Monday, October 31, 2011

More Kael talk

Pauline Kael Reviews: The Ones She Got Wrong

I miss Pauline Kael reviews, and it's always interesting reading about her large and interesting body of work.

Bit busy....

But Qantas dispute dealt with at Dodopathy.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The thrifty Japanese

Japan Gets Electricity Wake-Up Call -

The Japanese did well with reducing electricity demand during summer, but they aren't out of the woods yet:

This past summer, traditionally a period of peak demand, Tokyo residents pared electricity use 16 percent in the inner-city area known as the 23 wards. But looming winter power shortages look to pose an even bigger challenge.

The Ministry of Trade and Industry predicts that unless power production is restarted at some of the nuclear reactors around the country that are now suspended for inspection, national demand will outstrip supply by 4 percent to 20 percent during December, January and February — the coldest winter months.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Spooky fun from Japan

The ridiculously frightening world of Japanese spooks | The Japan Times Online

Well, what a fun article this is about old supernatural tales and games in Japan. For example, this is how samurai would sometimes amuse themselves:
During the Edo Period, for example, there was a popular game among the samurai called Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (A Gathering of One Hundred Supernatural Tales). The players gathered in a room at night and, after lighting 100 candles, took turns telling scary stories. After each tale a candle was extinguished, and the room steadily grew darker and darker. It was believed that when the room was pitch black, a ghost would appear.
Pretty good fun before TV was invented.

The Japanese do have amusingly strange folkloric creatures. The one mentioned in the last paragraph is particularly impressive:

Another distinctive feature of Japanese folklore is a quite large gang of oddball demons and spirits called yōkai that walk a thin line between horror and ridiculousness. Not exactly human but capable of a wide range of human emotions, these creatures tend to be neither good nor bad but are certainly mischievous, often getting their kicks by playing tricks on their victims.

Matt Alt, an American yokai expert whose book "Yokai Attack!" is a guide to surviving an encounter with these monsters, says that their shape-shifting powers make them particularly hard to recognize. "Probably the easiest to grasp are the kappa (water goblin), the tengu (mountain goblin), the kitsune (fox) and the tanuki (raccoon dog)," he says.

The most famous Tokyo-specific yokai are probably the Nopperabo ("faceless ones"), which Lafcadio Hearn wrote about in his 1904 story "Mujina," and the huge leg featured in "Ashiarai Yashiki."

"The Nopperabo are normal-seeming humans but with horrifyingly smooth and featureless faces," explains Alt. "A century and a half ago they were often seen in Akasaka's Kiinokuni slope, once considered one of the scariest places in the city."

"Ashiarai Yashiki," on the other hand, is the tale of an enormous, disembodied leg and foot that smashes through ceilings without warning in the dead of night, demanding to be washed. "Legend has it that the first 'big foot' appeared in a royal mansion in the Edo district of Honjo, corresponding to Sumida Ward in present-day Tokyo," Alt says.

Problems for the Tone

Abbott Pledges Oath In Blood To Repeal Carbon Tax

George Williams explains that it may well be three years after the introduction of Labor's carbon pricing scheme before Abbott could repeal it.

Provided that Labor can keep its minority government together for the next 18 months to 2 years, and assuming the world economy does not tank completely, I strongly suspect that Abbott's gung-ho and shallow populism is not going to play as well leading into the next election as he currently thinks.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

7 billion soon

India is the most likely place for the seventh billionth child to be born | Global development | The Guardian

I was just getting used to 6 billion people on the planet, and in a week or so I have to start saying 7 billion.

The article above talks about the population growth of India, and the associated problems.

I didn't realise this:

India is home to nearly a fifth of the world's population and around 2020 it is projected to overtake China as the most populous nation on Earth.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A PM with a significant friend

I'm surprised to read an opinion piece in the paper this morning co- authored by Julia Gillard and - wait for it - Bill Gates! It's about eradicating polio.

I'm impressed. The biggest name in technology and charity Tony Abbott has ever been associated with is probably Dick Smith.

(Speaking of Mr Abbott, he features in the next, long awaited by no one, post at Dodopathy.) 

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The trouble with vegetarianism

Mind Hacks has an extract of an article looking at the psychology of vegetarianism, and it's a tad amusing:
How vegetarians are seen has shifted radically over time. During the Inquisition, the Roman Catholic Church declared vegetarians to be heretics, and a similar line of persecutions occurred in 12th century China (Kellman, 2000). In the earlier half of the twentieth century, the sentiment toward vegetarians remained distinctly negative, with the decision not to eat meat being framed as deviant and worthy of suspicion.
Major Hyman S. Barahal (1946), then head of the Psychiatry Section of Mason General Hospital, Brentwood, wrote openly that he considered vegetarians to be domineering and secretly sadistic, and that they “display little regard for the suffering of their fellow human beings” (p. 12). In this same era, it was proposed that vegetarianism was an underlying cause of stammering, the cure for which was a steady diet of beefsteak.
Well, we all know about Hitler now, don't we...

Space, technology, etc.

Some links of some interest:

small, modular, nuclear power continues to be developed, but not without some financial issues.

