Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big progress

Japan's life expectancy 'down to equality and public health measures' The Guardian

I didn't realise that the Japanese advance in life expectancy had happened over such a short space of time. Maybe I am forgetting what the comparative figures are for the West, but this still seems remarkable:

A baby girl born in Japan today can expect to live to 86 and a boy to nearly 80. But it has not always been so.

According to a paper in a Lancet series on healthcare in Japan, this is a rise of 30 years from the expected lifespan in 1947. While Japanese diet has contributed, it is far from the only factor.

The remarkable improvement in Japanese health began with the rapid economic growth of the late 1950s and 1960s. The government invested heavily in public health, introducing universal health insurance in 1961, free treatment for tuberculosis and cutting childhood deaths through vaccination and treatment of intestinal and respiratory infections.

Following the control of infectious diseases, Japan tackled its high death rate from stroke with salt reduction campaigns and the use of drugs to control blood pressure.

The cultural things that the article notes as significant to good Japanese health are attention to hygiene, and a high degree of health consciousness that means regular check ups. The downside, though, is pretty big (especially for a country that is forgetting to have babies):

The downside of Japan's success in keeping its people healthy is that the population is unbalanced and becoming more so. At the moment, 23% of the population is over 65 but by 2050, that will rise to 40% in a population shrinking from 127 million to 95 million. Other problems include drinking and smoking among overworking business people and a high suicide rate partly attributable to rising unemployment. Unless these issues are tackled, the paper suggests, Japan could lose its position at the top of the longevity table.

An amusing line

Just noted this while reading a Washington Post column about Rick Perry:

If Perry’s style resembles anybody’s in George W. Bush’s White House, in fact, it is that of former vice president Dick Cheney, whose just-published memoir, “In My Time,” might as well have been titled “Right Every Time (Even Though I Was Surrounded by Idiots).” Think of Perry as Bush without the charm.

As noted at another blog

Probably, re-reading this in 5 years time will make no sense at all, but I just want to preserve it as a comment I made at Andrew Bolt's blog. Maybe I should add background links later:

Andrew, your acknowledgement towards the end of the column that maybe some people think it was “mean” of you to be asking people to judge her character based on an old relationship from nearly 20 years ago.

This indicates to me you know it was sleazy - done in tandem with Michael Smith in a manner to maximise the drama (and ratings) about how revelations to come would bring down Gillard - when in fact all of the time the bulk of the story had been known and reported for years.

You would also know of other politicians with ex partners who have done wrong - if you want every politician to be judged by their past relationships you know the gossip would never end.

Then, when Milne’s carelessness (or whatever it was, I still don’t understand) gave the PM reason to blast the paper for a detail that was defamatory - you carried on like a drama queen about how her getting upset about this was like suppression of free speech.

She was upset at your foreshadowed sleaze, Andrew, and she had every right to be.

She called the paper out for actual defamation, which you repeated in your column with the attempted arse covering line “I’m not sure that’s right.”

Your behaviour in this matter has been disgraceful, and you’ve let your efforts at “kingmaking” go to your head since you had success with getting Turnbull chucked out.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A real shellacking

Mediawatch last night really showed up Alan Jones for his errors, bullying demeanour, and attempt to clear himself later, as a result of the Canberra truck rally last week.

An asteroid of our own

Apparently, some Chinese scientists think it would not be so hard to put some nearby asteroid into Earth orbit.

If they picked one full of minerals, it might be worth doing.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Nuclear for the Moon

The first nuclear power plant for settlements on Moon, Mars

It's light on details, but it appears thought is going into the design of small, molten salt nuclear reactors to power manned outposts on the Moon or Mars.

Then, all we would need is a rocket to get there...


So, the big political news over the weekend was all to do with what Tony Abbott said to Tony Windsor about his (Tony's) bottom 12 months ago.

Apparently, some people think he would not make a slightly crass joke about (considering) selling his arse to get the Prime Ministership, but I know that somewhere, on the internet, there is a very similar arse related comment that he is supposed to have said to someone (I think while visiting an aboriginal community?) given in explanation as to why he left the seminary (which he found far too "gay".) I haven't been able to find the quote via Google yet, but I know it is out there somewhere. Readers who find it are welcome to put the link in comments!*

Meanwhile, people have to remember even former Liberal staffer Niki Savva wrote:

In private, Abbott talks openly about sex to almost anybody who will listen, and usually at great length. And the conversation continues in public. Journalists persist in asking Abbott for his views on sex and he keeps answering their questions. Even though women resent it when he tries to tell them what they should do with their bodies, he refuses to shut up.

He thinks about it too much. Sex, I mean. Certainly he talks about it too much.

I don't think the Abbott quote sounds out of character at all, and I thought it hardly worth his while denying it. (Unless, of course, he didn't say it, I suppose....) Of course, it may be the fact that the quote indicates he'd do anything policy wise to get the leadership is the thing he objects to, but still the suggestion that he doesn't talk "like that" sounded to me like a denial that he has a "colourful", sometimes arse-related, turn of phrase.

Anyway, the biggest problem with the current union scandal within the Labor side is that is preventing people from remembering what a pillock Tony Abbott can be!

* Update: quote found, from the Sydney Morning Herald, no less:

The teaching staff members at the seminary were influenced by the reforms of Vatican II, and not at all to Abbott's liking. Some of the young seminarians were practising homosexuals. When many years later Abbott and Quarmby met Noel Pearson on business, Abbott jokingly said, according to Quarmby: "Peter and I were the only seminarians who didn't get f---ed."

Yeah, I find the reported quip to Windsor very unlikely (not).

Friday, August 26, 2011

Mungo is right this time

A political crisis like '75? Tell 'em they're dreamin'

I don't normally find much to agree with in Mungo McCallum's political commentary (he was one of the worst Howard haters around, if I recall), but he is right in his comparison of the 1975 Whitlam crisis and the fake crisis the Right is trying to promote today:

And this brings us to the second difference: the crisis of 1975 was actually about something. The government had attempted to bypass both the states and the Treasury to raise an overseas loan of $4 billion and the whole process had gone horribly wrong. A cast of weirdos in white shoes and green sunglasses had emerged making improbable promises and brandishing carpet bags. Whitlam had been forced to sack two of his most senior ministers for deliberately misleading parliament over their own roles in the affair.

This gave Malcolm Fraser the "unusual and reprehensible circumstance" he need to justify the blocking of supply, a move only made possible by an unprecedented breach of convention: on the death of a Queensland Labor senator, the state premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen had appointed as his replacement not another Labor member, as was accepted practice, but an anti-Labor stooge. With the numbers in the senate Fraser committed his own breach of convention, confident that it would force Whitlam to an election.

Whitlam fought back, attempting to find alternative means to pay the civil and military public service. Lawyers, up to and including the chief justice became involved, both openly and covertly and there was talk of both a general strike and of military intervention. This really was a political crisis; no wonder the place went apeshit.

But today... well, what crisis? The polls are against the Government, as are the shock jocks and sections of the media, but for the administration, it's pretty much business as usual. By international standards the place is in good shape, and although there are plenty of dissatisfied voters, there are no signs of a genuine people's revolt – the streets are largely empty of marchers. And as for the Parliament – it's noisy, but no more so than it has been in other times in its history. In the uproar after the crisis of 1909 the speaker dropped dead in his chair; Harry Jenkins remains robust.

Compared to 1975, it's pretty Mickey Mouse stuff. Whitlam had to sack cabinet ministers; Julia Gillard is having problems with a single backbencher. Fraser responded by blocking supply; all Tony Abbott can block is parliamentary pairings. Fraser's lust for power at least produced drama on a grand scale; Abbott's manifests itself in stunts and spite. Wacky and frantic it may be, but 1975 it's not. Trust me; I was there.

