Friday, July 29, 2011

Catfish noodling

I had not heard of catfish noodling before, but Hamish and Andy enlightened me last night:

I suspect this Youtube extract won't last, so watch it while you can.

I don't think he liked it

'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' | The Japan Times Online

This reviewer really, really hated the latest Transformers movie, and I like many of his lines:

Given enough money, almost any filmmaker could deliver a big, loud, silly popcorn movie about giant alien robots beating the living crap out of each other, but it takes the special talent of director Michael Bay to make such a movie totally repellent. ...

Perhaps you'd like to know about the story? So would I...

Perpetual dweeb Sam Witwicky (LaBeouf) inexplicably has an even hotter girlfriend than before, Carly (Huntington-Whiteley), despite being unemployed and constantly whining about how having alien robot friends doesn't land him a cushy Homeland Security desk job, and sending abusive-boyfriend signals every time Carly talks about her cool boss (Patrick Dempsey). But then again, Sam's mom jokes about her son's penis size (seriously), so you can forgive the poor boy for having "issues."
My son has seen it, he went with a friend and his Mum, so I didn't see it. Just lucky I guess.

Melting Arctic feedbacks

BBC News - Huge Arctic fire hints at new climate cue

When the tundra gets warm and dry, it burns. It burnt a lot in 2007. Seeing the ice melt this year is close to the 2007 level, I wonder if it will happen again this year?

When the permafrost melts, it releases more carbon dioxide.

That's about it, in short form.

Getting paranoid

China cracks down on wi-fi in public spaces

China has ordered public spaces offering wi-fi web access to install costly software to enable police to identify people using the service, state media said Thursday.

The software, which also gives police a list of all websites visited by an online user, costs between 20,000 yuan ($3,100) and 60,000 yuan, the China Business News said.

As a result, many establishments such as bars, restaurants, cafes and bookstores have decided to stop providing to their customers despite its popularity, to avoid paying the money, the report said.

In Beijing, cafe and restaurant owners have been told they face a minimum fine of 5,000 yuan if they continue to offer wireless without installing the software, it said.

"In serious cases," offenders could see their Internet cut off for up to six months, the report said.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hard to visit?

Trojan asteroid dances ahead of the Earth as it orbits of the sun | Science |

I wonder how difficult it is for a rocket to get to an object that is more or less in the same orbit as Earth.

That rare?

Woman has healthy baby at 50

Not that I know anything about this topic, apart from a dim memory from a sitcom in the 1970's, but I didn't think this was so rare:
A 50-year-old Queensland woman has made history as the oldest Australian woman to fall pregnant naturally and give birth to a healthy first child.
The sitcom I refer to was Maude, which had a controversial story in which the title character fell pregnant at an advanced age and decided to have an abortion. I thought she may have been in her 50's in the episode, but I see through the wonders of Wikipedia, that she was meant to be 47. Here's the summary:

Maude had an abortion in November 1972, two months before the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal nationwide, and the episodes that dealt with the situation are probably the series' most famous and most controversial. Maude, at age 47, was dismayed to find herself unexpectedly pregnant. Her daughter Carol brought to her attention that abortion was now legal in New York State. After some soul-searching (and discussions with Walter, who agreed that raising a baby at their stage of life was not what they wanted to do), Maude tearfully decided at the end of the two-parter that abortion was probably the best choice for their lives and their marriage. Noticing the controversy around the episode, CBS decided to rerun the episodes in August 1973, and members of the country's clergy reacted strongly to the decision.
TV was indeed controversial in those days. I was never a fan of the Norman Lear sitcoms, but for some reason I remember seeing at least a bit of this episode. I must have only been a young teenager myself at the time; I'm surprised I was interested enough in the controversy at that age.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

In important squirrel research news

Scientists make squirrels hibernate

The non-hibernating squirrels were tested three times during one year. They were tested during the summer when they were not hibernating, again early in their hibernation season and a third time mid-way through the hibernation season. If animals were hibernating before the test Jinka woke them up to see if the substance would cause them to go back into hibernation.
The thing I'm most interested in is: how drowsy looking is a hibernating squirrel when you wake it up.

(Actually, how much do hibernating animals dream, I wonder. I'm sure someone has done some research on it, but I don't have time to look just now.)

Arguing under the clouds

Why the UK must choose renewables over nuclear: an answer to Monbiot | Jonathon Porritt | Environment |

There appears to be an argument underway between Monbiot and Jonathon Porritt about that latter's claim that it's a question of nuclear or renewables. Monbiot argues instead that it shouldn't be an "either/or" issue.

Porritt goes into a lot of detail about true cost of nuclear, and claims big things for the coming lower costs of solar power in particular.

There are many links that look interesting.

But - the overwhelming thing I keep thinking about in terms of this is - solar power for England? - it's under cloud for about 8/10 of the year, isn't it?

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Three science stories

* There's been a bit of media attention given to hints from data from the LHC that it might have found the Higgs boson. Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong has a good summary of what the LHC has achieved, and it appears to be quite a lot in a very short time. (Wouldn't it be kind of embarrassing if it makes all of its discoveries in the first couple of years, though?) Anyway, here's PW's summary:

The bottom line is much stronger results ruling out supersymmetry, extra dimensions, black holes and other exotica, restriction of the possible mass range of the Higgs to about 114-150 GeV, and a tantalizingly small and not yet statistically significant excess of possible Higgs events in the mass range 120-145 GeV.

The big surprise here is that the experiments have done a fantastic job of getting these analyses of the data done at record speed. Before the LHC turn-on, estimates based on experience at the Tevatron tended to be that it would be 2012 before we saw completed analyses of a significant amount of the 2011 data. A lot of people have been working long hours and going without a summer vacation… The bottom line though is not a surprise, but rather pretty much what many people (including myself) expected. The unconvincing popular theoretical models of the last few decades have finally been confronted with experiment, which is falsifying them, to the extent that they can be falsified. It’s an inspiring example of the scientific method working as it should. The remaining mass range for the Higgs is the expected one, and, as expected, this is the hardest place to separate the Higgs from the background. If it’s really there, the data collected during the rest of this year should be enough to give a statistically significant signal. So, within a few months we should finally have an answer to the question that has been plaguing the subject for decades: “Higgs or something else?”. This is very exciting.


* Was the Universe born spinning? From Physics World:

The universe was born spinning and continues to do so around a preferred axis – that is the bold conclusion of physicists in the US who have studied the rotation of more than 15,000 galaxies. While most cosmological theories have suggested that – on a large scale – the universe is the same in every direction, these recent findings suggest that the early universe was born spinning about a specific axis. If correct, this also means that the universe does not possess mirror symmetry, but rather has a preferred right or left "handedness". ...

Longo and a team of five undergraduate students catalogued the rotation direction of 15,158 spiral galaxies with data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey. They found that galaxies have a preferred direction of rotation – there was an excess of left-handed, or counter-clockwise, rotating spiral galaxies in the part of the sky toward the north pole of the Milky Way. The effect extended beyond 600 million light-years away.

The excess is small, about 7%, and Longo says that the chance that it could be a cosmic accident is something like one in a million.
I don't quite get the next bit, though, in that I didn't think it made sense to talk of subatomic spin as if it were, well, actual spin:

What impact would this have on the Big Bang and how the universe was born? Observers in our universe could never see outside of it, so we cannot directly tell if the universe is spinning, in principle, explains Longo. "But if we could show that our universe still retains the initial angular momentum within its galaxies, it would be evidence that our universe exists within some larger space and it was born spinning relative to other universes," he told "I picture the Big Bang as being born with spin, just like a proton or electron has spin. As the universe expanded, the initial angular momentum would be spread the bits of matter that we call galaxies, so that the galaxies now tend to spin in a preferred direction," he explained.
Others are not convinced he's got a valid conclusion on his hands. Still...interesting.