*  Russian cosmonaut says they ought to find a good cave for a moon base.   I agree.  Lunar cave exploring is a topic inadequately covered in science fiction, as far as I know, too.

*  American lunar scientist says you could build a decent sized moon base using tele-operated robotics before you send astronauts there.  First job:  dig up some water at the poles.   Easier said than done, and sounds rather improbable.  But whatever happened to the idea that a private company had, maybe during the 1980’s as I think I read it in Omni magazine:  put a tele-operated lunar rover on the Moon and let people on earth pay for time controlling it.   You would need it to be in a scenic part, though.  An hour of trundling across a flat plain is hardly going to be worth it.

  *  NASA has been thinking about using “fuel depots” in space instead of having to launch a spaceship full of fuel to get where it needs to go.  There are, however, some obvious problems:

Propellant depots carry risks, too. Fuels like liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen must be kept at ultracold temperatures and, unless the depots were heavily insulated, would boil away over time. And transferring fuel in the weightlessness of space is not straightforward, although perhaps simply setting the depot and spacecraft into a slow spin would generate enough force to push the fuel into the spacecraft.

Sounds a bit improbable, again.

*  Somebody’s been studying sea monkeys ™, it would seem, to learn about their fluid dynamics.  Why one would remains a significant mystery of the universe.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Cranky Watts was wrong - again

Big news in the world of climate science - physicist Richard Muller's much ballyhooed independent re-assessment of the temperature record over the last hundred years or so is finished.

And guess what:

They say their results line up with previously published studies and suggest that the average global land temperature has risen by roughly 0.9 °C since the 1950s.

Muller says he is surprised at how well the findings line up with previous analyses, which he takes as evidence that the various scientific teams working on these data did indeed go about their work "in a truly unbiased manner". 

Anthony Watts, who early on pinned much hope on this effort showing that silly old climate scientists had stuffed this all up, is very annoyed.   It's not peer reviewed yet, you see.

Somehow, I would be surprised if that makes much of a difference.

Watts puts up the familiar meme we hear all the time from skeptics now: 

And, The Economist still doesn’t get it. The issue of “the world is warming” is not one that climate skeptics question, it is the magnitude and causes.

But remember folks, it was in the last year or so that Watts was on Andrew Bolt's radio show claiming that maybe .5 of a degree of the US temperature record increases of about .7 degree was due to poor siting of temperature stations.  Only problem was, within months of that claim, it was disproved by his own surfacestations project published paper.  Watts wanted people to believe the real temperature rise was so small it was ridiculous to worry about it.

Hey, maybe that's why Watts is so keen on  peer review: it helped prove his own estimates were completely wrong.   But actually, I think it was getting a real climatologist on board - John Neilsen-Gammon - to check the stats that showed up Watts' error even before it went into peer review. This is why I doubt peer review is going to show anything especially wrong with Muller's results.   (Of course, Muller himself is a self promoting show pony who was making big, populist claims about how outrageous the Climategate emails were.   I don't particularly hold him in much regard either, but if he and his team have taken some more wind out of the sails of the likes of Watts, he has done something useful.)

Watts has never apologised for those claims on Australian radio.  He has never explained how he got his own estimate, made so close to the paper being finished, wrong.

Andrew Bolt has never corrected Watts' estimate on his blog. 

The AGW skeptic movement is a sham, and should get out of the way and let real science guide policy response to a (likely) dangerously warming world.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The potato in history

It must be time for another potato post.  [Interested readers can use the search function on the right to find my previous forays into the field of potatoes.  (Ha.)]

This time, a BBC story looks at the recent decline of the spud, and whether its recent-ish poor reputation is really deserved.  But along the way we  get a bit of history, of which I was not really aware:
The potato used to be considered something of a wonder food. Grown originally in South America, its introduction to Europe literally transformed agriculture.
Before the introduction of the potato, those in Ireland, England and continental Europe lived mostly off grain, which grew inconsistently in regions with a wet, cold climate or rocky soil. Potatoes grew in some conditions where grain could not, and the effect on the population was overwhelming.

"In Switzerland, for instance, the potato arrived in the early 18th Century and you can see over and over again as people started growing potatoes, the population grew," says John Reader, author of The Potato: A History of the Propitious Esculent.

"Birth rates rose, infant mortality improved, women became more fecund and all of that can be absolutely attributed to the potato."

For decades, potatoes were one of the most reliable sources of energy. They grew when other grains and vegetables could not, they required little processing once grown, and they packed a healthy dose of nutrients.
I hope you noticed the title of the book in there.  I don't believe I have ever seen the word "esculent" before.  Let's double check the dictionary:  a thing, esp. a vegetable, fit to be eaten.   Well, we learn something every day.

Back to the BBC article.  It appears that somehow, the writer located a potato obsessive in New Mexico:

That is why Meredith Hughes, managing director of the Potato Museum, is not worried about pockets of anti-potato sentiment. "I don't agree that the potato is vilified," she says. "I think the potato is just taking off."