He is spot on.

The Right divided

Evolution, Climate Change Could Divide the Republican Party - Ronald Brownstein - Politics - The Atlantic

Have a read of this article and be amazed at, amongst other things, the polling that indicates the science attitude of the Right in America.

In a 2010 Pew survey, only about one in six Republicans said they believed human activity was changing the climate. In a Gallup survey this March that phrased the question differently, 36 percent of Republicans said they believed pollution from human activities had contributed to "increases in the Earth's temperature over the last century," while 62 percent of Republicans attributed those changes to natural changes in the environment. Rejection of the scientific consensus on climate change has become an article of faith for virtually all elements of the GOP coalition. Even in a secular, well-educated state such as New Hampshire, for instance, University of New Hampshire surveys since April 2010 have found that only about one-fourth of Republicans believe human activity is changing the climate. National figures provided to National Journal by Gallup combining surveys from 2011 and 2010 show that college-educated Republicans are even more likely than their non-college counterparts to reject the notion that human activity is changing the climate.
This is driven by the confluence of religious beliefs (see the article's summary of polling on evolution) and the free market/ libertarian small-government-and-all-taxes-are-evil ideology.

It is ideology playing games with the future.

Troublesome algae

Algae that turned toxic stumps scientists

This article talks about a type of ocean algae that sometimes makes people sick, but it's hard working it all out:

The study of harmful algal blooms is complex. Dinophysis, in particular, are difficult organisms. Experts around the globe hadn't been able even to grow them in laboratories until South Korean researchers figured that out in 2006.

Plus, they are weird little critters. Some, but not all, individual species create toxins. Some are only poisonous sometimes. And it's not at all clear what determines when they change.

"I have books from back in the 1930s that show pictures of this same organism," said Rita Horner, a research scientist and algae specialist at the University of Washington.

"I personally have knowledge of it being here since the 1960s. The algae isn't new. Just the toxin is new. But we don't know enough about the biology of the organism itself to know what caused it to change."

Said Bill Cochlan, an oceanographer and expert at San Francisco State University: "You can have blooms and it's not a problem, or you can have blooms that are a real problem. The Number One question is when and why are they toxic?"

Let's hope ocean acidification and CO2 fertilization does not have something to do with it.

Which reminds me, I haven't posted anything about ocean acidification for a long time. There have been some interesting studies, so I will post about it again soon.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Overstepping the mark?

Of course, we all know that the apparent evidence coming out relating to the way Craig Thomson’s credit card was used does not look good for him, but I am surprised that no one has come out yet to say that some journalists are surely overstepping the line in declaring already that he has committed crimes.

In particular, Michael Smith, who has played a big role in this, said directly yesterday “Craig Thomson stole money from the Union,” and invited Thomson to sue him if that wasn’t true. (There is no transcript, but you can listen to what he said at the second recording at the link.) Now, given that Thomson did cease his high profile defamation case against Fairfax, Smith knows that he is at little risk of facing a fresh one.

But as a right wing radio talkback jock who has clearly always hated the Gillard government, Smith clearly hopes that Thomson is charged with offences and that this will bring down the government if Thomson loses his seat.

But surely he realises that statements like that can be, at the very least, problematic for getting a fair trial? Is it only because there is no actual charge yet (and may not be for some weeks or months) that he feels he can talk about the situation like this? Certainly, this site indicates that sub judice rules apply from the time someone is charged, arrested or a warrant is issued.

Still, I am interested to see if anyone else comes out and criticises Smith for coming out directly with this statement.

UPDATE: Andrew Bolt refers to the "illegal use" of union funds, and indeed the current head of the union assumes a crime has been committed. Paul Sheehan also says "crimes have been committed", but in all cases they do not say specifically by who. It may be that Smith is the only journalist who has come out and said Thomson has stolen money. What will Alan Jones say about it today, though? Andrew Robb has also said Thomson is a thief, but under parliamentary privilege. Talking outside of parliament, I think George Brandis has been more careful to couch it terms of possible crimes that may have been committed.

The best commentary on the matter I found this morning in The Age by Shaun Carney, which includes this:

But the niceties of the law do not really interest the Coalition; they are merely vehicles by which they can continue their assault on Thomson's state of mind and Gillard's political authority. Any legal case against Thomson for misappropriation of union funds would take years to be mounted, listed and heard.

Even then, a conviction might not meet the relevant section of the constitution, which deems a person unfit to sit as an MP if he or she has been ''convicted and is under sentence, or subject to be sentenced, for any offence punishable under the law of the Commonwealth or of a State by imprisonment for one year or longer''.

Yesterday, opposition leader Tony Abbott veered close to over-reach, with his extraordinary claim that the issue was stopping the government from dealing with more serious problems.

He told the ABC in the morning that ''while the government is completely distracted by the Craig Thomson matter it's not properly able to attend to the pressing problems the country faces''. He made the same claim later in the day while arguing that normal parliamentary business cease in order for Gillard to make a statement about the matter. The ''distraction'' has been generated all along by Abbott. The Thomson affair merely adds to the semi-permanent state of crisis that continues to engulf the Gillard government. Its opponents, both inside and outside the Parliament, are trying everything to blast the government from office. Last week, around 3000 protesters gathered outside Parliament House to voice their opposition to the government and its carbon pricing policy. On Monday, a few hundred more turned up, most of them by truck, calling for a new election.

I'm not sure he's right that it will take "years"to get to trial, but he's certainly right that the "distraction" claim by Abbott is a silly bit of political game playing.

Meanwhile, the business of government continued, with plain packaging for cigarettes legislation passing through parliament.

As I have said before, there is no actual crisis relating to economic management, or any persistent failure of this government to get its legislative intentions through parliament. It is pure political spin by those who oppose the Gillard government (and, admittedly, that includes a lot of the general public) that there is an actual governance crisis happening.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Red Potatoes

Rice is nice but spuds are new top banana

Facing more frequent droughts, falling water tables and widespread soil erosion, the government has designated the potato as a ''strategic'' crop in the latest five-year plan and is investing millions of dollars in researching new varieties.

This northern spring Beijing hosted its second international potato expo, hoping to cash in on China's new-found love for the spud. The potato is proving attractive both to Chinese consumers and to government officials charged with achieving China's target of being 95 per cent self-sufficient in food.

With 20 per cent of the world's population, and just 7 per cent of its arable land, China is also hoping that the potato - which produces three or four times more calories per acre than rice or corn - can alleviate poverty by boosting farmers' outputs and incomes.

Probably some Chinese geneticist is working right now on the stir fry-able potato.

When ideology trumps common sense

Is there really a free market economist in Australia who believes that having quarantine services to our island continent to help prevent things like foot and mouth disease, rabies, screw flies, giant African snails, and other agricultural diseases and blights of many kinds which are clearly of great economic cost in other countries from getting a foothold here is a case of mere "rent seeking" and should be abolished?

Yes there is, and his insurance argument is even nuttier, as people in the thread have tried to show.


I think he is also known for being sympathetic to the completely free flow of people between countries. As wildly impractical and unpopular as this would be, at least you can argue that that would have some humanitarian benefit - no more fleeing masses of humanity held up for years in refugee camps. But I wouldn't have thought the likes of the giant African snail, or various bacteria and fungal spores, have quite the same claim to freedom of international movement.

No, this is a case of ideology stupidly trumping common sense. That is all there is to it.

When common sense and reading trump science

There are, I argue, cases where the reasonably well informed public can look at a science report and say "well, that sounds like a ridiculously premature conclusion," and you then have to wait around for years before science finally cottons on.

