Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Church and the pill revisited

It's hard for people who live in other parts of the world to understand completely the kerfuffle in the US about the Obama administration mandating that US Catholic institutions, such as their hospitals, have to offer employees contraception as part of their work benefits health insurance.

One would imagine that this would not be a problem with Catholics in the US at all - everyone knows that all but a couple of percent of them have ignored the Church's teaching on contraception for the last 40 years. And one of the first commentaries I read on it, a post on a Commonweal blog, strongly supported the decision, emphasising the fact that non Catholic employees of Catholic hospitals should not be limited in their health insurance by what their "boss" considers unethical. It also makes the obvious point that for Catholics themselves, the coverage doesn't mean they are forced to use it. The Bishops of America, with good reason I suppose, have no faith that the laity will follow their teaching.

Yet, since then, what seems remarkable is the number of liberal Catholics commentators who have come out against the decision on the grounds that it is the State forcing the Church to act against its "conscience". It's an interference with religious freedom, according to this view.

First Things notes this with pleasure, and I have to say that I was very surprised to see The Tablet also come out against it.

Look, I see the Church being worried about having to provided certain forms of contraception, such as IUDs which (as far as I know) work by interfering after fertilization. Was it possible for the ruling to have allowed the Catholic institutions to not provide cover for certain kinds of contraception only? The problem is, I guess, when your theology is such that there is debate over whether a pinprick in a condom can make its use "legitimate" in certain settings, you can't expect a lot of compromise over a teaching which has such arcane and counter-intuitive results.

Yet, hang on a minute, is this true (from a comment to a New York opinion piece):
I think it's relevant that it is _already_ required in New York (and several other states) that health insurance coverage include contraceptives (with the same limited church exception provided by the Obama administration), and of course Catholic institutions comply. In particular, the hyperbolic objections of Archbishop Dolan of New York to the Obama administration ruling seem particularly inappropriate, since it appears that institutions under his oversight are already in compliance.
I'm not sure that this is right, given the explanation given in a Washington Post column explaining the sort of compromises the States have come up with:
Under Hawaii law, religious employers that decline to cover contraceptives must provide written notification to enrollees disclosing that fact and describing alternate ways for enrollees to access coverage for contraceptive services. Hawaii law also requires health insurers to allow enrollees in a health plan of an objecting religious employer to purchase coverage of contraceptive services directly and to do so at a cost that does not exceed “the enrollee’s pro rata share of the price the group purchaser would have paid for such coverage had the group plan not invoked a religious exemption.” A New York law has similar provisions.
Talk about your fine lines. The Church doesn't have to directly provide the contraceptive cover, but has an obligation to tell the employee how to get it at the same cost that the Church could have provided under their policy (if I am reading that right.)

Isn't this the same as (for example) a law requiring Catholic hospitals that will not provide abortion to refer pregnant women to where they can get it done? (Speaking of which, what happened about the Victorian law in 2008 which did require exactly that? The Archbishop said Catholic hospitals would not obey it, so what has been the outcome?)

Anyway, this is all part and parcel of the extremely complicated situation with health care funding and insurance in the US. Isn't there a way of separating the health insurance from the employment benefits, and Catholic hospitals can just compensate employees for whatever health insurance package they want?

The Australian system has much to recommend it.

Strange polling

So, all of the new year polls show Labor and the coalition pretty much where they were at the end of last year, with a two party preferred vote of 46 to 54 respectively. Given that you normally expect incumbent governments to pick up a bit during an election campaign, and that you only need to shave 4 percent off the Coalition lead to get back to where we were at the last election, Labor is a difficult but not absolutely impossible position, but of course you wouldn't know that from some of the media coverage.

But the strangest thing about politics at the moment is the standing of both leaders. There is no doubt that Julia Gillard seems incredibly unpopular, particularly amongst anyone over the age of 50. There is also no doubt that there has been widespread acclaim in media commentary since the last election for Tony Abbott as having been successful beyond expectation for the Coalition.

So why is it that in polling, they are both equally disliked, with large net dissatisfaction ratings? This has been the case since November on the Newspolls. Since then, Gillard has also been running as preferred PM by a narrow margin.

I don't think I have heard anyone in the media explaining this. Gillard had her high profile visits late last year, but I would have thought any benefit from those would not last long. Tony Abbott has been "Mr No" on the boat arrival issue very firmly since then, and I suspect that people think he is playing politics on what is too sensitive an issue for games, but I could be wrong.

It's all very curious.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Whales and worms

Where there's a worm there's a whale: First distribution model of marine parasites provides revealing insights

Apart from not finding it particularly flavoursome, I've always been a bit leery of raw fish because of the small risk of getting infected with a nematode.

According to this article above:
Eating infected fish and fish-based products can lead to so-called anisakiasis. This illness often occurs in regions in which raw or semi-cooked fish is traditionally consumed. Symptoms include severe stomach pains, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and fever, or even severe allergic reactions. Around 20,000 people are affected throughout the world each year, with a growing tendency. Hotspots include the coastal regions of Europe, the USA, as well as Japan and developing countries, in which fish and seafood are an important source of protein.
Interestingly, the nematode can pass through several species, but ends up breeding via those big, loveable whales:
The marine parasites have a complex lifecycle, in which they frequently change host. The final hosts for each species are Baleen and toothed whales (so-called cetacea), which absorb the parasite with their food and act as its host until sexual maturity...

On the way to the whale, fish, cephalopods and crabs act as intermediate hosts for the parasites.
Until we live in a world where whales are given giant worming tablets, like our pet dogs and cats, I'll stick to cooked fish, thanksg

Rain, rain

The weather bureau seems to have predicted levels of rain in Queensland pretty well for the last two summers. Last year, based on high sea temperatures and the strong La Nina, they predicted a very wet summer, and were right. This year, they predicted a pretty-wet-but-almost-certainly-not-as-wet-as-last-summer summer, and it seems to be coming true.

Certain parts of the state are getting some record falls, though:
Senior hydrologist Jim Stewart says records going back to 1884 for the Paroo River have been broken, with extraordinary rainfall totals over the weekend....
THE Gold Coast is smashing January weather records after the big downpour in the Hinterland and the border.

Coolangatta yesterday set a record for January rainfall of 479.6mm, up from 392.8 in 2006.
Springbrook on the wet and wild Wednesday received 291mm, easily breaking the 2008 daily record for January of 265mm.
And I see that over in New Zealand, it's been a particularly wet summer, in parts:
Hardest-hit were Nelson and Takaka, where flooding plagued the region for most of the month causing slips, road closures and evacuations.

Nelson was soaked with six times its normal rainfall, while Takaka had eight times its usual.

Both recorded their highest December totals since records began in 1941 and 1976 respectively, with 446mm of water hitting Nelson and 1103mm pouring down on Takaka.

Takaka also recorded its highest ever one-day rainfall, on December 14, with 392mm flooding the town - beating its previous record of 259 mm recorded in November 1990.

Yet other parts of the country had little rain:
Conversely, the winds caused the southwest to be warm, dry and sunny. Rainfall there was well below normal, Niwa said.
A bit reminiscent of the unusual situation in the US last with Texas in severe drought, but the Mississippi having record floods.

So, it's interesting to note that a recent report on climate change in England predicts that:
Flooding is the greatest threat to the UK posed by climate change, with up to 3.6 million people at risk by the middle of the century, according to a report published on Thursday by the environment department.
The first comprehensive climate change risk assessment for the UK identifies hundreds of ways rising global temperatures will have an impact if no action is taken. They include the financial damage caused by flooding, which would increase to £2bn-£10bn a year by 2080, more deaths in heatwaves, and large-scale water shortages by mid-century.
Note again that the forecast is for more problem flooding, but also water shortages. It's all to do with intensification of the hydrological cycle, a concept the climate change skeptics have trouble acknowledging as having been predicted years ago as part of AGW. Funny how the newspapers seem to provide evidence for it, though.*

* OK, OK, just reading about the odd record being broken in rainfall here and there doesn't prove anything scientifically. No doubt proper analysis needs to be done, and rainfall statistics can be cut and sliced many ways, as can temperature records, so that some "record breaking" figures may not seem so impressive on closer analysis. On the other hand, I am struck by the way some records are being broken by very large margins indeed, and that in particular is what makes me suspect that later analysis is going to prove the intensification of the hydrological cycle, as predicted by climate scientists.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Mini black holes still unclear

It appears that the question of whether the LHC will create mini black holes is still open, with a recent paper at arXiv about what signals a remnant particle from black hole decay might look like.  The paper contains this paragraph in the introduction:
It is important to recall that the end-stage of the BH evaporation remains an open issue (see,e.g., Refs. [14, 15, 16]), because we do not yet have a con rmed theory of quantum gravity. In fact, the semiclassical Hawking temperature grows without bound, as the BH mass decreases, which can be viewed as a sign of the lack of predictability of perturbative approaches. This is an important issue also on a purely experimental side, since deviations from the Hawking law for small BH mass(near the fundamental scale MG ) could actually lead to detectable signatures.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

An optimistic kind of story...

In the Developing World, Solar Is Cheaper than Fossil Fuels - Technology Review

No great surprise

Morgellons disease: the CDC study that debunks the skin ailment.

Slate notes:
...now the CDC’s report is out, and Morgellons activists are horrified: The study, carried out in Northern California, found no environmental or infectious cause, nor evidence of real parasites. The fibers, which many Morgellons patients have insisted were of composed of a substance that was unidentifiable by any lab, were mostly just pieces of fabric and skin fragments from repeated scratching. (You can read the full study on the Public Library of Science.) In conclusion, the CDC writes on its “Unexplained Dermopathy” page,
This comprehensive study of an unexplained apparent dermopathy demonstrated no infectious cause and no evidence of an environmental link. There was no indication that it would be helpful to perform additional testing for infectious diseases as a potential cause. Future efforts should focus on helping patients reduce their symptoms through careful attention to treatment of co-existing medical, including psychiatric conditions, that might be contributing to their symptoms.
I still have this itchy left shoulder blade, though...

High hopes

Is there anything we need on the moon? | FP Passport

Newt Gingrich seems to be reviled by a considerable number of people who have worked with him in the past, so one has to doubt that he really has any chance of being the Republican candidate for President. (On the other hand, this didn't stop Kevin Rudd - but Newt doesn't have a regular slot on a high rating breakfast show in which to appear all smiley and blandly "safe".)

Anyhow, about the only thing about him which should appeal to me (his grandiose plan to get a permanent colony on the Moon in a very short time) has been much ridiculed as ridiculous and pointless.

As I have said before, I am keen on a permanent Moon base as being at least a sort of 'life raft" for life and knowledge from the Earth, but people want more immediate and profitable reasons for going there. Lunar mining is one thing that doesn't get discussed much, but the Foreign Policy article linked above has some suggestions about what's there and what might eventually be worthwhile mining in future.

I just wish the more gradual, and realistic, Bush program for a lunar return had not been dumped by Obama.

More reason to like rodents

Courting male mice sing like birds

What a charming story:
Male house mice sing like birds to serenade their mates, a study has found.
But don't expect to catch a performance in your kitchen - their high-pitched soprano voices are beyond the range of human hearing.
Austrian scientists made the discovery after slowing down the ultrasonic courtship calls of mice to study them. They found that mouse music bore a "striking" similarity to birdsong.
The vocalisations were complex and personalised, containing "signatures" that differed from one tiny crooner to another. Until recently, it was assumed the sounds made by male mice were no more than high-pitched squeaks.
Previous studies by the same group confirmed that male house mice sing when they pick up a female's scent, and that females are attracted to their songs. Females were able to distinguish between their own brothers' songs and those of unrelated males, even when hearing their siblings sing for the first time.

To the other side

How Neutrons Might Escape Into Another Universe - Technology Review

Can't say I've heard this before, but it seems the suggestion has been made that neutrons might just be able to do a leap to another brane. That is, another universe.

OK, we don't just need it to be neutrons; we need it to be information. The future of intelligence could thus be guaranteed, no matter the fate of the particular universe it finds itself in. (Well, I'm being optimistic in a science fiction-y way, here.)

Salmon cakes for future reference

As this blog has come to serve as a sort of on line diary/journal for things I don't want to lose, like recipes, I'll note a salmon fish cake recipe here so I don't forget the quantities again:

Boil or steam 500 g of potatoes.  Finely dice about one stick of celery, maybe half a big salad onion, and finely grate some carrot.  Drain potatoes very well and mash then up a bit.  Add the other vegetables, some salt and pepper, and a drained 415 g can of salmon.  Let it all cool down a bit, and add one egg.  Mix it all up well, and use another beaten egg and breadcrumbs to make patties from the mix (makes about 8).   The mix is a bit soft - it needs to be left in the fridge to firm up a bit.   Fry in about a centimetre of olive oil.  Nice.  I think if serving for adults, a bit of chilli would not go astray too.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A bit too close for comfort

BBC News - Asteroid to make near-miss fly-by

An asteroid will pass by the Earth on Friday in something of a cosmic near-miss, making its closest approach at about 1600 GMT.
The asteroid, estimated to be about 11m (36ft) in diameter, was first detected on Wednesday.
At its closest, the space rock - named 2012 BX34 - will pass within about 60,000km of Earth - less than a fifth of the distance to the Moon.....
Earlier estimates put the asteroid's closest distance at as little as 20,000km, near the distance at which geostationary satellites reside, but observations by observatories overnight showed it will pass at a more comfortable distance.
Just goes to show what I noted in 2010 - small, city killing asteroids may turn up suddenly and there isn't much we can do about it.

Update:  from a 2008 Scientific American article:
Improved telescopes would identify an estimated one million near-Earth objects over the next decade to 15 years, and 8,000 to 10,000 of them will have some probability of hitting the planet, Schweickart says. A hit by even one of the smaller rocks, say the size of a convenience store, would have the impact of 400,000 Hiroshima nuclear bombs exploding at once, he says.
Isn't it odd how little publicity such a close passing potential disaster attracts in the media?

Tents and aborigines

Tim Blair summaries the Australia Day incident with the PM accurately, although with more light heartedness than I might have expected.   Andrew Bolt takes the more serious route, but I personally think his previous deliberate snideness in dealing with the difficult issue of who can or should claim aboriginality has forever weakened his credibility as a public commentator on the issue.  (Of course, the relatively pale skin of many involved yesterday will be taken by many as vindication of his criticisms.  The point is, however, that Bolt could have made the criticism without any legal trouble if he had been more careful and didn't throw in attempts at personal ridicule.) 

In any event, there is no doubt at all that, by my reckoning, 95% of the population will rightly see it as a disgraceful incident and it will harden a huge number against any further symbolic or legal steps towards greater recognition of aborigines. 

Anyone on the Left who tries to argue it was all the police fault, or even Tony Abbott's fault, deserve ridicule.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

A serve of chips, please

BBC News - Fried food 'fine for heart' if cooked with olive oil

Eating fried food may not be bad for the heart, as long as you use olive or sunflower oil to make it, experts say.

They found no heightened risk of heart disease or premature death linked to food that had been cooked in this way....

In an accompanying editorial, Professor Michael Leitzmann from the University of Regensburg in Germany said: "Taken together, the myth that frying food is generally bad for the heart is not supported by available evidence.

"However, this does not mean that frequent meals of fish and chips will have no health consequences.

"The study suggests that specific aspects of frying food are relevant, such as the oil used, together with other aspects of the diet."

This is all well and good, but I still get a bit sick of chips being the universal accompaniment to most cheaper cafe/pub meals.

A trio of climate change

Three papers that caught my eye:

* Injecting sulfate particles into stratosphere won't fully offset climate change According to the study, injecting sulfate into the atmosphere may cool the tropics and keep them cooler, but it wouldn't have so much effect on the polar regions. Hence sea level rise continues, I suppose. But they also point out that there could well be "surprises" from the whole enterprise. The key point is that it is no panacea to climate change:

"There is no way to keep the climate the way it is now. Later this century, you would not be able to recreate present-day Earth just by adding sulfate aerosols to the atmosphere," McCusker said. 

Cosmic rays not looking convincing:    A decade long study of solar related galactic cosmic ray flux indicates no co-relation with clouds:
We identify no statistically significant correlations between cloud anomalies and TSI/GCR variations, and conclude that solar related variability is not a primary driver of monthly to annual MODIS cloud variability. We observe a net increase in cloud detected by MODIS over the past decade of ~0.58 %, arising from a combination of a reduction in high – middle level cloud (−0.31 %) and an increase in low level cloud (of 0.89%); these long term changes may be largely attributed to ENSO induced cloud variability.
Skeptics who dream about cosmic rays being the secret influence which hasn't yet been credited in climate change seem to be losing an argument, yet again.

"Missing energy" not really missing at all?    A new study indicates that there's enough uncertainty in ocean heat measurements that the energy that Trenberth said was "missing" may not be missing at all:

Here we present a revised analysis of net radiation at the top of the atmosphere from satellite data, and we estimate ocean heat content, based on three independent sources. We find that the difference between the heat balance at the top of the atmosphere and upper-ocean heat content change is not statistically significant when accounting for observational uncertainties in ocean measurements3, given transitions in instrumentation and sampling. Furthermore, variability in Earth’s energy imbalance relating to El Niño-Southern Oscillation is found to be consistent within observational uncertainties among the satellite measurements, a reanalysis model simulation and one of the ocean heat content records. We combine satellite data with ocean measurements to depths of 1,800m, and show that between January 2001 and December 2010, Earth has been steadily accumulating energy at a rate of 0.50±0.43Wm−2 (uncertainties at the 90% confidence level). We conclude that energy storage is continuing to increase in the sub-surface ocean.
Judith Curry, the Uncertainty Queen of climate change scientists, thinks comments made by Trenberth about this are some sort of quasi vindication of her "ooh, it's all so uncertain we shouldn't be doing anything yet" stance, and there is a long thread that starts with her snark as follows:
If Kevin Trenberth is concerned about the uncertainties then he should stop ranting about deniers.
Exaggerating uncertainty to defend your own scientific papers from criticism, and then turning around to denigrate as a “denier” anyone who is uncertain and questions the IPCC’s overconfident assertions, is hypocritical IMO.
 And Chris Colose comments further down about Curry:
She doesn’t seem to be able to grasp that large uncertainties in some area do not preclude high confidence in others, or may not even be relevant to others. She continues on her philosophical rants about ‘uncertainty’ while not publishing a specific scientific example that has withstood criticism (e.g., Hegerl et al’s response to her “monster” paper). Nor does she seem to realize that just making stuff and saying “things are uncertain!” is not useful contribution, and coupled with many other scientific sins is the reason for the label “denier,” not the observations that science isn’t perfect. You can’t throw 100 darts against the wall, hope one sticks, and say “see, told you!”

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Andrew wrong a year ago: still wrong today

It was almost exactly a year ago, after the Queensland floods,  that Andrew Bolt had a post up alleging that a 2009 report by the Queensland Office of Climate Change had only mentioned drought, not floods.  He was following the lead of another blogger who had originally made the claim.

As Tim Lambert pointed out (as I previously noted here) this was simply wrong:  the claim related to one chapter of the report only.   In fact, the report said that intensification of individual rainfall events in South East Queensland was predicted in at least one paper, even if overall there may be less rainfall in future over most of Queensland :
Climate change is also likely to affect extreme rainfall in south-east Queensland (Abbs et al. 2007). Projections indicate an increase in two-hour, 24-hour and 72-hour extreme rainfall events for large areas of south-east Queensland, especially in the McPherson and Great Dividing ranges, west of Brisbane and the Gold Coast. For example, Abbs et al. (2007) found that under the A2 emissions scenario, extreme rainfall intensity averaged over the Gold Coast sub-region is projected to increase by 48 per cent for a two-hour event, 16 per cent for a 24-hour event and 14 per cent for a 72-hour event by 2070. Therefore despite a projected decrease in rainfall across most of Queensland, the projected increase in rainfall intensity could result in more flooding events.
Did Andrew ever acknowledge such an error in his post?  Not as far as I can see.  In fact, he posts and moves on; just in the same way he never acknowledged at his blog that Anthony Watts' own paper proved his claims about the US temperature record being largely due to bad siting of weather stations.

So, today, after a couple of days of intense rainfall in South East Queensland, what do we find Andrew Bolt posting about again today?  Yes - "warmists" never predicted heavy rain and floods as a part of global warming.

No Andrew, this is not right.  Here is another paper from 2007, at the height of the drought (which, incidentally, was likely itself record breaking - there was a paper about this I have linked to before, and I'll track it down later) which concluded that all models showed:
Australia shows a shift towards warming of temperature extremes, particularly a significant increase in the number of warm nights and heat waves with much longer dry spells interspersed with periods of increased extreme precipitation, irrespective of the scenario used.
It is hard to credit Bolt as having any honesty at all in this debate when he never corrects his claims.

Late comedy break

I see this has been around since 2010, and has had millions of views, as well as being mentioned at the Gulliver blog on the Economist in 2011.  I expect it has been very big in public servant emails.  In any event, I only saw it yesterday, and did find it funny:

Warning:  contains fake swearing.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Let's hear it for the state (sort of)

The visible hand | The Economist

This will go over well at Catallaxy. The Economist has a quasi sympathetic look at the success of "state capitalism," as demonstrated by China, Brazil and elsewhere:

This special report will cast a sceptical eye on state capitalism. It will raise doubts about the system’s ability to capitalise on its successes when it wants to innovate rather than just catch up, and to correct itself if it takes a wrong turn. Managing the system’s contradictions when the economy is growing rapidly is one thing; doing so when it hits a rough patch quite another. And state capitalism is plagued by cronyism and corruption.

But the report will also argue that state capitalism is the most formidable foe that liberal capitalism has faced so far. State capitalists are wrong to claim that they combine the best of both worlds, but they have learned how to avoid some of the pitfalls of earlier state-sponsored growth. And they are flourishing in the dynamic markets of the emerging world, which have been growing at an average of 5.5% a year against the rich world’s 1.6% over the past few years and are likely to account for half the world’s GDP by 2020.

State capitalism increasingly looks like the coming trend. The Brazilian government has forced the departure of the boss of Vale, a mining giant, for being too independent-minded. The French government has set up a sovereign-wealth fund. The South African government is talking openly about nationalising companies and creating national champions. And young economists in the World Bank and other multilateral institutions have begun to discuss embracing a new industrial policy.

The Economist comments are often worth reading too, and this one caught my eye:
The problem is that the Western liberal capitalism, that developed our society, has transformed paradoxically into communism. The welfare state is really a form of communism that prune and obstruct the tradicional liberalism that became western contries leaders of the world.

If you create a huge free public health system, a three years unemployment coverage, a free educational system, a grants culture or compel successful workers to pay 56% income tax, you really has establish a communism regime where talented people have to support others without any merit more than to be human beings.
Yes, what a tragedy that is!

A bit of a worry

BBC News - Big Tokyo earthquake likely 'within the next few years'

A big earthquake is much more likely to hit the Japanese capital, Tokyo, in the next few years than the government has predicted, researchers say.

The team, from the University of Tokyo, said there was a 75% probability that a magnitude 7 quake would strike the region in the next four years....

Researchers at the University of Tokyo's earthquake research institute based their figures on data from the growing number of tremors in the capital since the 11 March 2011 quake.

They say that compared with normal years, there has been a five-fold increase in the number of quakes in the Tokyo metropolitan area since the March disaster.

The Dotcom life

'I have a different attitude towards money than those who rather hoard it': inside the lavish life of Megaupload founder Kim Dotcom

This article is most remarkable for the photos it contains of the larger than life (or at least, larger than normal) Mr Dotcom. Quite an effort put in by the journalist to make him look funny, I think. Not that I mind in this case.

Monday, January 23, 2012

For future reference

The Republicans’ new voodoo economics - The Washington Post

I was asked over the weekend why I had started saying that it seemed to me that the Right in America had re-adopted a form of "voodoo economics".

I don't think I knew that an economics editor from The Economist had written an article in August with this very title, and I link it here for future reference.

Update:  Slate looks at how Gingrich's tax reform proposals are marginally different from those of the other Republicans.  But it points out:
 Every single candidate from the wacky Herman Cain to nice guy John Huntsman is running on the premise that taxes should be reduced relative to current policy, especially on high-incomes and on investment income. Gingrich is no exception to that rule as this chart based on Tax Policy Center analysis will show:
One respect in which Newt stands out from the pack somewhat is that essentially everyone's taxes go down at least a little under the Gingrich Plan. Most of the Republican contenders are currently preparing to raise taxes on a large number of lower income families who benefit from what are called refundable tax credits.
But as the first comment following the article notes:

I don't think anyone really believes that Gingrich et al are even pretending to look after "the 99%". How can someone simultaneously shriek about the deficit, openly plot a bloody, senseless, and expensive war, and propose steep tax cuts for everyone? You would think that someone who wanted to shrink the deficit or take a bite out of the debt would keep both massive spending cuts and tax hikes on the table.

Ocean acidification, continued...

Unprecedented, man-made trends in ocean's acidity

You can see why climate change skeptics think they have won...

Actually, no; no you can't.

(It's true, the rate of increase over the last little while has not been at the rate expected by some models.  It's not true that, in the big picture, it looks like warming is all over.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Why there is no point in my going to literary festivals

Michael Hayworth, a publisher, complains in a column in The Age today that Australian "classic"novels are forgotten all too quickly by both academia and the public, and many are out of print.  But he starts with this observation:
We live in the world of the home-grown literary bestseller, the world of The Slap and The Secret River. We love our new stars, and celebrate the success of Favel Parrett or Toni Jordan or Craig Silvey. Our writers have careers both at home and abroad. We no longer expect our life-changing books to be written in isolation and despair, against the odds, fulfilling what Henry Lawson came to believe was the destiny of the Australian writer.
OK, well, I've heard of The Slap because it became a TV series last year that didn't sound all that interesting, and I therefore didn't watch.  I have heard the title "The Secret River".  I think.  

But, sorry, call me completely out of touch with Australia literature if you want, I have not heard of Favel, Toni or Craig.  And I even watch First Tuesday Book Club about half the time its on.  [Now that I think of it, I can't remember the name of any Australian author who I saw on it last year, except for potboiler thriller writer Matthew O'Reilly (who I also haven't read.)  Maybe I only watch the show because I like it when they strongly disagree on the merits of something I'm never going to read anyway.]

Back to Hayworth:
Our universities have failed for more than a century to create any kind of enduring tradition for the teaching of Australian literature. We are so familiar with this failure we hardly notice. And our publishing has always been dominated by British houses, which have not always felt the need, simply because a book is part of our national heritage, to keep it available.

In 2011, in not a single course in the whole country were students asked to read Henry Handel Richardson's The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. This is the equivalent of not one Russian university teaching Anna Karenina, of Madame Bovary going untaught in France.
There you go:  another Australian author and book, this one a "classic" apparently, which I haven't heard of.

But hang on a minute:  "failed for more than a century to create any ...enduring tradition..." is a bit rich isn't it?   By 1900, the country had only been around in any substantial form for a few decades.  (Have a look at this chart, which indicates the white population in 1843 was barely 250,000.)  Sure, Sydney University was founded in 1850 (presumably with very small class sizes,) but people coming here were hardly motivated by the weather making it a nice place in which to write books, and it's hard to imagine University courses of the early 20th century being designed around the works of Henry Lawson (or some such.)

In any event, I'm not entirely sure why Universities need to "teach" modern literature at all, but that's just me a being a not-very-arty philistine, I suppose; even though readers of this blog may think I am more "arts" inclined that I really am due to my reports on the latest weird installations at Brisbane's GOMA.   I can see the value in studying (as opposed to merely experiencing) literature from the point of view of what it tells us about societies'  and individual's attitudes in the past, and the arc of their development over time; this applies especially to really old literature.   But the study of modern literature when there is plenty of other material around about the society it was written in; well, after the first 5 years of analysis of a particularly complex book, I am not entirely sure what more there is to be said or taught, and you could probably now find most of that analysis for free on the net instead of going to university.

Anyhow, Hayworth's complaint about good Australian books being out of print would, one expects, be answered by the increasing use of e-readers.   Surely it can't be very expensive to put them out in electronic  format, and even develop a specialised field of advertising for formerly acclaimed books which have been out of print for some years.

If the publishing industry can't work out how to do that, Andrew, I'd say it's pretty much their own fault, and I wouldn't blame it on Universities at all. 

Friday, January 20, 2012

Tourism and politics

Egyptian frustration as tourists stay away | World news | The Guardian

The dramatic drop in tourism to Egypt (at least 32%, possibly 50%) raises an interesting question: can the need for Western tourism be a moderating force on State enforced religious conservatism?

Not for the first time, I will again suggest: much of the Middle East should be managed by Disney. They may have to give up their "gay days," though.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A bit embarrassing (OK, very embarrassing)

The anti-fornication, anti-abortion wife of Rick Santorum lived very differently in her 20s.

I know very little about Rick Santorum, so was this already known in the States? In any event, I was surprised to read about the very less than ideal Catholic life his wife led in her 20's.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

About that fridge...

George Lucas Is Ready to Roll the Credits - NYTimes.com

This New York Times article is largely about a new George Lucas produced film "Red Tails," which (to his chagrin) he had to finance personally. It sounds potentially good - an old fashioned patriotic film about the (black) Tuskegee Airmen, featuring a lot of aerial footage. And, importantly, it's not actually directed or written by Lucas.

The article also spends a lot of time reviewing Lucas' career, and the enemies he has made with fanboys who hate him fiddling with his Star Wars films gets much coverage.

But the other great controversy of his movie making career - the much derided "nuking the fridge" segment from the much derided Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - is what I want to note.

I cannot believe how much venom is directed at that film. It was mentioned in at least half of the Tintin reviews I read, usually reading something like "this is a much better Spielberg action film than that last embarrassment of an Indiana Jones film." Well, I beg to differ.

I didn't think IJKCS was wonderful: I thought the script could have been much better, and, yes, OK, it was the silliest Indiana Jones film with some of the fake stunts, but there were enough well done sequences and images that I still ranked it as being enjoyable enough.

So, how did "nuking the fridge" manage to not offend me? I mean, sometimes really stupid science puts me off an entire movie. (The villain needing a satellite dish the size of Arecibo radio observatory to get a message to an orbiting satellite weapon in Golden Eye is the example I remember most frequently.) So what about the fridge? My reaction was that it was extremely unlikely and therefore a bit silly, but not fundamentally impossible. I now have information to back up that view.

The NYT notes (and I had heard this before) that Steven Spielberg claimed in one interview that it was his "silly idea". However, Lucas tells the paper that this was just Spielberg trying to be nice:
When I told Lucas that Spielberg had accepted the blame for nuking the fridge, he looked stunned. “It’s not true,” he said. “He’s trying to protect me.”
In fact, it was Spielberg who “didn’t believe” the scene. In response to Spielberg’s fears, Lucas put together a whole nuking-the-fridge dossier. It was about six inches thick, he indicated with his hands. Lucas said that if the refrigerator were lead-lined, and if Indy didn’t break his neck when the fridge crashed to earth, and if he were able to get the door open, he could, in fact, survive. “The odds of surviving that refrigerator — from a lot of scientists — are about 50-50,” Lucas said.
I wonder who those scientists are?

Anyway, that's enough for me. My gut reaction was about right, and Crystal Skull haters will just have to concentrate on the vine swinging scene instead. (Hey, that wasn't fundamentally impossible, either.)

The big computer in the sky

I haven't been spending much time checking new paper on arXiv lately, but here's a new one that talks about the idea of the Universe as a program being run on a giant quantum computer. 

I liked these parts:

And this part near the end:

Whatever happened to Spielbergian aliens?

The two big science fiction-ish hits of Steven Spielberg's early career, Close Encouters and ET, were notable for the niceness of the aliens:  little squishy botanist ET wouldn't harm a fly; and although the CE3K aliens appeared to have no concept of how disorientating it may be for humans to be sucked up into a mother ship and returned to their families 60 years later, they were touchy feely nice guys in the end.  No alien's perfect, I guess:  ET may well have turned rapidly into an alcoholic if he could have tolerated family absence better.

So, while watching Cowboys and Aliens on DVD last night, which Spielberg executive produced, I wondered why he now only seems to be involved with films showing aliens that want to squash humans like so many bugs.

His own War of the Worlds showed physically weak looking aliens who nonetheless thought humans were the most convenient source of blood and bone fertiliser for the lawn; last year's exec produced Super 8  had an alien that was (if I recall correctly) being treated unfairly, but nonetheless was ultra violent in response;  and now Cowboys and Aliens had another set of grotesque designed aliens who, despite having the technology to come to Earth in a pretty cool looking spaceship, thought the best way to dispose of interfering mammals is to bite their neck out or stab and slash them with their built in dagger fingers.

Doesn't anyone write science fiction with nice aliens any more?

As for Cowboys and Aliens as a movie:  the critical response was about right - not great, not horrendous, but had a bit of a feel of a lost opportunity to do a cool genre mash up better.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Now they tell us...

According to this article, people with a shipping industry background have been getting worried for a number of years about the safety of mega cruise ships.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Great mistranslations in history

Actually, the post is about Original Sin again.

Now, it is quite possible that I have read about this particular translation issue before, but have forgotten it.   Nonetheless, this translation issue was noted in a book I picked up at the Lifeline Bookfest yesterday (yes, Brisbane people - you have until next weekend to load up on books you probably won't finish before the next one comes around), but a simpler explanation is to be found via Google books, which turned up this extract from Hans Kung book "Great Christian Thinkers":

One other thing occurred to me about this - and I presume this is not an original thought - until Catholic scientist priest Spallanzani, who I mentioned here several posts back - did his 18th century work, mammalian reproduction as requiring both ovum and sperm was not well understood, and the idea that semen alone contained a tiny human just waiting to be planted and grow up was one way of understanding it.  Logically, then, there was a sense in which one man's seed also contained all the future babies as well as his own.

Would such thinking contribute to the way in which Augustine might have thought all humans were "in" Adam, and (in a sense) were quasi-participants in the original sin?

Update:  Another book (Augustine of Hippo - a life" by Henry Chadwick ) notes the following, which seems relevant to my speculation:

Update 2:  It may not have been Augustine's idea, but we do find in the Wikipedia entry for homunculus that some later thinkers thought that "preformationism" was relevant to original sin:
It was later pointed out that if the sperm was a homunculus, identical in all but size to an adult, then the homunculus may have sperm of its own. This led to a reductio ad absurdum with a chain of homunculi "all the way down". This was not necessarily considered by spermists a fatal objection however, as it neatly explained how it was that "in Adam" all had sinned: the whole of humanity was already contained in his loins.
Actually, the Wiki entry on preformationism is worth looking at too, for a more detailed look at its development in philosophy and its lasting influence.  It all starts with Pythagoras, apparently.  When microscopes came along, the dutch inventors gave preformationism a boost by claiming to see (in a fashion which reminds me of how, much later, Martian canals would be imagined via telescopes) things in semen that simply aren't there:
Dutch microscopist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek was one of the first to observe spermatozoa. He described the spermatozoa of about 30 species, and thought he saw in semen, "all manner of great and small vessels, so various and so numerous that I do not doubt that they be nerves, arteries and veins...And when I saw them, I felt convinced that, in no full grown body, are there any vessels which may not be found likewise in semen." (Friedman 76-7)[7]
But, going back to Augustine, it would seem that he does not really count as a preformationist:
St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas both held that hominization, or the coming into being of the human, occurs only gradually. Quickening was thought to occur around 40 days, and to be the point at which the merely animal mix of material fluids was ensouled. Until 1859, when Pope Pius IX decreed that life begins at “conception,” the Church was epigenetic along with the Aristotelians [see Maienschein 2003].

Put down the can

Study finds caffeine poisoning on the rise

I suppose it's no surprise that the highly caffeinated soft drink market should cause a spike in the number of cases of apparent caffeine poisoning. Is this part of the report right, though?:
Caffeine toxicity can mimic amphetamine poisoning, cause seizures, psychosis, cardiac arrhythmias and rarely even death, but the most common symptoms reported include irregular heart rate, tremors, stomach upsets and dizziness.
Well, Google knows everything, and links me to this blog post, containing the following extract from a toxicologist's book:
“Caffeine-induced psychosis, whether it be delirium, manic depression, schizophrenia, or merely an anxiety syndrome, in most cases will be hard to differentiate from organic or non-organic psychoses….

The treatment for caffeine-induced psychosis is to withhold further caffeine.”

In fact, the entire website ("The Caffeine Web") describes itself as having the following purpose:
At CaffeineWeb.com, psychiatrists, allergists and toxicologists address caffeine's potential to induce symptoms of mental illness in healthy people.
But it appears to have been a short lived affair. Maybe the author had a relapse after a particularly hard night on the Starbucks.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The lucky tilt

Here's an interesting story from Physorg about the possible importance of planetary tilt for the emergence of life:

But take away the Earth's axial slant, and the place might become a lot less inviting.

With an obliquity of less than five degrees or so, an Earth-like planet's broader equatorial regions bear the full brunt of a sun's radiance. The polar regions also receive far less sunlight than they do with seasonal ebbs and flows. The result: extreme temperature gradients based on latitude. "Your equator is heated enormously while the poles freeze," said Heller.

In theory, bands of habitability in temperate, mid-latitude zones could persist. In a worst-case scenario, however, the entire atmosphere of a zero-obliquity planet could collapse, Heller said. Gases might evaporate into space around the planet's blazing middle and freeze to the ground in the bleak north and south.

Life, had it ever emerged, would be stopped dead in its tracks.

And the problem is, for life on other planets, that red dwarf stars may well erase planetary tilt relatively quickly.

It sounds like it may be an important reason as to why you can have billions of planets, but not many suitable for life.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Back to Pelagius?

I saw a link to an article in The Tablet about evolution and religion by Jack Mahoney, but it was behind the paywall and couldn't get to it.  (The Tablet offers very little for free.)

Anyway, a bit of Googling shows that Jack Mahoney is a Jesuit and has recently published a book "Christianity in Evolution: An Exploration".

It sounds very interesting.  As the review in The Independent notes:
Mainstream Christianity long ago dropped overt hostility to Darwin, and even manages to speak of him fondly on occasion, but it has held back from the next logical step, bringing theology and evolution into meaningful dialogue. Christianity, Mahoney argues, "has been strangely silent about the doctrine of evolution" because to accept it wholeheartedly would then involve a redrawing of the theological map. Yet that is precisely what he wants it to do.
It's true: there's an unresolved tension in the modern Catholic Church between the scientific understanding of evolution and the traditional understanding of the role of Christ; it is being ignored rather than dealt with adequately.  The fundamental problem is that evolution erodes the concept of Original Sin.   It certainly can't be understood in the previous sense of being the reason why death and suffering came to the Earth.

Thus, it is not surprising that Mahoney follows the path previously trod by another Jesuit interested in evolution, Teilhard de Chardin, in throwing doubt on the traditional understanding of Original Sin.  Of course, once you start questioning one traditional theological understanding, it can have a bit of a domino effect. From another review from a Jesuit website:
 Mahoney suggests that more traditional understandings of Original Sin, the Fall, Atonement, Justification and similar concepts no longer sit comfortably in an evolutionary context. His own position on sin in this context is very helpful: ‘Sin emerges as humanity’s yielding to evolutionary selfishness and declining to accept the invitation to self-transcendence: it is a refusal to transcend oneself in the interests of others.’ (p.43) Put like that, it makes sense of Paul VI’s claim that ‘the world is sick’ (Populorum Progressio, §66) and his diagnosis of its sickness as ‘the lack of brotherhood among individuals and peoples’. I also liked Mahoney’s comment: ‘What people in today’s culture need most is not the recovery of a sense of sin but the acquiring of a sense of purpose in their lives.’ (p.66)
I don't know:  I kind of miss the emphasis on personal sin in the Church these days.  But anyway, the review also notes:
He carries this approach to the Incarnation through to offer an interpretation of Christ’s death and resurrection, too, suggesting that evolutionary theology:
proposes that the motive for the Word becoming flesh was not to save humanity from any inherited congenital sinfulness; it was for Christ to lead and conduct the human species through the common evolutionary fate of individual extinction to a new level of living with God. Nor was this done by the offering of Christ as an expiatory sacrifice to placate an injured God; it was achieved by Christ’s freely confronting death and winning through to a new phase of existence to be imparted to his fellow humans in their evolutionary destiny to share fully in the life of God. (pp.14-15)
Such suggestions will, one would think, not endear Mahoney to Pope Benedict; but then again, some people took the latter's mention of Teilhard de Chardin with brief approval in 2009 as indicating a softening of the previous Vatican warnings against his theological thoughts.

The problem, of course, is that Original Sin in its traditional form has been solidly maintained by the Church virtually since its inception.  Pelagius' views on the topic (that Adam merely set a bad example to humanity), which presumably can be more easily accommodated within modern understanding of evolution, lost out in the ideological battle with St Augustine.  (I see from Wikipedia that there was also Semipelangianism, which was an attempt to find a compromise between Augustinian and Pelagian views, but it was also promptly condemned as heresy.)

I would expect that Pelagianism gets covered in Mahoney's book, as it certainly seems he is effectively arguing that the modern understanding of evolution forces us to return to something resembling it.

Finally, while Googling around on the topic, I found this chapter of an online book * which deals with the theological response in the Catholic Church to evolution.   It is very detailed, but rather good.  Amongst other points if makes, it seems that it may have been well into the 20 th century before a majority of theologians really started believing that evolution was completely true.   This does not surprise me.  My own father, for example, never fully accepted evolution, and as it was a topic that the Church chose not to preach about, I expect many Catholics born in the first (say) third of the last century found evolution a topic easy to ignore, and a little hard to believe, and as such it did not represent much of a challenge their faith.

* the website it is from is said to be "Where Christian mysticism, theology and metaphysics meet Eastern religions, Jungian psychology and a new sense of the earth", and appears to be mostly the work of James Arraj, a psychologist who died a year or two ago.  I don't know about the quality of everything he has written, but the chapter I have linked to here seems pretty good.

Respect needed

BBC News - Eve teasing in India: Assault or harassment by another name

I didn't realise India could be such an unpleasant place for female tourists. Not just the article, but many of the comments following, indicate that it can be quite aggravating for them.

Terry Eagleton dissents

Religion for Atheists by Alain de Botton - review | Books | The Guardian

Terry Eagleton is always an interesting commentator, even if his Marxist take on Christianity is not for everyone. Here, he reviews Alain de Botton's book that argues in the tradition of Matthew Arnold, who (explains Eagleton):
....feared the spread of godlessness among the Victorian working class. It could be countered, he thought, with a poeticised form of a Christianity in which he himself had long ceased to believe.
The key criticism of this approach is in these paragraphs:
There is something deeply disingenuous about this whole tradition. "I don't believe myself, but it is politically prudent that you should" is the slogan of thinkers supposedly devoted to the integrity of the intellect. If the Almighty goes out of the window, how are social order and moral self-discipline to be maintained? It took the barefaced audacity of Friedrich Nietzsche to point out that if God was dead, then so was Man – or at least the conception of humanity favoured by the guardians of social order. The problem was not so much that God had inconveniently expired; it was that men and women were cravenly pretending that he was still alive, and thus refusing to revolutionise their idea of themselves.
God may be dead, but Alain de Botton's Religion for Atheists is a sign that the tradition from Voltaire to Arnold lives on. The book assumes that religious beliefs are a lot of nonsense, but that they remain indispensible to civilised existence. One wonders how this impeccably liberal author would react to being told that free speech and civil rights were all bunkum, but that they had their social uses and so shouldn't be knocked. Perhaps he might have the faintest sense of being patronised. De Botton claims that one can be an atheist while still finding religion "sporadically useful, interesting and consoling", which makes it sound rather like knocking up a bookcase when you are feeling a bit low. Since Christianity requires one, if need be, to lay down one's life for a stranger, he must have a strange idea of consolation. Like many an atheist, his theology is rather conservative and old-fashioned.
De Botton does not want people literally to believe, but he remains a latter-day Matthew Arnold, as his high Victorian language makes plain. Religion "teaches us to be polite, to honour one another, to be faithful and sober", as well as instructing us in "the charms of community". It all sounds tediously neat and civilised. This is not quite the gospel of a preacher who was tortured and executed for speaking up for justice, and who warned his comrades that if they followed his example they would meet with the same fate. In De Botton's well-manicured hands, this bloody business becomes a soothing form of spiritual therapy, able to "promote morality (and) engender a spirit of community". It is really a version of the Big Society.

A bigfoot-like creature

Did Bigfoot Really Exist? How Gigantopithecus Became Extinct | Hominid Hunting

Interesting blog entry from Smithsonian.com. I don't think they went extinct - they invented a time machine and just wander the Earth at whim.

TB back

Totally drug-resistant TB emerges in India : Nature News & Comment

You don't hear too much about TB as an international disease these days, hence I didn't know this:

Tuberculosis trails behind only HIV as the world’s leading cause of death from infectious disease. But in spite of its impact on human health and economic growth, it has not ranked among the pharmaceutical industry's priorities.

“The pharmaceutical industry had scant interest in TB for decades,” says Richard Chaisson, director of the Center for TB Research at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. “The industry pretty much concluded it wasn’t an attractive market, there was not enough potential profit.”

The article goes on to say that there has been an increase in development of TB drugs in the last 10 years or so, and none too soon, by the sounds:

Physicians in India have identified a form of incurable tuberculosis there, raising further concerns over increasing drug resistance to the disease1. Although reports call this latest form a “new entity”, researchers suggest that it is instead another development in a long-standing problem.

The discovery makes India the third country in which a completely drug-resistant form of the disease has emerged, following cases documented in Italy in 20072 and Iran in 20093.

Friday, January 13, 2012

A minor rat tale

Watching War Horse the other night, which I thought generally created a very realistic look to trench warfare in World War I, there was one quick shot in which there were a quite a few rats out in the middle of a trench while the last soldier was waiting there after all of his comrades had gone up over the wall and into battle.  Hmm, I thought, I know there were a lot of rats around the trenches, but did they really make such a sudden large scale appearance in bright daylight as soon as everyone had left? 

Then, this morning, in full sunlight, while idly staring out of the kitchen window, I noticed a rat boldly eating the left over bird seed sitting on the spa cover where we normally put the seed trays.

Time for some rat warfare action again at my house.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Comedy, science and religion

Today's reading:

*  the New York Times magazine has a long article on Stephen Colbert, and focusing more on his recent complicated toying with the Presidential race.  All pretty interesting.   Unfortunately, Comedy Central now blocks his website videos here, and his show is not shown on any free network, leaving him only accessible to those who get the Comedy Channel on cable TV.   This is a terrible outcome, as we recently gave up Foxtel at our house, to no discernible loss of quality of life except for my not being to watch Colbert Report. 

