Thursday, March 31, 2011

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Good for a giggle

Argentina gives Hugo Chavez press freedom award

An Argentina University, that is.
The university said it was giving Mr Chavez the Rodolfo Walsh award for "his commitment to defending the liberty of the people, consolidating Latin American unity, and defending human rights, truth and democratic values".

Update: as prompted by Jason, here's my animation of a key passage from the Gandhi letters in the news. (If anyone can suggest what an "eternal toothpick" is, I'm happy to hear it):

Update: I created two versions of this, and it's the first time I have tried using xtra normal. The second version had better timing in the dialogue, and I changed over to it here. But then the "camera angles" were worse. It seems you have no control at all over the angles that are used each time xtra normal "renders" the final product. I've therefore gone back to the first version. Meanwhile, I should be working. Oh well.

Happy place unhappy

All's not well at Tokyo Disneyland after quake

Tokyo Disneyland has not re-opened since the quake, not because of damage, but uncertainty over power supply. It remains unclear when it will be able to start up again.

Futurepundit wrote about Japanese power supply issues a couple of days ago. As he notes, this summer may not be the best one to be visiting the top half of Japan.

Not eBay, I trust

Used aircraft carrier up for sale

Britain has put aircraft carrier Ark Royal, the former flagship of the Royal Navy, up for sale on a military auction website.

Evolving delusions

Psychosis keeps up with the times � Mind Hacks

Well, we all knew this was true, didn't we? Still, it's an interesting enough topic (namely, how the content of delusions of those with psychosis tends to change with the type of technology and social concerns of the day.)

I remember thinking about this years ago when reading Evelyn Waugh's The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, which was based on his own psychotic episode.

Answer: a definite "maybe"

Can caffeine make us healthy? - Features, Food & Drink - The Independent

The article talks about lots of different possible health effects of caffeine, and is quite interesting.

A good news, bad enough news, story

Radioactivity spreads in Japan : Nature News

This is a really good article at the link on the amount of radiation fallout from the Fukushima nuclear accident.

The good news: as everyone said from the start, it's not another Chernobyl:
Initial estimates suggest that Fukushima's reactors have emitted one-tenth of all the radioactive material released during the Chernobyl disaster in 1986, and prevailing winds have swept most of the radioactivity over the Pacific Ocean.
The bad news, however, is that there does seem to be a band of particularly heavy contamination in a path to the north-west of the reactors, extending well outside the 20 km evacuation zone:

The survey showed that the highest radioactivity doses on the ground (greater than 0.125 millisieverts per hour; mSv h−1) were restricted to a narrow band within 40 km of the plant, stretching to the northwest (see 'Fukushima's fallout'). No values anywhere exceeded 0.3 mSv h−1, a dose likely to cause adverse health effects in anyone continually exposed for a few months. Still, doses at some sites over the course of a year would top 1,000 mSv, enough to cause symptoms of radiation sickness, including nausea, hair loss and reduced white-blood-cell counts.
Much of the 20-km evacuation zone around the plant had far lower dose levels, below 0.012 mSv h−1. Nevertheless, that corresponds to a potential annual dose of more than 100 mSv, more than five times the annual limit permitted for UK nuclear-industry workers. The patchy distribution of fallout reflects the role of wind patterns and rainfall in washing out radio­isotopes to the ground. Overall, Smith says he was "relieved" by the data, as they suggest that contamination around Fukushima will be much lower than that seen around Chernobyl.

But some areas of high contamination seem to lie outside the exclusion zone. Soil samples taken on 20 March from a location 40 km northwest of the plant showed caesium-137 levels of 163,000 becquerels per kilogram (Bq kg−1) and iodine-131 levels of 1,170,000 Bq kg−1, according to Japan's science ministry. Acceptable contamination levels for areas used to grow crops are much lower, typically in the range of a few hundred Bq kg−1. "If there are significant areas of caesium-137 soil concentration of the order of 100,000 Bq kg−1, evacuation of these areas could be effectively permanent," says Smith.

Apart from the still very unclear issue of whether workers on site have received (or will receive) very dangerous doses of radiation, if anyone thinks that the need to permanently evacuate patches of land up to 40 km away is not a serious issue, they want their head read.

Update: an article at Physorg discusses how serious seawater contamination may be. Short answer: well, it shouldn't spread much, but expect some exclusion zone for quite some time:

the contamination from iodine 131 is short-lived because the element has a half life -- the pace at which it loses half of its radioactivity -- of only eight days.

"This means that after a few months, it will be harmless, basically," said Simon Boxall, a lecturer at Britain's National Oceanography Centre at the University of Southampton, southern England, who praised early measures to stop fishing around the plant after the March 11 disaster.

"What worries me more is if caesium and plutonium get into the system," he said, referring to two radioactive whose half-lives are around 30 years and potentially thousands of years respectively.

"That's more concerning, because that can build up in the sediments" of the at Fukushima, said Boxall.

At high levels, this could lead to the imposition of an exclusion zone of catches of fish and seafood, a measure that could last "years and years," he said.

"It's hard to know (how long) until they start taking measurements and determine how extensive the pollution is.

"You would basically not fish in an exclusion zone, period. And beyond the exclusion zone there would be an additional zone where you would come from time to time and see if there's any radioactivity."

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Latham on climate change

I would not have picked Mark Latham as a climate change believer, but that seems to be the message from this report in the SMH:

If the ALP is to be rescued, Mr Latham's view is that it needs to improve its "abysmal" understanding of the Greens and to realise that climate change will be the major electoral issue for the next 100 years.

On the same subject, he is disparaging of Ms Gillard's performance and of her ability to tackle climate change with conviction.

"It's too late," he said.

"Conviction comes from believing in something.

"If you believed in action on climate change you wouldn't have advised Kevin Rudd to drop the emissions trading scheme.

"And if she believed in climate change and carbon tax she wouldn't have promised not to introduce it during the election campaign.

"Conviction politics is not something you can invent or find at the bottom of the garden.

"You've actually got to believe it and do it from day one."

I suppose I should be pleased, but with Latham, it's hard to tell if that is the appropriate response.

Great entertainment families

Salon features a review of a new biography of Edith Piaf. I didn't see the movie about her a couple of years ago, but the article notes that, if anything, it underplayed the turmoil of her life.

But my favourite little bit of information is in the middle of this bit about her show biz family origins:

The singer was born Edith Giovanna Gassion, in 1915 -- and not on the city pavement, as she claimed, but in the Tenon Hospital in Belleville, a working-class area in eastern Paris.... Her father, Louis Gassion, was an acrobat (just 5 feet tall, he passed on his diminutive form to his daughter); her mother, Annetta, was a would-be singer whose own mother presided over a flea circus. As if this background wasn't disreputable enough, the feckless Annetta, an alcoholic and drug addict, abandoned the child when she was still a baby and went on to pursue an independent singing career under the name of Line Marsa. As in the vast majority of such cases, Edith never got over this primal rejection.

Louis Gassion was slightly more dependable. His own life was not stable enough to include a baby, so he took Edith to live with his parents in the town of Bernay in Normandy. Her grandmother, known as Maman Tine, was the manageress of what was euphemistically known as a maison de tolérance, essentially a whorehouse with legal standing.


I was just reading a Pajamas Media article on radiation doses which I didn't find particularly helpful, only to note in comments, following one that says Fox News on politics is generally fair and balanced:
I don’t find FOX fair or balanced. they do have a strong liberal / socialist bias in many of the programs. all in all they are not that conservative.

there are a few that are ..but they are in the minority.

There you go.

Conspiracy corner

I've never bothered reading much of anti climate change activist Jo Nova's blog: she has always struck me as dishonest and simply interested in disinformation.

Lately, however, she has been mentioned more often at Catallaxy, with links to her blog from the (generally gentlemanly in tone) Rafe. She has frequently had a mention at Andrew Bolt's blog too.