One reason I like to cite studies confirming the connection between marijuana use (at least at a young age) and mental illness is because I reckon this is what happened in that case. Many parents and relatives of those who developed schizophrenia in their early adulthood in the 70's or 80's, and who knew their child had gotten into marijuana use in their teenage years, were basically ahead of the science.

Anyway, here's another area where the science report was against common sense. It appears that, some years ago, a study involving testing for sexual arousal of self described bisexual men claimed that they didn't seem to be bisexual at all. The same university now has a study saying, hey, we seem to have found some men who do show a bisexual arousal pattern after all.

The apparent conclusions of the original study were surely always wildly implausible and stupid, given the evidence of everything from ancient history to Oscar Wilde (see item 2) and even present day tabloid interviews with "gay" icons like Ricky Martin. We won't bother discussing what the Greeks and Spartans got up to, but people might have missed Martin recently saying this last year:

Oprah read out a passage from his new memoir 'Me', which said: 'The thing is I didn't just like her a lot this woman drove me crazy, the attraction, desire and physical passion I felt for her tore me up in every way.

'It was physical chemistry overload, the way we both moved together. The whole thing drove me insane.'

These days, Ricky is more certain of his feelings.

'I am not bisexual, I am a gay man,' he declared.

'For many years I thought I was, I was confused because when I was with a woman everything was perfect but people loved to see me with women and I thought 'I'm gonna make this work'.

'I felt it with a woman, I felt passion and it felt good. And I'm sure I'm not the only gay man that felt attraction towards women. I never lied I told her it felt amazing.

'Sometimes I really did fall in love with women, for many years I did. They're still my friends today.'

Sounds like an endorsement of the fact that he got highly aroused by some women, and could fall in love with them, as he could also do with blokes, yet for whatever reason "bisexual" is not a good enough description for him. Whatever. It is, incidentally, a sign of the worrying consumerist modern attitude to reproduction that few people even care to remark on how a man like him, for whom making babies the natural way and in a loving relationship was always an eminently achievable thing, should instead choose to have twins by impregnating a surrogate mother with donor eggs, and neither female participant knew who the father is.

The New York Times report on the recent bisexual affirming lab study contains this obvious statement about any study that hopes to prove something by putting arousal to the test in a lab:
Despite her cautious praise of the new research, Dr. Diamond also noted that the kind of sexual arousal tested in the studies is only one element of sexual orientation and identity. And simply interpreting results about sexual arousal is complicated, because monitoring genital response to erotic images in a laboratory setting cannot replicate an actual human interaction, she added.

“Sexual arousal is a very complicated thing,” she said. “The real phenomenon in day-to-day life is extraordinarily messy and multifactorial.”
Now, I suspect that someone reading this blog might say, why do I allow for skepticism of some science studies, but am so against skepticism of climate change science.

The difference here is, there is not much scope for common sense when assessing many of the basics in climate change. You can't directly sense the immediate warming effect of greenhouse gases; you can't directly know what the climate was like before you were born. Hence, the original type of skepticism was often against there being any possible greenhouse effect at all, because it is easy to pretend, based on your senses, that nothing is happening.

Of course, climate change skepticism has largely moved away from that approach now, although Judith Curry still engages in lengthy and tedious debates with hold outs. It's mainly "lukewarmerism," or (the other popular approach of the last couple of years) natural cycles which we don't understand yet. It doesn't matter that a cycle has to be driven by something changing, and modern technology has given us excellent means to detect all climate forcings as they happen; it's all an appeal to drawing charts as if it always is going to reveal a truth. (It seems to me you used to see this a lot in financial chartists too, but no one pays much attention to those approaches any more.)

The one area in climate change where I think you can have a valid skepticism is on the issue of attribution of particular unusual events. This is difficult statistical matter at the best of times, but NOAA itself seems to be very keen lately to say that particular events, such as the remarkable Russian heat wave of last year, are not attributable to climate change.

I, on the other hand, suspect that NOAA is being a bit overly cautious on the issue, and that it is likely to become clear in the next 5 to 10 years that (not widely anticipated) changes to atmospheric circulation are indeed attributable to changes related to AGW, and are a serious consequence of it. I could be wrong, but that is where I judge the correct skepticism of climate science should currently take you.

More Republican embarrassment

Tax poor people: Republicans want the IRS to nail "lucky duckies." - By David Weigel - Slate Magazine

A fascinating article here on the weird ways Republicans - even non climate change denying ones like Huntsman - think about taxes, and how they got there.

There is now an exceptionally high degree of ideologically driven agenda around amongst right wing economics commentary coming from the States (and Australia) which has been fully absorbed by the likes of the Tea Party, and thus become more politically influential than ever. It leads to blow outs into nuttiness, especially in the area of tax, whether it be arguing against increasing taxes on the obviously rich (people earning over $1 million a year, as Buffet recently suggested, and the WSJ criticised because it was "lending his credibility" to tax increases on the middle class,) or arguing that any increases in taxes from the mining sector in Australia is going to lead to catastrophe.

Of course, the fact that carbon pricing can involve a "tax" is also enough for many to run screaming from that relative mouse in the room. (Well, OK, more like a rat maybe. I am trying to find the right metaphor for a relatively small effect on the total economy.)

As far as I am concerned, the economists of either the left or right who cling too closely to ideological driven agendas of what will work are not to be trusted. This happens on the Left too, of course, and in fact that used to be why moderate right wing parties used to be thought to be sounder economic hands. The evidence from the US is that this is, by and large, no longer the case.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Vital science

500 years ago, yeast's epic journey gave rise to lager beer

Well, I didn't know that the origin of the type of yeast which led to lager beer first being made in Bavaria 500 years ago was a bit of a mystery. This article explains all, starting with this:

In the 15th century, when Europeans first began moving people and goods across the Atlantic, a microscopic stowaway somehow made its way to the caves and monasteries of Bavaria.

The stowaway, a that may have been transported from a distant shore on a piece of wood or in the of a fruit fly, was destined for great things. In the dank caves and monastery cellars where 15th century brewmeisters stored their product, the newly arrived yeast fused with a distant relative, the domesticated yeast used for to make leavened bread and wine and ale. The resulting hybrid — representing a marriage of species as evolutionarily separated as humans and chickens — would give us lager, the clear, cold-fermented beer first brewed by 15th century Bavarians and that today is among the most popular — if not the most popular — alcoholic beverage in the world.

One of the scientists says:
"People have been hunting for this thing for decades," explains Chris Todd Hittinger, a University of Wisconsin-Madison genetics professor and a co-author of the new study.
I guess this says something about the sometimes peculiar priorities of science. They don't even seem to suggest that this discovery will lead to better beer, so what was the point?

Answer: very

BBC News - Who, What, Why: How dangerous is firing a gun into the air?

In this article, the BBC handily provides a long list of incidents in which people in various countries have been inadvertently killed by celebratory bullets falling to earth.

Is this why we like the look of grass?

New human gene in wallabies (Science Alert)

Here is a bit of odd information about the biology of kangaroos that comes at the end of this story about how genetic sequencing of wallaby genes shows up "surprising similarities" with human genes:

She said kangaroos and wallabies, like all marsupials, have many unusual biological characteristics. “They give birth to tiny under-developed young after a very short pregnancy, which is then followed by a long and sophisticated lactation period while in the mother’s pouch.

“This includes the simultaneous provision of two types of milk from adjacent mammary glands to offspring of different ages. This is like the left breast and right breast making milk of two completely different compositions," Professor Renfree said.
Neat trick.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Clear reception?

Spirit Voices: The First Live Conversation Between Worlds | Society for Psychical Research

So, a paranormal investigator making a TV series in an allegedly haunted Irish hotel claims he got recordings of perfectly clear spirit voices making meaningful responses to a medium in another room.

Sounds kind of easy to fake, andthis bit of video shows his methods (using violin sounds in the recording process) seem a tad arcane.