Ms Hughes and her family have built up the largest private collection of potato artefacts, currently located in New Mexico, but in search a permanent home. Both she and the museum are unaffiliated with the potato industry.

"The potato is an incredibly influential food," she says. "It has changed the course of history, it has influenced popular culture. It has saved people from starvation."
Actually, given that the potato is becoming more popular in China, she could have a point about the potato "just taking off".

Anyway, this makes me  feel like checking the potato recipe book I got from the book fair.  I guess I'm cooking again this Saturday.

Deliberate mistakes?

Arthur Sinodinas, who impresses me generally and I welcome as new Parliamentary blood for the Coalition, writes in the Australian today:
There is talk that Rudd is wooing Bob Katter so he can dispense with the support of Andrew Wilkie and the pesky pokies tax.
What? There is nothing "tax" about voluntary pre-commitment for pokies at all. Yet this same line had been used by Channel Nine spokesperson last week when they wrote about how it was a political ad was spoken during a high rating rugby league match:
''The comments relating to the federal government proposed poker machine tax reflect the views of the Nine Network regarding matters directly affecting the NRL community,'' she wrote, again misconstruing the pre-commitment policy as a tax.
This is a bit of a convenient mistake that keeps getting repeated, isn't it?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Lay by plan not such a good idea

IVF WARNING: Expert tells single women to settle for Mr Not-Quite-Right

I didn't realise clinics were "targetting" this service:

Director of Monash IVF Professor Gab Kovacs said that women should not be fooled into thinking that freezing their eggs for social reasons offered a "guaranteed family in the fridge".
Fertility clinics have begun targeting their services to women in their 20s and 30s, but Professor Kovacs warned women that the success rate from egg freezing was low and that women couldn't rely on it later in life, Fairfax newspapers report.
"I think they should be working harder to find a partner or changing their criteria for Mr Right," Professor Kovacs said.
"Maybe there is no Mr Right and you have to settle for Mr Not-Too-Bad. There is no such thing as a perfect person for anybody, and even if they're perfect now, they won't be perfect in five or 10 years time."
Egg freezing costs between $10,000 and $14,000 per cycle is not covered by Medicare if done for non-medical reasons.
Of course, in the comments following there are a smattering of women saying "well, I only got married late and had my first child at 38, these concerns about infertility are overblown.  You hang out for the right man, girls!" which probably annoys fertility clinic doctors no end, because they actually know what the figures are.

(Personal disclosure: my wife and I came late to parenthood too, but still, I don't doubt that age related infertility is a major issue.)

Art and Andy

On Andy Warhol | Bryan Appleyard

Sadly, Bryan Appleyard has stopped regular blogging again. (He disappeared for quite a while, popped back for a few weeks, but now is only notifying readers of his feature articles and interviews in the press.)

Anyway, the link above is to his recent, very lengthy, article on Andy Warhol, containing much erudite discussion of modern art in general, and a little in the way of biographical detail. It's fine writing.

I'm not sure, but I think I had read and forgotten this strange story of how he came to be shot:
Valerie Solanas was a radical feminist who believed in the violent creation of an all-female society. In 1967 she asked Warhol to produce her play Up Your Ass, but he lost the script and Solanas started demanding payment. Finally, in June 1968, she turned up at the Factory and shot him in the chest. It was a grievous wound – Warhol had to wear a corset for the rest of his life to, as he put it, “keep my insides in” – and he only just survived.
As Appleyard notes, his work went down in quality after this, but you do get the feeling Bryan still has a soft spot for him.


Spaceport America opens – but space tourists will have to wait | Science | The Guardian

This story led me to do this quickly this morning on the iPad, which I trust people will remember was inspired by this (even though when I first saw that photo, I assumed it was photoshopped.)

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Christmas viewing sorted

The Adventures of Tintin - Rotten Tomatoes

Initial reviews for Spielberg's Tintin movie seem pretty good. But it doesn't start here until Boxing Day. :(

UPDATE:  There are some really glowing reviews coming out, but as might be expected with any "classic" comic which nerdy adult men obsess about, there are those who are outraged by the movie.  The Guardian (which really operates as nerd/geek central in the English press, given the amount of time their blog gives to the likes of Dr Who) has a half funny, over the top reaction:

Coming out of the new Tintin film directed by Steven Spielberg, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape....

The sense of outrage is palpable, and even after two days I find myself moved to pity; to pick up my shuddering, weeping copy of Hergé's The Secret of the Unicorn, cradle it in my arms, and whisper soothingly to it that everything will be all right; but all the time knowing that, after this, it won't be; nothing will be the same again. The forces of marketing, and of global idiocy, will see to that. But I will try to make things better as well as I can and remind you of some of the things that made Hergé's original one of the consistently great works of art of the 20th century.
As someone says in comments:
Dare I suggest you get out a bit more?

Monday, October 17, 2011

Warm water, warm air

There continues to be useful and interesting discussion around the climate science blog-o-sphere about ocean warming and climate change.

It really seems that limited understanding of how exactly it works, and its role in "pauses" in the climb in surface temperature rises, is a major unresolved issue in climate science. 