What I did not realise til now (or had forgotten?) is that she is married to the other climate change figure David Evans. And, it turns out, both of them are into financial market conspiracies. Evans ends a 2009 article with this (copied from a lengthy post on Watching the Deniers which is well worth reading in full):

“…There are a small number of families who, over the centuries, have amassed wealth through financial rent seeking. They are leading members of the paper aristocracy. For example, the Rothschild’s are the biggest banking family in Europe, and were reputed to own half of all western industry in 1900. That sort of wealth doesn’t just dissipate, because unless the managers are incompetent the wealth tends to concentrate. The banking families don’t work for a living in the normal sense, like the rest of us. They avoid scrutiny and envy by blending in and make themselves invisible. Since they own or influence all sorts of media organizations, it isn’t too hard. There are unsubstantiated rumors and conspiracy theories, but nobody can really credibly say how much wealth and influence they have…

…Perhaps today’s fiat currencies—the US dollar, pound, yen and so on—will go up in smoke in an inflationary crescendo in the next few years, perhaps as planned by the paper aristocracy. Maybe they will reintroduce an asset backed currency. And guess who has all the gold? Those banking families have been salting it away for years. Possibly a global currency, so one cannot escape the predations of the paper aristocracy. This is not just about money, but about power, of course. Anyway, these are only unsubstantiated rumors. We shall see.

Well, there you go. This is the dog whistling that goes on in the Jo Nova household. Does Rafe know about this type of stuff?

I had not understood the League of Rights apparent interest in the No Carbon Tax rally last week. Now I do.

Quite true

How to tweet bile without alienating people. Or making 13-year-old girls cry | Charlie Brooker | Comment is free | The Guardian

I usually only check in on Twitter if there is a breaking big news story to see if anyone close to the scene has anything useful to add, and suspect that, along with Facebook, it is a social communication method that probably causes more harm than good. Brooker is quite correct when he discusses the Twitter attack on that Rebecca Black (the girl with the crook song):

Not so long ago, if you wanted to issue a 13-year-old girl with a blood-curdling death threat, you had to scrawl it on a sheet of paper, wrap it round a brick, hurl it through her bedroom window, and scarper before her dad ran out of the front door to beat you insensible with a dustbuster. Now, thanks to Twitter, hundreds of thousands of people can simultaneously surround her online screaming abuse until she bursts into tears. Hooray for civilisation....
Twitter is great for disseminating news, trivia and practical instructions on when and where to meet up in order to overthrow the government, but it also doubles as a hothouse in which viral outbreaks of witless bullying can be incubated and unleashed before anyone knows what's happening. Partly because it forces users to communicate in terse sentences, but mainly because it's public. Many tweeters end up performing their opinions, theatrically overstating their viewpoint to impress their friends. Just like newspaper columnists – but somehow even worse because there's no editor to keep their excesses in check or demand a basic level of wit or ability.

And unlike columnists, they often aim their comments at an individual by addressing their username directly: the equivalent of texting hate mail straight to their phone.

White haired jerk

There was an interesting interview with journalist Andrew Fowler on Radio National Breakfast about Julian Assange. (Fowler has a book out about him.)

I don't recall reading before that Assange has at least two children by two different mothers, both of which he refuses to talk about (citing "security"), yet it also seems a very good bet that he has nothing to do with them. Fowler believes that although Assange is quite a hit with the ladies, so to speak, Julian does not understand them. More likely he's just too arrogant to believe it's ever worth wearing a condom.

The New York Times last weekend featured a slightly amusing Youtube video built around the story of a couple who had Julian as a house guest who would not leave until he was literally thrown out. Many in the comments pointed out that the video was not really done that well (true), but more interesting were those who saw this as part of a campaign against a hero.

I can't see it that way. Julian loves openness; the openness to understand him as a complete jerk is just collateral damage from his views.

No doubt about it

The reaction by AGW inactionists to Tim Flannery's comments about the Earth not cooling for hundreds of years even if all CO2 production stopped tomorrow shows absolutely, positively, without any doubt at all, that they are contemptibly thoughtless on the topic and doggedly dishonest.

This includes Tony Abbott, quoted in the press as saying in Parliament yesterday:
"It will not make a difference for 1000 years," the Opposition Leader told parliament. "So this is a government which is proposing to put at risk our manufacturing industry, to penalise struggling families, to make a tough situation worse for millions of households right around Australia. And for what? To make not a scrap of difference to the environment any time in the next 1000 years."
If anyone is in any doubt at all how this is a clear misrepresentation of Flannery's words, have a read of the quote from the scientifically ignorant, routinely offensive, misrepresenting and absurd commenter CL* at the blog the "centre right" has when it doesn't want to be taken seriously. He thought the quote supported his earlier claim that Flannery was saying that nothing humans did would influence the temperature at all for 1,000 years. (I give credit to Ken n and Jarrah for attempting to correct him, but really, this thread is like the rolled gold proof that it is entirely useless to engage at that blog in any debate at on climate change.)

Malcolm Turnbull and his supporters must really be grinding their teeth at Abbott's buying into populist misrepresentation.

* I suppose, however, I have to give him credit on another thread for arguing against the death penalty in Australia. I hate it when commentators who are wrong most of the time are right about something!

Monday, March 28, 2011

More to be said later

Jury in Darcey Freeman bridge murder trial struggling for verdict |

I find this very surprising, but given my famously widespread influence (ha) I guess I should not talk about it yet.

Update: so he's been found guilty.

Given all the usual cautions that it is hard to judge a trial from media reports, I have to say I found it extraordinarily hard to believe that the jury could have members who would be swayed by the one psychiatrist in six who examined Freeman long after the events and found that he was acting in a "dissociative state" at the time of the offence. Here's one of the longer reports of that evidence:
Earlier, Professor Burrows told the court that when he first met 37-year-old Arthur Freeman at the Melbourne Remand Centre last year he thought "this man may have a defence".

Professor Burrows told the jury that after examining Freeman twice more, he came to the conclusion he was in a "dissociative state" caused by depression.

Arthur Freeman does not dispute he threw his daughter off the bridge, but he has pleaded not guilty to murder by reason of mental impairment.

Professor Burrows told the court "we're talking about a man who was at the severe end of the condition" and that Freeman "didn't know what was going on".

He told the court that Freeman still does not believe he threw his daughter off the bridge, but that other people have told him he did it, so "he accepts that".

As far as I know, Freeman did not give evidence himself.

As against the dissociative state, there was this evidence:
Dr Skinner told the jury Mr Freeman's phone call to his former wife Peta Barnes, in which he said she would never see her kids again, suggested he knew what was happening and showed his intentions.

"There is no evidence to suggest that Mr Freeman was incapable of forming intentions," she read. "He was able to organise packing his car, to drive to Melbourne and to make phone calls."
The method of killing was far from spontaneous, and with the telephone call to his wife to "say goodbye to the kids", how is it that the jury had any member who believed he was not capable of forming intention?

I presume someone on the jury must have been persuaded by his apparent breakdown at the court afterwards. If anything, I think the evidence of that showed he was in no dissociative state at all: he knew what had happened and was already appalled at what he had done.

The more worrying possibility is that some jury members simply could not credit that any father not in a state of mental illness could kill his child in such a fashion. In fact, this defence by incredulity, as it were, was specifically run by his Counsel:
"Doesn't his act, don't all his actions, scream at us madness? What we say to you is, his impaired mind caused him to do this."
What an amazingly glib and convenient argument this is, yet it looks as if had a chance of working.

Jury trials can be a worry.

Talking iPad

I liked James Lilek's recent post about conversations concerning his iPad.