* Andy Revkin, in a column about underwater volcanoes, notes an incident I don't recall hearing about before:
Substantial gaps persist in basic oceanographic knowledge. One such gap was closed in January, 2005, when an American nuclear submarine making 33 knots 500 feet beneath the surface crashed headlong into an uncharted seamount 360 miles southeast of Guam.
Here's Andy's link to the New York Times 2005 story of the accident, and it makes for fascinating reading. It opens with this:
Blood was everywhere. Sailors lay sprawled across the deck, several of them unconscious, others simply dazed.

Even the captain was asking, "What just happened?" All anyone knew for sure was that the nuclear-powered attack submarine had slammed into something solid and very large, and that it had to get to the surface, fast.

Did I read something about it before, and have forgotten? I don't think so.

Anyway, no wonder the Navy has trouble getting personnel for its submarines.

When "I'm really, really sorry" doesn't cut it

Majority want Murdoch to be forced out of BSkyB altogether - The Independent

Two out of three people believe Rupert Murdoch's News Corp should have to dispose of its entire stake in BSkyB. According to a new survey for The Independent by ComRes, 65 per cent agree that the phone-hacking scandal shows News Corp is not a "fit and proper" organisation to own any part of BSkyB, while 26 per cent disagree.
For those who think Murdoch is a victim of left wing hysteria led by the likes of The Guardian, I'll use his "Daily Telegraph" defence, which comes in handy when running front page campaigns against incumbent governments: The Guardian is not running a campaign, it is merely reflecting public opinion.

Good for us, at least

More Aussie beef in pipeline amid cesium fears | The Japan Times Online

Domestic demand for Australian beef may increase after radiation was found in meat here and amid concern that cesium leaks from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant may spread farther, according to Australian Agricultural Co. Ltd.

"We're expecting to see better demand out of Japan as they move away from their own herds," Chief Executive Officer David Farley said on a conference call Monday. That follows a boost in demand for beef after radiation was detected in domestic seafood in March, he said.

Sorry, I still find you obnoxious

Death prompts bike groups to push for tougher laws

Look, I guess I'm OK with people who use cycling as a normal commuting choice. I'm even happy for them to do that sedately on a footpath, as they do in Japan and (no doubt) other asian countries.

But put them in lycra and trying to do 40 kph on a normal city road, or even on a shared bike/pedestrian path - no, just go away and do your speed stuff on a track.

Tour de France wins do not make anyone feel different about that.

Right wing in Europe

Norwegian massacre is wrong, not far right

Peter Hartcher's take on right wing politics in Europe made for interesting reading, I thought. It's not a topic that is easy to keep a track of from afar.

(He also makes the point that terrorist acts do not usually work the way their instigators think they will - a lesson that terrorists seem very slow to learn.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

Oakeshott talks

Yes, of course Rob Oakeshott make a hugely self-indulgent and embarrassing spectacle of himself when he and Tony Windsor announced they would support a Gillard led government.

But listen to him this morning on Radio National, talking about his support for the government's carbon tax, and his view that MP's are elected to spend the time looking at the detail of an issue and then make a decision that is in the long term interests of the country, and he comes across as principled and reasonable.

On the up-side

Why America's power grid is weathering the heat wave -

There is an usual aspect of the current American heat wave discussed here at the CSM: how come their power grid is coping with it so well? One factor shows that even economic downturns can have a sort of up-side:

A lot of it has to do with a weak economy that has left plenty of backup power available. The rapid growth of energy-efficiency measures is also responsible, as well as something called demand response – when commercial and industrial electricity users are throttled back by the use of computer-controlled switches and the Internet.

Just a touch of hypocrisy

Isn't it odd that Pajamas Media should link to an article "Can the Left Resist the Temptation to Exploit the Norway Attacks", and the same day run one which is all about (alleged) anti-Semitism in that country? (It is attracting a significant number of hostile comments.) Mind you, as I noted yesterday, the first American right quasi-political comment I read anywhere about it was at Powerline, with its "but if only there had been more people with guns there" twaddle.

Meanwhile, in Australia, Andrew Bolt does his shark jumping routine again, re-posting some singing Nazi youth (from which movie, I don't know) when discussing the Greens.

(I would never vote for the Greens, but this is just childish. They have every chance of losing some of their current level of popularity when Bob Brown goes, anyway.)

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Triple down Andrew

OK, well, who didn't think that Islamic terrorism was probably behind the terrible events in Norway earlier today? I mean, even Geraldine Doogue on Radio National this morning opined that it appeared to be an attack that would have had to involve several people and much care in planning, and (I think) there was mention of the Mohammed cartoon controversy.

So, I can't really say Andrew Bolt can be blamed for suspecting the same.

But when it turns out that it wasn't Muslim terrorism, why do this? It appears to be one of the strangest cases of doubling down on an error that I have ever seen:


In fact:

“Explosives were found on the island,” deputy Oslo police chief Sveining Sponheim told reporters. He said a man detained by police was aged 32 and ”ethnic Norwegian.”

Even so, the history of Islamic violence in Scandinavia suggests Muslim immigration there has been a bad deal for the locals:

It was not immediately known who was behind the bombing, but Norway’s intelligence police agency (PST) said in February that Islamic extremism was a major threat to the country…

... police last year arrested three Muslim men based in Norway suspected of planning an attack using explosives in the Scandinavian country.

And then, Andrew does a triple down on a kinda offensive attempts at point scoring by noting with apparent approval John Hinderaker's very American argument that drives me crazy: to paraphrase, "well, that just goes to show what happens when you don't have enough normal people carrying guns". (Particularly when they are in swimmers on an island enjoying the sunshine, or at an Australian historical site, I suppose.) Hinderaker writes:

Many facts are still unknown, but at this point it appears that a key ingredient in the tragedy was the fact that the killer had the only gun on the island.
I honestly think that this type of argument is anathema for about 95% of Australians, yet Andrew gives it a run.

He's getting worse by the day.

Farewell to the shuttle

To be honest, despite my fondness for manned space exploration, I wasn't all that sad to see the end of the space shuttle program this week. Ever since the Columbia broke up over Texas in 2003, I found it difficult to avoid the feeling that the ageing program was not another disaster just waiting to happen. I mean, we're talking machines built in the 1970's and early 1980's. I'm not even particularly keen on flying in aircraft more than 25 years old, let alone a hybrid rocket plane which gets vibrated to hell on every launch and might have had its plans drawn by hand on that blue blueprint paper while I was still at high school.

On the other hand, I do share the disappointment that the manned space program has felt rudderless for, oh, about the entire 30 years we've watched the shuttle. American Presidents of both political persuasions never seem to have got it quite right ever since Kennedy: you know, set a goal that is achievable, expands humanity's reach in the universe, and achieve it. How hard can it be? Well, OK, pretty damn hard.

At the risk of repeating myself (but what's a blog for if you can't do that?): I don't see much point in aiming for Mars when you have such big gaps in knowledge as to how it will be achieved. I mean, I don't think anyone yet has a good plan for a spaceship that can ensure the survivability of astronauts from cosmic radiation on the trip, not to mention a foolproof space toilet. In reality, what you probably need is engines that get you there and back as soon as possible, yet you get the distinct impression that this has been on the economic backburner while all the engineering thought went into how to keep the remaining shuttles from disaster. (Interestingly, one of the hopes for better engines for a Mars trip - the next generation plasma engine VASIMR - was just recently attacked by prominent let's-go-to-Mars advocate Robert Zubrin as being "a hoax." Mind you, I've always half suspected Zubrin to be a slightly nutty techno-optimistic himself.)

George W Bush's 2004 plan for a return to the moon as a sort of stepping stone to Mars did seem basically sound, though; except for the stepping stone bit. I assume that setting up a long term post on the Moon probably does help a lot in developing reliable life supports systems that you would need to get to and from Mars; but it likely doesn't do anything much for the development of the new propulsion systems you need to get there and back ASAP.

