Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sunday, September 25, 2011

May be gone a while ....

I really need to concentrate more on work at the moment. I probably won't post again until next weekend - possibly longer. Wish me luck with resisting the urge to post, and my attempt at ignoring the internet generally. (But I will be back.)

The Doctor is back

After complaining about Dr Who recently, I just wanted to note that the last two episodes, which were "stand alone" stories, were really quite good.

It confirms my earlier observation that the big story arcs are the worst aspect of the show now. It seems that I am not alone in these thoughts.

An interesting idea

Gravitational Waves Can Explain Dark Energy And Axis of Evil, Says Cosmologist - Technology Review

I've had a look at the paper, which is not written for the lay person, of course, but I remain a little uncertain as to whether he is claimed that this gravitational wave idea could explain away the apparent acceleration of the universe entirely, or only partially.

Thinking about teenagers

Teenage Brains - Pictures, More From National Geographic Magazine

Mind Hacks liked the above article in National Geographic a lot, as it gives a fresh perspective on why teenagers take risks, other than the overly simplistic "brain's not fully developed yet" meme.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

In the garden today…

My wife grouped some flowers together in pots a couple of  months ago, and they look very nice now:

flowers 2011

"Overshare" (The correct name for Facebook)

Facebook Ticker: Mark Zuckerberg's terrible plan to get us to share everything we do on the Web. - By Farhad Manjoo - Slate Magazine

I saw something on TV about his last night, and thought it looked terrible.

Manjoo actually hates the whole devaluation of privacy that Facebook imposes much less than me, but his point is still good: if Facebook makes it easier to share any old rubbish, it is killing taste and the exercise of good judgement.

About Ebert

Life Itself - A Memoir - By Roger Ebert - Book Review -

Maureen Dowd wrote this review of movie critic Roger Ebert's new memoir.

I am not the world's greatest fan of Ebert's reviews. I tend to find him inconsistent; sometimes too forgiving, sometimes far too nitpicking. He doesn't write with the depth and wit of Pauline Kael, but still, I am usually curious to see what he thought of a movie if I have seen it and have my own strong reaction for or against.

Sometimes he really despairs of modern tastes in movies, and I understand the sentiment. He really hated Kick-Ass, for example, and called it morally reprehensible. This half tempts me to see it, because I don't really like morally reprehensible things to pass without enough condemnation.

I knew almost nothing of his personal life, except that his writing sometimes gave me the feeling that he may be gay. Turns out he's married (well, I think I did read that some time ago) to an African American (I didn't know that), but he did marry late due to the influence of a very domineering mother. Dowd writes:

Ebert writes about his own alcoholism — his last drink was in 1979 — and that of his mother, who wielded a ’50s Catholic sexual repression that retarded Roger’s ability to “make free” with girls and produced a few scenes with a whiff of ­“Psycho.”

His mother’s recriminations about his girlfriends, as well as his drinking, caused him to live vicariously through movies and kept him “unmarried for an unnatural length of time. Did I know drinking made me unmarriageable, or did I simply put drinking ahead of marriage?”

Well, certainly sounds like the conditions were right for my suspicion.

The review spends a fair bit of time on Ebert's illness (jaw and related cancers which have led to massive facial surgery which failed, and he's now unable to speak and has to eat through a gastric feeding tube.) Poor guy. As Dowd notes, though, he's remarkably upbeat about the fact that he is still alive.

Don't hold your breath

Faster-Than-Light Neutrinos? | Cosmic Variance | Discover Magazine

As I hoped, Cosmic Variance has the best commentary on the faster than light neutrino story I've seen. I liked this in comments too:

a nicely nuanced and non-dismissive interpretation of a nicely nuanced and non-hyperbolic announcement that has, predictably but unfortunately, resulted in a comically un-nuanced (perhaps even anti-nuanced) avalanche of headlines.
Seems about right.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Violence down

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker - review | Books | The Guardian

This review contains a detailed summary of Pinker's book long argument that humanity has become much less violent over the centuries. It sounds like a fascinating read. Here are some extracts (of the review, not the book):

Pinker thinks that most of what we believe about violence is wrong. To convince us he sets himself two tasks. First, to demonstrate that the past was a far nastier place than we might have imagined. Second, that the present is far nicer than we might have noticed. So to start with we get a litany of horrors from ancient and not-so-ancient history: a catalogue of the unspeakable things that human beings have traditionally been willing to do to each other. This is slightly overdone, since anyone who thinks that, say, medieval Europe was a friendly, peaceable place can't have thought about it very much. Still, it is hard not to be occasionally struck dumb by just how horrible people used to be. The image I can't get out of my head is of a hollow brass cow used for roasting people alive. Its mouth was left open so that their screams would sound like the cow was mooing, adding to the amusement of onlookers.

The real fascination of this book is how we got from being a species that enjoyed the spectacle of roasting each other alive to one that believes child-killers have the same rights as everyone else. ...

At the heart of this book is Pinker's careful, compelling account of why the 20th century does not invalidate his thesis that violence is in a long decline. He makes his case in three ways. First, with a multitude of tables and charts he shows that our view of the century is coloured by presentism: we think it's the worst simply because it's the most recent and we know more about it. If we had equivalent coverage of the whole of human history (how many books have been published about the second world war compared to, say, the Mongol conquests of the 13th century?) we would see that all of it has been scarred by mass slaughters, some of them proportionately even worse than the horrors of the past hundred years.

Second, Pinker argues that the violence of the 20th century is best understood as a series of random spasms rather than part of a trend.


Forgotten Japanese War Diary Returns Home - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

This was a lovely story on 7.30 last night, about the return of a war diary to the daughter of a Japanese naval officer who died on New Guinea during the World War 2.

Getting closer

London fashion week finale: menswear - in pictures | Fashion |

Have a look at some of the photos half way through this slide show from fashion week, and see if you agree that we seem to be coming close to actually having the Urban Sombrero.

If you want more to worry about re methane...

Try reading this post: Idiot Tracker: More methane madness

An interesting situation

Paul Sheehan, who really hates this Federal Labor government, nonetheless starts his column this morning with the observation that he doesn't actually disagree with an assessment that Tony Abbott has " a streak of bogan" in him.

Sheehan, of course, then paints this as meaning he cuts through to the electorate. I take it as meaning that, despite being a Rhodes scholar (Sheehan notes he has degrees in law, economics and philosophy) Abbott does not sound very smart.

I mean, honestly, no one (even his admirers in the commentariate) can accuse him of approaching his current job from some grand and consistent intellectual position.

Yet the most interesting thing about Sheehan's article is that he goes on to explain that Abbott refusing to concede to amendments the government wants to let the "Malaysian solution" proceed is a mistake, and will be recognized as such by the "bogans" who admire him.

This is, I think, potentially important. Sheehan is always a conservative populist at heart, and despite the waffling Paul Kelly and the inconsistent Greg Sheridan in The Australian both strongly expressing the same view, I suspect Abbott and his supporters in Parliament are much more likely to be influenced by Sheehan's opinion.

Of course, the opinion they probably value most, Andrew Bolt's, is strangely ambiguous at the moment. Sure he wrote a column saying Labor should just go with Nauru, but I suspect he probably sees potential danger to Abbott too if the government doesn't follow his suggestion, but is unwilling to say so. Bolt is obsessed with Gillard being replaced, and the unprincipled games he has played over the last couple of months to see this achieved mean he opinion on anything political at the moment has to filtered through this lens.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Liquid something

The day I saw a saint’s blood become liquid

Apropos of nothing, the Catholic Herald has a description by a priest of his witnessing a decade ago the "marvel" (the Church does not formally acknowledge it as a miracle) of the liquefaction of the blood of St Januarius in Naples.

There is also a link to a helpful Wikipedia article on the saint, which gives some details of the research that has been conducted on the "blood". (The most popular scientific explanation is that it is a thixotropic substance - a gel that liquefies when agitated.) The simple matter of extracting a small amount and putting it in a mass spectrometer is not on the cards, apparently, but I was surprised to learn that a light spectroscope has been used a couple of times, including as recently as 1989. These results are said to be consistent with the vial containing hemoglobin.