Radiation confusion

The stoic James Annan in Tokyo, who has not been inclined to worry about Fukushima unduly, is nonetheless sounding irritated with the TEPCO and Japanese government handling of information about radiation leaks around Fukushima. You can also learn a bit about how unclear the issue is by reading his previous post (and comments) about radiation here.

The news this morning does little to encourage faith in how TEPCO is handling it all:
THE company responsible for the Fukushima power station evacuated it again after immense levels of radiation were detected in the cooling system of one reactor.

At one point radiation of 1000 milli-sieverts per hour - a potentially lethal level said to be 10 million times higher than normal - was measured, although the Tokyo Electric Power Company (Tepco) later said that the reading was a mistake, which had not been double-checked because workers had then fled the building.

It was nevertheless clear that the situation remains unstable and that radiation continues to escape from the reactor containers.

There's clearly a need for robust, radiation reading robots.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

No name too silly

The BBC has an interesting story up about the extraordinary popularity of odd names in the Philippines.    Funny isn’t it:  when Australians do it, it seems all precious and (often, but not always) rather “bogan”;  somehow, when it’s the Philippines, it just seems wryly amusing.   I was most surprised at this bit:

But the main thing Spain gave to the Philippines was Catholicism, and with it, tens of thousands of newly-christened Marias and Joses.

With the Americans came names like Butch, Buffy and Junior - and the propensity to shorten everything if at all possible.

Perhaps it is the combination of these two influences which has led to names like Jejomar - short for Jesus Joseph Mary.

The current vice president is called Jejomar Binay.


Passive safety in the news

I posted very quickly on the importance of passive safety designs for future nuclear after the Fukushima accident, and now I see there is a fair bit of media talk on the subject (including about my old interest – pebble bed reactors.) Here are some articles:

* the New York Times talks about China pressing ahead with pebble bed. Lots of good points in a straight forward explanation. (It notes that the South Africans got stuck on using turbines that were to use the helium coolant directly. China is using the helium to boil water for less sophisticated steam turbines.)

I see that the Chinese program director is quoted as saying that pebble bed is yet to prove itself as cost effective as old style nuclear:

“The safety is no question,” Dr. Xu said, “but the economics are not so clear.”

Um, I think nuclear has to give safety the absolute priority at the moment, if its to go anywhere at all.

* Bloomberg had a longer article looking at passive safety generally. Pebble beds get a good mention too. It notes the passive safety in the new Westinghouse model:

The new Westinghouse AP1000 (the AP stands for Advanced Passive), for example, has a huge emergency water reservoir above the reactor vessel that’s held back by valves.

If the cooling system fails, the valves open and a highly reliable force takes over: gravity. Water pours down to cool the outside of the containment vessel. Then another highly reliable force, convection, kicks in. As the water turns to steam, it rises. Then it cools under the roof, turns back into a liquid, and pours down again.

Westinghouse estimates that the pool contains enough water to last three days, after which pumps operated by diesel generators are supposed to kick in and add water from an on-site lake.

Hmm. Doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as a pebble bed to me: get a crack in the vessel, and there goes your passive safety in a long stream of steam. Still, better than the older models, of course.

* Some in South Africa seem to be regretting that they gave up on pebble bed, just at a time it suddenly looks very attractive again:

Analysts have said the pebble-bed option is one the state and industry should reconsider on safety and other grounds.

"The reactor would not need any external cooling. It would cool itself. It's walk-away safe," said Kelvin Kemm, a Pretoria-based nuclear physicist.

But he said the programme may need to be industry-led, after South Africa invested nearly 10 billion rand in developing it over a decade before putting it on ice as it lacked a clear business case.

"There is lots of merit for the technology, specifically for building power plants away from places where you could potentially have tsunamis," said Cornelis van der Waal, an analyst at consultancy Frost & Sullivan.

Pebble-bed reactors are modular in nature and as they do not need a lot of water can be built away from coastal areas.

This modular nature, and the ability to not site them near major water bodies, seems to me to be a very important feature for Australia, where every bit of coast line any where near population centres is loved and used by someone.

Ah well, I’m feeling some vindication for saying for years that they sound like a good idea. (And cue music for “If I Ruled the World”.)

Back to the Dutch

Over the last couple of years I’ve noted articles in the English press about the very liberal Dutch attitude to sex education and its apparent connection to good things like a low rate of teenage pregnancy, and an older age at which they start having sex (compared to Britain anyway.)

I see that the Guardian is on the topic again, with a Comment is Free column headed “Let’s talk about sex – to four year olds”.

Mind you, the actual kindergarten “sex talk” at that age is relatively mild:

My son won't bring home the leaflet "Sex Yes, Worries No", about the use of contraceptives, until he is at least 10. He wouldn't be able to read it at the moment anyway. But his teachers will be talking about cuddling, friendship, newborn lambs in the fields and the differences between boys and girls. And his class might be visited by pregnant women and nursing mothers with their babies.

But the article, and the commentary following, is more noteworthy for its general discussion of the difference between Dutch attitudes to the role of government generally, and how it seemingly combines (despite its tourist reputation) social conservatism with very liberal inclinations towards government. As the article notes:

The Netherlands has a lurid reputation abroad when it comes to sex. Everyone knows about the red light district in Amsterdam and legalised prostitution. So it might come as a surprise to some to hear that deep down, the Dutch are very conservative people who take sex seriously. Very seriously, in fact. Sex education has traditionally been an important part of the school curriculum here. Lentekriebels is in line with the Dutch tradition of assigning to schoolteachers responsibilities that might elsewhere be handled within the family. As my teacher in primary school in the 1970s told me: "If your parents don't bring you up properly, our school has to do the job for them." The issue then was not sex but prayer (we didn't pray at home), but the principle is the same. Parents are not to be trusted to do a good job and sex is a danger zone, like drugs or smoking.

In comments there is a bit of a theme that it is the fact of their conservatism, in the sense that they take sex seriously, and generally have a much more stable family life, that accounts for the lower teenage pregnancy rate compared to Britain. (This was noted in an article I quoted from in a previous post.) In the current Guardian piece, this comment I found interesting:

If the Dutch are so conservative then that is the answer as to why a Dutch style of sex education won't work over here. The Dutch, like the Scandinavians are disciplined and conservative in the first place. That is how 'socialist' welfare states and low teenage pregnancy rates come about. And even conservatism can extend to helping others regardless, this is not socialism, but more like the Polder model. Polder models (and thus good welfare states) can often be seen where there is a harsh adversity, ie the weather which draws people together and cooperate.

Another comment from someone (from England, I assume) who lives in Holland:

2. "Teenage mothers" Any girl under 21 is considered a teenage mother. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen anyone under 16 on the street with a pram containing their own child. And yes, if a girl under 18 is pregnant, her parents need to prove that they can support their child and grandchild emotionally and financially to stop that child being taken into care. Children have to be in education until they are 18 and after all, if you as a parent have some responsibility towards your child's actions.

3. "Teenagers" Probably have as much sex here as they do anywhere else in western Europe. Fact of life, can't stop it, so embrace it. Firstly, there's almost no single sex education here. This means that girls and boys are always very comfortable around each other. Boys are taught to respect girls and girls are taught to make sure they know what they want for themselves in terms of physical relationships.

You rarely see big gangs of girls or boys out in the town - they go out as mixed groups. They drink, of course, as much as the brits, but you never see hoards of them rolling around drunk, fighting, showing their boobs.

Parents give their children much, much more freedom here (they cycle to school alone from the age of about 8) and there's a mutual respect between many teenagers and parents that you just don't see in the UK. How many 18 year old English teenagers do you know that would want to go on the family summer holiday with their parents? It's quite common here.

It seems to be a fair conclusion to say that the effects and success of sex education in any country is highly dependent on the broader social attitudes to be found there.