Have a look at Skeptical Science, Bart's site, and Rabbett Run for some of the interesting posts, which again
feature Roger Pielke Snr.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Some ideas for Malcolm in the middle

Missing in all the political commentary or reports about Tony Abbott's "pledged in blood" spoiler role for the future of the carbon trading scheme ("don't buy into it, companies, we're going to revoke it") I haven't yet seen anyone mention the person in the Liberals who must be absolutely grinding his teeth over this.

I refer, of course, to Malcolm Turnbull.

Not only has he had to go along with the vote against the legislation, he now has to sit back for 2 to 3 years while his leader charges ahead with "maintaining the rage" against it.   This must surely cause him some despair.

I wonder:  will this be enough to push him over the edge in future?   Let's face it, there are enough climate change deniers in the Coalition that must give Malcolm the pip, but he was probably at least hoping that after the scheme was in place, he didn't have to put up with listening to them anymore.  But now, it is going to again be a live issue in the lead up to the next election.

What is the best he can hope for?    That the companies who have to buy permits will, in the run up to the next election, tell the Coalition to face reality and let the scheme continue?   That the public will react against the loss of compensation?   Some (more) really bad weather internationally will convince more people that really adverse climate change is already upon us?

If Abbott resists the obvious reasons for not dismantling the scheme, surely it will fill Malcolm with despair.

Could he breakaway before the election on this issue?  Become an independent, or even form a new par1ty:  one that actually takes science and economists seriously?  He might even get to re-run his Republican campaign again.

I hope he is giving these sort of options some thought.   He may as well start planning now.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Jobs, health and Apples

Steve Jobs, neuroendocrine tumors, and alternative medicine : Respectful Insolence

Here's a really, really long blog post talking about Steve Jobs' health, which is of interest mainly because it notes his initial hope to treat a tumour by diet for the first 9 months.

He was, it would appear, a bit too alternative for his own good, although he eventually went as far as he possibly could with conventional medicine.

I have neutral feelings about Jobs and his products. Sure, I like the iPad a lot, but is anyone who puts iTunes on their Windows PC a fan of the software? I doubt it.

And news like this:
Apple claims the Korean technology company ''blatantly copied'' its highly successful tablet computer and infringed at least two patents related to touch screens and the gestures controlling them.
make it hard to embrace the company, surely. A patent for controlling hand gestures? I bet there a few hand gestures being made at Samsung towards Apple HQ all the time.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Witch doctor worry

BBC News - Where child sacrifice is a business

Wow. Quite a horrifying story of the apparent revival in child sacrifice in Uganda by witch doctors.

It doesn't appear to be a case of mass hysteria, as one might initially suspect, as there are injured and dead children, as well as an interview with a witch doctor, as evidence it is real:

For our own inquiries, we posed as local businessmen and asked around for a witch doctor that could bring prosperity to our local construction company. We were soon introduced to Awali. He led us into a courtyard behind his home, and as if to welcome us he and his helpers wrestled a goat to the ground and slit its throat.

"This animal has been sacrificed to bring luck to us all," Awali explained. He then demanded a fee of $390 (£250) for the ritual and asked us to return in a few days.

At our next meeting, Awali invited us into his shrine, which is traditionally built from mud bricks with a straw roof. Inside, the floor is littered with herbs, face masks, rattles and a machete.

The witch doctor explained that this meeting was to discuss the most powerful spell - the sacrifice of a child.

"There are two ways of doing this," he said. "We can bury the child alive on your construction site, or we cut them in different places and put their blood in a bottle of spiritual medicine."

Awali grabbed his throat. "If it's a male, the whole head is cut off and his genitals. We will dig a hole at your construction site, and also bury the feet and the hands and put them all together in the hole."

This situation has lead to one of strangest police task force names:

The Anti-Human Sacrifice Police Task Force, launched in response to the growing numbers, says the ritual murder rate has slowed, citing a figure of 38 cases since 2006.
It's a bit like living in a place where a Grimms' Fairy Tale could actually happen.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Carbon price thoughts

What more can be said about the Gillard government finally passing its carbon price legislation? Typically, the right wing blogs are in a frenzy about the death of democracy, the coming glorious electoral defeat of leftism for all eternity, etc. (Have a look at this joke of a post at Catallaxy, where the resident obsessive about Say's Law quotes James Delingpole as some sort of authority.) I assume Alan Jones' radio show was absolutely chock full of this sort of guff today, and will continue in the same vein for the next couple of days at least. 

But once legislation like this is passed, it's hard to imagine any media figure being able to keep it as hot an issue for the next 12 months.

I have previously expressed here great doubts about an ETS being better than a carbon tax, but basically, it seems that credible and moderate economists (that is, those who are not wholly dedicated to right wing, anti-tax, as-small-a-government-as-possible ideology) think otherwise, and I'm willing to go with their judgement. I do get the impression that lessons have been learnt from the problems with the European ETS. Let's hope that's right.

How it will all pan out is still highly uncertain. As papers have already been noting today, Abbott's pledge to revoke it actually leaves some businesses in a bit of a limbo as to what to do over the next year or two. I suspect that most will have to assume that the tax will survive, and some will start to call on Abbott not to revoke it before the next election.