Still, his books seems to have reasonably impressed someone reviewing for the Society for Psychical Research.

I wonder if the reason we don't hear from the dead so often is due to high "roaming" charges for their mobile phones to Earth.

Incidentally, this also reminds me of Robert Rankin's black comedy novel Fandom of the Operator, in which someone discovers that there exists a literal telephone service to the dead. I thought the book was pretty awful, actually, and have blanked out all other details of the plot, but I liked the premise, at least.

I mean, it is pretty intriguing to think about the societal implications of having scientific proof of an afterlife, isn't it? On the one hand, most humans have believed it for most of history anyway, but on the other hand, removing the mystery beyond all doubt would put a fair bit of a spanner in the works of modern philosophy and science, to put it mildly.

New, old movies

What's going on in Hollywood at the moment? Here are three old franchises undergoing actual, or planned, expansion. My comments follow, in increasing order of alarm:

* Ridley Scott is making a prequel to the Alien films. (Might be OK, but bear in mind he only made the original one, and he has a very hit and miss record in his career.)

* Ridley is also, according to that link, going to make another movie in the Blade Runner universe. (Given that we are only 8 years away from the setting for the original movie, it had better a sequel in order to have any plausibility at all.)

* Sarah Jessica Parker is said to be interested in a third Sex and the City movie, and/or TV series. (Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo.)Link

How (some) clever people make money

Lottery wins come easy, if you can spot the loopholes - physics-math

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Appleyard on the riots

One Hot Breath | Bryan Appleyard

I had been wondering what Bryan Appleyard would say about the recent British riots, and now I know.

He notes that it has made him feel as left as he ever has in his adult life, and he looks back at the role of Milton Friedman's influence. An interesting take, anyway.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

A an odd app

The Book Bench: The Victorianator : The New Yorker

I thought of Tim, the only bushranger, right wing, cat and chicken wrangling pub poet and zine creator in all of Australia:

Here’s how it works: a poem appears on the screen of your iPhone (you need an iPhone for this app). You read the poem aloud into the phone (using the speaker setting) in a monotone. Then a steampunk robot takes you through a series of gestures that produce voice effects on the poem you just read. So, for example, sweeping an arm toward the sky will raise the pitch of the poem, whereas extending your arm will extend the sound of the word. The variations in pitch make the poem sound like it’s being read by an eminent Victorian; you’re scored on how closely your gestures match the robot’s.

I thought he would like that, wouldn't he, Tim?

Exhibition report 2011

I missed the Ekka last year – I think we were about to go to Sydney at the time – so last Sunday it was off for a full day of


with just a few other


Actually, they really have to do something about that showbag place: it’s too small and was really dangerously crowded on the day we went.  I think later in the week they did limit the number of people in there at any one time.  I miss the now demolished old Industrial Pavilion (just the facade has been kept, and a new convention type facility is being built, but I can’t tell for sure if showbags are going to be back in the new building.)

In fact, I hold some fear for the atmosphere of the show in future, having seen a model of the redevelopment this year.  For those readers outside of Brisbane:  the shows grounds are pretty close to the inner city, and as they don’t get used all that much for most of the year, the Council and State government had been trying for a long time to get the RNA to turn it into high density residential, and move out to some other site for the Ekka; pretty much as happened in Sydney.   However, the RNA owns the land outright, and instead has come up with the idea of building apartments around the site, along with some commercial retail,  but still leaving enough exhibition style buildings to run the show there every year.  This is going to take 15 years to achieve.  

As far as I could tell from the model on display,  the apartments are going to go on the outer edges of  the grounds,  which seemingly means demolishing the (admittedly unremarkable) wood buildings current used for cows and horses during the show.  It seemed as if a lot of  the show will be held in mere temporary structures, like the showbag half tent thing pictured above.  I’m not at all sure how this is going to work out.  Still, they have said in the past that part of the redevelopment would include a permanent farmer’s market,  which would be good to see in Brisbane.

Anyway, back to the present, and one of the more unusual entertainments this year  was the Sideshow Superstar show.  It was four people doing a modern version of slightly grotesque “sideshow”  acts in an auditorium room.  You know: sword swallowing; putting a spinning drill bit up your nose; a somewhat tattooed man lifting a car battery via chains attached to metal spikes through his nipples – that type of good clean fun.   I only took photos of Ruby Rubberlegs, a not very tall woman who managed to make herself very compressed indeed:




It was actually a pretty professional short show, and I found it pleasing to see this type of act at this venue.   I felt it was something the kids would remember for quite a while, even though my daughter couldn’t bear to watch many parts.

As for the day generally, my wife seems to have overcome her resistance to my desire to spend a full day there every year.  (As far as I’m concerned, you should try to arrive not later than 10am and then only leave at 8.30 after the fireworks.)   This year, she didn’t complain at all, despite 2 years ago saying next time I could take the kids by myself.   She didn’t even complain (much) as we found we were sitting right in the smoke and cinder drift from the fireworks.  I sort of like a bit of firework smell anyway, but perhaps not as much as this year.  

I just remembered, I’ve been meaning to make this point for some years now:  it makes me feel good about Australia when you see Asian or other immigrant families or teenagers sitting on Machinery Hill and enjoying the traditional “ring events” like the 4 cars doing the same driving tricks that they have been doing for, um, the last 45 years.   This is as good a sign of healthy cultural assimilation as I know of.  Lately, many young men also seem to really get into the freestyle motocross show, which has the advantage of only having been there for 7 years now, apparently*.   In fact, when we were leaving at about 8.45, there was a very long line of people waiting to get autographs from the riders at their autograph booth.  The act is pretty impressive and dangerous looking, though, I must admit.  I will probably start complaining that it’s getting stale in 10 years time, though.

On a final note, this feature outside the (pretty pathetic inside) Carnevil ride was very popular in Sideshow Alley:

Every garden should have one.

And that’s it, til next year.

* I guess there is a chance that, like the car driving, my son will still be watching it in 40 years time.   

Friday, August 19, 2011

Unlucky way to die

3 die of rare brain infection from amoeba in water

I think we've all heard of the fresh water amoeba that can kill if it gets into your nose. There have 3 cases in the US this summer, but this guy was particularly unlucky:

The third case, in Louisiana, was more unusual. It was a young man whose death in June was traced to the tap water he used in a device called a neti pot. It's a small teapot-shaped container used to rinse out the nose and sinuses with salt water to relieve allergies, colds and sinus trouble.

Health officials later found the in the home's water system. The problem was confined to the house; it wasn't found in city water samples, said Dr. Raoult Ratard, Louisiana's state epidemiologist.

A strange way to assess it

Boys reach sexual maturity younger and younger

The article starts:
Boys are maturing physically earlier than ever before. The age of sexual maturity has been decreasing by about 2.5 months each decade at least since the middle of the 18th century.
Fair enough - although that sounds like a lot of earlier maturing has been going on. But look at the odd way this was assessed:

Goldstein resolved this gap by studying related to mortality. When production during reaches a maximum level the probability of dying jumps up. This phenomenon, called the "accident hump", exists in almost all societies and is statistically well documented.

Goldstein discovered that the maximum mortality value of the accident hump shifted to earlier age by 2.5 months for each decade since the mid-1700s, or just over two years per century. Accordingly, the age of boys’ sexual maturity decreased at the same rate. Essentially, the data showed that the age of is getting younger and younger since the accident hump is occurring earlier and earlier. (Research included data for Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Great Britain and Italy. Since 1950 the data is no longer clear but indicates stagnation.) The maximum of the accident hump occurs in the late phase of puberty, after males reach reproductive capability and their voice changes.