And one can also conclude that a welfare state works best when the attitude of its citizens is to act responsibly in all aspects of life. Many on the conservative side of politics argue that it is the welfare state that is itself corrupting of a social sense of personal responsibility. But the example of the Netherlands appears to be a pretty strong counter argument to that, and that is why I find these articles and comments on that country so interesting.

I’m also reminded of Theodore Dalrymple’s interesting essay about changes in the British national character which I linked to in 2008. He argues that its conservative “stiff upper lip” came into being under King William IV (the king before Victoria), and that it has eroded away since the Second World War. His claim (not with a lot of detail in this particular essay) is:

The moralization of the British in the first third of the nineteenth century—their transformation from a people lacking self-control into exemplars of restraint—was the product of intellectual and legislative activity. So, too, was the reverse movement.

He argues that relaxed liquor licencing laws in Britain have been quite harmful in this respect, and urges the US to maintain a drinking age of 21. Yet he also seems to be happy with European attitudes to drinking, presumably because he considers they have more of the sense of the importance of responsible drinking than the British, for whatever reason, seem capable of. (This will mean that a bunch of libertarian types will not take him seriously at all.)

But how, today, any country achieves society wide re-conversion to the ideal of self control and taking personal responsibility seriously seems to be a puzzle. I can see the failure from both sides of politics: libertarian relaxation of regulation falls on barren ground if there is not a pre-existing sense of responsibility in place, and libertarians don’t think the government has a role in instructing attitudes; welfare state-ism which fully embraces individualism in lifestyle choices can be seen as rewarding lack of personal restraint and does seem to teach people that they can carry on regardless.

That’s the problem, I guess: if both ends of the political spectrum adopt a “hands off” attitude to trying to influence a society’s sense of personal responsibility, neither of them address the heart of the issue.

Update: I was thinking about what I was said about the different political sides on this, and feel I should acknowledge that the Left generally is inclined to run campaigns that encourage what might be called "better behaviour", be it from a public health perspective (anti-smoking, anti-obesity) or relationships (see the current "Draw the Line" campaign that I only noticed yesterday.) Apart from public health, which both sides of politics generally does support, partly for the pragmatic reason of keeping health costs down, the problem I guess I have with what we see in government social education is the feeling that this is not the appropriate source for moral instruction. Simply because of the source, it's easy to imagine the people who would benefit most from it dismissing it.

But, with the churches weaker than ever as a source of (for want of a better term) life instruction in society, where else can it come from? It's not as if the West has the same cultural background of a place like Japan either, which does so much for maintaining a sense of personal responsibility there.

The power of the gut

There’s a short article at Physorg about research into the relation between gut bacteria and the brain (and thereby personality, mental illness, etc.)

Using germ-free mice, Foster's research shows gut bacteria influences how the brain is wired for learning and memory. The research paper has been published in the March issue of the science journal Neurogastroenterology and Motility.

The study's results show that genes linked to learning and memory are altered in germ-free mice and, in particular, they are altered in one of the key brain regions for learning and memory – the hippocampus.

"The take-home message is that gut bacteria influences anxiety-like behavior through alterations in the way the brain is wired," said Foster.

Foster's laboratory is located in the Brain-Body Institute, a joint research initiative of McMaster University and St. Joseph's Healthcare in Hamilton. The institute was created to advance understanding of the relationship between the brain, nervous system and bodily disorders.

"We have a hypothesis in my lab that the state of your immune system and your gut bacteria – which are in constant communication – influences your personality," Foster said.

I can’t help but think of Hitler, who had serious digestive problems all his life. This is from an interesting review of a book on the topic of his health:

Theo Morell, recorded in his diary that after Hitler downed a typical vegetable platter, "constipation and colossal flatulence occurred on a scale I have seldom encountered before."….

Morell's diaries (which were recovered from Germany and are kept in the National Archives in Washington, DC) make clear that the bouts of "agonizing flatulence" remained a regular occurrence.

Although I have noted in a previous post the cocaine eyedrops and methamphetamine that Hitler’s quack doctor Morell prescribed, I am not sure if I read this before:

Morell plied him with a remedy called "Dr. Küster's Anti-gas pills," which contained significant amounts of strychnine--and Hitler often took as many as 16 of the little black pills a day. The sallow skin, glaucous eyes and attention lapses noted by observers later in the war are consistent with strychnine poisoning; another ingredient in the pills, antropine, causes mood wings from euphoria to violent anger.

I see that someone on Yahoo Answers has asked whether Adolf might have suffered from celiac disease (the intolerance to gluten that seemingly has risen sharply – at least in diagnosis – lately.) This seems a pretty good suggestion, actually, especially if (as one person in the answers notes) he was “notoriously fond of cakes and pastries.” I see a source for that is Mental Floss Magazine ( a journal that has escaped my attention til now) blog which says:

In fact, Hitler’s favorite dessert chef, Gerhardt Shtammer, claims that Hitler asked him to make delectable desserts right up to the very end, when they were trapped in Hitler’s bunker with hard-core Nazi holdouts. According to Shtammer, Hitler’s favorite desserts were eclairs decorated with little swastikas and strudel.

Googling "Gerhardt Shtammer" does not come up with any more detail, though. If he lived today, he would have had appearances on Oprah, at the very least.

So, there you go. We can add “cream puffs” to our list of speculations as to the cause of World War II.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Keep counting them

Further in my series of “famous climate skeptic writers who made bad calls on the seriousness of Fukushima,” you can add the Telegraph’s James Delingpole.

This morning, I see that the Japanese PM has said that the situation remains grave and he cannot be optimistic.  (That’s how the ABC is reporting it.)

What I suspect is going on – but could be wrong of course – is that they have realised they have a very dangerous leak of very radioactive water, probably from the reactor core itself, and no one knows how to get rid of it.

Update:   from Bloomberg:

Radiation levels in sea water inside quake-damaged reactors at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant may be rising, Japan’s nuclear watchdog said.  Levels show signs of climbing, Hidehiko Nishiyama, a spokesman at the Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, said in Tokyo today. Readings of between 200-300 millisieverts per hour were found in water at the No. 2 reactor, he said, equivalent to the maximum-permitted exposure for workers during the crisis.

I think (although media reporting on this is often mucking up the figures) the anuual limit for US reactor workers is 50 millisieverts, and Japan has increased it to 250. If I, and Bloomberg, are correct, I assume that a worker can only be near the reactor 2 water for an hour and then not be able to work there again. They are going to run out of workers pretty fast, if they need to be close to the water.

On a lighter note, I was talking to a Japanese friend this morning whose parents live at Chiba in Tokyo.  They have told him that bottled water is sold out, as is toilet paper. 

We both do not know why there would be a run on toilet paper. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

The talented Mr Martin

Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers were on Colbert Report this week doing this song, but the sound quality was not as good as on this clip:


I'm going to get accused of being into anti-nuclear disaster porn if I keep posting about this, but this is not good news that has just shown up on the New York Times:
Japan’s effort to contain the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant suffered a setback, an official said on Friday, citing evidence that the reactor vessel of the No. 3 unit may have been damaged.

The development, described at a news conference by Hidehiko Nishiyama, deputy director-general of the Japan Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency, raises the possibility that radiation from the mox fuel in the reactor — a combination of uranium and plutonium — could be released.

One sign that a breach may have occurred in the reactor vessel, Mr. Nishiyama said, took place on Thursday when three workers who were trying to connect an electrical cable to a pump in a turbine building next to the reactor were injured when they stepped into water that was found to be significantly more radioactive than normal in a reactor. The No. 3 unit, the only one of the six reactors at the site that uses the mox fuel, was damaged by a hydrogen explosion on March 14. Workers have been seeking to keep it cool by spraying it with seawater along with a more recent effort to restart the reactor’s cooling system.

In another development on Friday, the Japanese government said it would help people who wish to leave the area around the crippled plant, a sign that efforts to reassure frightened residents have failed to persuade people to stay.