And honestly, if Abbott is to be taken at face value (in reality, most people who are strongly opposed to a carbon price hope that Abbott is lying about his intention to reach the same CO2 target) he is not going to find an economist around who is going to say that his means of achieving a similar reduction is going to be better than the ETS. Tony Windsor is on Lateline tonight making this point as I type.

The worst scenario is that the world economy tanks badly in the next 8 months, and the scheme commences operation at a time of great economic pessimism. Abbott's pledge would presumably then remain popular, and a double dissolution threat to ensure it is achieved may seem like a good bet.

I hope it doesn't come to that. There will never be an obviously "good" time to introduce such a scheme, but it would be bad luck indeed if this turned out to be the very worst time to introduce it.  

Finally, although you can be cynical and say that Gillard made a rod for Labor's own back by being wishy washy on an ETS after its initial failure under Rudd, I think Annabel Crabb is right to note that what she has been forced by circumstances to achieve still shows off her skills and practicality:

In bringing the Parliament to this point, Julia Gillard is picking up the can that has been kicked down the road by John Howard, Kevin Rudd and, in his own way, Malcolm Turnbull. It's maimed all of them, this diabolical issue, but Julia Gillard is still standing, and has today pulled off a legislative feat that - under the circumstances - deserves recognition even among the non-enthusiasts.
Bringing regional independents together with the Greens, to reach agreement on a fiendishly difficult economic reform like this one? Convincing the Greens to exempt petrol from the scheme?
Prevailing upon Bob Brown - hardly an International Man of Steelmaking, ordinarily - to rescue $300 million in assistance to steelmakers after Tony Abbott refused to vote for it?
All of these outcomes looked fairly unlikely as the New Paradigm was lowered nervously into place, and yet they have come to pass. Where her predecessor ached to be popular, this prime minister has made unpopularity into something of a personal art form.
In light of this, I find those on the Left who want to see Gillard replaced by Rudd, like John Quiggin, to be exercising perversely strange logic. This is actually an achievement by Gillard, and she should be given the opportunity to reap any benefits from finally being seen to take action. Success on the mining tax should also be seen as an achievement by the Labor base, and that is another thing Rudd didn't achieve.

Replacing Gillard anytime soon makes no sense, and I have much greater confidence in her achieving results than I had in Kevin Rudd.

The population at large is still easily conned by the boyish, earnest facade of Rudd, but that does not mean he is actually capable of good leadership.

Well, this is how I choose to interpret the situation....

but I could be misconstruing things... : )

PS: photo is from Sourcewatch, credited to Bob Burton. Someone should let me know if there is a copyright issue.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Fake Crisis continues

I see that The Australian (and Denis Shanahan in particular) are in full blown "campaign" mode to see Julia Gillard replaced as Prime Minister.  This has been obvious for some time, but some headlines from last week, and this morning in particular, just confirm it:

Coalition storms ALP strongholds: Newspoll
Labor leader has lost public's faith
Leaky boats could sink Julia Gillard 

It's obviously important to Shanahan that a 3% increase to Labor in Newspoll not be interpreted as a clear sign that Labor has bottomed out, so he writes as follows:
A three-point rise in the Newspoll primary vote for the ALP has avoided the unthinkable for the Gillard government of going to 25 per cent or below to have less support than the combined vote for the Greens and various odds and sods, but the broader view of this survey of public opinion about Labor - as well as the personal standing of Julia Gillard - is devastating. The electorate has not only stopped listening to Labor but rejected it on every front.
In fact, the way I read the poll, Labor is still preferred outright on IR and education, arguably has more people favouring their position on climate change if you make the assumption that the substantial number for "someone else" are mostly Greens, and is even pegging on health.    
People are saying the Coalition handles asylum seekers better, which as I have noted before, is at complete odds with other polls indicating that they are no so keen on offshore processing.   You just have to assume that people are completely (to put it generously) confused on this issue.  No, forget it:  people are stupid on this issue. And let's be clear here:  this extends to those on the Left too, who (as shown on Q&A last night) pretty much completely ignore the issue that a completely open and welcoming processing regime would be practically guaranteed to involve hundreds more deaths at sea on leaky boats.

On this issue, I note that the local UNHRC rep has again said that he thinks the Malaysia solution is better for people than being locked in detention centres in Australia:

ASYLUM seekers would receive better protections in Malaysia under the Gillard government's proposed transfer deal than being held in indefinite mandatory detention in Australia, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office has said.

Australia ''would fall well short'' of the human rights criteria demanded of Malaysia under the deal signed in July, the UNHCR's regional representative, Richard Towle, has told a parliamentary inquiry....

''In the context of the Malaysian arrangements, the assurances of legal stay and community-based reception for all transferees can be seen as a more positive protection environment that protracted - and in some cases indefinite - detention that many face here in Australia, provided the assurances are carefully monitored,'' Mr Towle wrote.

The High Court struck down the refugee swap partly because Malaysia is not a signatory to the UN refugee convention. But Mr Towle said many signatories did not meet the ''the fundamental protection safeguards that were expected of Malaysia under the arrangements''.