Anyway, as far as I'm concerned - the Moon has been barely scratched in terms of exploration, and the surface of Mars is not all that more hospitable place to be setting up camp. There are almost certainly caves, gases and water on the Moon that are well worth exploring, and if enough buried water is found, you really do have a basis for a permanent base and, just maybe, genuine lunar industry. You're never going to be able to cover the shipping costs from Mars to Earth, regardless of what you make there.

Forget daydreaming about walking around the Red Planet; not for now anyway. We've seen the photos; it may look like an Earth side desert, but it's not going to feel that way when you're there.

The Moon is handily close and has the potential to actually help the Earth, as well as being a good base for science, at least of the astronomical variety. No one ever suggests this, but as I like to cover all bases, I actually think one of the key roles of the Moon should be as an emergency back up for Earth from planet-wide disasters of any variety. I'd be making it the equivalent of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway; except I'd also be sending DNA from all animals as well, together with encyclopaedic amounts of data on every technological or scientific topic that could be of use or interest in the future.

Anyway, enough of the Opinion Dominion Outline for a Reasonable, Useful and Human Space Program.

Back to the last Shuttle flight: James Lilek wrote well about it, and as he appears to be about my age, I understand the sentiment:

NASA is keen to tell you there’s a still a future for sending Americans into space, but there’s a general cultural anomie that seems content to watch movies about people in space, but indifferent to any plans to put them there. This makes me grind my teeth down to the roots, but I suppose that’s a standard reaction when the rest of your fellow citizenry doesn’t share the precise and exact parameters of your interests and concerns. That’s the problem when you grow up with magazines telling you where we’re going after the moon, with grade-school notebooks that had pictures of the space stations to come, when the push to Mars was regarded as an inevitable next step.

Just got hung up on the “why?” part, it seems. Also the “how” and the “how much” and other details. I can see the reason for taking our time – develop new engines, perfect technology, gather the money and the will. It’s not like anything’s going anywhere. But it’s not like we’re going anywhere if we’re not going anywhere, either – when nations, cultures stop exploring, it’s a bad sign. You’re ceding the future.......

So what’s the attachment, really? Childhood attachment to Star Trek fantasies, geeky fascination with spaceships, adolescent marination in sci-fi visions of rockets and moon bases and PanAm shuttles engaged in a sun-bathed ballet with a space station revolving to the strains of Strauss, phasers and warp six and technobabble and the love of great serene machinery knifing through clouds of glowing dust? Probably. It’s not over, I know – but it’s like watching the last of Columbus’ ships return, and learning they’re cutting up the mast for firewood, and no one’s planning to go back any time soon.
But finally, for a bit of inspirational nostalgia, this video from Nature turned up at Boing Boing, and it is very good:

Friday, July 22, 2011

Paging Dr Brady

Of course, climate change sceptics will be all over the article in The Australian today noting a recent study, based on just four tidal gauges, that argues that sea level increase has started to decelerate, at least around Australia/New Zealand. [Note: see the update below for the correction to this.]

The author of the paper, which I had actually heard about before, seems open minded as to the question of long term implications.

The report in The Australian, however, gives earlier prominence to some very climate change sceptic sounding comments by one Dr Howard Brady, of Macquarie University.

Googling Dr Brady reveal little about him, except for the following:

* he is aged 70

* he is a retired scientist who did a lot of work in Antarctica

* he is a former Catholic priest

* he used to be chief of Mosaic Oil

* he gave at least one talk to a Engineer’s Club to deliver a climate change update.

Now, not all of these things are necessarily indicative of climate change scepticism; but most of them are!

Yet one of the links says he is interested in the "non-linearity of climate change", which sounds more like a climate change believer interest.

So, it’s a bit of a mystery. Come out and reveal your position on everything to do with climate, Dr Brady, and tell us how you managed to get quoted in The Australian on this study.

UPDATE: I should have known. Deltoid looks at the actual science at issue here and shows how that article misrepresents it. He also notes that The Australia has not published a correcting letter from Watson's department, and also wonders why Dr Brady is quoted as some sort of authority on this.

In short: another case of pathetic journalism on climate change.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Worthy of a trip to the cinema?

Captain America: The First Avenger - Rotten Tomatoes

I'm not the world's greatest fan of Marvel movies by any means, but I note that Captain America is getting more positive reviews than bad, and the fact that it's directed by Joe Johnston, who did The Rocketeer 20 years ago, makes me more inclined to see it.

The Rocketeer certainly failed commercially to live up to its publicity, but I thought it looked great and found it quite likeable. CA might therefore be worth a shot.

More about feeling your religion

Further to my somewhat rambling recent post about my wariness of how people sense divine guidance or presence, I see that Mark Vernon at The Guardian has his final piece on Carl Jung, and I thought this section was of interest:

It is perhaps this craving for immediate experience that drives the highly emotional forms of religion growing so fast in the contemporary world, though Jung would have discerned a sentimentality in them that again simplifies humankind's moral ambiguities and spiritual paradoxes. He did not believe that authentic religiosity was expressed in these peak experiences. Rather he advised people to turn towards their fears, much as the mystics welcomed the dark night of the soul. This shadow is experienced as a foe, but it is really a friend because it contains clues as to what the individual lacks, rejects and distrusts.

"What our age thinks of as the 'shadow' and inferior part of the psyche contains more than something merely negative," he writes in The Undiscovered Self, an essay published in 1957. "They are potentialities of the greatest dynamism." That dynamism works by way of compensation. It aims to rebalance what has become lopsided. Hence, if at a conscious level the scientific has eclipsed the theological, the material the valuable, the emotive the spiritual, then the forces that hide in the unconscious will ineluctably make themselves felt once more. It will seem chaotic and quite possibly be destructive. But the passion also contains a prophetic voice calling humanity back to life in all its fullness.

As usual with Jung, I find it both interesting yet somewhat unsatisfactory, and not entirely clear what it means. Vernon finishes on this note:
Symbols do die. "Why have the antique gods lost their prestige and their effect upon human souls? It was because the Olympic gods had served their time and a new mystery began: God became man." Which raises the question of whether the Christian dispensation has now served its time too and we await a new mystery. Perhaps we do live on the verge of a new age, of another transformation of humanity.
All a bit "Age of Aquarius", I feel. As I think technological transhumanism is a long, long way off, I don't see that as holding out much hope for "transformation of humanity". In a world where people are living more and more in front of a screen (I'm as guilty as anyone,) it's hard to see anything other than life enhancing mystery being slowly bled away.

Still, you never know what might come along.

Japan and renewables

BBC News - Fukushima crisis: Nuclear only part of Japan's problems

The article describes the problems Japan is going to face with electricity supply if they are going to do it with less nuclear power.

Let's face it: a country as prone to earthquakes as Japan should indeed be one of the more cautious ones about where and how they build nuclear power. Again, I suspect that building smaller, self contained reactors, such as those Toshiba and Hyperion have been said to be developing for a few years now, might be the only way to feel more confident about nuclear in that country.

On the other hand, a very geologically quiet country like Australia seems the ideal place for nuclear. But new designs, please.

Meanwhile, in Japan, we'll soon be seeing how well a concerted effort to build up solar power can work:

Japan has a relatively small share of renewables, which account for approximately 5% of its total primary energy supply. The current National Energy Plan has set a target of 10% by 2020. At the G8 summit in France this May, Mr Kan announced a plan to increase renewables to more than 20% of total electricity supply by the early 2020s. The government also plans to install 10 million rooftop photo-voltaic units (solar cells) by 2030.

Ice watch

RealClimate: Arctic sea ice discussions

Arctic ice extent is currently tracking below the 2007 summer minimum, although cautious people in the above thread note that July level is not that good at predicting the later minimum.