Huh. I didn't know that an "accident hump" so clearly existed.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wow - clever dogs

Sniffer dogs can be used to detect lung cancer

There was some British documentary on TV a couple of years ago in which medical researchers were being very dismissive of the reliability of dogs to be able to smell cancer in humans.

Yet this story of success in dogs smelling lung cancer in Germany sounds very impressive:

This new study aimed to assess whether sniffer dogs could be used to identify a VOC in the breath of patients. The researchers worked with 220 volunteers, including , (COPD) patients and healthy volunteers. They used dogs that had been specifically trained.

The researchers carried out a number of tests to see if the dogs were able to reliably identify lung cancer compared with healthy volunteers, volunteers with COPD and whether the results were still found with the presence of tobacco.

The dogs successfully identified 71 samples with lung cancer out of a possible 100. They also correctly detected 372 samples that did not have lung cancer out of a possible 400.

The dogs could also detect lung cancer independently from COPD and tobacco smoke. These results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer that is independent of and also detectable in the presence of tobacco smoke, food odours and drugs.

Author of the study, Thorsten Walles from Schillerhoehe Hospital, said: "In the breath of patients with lung cancer, there are likely to be different chemicals to normal breath samples and the dogs' keen sense of smell can detect this difference at an early stage of the disease. Our results confirm the presence of a stable marker for lung cancer. This is a big step forward in the diagnosis of , but we still need to precisely identify the compounds observed in the exhaled breath of patients. It is unfortunate that dogs cannot communicate the biochemistry of the scent of cancer!"

Rating Republicans

Rabett Run: Republican climate cladistics

Eli Rabett saves me the bother of researching, and categories the Republican leaders who are or (or might be) in the Presidential race according to their climate change responses.

Currently, of those running, Romney and Huntsman come out in the lead, by at least not retreating on past acknowledgements that there is a problem to be addressed.

Morano approves Perry, which means we need lots more corndog photos. (See previous post.)

Flood statistics up in the air

So long, '500-year flood'? -

I have been saying recently that one of the largest effects of climate change - much more frequent, economically and socially disruptive, floods - may well be the first consequence of global warming that people find is convincing proof of AGW.

The above article talks about the revision of flood statistics in the US, following a lot of flooding recently.

One suspects the same thing may be said about Australia soon.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Captain a bit dull

Based on the pretty good reviews for Captain America at Rottentomatoes, I took the kids to see it today, but I think we were all a bit underwhelmed.

Sure, it looks great, but I only have middling interest in all Marvel stuff:  in fact, now that I think of it, the first and third Spiderman’s might be the only Marvel movies that I thought were very good. 

I think this movie suffered, a bit more than your average superhero special effects movie, with on screen physics that never felt dangerous.  I mean, the way the hero jumped, ran, shot and flung that shield around, he never really seemed to be in any danger; and even when his pal met his fate, it was all in such an obvious CGI background, it didn’t feel “real”either. 

The movie’s production design was all retro with quite a dash of alternative universe; in this respect, I kept thinking about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow in comparison.  I thought that earlier movie looked great, even though you knew it was all CGI background.  Maybe it was the fact that it wasn’t really trying for any realism at all that this didn’t bother me, as well as the publicity that indicated it had all been quite economically.  (A mere $70 million dollar budget, according to Wikipedia, which it failed to recover at the box office.)    I actually think the script for Sky Captain was a bit wittier than the later Captain, too. 

Anyway, I won’t be hanging out for The Avengers movies.  Ho-hum.


I noted at another blog yesterday that left wing brat-ster blog Daily Kos, which I used to check every now and again when Bush was President, but lost interest in after Obama’s election, had run a post by Kos himself making fun of photos of  Republicans eating corn dogs.   Kos also took the opportunity to specifically mention the sexuality rumour about Rick Perry, which apparently started in 2004. 

This is pretty low for someone who seemingly considers himself a serious mover and shaker on the Democrat front; if it was just a regular blogger it would just be a bit of (somewhat juvenile) mischief.  (I thought Mr Bachmann’s photo was pretty funny, but he is also the subject of rumour.)  And to be fair to Daily Kos participants, a lot of them did get stuck into Kos for this post.

Earlier at that other blog, regular bloviator CL had noted a Michelle Bachmann eating corndog photo had been run at a UK Telegraph blog – and he took that as a bit of left wing sleaze, despite the fact that I thought the Telegraph was well and truly toward the Right.

But now it gets interesting:  I see, when reading a Wall Street Journal blog that noted a mistake Perry had made, that this illustrious paper had run a Perry with corndog in mouth photo itself.

Someone in comments to that WSJ blog entry notes:

First Fox News shows Bachman throating a corndog and now the WSJ points out that Perry is a crazy dumbass. I guess that Murdoch has chosen Romney as the official Fox candidate.

So Fox News has been corndogging Republican candidates too!?

I see that the WSJ seems quite set against both Perry and Bachmann, but in the same editorial, they diss Romney too.

But it’s true, I have not yet seen a Romney with corndog in mouth photo.  Maybe he’s just careful not to eat them in view of the cameras, which would seem a good rule of thumb for any politician.

Anyway, I like the theory that this is how media tycoons signal whether or not they like a Republican candidate.  Maybe in this country, journalists from The Australian should just offer Julia Gillard a banana before her press conferences.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Things you preferred not to know

Your faeces, my furry friend, are blowin' in the wind - New Scientist

GO FOR a bracing winter stroll in a major US city and you will be inhaling more than vehicle fumes. A new study has demonstrated for the first time that during winter most of the airborne bacteria in three large Midwestern cities come from dog faeces.

Seems about right

I watched every Coen brothers movie. - By David Haglund - Slate Magazine

I used to be keen on seeing Coen Brothers movies, but lost interest after Fargo, which despite being a big critical success, indicated to me that people were seeing more in their oeuvre than was actually there.

This article sort of backs that up; I think.

I should still see the True Grit remake. Is it on DVD yet?

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Stupid uses for reproductive technology

The Two-Minus-One Pregnancy -

A inappropriate sense of entitlement to consumer goods has been the subject of much discussion since the English riots, but it's rare that anyone puts that label on the stories of reproductive technology.

But look at the main story that starts the above article: a 45 year year old pregnant woman who apparently went through 6 years of fertility treatment, including with donor eggs, who then chooses to abort one of the twins which she has conceived. And here's the kicker - she's already a mother:
The idea of managing two infants at this point in her life terrified her. She and her husband already had grade-school-age children, and she took pride in being a good mother. She felt that twins would soak up everything she had to give, leaving nothing for her older children.
I have complained about cosmetic surgery as being the most inappropriate and wasteful use of medical resources around, but at least the patient is just mucking around with their own bodies; not creating a fetus to then decide whether to keep or not.

And look at the case at the end of the article:

A. and her partner had been together 15 years when they decided to get serious about having children. Because both women were 45, they tried to double their already slim chances by both being inseminated. They each tried it three times; nothing took. At their doctor’s suggestion, they chose an egg donor in her mid-20s. Both women went through I.V.F., each with two embryos transferred. Both women got pregnant, but A. quickly miscarried. Her partner (who did not want to be identified, even by an initial) gave birth to a healthy boy, whom they adore. A. did another round of I.V.F. with frozen embryos, hoping to provide their son with a sibling. It didn’t work. So when their boy was nearly a year old, both women underwent I.V.F. again. Given A.’s fertility history, the doctor predicted she had just a 5 percent chance of getting pregnant.

On their son’s first birthday, both women found out they were pregnant, both with twins. Four in all. “In our wildest expectations, we never imagined being in this situation,” A. said. “We both went through I.V.F. before, and we came out with one baby. We did it exactly the same way as last time, so we never expected this.”

And yes, you guessed it, one of them "reduced" the pregnancy to one, and the other woman lost her pregnancy totally.