The UNHCR has also dismissed a ''misperception'' that asylum seekers could be caned, saying the document to be issued proving their legal status would have been ''a significant safeguard''.
Mr Towle said the Malaysian government also planned to extend legal work rights to all refugees, not just those sent from Australia. This would allow refugees to access insurance and health schemes.
The Malaysians have an incentive to see that the Australian sent asylum seekers are not mistreated:  they get to give us lots more Burmese asylum seekers.  This idea, based as it is on Departmental advice given by the same public servants who advised the Coalition, should be tried.

Back to the Newspoll:  the Coalition leads Labor by a large, large margin on the economy, but here it is clear that the public is buying into the idea that there is some sort of crisis going on about how Labor has handled it.

The reality is that, although the Coalition under Turnbull might have spent a bit less money on the GFC spending, there is no credible economist around who is regularly condemning Labor's response. Internationally, it is difficult to find anything other than praise for how Australia handled it.

The worst thing about all of this is that some Labor supporting figures like John Quiggin have given up on Gillard at a time when she is just getting some major reforms through Parliament.  It has always been absurd to suggest that she should be replaced at this time. 

Meanwhile, Bruce Hawker has suggested today how Labor can improve.  I have always found him boring on TV, but he is right in this column.  It was a serious mistake for Gillard to appear with Bob Brown as if he was a virtual deputy leader.   Hawker suggests distancing herself from Brown, and coming up with simple, distinctive Labor policies, like universal dental care.  He's right.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Quite a surprise

Prenatal testing could spare babies from toxoplasmosis complications

A study from Stanford finds strong reason for routine testing of toxoplasmosis in the US:

Their research found much higher rates of serious brain and eye disease among U.S. infants with congenital toxoplasmosis than among similar infants in Europe, where the prenatal testing is routine....
Eighty-four percent of the North American infants studied had serious complications of the parasitic infection, including calcium deposits in the brain, water on the brain and eye disease that caused visual impairment or blindness. By contrast, few European infants had these problems – for instance, about 17 percent of French infants with the infection develop complications.

“It was a shock,” said Jose Montoya, MD, the study’s senior author and an associate professor of Medicine in Infectious Diseases at Stanford. “We were dismayed to see so many little ones with severe eye disease, hydrocephalus and brain calcifications.”

The reason for the different outcomes between affect US and European babies:
...effective medications exist to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the Toxoplasma gondii parasite – and babies who receive these drugs in utero have much lower rates of complications than the infants in Montoya’s study, whose mothers did not get the prophylactic meds.
The test is cheap too. I wonder if it is done in Australia?

As I like to say to my children when they're feeling down..

‘Humans are just modified fish’ (Science Alert)

Not a good place to be sick

South Pole Worker Stranded After Stroke -

Sunday, October 09, 2011

Oceans heating, but how deep?

RealClimate: Global warming and ocean heat content

This Real Climate post, and the comments and discussion following, are important.  The issue is heat going into the oceans, and whether once it gets there, it is possibly a problem again in the future.

There has been a skeptic argument around that if upper ocean heat is getting "buried" in the deep ocean (a fact which itself is very hard to measure, apparently) then the heat does not represent any future "threat" to surface temperatures again.  Yet Trenberth had made a statement that any heat going down "has not disappeared and so it cannot be ignored. It must have consequences.” 

Gavin Schmidt seems to indicate that, whatever Trenberth had in mind (and, curiously, he doesn't seem to know exactly what it was,) heating of the deep ocean has never been considered a threat to surface temperature.

Roger Pielke Snr turns up in the thread too, and Schmidt dismisses most of he claims about Ocean Heat Content.  In particular, he says the ARGO system simply can't measure ocean heat moving from the top layer of the ocean to the deep ocean, whereas a skeptic meme (started by Pielke, I think) is that the "missing heat" can't be going into the deep ocean because ARGO hasn't seen it passing through the top 700 m.

This really does appear to be a very complicated topic, and it is surprising to see that this may be a case where climate scientists have contributed to a skeptic meme via their own looseness of language.

Domestic notes from the weekend

*  Yesterday morning started off with a bang, and being woken up by a loud clap of thunder at 6 am is not that common for Brisbane.  The storms seemed to hang around then for about 3 hours, and it was very dark with many close lightning strikes in my area during that time.   The weather bureau predicted a stormy summer for Brisbane, and maybe this is a sign they were right, as indeed they were this time last year when they warned the Government that conditions were right for big floods.    

*   The mother possum hasn't been seen for a few days now.  In fact, her spot under the balcony on Friday morning seemed to be occupied by two smaller possums (as far as we could tell - we could only see one head but what appeared to be two rear ends.)   What do possums do - play a game of musical nests each night, and just stay at the one nearest them when the sun comes up?