Still, someone else notes that ice volume is way down, which is arguably more important than extent for the long term.

Of course, a new record low in Arctic ice extent this year could only help the disturbingly gullible public of Australia believe that climate change is real, so here's hoping for it.

Quiet companionship, indeed

Silicone love: Guys and dolls - ABC News

Gosh. What inspired the ABC to have a long article about Australian men who are having happy, contented, but rather weird, lives with their silicone life-like girlfriends.

I wonder if some of them have thought to do wills providing for their "quiet" companions. I would like to see a funeral with the silicone girlfriend seated in the front row, dressed in black. Maybe she could be thrown onto the coffin in an uncontrollable outbreak of grief, and someone else has to slap her hard in the face to get her to pull herself together.

Yes, I can imagine a lot of entertainment value in this.

Hard to disagree

Intelligent discussion all but extinct

Barry Jones complains about the dumbing down of political debate, and it is hard to disagree.

In terms of the reasons why, I find it hard not to blame the internet for the ease with which ideologically motivated attacks on climate science have spread in the echo chamber that most people are happy to reside in.

And if you thought blogs were bad in this regard, I think that the Twitter is making it even worse. I'm sure blogging has taken a downturn in popularity as people have turned to the instant gratification of live, short jokey comments that seem to me to be the sole reason for the existence of that medium. When I have looked at Twitter feeds, I can't really understand the appeal of watching (or participating in) a knotted spaghetti of snippets of conversations from all over the place. Sure, the occasional witticism is there to be seen; but it drowns in a sea mundane connectedness.

There was probably a better informed level of debate when paper pamphlets were the only way to go about it.

The real puzzle is: how to get better detail in debate going again. TV panel shows such as Q&A are certainly not the way to go about it - I have always disliked that format too for its dumbing down of complex issues into one liners.

I am not sure what the answer is. Less electricity with which to use the internet might help though! (Just kidding.)

Does this sound like such a good idea?

Transgenic grass skirts regulators : Nature News

GM plants have been in the news lately, what with Greenpeace (literally) cutting down CSIRO work on GM wheat.

While I certainly don't support this Greenpeace action, I've always had reservations about GM technology, for many of the reasons you would no doubt find on a Greenpeace website. (Is it necessary in the first place, will genes inadvertently spread into the wild, it's not a precise science at all, is it putting too much control over farming into profit driven corporations, etc. Yes, I sound a regular Lefty, but I can see the reason people worry about it, and there are real life examples of how the technology has not worked out well.)

But GM proponents have often argued that the work is really important for helping the world feed itself in future. I'm yet to be convinced of that, but in any event one of the big GM controversies has been about GM cotton in India; hardly a crop with a vital importance for humanity's well being. (Well, a world only of polyester clothes would be a disaster of a kind, I suppose.)

Today I see from the link above that GM to do with herbicide resistence is also being done for lawn grass. You see, it'll just let you spray the weeds in your lawn instead of having to bend over and pull them up.

Is this something that is really in humanity's interest to develop? Do we really need to run the risk of transferring resistance to herbicides to other grasses?

What's more, there seems to be less regulatory control of this due to the way it's being made:

The grass can evade control because the regulations for GM plants derive from the Federal Plant Pest Act, a decades-old law intended to safeguard against plant pathogens from overseas. Previous types of GM plants are covered because they they were made using plant pathogens. The bacterium Agrobacterium tumefaciens — which can cause tumours on plants — shuttled foreign genes into plant genomes. Developers then used genetic control elements derived from pathogenic plant viruses such as the cauliflower mosaic virus to switch on the genes.

By revealing similar elements in plants' DNA, genome sequencing has liberated developers from having to borrow the viral sequences. And Agrobacterium is not essential either; foreign genes can be fired into plant cells on metal particles shot from a 'gene gun'. Scotts took advantage of both techniques to construct the herbicide-resistant Kentucky bluegrass that put the USDA's regulatory powers to the test.

"The Plant Pest Act was completely inappropriate for regulating biotech crops, but the USDA jury-rigged it," says Bill Freese, science-policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington DC. "Now we can foresee this loophole getting wider and wider as companies turn more to plants and away from bacteria and other plant-pest organisms." The USDA has not made public any plans to close the loophole and has also indicated that it will not broaden its definition of noxious weeds, a class of plants that falls under its regulatory purview, to facilitate the regulation of GM crops.

Let me just say: this does nothing to reduce my cynicism towards GM work on plants.

Life imitates art

Some journalist has already noted the Murdoch double act before the committee the other day as having a bit of a Montgomery Burns/Smithers vibe about it, but the connection I kept thinking about was this:


To this:

cat lady

It’s the hair. I find it very off putting.

UPDATE: Thank goodness: I'm not alone in wondering why on earth she has such an in-your-face 'do.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

And this man is the preferred Prime Minister

'Weathervane' Abbott targeted over support for price on carbon | The Australian

From the Tony Abbott "Just Say Anything" tour of Australia (it has the asterisked subtitle "Consistency and logic are for mugs") we get the following story:

The Opposition Leader made the claim on Gippsland's Star FM yesterday, saying: “I've never been in favour of a carbon tax or an emissions trading scheme.”

But in October 2009 Mr Abbott, under then-opposition leader Malcolm Turnbull, publicly backed an emissions trading scheme in an interview on the ABC's Lateline program.

“We don't want to play games with the planet. So we are taking this issue seriously and we would like to see an ETS,” he said at the time.

He made a similar comment on radio 2UE in November that year. “You can't have a climate change policy without supporting this ETS at this time,” he said.

Earlier this week, Mr Abbott criticised a proposed 5 per cent carbon emissions cut as “crazy”, even though the Coalition supports the target.

UPDATE: Tony Abbott says he forgot to add "as leader" to the end of his claim that he has never supported an ETS. I'm sure he'll allow Julia to explain that she forgot to add "no majority Labor government I lead will have a carbon tax".

But Tony Abbott's career of just making it up as he goes along continues with this:
TONY Abbott now says he does not want any of Victoria's brown-coal-fired power stations to close or switch to cleaner fuels, despite the Coalition having repeatedly said it expects to pay for one of the generators to shut and convert to gas under its $10.5 billion Direct Action policy.

''I know that burning brown coal is a high emissions form of energy production, but I think the smart way forward is not to fail to use brown coal. It's not to close down these power stations, it's to try to ensure that we use technology better to reduce the emissions,'' Mr Abbott said yesterday as he prepared to visit the Hazelwood brown coal plant....

But as recently as Tuesday, Coalition Finance spokesman Andrew Robb had claimed Labor's proposal to pay to close a brown coal generator had been stolen from the Coalition.

''Despite all the fevered claims that Direct Action won't work, the single biggest abatement measure in the Government's scheme happens to be a Direct Action proposal - namely, the closure of Hazelwood power station.''

And after last year's election, the Coalition climate spokesman Greg Hunt said: ''One of the ironies of the election is that if the Coalition had formed government, we would be negotiating with the owners of Hazelwood and Yallourn power stations about converting either or both from brown coal to gas.''

But yesterday Mr Abbott said: ''There will be no act of policy from the next Coalition government or from any Coalition government that I'm associated with that artificially foreshortens the life of these power stations.''

A taxing success?

Calls for new tax on alcohol after success of alcopop tax stopping teen drinking |

I haven't read the study reported here, and it is written by bodies who want to push a strong public health barrow, but still:

Research by the groups found that the alcopops tax, introduced in 2008, pushed the sale of the popular drinks down by more than 30 per cent in a year.

While sales of other spirits rose in the same period, the increase accounted for less than half the fall in alcopop sales.

The groups also pointed to the 2008 alcohol and drug survey of teenagers which showed that while the tax had not changed their preference for alcopops, the number of teen drinkers fell 27 per cent in three years.