Can't see it happening

Step 1 in asteroid mission: Pick right space rock

Given the currently unsolved problem of radiation in space, and the complete lack of any planning for a spacecraft big enough to accommodate a crew for the (what, one to two year?) return trip without them going stir crazy, I just can't see that a trip to an asteroid makes a sensible next step in space. At least if you go to the moon or Mars, you can get to stretch your legs in gravity at the half way point.

Makes bed even better

Hands-free iPad stand

You have to lift your hands to touch the screen, though. Can't they do something about that?

The vege burger

The New York Times reports that some chefs are coming up with vegetarian burgers that really are good.

I don't mind trying vegetarian products from the supermarket every now and then. It's sort of interesting to see how good they can make their fake meat products. My wife has started doing a curry with fake chicken from Malaysia or somewhere: it's not bad, and I had the fun the other night of telling my son he had been fooled into thinking it was meat.

I think I have even mentioned in this blog before that, when I was single, I used to sometimes make chilli con carne using chunk style textured vegetable protein. But the after effects were such that married life meant I had to give that up.

This story will horrify at least one reader, hey Jason.

Help me Obi Wan, they took my carrot

Of course, you would have needed more than one R2D2 projecting the image, but it's looking close:

Back to the Future correct

JF Beck links to a bunch of old black and white photos of the (American) frontier life taken around 1890.

Viewing them reminds me that, when watching Back to the Future Part 3, I had thought that the 1885 version of Hill Valley looked a little too old time Western. But this is obviously not the case, when you see photos of the real era.

Fukushima notes

With the news last night that a couple of workers from the reactor are in hospital with radiation burns, it’s clear that the current operations remain very dangerous.   Even modest advances are being greeted as big progress:  for example, yesterday’s news that lights have been turned on in a couple of control rooms. 

Time magazine has an interesting entry about the ongoing issues at the plant.  As the New York Times noted, one concern is the use of seawater as a temporary coolant:

As  seawater evaporates, salt scaling could insulate the reactor fuel and impede heat transfer and thus cooling. In a worst case, as the rods heat up, their zirconium cladding could rupture, and  gaseous radioactive iodine inside could leak out; the uranium core itself could even melt. This, of course, would release event more radioactive material.

The BBC has a sort of retrospective of the last couple of weeks which is well worth reading too.

Meanwhile, I have stumbled across another example (apart from Andrew Bolt) of a climate change skeptic who has been in an unseemly rush to declare that there has barely been a major problem at all.

The Register, as I recall, has long been keen to run anti climate change articles.    If you have a look at the list of article titles by one Lewis Page,  who himself appears to be quite the CO2 skeptic, it makes for mildly comic reading:

14 March:   Fukushima is a triumph for nuke power: Build more reactors now!

First lines: 

Japan's nuclear powerplants have performed magnificently in the face of a disaster hugely greater than they were designed to withstand, remaining entirely safe throughout and sustaining only minor damage. The unfolding Fukushima story has enormously strengthened the case for advanced nations – including Japan – to build more nuclear powerplants, in the knowledge that no imaginable disaster can result in serious problems.

15 March: Fukushima update: No chance cooling fuel can breach vessels

16 March: Situation worsens - still no cause for alarm

17 March: Fukushima on Thursday: Prospects starting to look good

18 March: Fukushima one week on: Situation 'stable', says IAEA

21 March: Fukushima: Situation improving all the time. Food, water samples OK, Hyper Rescue Super Pump in action

22 March: Fukushima's toxic legacy: Ignorance and fear. Hysteria rages unchecked as minor incident winds down

23 March: Radioactive Tokyo tapwater HARMS BABIES ... if drunk for a year. Iodine isotope will all be gone in weeks, though

The glass is always more than half full for Mr Page.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A new political truism revealed

I have realised lately that, for some reason, male politicians who have too much curl in their hair just can't be taken very seriously. (I'm looking at you, John Paul Langbroek, Christopher Pyne, and Rand Paul.)

Sad for them, but true.

Consume a nut, anytime of day

Glenn Beck Contemplates Starting His Own Channel

Need I say more?

[By the way, this and the last post represent the return of my use of the Blog This doo-dah from Google. I thought it didn't work on current versions of Firefox, but seemingly it does. It is, by far, the easiest way to open a blogging post window. Just click the button while you are looking at a page, and it opens a blog post window with the title of the article as a link at the top. I have found no other blogging add on that does the same, wonderfully simple, thing.

I thought it was a Firefox add on which had gone missing, but I see now that it is a Google tool for use with Blogger. It's very good, anyway.]

Really worth it?

Hand transplant man faces long recovery

It's one thing to have transplanted internal organ, where you're not necessarily reminded daily that part of someone else is now part of you. But it seems to me to be quite another to have a hand transplant. There's quite a lot to any transplant:

There is also a danger Mr Walsh's body could reject the new hand, with the first few months the most dangerous period.

He will require medication for the life of the transplant to slow his immune system and ensure it doesn't attack the transplant.

St Vincent's doctor, Robyn Langham, said that leaves his body less equipped to deal with rogue cells that might appear in the body.

"Those rogue cells do have the potential to turn into cancers," she said.

She said Mr Walsh may also be at greater risk of contracting metabolic conditions such as diabetes and osteoporosis.

Personally, even with no hands, I think I would be much more interested in having the latest and greatest robotic version than a transplant: I have a preference for Luke Skywalker over Dr Strangelove.

A product endorsement

I like it:

To be fair...

I have been meaning to say this in relation to the carbon tax/emissions trading scheme that's heading our way via Labor and the Greens.

While I find Garnaut a very credible figure, and consider in principle (as did the Coalition until Tony Abbott took over) that carbon pricing is an important step to reducing Australia's greenhouse gases, it still has to be said that the full structure of the scheme that the government settles on might prove to be very ineffective and not really worthy of support for a number of reasons.

The problem is, while the Coalition is on its "direct action is really a market scheme (and by the way, half of us believe there is no problem to be addressed at all)" wander in the wilderness, they are cutting themselves out of making credible contribution to getting the carbon pricing scheme right.

This is the tragedy of the current situation.

That went well

Catallaxy, a "centre right" blog which for years has firmly placed itself firmly in the climate change skeptic camp, recently had a post simply showing in large size a poster reading "Axe the tax - Dump the Frump" from the first (small scale) anti carbon tax protest at Werribee.

The blog then had at least one post notifying people of yesterday's larger scale organised protests.

After yesterday's protest in Canberra, quite of few of your rabidly climate change skeptic and vehemently anti-Gillard commenters (basically, apart from a handful, they don't come in any other variety there) decided that the "look" of the protest was not so good for Tony Abbott. (Who, as I have mentioned before, is now receiving criticism from Catallaxy commenters for not doing a good job. Yet the advice he has been offered by some there is to stop trying to straddle the fence and come out more vehemently against climate change as deserving any response.)

Tony Abbott has now said he "regretted" some of the posters yesterday.

It is odd that Catallaxy commenters think that the posters yesterday were bad PR for the right of politics. One might assume then that they must also understand then the bad language and wild hyperbole of their threads is a very bad advertisement for the "centre right".

As I noted yesterday, Julia Bishop complained some in Labor calling Coalition members "climate change deniers" by quoting scientists who don't think there is a problem with climate change.

As I have said ever since Abbott took over the leadership from Turnbull, climate change "scepticism" in the Coalition - which is apparently evenly split on the topic in Parliament - is a poison to its intellectual standing.

And Catallaxy is a joke.

Attention Jason: as should be clear from the low numbers of readers I've had for years, I've always blogged for my own satisfaction, and if others read it, that's fine. You can link to it at Catallaxy if you want, but it does not matter to me whether you do or not.