Wikipedia also mentions that there are a couple of other saints' blood relics around Italy which liquefy, and apparently it doesn't happen in other countries. This does suggest that the answer lies in an Italian who came up with a neat thixotropic compound, and put it to innovative use in the 1300's, but it is unusual that this type of compound is not mentioned in science until 1863 (this is mentioned in the update following).

UPDATE: I see this morning that there is a really good, detailed report by what looks like an Italian skeptic group (although the tone of article is moderate). It details how there have been attempts, going back to last century, to make mixtures which behave like the relic. The "marvel" has been the subject of skepticism for a long time.

Did everyone remember to bring their electrodes to school this morning?

BBC News - Stimulating brain with electricity aids learning speed

Uh-oh (for methane)

Contribution of oceanic gas hydrate dissociation to the formation of Arctic Ocean methane plumes

The abstract:

Vast quantities of methane are trapped in oceanic hydrate deposits, and there is concern that a rise in the ocean temperature will induce dissociation of these hydrate accumulations, potentially releasing large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. Because methane is a powerful greenhouse gas, such a release could have dramatic climatic consequences. The recent discovery of active methane gas venting along the landward limit of the gas hydrate stability zone (GHSZ) on the shallow continental slope (150 m to 400 m) west of Svalbard suggests that this process may already have begun, but the source of the methane has not yet been determined. This study performs 2-D simulations of hydrate dissociation in conditions representative of the Arctic Ocean margin to assess whether such hydrates could contribute to the observed gas release. The results show that shallow, low-saturation hydrate deposits, if subjected to recently observed or future predicted temperature changes at the seafloor, can release quantities of methane at magnitudes similar to what has been observed, and that the releases will be localized near the landward limit of the GHSZ. Both gradual and rapid warming is simulated, along with a parametric sensitivity analysis, and localized gas release is observed for most of the cases. These results resemble the recently published observations and strongly suggest that hydrate dissociation and methane release as a result of climate change may be a real phenomenon, that it could occur on decadal timescales, and that it already may be occurring.

Dam ideas

Why damn northern Australia? - The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

OK, so the author is from the Wilderness Society. He still goes on to fill in some of the background as to why North Queensland (and the Ord River project) is not the new agricultural nirvana that one might hope.

I had been wondering what happened to the Ord River dam - I had a vague idea that it had never lived up to its promise. It is a long way from anywhere, but it would appear there are other problems too.

Thoughts on watching 7.30 last night

Photo 21-09-11 7 45 19 AM

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let play pretends

Burning Man: Why would anyone go? - By Seth Stevenson - Slate Magazine

I do find this event hard to fathom, but I think someone in comments comes close:

I love how today's version of "Hippies" are upper-middle-class white people with plenty of money to take some time off from work, pay hundreds of dollars to get to/in an event where they can pretend they're "Counter-Culture" for a weekend.

Appalling stuff

More Cherry Ice from Joe D’Aleo | Open Mind

Read this, and the earlier post it links to at the beginning, to see the appalling examples of dishonest misinformation that get posted at Watts Up With That as part of climate change "skepticism".

Monday, September 19, 2011

A strange case of celebrity

gulfnews : Yemeni enjoys drinking motor oil and radiator water:

Riyadh: A Yemeni resident of Makkah who is employed at a vehicle maintenance workshop has been stunning viewers by drinking engine oil, radiator and battery water.

The Saudi Akaz newspaper said on Thursday that the Yemeni, Mohammad Omar, nicknamed "Bin Omar", drinks two to four cans of all motor oil daily.

He told the newspaper that "I enjoy drinking radiator, battery and brake water, and eat daily 2.5kg of grease used for cars. I have been doing that for quite a long time".

Omar added that he has been doing that as he spends 900 Saudi Rials per month to buy oil, grease and their derivatives as meals. "Praise Allah, my health is good", he said.

Uh huh.

Malaysian solution not the end of the world

Toxic Policy Helps No One | Asylum Seekers

It's interesting to note that in this article in which onshore compulsory detention for processing asylum seekers is strongly criticised, the writer still ends on this note:

That said, it is also prudent for Australia to pursue a regional agreement to handle the huge flow of refugees from strife-torn nations such as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Burma and Sri Lanka. No single country can cope with this massive movement of people - not Australia, not Malaysia, Thailand or India.

On paper at least, the deal with Malaysia, which also provides for community-based processing, appears to be a balanced alternative to Nauru and Manus Island, where people would be detained in cultural and geographic isolation while their claims were assessed.

As I have noted before, the local UNHRC was also not appalled at the Malaysian idea, and Coalition supporters who have been acting as if it was the worst idea in the world have been ignoring the psychological suffering of the Nauru system which had originally led those who voted for Rudd to have some sympathy towards relaxing the whole system.

My belief is that voters don't know what they want for the asylum seeker issue. This is reflected in the polls which have actually indicated a majority support on shore processing, yet a large number also think the Coalition does a better job on the issue than Labor. This contradiction makes no sense at all, if you ask me. If the explanation is that people hate asylum seekers arriving by boat, and expect a government to stop that, how do they reconcile that with support for on shore processing which is surely going to do nothing to discourage boats from arriving?

I feel sorry for the Labor government trying to work out how to keep the very confused public happy on this issue.

More complicated that you thought?

We need to talk about HPV vaccination – seriously - opinion - 16 September 2011 - New Scientist

It's a bit surprising to see New Scientist running an opinion piece that questions whether the grounds for universal vaccination of girls with the HPV vaccine are really well enough established.

A possible explanation

Deep oceans can mask global warming for decade-long periods

Here's a good, succinct report on modelling that indicates the deep oceans indeed may be absorbing the "missing heat" that Trenberth wrote about famously in his "Climategate" email.

To track where the heat was going, Meehl and colleagues used a powerful software tool known as the Community Climate System Model, which was developed by scientists at NCAR and the Department of Energy with colleagues at other organizations. Using the model's ability to portray complex interactions between the atmosphere, land, oceans, and sea ice, they performed five simulations of global temperatures.

The simulations, which were based on projections of future greenhouse gas emissions from human activities, indicated that temperatures would rise by several degrees during this century. But each simulation also showed periods in which temperatures would stabilize for about a decade before climbing again. For example, one simulation showed the global average rising by about 2.5 degrees Fahrenheit (1.4 degrees Celsius) between 2000 and 2100, but with two decade-long hiatus periods during the century.

During these hiatus periods, simulations showed that extra energy entered the oceans, with deeper layers absorbing a disproportionate amount of heat due to changes in oceanic circulation. The vast area of ocean below about 1,000 feet (300 meters) warmed by 18% to 19% more during hiatus periods than at other times. In contrast, the shallower global ocean above 1,000 feet warmed by 60% less than during non-hiatus periods in the simulation.

"This study suggests the missing energy has indeed been buried in the ocean," Trenberth says. "The heat has not disappeared, and so it cannot be ignored. It must have consequences."

I wonder if work is being done on measurements to confirm it?

The future of food guesswork

Increasing Focus on Climate Change/Food Crisis:Beware ‘Single Factor’ Explanations, Uncertainties | The Yale Forum on Climate Change & The Media

I just note this article from earlier this year that details a lot of the uncertainty that revolves around the issue of future food production under global warming and increased CO2.

I would suspect that, since the last IPCC report, there would have to be greater concern developing about the future effect of extreme weather events on local and global production.

A bit of a worry...

A first glimpse at model results for the next IPCC assessment | Serendipity

Quite an interesting post here about some modelling runs which show the importance at looking at the long term future (not just up to the end of the century.)

Notes from all over–Spring edition

Because those making $1,000,000 a year are hurting.   How silly are Republicans who chose to call Obama’s proposal that tax be increased for the rich “class warfare”?     Very stupid, in my books; but then again, what do I expect from a party that is being held captive on what it can say about climate change by the Tea Party element?  