Why hasn't the Gillard government pointed to this as a public health policy success story? Too caught up in the carbon pricing war? Or maybe it's because the same bodies praising the success want alcohol to be more expensive for everyone, and that's not a palatable message to be passing on to a hysterical public at the moment.

Never trust a teenage insect

Asexual ants are actually having sex: study

The BBC sums it up

BBC News - Murdochs hearing: A day of high drama and farce:

Murdoch Sr had got off to a shaky start. We knew he was 80, but he seemed more frail - and certainly more human - than the figure of legend.
Not so much a titan before whom all must tremble, as an elderly man on a day trip to the coast, mistakenly arrested for shoplifting.
Of course, Murdoch employed columnists are having a hard time seeing it this way. Can Andrew Bolt really say this with a straight face?:
The incident [the pie in the face] was a reminder to the committee that bad things can happen - like lax security - to the most august of institutions.

The Murdochs’ testimony was reassuringly impressive, after so many stumbles in dealing with this scandal...
A dignified refusal to comment might have been wiser, Andrew.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Sort of like a spoon full of sugar

Molasses help lose weight (Science Alert)

Molasses usually end up as a waste-product of sugar refining. However, they are rich in polyphenols, says Dr Weisinger, chemicals found in plants known for their antioxidant properties....

Researchers supplemented the high-fat diet of a group of laboratory mice with molasses for 12 weeks. They found that these mice had lower body weight, reduced body fat and decreased blood levels of leptin – a hormone involved in energy regulation, appetite and metabolism – than the control group.

Further analyses, says Dr Weisinger, revealed that molasses supplements led to increased energy excretion, i.e, more calories were lost in faeces. They also found increased gene expression for several liver and fat cell biomarkers of energy metabolism....
Clinical trials are scheduled to begin next year to evaluate the molasses extract for weight control in humans.

Nothing personal at all

Media Watch: Personal or policy? You be the judge (18/07/2011)

Media Watch last night was very good at pointing out the lengths to which right wing talk back radio in Australia has gone to make criticism of Julia Gillard (and anyone supporting carbon pricing) personal, extreme and offensive. Look at these extracts from callers who Chris Smith and Alan Jones have let go to air:

'Bonita': Look I can say this, but you can't: she's a menopausal monster, and she needs to resign.

Chris Smith: Ok. Good on you, Bonita. Thank you.

'Tony': The Australian taxpayer even pays for the toilet paper she uses.
Does she go down to the chemist to buy her tampons? Or is the Australian taxpayer paying for those as well? ...
In my opinion Julia Gillard is a piece of crap ...

Alan Jones: Ok, well you made a lot of valid points there. We've just got to avoid in our criticism the personal. We stick to the policy; we never deal with the personal.
The extracts that follow then go on to show how ridiculous is Jones' claim that he never gets "personal". He has used the "chaff bag" line more than once:
Alan Jones: Put her in the same chaff bag as Julia Gillard and throw them both out to sea.
I saw on Andrew Bolt's TV show on Sunday a passing comment by him that he doesn't approve of Alan Bond's personal attacks. Might be nice if he would actually do a post on his own blog about this; but then, that would involve acknowledging his own role in creating a hysterical atmosphere about the carbon tax debate in the country at the moment.

Speaking of poor taste, that's also how I found yesterday's post at Catallaxy by Sinclair Davidson headed "Roadkill", which featured a photo of the PM with a startled look, and talked about the bad, bad polls she is receiving at the moment.

That heading and attempt at humour really sounds to me like something you'd hear on a late night host on the Macquarie Network, rather than from a Professor of Economics.

Sometimes I get noticed

Recently, I have posted a couple of times about Texas State climatologist John Nielsen-Gammon, including about his Counterpoint interview.

Even allowing for the fact that he almost certainly only found my comments via Deltoid, it's pleasing to see that my observations are sometimes noted on the other side of the world.

It's worthwhile reading my comment and Dr John's response on the thread, too.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Unusual comparison of the week

Cold-blooded cunning | The Economist

This article suggests that no one has ever spent much time testing the intelligence of reptiles. Unfortunately, they are smarter than we knew:
In a paper published in Biology Letters Dr Leal and Dr Powell suggest that lizards are at least as intelligent as tits, a group of birds that has been well examined in this respect.
Ah well: I suppose that as I never feared being outsmarted by a tit, I shouldn't fear reptiles doing it either.

Cultural nuttiness

Last week's article in Slate "A Bad Case of the Brain Fags" by Jesse Bering, was a pretty interesting short survey of culture specific mental illnesses.

The first one he mentions, though, "old hag syndrome" he indicates as being specific to Newfoundland. I thought that it was common throughout the world as part of sleep paralysis that people could wake up with the sensation of being pressed down on the bed by a ghost or phantom figure. Maybe it is only in Newfoundland that folklore says it is specifically an ugly, witch like woman doing it?

I did recently see the famous physicist/author Paul Davies on Lawrence Leung's Unbelievable talking about he suffered from waking sleep paralysis as a child or teenager, and used to interpret the pressure on his chest as feeling like a cat walking on him. Unhelpfully, he didn't explain if there was actually a cat in the house at the time.

(I can also mention, as an aside, that while sleeping in an unusual location once as teenager, I also woke up with the feeling of pressure on my chest, which really did turn out to be a cat.)

Anyway, Bering also mentions koro (the fear of the penis disappearing into the body), and although I knew about that already from Fortean Times magazine, he does add some interesting details.

As I have usually avoided gyms, I didn't really know this about body builders:
One that's not in the manual but could be, argue psychiatrists Gen Kanayama and Harrison Pope in a short paper published earlier this year in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, is "muscle dysmorphia." The condition is limited to Western males, who suffer the delusion that they are insufficiently ripped. "As a result," write the authors, "they may lift weights compulsively in the gym, often gain large amounts of muscle mass, yet still perceive themselves as too small." Within body-building circles, in fact, muscle dysmorphia has long been recognized as a sort of reverse anorexia nervosa. But it's almost entirely unheard of among Asian men. Unlike hypermasculine Western heroes such as Hercules, Thor, and the chiseled Arnold of yesteryear, the Japanese and Chinese have tended to prefer their heroes fully clothed, mentally acute, and lithe, argue Kanayama and Pope. In fact, they say anabolic steroid use is virtually nonexistent in Asian countries, even though the drugs are considerably easier to obtain, being available without a prescription at most neighborhood drugstores.
I'm in no danger of needing treatment for this condition.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

All your bases

As I’ve been reading about Antarctica lately, I’ve been browsing around looking at information on the current bases down there.

There are more than I expected; some from rather unexpected countries. (With the relatively recent arrival of India, I suppose you can get a curry on any night, as well as shop at a discount variety store if you left something at home.) I was curious to see what they look like, as I was hoping national architectural flare might show up, even on the icy continent.

Well, it was an interesting exercise.

At the South Pole itself, the base was formerly noteworthy for its geodesic dome. Very space age looking in its day, I was a little sad to see that it has recently been dismantled. (As far as I can tell, its disadvantage was that it was too easily covered with snow.) Here’s a photo of it at the start of its disassembly:


In the background, you can see the new, somewhat boring in comparison, building. A better picture is here:

new base

It’s built on legs that can be raised to keep it above the increasing snow. This is a common feature of most new bases on the higher parts of the continent.

So, what about other stations? The French-Italian one has a bit more space age flair:


The German one looks like the top part of a ship on stilts:


Norway’s Troll Station (great name) is disappointingly boring by comparison – it looks like a collection of shipping containers, no?:


A Bulgarian base on the South Shetland Islands (this counts as an Antarctic base, apparently) has all the architectural flair and impressive scale of a scout den:


They do, however, have an Eastern Orthodox chapel, which from the outside looks very much like a fruit shop cold room with a cross on top:

Inside it still looks like a refrigerator, but I guess it's nice that it's there at all.