Update: this counts as a "meltdown"? At fairly regular intervals, I used to tell off many of the regulars at Catallaxy, in much more vehement terms than this, as a result of the absurdly personal (and wildly inaccurate) criticisms hurled towards me for my views on (virtually) any topic. So I am criticising it from here now. Big deal.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

So that's what not doubting the science looks like...

I see via Andrew Bolt's blog that Julie Bishop has a column in the Age in which she rails against members of the Coalition being called "deniers" by - (wait for it) - quoting some scientists who deny there is a problem with global warming.

So much for Tony Abbot's party room strategy, which he broke first himself, of not questioning the science but just attacking the tax.

All very droll, if you ask me.

UPDATE: I've often wondered about the use of "denier" myself. There is no doubt at all that a significant fraction of those on the climate change sceptic side do not believe in it on purely ideological grounds, because they rehash continually arguments which even cursory thought (or cursory Googling) should have otherwise lead them to abandon long ago. (The argument from incredulity is perhaps the best example: "that tiny fraction of the atmosphere can cause that much trouble?! Bah, I don't believe it".) It seems to me that something stronger than "skeptic" is needed for that group.

On the other hand, I reckon that there has been a trajectory over the last few years, evident from blogs like Watts Up With That and others, for the main bulk of climate change scepticism to move from arguing that the temperature record does not really show modern warming (probably because their pet projects in that regard have failed) to the position of grudging acknowledgement that the world is warming, but not at a rate large enough to be a worry.

These people (the "lukewarmenists") don't deny climate change, and may agree that CO2 has probably caused it, although they may still deny that projections of future temperature increases (or sea level rise) can be given any credence as the basis of policy.

That's the problem with "denier". Different people "deny" different things. I don't think it really does invoke the Holocaust denying stigma to any greatly offensive degree. For one thing, it's been a long time since Holocaust denial was really a big cultural issue - David Irving must be getting on in age. I doubt younger folk automatically think of the connection when they hear "denier". But it's probably too blanket a word to cover the slippery world of the "inactionists."

(Has anyone used that before? Google seems to suggest not. It's pretty good.)

Make lots of cash from home

No, it's not one of those ads for some dubious internet scheme. It's from Ron Paul, who (some) loopy libertarian fan boys love:

On March 15, Paul reintroduced one of his pet bills, H.R. 1098: Free Competition in Currency Act of 2011." The bill, which has no cosponsors, is divided into three parts: the elimination of laws specifying what constitutes "legal tender"; the lifting of a federal ban on private mints; and the elimination of sales and capital gains taxes on gold and silver coin sales. Paul's vision is of a future in which anyone can mint their own currency, with the hope that "the prospect of American citizens turning away from the dollar towards alternate currencies will provide the necessary impetus to the U.S. government to regain control of the dollar and halt its downward spiral."

A human face on evacuation

The BBC has an interesting short video story up on the evacuated areas around the Fukushima reactors.

Update: Nature has a story up too about the highly uncertain science of low level exposure to radioactive contaminants. I think this is one of the most balanced stories on it that I have seen.

Another type of cautionary tale

As noted in Physorg:
People who exercise regularly have a much smaller risk of having a heart attack immediately after sexual or , said lead author Dr. Issa Dahabreh of Tufts Medical Center in Boston....

The studies involved only people who'd had heart attacks or had died suddenly from a heart problem. The studies looked at what the people were doing during the hour or two before their heart attacks and compared that to the same people's activity on normal days with no major heart problems.

That study design is used to try to answer the question, "Why did the heart attack occur now?"

Physical activity and sex increased the risk of heart attack by a factor of about three, according to the analysis of the pooled results. Exercise increased the risk of sudden cardiac death by nearly five times. The researchers didn't find a triggering relationship between sex and , that is, a sudden death from a heart problem.

So, it still sounds like exercise was the bigger danger than sex. That's the lesson I choose to take from it anyway!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cautionary tales of instant expertise

I've noted before how Barry Brook and then Andrew Bolt were quick to link to an explanation of the Fukushima reactors by MIT Research Scientist Josef Oehman, which contained the prematurely reassuring words:
"there was and will *not* be any significant release of radioactivity from the damaged Japanese reactors"
As it turned out, Oehman had not worked in the field of nuclear science at all, and New Scientist has an interesting report explaining how Oehman came to write the article, and how it was picked up as having more authority behind it than it deserved.

It was all sort of a mistake, not written for wide publication at all. Oh well. Everyone can be an instant expert on the internet, even by accident it seems.

A second cautionary tale tonight regarding Andrew Bolt. He quotes a story from his own paper today which claims an ANU study shows a temperature rise of .5 degree over 160 years. The IPCC figure was .76 degree C over the same period. What gives? say Andrew.

Answer: the accuracy of journalists, Andrew.

The full quote from the body of the report on the study is (with my emphasis):
"There is sufficient evidence in the long run of temperature records to support the existence of a warming trend," Prof Breusch said today. "From the 1850s to today it's somewhere over half a degree (celsius) a century.
That is, no inconsistency exists. Several people in comments have already pointed this out to Andrew, who has found time to make a couple of other posts but not to come back and acknowledge the error.

Poor Andrew. He's really become quite upset ever since Julia Gillard belled the cat (about time, I say) with this last week:
''I ask, who would I rather have on my side?'' she said. ''Alan Jones, Piers Akerman and Andrew Bolt?

''Or the CSIRO, the Australian Academy of Science, the Bureau of Meteorology, NASA, the US National Atmospheric Administration, and every reputable climate scientist in the world?''

Exactly. Andrew's agitated response ever since that speech keeps reminding me of Jones' famous words from Dad's Army "they don't like it up 'em".

UPDATE: Andrew Bolt has corrected his post, but in a rather unusual way:
Readers point out that the report of the ANU survey is wrong. The survey found that rise to be about .5 degrees per century, thus about the same as the IPCC. Except, of course, that the IPCC has all that 0.7 degrees of warming since 1850 occuring in just the past century…
Wouldn't that be all the more consistent with AGW then? Or does he mean the IPCC is inconsistent with the ANU survey in a corrupt way? What's the point of his point?

Send in the robots

I had been wondering why there wasn't much talk about why robot loving Japan did not seem to have any robots suitable for helping fight a nuclear reactor disaster.

The always interesting William Saletan at Slate comes to the rescue. It turns out that different countries have been looking at such developing such robots, but the country which has actually got a bunch of them ready for nuclear disasters is (to my surprise) France:
Two years after Chernobyl, French nuclear operators created Group Intra, a consortium charged with maintaining a fleet of robots for use in major nuclear accidents. The group is on call around the clock and pledges to deliver equipment and operators anywhere in France within 24 hours. Its robots have hydraulic manipulator arms and can go 10 hours without external power. Some can be remotely controlled from a distance of 10 kilometers.
You can see some photos of the indoor French robots here (very Wall-E I reckon). The outdoor ones remind a little of equipment from Thunderbirds.

So they do cheese, wine and disaster robots very well. What more do you need?

Answer: no

An article on Huffington Post entitled "Sexism in the Marijuana Trade" asks: "Been to a cannabis trade show lately?"

(The sentence following that rhetorical question is: "The floors are crawling with barely-clothed women pitching products. People shrug and say that's what happens at trade shows, but why does that have to be the case at our shows?")

HP covers all the big issues.

A trifecta of wrong

As far as I can tell, this is a very rare alignment of wrong (or misleading) opinion from across the political spectrum.

As we know, Andrew Bolt has been busy downplaying any danger to both workers and the public from the Fukushima accident, to the extent of wondering whether nuclear physicist Ann Coulter may be on to something with her suggestion that it may be good for people.

He referred to a radiation chart made by the person who writes the comic xkcd. I'm sure many people have seen it.

Tim Lambert criticised Bolt for the "maybe its good for them" post, but then also linked to the xkcd chart.