Call me crazy if you want, but what I'm seeing here is a fundamental problem of over-enlarged sense of entitlement to babies at any age, and even worse, regardless of the fact that a relationship already has a child (or children) to look after.

This is a true slippery slope that reproductive technology has led to, and for anyone who is even a bit uncomfortable about abortion, the selective abortion that is happening in these cases should just be seen as completely unacceptable, in large part because the pregnancies were unwarranted in the first place.

Friday, August 12, 2011

High hopes

I've explained this before: MI4 is directed by Brad Bird, who, based on his animation, I expect can do action well. The trailer looks pretty good, although let's hope the movie is not hyper-edited:

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Mercury and autism

Pink disease: autism risk (Science Alert)

A genetic sensitivity to mercury appears to be strongly related to increased risk of grandchildren having autism.

Pink disease was a form of mercury poisoning prevalent in the first half of the 20th century. Affecting 1 in 500 young children with a hyper-sensitivity to mercury, it caused a range of severe symptoms including loss of speech, loss of interest in usual activities, hypersensitivity to light, pain and, in up to 20 per cent of cases, death. When mercury was identified as the culprit and removed as an ingredient in teething powders in the 1950s, the disease was essentially wiped out...

For the current study the Swinburne researchers surveyed over 500 Australian survivors of Pink Disease, asking them about the health of their descendents. This allowed them to collect detailed data about the survivors, as well as their 1100 children and 1360 grandchildren.

"We asked the pink disease survivors to report any health conditions that their children or grandchildren had been diagnosed with," Austin said. "The survey included questions about Down syndrome, fragile X syndrome, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), epilepsy and autism."

The prevalence rate of most disorders was comparable to general population figures, however, the rate for autism was extremely high.

"Staggeringly, we found that one in 25 grandchildren of pink disease survivors aged 6-12 had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. This compares to the current Australian prevalence rate for that age group of one in 160.
I presume this is going to feed into the issue of mercury in vaccines again, as the author suggests:
....those with a suspected family history of pink disease to minimise their exposure to mercury. This is particularly important for young children and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

"This can be done by observing the recommendations of Food Standards Australia regarding seafood consumption, opting for non-amalgam dental fillings and requesting preservative-free vaccines from your doctor," he said.
I thought the mercury/vaccine/autism thing was all sorted out. Now it seems less clear.

Sounds complicated...

Hybrid solar system makes rooftop hydrogen

This system uses roof top solar panels (of the heating variety, not PV) in a set up designed to make hydrogen that is then fed into a fuel cell for electricity.

Gotta love the internet

Hey, I posted a question at Real Climate's open thread this morning, and Gavin Schmidt has already answered me.

Very neat, the way anyone can engage with scientists like this.

Horrible history noted

I've been meaning to mention that my son has been a keen reader of the Horrible Histories series of books over the last year or two, and is now very happy to watch the TV series being shown on ABC2.

The TV show is pretty good, even for adults. It's got high production values, and most sketches are at least amusing, if not laugh out loud.

I see the books have been going for much longer than I expected, and have attracted some controversy in England on occasion.

All in all, it's a good product to see out there, even if I would hate to see it result in a surplus of unemployed wannabe historians in their 20's, roaming the streets, begging passers by for any tidbit of local historical interest.

Line drawn

Call me old fashioned, but I find nothing to celebrate about baby creation for relationships which are inherently, by a fundamental and intrinsic fact of biology, inconceivable. (Ha, a pun.)

Here's my simple rule: if you love someone and want a relationship with them, take the biological consequences with it. This applies just as much to heterosexuals as homosexuals, in that they should be ready for the possibility of a baby no matter how well they try and use contraception, and from the other side, they should also accept the possibility that their relationship may turn out to be incapable of producing children.

Yes, this all sounds harsh and unreasonable to everyone under the age of 35, and I speak as relatively late age husband who still managed to have a couple of kids. I'm not a doctor who has to deal with depressed woman crying all day because she can't have a baby naturally.

Sorry, but this is just how things were a mere 40 years ago, and reproductive technology interferes with a fundamental aspect of biology and creates something entirely different from medical technology which merely preserves and improves an already existing life. So don't try to tell me that, if I was consistent, I should be against vaccines, or heart valve operations, or whatever. It's different: I am drawing a line which I consider entirely justifiable. It is not an essential function of any life that it has to have reproduced.

I also have the Pope onside, even though I have to work on his attitude to contraception in at least one respect: neither the rhythm method nor a condom used by a husband and wife can turn sex from moral to immoral. His line drawing needs adjusting too.

Is he sure?

London riots: police debate how far they should go to regain control | UK news | The Guardian

The biggest outbreak of rioting to hit Britain in living memory has led to debates within the police service about how far forces should go to regain control of the streets. Pictures of police officers standing and watching as youths smashed and looted shops have puzzled the public.

But Steven Kavanagh, the Metropolitan police deputy assistant commissioner, denied those images were a sign of the force being soft on rioters: "The Met is not namby pamby," he told the Guardian.

He added: "The face of policing has changed, 25-30 years ago it would have been a different response, we'd have gone to baton rounds and water cannon straight away. Now we are more measured."

Yes, and it's working a treat isn't it?

One thing I have been thinking about as a result of this is why Australia has never (as far as I can recall) ever had similar widespread rioting and looting from our (for want of a better term) underclass.

Also, on some of the video from England, I have noticed that streets full of shopfronts with full metal shutters down at night. As far as I know, there are few Australia city shopping streets that look like that, in fact the only similar "lock down" looking street I can recall seeing was Wilcannia, where (at least when I went through there in the late 1980's) the motel tells you to go no where near the centre of town at night, as it will be left to the local aborigines. But maybe there are parts of Sydney or Melbourne that look like that at night, and I have missed them.

And you always have to careful about the impressions you can get from TV, and I have heard residents interviewed who have said that many of the suburbs being looted are really quite pleasant and (relatively) up market.

Anyway, it's all a very curious phenomena, including the question as to how easily stupid Twitter and its ilk makes it for looting to be coordinated.

McKibben formula

Economist Warwick McKibben talks about the various solutions he sees for the economic problems of Europe, the USA and Australia.

I do not know his general reputation, even though I have heard of him before. His recommendations appear to me to not spring from a set ideological view.

Yet, in a sign that Andrew Bolt has been taking all his cues from Catallaxy lately, his post on McKibben's story starts with "Keynesian economics is a bust."

Andrew is set to become as certain on economics as he is on climate change; in both cases, by listening to only one ideologically blinkered side of a complicated field.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Coffee the Australian way

As my son has a project this term to do with the Australian gold rush, we've been looking together at paintings and illustrations of the era on the internet. (He's doing a diorama, and as much as it is supposed to be his project, I actually would love to get in and build the little shops and tents myself.)

One of things I noticed was that several paintings and drawings of era indicate that coffee was popular in the gold fields, with shops and tents advertising it prominently. This surprised me, since, as a child, tea seemed to well and truly dominate household drinking habits, at least until the 1970's. (Maybe coffee was bigger in the more European influenced cities of Melbourne and Sydney; I'm talking Brisbane experience here, and not even near Italian influenced New Farm.)

As it turns out, the coffee shops of gold rush settlements were often not what they seemed:

....despite the government’s attempt to enforce prohibition on the goldfields, liquor was never in short supply. Willian Howitt’s description of the vestiges of its consumption at Ballarat reinforce Clacy’s view: ‘... bottles broken and whole lie about in such quantities, that it is wonderful how horses go anywhere on the field without getting lamed.’