The Chapel has its own Wikipedia entry, which also leads me to the more remarkable in style Russian Orthodox Trinity Church on King George Island:

I wonder if for much of the year if you can to the door through the snow. I see that there are chapels further south (including specifically Catholic ones) on the main continent itself. You can see nice photos of them here.

The Argentineans, on the Antarctic Peninsula, have gone for a homier, village style:


Mind you, Australia does not do Antarctic stations with any architectural value at all. Davis Station looks a complete, multi-coloured mess:


And Mawson is not much better:


OK, this is getting boring now, but not before my favourite station, Belgium's Princess Elizabeth base:


So that’s where the Jupiter 2 ended up.

Monday, July 11, 2011


I have a lot of work to catch up on.

The right wing blogs are also going to be unbearable for quite a while on the carbon tax, and there will be no point in commenting at them.

I therefore should try to avoid the blogs for a week or so.

I am tempted to shift any stupid doodling or videos I do to a separate blog, and I'll note that here if I do.

Of gods and men (and women too)

On rock worship and the Shinto gods | The Japan Times Online

I was interested to read this article by Japan Times columnist Amy Chavez, concerning how Shinto works.

It's basically an animistic religion, with particular places said to have their local god. But I wasn't really aware of this aspect of it:

Part yamabushi and part spiritual healer, Man-chan is 84 years old and considered the person most in touch with the Shinto spirits (kami), on our island. He alerted me to a couple of yorishiro or spiritual antennas to the gods. These days the kami probably have handheld GPSs made in China, but in ancient times you still had to send them a spiritual sign. So special rocks or trees were designated as antennas to invite the kami to descend there. No batteries necessary.

The most famous rocks of this sort in Japan are perhaps Meoto Iwa, the "husband and wife rocks" off the coast of Mie Prefecture. These rocks invite the kami to descend on them from above. You often see these two rocks in photos, a special shimenawa rope connecting them across the water. Let's hope they never divorce.

Man-chan told me that Shinmei Shrine was considered sacred because of the small cave there. But the two other places he told me about, Myoken and Hachiman, were given their status by a Shinto priest. In other words, the priest invited the kami to descend there. When a priest calls to the kami to descend, he must feel the kami enter his body. He must feel the spirit of the kami in his heart. He may even prostrate himself before the kami. If he does not feel the kami inside him, they have not descended and the spot is not made sacred.

Various shamanistic and animistic religions appear to have this idea: that the priest or holy man takes the nature god or spirit into his body in a useful form of spirit possession. I remember David Byrne talking about a South American religion that was like this. He made a documentary about it that I haven't seen, but as I recall, there is a lot of trance inducing rhythm and singing, all while waiting for a nature god, like the chicken spirit (I actually do think he mentioned such a poultry spirit - that is what made me remember it) possesses the shaman/priest for a while.

I don't know whether the Shinto priest would say he is "possessed" by the kami, but I didn't know that having it in his body was part of their religion at all.

Of course, the idea of incorporating the spirit of God is a feature of Christianity too. A Christian apologist can argue that the animistic systems which believed in the importance of this were pre-figuring the true religion that was revealed through Christ. But of course, it still leaves the question: what is it that a shaman or priest is sensing when they believe they are possessed by a god or nature spirit?

A fundamentalist Christian, I suppose, might argue that it could be a true supernatural entity being sensed: just not a holy one. (I certainly don't expect that fundamentalists think God sends angels to act as if they were the Great Chicken Spirit, in the hope of guiding shamans towards Christianity.)

But really, what these religions which incorporate possession as a holy ritual must show is the human susceptibility to misinterpreting a generic "high," or a passing emotional feeling, with communion with the gods. And this, in turn, doesn't say much for those who rely on emotional responses in Christian services as proof of their religion, or a source of sound guidance.

I find the whole question of the sense of feeling God's presence or guidance a vexed issue. On the one hand, if God is capable of raising from the dead, amongst other miracles, the possibility of simply bumping the right neurons in the brain so as to make a person understand what God thinks he should do seems a relative breeze. I mean, it just seems wrong to argue that the Christian God is incapable of such subtleties, and can only work on a big dramatic canvas.

On the other hand, it seems that people are continually thinking that God or the spirits are guiding them: from Mormons who like to argue that if a person prays sincerely, they will "know" that this is the true church; to shamans who think they are being possessed by a nature spirit for a night.

They can't all be right.

Anyway, this is generally why I am very cautious on the whole issue of the importance or what a believer feels in any religion.

Of course, an over-intellectualisation of moral or religious belief runs its own dangers too. Certainly, I don't dismiss the importance of the intuitions or emotions in their guidance for the moral life. I continually find myself amazed, for example, when thinking about the Holocaust, that the intellectual justification for treating Jews as so much cattle to be slaughtered managed to triumph over what must have surely been a instinctive reaction against cruelty to fellow humans; particularly children. (The "girl in the red dress" sequence was particularly good in Schindler's List, I thought, for showing a man whose empathy with an innocent child would not let him accept the intellectually justified horror going on around him.)

I similarly find it difficult to fathom that some people have no problem with late term abortion, when the fetus has but the slightest genetic problem. (Although attitudes to killing even new born children have been extremely different in the past to what they are now, and I guess that I shouldn't be surprised that modern people can be comfortable killing viable babies by late term abortion.)

And then, on the fourth hand (I'm starting to lose count), appeals to the primacy of emotionalism and an inner sensation for guidance (which is fundamentally what I think a lot of people mean when they say they are interested in spirituality in their religion) leads to some pretty soft headed ideas in the modern world. Gay marriage is one of these; it being tied up with the triumph of gay identity politics over what I think is a more common sense view as to what marriage is fundamentally about - the possibility of procreation.

I think most people would tend to see spirituality as a more feminine aspect of religion, and intellectual interest in defining rules and logic as a male pursuit. For that reason, people think greater female input into Catholicism would make it more humane in areas such as teaching on sexuality. And to an extent, women can be more practical than men, and are better at not following logic and reason to conclusions that are nonsensical, which is how I view something like the Catholic teaching that a condom used by a loving husband and wife converts the sex into something sinful, whereas timing sex to avoid pregnancy does not. Yet Anglicanism and other Protestant denominations which have become very "feminized," for want of a better word, lose following because a generic sense of feel good spirituality does not particularly need any Christianity to keep it going. (The "feel good" soft rock churches like Hill Song don't seem particularly feminised; I'm not quite sure how to explain how they fit into this outline I'm sketching.) It also seems to me that women can be the worst at reading (or imagining) too much into their fleeting emotional feelings - hence the predominance of women into spiritualism or New Age ideas. (What about shamans, then? I see that some sites claim that a lot of them are homosexual, as indeed in the West they seem to be over-represented amongst spiritualist mediums.*)

So, where does this leave us? A religion which incorporates nothing by way of ceremony or practice with which to uplift the heart is not appealing at all: it seems hard to argue Biblically that these things are not a legitimate concern of God. But the Protestant churches who treat every Sunday service as a soft rock concert that is only designed to hit the heart seems equally wrong. A rule bound over-intellectualised Church can indeed be inhumane; but go too far the other direction and it becomes redundant.

It is perhaps the straddling of the two aspects that is what I find appealing about the Catholic Church, but as I say, we still have the problem of how even a Catholic should understand the sense of God moving in them personally.

It could, of course, be taken all as reason to believe that all religious feeling is delusion, as is all internal sensation that God is influencing a person in any particular way or direction. But what is the fun in that? Thinking about the various mixed messages and ways of interpreting religion and religious sensation seems a rather more interesting past time than many other pursuits; at least to me.

* Isn't it funny how native cultures might elevate a homosexual man by making him the shaman; today Western society has similarly decided to treat them as special and able to do no harm, such as in the way the magazines will gush over Elton or Ricky Martin using the magical powers of egg donation and renting a womb to conceive a child without sex!