Now I see that George Monbiot has posted that the accident has not hurt his belief that we must use nuclear to combat greenhouse gases. (You can never quite tell which way George will jump. He badly over-reacted at first to the "climategate" emails as if they were stunningly damaging to the science of climate change. He later calmed down and changed his mind.) But anyway, my point is that he has also linked to the chart.

So, all three think it's a cool chart.

I think they are all wrong, and the issue of contamination of food, water and the seas around Fukushima shows why. As a commenter David COG noted at Lambert's blog:

I'd say it's dangerously misleading. It says nothing about the different types of radiation and how they are delivered.

  • A speck of plutonium on your skin which is quickly washed off: not so bad.
  • A speck of plutonium inhaled and stuck in your lungs: not so good.

It also says nothing about the very real psychological impacts of radiation.

  • give someone an x-ray: no drama
  • tell someone the local nuke is spewing radiation out: stress, depression, sickness

And later he expands:


The chart's specifically about the effect of environmental radiation, not of the breathing in of a radioactive particle of plutonium which then becomes lodged in the lung or the like.

The "effect of environmental radiation" is that it is sometimes breathed in or eaten. The chart therefore gives a misleading impression because it's simply a representation of holding a Geiger counter next to each item.

Also, it starts off with the 'banana dose'. This nonsense is all over the tubes right now - people claiming that because bananas are radioactive that the radiation appearing in Japanese food and water is no big deal. This is bullshit. If you don't know why, read this.

In the context of what is happening at the moment in Japan, that chart is going to do nothing but mislead people in to thinking it's no big deal. It is dangerously misleading.

Now, this guy is clearly an anti-nuclear advocate, and I see that prominent climate change advocates such as Eli Rabbett are arguing with him:

David, Eli suggests you go think about the difference between washing off a speck of plutonium and ingesting it. Hint, one is with you longer than the other and so the dose is larger.

The Bunny also suggests that silly boys like you are one of the reasons people in the US are stocking iodine pills to protect against the problems in Japan.

How much sense does Eli's comment make? David COG pointed out that the chart does nothing to deal with the issue of ingested radioactive particles: Eli says (to paraphrase) "of course they are dangerous because you are exposed longer to them." Well, yeah.

Nope, I have to go with the anti-nuclear activist here: people running around with the xkcd chart without understanding its very major limitations are not really being honest about what a nuclear reactor failure with leaks to the environment is about.

And although people may think I'm spending a lot of time dissing nuclear if I promote it: I maintain my position from the start - to have credibility, you have to be honest about how wildly disruptive and potentially dangerous reactor failures of the Fukushima type can be.

Then you can talk about future reactors with passive safety as their key priority and have some vague hope about people believing you.

And again - yes, there have been some wildly exaggerated claims of danger from Fukushima which are without basis (for example, that there is any danger at all to the US West Coast.) But it's no use pretending that it's not a serious environmental issue in the area around Fukushima.

UPDATE: speaking of bad reporting, I note that the Australian (and the ABC) is saying:

Abnormally high levels of radioactive substances were later detected in seawater 100m from the troubled plant.
Yet the AFP report says:

Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) said the level of iodine-131 was 126.7 times higher and caesium-134 was 24.8 times higher than government-set standards.

The substances were detected in seawater which was sampled Monday about 100 kilometres (60 miles) south of the Fukushima No.1 plant, a TEPCO official said.

Come on, who's right? (I hope, and would guess, it's the 100 m version.)

That was quick

Typically enough, the always hyperbolic “centre right” blog Catallaxy was, after the last couple of Newspolls, full of people claiming that this was the end of Julia Gillard, even the Labor Party.

I think I noted there that it was ridiculous to be paying much attention to a dire poll this far from an election, based as it almost certainly was on the carbon price turnaround. And as far as polling for carbon pricing goes, it is no worse than what it was for a GST for a decade.

Now that there appears to be a strong bounce back to Ms Gillard, they seem to have all turned on Tony Abbott. Why, I say? He’s been inconsistent on climate change, and unable to do a good interview, since day 1. Talk about your fair weather friends.

Duelling tabloids

So I see the duelling tabloid TV current affairs programs are continuing to approach the bullying video story from opposite sides. Today Tonight last night ran an interview with bully Ritchard (yes, even the spelling of his name annoys people) and his father.

It was complete with cliché sad/saccharine music, contemplative shots of kid in a park, and all, as was A Current Affair’s longer Sunday night story. It’s not going to help Ritchard win the popularity stakes, but it was a much better story than the Current Affair one for this reason: it talked about the bigger picture of whether it is good to encourage victims to get violent in response.

Short story: it’s not.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Well, just tie the knot, then

Julia Gillard was apparently talking up her socially conservative opinions yesterday.

People seem to have trouble believing these are genuinely held. Perhaps that has something to do with her being in a de facto relationship?

I think once before when questioned about this, she noted in response something like "there's more than one party involved in the question of marriage;" I suppose that was ambiguous as to whether it was her or her partner who was cool on the idea, but it seemed to suggest that one might be keener on the idea than the other.

If it's Julia who doesn't want to marry him (and I think she has said before she never really aspired to marriage and kids,) I don't know you can really claim to be all that socially conservative.

If it's her partner, then I think she should take the view I have stated before: women should not let men hang around indefinitely in a relationship. It suits them too much*. Women: if you're going to live with a bloke at all (not that that I recommend that either) - give him 6 months; 12 tops. If he has cold feet about marriage still: ship him out.

No need to thank me Julia. Relationship advice from Opinion Dominion is free.

* (Particularly when it comes with live in cooks and servants!)

Japanese fallout

How's the atomically at ease Andrew Bolt going? Over the weekend, he reproduced much of Ann Coulter’s column pointing out that some increased radiation might actually be good for you. See, what are you complaining about, Japanese people near Fukushima?

Let's be clear - the idea that low level of radiation may actually not be bad for you has been around for some time. (I've mentioned it myself here before.) But it's also a fact that some types of radioactive fallout from broken reactors do cause cancers, particularly in children.

It is, to put it mildly, insensitive for anyone to be talking of the possible positive results of Fukushima at the moment. An unusually large number of Bolt's commenters seem to have chided him for this post; I'm not on my own.

Some corrections to what Coulter, and Bolt, said can be found at (the very annoying) PZ Myers and a Scientific American blog.

Back at the New York Times, there is a short follow up from Nicholas Kristoff about his column on Japan I mentioned last week. I didn't know this:
It’s the fact that the easiest people to steal from are the police. You see, you just walk up to any police box (koban) at a train station and say you need money to get home, and you’ll get $20 or whatever in train fair. You have to give your name and promise to pay it back, but you don’t have to show any I.D. When I once asked a policeman why they didn’t require I.D., he looked at me as if I was very slow and said something to the effect: People need train money because they’ve lost their wallets. But if they’ve lost their wallets, they don’t have I.D. He added, though, that a day or two later, the borrower invariably comes by to repay the money.

All the comments that follow are worth reading too.

Update: for Andrew Bolt -

The Japanese government on Monday told people not to drink the tap water in a village near the quake-hit nuclear power plant after high levels of radioactive iodine were detected.

Abnormal but much lower levels of radioactive iodine had already been found in the water supply in Tokyo and surrounding prefectures including Fukushima, where the troubled plant and the village of Iitatemura is located.

The health ministry said 965 becquerels per kilogramme of radioactive iodine was found in water which was sampled on Sunday in Iitatemura, which is 40 kilometres (25 miles) from the Fukushima No.1 plant.

It is more than three times the level the government considers advising people to limit the intake of water.

"There is no immediate effect on health if it is taken temporarily," ministry official Shogo Misawa said of tap water in Iitatemura.

"But as a precaution, we are advising people in the village through the prefectural office to refrain from drinking it."