Transport costs and the need to conceal the alcohol meant the illegal supply was restricted to spirits. Sly-grog sellers found ingenious ways to advertise and dispense their goods. ‘Coffee shops’ or ‘coffee tents’, and less often ‘lemonade sellers’, were common euphemisms for sly grog shops. The prohibition was on the sale of alcohol so, to get around the law, a general storekeeper might make a ‘present’ of a tipple and charge extra for another item on the bill. A couple of ‘hugely fat’ female grog-sellers were well remembered for their enterprising ways – they strapped tin containers to their waists (underneath their clothes) and dispensed brandy from tubes poking out the side of their skirts.

Well, that explains the enthusiasm for the "coffee" outlets.

The grog sold could have quite a kick:
The liquor supplied by sly-grog sellers on the diggings was commonly adulterated. In 1853, a government inquiry found that the ‘brandy’ sold on the fields was half cheap spirit and half additives. Water was commonly used to dilute alcohol, but tobacco was often used as a base to give the grog extra kick. Pharmaceutical spirits, opium and even cayenne pepper were also reported additives.
That reminds me of the My Coffee episode of Scrubs, when the janitor (taking a job as a barista) invents a new drink:

The two most addictive substances on earth are caffeine and nicotine... Behold... Smoke-accino!

On coffee in Australian history generally, I didn't know this: has been grown in Australia since 1832 when a small planting was established at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane.

By the 1880’s, coffee was grown in northern New South Wales and along the Queensland coast as far north as Cooktown. The most extensive area under plantation was then, as now, concentrated in Tropical North Queensland.

By 1900, 50-60 farmers in the Cairns region were collectively producing 40% of our young nation's coffee supply. Many early pioneers won international recognition in Europe for the Australian bean. Unfortunately by 1926 the industry slipped into decline and until the 1980's only small plantings had survived.
Isn't it funny how things go in and out of fashion...

For that unique Gazan holiday experience

Gaza's first five-star hotel provides luxury and hope amid the blockades | World news | The Guardian

There's a photo at the link: it looks a lot like the Sheraton at Noosa if you ask me.

But this Gazan luxury hotel has its issues:

....if you turn your eyes away from the setting sun you will see a Hamas military training camp next door which was recently bombed by the Israeli military.
And as for taking a dip in the pool - not so fast:
But the pool, which could be a big draw, remains off-limits until the management can figure out a way to avoid transgressing conservative Gaza's social mores. Men and women are forbidden from swimming together and even if the hotel has segregated days, it has yet to find a way ofscreening female swimmers from public view.
One thing I find surprising is that the people of Gaza don't know how good a duck can taste, apparently:
....when the hotel's manager, Rafel Carpinell, wanted to put duck on the menu he discovered that Gazans found the concept of eating the birds incomprehensible.
I look forward to reading the reviews on Tripadvisor soon.

The problems considered

I freely admit I only have a broad brush knowledge of economics. Like most people, I read and listen to a range of commentators and try to work the ones who seem to make most sense. I also watch in amazement at how economic crises arrive, if not entirely unexpectedly when you look across all economic commentary, but certainly with a timing that seems to be well beyond the abilities of accurate forecasting. (Of course, some economists get some predictions right just by always predicting the next crisis is just around the corner.)

I have a hunch that the problem with economics is twofold: to a large extent it's based on human psychology (and even more unpredictably, human group psychology); but also I suspect that international financial systems have become so complicated that it has become extremely difficult for anyone to understand it in sufficient entirety to make accurate forecasts.

But what has become clear at the moment is that some economists have become well and truly caught up in a sort of culture war.

On the one hand, the Tea Partiers and small government libertarians in the US have decided that the key idea is the need for urgent reduction of debt. This ties in with wanting small government generally, which they argue also means low taxes, even while government debt is still high. They also both share a disbelief in climate change, frequently claiming it is merely the wolf of socialism and redistribution of wealth in sheep's clothing.

On the other hand, you have the proponents of Keynesian economics, arguing that stimulus is what is needed to help prevent a bad situation becoming worse. Although Tea Partiers and right wing pundits of all types now paint Keynesian economics as a Leftist sacrilege against good sense, the basic idea of Keynesian economics seems to have been accepted as making sense by many economists who you would not identify as being of the Left.

The culture war in the States clearly has Krugman on the one side, and the right wing noise machine on the other. (I'm not sure who to cite as a prominent economist who always supports what the Tea Partiers and Republicans say - their main support seems to come mainly from the likes of journalistic commentators in the Wall Street Journal and whole bunch of bloggers.)

In Australia, we get a whole lot of huffing and puffing about it from the "centre right" website Catallaxy, with Sinclair Davidson and especially Steve Kates citing every day the mantra "reduce debt, lower taxes". Of course, they totally oppose a carbon tax and a minerals tax, mainly (I suspect) because those phrases contain the word "tax".

Steve Kates seems so obsessive about Keynesian economics as the root of all evil that he has just written a whole book about it, and promptly promoted it on the Catallaxy website.

Sinclair Davidson is a member of the IPA, which not only runs campaigns against the carbon tax as a tax, it promotes actual disbelief in AGW science by hosting and publishing material by geologist sceptic Bob Carter. If you ask me, the IPA starts with its ideological hostility to taxes first, then works backwards to find any justification for no carbon pricing, including hosting a scientific maverick like Carter, despite his clear failure to make an actual dint the mainstream of climate science. They also hosted Vacla Klaus' recent talking tour of Australia, where his attack on carbon pricing was based on it being too much like communism.

Given that non-economist Rafe Champion takes every opportunity to promote anti-AGW articles from pure propagandists like Jonova, and spends all his time analysing AGW science as if it were entirely a result of Leftish propaganda; and Judith Sloan makes her disdain for the topic clear as well, it appears that not believing that climate change is real (or if real, not serious) is the essential requirement for anyone given posting rights on the Catallaxy.

This conflating of issues across economics and science seems to me to be a worrying phenomena. As the Europeans have shown, antagonism to climate change science does not have to be a prerequisite to conservatism in politics. Yet it is virtually a cornerstone of right wing small government philosophy in both America and Australia, even when the Coalition's policy is actually for direct government intervention, as opposed to the Labor trying to set up a more market orientated approach of an ETS.

Climate change skeptics spend all their time criticising alleged over-confidence of climate change scientists, and of course they have occasional PR wins when someone (often non scientists like Gore or Flannery) can be quoted with a careless exaggeration from years ago.

But when it comes to economics, Steve Kates in particular is like the epitome of over-confidence in one rock solid formula for economic truth, and it seems rather ludicrous to me that he and his co-bloggers should spend much of their time criticising climate change scientists for being stuck on one idea.

It seems to be common sense to me that the middle ground in economics is almost certainly right - a Keynesian type response is appropriate for some situations, but it can't always work and you obviously have to take into account the prospect of crippling your nation with too much debt for too little return. Same with taxes: sometimes lowering them will work with the economy generally, sometimes it won't. Refusing to increase taxes even moderately on the very richest (such as is happening in the States at the moment) makes little sense psychologically, even if it contributes to the bottom line minimally without reducing spending. Small government ideology can even be its own worst enemy to effective reductions in spending. I have noticed recently, for example, commentary emphasising how the key spending problem in the States is on health, and yet you get Australians in threads at Catallaxy, despite our egalitarian, high quality and yet cheaper health care system, siding with Tea Party opposition to substantial reform of the American system on pure ideological grounds of dislike of government involvement in anything.

The problem is, the ideologues on display at Catallaxy, as well as Republicans in the States, show no interest in trying to make objective assessment on climate science, and view it all through their "small government, lower tax, we hate Keynesians" ideological glasses. I wouldn't mind if they kept their little ideological school to themselves, but they spend a fair amount of their time as evangelists too, and in the US and Australia such evangelism seemingly has had some success on public opinion as to whether it is worth making any response to climate change at all.