Saturday, July 09, 2011

An insider view

Former NOTW executive recounts phone hacking - ABC News

I found this a pretty remarkable interview from a News of the World insider about the phone hacking scandal.

It surprises me that he still seems to have no problem with phone hacking by journalists per se, as long as the target is a "deserving" one: like a politician that a journalist thinks might be doing something wrong, or a celebrity (just because they are a celebrity, is the impression he gives). Although it seems he has blown the whistle on the paper generally, how come he still doesn't get the idea of privacy?

Friday, July 08, 2011

Heaven located (maybe)

New mathematical or scientific ideas often provide material wihich believers in life after death can adapt to provide quasi explanations for the supernatural world. Spiritualism for a long time clung to the idea of "higher vibrations" as being the context in which souls lived. This always sounded a rather silly idea to me, but I'm sure you can still find lots of allegedly channelled books in New Age outlets which talk of spirits having to lower their vibrations to talk to mediums.

I was always keener on the idea of higher dimensions. Ever since mathematicians started thinking about them, the religiously inclined have wondered whether this is a good explanation of a physical location for Heaven, or other (formerly supernatural) realms. Science fiction writers liked the idea too: Heinlein's "And He Built a Crooked House" comes to mind as a fun short story. Other dimensional worlds feature often in his novels too, now that I think of it.

I see from Googling that a physicist priest (William Pollard) as late as 1961 was writing a book explaining higher dimensions as an important religious idea. From a review of his book in Time:

"The key to this approach," he writes, "lies in conceiving the whole space-time continuum of our human intuition as being immersed in a space of higher dimensions." The reality of a higher dimension than the three of space and one of time may seem somewhat elusive to ordinary human beings, but modern scientific minds can see it as mathematically just as sound.

A higher dimension is the result of a lower one moved perpendicular to itself. Writes Pollard: "Heaven, instead of being above us in ordinary space, is perpendicular to ordinary space, and the eternal is perpendicular to the temporal dimension. The transcendent and the supernatural, instead of being pushed farther and farther away from us with each new advance in astronomy, are again everywhere in immediate contact with us, just as the dimension perpendicular to a plane surface is everywhere in contact with it, though transcendent to it."

It's a appealing idea, and it always seems a pity to me that modern science seems to have no use for it. Of course, we hear about extra dimensions in string theory all the time, but mostly in terms of the extra dimensions being bound up so small that they are virtually undetectable. The related idea of branes suggest that there might be another dimensional world just a fraction of a millimetre around us all the time, but while branes can affect each other, as far as I know they don't suggest any way for life from one brane to correspond, or transfer, to another "nearby" brane.

But today I happened to buy last month's Discover magazine, and in the article on black holes, they had an extract from Brian Greene's recent book "The Hidden Reality." This was talking about whether our universe is like a holograph of information processing happening elsewhere.

The phrase "holographic universe" has been around for quite a while; I think I have on my shelf the popular book of the same title by Michael Talbot. (I see now that he died in 1992.) But this was mainly about the ideas of David Bohm and Karl Pribram, and the physical detail of how this type of universe arises was left vague, as I recall. An article by Talbot which explains his books themes can be found here.

I have heard before of black holes and holography, but I think the Brian Greene extract explains it in a relatively clear fashion. Here are some of the relevant parts (typed by me, as I can find no link):
Plato likened our view of the world to that of an ancient forebear watching shadows meander across a simly lit cave wall. He imagined our perceptions to be but a faint inkling of a far richer reality that flickers beyond reach. Two millenia later, Plato's cave may be more than a metaphor. To turn his suggestion on its head, reality - not its mere shadow - may take place on a distant boundary surface, while everything we witness in the three common spatial dimensions is a projection of that faraway unfolding. Reality, that is, may be akin to a hologram. Or really, a holographic movie.....

For black holes, we've found that the link between information and surface area goes beyond mere numerical accounting; there's a concrete sense in which information is stored on their surfaces. Physicists Leonard Susskind and Gerard't Hooft stressed that the lesson should be general: Since the information required to describe physical phenomena within any given region of space can be fully encoded by data on a surface that surrounds the region, then there's reason to think that the surface is where the fundamental physical processes actually happen. Our familiar three dimensional reality, these bold thinkers suggest, would then be likened to a holographic projection of those distant two-dimensional physical processes.

If this line of reasoning is correct, then there are physical processes taking place on some distant surface that, much as a puppeteer pulls strings, are fully linked to the processes taking place in my fingers, arms, and brain as I type these words at my desk. Our experiences here and that distant reality there would form the most interlocked of parallel worlds.
Well, the thing that struck me when reading this was that the idea might, with a bit of pushing around, provide possible ways for arguing:

a. we all are embedded in a "higher" realm which we cannot see (even if the "bigger" reality might be a two dimensional surface rather than a 4 spatial dimension universe);

b. the information processing taking place on the distant surface (presumably of the big black hole the universe is enclosed in) could provide a way for individual minds to survive death. I mean, does the information processing happening on the distant surface have to produce a holographic "image" of a body and its incorporated mind in our world? If a body dies, can the information that effectively produced the mind continue working on the two dimensional surface?

In other words, this seems to provide a location for Heaven, of a kind.

Mind you, if we're talking the surface of a black hole, this is not a permanent place, if Hawking radiation would see it slowly evaporate. (But then, it still remains to be seen if Hawking Radiation really exists. There are still some legitimate doubts.)

OK, so it's not a perfect explanation, but I like any idea that gets us away from mere materialism and lets the information that is our minds have an "out of body" aspect to them.

Remarkable medical news

Surgeons carry out first synthetic windpipe transplant

Surgeons in Sweden have carried out the world's first synthetic organ transplant.

Scientists in London created an artificial windpipe which was then coated in stem cells from the patient.

Crucially, the technique does not need a donor, and there is no risk of the organ being rejected. The surgeons stress a windpipe can also be made within days.

The 36-year-old cancer patient is doing well a month after the operation.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Nessie resurfaces

Inverness Courier | News | Loch Ness Monster sighting reported by locals

Fundamental Fysiks revealed

Book Review: How the Hippies Saved Physics -

Well, this looks like a rather fun book:

Among the many people in San Francisco taking drugs in the early 1970s were members of a maverick group of Berkeley physicists who called themselves the Fundamental Fysiks Group. The young scientists dabbled in mind-altering drugs as they searched for a quantum-physics-based explanation for such phenomena as telepathy and extrasensory perception. The scientific basis for this quest was the experimental confirmation that once two quantum entities (such as electrons) have interacted with one another, they remain connected by what Einstein called "spooky action at a distance." The connection is technically known as entanglement; if one of the entities is prodded, the other one jumps.

As David Kaiser deftly spells out in "How the Hippies Saved Physics," these physicists based their work on good science, however drug-fogged were their aims.
You must follow the link to see their photo too.

Solar issues part 2

Lacklustre results from the Colorado Integrated Solar Project � BraveNewClimate

A few posts back, I noted how PV power investment seems less risky than solar thermal, but I also noted that even with cool looking stirling engine style solar power, the output going up and down rapidly on an intermittently cloudy day was something I was unsure about.

It would seem from the above post that this is indeed a serious issue for large scale PV power (and, presumably, stirling engine solar power.)

Of course, you could always orbit them in space and get constant light that way. Now if only NASA still had rockets...

Nothing is dead simply in alternative energy.

(By the way, is this a convincing argument for highly distributed PV on houses and commercial sites as the simplest way to go? You overcome the problem if the solar panels are spread far and wide, then the supplementary power you need from the grid just getting switched between the areas under cloud for 5 minutes. But if everyone has some solar power, presumably your grid has to supply not all that much supplementary power.

Has anyone in the world ever proposed that it be a law that all new houses have to have a certain amount of PV installed?)