*  Had a go at making limoncello this afternoon.  It now has to sit in the cupboard for a month before being strained and ready to taste.   I'm just hoping I sterilised the bottle enough - the last time I tried to do something with lemons (preserved lemons) they went mould pretty quickly in the jar.  I hope the alcohol in limoncello helps prevent that.  The recipe being followed is this one.   I'm using vodka as the base, which is a form of alcohol which I could never see the point of drinking.  I figure that even if one's intention is simply to get drunk, surely it's more interesting doing it with something with flavour.   In any event, I was aware that fancy schmancy vodkas of all varieties were trendy for a while, particularly in the US, I think, given that I had seen a Mythbusters segment in which they were seeing if they could really tell the difference between high end brands.  And indeed I was surprised to see today just how many brands are on the shelf in Australia too, most of which are only interesting for the nifty bottle designs.  It's funny, but in two different bottle shops, the cheapest brands were actually made in France.  When did they become a producer of cheap vodka?  I also see now that many flavoured vodkas are sold, which is fair enough, I guess.  Better than drinking plain old vodka.

*  Speaking of lemons, it's spring and the lemon and lime tree are having their annual outbreak of stinkbugs.  These bugs (the flat bodied bronze orange bug) appear to be extremely common on Australian citrus, and as this article notes, they do have a very vile smell when disturbed.   They  die pretty easily with any pyrethrum garden spray, but the big problem is reaching the one sitting up near the top of the lemon tree.  (By the way, while Googling around on the topic, I came this page:  Stink Bug Field Guide for Brisbane.   We do seem to have many, many stinking bugs in this region - something to be proud of, I guess...)

*  OK, this has nothing in particular to do with my weekend, apart from the fact that I just read it.  The Taiwanese have an indigenous population?  I didn't know that, although I suppose I shouldn't be surprised, because I had heard about the Ainu, being the Japanese equivalent.  Funnily enough, if you watch the video at this link, you'll see a spokesman for the Ainu who looks a little bit like a younger version of Geoff Clark.

*  I found out today that the McFeast is still on the menu at McDonald's as a "birthday special", but I remain concerned how much longer this will be the case.

*  I guess I didn't mind the last Dr Who episode of this season, but as the final episode in this season's big story arc of how the Doctor avoids his (apparent) death at the start of the season, it did come up with a trick that seems just a little too "easy", if you ask me.  Again, I see the Guardian (gosh they discuss this show a lot) has a long article about whether everyone is completely happy with the direction it has taken under Steven Moffat.  It's good to see that I not alone in preferring the better stand alone stories to the overblown (and increasingly silly in their way)  story arcs that Moffat seems most interested in. 

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Nasty utilitarians

Moral philosophy: Goodness has nothing to do with it | The Economist

Here's a short article about the apparent personality traits of the small-ish number of people who (in a thought experiment) think strongly enough of utilitarianism to kill someone innocent to save the lives of others.

Perhaps not surprisingly, they don't appear to be very nice:
They found a strong link between utilitarian answers to moral dilemmas (push the fat guy off the bridge) and personalities that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless. Utilitarians, this suggests, may add to the sum of human happiness, but they are not very happy people themselves.
Always had my doubts about them!

Possible explanations

Gas 'n' Air - Technology Review

Wow, that was quick. The link above has quite a few papers from arXiv talking about how the faster than light neutrino experiment may be flawed, and/or possible explanations as to what is going on if the result is real.

Strange experiment

Single dose of hallucinogen may create lasting personality change

I'm not entirely sure why anyone would want to take a shot at magic mushrooms if you knew ahead of time about this:

A single high dose of the hallucinogen psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called "magic mushrooms," was enough to bring about a measureable personality change lasting at least a year in nearly 60 percent of the 51 participants in a new study, according to the Johns Hopkins researchers who conducted it.

Lasting change was found in the part of the personality known as openness, which includes traits related to imagination, aesthetics, feelings, and general broad-mindedness. Changes in these traits, measured on a widely used and scientifically validated personality inventory, were larger in magnitude than changes typically observed in healthy adults over decades of , the scientists say. Researchers in the field say that after the age of 30, personality doesn't usually change significantly.

"Normally, if anything, openness tends to decrease as people get older," says study leader Roland R. Griffiths, a professor of psychiatry and at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

All of the participants were already "spiritual", however, and the fact that they were agreeing to an experiment with a hallucinogen indicates something about their "openness" already, surely. The article also notes:

As a word of caution, Griffiths also notes that some of the study participants reported strong fear or anxiety for a portion of their daylong psilocybin sessions, although none reported any lingering harmful effects. He cautions, however, that if hallucinogens are used in less well supervised settings, the possible fear or anxiety responses could lead to harmful behaviors.
Count me out, thanks.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Right gets a recruit

Angry Anderson has joined the National Party and is looking at running for a Federal seat.

This post from his blog: The New World Order of the New Free World gives some idea of the scattergun mind of someone who the Nationals (and Abbott) seem to think would be a good candidate:

Do we really believe that this push for a Tax on Carbon pollution is about anything but raising more revenue for the government and the United Nations in league with the international banks using the “New World Order” as a blueprint for the Globalisation of the New Free World?

Are we so naive that we have ignored those warnings written about, not so long ago, by the likes of Toffler and his ilk about how these unseen people will have to come up with more and more ways to separate us from our hard earned cash?

I, for one, do not believe in this transparent lie of global warming, global warming created by us the population. Talking of population, why isn’t anyone talking about that as an issue related to this matter – the world is overpopulated but is anyone talking about reducing or slowing the population growth as a measure to slow this so called warming? No they aren’t!...

David Suzuki once said that to be a productive citizen of the world we should think globally and act locally. This is what we need to do now, to even begin to address issues that do now affect us and will affect us for years to come. The World was created by the perfect hand and prolific forests were always integral to the quality of life on this planet; I am suspicious of the attempt to take our focus away from such obvious problems as rampant logging of old growth forest and replacing them with new less understood but seemingly “hipper” subject matter....

I get suspicious. Who is pushing so hard? Gee, it’s big business cleverly or not so cleverly disguised as “do gooders”. This has been pointed out in emails that have been circulating in recent times worth investigating. Wouldn’t be the first time the international banking cartels have duped and enlisted the young and outraged to do their dirty work whilst preying on the fears of the older working population threatening them with their mortgage and livelihood, keeping us distracted with issues, like trying to educate our kids and keeping a roof over our heads, while they plot and scheme to fleece yet more of our money away from us.
The Right of politics in Australia and the USA , with few exceptions, is truly in an embarrassing state at the moment.

An Australian birthday

I had missed this last week - the neighbour's out of tune birthday trumpet serenade that Prime Minister Julia Gillard received on the national news.  (It's the first part of the video after the newsreader's intro):

This strikes me as a very distinctly Australian thing to happen - a sign of our egalitarianism that includes not taking the office of Prime Minister too seriously, and a politician who is definitely not "up herself". 

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Domestic report

Here’s what’s been going on at home:
*  In cute news:   the possum that lives under the balcony (well, most days anyway -  it would appear that brushtail possums like to keep alternative abodes going) has a baby.   My wife spotted this first, while handing the mother a piece of fruit.  The possum leaned down from its perch and a pink furless body was able to be seen in the forward facing pouch.  I saw it myself yesterday, when feeding it watermelon and kiwifruit.   It will be some months before the baby is furry and adorably cute, like this one, and I hope we get to see more of it.  Here's a recent photo of our possum eating:

Possum eating
She is much less shy than before, but I hope she never learns to knock on the front door.

*  Yesterday involved a bit of ambling driving around Brisbane, and on a whim, seeing we were at Hamilton already, I took a drive out to Pinkenba.

I grew up on the north side of Brisbane, and a trip out past the old airport to the strange combination of oil refinery, sewerage plant, houses and riverside shacks known as Pinkenba was always a novelty.   I am happy to report that a trip to this strange part of town is still interesting.   In fact, I am amazed as to how much of the old riverside land out beyond “Pinkenba Village” has been converted to light industrial.  During the weekday, at least, it looks as if it would be a much more lively place than it used to be in the 60’s and 70’s.  

There are more houses there than I remembered:  some of them not too bad looking for the area.   The small primary school, which looks very much like the old Nudgee Beach primary school also on the northside, appears to have closed late last year.

But the local hotel “The Pink” still exists, and from its website, looks a lot better on the inside than from the outside.  (A prominent sign for the scheduled “Hot Girls” shows mark it out as place catering for young male workers who go to the expanded industrial estate, I guess.)    While we drove past it, I suddenly remembered that I had brought something unusual from the bottle shop there once when I was young and used to visit unusual pubs occasionally for something to do.  I think it was there that I bought a bottle of Gekkeikan sake – the only brand you could ever get in Australia decades ago.    I didn’t care for the taste, but it represented a sort of foreshadowing of a turn my life would take.  Certainly, I enjoy sake a lot now…

The other reason to visit Pinkenba is because from the road you can get very close to one of the cavernous Qantas maintenance hangers, and watch planes being towed in if you’re lucky.   In fact, it might be Qantas workers, for all I know, who frequent the Hot Girls shows at the Pink; but I certainly hope it is only after work and they have their work on their minds while they check the fuselage of a 767.

*   Went kite flying today.   Brisbane is not the best place for kite flying, at least if you are not near the coast, as I just don’t think it is that breezy a place.  [Well, unless you are dealing with a summer storm, in which case it can be very breezy indeed, but only in short bursts.]  But today was a good day for my daughter to get out a birthday present she got last year from a friend.  It was from Aldi, which was a bad sign, and indeed it needed work with a pair of scissors usually reserved for eyebrows and nose hair to get rods into pockets which otherwise did not exist.  But despite all of this, it flew quite well.

I find getting a kite airborne and keeping there for more than 10 minutes at a time is an unusually satisfying experience.  I’m not sure about my daughter: I was reluctant to hand it over to her at all.  (I’m joking, but as it turned out, she did relinquish it to me often.)

Like taking kids fishing, having a go at kite flying with them is something that just has to be tried  at least once.   That reminds me, we need to go fishing again to see if they can catch something next time.  The first attempt only resulted in my wife getting something.   My manly abilities to provide food from the wild for my family are still in question.