Jerry Pournelle has looked at the new NASA heavy lift vehicle proposal and is not impressed.   I don’t trust his skeptic assessment of climate change, but he knows a lot about rocketry and its developmental history, and his criticisms here are worth considering.

*  Americans not only have an un-natural degree of embarrassment over the sight of a used clothesline, they are not big on washing clothes in cold water either.  (But then, nor are Germans, according to the article.)   I would be very surprised if the majority of Australian washing is not done in cold water now.  The report says the Japanese mainly use cold water; why is there resistance to the idea in the US?

*  Good news for the PM?   At least one Labor idea, a mining tax, is quite popular according to a survey.   This is not the first survey to show this.   Doesn’t this mean that the Coalition promise to undo everything Labor implements might not get quite the universal acclaim that they expect it to during an actual election campaign, despite the fact that people are at the moment  in such an irrational  “anything but Gillard” mood  that they couldn’t care less what Tony Abbott is saying?

*  The New Yorker has a somewhat amusing article on sexual revolutions of the past.  I liked the bit about the “celestial bed” (top of page 2) in particular, because I hadn’t heard of it before.   It might have been a bit disturbing for the neighbours, I expect.

*  The possum under the balcony is getting and more used to us.  We feed it fruit most days now: 


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fish success

Last year, I posted a Mediterranean baked fish recipe which had been a success. For whatever reason, I haven't ever cooked that again, but last night I tried another Italian type of baked fish recipe by Neil Perry, which was in last weekend's Sydney Morning Herald. It too was a success, so I'll paraphrase it here:

Thinly slice a fennel bulb, a red onion, and a red (or as I used, yellow) capsicum. Skin, seed and dice four tomatoes and chop up a bit. Put in a flat type of casserole and mix most of 60 ml of olive oil. Add 6 anchovies, as many capers as you like (washed), and olives, and mix up with the veges. The recipe called for chilli flakes too, but as the kids were eating it, I left them out. Season liberally with sale and pepper.

Roast in 200 degree oven (uncovered, but you might have to stir around a bit half way through if your oven has hot spots) for one hour.

Put white fish fillets in a single layer (hence the flat casserole pan) into the sauce, put the rest of the olive oil over the fish, and back to the oven for maybe 15 minutes.

The roasted veges make an excellent sauce, and even the kids were happy to eat it (although I didn't serve them the olives.)

Thank you Neil: very nice.

(But then, I love fennel in anything.)

Friday, September 16, 2011

What 2 degrees means

It's a favourite line of some climate change skeptics that, if the world has already warmed up .8 degree over the 20th century, and the effects haven't been so bad, would we even notice an average warming of 2 degrees in future.

The argument is, I would have thought, obviously flawed for many reasons, not the least of which being that what climate scientists are actually saying is "hey, you'd better start working freaking hard even to have half a hope of keeping it to 2 degrees." The stupidest version of the skeptic argument says "well, so what if a previous hot day of 35 degrees becomes one of 36.5 degree?" You can point people to this well know bell curve:

but it doesn't seem to register that what is means hotter seasons, not just individual days.

So, they should read about research like this, indicating that what we currently consider an extreme summer will, in large parts of the world, become extremely common:

Researchers from Stanford University recently set out to learn at what point exceptionally hot summers will to become more commonplace around the world. Climate scientist Noah Diffenbaugh has studied how the warming to date has influenced the weather patterns that lead to unusually hot seasons. Projecting forward over the next few decades, he says the combination of warmer temperatures and changing weather patterns mean that the extremes will be changing quickly.

"According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years," Diffenbaugh said when his study was published earlier this summer in the journal Climatic Change Letters.

Scientists say the trend towards more hot extremes has already begun. In the U.S., for example, record breaking hot days have already become more common than they once were. According to climate scientist Jerry Meehl, recording breaking hot days used to be as common as cold ones. But in 2000, there were twice as many warm temperature records as cold records in the U.S., and he says that in 2011, so far there have been three times as many.
Go on, skeptics, keep reading. I know it's difficult to get you to think outside your ideological comfort zone, but do try. Here's the paper's abstract:

Given current international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit human-induced global-mean near-surface temperature increases to 2°C, relative to the pre-industrial era, we seek to determine the impact such a temperature increase might have upon the frequency of seasonal-mean temperature extremes; further we seek to determine what global-mean temperature increase would prevent extreme temperature values from becoming the norm. Results indicate that given a 2°C global mean temperature increase it is expected that for 70–80% of the land surface maximum seasonal-mean temperatures will exceed historical extremes (as determined from the 95th percentile threshold value over the second half of the 20th Century) in at least half of all years, i.e. the current historical extreme values will effectively become the norm. Many regions of the globe—including much of Africa, the southeastern and central portions of Asia, Indonesia, and the Amazon—will reach this point given the “committed” future global-mean temperature increase of 0.6°C (1.4°C relative to the pre-industrial era) and 50% of the land surface will reach it given a future global-mean temperature increase of between 0.8 and 0.95°C (1.6–1.75°C relative to the pre-industrial era). These results suggest substantial fractions of the globe could experience seasonal-mean temperature extremes with high regularity, even if the global-mean temperature increase remains below the 2°C target.
Given what happens as a result of extremely hot summers in Australia (bushfires, water shortages) it's also obvious that it's not just extreme temperatures that are the issue.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Another Texan who believes in AGW

How to talk to a climate sceptic | Environment |

I found this a few weeks ago but forgot to post it: a good interview with Katharine Hayhoe, another Texan climate scientist who is firmly on the AGW mainstream science camp, and who goes out of her way to convince the notoriously skeptic evangelical Christian demographic that it is a real problem.

Some extracts:

The third thing I like to tell people is that we do have projections about what the average conditions will be in the future, and so what we can say is that this summer is a picture of what it would be like every summer if we made certain choices regarding our energy sources, and if we reach certain levels of climate change. So for example this summer we've already had 43 days over 100 degrees in Lubbock, which is higher than normal. And if you look in the future this summer is what we'd expect the average summer to be like by the end of the century under lower emissions or by the middle of the century under higher emissions. So we're complaining about this summer, but this could be the average summer within our lifetimes if we continue to depend on fossil fuels.... the southern Great Plains, we are a semiarid environment and we are very water-short already. West Texas is a huge agricultural area and it lies over the Ogallala Aquifer. Since irrigation began in the 1960s, the Ogallala Aquifer has shrunk by over 150 feet in many locations.

Estimates of how many years of water we have left in the aquifer, which has been there since the last ice age, say that as much as two-thirds of the aquifer could be unusable within 30 years. So then you overlay climate change on that existing problem, and you find that with higher temperatures you obviously need more water to provide plants with the same amount of irrigation because evaporation is a factor. We also find that precipitation patterns are becoming more unpredictable, we're getting more heavy downpours and more dry periods in between, which reduces aquifer recharge, because when you get heavy downpours it runs off into the surface water and then obviously you're not getting any recharge. So climate change is exacerbating the problem we have, and it's the same across most of the Southwest, which is very water-short.

She says about 65% of the evangelicals she talks to (I think she is of that brand of Christianity herself) do not believe climate change is real. She has her work cut out.

3-D burn out

Four theories on the death of 3-D. - By Daniel Engber - Slate Magazine

So, the return on the 3-D version of movies has really tanked. It seems, even for a good movie, people are just going along to see the 2-D version.

It doesn't surprise me. It needs to be used much more sparingly.

An over-interpreted study

Testosterone and fatherhood: Are men designed to nurture children? - By William Saletan - Slate Magazine

William Saletan does an excellent job at looking at the ways the "fatherhood lowers testosterone" story has been way, way, over-interpreted by just about everyone.

An important argument in Texas

There is an important argument going on between two resident Texans John Nielsen-Gammon and Michael Tobis at the moment over climate change and "weather weirding" and attribution of events to climate change.

In short, John N-G did a long post in which he argued that the remarkably severe Texas drought and hot summer are (if I can risk paraphrase) not primarily due to climate change. He is no disbeliever in AGW by any means, but he is very, very cautious when it comes to attribution of single events to it.

Tobis, on the other hand, has issues with the whole approach to attribution which can be summarised by his last sentence:

You can't apply small-signal arguments to large signals in nonlinear systems. So please stop it.
And someone in comments expands on this in a way which Tobis basically agrees with:

As Jay Forrester and Ed Deming kept reminding us, people are not good at predicting the behavior of non-linear feed back systems. In particular weathermen and climate scientists study the one weather system, rather than the behavior of dynamic systems in general.

In his classes, Dr. Deming made his students look at the behavior of various systems as the systems went “out of control.” It was shocking how a dynamic system could be “in control” and apparently stable, then suffer some small chaotic event, “go out of control”, and exhibit violent behavior as the system moved toward an new equilibrium. We have been adding heat to the weather system, bumped it out-of -ontrol, and we can expect weather that we have never see before as the system seeks a new equilibrium.

John Nielsen-Gammon missed the point that he has a system that is out of control and that his system is violently seeking a new equilibrium. We can expect ongoing violent behavior until the weather system comes back into control. The studies that he cites all assume that the system is "in control" and that the old rules hold. However, those old rules do not apply to the new, “out-of-control” weather system.
This commenter goes on to point that climate models should be expected to not be good at predicting this.

Tobis' point seems to me to make sense, but I guess we may have to wait for another few years of "weather weirding" to see how it pans out.

UPDATE: Nielsen-Gammon makes a further point in clarification in comments:

We're a degree F warmer because of anthropogenic greenhouse gases. The standard deviation around the best-fit curve seems to be about a degree F. So an event which would have been close to the best-fit curve is one standard deviation off it. Given the lack of rainfall, a temperature which would have been expected to be attained about 16% of the time is now expected to be attained about 50% of the time.

So, this event (i.e., this particular combination of drought and heat) has been made three times as likely by anthropogenic greenhouse gases, with lots of assumptions built in. The least of which is what global warming is doing to our local PDF of precipitation in Texas, which could go either way.

Change the narrative

From a short review in New Scientist:

Do you think that airing your feelings right away will help you through trauma? Are you persuaded that bringing kids to prisons will scare them straight? Convinced that costly, intensive long-term interventions are needed to close the achievement gap in education, curb alcohol abuse and reduce teen pregnancies?

Think again, says psychologist Timothy Wilson. At the heart of his book Redirect: The surprising new science of psychological change is the conviction that many favoured approaches to changing behaviour are akin to "bloodletting" and may do more harm than good. Armed with the tools of experimental social psychology, he argues we can move beyond these untested, "common-sense" views and begin to make some real progress.

Central to Wilson's perspective is the idea that our interpretations of the world are rooted in largely unconscious "narratives" - stories we use to frame the world and that shape our sense of identity - and that these too often leave us unhealthy and unhappy. The good news, he says, is that there is a way to redirect these interpretations "that is quick, does not require one-on-one sessions, and can address a wide array of personal and social problems". Wilson calls this new way "story editing", and in his view it carries enormous potential for efficiently producing lasting positive change.

It sounds like an expansion of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, but this guy's idea sounds pretty much like what I have thought about on and off over the last few decades.

The "largely unconscious narrative" that you would have suspect causes problems is scientific materialism and its potential to discount free will as being "real" in any objective sense, as well as painting all emotion and thoughts as essentially mere molecular activity with no inherent meaning or purpose.

Of course, there are different ways of arguing that such ideas are not necessarily a consequence of scientific materialism, and biology is such that there is enough pleasure in life for nearly all people that they don't want to end it all because of an intellectual interpretation of what life is like, at heart. But I have long wondered whether people act unconsciously on a internal narrative that, when they get down to it, they are only diverting themselves from reality, do not even have a fundamental control over their own thought processes, and there is no reason for long term optimism.

This theme was also dealt with at length in Bryan Appleyard's book Understanding the Present, which I liked a lot, except for its proposed solution that we embrace Wittgenstein.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

An old story

Surgeons use toe to replace lost thumb - Health News, Health & Families - The Independent

For some reason, I remember the same operation being done decades ago after reading about it in the Courier Mail. I suspect I may been in high school at the time.

As you were.

Melancholic kid's song

Last night I had to put up with another primary school kid's concert. The novelty of these wears off sharply after each kid has done their first two or three, and in all honesty, some teachers really struggle to come up with good ideas.

When I were a lad, it was simply a matter of each class learning off a couple of songs by heart (at least one of them probably of Irish origin,) standing on a couple of precipitously stacked long benches, and belting them out to the piano accompaniment of Sister Lawrence. (Actually, it may have been a different nun, but Sister Lawrence sticks strongly in memory due to her general reign of terror over Grade 1 and 2. Have I mentioned before that it was one of the most depressing days of my educational life to find on the first day of Grade 2 that I had her again for another year?)

But the point is - I am sure this was a relatively painless experience for the parents, and it was probably over with much quicker than what primary schools get away with now. Primary school teachers be aware: 6 year olds do not do choreography well. You don't do choreography well. Give it up - get them to sing some 2 songs while stationary and get off the stage.

And as for other content - look, even a climate change worrier like me gets sick of every year having one or two classes do some sketch or something or other related to recycling, being kind to the planet, etc. Do something cheerful.

Anyway - where was I? Oh yes: one thing one class did last night was to the Unicorn song (Irish Rovers, 1968.) I hadn't heard it for years, but you would have to call it a bit of melancholy Irish folk for kids. And this got me thinking of other melancholic kid's songs from my childhood, and how the genre seems to have gone away.

Surely the biggest of them all in the genre was Puff the Magic Dragon, which I see was by Peter Paul and Mary from 1963. Being Australian, I associate more it with The Seekers, the group for which every song strikes me as melancholic.

There was another sad sounding kids song that I thought about this morning, but it escapes me now.

In any event, how come we have environmental concern now at least as great as that in the 1960's, but we don't have a sad sounding kid's song about it? Maybe it's just that folk doesn't have the airplay that it used to have in that decade? I mean, it may be unfair, but I suppose I do usually associate "folk" with serious or depressing situations. (It's a bit like the image of Country & Western, I suppose, but my impression is that it is more "pop-y" in both sound and topic now.)

So get to it, songwriters. Some good, depressing songs about carbon dioxide, the rising sea levels covering the old holiday home on the beach, grandma being taken to hospital due to heat exhaustion; politicians too stupid to do anything: there's plenty of material. But I still don't want to hear it at a school concert.

A confusing matter, and a Dr Who complaint

When do gay kids start "acting gay"? - By Brian Palmer - Slate Magazine

Prompted by news of a lawsuit in America to do with anti-gay bullying in a school, Brian Palmer looks at the somewhat interesting question of whether a young child acting outside of "traditional gender roles" is an indication of future sexual identity. In brief:

A hefty pile of research shows that boys as young as 3 years old who break from traditional gender roles have a high likelihood of becoming gay adults. Predictive behaviors include playing with Barbie dolls, shying away from roughhousing, and taking an interest in makeup and women's clothing. (Read the Explainer's take on why boys prefer to play with sticks while girls go for dolls here.) The relationship isn't one-to-one, however, and it's certainly not the case that all boys who love Barbie dolls will later identify as gay. The correlation is much weaker in the other direction: A disproportionate number of boys who don't conform to gender stereotypes turn out to be gay men, but lots of gay men played with G.I. Joe as boys and quarterbacked the high-school football team. Neither does the relationship appear to be as strong among girls. Tomboys aren't as likely to become lesbian adults.
Psychiatrist Richard Green conducted the leading study in this field in the 1970s and '80s. He followed 44 boys who defied traditional gender roles from early childhood to adulthood. Thirty of them became gay or bisexual adults while just one child from a 34-member gender-conforming control group turned out to be gay. The subjects who strayed the most from conventionally boyish behavior were the most likely to be gay. Green's study has since been repeated by other researchers with similar outcomes. (Studies on females show that only around one-quarter of gender nonconforming girls grow up to be lesbians.)

The complicated thing about this is that acting outside of normal gender roles is also commonly seen as a sign of future gender identity issues. Why is it that some boys with this apparent inborn inclination to feminine interests will go on to develop a deep unhappiness with their own body to such an extent that they feel they can't be happy unless they hormonally/surgically modify it, and others will go to be "merely" homosexual, with varying degrees of feminine behaviour as part of that?

Of course, lots of people have written extensively about sexual identity and gender issues, but I am not inclined to waste a huge amount of time on reading about it; I just note that it is a matter that I think is obviously complicated, and far from properly understood.

I think I noted recently here that Native Americans (supposedly) saw cross-gender behaviour in kids as a sign they were a special, virtually holy, "two spirits" combining both male and female spirits. According to this article:

Every tribe watched their young carefully to determine if one of their children were two-spirits. If a boy leaned towards female clothes and mannerism, the tribe encouraged his explorations and vice versa for females.
Given the political use to which such anthropology can be put in the gay marriage debate, there is reason to be a bit suspicious about over-statements on this, and indeed, here's a site that claims reverence of "two spirits" was by no means a universal practice:

According to researcher Will Roscoe, former coordinator of the Gay American Indians History Project, there is no single belief about Two-Spirits among the more than 800 tribes in the United States and Alaska, about 200 of which are not federally recognized. Two-spirits may be respected within one tribe and ostracized in another, while the topic of sexuality could be ignored altogether in yet another tribe.
As I said, human behaviour and psychology in this field is very complicated.

It certainly also makes it a bit of a challenge wondering how one should explain "gay" issues to children. I have not yet had to discuss the "gay" question with my own kids, despite the best efforts of Dr Who to continually bring up gay issues again and again. Surely I can't be the only father in the world who finds this annoying. Even after the departure of the gay re-inventor of the show, Russell Davies, who you could clearly see was inserting a subtext of all types of pan sexual behaviour as being cool and normal, the new producer Steven Moffat, who is not gay, is openly going out of his way to keep introducing gay characters. Here's what he said in an interview:

But also someone pointed out to me [that] in the previous Doctor Who, the first one I had run, there were no gay or bisexual characters and I was sort of slightly appalled. I was thinking, I’m not like that at all. I would never have done that. So I was thinking, “Dammit, it’s the one criticism I’ve ever listened to. Good point, Doctor Who should always be…" It’s not because it’s politically and morally correct. It’s right for Doctor Who, isn’t it? It’s cheeky and off-centered. And fun.
Yeah, well, thanks a lot Steve. You've made it into a psyops program aimed at educating kids on sexuality. Yep, that's why we watch Doctor Who, which is, after all, still primarily a kid's science fiction program, just that it is well enough acted with good enough production values that adults watch it too. And, by the way, although I like the cast quite a lot, its stories are not as good as they were a few years ago, before the Davies decline. In fact, it's nearly time to give it a rest again, I think, after this season.

Anyway, back to kids and the "gay" explanation. I spoke to another father who said he simply answered the question "what's a lesbian" by saying it was a woman who loved a woman. Easy peasy. Maybe that is suitable for an 8 year old, but honestly, explaining homosexuality purely in terms of "love" isn't being realistic with a slightly older kid who has something of an understanding about heterosexual sex.

Part of the problem, as I say, is that it's not clear that adults understand it at all properly from a biological, psychological or cultural point of view either. So I don't care what others may say - it's a tricky issue to explain to a child/young teenager.

More calls for realism

Bishop of Derry calls for end to celibacy in Catholic church | UK news | The Guardian

I liked the last paragraph:

The reordination into the Catholic church of married Anglican priests has pointed up the fact that priestly celibacy is not a doctrine, but a discipline. In 1970, the decline in priesthood vocations persuaded nine leading theologians to sign a memorandum declaring that the Catholic leadership "quite simply has a responsibility to take up certain modifications" to the celibacy rule. Extracts from the document were reprinted in January. Not least because one of the signatories was the then Joseph Ratzinger, now pope Benedict.

Debriefing debriefed

Escaping from the past of disaster psychology � Mind Hacks

Here's a fascinating article about how trauma counselling by group debriefing gradually recognized as probably doing more harm than good.

Interestingly, it points out that you couldn't even tell that by asking the victims who had received it:

In one study, 80% of patients said the intervention was “useful” despite having more symptoms of mental illness in the long-term compared to disaster victims who had no treatment. In another, more than half said ‘debriefing’ was “definitely useful” despite having twice the rate of postraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a year.

Debriefing involves lots of psychological ‘techniques’, so the psychologists felt they were using their best tools, while the lack of outside perspective meant it was easy to mistake instant feedback and regression to the mean for actual benefit.

This sounds a little counter-intuitive, but as the article notes, that the only way to reliably tell its effects is by comparing the future progress of groups who receive it to those who don't.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

The Brisbane Space Pants Foundation

Free Shuttle Artifacts! | Space Exploration | Air & Space Magazine

From the article:
Currently up for grabs on a government website: a pair of astronaut pants, a spacewalker’s life-support backpack, a spacesuit glove, and thousands of black insulating tiles from the bellies of the space shuttle orbiters.

Now that the shuttle has retired after 30 years, NASA is having the equivalent of a massive going-out-of-business sale.

While most of the media attention last spring focused on where the vehicles themselves would go on display (Washington, Los Angeles, Florida's Kennedy Space Center and New York) thousands of lesser pieces of shuttle history are still looking for permanent homes. With help from the General Services Administration, NASA is giving away everything from spare main engines to sunglasses worn by the astronauts.
Sounds great. The only catch is in the next sentence:
The artifacts will go to museums, universities, elementary schools, libraries and planetariums all over the country to become part of their permanent collections.
Since there's another Brisbane in California, I think the best I can do is set up the Brisbane Space Pants Foundation, and see if I can score a free set of astronaut pants. Straight to the pool room, they would go. (If I had a pool room.)

I wonder if they have a set of the Japanese space underpants that were worn for 2 months straight? I probably wouldn't even have to pay for postage: give them the address, and they could probably walk their way to Australia.

Hormones are strange

In Study, Fatherhood Leads to Drop in Testosterone -

The report notes:

Testosterone, that most male of hormones, takes a dive after a man becomes a parent. And the more he gets involved in caring for his children — changing diapers, jiggling the boy or girl on his knee, reading “Goodnight Moon” for the umpteenth time — the lower his testosterone drops.

So says the first large study measuring testosterone in men when they were single and childless and several years after they had children. Experts say the research has implications for understanding the biology of fatherhood, hormone roles in men and even health issues like prostate cancer.

Given that other studies have indicated testosterone can bounce around for all types of reasons, including whether your political party has just lost an election, or if (you are soccer goalkeeper), depending on if you are playing away or at home, I don't know that it is really that surprising.

Testosterone is a bit strange.

Good catches

It was interesting to note from last week's Economist that the TSA, the much maligned security service* in the US that is responsible for airport screening, has a "Good Catch" site up which makes occasional report of all the unusual and potentially dangerous things they have stopped getting on board flights. The TSA blog article about the site contains some of the comments you might expect against the TSA.

This is an entertaining idea for a website. The posts are coming in much too infrequently, though.

* usually by right wing libertarian types with psychological problems about their "junk" being vaguely seen by some bored screen watcher in another room, or brushed against during a pat down

McDonalds in the spotlight

Employment: Defending jobs | The Economist

According to the chart at the link, McDonald's is the world's 4th largest employer (following the US Dept of Defence, China's army, and Walmart. There must be a lot of Walmarts in America.)

On the weekend, I went to McDonalds and had their "birthday special" of the return of the McFeast and Shaker Fries. I actually don't recall shaker fries, but the disappearance of the McFeast two or three years ago has been a matter of deep regret. Its replacement, the "Angus" burgers, often feel a bit too heavy for lunch for me. The McFeast is their "just right" burger.

I seem that someone else in the blogosphere has done a detailed culinary review of the return of the McFeast, and gives it a big "fail". But then, he starts with an admission that he never liked it in the first place, as he doesn't like tomato on a burger (?) The bad review also notes that "the salad was too cold" and with the shaker fries " the shaking was embarrassingly loud." U-huh.

I see from his blog that he is from England (culinary heartland of the universe - ha) and has an entry about a Dr Who birthday cake that starts with what I hope is a joke, but I'm not sure:
I love Doctor Who…my lounge room is full of Doctor Who paraphernalia and my wedding cake had two Daleks on the top.
His taste in anything is, I'm afraid, not to be trusted...

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Adventures in dioramas

Diaorama 2

You wouldn’t believe how long this diorama took to put together.  My son showed great talent in painting the tiny mining figures we found by good luck at a hobby shop, and he’s pretty good at construction with matchsticks and a hot glue gun too.   The trees are made from green scouring pads which are pulled apart and stuck onto a twig with appropriate “branches” (something I learnt from the internet.)

Yes, it took me half a century to learn how to make a diorama to primary school level.   (I don’t recall ever doing one at school.  It was all project posters with lots of words and illustrations in my day:  these seem to not be popular now.)

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Great moments in Japanese politics

Radiation gag backfires on trade minister | The Japan Times Online

Trade minister Yoshio Hachiro crossed swords with the media Thursday by attempting to rub his body against a journalist after touring the stricken Fukushima power plant, sources said Friday.

"I'll give you radiation," he reportedly said to the journalist.

Dear Gillian

Change agent | Gillian Anderson

She's not looking bad, the older Agent Scully. (I bet she hates that. Mind you, I always get the impression from interviews that would be a bit intimidating to meet.)

Analysing people analysing Julia

As my regular reader Jason has an intense and somewhat irrational hatred of both Julia Gillard and Richard Glover, I'm sure he's happy to note this morning's column by Glover which starts "Can someone explain to me why people hate Julia Gillard with such intensity?"

I basically agree with all of it.

Elsewhere, I note that reaction to At Home With Julia has varied widely. It is, let's face it, a silly show that does not attempt to paint a realistic picture (someone somewhere said it's a bit like a human version of the old Rubbery Figures puppet show, extended out for 30 minutes, and I think that's about right.) But still, as I wrote before, as I was very pleased to be hearing some really good politician impersonations again, and found it pleasingly not mean spirited, I liked it.

Yet some on the Left thought it was awful: Mike Carlton hated it (and, I see from the same article, he's another Lefty who has joined the "Julia will go, and Rudd replace her" school of unreality. Why Kevin would be forgiven for the carbon tax, but not Julia, is a bit of mystery to me.)

The most over the top condemnation for the show came from Larvatus Prodeo, where it interpreted purely on feminist principles. Apparently, showing a male partner as feeling left out, ignored, or tormented by teenage boys for being a househusband means you are showing him as emasculated, and that just is so offensive. Yeah, whatever. As much as I can't stand where much of the Right is at the moment, I do not find myself being at all attracted to the dour feminism and sociological waffle of the prominent females at LP. (I like it when Anne Winter does a withering takedown of CL or someone else at Catallaxy occasionally, but I'm not unrealistic enough to think she doesn't hold me in low regard too.)

Oddly, on the Right, I heard Andrew Bolt on his radio spot say that he liked the show more than he expected, and in a way it made him more sympathetic to Gillard. Yet it seems as if he might be gearing up to criticise the ABC on his show tomorrow for trying to help Gillard this way. Again, whatever.

Anyway, it certainly is a show that has received a diverse reception.

UPDATE: I see Annabel Crabb confirms what I have said about Kevin Rudd for a long time. (Maybe I got the idea from her in the first place, I can't quite recall now.)

There's a fascinating, almost mathematical equation going on here.

With Julia Gillard, the probability that any given person will support the Prime Minister decreases with distance from the subject; she is supported by a majority of Cabinet and Caucus colleagues and viewed benignly in the public service, but despised by voters who have never met her.

Mr Rudd's equation is precisely the inverse; the warm support he continues to enjoy in the populace at large tails away sharply, the closer you get to the 2600 postcode. Outside Parliament House, voters might wonder why they can't bring that nice Kevin fellow back again. Inside it, people talk vigorously about chewing their own arms off before doing anything to hasten such a return....

I don't think I'll ever forget the conversation I had with one backbencher a few months after Rudd's overthrow. "I agree with Kevin on just about every policy inclination he has," the backbencher said. "In fact, there probably isn't another person in the party with whom I am more in line." There was a pause, and then the backbencher added, calmly and without even the mildest hint of melodrama: "It's just that I hate him so very much."

Friday, September 09, 2011

Warming water problem

Warming seas could smother seafood - New Scientist

All a bit of a worry:
More than half of a group of fish crucial for the marine food web might die if, as predicted, global warming reduces the amount of oxygen dissolved in some critical areas of the ocean – including some of our richest fisheries.

The prediction is based on a unique set of records that goes back to 1951. California has regularly surveyed its marine plankton and baby fish to support the sardine fishery. "There is almost no other dataset going back so far that includes every kind of fish," says Tony Koslow of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California, who heads the survey. The survey records also include information on water temperature, salinity and the dissolved oxygen content.

Koslow's team studied records of 86 fish species found consistently in the samples and discovered that the abundance of 27 of them correlated strongly with the amount of oxygen 200 to 400 metres down: a 20 per cent drop in oxygen meant a 63 per cent drop in the fish. There have been several episodes of low oxygen during the period in question, mainly in the 1950s and since 1984.

Global climate models predict that 20 to 40 per cent of the oxygen at these depths will disappear over the next century due to warming, says Koslow – mainly because these waters get oxygen by mixing with surface waters. Warmer, lighter surface waters are less likely to mix with the colder, denser waters beneath.

It's complicated...

Switching from coal to natural gas would do little for global climate, study indicates

Maybe the Greens with their distrust of going heavily into gas as a stopgap on the way to completely clean energy have a point after all. It's all very complicated and debatable though, I'm sure.

Bee will

Backreaction: Predetermined Lunch and Moral Responsibility

Physicist Bee has been thinking and writing about free will. It's a long post that I have read yet, but I am sure it will be worthwhile. I'll get back to it later.

Fake meat not so palatable

I'm reminded via another blog that lab grown meat has been in the news lately, with an upbeat (more of a beat up, actually, as you will see) article in the SMH with an absurdly misleading headline "how synthetic sausages could be on our plates in six months time."

Err, no.

The report notes the work in the Netherlands that is hoping to make enough lab grown cells to make a hamburger in 6 months time.

People who want to know more about their work should read this interview from the Science Show earlier this year:

Joel Werner: So how long will it take you to produce the mince for a hamburger? I mean, you're talking about small muscle strips, but the hamburger patties I like to eat anyway are relatively large.

Mark Post: Right, so that requires making about 3,000 of these small pieces, and of course that takes time, so we estimate that it will take a year to make that first hamburger, and it will also cost 300,000 euros.....

Joel Werner: So what are the stumbling blocks to reaching that future?

Mark Post: Well, there are a couple of scientific issues, technological issues. One is to get the protein content higher than it is right now, it's now about 70%, and it needs to go up to 90%, 95%. Then there is of course eventually the scaling up of the whole process and quality control, because you don't want these cells to go into a cancer mode or anything like that, so you need to quality control it. And finally we need people to accept the concept....

Mark Post: For many of them it would. We actually spoke to the chairperson of the Vegetarian Society here in the Netherlands and she said, 'I wouldn't eat it because it still requires animal cells, but I'm sure that more than 50% of my constituents will start eating meat.' We still need donor animals to get the adult stem cells. We need a supply of donor animals, but we figure that a factor of 1 million less than we are using right now, and we may be able to improve that even more.
So, let's get this straight: at the moment, they have small pieces of pale, not high in protein, strips of cells that don't taste like meat. (Towards the end of the interview, they mentioned that someone did taste a bit.)

Also, as you still need the stem cells to grow it, vegetarians are still capable of objecting to it.

The other point to note is that, according to another Science Show interview on the topic, you are not likely to have any lab grown meat that resembles a steak any time soon:

....they never tell you when you're a kid that meat is muscle, and if you take a piece of muscle it is not just beef cells. You've got mostly the striated muscle cells, as they're called, which make up the bulk of the meat, probably 85% of it. They are called striated because if you look at the muscle cells under the microscope, each cell grows like a long fibre, like a ladder if you like or like a railway track, because across it are these very, very fine lines, like the sleepers or the rungs of a ladder. And those are the little lines that slide into each other and cause the muscle to contract. Those are the striated muscle fibres...

Robyn Williams: Are you saying that they are so complicated that you can't actually culture them?

Brian J Ford: No, you could culture those as much as you want, but all you are going to get is a culture of striated muscle and that's not meat, that is most of meat but it doesn't look like meat, it wouldn't have the texture of meat, it would be soft and slimy and mushy and slippery because those striated muscle fibre cells are held together in layers of what are called fibrocytes, fibre producing cells. And the fibrocytes produce thin...I don't know, like a cross between a piece of polythene and a piece of tissue paper. You see that kind of tissue when you take a piece of meat and lay it down on the kitchen slab, it's the surface coating of each part of the meat.

Frankly, it sounds like the future of lab grown meat is only going to be in something resembling mince, and even then it sounds like a hell of a lot of work is to be done to make it taste like beef.

It does sound to me like a ridiculously pie in the sky scheme, when you can just kill a cow instead.

One other interesting thing which I had never heard of before from that interview with Ford is this: was in 1976 in a book called Microbe Power that I said how in a few square miles of countryside one could actually produce enough microbial protein to feed the entire world. That is true, and it has almost become true because...I don't know whether quorn is particularly popular in Aussie?

Robyn Williams: It is not necessarily so.

Brian J Ford: It's a vegetable protein which is very popular in England and now very popular in the United States as well, and it's produced by taking a fungus, which was originally discovered growing on barley in a field in the midlands of England about 30 or 40 years ago, and you grow this fungus so that it produces a sort of a rubbery, chalky mass which you then texturalised to be like meat, you add flavours to it to make it taste like meat, you mince it up or chop it into little cubes so that it looks quite like meat, and it is used as a substitute for meat.

This is grown in factories, and it seems to me to be very paradoxical, this. Quorn is particularly popular amongst natural food addicts, people who are vegetarians and others love quorn.
And here I'd never heard of it before. But Googling around, and it looks like Quorn based products are indeed available in Australia.

So we apparently already have a vegetarian based "fake meat" that is apparently better tasting than soy based products, and it could easily supply the world's protein needs? If anything, Quorn sounds like a much better solution to the "feed the world" issues that lab grown meat are fancifully suggested as answering.

I'm going to go looking for Quorn when next near a health food supermarket.

Bad news for Queensland

NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center: La Nina is back

La Niña, which contributed to extreme weather around the globe during the first half of 2011, has re-emerged in the tropical Pacific Ocean and is forecast to gradually strengthen and continue into winter. Today, forecasters with NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center upgraded last month’s La Niña Watch to a La Niña Advisory.

It happens...

BBC News - Drunk Swedish elk found in apple tree near Gothenburg


Drunken elk are not an uncommon sight in Sweden during autumn, when there are plenty of apples about.

Other residents of Saro had seen the elk on the loose in the preceding days.

Mr Johansson said the elk appeared to be sick, drunk, or "half-stupid", the Associated Press reported.

Record smashed

Only In It For The Gold: Daily Rainfall Record Exceeded By 60%

Michael Tobis notes (from Weather Underground) an extraordinarily record breaking amount of rain in one hit that happened the other day in the US:

An extreme rainfall event unprecedented in recorded history has hit the Binghamton, New York area, where 7.49" fell yesterday. This is the second year in a row Binghamton has recorded a 1-in-100 year rain event; their previous all-time record was set last September, when 4.68" fell on Sep 30 - Oct. 1, 2010. Records go back to 1890 in the city.
Tobis asks:
Have we been underestimating the extent to which climate change will drive extreme events?
All further grist to the mill of my recent comments that extreme flooding events may well be the most damaging, expensive and convincing early sign that future AGW induced climate change is not something you can easily adapt to.

A helpful article

Dessler Demolishes Three Crucial 'Skeptic' Myths

People who follow the AGW science issue would all know about the fight going on at the moment between the recent Spencer & Braswell paper and its apparent rebuttal by Dessler.

I've been finding the technical arguments over this to be very hard to follow, but Skeptical Science does a pretty good job at making it more understandable and noting its general importance for what are (as SS notes) the only two recent articles by skeptical scientists that argue for a very low climate sensitivity.

It is important to read the comments too: Spencer thinks he found an important error in Dessler; it seems that the error, if it's there, is not as big as Spencer claims.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Nude in Jerusalem

I found a rather interesting review of a book at First Things about how Christians should respond to homosexuality, followed by a very long thread with lots of interesting points and arguments on the topic. (I haven't read them all.)

The article does a good summary of the common argument by more liberal Christians as to why even New Testament scriptural condemnation of same-sex behaviour can be ignored in the modern world. I'll extract it here:

Jewish antipathy toward same-sex behavior in the ancient world, according to Selmys, was based on a perception that homosexual relationships were abusive. Selmys describes Greek homosexuality as pederasty. Greeks openly praised love of boys, an older lover and a younger (preferably beardless) beloved. It was mentoring, with sexual dividends for the mentor. So when Seleucid Greeks erected a gymnasium in Jerusalem, recounted in Second Maccabees, Jews were right to be alarmed. The no-clothing policy at the gymnasium provided not only a way for the Greeks to easily identify practicing Jews by their circumcision, but also an opportunity for Greek men to ogle Jewish boys.

Homosexual behavior was also part of ancient Rome, but the Romans, being Roman, skipped the idealism and went straight for virile conquest. Homosexual behavior was tolerated, if one was the dominant participant. The passive role, a decidedly less than virile position, was filled by a slave or by a social inferior, or someone looking to move up the career ladder or someone too intimidated to snub the offer.

Christians inherited the Jewish antagonism toward same-sex behavior. “Sodomy was implicitly connected with sexual predation in the minds of the late Roman, Byzantine, and medieval Christians,” Selmys writes. “This needs to be taken into account when reading the vitriol that is poured out against ‘sodomites’ in the writings of early Christians”—St. Paul included.
The part that I thought most post-worthy was the bit about the Greek gym in Jerusalem. I have a vague recollection of reading something about that before, but it's worth looking into. [Now there's a Two Ronnies double entendre for you, Jason!]

Google quickly turned up a paper by someone from the University of Pisa that's actually called "A Gymnasium in Jerusalem", although most of it is generally about the Hellenization of Palestine. It's pretty interesting. On the gymnasium itself, it notes:

II Maccabees specified that the construction was located near the acropolis of Jerusalem. In general, a gymnasium was an outdoors complex, open to the public at large, and provided space dedicated to sports and cultural activities. A standard gymnasium included a running track, a place for gymnastics, one or more swimming pools, dressing-rooms and other minor buildings...

In ancient Greek the word gymnos (from which gymnasium is derived) means naked, and every participant competed naked. Thucydides, who wrote in the 5th century BC, stated that in Asia this was not the rule, but he referred to an earlier period (8th century BC) and affirmed that barbarians could hardly be expected to follow such Greek customs. However, it is most likely that, following Alexander the Great and his conquests, the situation could have changed.

Most of the young competitors belonged to an association known as the ephebia. This organization included young males between 18 and 20 years (ephebes), who were trained in the use of weapons and prepared for public life. The ephebes were young citizens skilled in war who wore short hair, a little cloak and a petasus, a sort of large hat in order to protect them from the sun. The gymnasium thus served as a training ground for them. But it also had another role: it was considered the defining institution of Greek urban civilization, serving as the ideological and cultural centre of the city.

The gymnasium was the focus for social activities and provided education in writing, literature, and rhetoric. Therefore, the introduction of the gymnasium represented a set of wholly new values for the Jews.

....The gymnasium provoked opposition in Jerusalem because it featured naked competitors. Although the sources do not mention this directly, the various references to circumcision, especially in II Maccabees, may be read as indirect proof. According to Jewish tradition nakedness was looked upon as offensive. This attitude not only reflected moral beliefs. It also highlights the importance that the Jews attached to clothing and specific kinds of dress. Within the Jewish cultural tradition clothing took on specific roles and functions, including its ability to distinguish various categories of persons: the rich from the poor, the religious from the laity, leaders from their supporters. It seems the nakedness of the gymnasium represented a sort of equality in a society that was structured in a strongly hierarchical way. Moreover, Jewish males had serious problems with nakedness because of their circumcision. The Greeks regarded circumcision as an insane and shameful mutilation of the human body. For that reason, Jewish people suffered from their awareness of this physical difference, which sometimes led to mockery by others.
Someone at a Mormon site notes:
The Greeks did their athletics in the nude. The gym in Jerusalem could actually be seen from the temple and the site of men wrestling in the nude was very offensive.
The University of Pisa article I cited at length goes on to note:
The Jews who willingly took part in Greek culture used various strategies to hide their circumcision. The main method was a sort of operation (epispasmos) in which circumcision was disguised by an artificial foreskin. This practice began following Jason’s request to Antiochus IV. It is also probable that during Antiochus IV’s time in Jerusalem the epispasmos was embraced by more conservative people, who feared king Antiochus IV’s hostility toward Jewish traditions.

For those so inclined, there's a whole article about the epispasmos operation on the website of a modern nuttily obsessed anti-circumcision site here. I liked this line:
At a time before effective anesthesia, a man inclined to try this procedure had Celsus' assurance that it was "not so very painful."
Anyway, it's all rather intriguing to think that perhaps the effects of nude athletics in Jerusalem (including even where the gym was built) more than 2000 years ago can still have cultural influence today. (It's also odd to realise the anti-circumcision movement has been around a long, long time.)

Political punditry gone insane

I cannot believe what I am reading in the media and on the blogs at the moment re suggestions for Federal Labor to improve its position.

And no, I'm not talking right wing blogs full of ratbaggery: they just want to have an election and aren't about suggesting what Labor can do, unless it's something facetiously self serving, such as Andrew Bolt's call for a new leader who should drop the carbon tax. (In a sign of desperation, Bolt has taken to calling for a new leader to replace Gillard within a week or so, before the carbon tax legislation is introduced to Parliament.)

It's the Left leaning commentary that has gone insane. Firstly, there's old Phillip Adams calling for Kevin Rudd to be re-instated as leader. I don't hold his political punditry in high regard anyway, but his failure to see through the flim-flammery and flakiness of much of what Rudd did in the first year is typical of some on the Left. He seems to think Rudd is an intellectual powerhouse: I think most objective people see shallowness whenever he tries to show his smarts.

But even someone who generally writes intelligently and in a moderate voice, like John Quiggin, has given up on Labor having any chance under Gillard, and suggests she gets the carbon tax through and then resign for the good of the Party. Yeah right: she finally gets a big and difficult reform through Parliament, and she should say "well, people don't like me, so I'm off." I just can't fathom the logic of this. Quiggin suggests that while he didn't used to think Rudd should replace her, he thinks he is acceptable now, due to his having "more credibility"on the asylum seeker issue (!). This is just nuts, if you ask me. And as with all people suggesting a graceful Gillard departure, it's not as if they can point to an obvious successor.

Even more bizarre are some of the comments on the Lefty blog Larvatus Prodeo, where Kim takes essentially the same position as Quiggin, and many in comments agree. Fran, who actually can hold her ground in arguing about a carbon tax, goes as far as to write this insane bit on Gillard:

I didn’t respect her before she took the job and her appearance as the candidate of the mining thugs only served to lower my already poor impression of her. Throw in attacks on The Greens as entitled latte-sipping alarm-clock ignoring intellectuals and Gillard is Bolt in drag. The roll out of “people smugglers’ business model” ad vomitus gets her the unremittingly egregious tag. The only thing positively distinguishing her from Abbott is that at the margins, The Greens still exercise some restraint on her regime. Without that, I’d watch the government go over the edge of the abyss and spit on them on the way down.
In the papers, the moderate Mumble blog gets the analysis right:
We’re in a strange place. If this federal government announced it was erecting a new set of traffic lights*, local businesses would protest, residents would fret, petitions would be signed and convoys embarked upon.

MPs in Western Sydney would report that the issue was killing them—and Graham Richardson would agree.

These are odd, but special, political times. Yes it’s the policies a bit, but more than that is a dysfunctional dynamic.
But then suggests:
Could a new leader, perhaps after the passage of the carbon legislation, quarantine the Greens and generate some authority?
It’s probably worth a try.
No, it's not.

The essential problem for Labor has been its flip flopping on key issues that have made it look weak and indecisive; but conversely, those things in which it has sought to act quickly have sometimes come out looking too rushed, ineffective or just flakey.

There is no way that replacing Gillard with a new leader is going to address these core issues. In fact, it will exacerbate them.

Getting through a carbon tax, the mining tax, and finding a workable asylum seeker policy will go a long way to fixing the problems. It's absurd to think that, as this fundamental "fix" starts to happen, the PM should resign.

One of the comments at Mumble blog gets it right, I reckon. If anything, Gillard would improve by sounding tougher, not just with Abbott but with her appalling bunch of sleazy media critics, and those in the public (even those Labor sympathisers who are telling her to go). Here's the comment, from "Balmain":

Mumbles, I keep saying the same thing and you keep saying the opposite...but do you honestly, truly believe that the electorate will tolerate yet another leadership change? I can see Gillard becoming our answer to Thatcher (I hate to draw parallels based on gender..), but I can’t see any other way back for the government. They will not be able to run on their record (once again) if they lose her, and that will make for yet another disastrous campaign. If they hold tight and the country is in good stead come 2013, they will have a much better story to tell than “we’re sorry, we stuffed up and lost our nerve again”. It requires nerves of steel from the ALP, but if they have it surely it’s their best hope? I’m not saying Gillard will be liked, but if she can campaign on successful introduction of major policies by 2013 despite blatant adversity, there will be a begrudging respect factor, surely. I have noticed that a bit of media coverage lately, whilst mostly slating the government, has begun to make frequent mention of her incredible stoicism in the face of all this. It could be starting already…
He's right.

Of course, there are good reasons for fearing the Australian economy, which virtually every economist (save perhaps for the dropkick Sinclair Davidson - hey, he's called me much ruder names at his own blog) would agree has not been fundamentally mismanaged by this Labor government, will soon go through another set of trying times if there is another international financial crisis, and Labor will unfairly wear the blame for this. But this is the fate possibly awaiting any Labor leader, new or old, and replacing Gillard is not going to help that.

UPDATE: This post makes me sound like a complete convert to Labor and can't find a thing to complain about Gillard. Well, there is pretty strong evidence that she was behind the flip-flopping on what to do about a carbon price under Rudd, but as far as those who want to see one in are concerned, actually getting one through Parliament (and, it would appear, a better one than what Rudd nearly got through) should remedy that. On asylum seekers: well, that's a very difficult one for Labor, and no leader is going to find that a breeze to manage.

But if the Coalition would drop its stupidity on climate change, accept a mining tax is a legitimate thing to pursue, and install Malcolm Turnbull as leader, I would be happy to vote for them again. Otherwise, who knows, I might even vote Labor next time.

My other point about our PM which I made reference to a few days ago is that I honestly think that to improve her image for decisiveness, as well appear better to Asian leaders, she should just marry Tim. Don't make a big song or dance about it: just release one set of photos and do it in the gardens of the Lodge. Make sure Kevin Rudd attends!