LED bulbs coming

Switch Lighting: Dump your fluorescents and incandescents for this amazing new LED bulb. - By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo shares the same obsessive hatred of compact fluro lights that you tend to see a lot of in right wing blogs (how dare a government force them into much more efficient lighting!), but he is deeply impressed by a new LED bulb by an American company.

Seems no doubt they'll get cheaper and start to replace CFL.

Hobbies: reading science fiction

Is living forever in the future?

Is it possible that your child could live to see 150 years of age? What about your grandchild living to see their 1000th birthday? According to a British biomedical gerontologist and chief scientist of the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) Foundation Aubrey De Grey, that is a definite possibility.

De Grey believes that we are within 25 years of finding the medical technology to essentially bring a ‘cure’ to aging. He says the first person to live to see 150 is already alive and that the individual who will first live to see 1,000 years could be born within the next two decades.

He believes that with the advancement of medical treatments in areas such as gene therapy, stem cells, therapy, immune stimulation and a variety of other medical techniques, people will soon be able to just visit their physician for regular maintenance checkups and cures for diseases that are a part of aging will no longer be an issue.

While De Grey’s predictions may seem a bit extreme, life expectancy is growing by three months every year and many experts are predicting over a million centenarians by 2030. In 2010, Japan alone had over 44,000 residents who had passed the 100 year mark.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Secrets in the desert

The (very) secret history of Area 51 - Americas, World - The Independent

Here's a somewhat interesting article on Area 51, which includes the claim that Presidents aren't always in the loop as to what is being done there.

I also like this claim of a simple but effective security measure:

According to Bill Sweetman, editor-in-chief of defence technology for Aviation Week, simply "pulling out the plug" and "supergluing USB ports" has also helped to keep these black programmes disconnected from our interconnected world.

"Along with the traditional black techniques of the need to know and using a small number of slightly frightened people, these programmes have either now been disconnected from the internet or have never been connected to it in the first place, and the resulting 'air gap system' has prevented them from being compromised by Chinese hackers, like so many other programmes have been."

Getting in first

BBC News - UK faces more harsh winters in solar activity dip

Has this appeared on Watts Up With That and its virtual sister blog Andrew Bolt yet? Because it is bound to, so I may as well get in first.

It's about a new paper saying that decreased solar activity may well mean the UK and Europe have some very cold winters on the way. But it's by Mike Lockwood, who I have already quoted on the topic from an article in Physics World.

But he is no global warming skeptic, and makes the following key point:

The Maunder Minimum, a period of extremely low solar activity that lasted for about half a century from the late 17th Century, has been dubbed by some as the Little Ice Age because Europe experienced an increase in harsh winters, resulting in rivers - such as the Thames - freezing over completely.

Professor Lockwood said it was a "pejorative name" because what happened during the Maunder Minimum "was actually nothing like an ice age at all".

"There were colder winters in Europe. That almost certainly means, from what we understand about the blocking mechanisms that cause them, that there were warmer winters in Greenland," he observed.

"So it was a regional redistribution and not a global phenomenon like an ice age. It was nothing like as cold as a real ice age - either in its global extent or in the temperatures reached.

"The summers were probably warmer if anything, rather than colder as they would be in an ice age."

He added that the Maunder Minimum period was not an uninterrupted series of cold, harsh winters.

Data from the CET showed that the coldest winter since records began was 1683/84 "yet just two year later, right in the middle of the Maunder Minimum, is the fifth warmest winter in the whole record, so this idea that Maunder Minimum winters were unrelentingly cold is wrong".

He explained that a similar pattern could be observed in recent events: "Looking at satellite data, we found that when solar activity was low, there was an increase in the number of blocking events of the jetstream over the Atlantic.

"That led to us getting colder weather in Europe. The same events brought warm air from the tropics to Greenland, so it was getting warmer.

I do wonder, however, whether this issue is important for European decisions about its energy mix. Wind farms perform poorly on colder, relatively still, snowy days, don't they?

UPDATE: WUWT did beat me to this, anyway. C'est la vie.

Up where they belong

iPads Replacing Pilots’ Paper Manuals -

I was wondering the other day whether an iPad had ever been on a space shuttle trip. I expect that tablets with flash memory could handle the vibration of launch quite well.

A bit of Googling has not answered my question, but I see from the above New York Times article that they are starting to make an impact on commercial aviation:

The Federal Aviation Administration has authorized a handful of commercial and charter carriers to use the tablet computer as a so-called electronic flight bag. Private pilots, too, are now carrying iPads, which support hundreds of general aviation apps that simplify preflight planning and assist with in-flight operations.

“The iPad allows pilots to quickly and nimbly access information,” said Jim Freeman, a pilot and director of flight standards at Alaska Airlines, which has given iPads to all its pilots. “When you need to a make a decision in the cockpit, three to four minutes fumbling with paper is an eternity.”


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Solar issues

Solar Thermal Plants Losing out to Photovoltaics - Technology Review

The article notes that big solar thermal plants are still (mostly) semi-experimental and therefore hard to finance, and also the "power tower" types that use large arrays of carefully aligned mirrors to concentrate the sun onto one point tend to involve bulldozing a lot of animal habitat. With PV, you can build above the critters.

Someone in comments notes, though, that the article doesn't consider another solar option: arrays of tracking dishes which power their individual stirling engines. Here's one such array with 60 dishes in Arizona. (Yeah, that's still not so big at 1.5 MW, and I'm not sure how they deal with cloudy days when the sun keeps coming and going.)

I used to follow Inifinia Corporation in the US, because I thought it had the coolest looking design for a stirling engine solar power dish. I see they are still around, and have added a website for their "Powerdish" which claims 24% peak conversion efficiency. They still aren't into the domestic market (and the dish is kinda large for your average house yard anyway,) but with a 25 year life, and claiming to be cheaper than other solar alternatives, they look like a good option for rural properties (and even in arrays.)

In the firing line

Australian volcano eruptions overdue, new study confirms

Using the latest dating techniques, scientists from the University of Melbourne’s School of and the Melbourne School of Engineering have calculated the ages of the small volcanoes in the regions and established the recurrence rate for eruptions as 2,000 years.

With the last eruption at Mt Gambier occurring over 5,000 years ago, scientists say the areas are overdue...

“Although the volcanos in the region don’t erupt on a regular sequence, the likelihood of an eruption is high given the average gap in the past has been 2,000 years,” Professor Joyce said.

“These are small eruptions and very localised but depending on the type of eruption, they could cause devastation to thousands of people,” he said.

The regions of Western Victoria and adjacent south-eastern South Australia demonstrate a history of activity by young monogenetic (single short-lived activity) volcanoes. Similar young monogenetic provinces are found in northeast Queensland.

Professor Joyce suggests it might be a good idea to local governments to think about what to do if an eruption takes place, as they do in Auckland.

Which reminds me, I recently heard on the Science Show a brief mention of Auckland's Rangitoto Island, which only formed in an eruption 600 years ago. (I've been there once, many years ago, but I remember it as very pretty.) As this New Zealand site explains, it's an area absolutely ripe for a new volcano that could come through anywhere:

All of Auckland’s volcanoes come from one magma source. Underlying Auckland is a diffuse pool of magma that occasionally finds its way to the surface. Unlike a ‘classic’ volcano – such as Mt Taranaki or Mt Ngāuruhoe with a single vent through the crust – in Auckland, the magma finds different routes through the crust and erupts in a different place each time.

Each volcanic cone in Auckland stems from a separate eruption from the pool of magma that lies under the city. It’s unlikely that the magma will push through in the same place twice, so each volcano that can be seen on today’s landscape can be thought of as dormant. However, the underlying magma is still active – it may come through at a new place and form a new cone next week, next year or next century.

Obviously, the town planners who let the city be built there have a lot to answer for! :)