The prefecture of Fukushima is preparing to provide about 4,000 people in the village with bottled water, media reports said.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Tabloid TV deals with bullying, with the queasy results you would expect

This will annoy people, I know, and it's not as if I haven't talked about it already, but I have to say it: the ACA Sunday story on the bullying video was irresponsible, tabloid TV at its cringe inducing worst.

I remain amazed at the uncritical attitude to the video that not only downplays the danger that Casey - a kid who deserves some sympathy - faced as a result of his reaction to bullying, but claims it as a "feel good" story. The interview barely mentioned that he (Casey) acknowledges that there could have been some more serious injury out of it, then quickly cuts to the obsequious interviewer asking him if he feels he went too far. An adamant "no" is the answer.

I am not surprised, given the international hero worship that has been bestowed upon him. His father's attitude to it was quite cautious: he did show quite a degree of disturbance at the violence coming from both the bully and his son, and it seemed to me that he may have felt that the attention it is getting is over-the-top. But he did pull his punches a little and emphasised more his pride in his son standing up for himself, and his sympathy that the bullying had been going on for so long.

Stupid and dishonest commentators in the blogosphere are seemingly incapable of understanding that my complaint against celebrating the video is not an attack on the boy. It is a complaint about adults celebrating school yard fighting in any circumstances, as the real message of the video is this: fights get out of control and can easily lead to permanent injury or death. This in turn leads to legal issues. For these reasons, in the interests of the bullied themselves (who -like Casey - are unlikely to be fully in control if they do respond with violence), responsible adults don't encourage violence as a resolution to bullying.

For those who doubt the danger of the throw: do they watch rugby league? Do they ever doubt that a spear tackle, on grass, is a stupidly dangerous thing to do? If so, they have no credibility in doubting the seriousness of a wrestling style throw onto concrete. It's as plain as day that it was very lucky that the bully did not hit his head with substantial force on the concrete. (And not merely as a secondary consequence of a hit, but rather as a very direct result of the way Casey handled himself.)

For those who say "yes it was dangerous, but he was acting in self defence and provocation and he's excused": don't people have enough common sense to know that these legal defences do have elements of reasonableness and questions of proportionate response built into them? Of course you're not entitled to do anything in response to violence against you, even if you have been subject to bullying for some time. I think it's because it's a bullying incident that people are downplaying the issue of proportionate response, and are overconfident that the police or lawyers would assess the situation in the same way as them. They should not have such confidence.

There has been a particularly ugly line of commentary on the internet along the lines: "I don't care if he did break the kids neck; he deserved it. In fact, I would have happy to see Casey do more to hurt him." This really does annoy me intensely - young bullies do not always maintain that attitude into adulthood, and getting hurt in a fight is not the only way people learn maturity. Those idiots wishing for more physical injury in this fight are showing the same kind of intense immaturity towards physical violence that we don't want young bullies to copy.

They may be a small, not very outspoken, part of the population (who are not very likely to
be rushing to the Casey hero worship sites to make their views known,) but there are voices out there agreeing with me - if Casey had caused death or permanent disability to the bully, it would be a very "live" issue for the police to decide if he should face criminal charges. You can guarantee that the bully's mother would have had a much harder time accepting the justice of the injury he received if he had been killed, or left as a paraplegic or a brain damaged kid who could nothing for himself for the rest of the his life.

Others seemingly take the attitude "well, that didn't happen so let's just say congratulations anyway." I can't understand this and consider it a sign of immaturity. (Granted, there are a lot more immature adults out there than I would have credited.) It is, I suppose, a bit like the attitude people have to a rugby league brawl where no one gets seriously hurt. But then again, such brawls usually are punches thrown by both sides, which doesn't raise the very issue that this video does about the proportionate nature of the response.

I think most people agree that it's a bad thing that young men in bars get into brawls, and need to learn self restraint and to avoid violence if at all possible. At what age do they think this becomes the right thing to do?

Clearly, people hate bullying: that is perfectly understandable. If they think that an incident like this shows the best way to deal with it: that is not understandable at all. The one thing that the interview did show (and I don't mean this a criticism, since we know nothing of their relationship) is that not all avenues of help had been exhausted: the father might have been involved in resolving the bullying if he had known it's extent.

We also know from the bully's mother previous interview that she was upset with her son's bullying. The parents involvement via the school, or otherwise, may therefore have helped. But instead, people are just acting as if this was a desperate act of a victim who had tried to get adults to help. It is by no means clear that this was in fact the case, although this was an aspect the tabloid style interview did not pursue. It might interfere too much with the "feel good" nature of the story, I guess.

No, all I can see is danger and an incident of escalating violence that came close to tragedy. And the praise of strangers towards Casey is unlikely to have any long term positive outcome to other victims of bullying, particularly if some other take it as an example and do accidentally seriously injure someone.

Finally: the ACA story made me very uncomfortable because it raises questions about the long term outcome for Casey himself. I can't help but feel that this praise and encouragement via the media and internet may turn out to be a false dawn of a brighter emotional future for him. No matter how good he feels at the moment, he may not yet appreciate that media fame is a temporary and fickle thing; he's certainly not going to be hearing from any of his internet fan club again over any other life crisis. Given his talk about his troubled time ever since he started at high school, including thinking about suicide, I do feel that he has issues which the "good" outcome of this incident are not going to resolve.

It may be that his father recognises this now in a way he didn't before, and that some greater involvement or attention in his son's life does really make a difference. But I suspect that all this media attention might end up being counterproductive for Casey's emotional development in the long run. Let's hope not, but it seems to me to be a real risk.

Update: I wrote that before Michael Carr-Gregg said pretty much the same things this morning. For another journalistic reaction which at least dwelt on the danger as a real issue in the story, see John Birmingham's column from last week.

Update 2: More detail in another report of an interview with Carr-Gregg:

Basically, this boy should not have responded the way that he did. Dr Carr-Gregg said there was a real danger that the bully may have been permanently injured in the revenge attack.

“My fear is that by going on TV this will normalise, sanitise and glamorise hitting back.

Dr Carr-Gregg said the lack of supervision and the fact other children were standing around filming the incident rather than trying to stop it was an indictment on anti-bullying policies in schools.

He said studies had demonstrated that children who retaliated were victimized more.

There are better ways of dealing with this such as holding the boy in a bear hug “or just walking away”.

What he did doesn’t work long term.

We have to look at bullying and harassment properly in this country.

Dr Carr-Gregg has previously warned retaliation could prove fatal.

"In some contexts it is brave when someone is invading our country or threatening our freedom, but in a school situation it's fraught with difficulty," Dr Carr-Gregg said.

"If we condone these actions we end up saying that violence is a problem-solving device.

"Spending a significant part of your formative years in prison as a result of a serious error of judgment is a heavy price to pay."

After the report, there is a stream of comments still supporting Casey, and hurling abuse at the 12 year old bully.

There do seem to be an extraordinary number of people weighing in on this who say they have been bullying victims themselves. I wonder during what decade most of these people were at school, as I don't know that bullying was a specific subject that really had such widespread attention when I was at high school back in the 1970's. Yet now that schools do talk about it clearly, it seems that all these commenters feel that the schools are failing to deal with it.

But in any event, I re-iterate: this is not a story that the media should be playing up at all. The attention on the bully, his family and the victim is not doing any of them any good in the long run, is my bet.

Update 3: Andrew Bolt on radio this morning (you can listen at his blog) noted that he was entirely sympathetic to Casey's plight, but it was a dangerous throw and if it had resulted in death, people would not be talking about heroics. He had also declined to put the video on his blog because he did not want to encourage others to react this way, given the danger involved. Steve Price agreed with him.

So what'ya know. Two pretty right wing guys seem to have an issue with the danger the video represents.

They have more common sense than the Catallaxy crowd, then. That's not hard, though.