They could contribute to useful discussion as to best policy options to move to reducing carbon, but instead they prefer to devote their time to insisting or insinuating there is not a real problem at all, and spreading negativity on an ETS in toto. I can't say that legitimate criticism of how a policy might fail is useless - I have a long standing scepticism of ETS' myself - but it is hard to get a clear idea of how valid some criticisms are when you know that they are all issuing from a largely ideologically driven hostility to accepting the very problem being addressed.

Anyway, that is how I see it: a bunch of non-scientifically interested economic ideologues interpreting a field of science through their cultural glasses and devoting a lot of time to criticising policy on it by claiming that all of the politicians and scientists involved are a bunch of political ideologues who have fooled themselves on both the science and policy.

Their position is not credible for the reasons I have outlined. To the extent that they run interference for their being no political response at all to reduce the use of carbon fuels, they are acting against the long term interests of humanity collectively.

The best that one who is sympathetic to their economics can argue is that they are trying to preserve a strong economy which will have better resources to adapt to climate change which is inevitable due to Chinese and Indian growth in carbon fuels regardless of what the West does.

The reason I do not find this compelling is because I find the uncertainty in the precise effects of climate change, something skeptics argue as a reason for doing nothing, is actually a more compelling argument for reducing CO2, because it may well that effective adaptation is simply not possible for many of the consequences of climate change. In the Australian context, for example, there is not a lot of adaptation to be done about severe flooding of the type that Queensland just went through: there is no other dam that can be built on the Brisbane River, and the floods were so widespread across the southern half of the State there was no relevance of talking about damming having any significant effect. The same applies for the flooding in Victoria, I expect.

Make formerly 1 in a 100 year floods happen, say, every 10 to 20 years, and the economic cost is surely very large, and the only adaptation possible is, I suppose, abandoning large swathes of Brisbane.

The same for droughts of the type currently happening in the USA. Make them more frequent, and I just don't know that there is any possibility of adapting to them at all.

Instead, you take the scientists' advice that limiting CO2 levels should limit to a lower range the possible climate changes.

My attitude to the problem of China and India is twofold: global climate change effects appear to be well on the way anyway, given the world's climate of the last year or so, and so recognition of the problem is not likely to be an issue. (In fact, it would appear that at least in China there is no serious government skepticism on the science, perhaps because "small government" is not an ideology that appeals to them!) Recognition of the equity issue, in terms of the telling these countries that they can't follow the Western route to increased prosperity, is going to be important, as will be all assistance possible to finding effective technological solutions to clean energy. Both of these are hindered by any large part of the West (being the USA and Australia) refusing to start any action towards carbon pricing, which should assist market moves to clean energy.

The bulk of non-ideologically bound economic commentary on the matter is that carbon pricing does not have to kill economies; I don't see why I should accept the ideologues against Keynesian economics are correct in their assessment to the contrary.

Of course, an international recession has its own problems for carbon pricing, and for all I know there may be a legitimate argument for delaying its start it in the worst affected countries. I suspect, however, that even in recession, it is not going to be a killer for recovery. Any reader who knows better can opine below. What I do think is that the longer the delay for any reason, the worse are the prospects of getting China and India to treat it as urgently as we should want them to.

There: that's the position of this non-economist, non-scientist, but compulsive blogger.

Quiet change

Uncovering your hidden ninja | The Japan Times Online

I thought this was quite a charming story from Amy Chavez about how Japanese psychology seems to work with respect to change. It certainly would indicate that the entrepreneurial spirit has to work a little differently there.

Look at the detail

The fact that some crops seem to do a bit better under increased CO2 is getting quite an airing in the anti carbon tax/climate change skeptic blogs at the moment. Just this morning, for example, Bolt has a US economist saying:
The experimental evidence suggests that at least 10 percentage points of the increase in wheat and rice yields since 1750 is the result of the roughly 35% increase in CO2 in the atmosphere that has occurred over the same period.
Well, I'm not sure about the claimed yield increases, but you have to keep this recent finding in mind:

The study covered 24 cultivars studied in 112 experimental treatments from 11 countries. A significant growth dilution effect on grain protein was found: a change in grain yield of 10% by O3 was associated with a change in grain protein yield of 8.1% (R2 = 0.96), whereas a change in yield effect of 10% by CO2 was linked to a change in grain protein yield effect of 7.5% (R2 = 0.74). ...

An important and novel finding was that elevated CO2 has a direct negative effect on grain protein accumulation independent of the yield effect, supporting recent evidence of CO2-induced impairment of nitrate uptake/assimilation.
So, you might get more wheat, but have to eat all that extra to get the same amount of protein.

And the other point is, of course, that you don't get any wheat to eat at all if you have more severe droughts and baking summer heat.

Speaking of heat, John Nielsen-Gammon has been looking at the Texas drought. Texas certainly seems a dry place: in terms of length, this current one is not exceptional. However, combined with the degree of heat, even the cautious Nielsen-Gammon is saying this:
I don’t consider it to be the worst drought on record, because the 1950s drought lasted for seven years, and 1956 alone gives 2011 a run for its money. But, combine it with July being the warmest month on record for Texas, and it probably becomes the most unbearable. It may well be the worst drought on record for agriculture.
More generally (by which I mean, including outside of Texas) the mid West heat wave is breaking lots of records, but seems to be attracting little attention here.

Monday, August 08, 2011

Kilometer high

That tall building in Dubai comes in at 828 m, but this building for Jeddah, apparently still being designed in America, but with the promise that work on the foundations will start soon, will actually break the kilometer mark:

That little platform up on the top part is apparently this:

"....a sky terrace, roughly 30 meters (98 feet) in diameter, at level 157. It is an outdoor amenity space intended for use by the penthouse floor."

Your own little garden hanging 157 floors above the ground? Very Jetsons, but also makes me feel queasy just imagining being on it.

Anyhow, more at Dezeen.

This'll be interesting

Professor Murry Salby from Macquarie University gave a talk at the Sydney Institute last week in which he claimed to have shown that CO2 is "at the back of the bus" as regards driving the climate. The details were a tad sketchy, and seemingly left his audience a little bewildered, and no one has yet been able to get their hands on a copy of his slides. But the whole issue is to do with the carbon cycle. He says he has a peer reviewed paper coming out on this in about 6 weeks, although I don't think anyone knows in which journal either.

The claims are so extraordinary that several people in comments threads at Deltoid and Tamino (see link at side) have wondered if it is all a hoax.

The reasons as to why virtually everyone in the mainstream climate science field thinks the Professor (who appears to have done detailed and creditable work on the ozone hole and has no previous reputation as a climate change skeptic) has managed to fool himself are many, and will be apparent from the two links in the previous paragraph. I see that even John Neilsen-Gammon, a climatologist "believer" who tends to be very polite and non political in his handling of the topic, can't see that it can possibly be right.

One thing I don't think many people have noticed is that skeptic Roy Spencer turned up at Catallaxy and also didn't seem to think it was at all likely either.

So what is the explanation for this? We will have to wait a few weeks to see.

In the meantime, I can predict this: those climate change denying sites who have promoted this talk will simply move on and never mention it again if it compellingly proved to be a massive misinterpretation that convinces no one. That is how they work: raise any doubt possible, and move on when it is shown to be wrong.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

There, fixed that up for you....

Memory lane

I finally got around to buying a slide/negative scanner, to deal with digitising some stuff that’s been in drawers and boxes for some time.

It was only a cheapie from Harvey Norman, so I am not sure if that is why the colour on the slides looks stronger than the colour on the scans, but still the results are good enough, from these first few attempts:

New york 1

New York, December 1979.

new yor 2

View from top of World Trade Centre, if I’m not mistaken.

Wash mon 1

A very blue looking Washington Monument.

And who would this be?: