even with MOND, you still need dark matter to make the universe work right.

I find that’s a pity.  Big science is stuck in a bit of a rut at the moment, and it would be good to see something major which is currently widely accepted turn out to be wrong.

Of more science fiction-y interest is a new paper that talks about the possibility of wormholes existing on the insides of stars - forming connections with stars on the other side of the universe:

The scientists began investigating the idea of wormholes between stars when they were researching what kinds of astrophysical objects could serve as entrances to wormholes. According to previous models, some of these objects could look similar to stars.

This idea led the scientists to wonder if wormholes might exist in otherwise ordinary stars and neutron stars. From a distance, these stars would look very much like normal stars (and normal neutron stars), but they might have a few differences that could be detectable.

To investigate these differences, the researchers developed a model of an ordinary star with a tunnel at the star’s center, through which matter could move. Two stars that share a wormhole would have a unique connection, since they are associated with the two mouths of the wormhole. Because exotic matter in the wormhole could flow like a fluid between the stars, both stars would likely pulse in an unusual way. This pulsing could lead to the release of various kinds of energy, such as ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays.

I hope Sean Carroll stays away from this one: it's too intriguing an idea to be shot down too quickly.

In the garden today

There were lots of these type of smallish butterflies around.  I don’t know why, but Brisbane always seems to have an overabundance of black and white butterflies.  It seems rare to find one with more interesting colours. 

In any event, the photos came out pretty well, I thought:

Butterfly 1

Buterfly 2

Friday, February 25, 2011

Trouble in China

Did you realise there was a pretty severe drought going on in China? No, nor did I; I'm obviously not paying enough attention:

Gripped by its worst drought for 60 years, the world's biggest wheat producer is desperate for a downpour to avoid a crop failure that would have an impact on food prices around the world.


In other drought news, here's a discussion of a really big one in recent-ish pre-history (50,000 years ago). Lake Victoria dried up?:

The "H1 megadrought," as it's known, was one of the most severe climate trials ever faced by anatomically modern humans.

Africa's Lake Victoria, now the world's largest tropical lake, dried out, as did Lake Tana in Ethiopia, and Lake Van in Turkey.

The Nile, Congo and other major rivers shriveled, and Asian summer monsoons weakened or failed from China to the Mediterranean, meaning the monsoon season carried little or no rainwater.

The article notes that they think it had something to do with "a massive surge of icebergs and meltwater into the North Atlantic at the close of the last ice age", and as there is less water to go there now, maybe it won't happen again. We all hope so.

I also see that The Economist has an article about the difficulties of feeding an anticipated 9 billion people; drought or no drought.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Please keep liking me

The Christian Science Monitor notes that Saudi Arabia's king has become very generous suddenly:

As other leaders across the Middle East scurry to appease discontented citizens, the king introduced 19 new measures estimated to cost 135 riyals ($36 billion), according to John Sfakianakis, chief economist of Banque Sausi Fransi. The measures address inflation and housing, expand social security benefits, and ease unemployment and education costs – two areas of particular concern to Saudi youths.
The article says that King Abdullah is already reasonably popular. You can never be too sure these days, though.

As if they aren't in enough trouble already...

Japan has strange ideas at times as to how to help the environment, such as "we love whales so much that we need to kill a hundred or two each year in the name of science just to make sure they're still getting on OK. Now pass me the whale bacon."

Along the same lines:
Sakana-kun, the fish expert and TV figure well-known for his blowfish-shaped cap, is about to become Japan's "osakana taishi" (fish ambassador) to promote fish consumption and boost the declining industry.... The farm ministry expects Sakana-kun to "send out information" about fish, the fishing industry and related government policies, it said in a statement. Fish has been declining as a staple amid a shift to more Western diets.
I don't think the fish feel they need such an ambassador.

Bridge to nowhere

Judith Curry, the climate scientist who started a blog with the stated aim of building bridges between climate scientists and climate skeptics, has revealed that she never intended including those scientists who blog at Real Climate.

This all comes out in the post she finally decided to run on “hide the decline” and the use of tree ring proxies.  Gavin Schmidt from Real Climate turned up in comments, and a good slanging match evolved from there.

But I can’t see how anyone can read Curry and think she is genuinely open minded.  Her initial post indicates that she is not widely read on the topic, but that she is sceptical that work to date has any value.    She ends with (my emphasis):

If there is a problem, lets get to the bottom of it and fix it.

But when Schmidt turns up and complains that, as she’s saying that she agrees with the never-fail- to-bore windbag McIntyre , she’s accusing the scientists concerned of being outright dishonest, rather than having a mere difference of opinion as to how to display information, she responds with:

If you don’t like dishonest, try misguided and pseudoscience.

Gavin further down:

your method of argument in the top post and the conclusions you draw can be argued and drawn for any subjective decision about pretty much any presentation of complex data. Once you do it based on your prior prejudices against one set of researchers, the flood gates are open to apply it to anyone. We therefore end up with a situation where any difference of opinion is put down to dishonesty, and the process of objective scientific analysis has been tossed to the wolves.

You see your stance as brave, while in fact it is just lazy. I’m sure your students are proud.

And further down, when Curry starts making the big sweeping statements that her initial post indicated were only hunches, Gavin writes:

You betray complete ignorance of any of this literature. “Statistical models that make no sense in terms of calculating hemispheric or global average temperature anomalies” – got a cite for that?

And yes, as is her habit, she excuses sweeping statements by telling us her detailed criticisms are coming in a later post. 

Her real attitude to Real Climate is shown towards the end of the thread we get this from Curry:

I find it of primary importance to build bridges with the broader community of scientists (including skeptics), the public, and policy makers. I stopped bothering with the RC crowd in summer 2007, when i received an unpleasant email from Mike Mann chastising me over congratulating Steve McIntyre on winning the 2008 Science Webblog Award. It was at that point that I stopped having anything to do with RC (other than my driveby comments about Montford’s book last summer). So I have built a bridge in the form of a platform for dialogue, they can meet me half way or not (pretty much not, the prefer the circling wagons strategy). But that is not the bridge that I am particularly interested in.

But the best summary of Curry’s disingenuous approach in her blog is from dhogaza:

Judith Curry … you’ve used this “my eyes glaze over”, and “it’s outside the arena of my personal expertise” argument before.

Yet … whenever you do, you come down on the side of the denialists.

Your personal philosophy seems to be…

“If I don’t understand it, the anti-science people are probably right”.

Ponder what this means to your personal reputation (whatever is left of it).

Absolutely spot on.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Christchurch remembered


It’s so very sad to see the devastation and loss of life in Christchurch. This is from my family’s visit there nearly one year ago.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

James on the moon

If it had been on TV before, I must have missed it. But I very much enjoyed James May on the Moon on SBS tonight. His struggle to find words to explain his feelings while at the height of his U2 flight was sort of touching.

It's showing on line at SBS for now, at least.

Expansion noted

Readers in this corner of the multiverse who have not yet realised that I have greatly expanded my rambling post from yesterday about whether or not they are free to kill at  will today are hereby referred to my previous post.

Arab analysis

Just a note here that the column by David Hirst in The Age this morning seems a pretty reasonable bit of analysis of the current remarkable goings on in the Arab world.

Monday, February 21, 2011

I’m of many minds about this…

I’ve been meaning to refer to a new round of multiverse talk on the internet that arose a few weeks ago, mainly due to a new book by string theory promoter Brian Greene. (The book is getting good reviews.) Somewhere, out there in the multiverse, I guess I already have.

This was all kicked off for me by a post by Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong. He noted that had recently seen Lee Smolin give a talk at a New York museum in which (from what Woit could remember):

….he said that discussions of a multiverse containing infinite numbers of copies of ourselves behaving slightly differently made him uneasy for moral reasons. The worry is that one might be led to stop caring that much about the implications of one’s actions. After all, whatever mistake you make, in some other infinite number of universes, you didn’t do it.

Now, before I get to talking about that issue, I should mention that Woit (who certainly hates the string theory version of the multiverse for its untestability, but seems more open minded about other theories that lead to them) also links to a sceptical review of Greene’s book (“The Hidden Reality.”) This review is one of the best short summaries of the problem of string theory, and how those problems evolved, I have read. It’s well worth a visit.

And, again, before I get onto the multiverse and morality, Peter Woit’s post has a very good series of comments in which there is some discussion of whether the widely accepted theory of early universe inflation leads to enough multiple universes as a possibility anyway. In fact, one of the whole issues in Woit’s thread is that he complains how physicists do mix up the different theories that lead to multiple universes and act as if there is some connection between them all.

This is a good point. I would have thought that the type of multiverse with the real moral issue is the one arising from Everett’s many worlds interpretation of quantum theory. But string theory allows for so many universes that it seems you can get to multiple versions of yourself that way too (in fact, I’m not sure of this, but with more versions of yourself than Everett’s version alone?)

So, back to morality:

I’ve run out of time. Will continue later.


Meanwhile, more detail of the issue of the multiverse and morality came up at Cosmic Variance, where physicist Sean Carroll noted a post at Huffington Post by Clay Naff (who I am unfamiliar with.) Naff argues that the multiverse violates the "Moral Principle" which he explains as follows:

It states that we should resist accepting any proposition that tends to disable moral reasoning, unless and until the scientifically interpreted evidence compels us.

I honed this principle in the context of my critique of religion, but it applies, for example, to the secular idea of the philosopher's zombie. The Moral Principle prevents us from accepting the idea that anyone else is a zombie who appears to be just like any other person, except that there's no real consciousness inside. If we were to accept that idea, there would be no moral barrier to torturing or murdering "zombies." In fact, it would be much like Hitler's dehumanization of the Jews.

Now, Naff doesn't actually spend any time explaining how the multiverse would corrupt moral reasoning, but Sean Carroll has a go at what his argument seems to be:
What he seems to be concerned about — although he never quite comes out and says it, so a bit of interpretation is required, and I could always be misreading — is the possibility that our moral intuitions could be undermined by the idea that there are an infinite number of copies of ourselves out there in the multiverse, some of them exactly like us and many of them slightly different, e.g. worlds where Hitler was victorious, etc. In such a setup, should we be concerned that morality is pointless, because every good thing and every bad thing eventually occurs elsewhere in the cosmos?
That seemed a fair guess. But Naff then turns up in comments and disagrees. His example of why the idea is dangerous is:
suppose that you truly believe that there are infinite copies of yourself “out there,” including every possible variation of your life history. Now, suppose I offer you a million dollars to play Russian Roulette with a gun that has five of six chambers loaded. Would it not be rational to take the bet? And so, would it not be rational to abandon “this” life at every frustration or mistake?
Carroll, before Naff's comment, argued that this should have no effect on morality at all:
The job of morality is to figure out what we think we human beings should be doing, which, as we’ve been discussing, does not reduce to looking at what actually happens in the universe....
I don’t think we should be concerned about that (even if it’s true, which it may very well be). An idea like this doesn’t “disable our moral reasoning” — in fact, it might be extremely helpful to our moral reasoning. If your version of morality depends on the assumption that what happens here on Earth is unique in the universe, then it’s time to update your morality, not to put your hands over your ears when people start talking about the multiverse.
Naff has to point out something important to his view in another comment:
The argument I am making has everything to do with the premature adoption of a conjecture as scientific fact in the popular consciousness. Can this do harm? History demonstrates it. Leave aside “Social Darwinism.” I presume that none of you would deliberately torture a sick child. Yet, early in the 20th century, the premature adoption of the scientific hypothesis that *starvation* could cure juvenile diabetes led to horrific maltreatment of already suffering children. You may scoff at the notion that MW as a worldview (rather than as a scientific hypothesis) can have terrible consequences, but I can only say that it shows a poor understanding of history, moral reasoning and/or the social impact of ideas.

What to make of all this? Some points:

First: it's surprising that in all of the threads, no one has mentioned that Everett himself believed that many-worlds theory implied a type of personal immortality, and it is possible that this even influenced his daughter who committed suicide.

It seems to me to be a little hard to argue against belief in the multiverse having no implications on morality, even though they are ambiguous. Score one for Naff.

Two: We've already heard some of the possible negative implications, but you can try and spin it in a positive sense. As someone says in the Cosmic Variance thread:
I for one, if given the option, would prefer to live in the most moral of all multiverses, and will make my choices to promote that end result… It’s like saying that because there are bad neighborhoods, everyone should stop trying to build good ones.
Also, as I noted here some time ago, Christian physicist Don Page is un-fazed by a multiverse, but in his paper "Does God so Love the Multiverse" (I still like that title) it seems he does not address the type of multiverse which sees multiple versions of the same person and what that implies for moral decision making.

Here's another idea: the idea of re-incarnation has some intuitive appeal if it is seen as a learning cycle, leading ultimately to the soul being incorporated (or re-incorporated) into the Divine. How does a multiverse tie in with that idea? Like parallel computing, does it mean a faster process of God becoming God?

But getting back to the negative: as someone else notes in the Cosmic Variance thread:
What I decide now will irrevocably select a branch for this universe from now on. Which branch would I like to be on?

How is that not a workable basis for a workable morality, albeit an openly selfish one?

This leads to my next point.

When talking about morality and the effect of scientific and religious beliefs, there is an important distinction to be made between the general and personal. The thing about systems of morality or ethics that has always interested me is the motivation to personally act in accordance with the rules that everyone can agree theoretically should be followed.

A religion that believes in an afterlife with real consequences for how you have acted in life does provide a motivation to act morally, whether or not you can "get away" with it during life.

Similarly, belief in a multiverse may be unlikely to affect how everyone agrees we should ideally behave towards each other, but it is conceivable that it may (as in the last quote above) provide an incentive to act in accordance with whatever you can get away with now; or it may (as with Everett's daughter, or the Russian roulette example of Naff) make you careless as to whether or not you continue to live in this world.

On the other hand, does this really change anything from the moral reasoning that can already exist in an non-theistic vision of a single universe? It seems on reflection that a non-theistic multiverse or single universe both really contain the same lack of motivation for not getting away with what you can. The multiverse, may, however, have an additional incentive for the suicidally inclined (let's end this pained, hopeless version of me, and let the happy ones continue.)

Four: It always has to be remembered that over-certainty of anything, both scientific or metaphysical, can be the enemy of good moral decisions.

We would all agree that the world would be (or would have been) a better place if there were some less certainty of things like a heavenly reward in the minds of suicidal terrorists; or that witches with Satanic powers can wreck havoc in tribal community; or that the eradication of Jews was eugenically in the long term interests of humanity.

Yet, given that most versions of the multiverse are not really expected to be experimentally verifiable, this should be one belief on which it is easy to convince people to not bet even a small amount of money.

Five: As Bee Hossenfelder notes in the Cosmic Variance thread, there is one other scientific viewpoint that is here already, and which (in my view) is a much greater problem:

The “moral argument” would forbid you to accept any fundamental theory with fully deterministic evolution. If you have no free will, you’re arguably not responsible for your actions in any meaningful sense. Instead, it’s the initial conditions of the universe that are responsible. (Or the final conditions for that matter.) So. What now? Cut funding for everybody who dares to believe time evolution is fundamentally deterministic because the philosophical implications are sociologically difficult?
Good point, and I think there is little doubt that, apart from fundamental physics which implies no free will, the neuroscience and popular science articles that argue that we are not really in control of our decisions is deathly harmful to moral reasoning.

What's more, I have long thought, from various examples too numerous to list now, that the absence of free will is an idea that, although counter-intuitive enough to not think about consciously most of the time, has already seeped far into the collective unconscious of society, and for many people is affecting everything from half-conscious rationalisation of immoral behaviour, to depression.

I think this is the far more important issue regarding science and morality, and should be better addressed in education and popular philosophy.

The multiverse,meanwhile, remains a mere speculation, but one which allows for wild speculation which, I have to admit, I've always enjoyed.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The wisdom of the Bieber

A very amusing sarcastic column in the Guardian ridiculing a magazine profile of one J Bieber. I like this part:
...interest was piqued to levels of feverish enthusiasm, nay fanaticism, by a quote from Bieber's mother, who is apparently convinced she and her son were personally selected by God "to bring light and inspiration to the world". This may seem to amount to a certain scaling-down of ambition on the part of God, who previously opted to bring light and inspiration to the world by sending His only son to minister among us, heal lepers, walk on water, raise the dead etc, rather than, say, performing tepid R&B-influenced pop and having a "trademark haircut", but you've got to move with the times: it's Cowell's world now! You start bringing everybody down with the whole leprosy thing, you're asking to get buzzed off. And besides, Bieber has an array of miraculous powers entirely of his own, enthusiastically detailed by the writer: "He can break dance and do 'the Dougie' . . . he can solve a Rubik's Cube in less than two minutes . . . this is not your typical teen idol." The Dougie and the Rubik's Cube, you say? It's a sign! A sign! Stitch that, Dawkins! No wonder they call them Beliebers! Count Lost in Showbiz in!
But then, there's also this:
But he saves his greatest wisdom for the subject of politics. "I'm not sure about parties, but whatever they have in Korea, that's bad," he offers, coming down at a stroke against both a Stalinist totalitarian dictatorship and a fully functioning democracy. Perhaps he's a Chomskyan anarcho-syndicalist, which would certainly explain his hit single One Less Lonely Girl Under a Federated, Decentralised System of Free Associations Incorporating Economic as Well as Other Socialist Institutions.

More about the rain

Further to the post below about a couple of Nature papers on the connection between an increase in Northern Hemisphere precipitation and global warming, I can't say that I have seen any substantial Australian media reporting on this yet. (OK, there are short reports, but they certainly haven't been front and centre on websites.) I would have thought they would have attracted more attention here, given our wet, wet summer. (Darwin has just posted a record 24 hour rainfall, which seems pretty remarkable for such a famously wet place.)

But I also see that Andy Revkin is complaining that the Nature abstract, and media reporting, is overselling the papers and overlooking the caveats that appear in the studies themselves. Revkin's post contains much by way of explanation from climate scientists, though, as to how this happens. Real Climate's post on the topic certainly does not oversell it.

Roger Pielke Jnr, meanwhile, continues his "nothing to see here until I say you can see it - in about 30 years time" routine on climate change, by emphasising that, just because it rains more under a warmer climate, it doesn't mean you can say this is connected to worse flooding. As someone in comments notes:

Also I think it will eventually strike many observers as, well, hairsplitting, to argue that a trend of increasing intensity of rainfall events cannot be connected to human well-being unless and until we can show that flood damage unquestionably rises even controlling for all other contributing factors. All analogies are flawed at some level, but its a bit like seeing sparks from a distant fire settle onto one's rooftop, and not worry about them because, watch as you may, they just keep going out. Rain events and major snowmelt events cause floods when they get intense enough, this is like saying a driver who has many close calls is likely to have a serious accident eventually. Even though other things (previously saturated soil for example) certainly help set the stage.

And why just focus on flood? What about the other harms almost surely associated with intense precipitation (rain or snow) events, like traffic fatalities during the events themselves? And for intense rain specifically (but also large snow melt events), how about soil erosion on hill sides (even gently sloping), and sewage overflows into harbors and streams, and leaching of nutrients from lawns and farm fields, and deer kills in deep snow?
Well, the last point about deer kills in snow is an example too far, but I agree generally.

Furry exhibitionists

An odd report at Physorg about prairie dogs – a species so cute it’s always a toss up in my mind as to whether it’s them or meerkats I would rather see illegally released into Australia:

Researchers in the US studying the behavior of black-tailed prairie dogs at a local zoo have discovered they behave differently, kissing and cuddling each other more when people are watching than when they are unobserved.

As I link to Physorg all the time, I’m sure they won’t mind my copying the photo that accompanies the article:


More from the report:

Dr Eltorai said their study showed that like humans, the prairie dogs often behaved differently when they were being watched, and many seemed to enjoy the attention, becoming more relaxed and spending less time watching for potential dangers as the numbers of visitors increased.

Just don't teach them how to use video cameras, OK?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Nature articles on floods, snow and global warming

Well, that's good timing. The Guardian points me towards two Nature articles that argue for the connection between floods in the last decade or so and global warming.

First, to England:

Global warming made the floods that devastated England and Wales in the autumn of 2000, costing £3.5bn, between two and three times more likely to happen, new research has found. This is the first time scientists have quantified the role of human-induced climate change in increasing the risk of a serious flood and represents a major development in climate science.

"It shows climate change is acting here and now to load the dice towards more extreme weather," said Myles Allen of Oxford University, who led the work, which he started after his own home was nearly flooded in 2000. It will also have wider consequences, say experts, by making lawsuits for compensation against energy companies more likely to succeed.

Well, I don't know about that last point, given that it is, in theory, possible for everyone to stop using electricity from coal burning power stations and burn candles instead, but it suits us to continue using their dirty power.

The Guardian article points us to a more general Nature paper about precipitation. From the abstract:

Here we show that human-induced increases in greenhouse gases have contributed to the observed intensification of heavy precipitation events found over approximately two-thirds of data-covered parts of Northern Hemisphere land areas. These results are based on a comparison of observed and multi-model simulated changes in extreme precipitation over the latter half of the twentieth century analysed with an optimal fingerprinting technique. Changes in extreme precipitation projected by models, and thus the impacts of future changes in extreme precipitation, may be underestimated because models seem to underestimate the observed increase in heavy precipitation with warming.
Well, that's encouraging, isn't it.

I know one of one regular reader here who, at another blog where climate science goes to die, or at least be beaten up and sent to the corner so it doesn't interfere with the vital goal of never, ever increasing taxes, likes to argue that if global warming means some people have to move, well, so be it. He suspects the more directly concerning effect of CO2 production will be ocean acidification leading to less sushi-mi available at reasonable prices.

Yet, surely if these studies are right, the effect of major floods over large areas in Queensland this summer show that the "just move"argument is badly flawed, even in Australia. As I have said before, the area flooded enormous, and major towns and cities such as Rockhampton, Bundaberg and Brisbane that can more-or- less live with major floods (say) every 50 - 100 years are not going to economically cope so well with huge floods (say) every 20 years. Not to mention the vast length of connecting roads, bridges and other infrastructure that need to be repaired and rebuilt after every flood.

People (quite rightly) talk about massive disruption if poor, low lying countries like Bangladesh have more major flooding under global warming.

But from where I'm standing, and especially if furthers studies like the two mentioned here are coming, it seems to me Australians should be very worried about more frequent flooding of the scale we just had in Queensland (and Victoria for that matter.)

And on a political note: the use of a levy to raise money to repair flood damage is probably a good idea from the point of view of reminding people that there is a specific cost to events that are linked to climate change.

UPDATE: Climate Progress has a long post on the topic, which includes a list of previous studies which did indeed predict greater extremes in precipitation under global warming. It's not a new suggestion.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Pharmaceutical companies say "phew"

It's been suspected for some time that the large number of women on the contraceptive pill, and the levels of estrogen in their urine, has been causing a large increase in estrogen in rivers and our water supply. However, a new study says this is not true:

Amber Wise, Kacie O'Brien and Tracey Woodruff note ongoing concern about possible links between chronic exposure to estrogens in the water supply and fertility problems and other adverse human health effects. Almost 12 million women of reproductive age in the United States take the pill, and their urine contains the hormone. Hence, the belief that oral contraceptives are the major source of estrogen in lakes, rivers, and streams. Knowing that sewage treatment plants remove virtually all of the main estrogen -- 17 alpha-ethinylestradiol (EE2) -- in oral contraceptives, the scientists decided to pin down the main sources of estrogens in water supplies.

Their analysis found that EE2 has a lower predicted concentration in U.S. drinking water than natural estrogens from soy and dairy products and animal waste used untreated as a farm fertilizer....

Some research cited in the report suggests that animal manure accounts for 90 percent of estrogens in the environment. Other research estimates that if just 1 percent of the estrogens in livestock waste reached waterways, it would comprise 15 percent of the estrogens in the world's water supply.
Interesting, although this still sounds to me likely a surprisingly uncertain area of knowledge.

Why the world wanders

Nouriel Roubini writes about why the world seems to be so lacking in leadership in key areas at the moment (including global warming).  The whole article seems a pretty good summary of the international power vacuum that, I suppose, shows no sign of ending any time soon.  His last paragraph:

In short, for the first time since the end of World War II, there is no nation—or strong alliance of nations—with the political will and economic leverage to secure its goals on the global stage. As in previous historical periods, this vacuum may favor the ambitious and the aggressive as they seek their own advantage. In such a world, the absence of a high-level agreement on creating a new collective-security system—focused on economics rather than military power—is not merely irresponsible, but dangerous. A G-Zero world without leadership and multilateral cooperation is an unstable equilibrium for global economic prosperity and security.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Reefer madness denied

Chris Middendorp, who has some experience has a community worker, writes how he is not surprised about the recent large study that confirmed (again) the relationship between marijuana use, particularly by teenagers, and psychosis:

I've always assumed this connection to be credible. Working for community agencies, I have seen again and again cannabis users develop paranoia, antisocial behaviour and psychosis. In many instances, the symptoms and behaviour cease when the cannabis use stops.

I also think it is revealing that among my circle of friends, of the five who were heavy cannabis users in the 1990s, four developed psychotic illnesses. Years later they are all still regularly hospitalised for psychiatric treatment.

I won't argue that cannabis causes schizophrenia or any other mental disorder, but it seems fairly apparent that cannabis can let the psychotic genie, as it were, out of the bottle.

I've said before that, my (much more limited observations) have also led me to the same suspicion. Yet, as Middenthorp says in the rest of his article, casual marijuana users who have no history of mental illness are loathe to admit that such studies are right. They will argue about other things too:
At a friend's party last month, I fell into conversation with Peter, a 30-year-old man who vociferously complained about Victoria Police's random saliva testing of drivers. It was futile to catch cannabis users, Peter said. "Cannabis doesn't affect your driving," he explained emphatically. I spent 30 minutes listening to Peter and two women discussing the benefits of daily pot smoking and deriding the police as "fascists" for spoiling the good times. These were tertiary educated, employed, middle-class adults.

They were daily pot smokers?

Here's another thing about illicit drug users: they like to claim that they are normal functioning members of society and are harming no one. This is, I bet, wrong in 90% of cases. At the very least, such frequent marijuana users are known technically as crashing bores: like those who spend half an hour arguing that marijuana doesn't affect driving, or disputing the fact that a significant number of young users will end up with a crippling mental illness.

Mars needs women (fertile women)

The Independent notes that future astronauts to Mars, or their kids, may well end up with fertility problems at the end:

According to a review by three scientists looking into the feasibility of colonising Mars, astronauts would be well advised to avoid getting pregnant along the way because of the high levels of radiation that would bombard their bodies as they travelled through space.

Without effective shielding on spaceships, high-energy proton particles would probably sterilise any female foetus conceived in deep space and could have a profound effect on male fertility. "The present shielding capabilities would probably preclude having a pregnancy transited to Mars," said radiation biophysicist Tore Straume of Nasa's Ames Research Center in an essay for the Journal of Cosmology.

The DNA which guides the development of all the cells in the body is easily damaged by the kind of radiation that would assail astronauts as they journeyed through space. Studies on non-human primates have shown that exposure to ionising radiation kills egg cells in a female foetus during the second half of pregnancy. "One would have to be very protective of those cells during gestation, during pregnancy, to make sure that the female didn't become sterile so they could continue the colony," Dr Straume said.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Big numbers

Someone's done some figures about the amount of information humans are now pushing around and storing. Here are some interesting bits (very pun-y):
Looking at both digital memory and analog devices, the researchers calculate that humankind is able to store at least 295 exabytes of information. (Yes, that's a number with 20 zeroes in it.)

Put another way, if a single star is a bit of information, that's a galaxy of information for every person in the world. That's 315 times the number of grains of sand in the world. But it's still less than one percent of the information that is stored in all the DNA molecules of a human being.

"These numbers are impressive, but still miniscule compared to the order of magnitude at which nature handles information" Hilbert said. "Compared to nature, we are but humble apprentices. However, while the natural world is mind-boggling in its size, it remains fairly constant. In contrast, the world's technological information processing capacities are growing at exponential rates."

Strange timing

As soon as the Brisbane flood occurred, there began some claims that the Wivenhoe Dam should have been maintained at lower levels given that the forecast was for a particularly wet la Nina summer.

Of course, given that only a couple of years ago the dam had reached 17%, common sense suggested you would not lightly reduce the levels below the full level for drinking water. (Everyone knows by now that it can hold double that amount for flood mitigation.) In fact, as the Australian reminds us again today, the State Opposition between October and December last year were calling for the dam to hold more than its "normal" drinking water capacity to help off set the next drought. (How the Opposition can make political mileage out of what happened in January remains something of a mystery, then.)

Yet now that there are insurance companies circling and trying to find ways to avoid payments, and an enquiry has just started to look into the whole question, the State government has already decided to empty the dam by 25% as a precaution.

This just seems strangely premature to me. Who, apart from Dr Dragun (who seemed to be the first off the cab to criticise the dam being kept at 100%), has been advising the government about this? Are hydrologists as fractious a group as geologists (the latter seemingly containing a disproportionate number of climate change sceptics?) Is the weather bureau fully confident of further torrential rain in the next few months that could not be handled by faster water release once a bad weather system is on its way? Otherwise, why not wait for the full enquiry, which has just started?

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Well, that's ruined the simulation

The Guardian has another story on the fake Mars mission being conducted in Russia, as they are about to "land" on the fake Mars surface.

The absolutely fundamental thing that makes this simulation psychologically different to the real thing is the fact that all of them know, in the back (and probably from time to time, the front) of their minds that they can walk out on it at any time if they are really fed up.

The other simulation ruining thing I noticed is this:
In their spare time the crew do their best to keep boredom at bay with books, DVDs and video games like Guitar Hero. A few months ago the French crew member, Romain Charles, gave juggling lessons with a set of balls improvised from linseed and balloons.
I'm sorry: there is no juggling to be done in space. This simulation just keeps getting less and less credible all the time...

Over-dedication to a career path

Well, I don't think I had heard before that the Captain of the whaling ship which was sunk by a sperm whale (and inspired Moby Dick) then went on to float around the Pacific with some other survivors for 3 harrowing months, ate his cousin to survive, was rescued, got taken back to Nantucket, then went back to sea as captain of the rescuing ship. Only to have it sink too.

The New York Times adds some further details.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Three Science Stories

1. Comforting, probably almost:

Apophis asteroid will probably almost certainly not smash into Earth, say scientists

2. Australian scientist working on a "thinking cap". (Probably more correctly called a "creativity cap".) I heard this guy being interviewed on the radio, and it certainly sounds interesting. This report is a bit light on details, so I must look around for more.

3. The US has been bit hit by a lot of snow lately, but was the January just gone any record for it being a cold month? Nope, apparently not:
Last month was the coolest January since 1994, according to scientists at NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center (NCDC) in Asheville, N.C. Across the contiguous United States, the average January temperature was 30.0 F, which is 0.8 F below the 1901-2000 average. And despite several large winter storms across the country, last month was the ninth driest January on record, much drier than normal.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Spider lost

Wow. That Spider-man stage show really sounds very, very strange. Full details at Slate.

More links to bad reviews at Salon.

Maybe they were going for the Springtime for Hitler effect?

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Greene on film

I see there's a new film version of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, but it's apparently had so-so reviews. (It also changes the setting of the film to the 1960's.)

I think I've noted here before that I found the novel very psychologically unconvincing in its portrayal of Pinkie, the amoral protagonist. The woman who tracks him down (I forget her name now) was written much better.

In any event, the reason for the post is to note that I'm currently reading The Quiet American, and it certainly seems to show him as a better, more mature writer. However, a couple of weeks ago the film version of the novel (the recent one with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser in the lead roles) was on TV and I decided to at least watch the start and see how well it reflected my mental image of the novel.

My immediate impression was that the Michael Caine character look far too cheery and not world weary, jaded and cynical enough. It's virtually impossible to act too glum to reflect a Greene main character, and Cain looked far too contented. Brendan Fraser looked better in his role. The movie also looked a tad too "pretty" compared to images I had of the settings in the novel. But I only watched the first 15 minutes or so, so perhaps it became more appropriately sordid later.

It's been a long time since I saw The Third Man, but I remember being rather under-whelmed by that too, despite its reputation. I just doubt that Greene translates well to the screen, probably because it's hard to get all that internal mental anguish up there for everyone to see.

The other thing about reading Greene that I've realised is that, being the subject of extensive biographies which have covered his, shall we say, bad habits in extensive detail*, and the fact that his autobiography explains how he had a compulsion to try new experiences (even playing to the extent of playing Russian roulette) to make himself feel "alive," whenever a character in his novels is doing something seedy, one immediately has the impression that Greene must be talking about it from personal experience. Thus, in one novel where a character goes to an African prostitute, or (in The Quiet American) uses opium, you can't help but feel you're reading a vignette from Greene's own life.

Maybe that's not always right, but he certainly was a complicated character (caused no doubt at least partly by bipolar disorder.) Not sure that I would ever embark on a biography about him though.

* I trust no one has forgotten this extract from a review of a book about him I posted a few years ago:
Greene as sex addict does not figure strongly in these letters. But in his exhaustive (and, at 2251 pages, exhausting) authorised biography of Greene, Norman Sherry annexes a list of 47 favourite prostitutes scribbled down by Greene in 1948 when his mistress Catherine Walston challenged him about rumours that he paid women for sex.

Monday, February 07, 2011

What I've been doing

Work and money continues to be a major distraction, but I wanted to note:

* Bad weather, part 1: It's a pretty "good" season for extreme weather that may encourage belief in climate change and political action on carbon emissions. So much so that Andrew Bolt seemed to have a fleeting moment of doubt last Friday (hinting that the heavy storms in Melbourne and Victoria, on top of the already unusual slow moving Victorian floods, really are "freaky"), but then he obviously had the strong urge to crush any hint of self doubt by a flurry of anti climate change posts over the weekend. I'm not going to link to them; he's an unthinking promoter of every bad argument against sensible precaution, and it's the political influence I'm sure he wields on the grass roots of the Coalition that makes him not a joke on the issue.

* Bad weather, part 2: Watching Cyclone Yasi coverage last week really made me a little sorry for journalists who were in the wrong spot (Cairns) for any interesting footage of the approaching storm. It is, in any event, impossible to get good footage of a really bad cyclone, given that no one sensible should be on the street, or even close to the windows, but the media seems not to have realised this yet. Skynew's coverage on the night of the storm was particularly ludicrous, with what seemed an hour of live footage of some smallish palm trees and shrubs being blown about in a motel room courtyard in Bowen being the best they could come up with.

Then, in the morning, it felt a bit anti climatic, given that the media still couldn't get into the worst affected areas.

But I thought the best cyclone damage footage to come out a couple of days later was from the Dunk Island resort. It's hard to imagine how long it will take to look good again, and you don't often see that many denuded trees in one place.

Oddly enough, you'll also find that the first comment following this on Youtube is by a guy who says the resort deserved it because the owner tried to hit on his 17 year old daughter during a recent bad holiday! Just a tad defamatory, I would have thought, and doesn't Youtube exercise any control over its comments section?

* Bad weather, part 3: I've had a couple of interesting conversations with people affected by the Brisbane flood. One was with the manager of a nice, new block of apartments facing the river on Coronation Drive. These are obviously built with an awareness that the underground car park can flood in a 1 in 100 flood, but the units are above the flood level. The problem is, they still put the electrical power for these buildings in the car park levels too, meaning the block was without power for 2 weeks, and even now that it is back on, the lifts are still awaiting repair! Given that it is about 8 to 10 stories high, (as are many on that stretch of Coronation Drive), this seems an issue which one would have thought the designers (and Council) should think about more carefully.

The second conversation was with a woman who has (or had) a nice house on the Brisbane river. She has lost retaining walls and is worried about pool subsidence, as well as the issue of what to do with a metre or so of mud in her backyard which might be (temporarily) helping to keep the pool in place. Apparently, the Council is suggesting she has to get rid of the mud, but they don't want it back in the river either. This remains an unresolved issue.

* In praise of animation: I saw Tangled, the Disney animated flick (and said to be the last of their "Princess" movies) and was very impressed. There is one sequence which plays so beautifully, I am not ashamed to say it brought a tear to my eye.

I am not alone in this, even amongst males. (I read - but have lost the link to - some blog review by an American father who said the same; but of course, he might be a big girlie man too.) It is, in a way, surprising that animation can move anyone to tears. But David Byrne had something interesting to say about this a few years ago:

Malu and I went to see The Incredibles, the new Pixar film about disgruntled retired superheroes. I laughed and cried, as I do at lots of animated movies. I wonder if I get more emotionally involved in animated characters than in films using real actors? Other than Spielberg movies that deliberately work the sentimental buttons it's much easier to identify with drawings than with real people.

Maybe this isn't strange. Maybe the fact that they're drawings makes them more ambiguous, more universal, and easier to identify with. Well, it's true with lots of other things — things that use metaphor, allegory and poetic ambiguity are generally more powerful emotionally than straight narrative.

I find myself increasingly in awe of animation lately, and the creativity that goes behind it. This comes from watching the "making of" documentaries that come on DVD's. I re-watched two severely under-rated and under-performing recent animated movies over Christmas (Astroboy, and The Tale of Despereaux,) and watching the documentaries after it just made me appreciate how much thought goes into creating animated worlds.

I suppose you could argue that art direction in any fantasy live action movie also plays a key role that is not often thought about by your average viewer; but with animation, the page is blank and is unaffected by the availability of locations that need to be dressed up. It is, in that sense, arguably the most artistically creative movie medium of all.

But not all animated movies grab me. Despicable Me seems to have done very well at the box office, but when I finally caught up with it on DVD, I found it very flat and not engaging at all.

* Avoiding the discussion: In a move sure to attract some amused comment, I've been busy creating a short, age appropriate, slide show movie with a sex education theme for my son. This is really very time consuming, as all the drawings are being done on my iPad and then transferred to the desktop for compilation. Use a bit of Midi music as the soundtrack, and occasional bits of computer generated voice, and it should all be finished in a week.

My wife knows of the project, and like (I'm sure) everyone else who will hear about it, considers this somewhat eccentric. However, as it is "men's work", she seems not so interested to see it.

This is really the result of not being able to find anything I consider appropriate in tone or content on the internet - which seems to me to be quite surprising, given what you can find on it. [There is a Victorian kid's sex education site, that is clearly designed for kids of about my son's age, but if every link is followed, it's really a case of more information than I feel he needs now. Also, the cartoony look is pretty ugly, and some of the illustrations are of outright questionable merit - one page shows a bunch of cartoon girls using mirrors to check themselves out.(!) I think The Vagina Monologues have got a lot answer for.]

The basic idea is for a short "what to expect from your body within the next year or two", and that does involve some discussion of internal plumbing and understanding of the basics of sexual reproduction. I've thrown in a bit of evolution too; why plants and animals share bits of each other in reproductions seems a sort of basic point to me. But all the issues of when to have sex, etc; that can wait til a bit older, if you ask me. I had better start on that Part 2 soon, though.

As a friend said to me on the weekend, "why not just talk about it?" Well yes, of course, I'll invite questions at the end of the show. Whether or not I'll be in the room to answer them, though, is a different matter. :)