*  the Christian Science Monitor reports on Nicholas Steno, with the headline "The saint who undermined creationism".   Well, he's not quite a saint yet, but I don't recall reading about him before.  (He is apparently credited as the first to work out - in the 17th century - that different geological layers are laid down over time and contain a record of life in the very distant past.)  He went on to become a bishop.   As the article notes, the Catholic church has other clerics who have made big scientific contributions:
Steno was by no means the only Catholic cleric whose observations created models that counter literal Biblical accounts of creation. Gregor Mendel, an Augustinian friar, developed a model of inheritance that made Darwin's theory of evolution intelligible. In the 20th century, it was a Belgian priest, Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the Big Bang theory.
Oddly enough, there is also the case of Lazzaro Spallanzani, who amongst other things:
...discovered and described animal (mammal) reproduction, showing that it requires both semen and an ovum. He was the first to perform in vitro fertilization, with frogs, and an artificial insemination, using a dog. Spallanzani showed that some animals, especially newts, can regenerate some parts of their body if injured or surgically removed.
Given the Church's current teaching, with its overly detailed theologising about the one and only legitimate place for semen to ever be, it's a tad ironic that it was one of their priests who was making discoveries about it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reich review

The man who started the sexual revolution | TLS

Here's an interesting review of a new book about all round loon Wilhelm Reich, whose core idea of the e-vil of sexual repression made him quite popular with middle aged Western men for much, much longer than he deserved.

In Australia, the aging Jim Cairns made it clear that he was very enamoured of Reich's theories, and on checking this I see that it was his she's-not-my-mistress mistress Junie Morosi who was largely responsible for introducing him to the books.

Fear of Horse conquered

I am happy to report that my not-so-happy Spielbergian experience with Tintin was not repeated with last night's viewing of War Horse.

It's a very impressive movie, and all the good reviews referring to it being in a grand, "classic" Hollywood style of movie making which petered out sometime in the 1960's are right.  I agree wholeheartedly with Stephanie Zacharek's comment the other day in Slate:
 I love the pure movieness of War Horse—I don’t see it as corny or overcooked.
It is, even by Spielberg standards, an exceptionally lush and beautiful film, and I don't recall a World War I movie which has ever evoked the look of the period in such an authentic feeling way.   The John Williams score is not over-powering, the actors are all fine, and the script works well too. 

But the largest praise must go to Spielberg himself.   The film does not (unlike Tintin) contain motifs repeated from his earlier work in any calculated way;  it references classic directors' works but (for the most part) with the added benefit of the graceful camera movement and careful regard to the composition of every single shot that is the hallmark of an extraordinary natural talent. 

You should see it at a cinema.

A bit of a surprise?

Marijuana use associated with cyclic vomiting syndrome in young males
Researchers have found clear associations between marijuana use in young males and cyclic vomiting syndrome (CVS), where patients experience episodes of vomiting separated by symptom free intervals.
Since marijuana is well known as a help for some people with nausea and vomiting from things like chemotherapy, this would seem like a bit of a surprising finding.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Visiting Lenin

The designer skin he lives in: is it time to bury Lenin's stage-managed show?

The Guardian has an interesting and entertaining account of what it is like to visit the body of Lenin these days.

Monday, January 09, 2012

Big battery news

Two potentially important battery development stories:

* Air battery to let electric cars outlast gas guzzlers
IBM claims to have solved a fundamental problem that may lead to the creation of a battery with an 800-kilometre (500-mile) range - letting EVs potentially compete with most petrol engines for the first time.

Would be very impressive if this pans out - but it is IBM making the claim, apparently.

*  new technology that sounds as if it would allow large scale battery storage of solar power:
Battery developer Eos Energy Storage claims to have solved key problems holding back a battery technology that could revolutionize grid energy storage. If the company is right, its zinc-air batteries will be able to store energy for half the cost of additional generation from natural gas—the method currently used to meet peak power demands.
This is a start up making the claims though, so caution is warranted.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

The Anti Tattoo League

I am getting tired of waiting for fashion sense to turn against tattoos, particularly on women. 

Call me sexist, but young men generally are known to be silly risk takers in all  aspects of life.  Ask the insurance companies; and I noted last year the "accident hump" for young men, which apparently "exists in almost all societies and is statistically well documented."

So, it doesn't surprise me that garish and godawful tattoos which will fade into horrible splotchly things in 30 years time appear to be a good idea to some relatively young men.  Of course, this doesn't help explain why any man over 25 gets a tattoo, but who am I to disagree with a few decades of American sitcoms which sociologically prove that women are actually, unknown to their oblivious husbands, the most sensible ones in 9 out of 10 marriages.

So, women:  come on, you mature earlier and are supposed to be the moderating influence on stupid young men.  Hence, I am getting increasingly disturbed at the amount of awful, large tattoos appearing on women's arms.  There is no sense of the tattoo craze petering out for females at all yet - in fact, at this rate, I expect to see our Prime Minister return from summer holidays with a "Timbo 4 eva" tatt, complete with a facsimile of her beau armed with haircutting scissors and dryer emblazoned on the large expanse of skin she often shows between her chin and bustline.  (See here, here, and especially here.)   My previous cautious hope that tattooing has peaked seems to have been misplaced. 

I've said before that the small tattoo on the back of the neck (which seems popular with women) is a bit silly:  they're never going to see it themselves, so it's just self branding for the audience that's behind them in the shopping centre.  But at least it could always be hidden in future if they tire of it by virtue of longer hair. As for smallish tattoos on the breast line or ankle:  again, depends what they wear, but it's not always going to be on display if it turns ugly in future.

But lately I have been noticing absolutely horrendously large tattooing down arms on otherwise conservatively dressed and coiffed women, who don't particularly seem to be wanting to make a "look at me" statement to the world - except, that is (by way of recent example) for the ghoulish zombie like face that is on the forearm handing me change at the newsagent.   Or the shift manager (for goodness sake) at the MacDonalds I was at today, whose entire left arm was devoted to an extensive fairy world themed tattoo.   Granted, it was better than the newsagent's tatt, but you look at this otherwise attractive enough young-ish woman in short sleeves and all you can see is an enormous, arm-devouring fairy tattoo.  

I think it's time society (or at least, the over 50, wanting-to-control-the-rest-of-society-for-their-own-good part of society to which I subscribe) to start taking matters into our own hands.   I mean, would nice women with tatts in a public environment really punch out people for making the quiet observation "my God, that's a hideous tattoo", or "I would notice your nice face if it wasn't for the fact that you seem to want people to stare only at your arm", or the more vindictive take "tattoos are generally kitsch art*; yours particularly so.  I hope you regret it now, or will in the future"?  Maybe all of them could then be followed up with a quick "Nothing personal, mind you.  I hate the tatt, not the person, but nonetheless seek to encourage a severe reduction in tattooing by whatever guerilla tactic I can muster."

I mean, I seriously want to say those things to men too (well, not the bit about the nice face) but I'm not completely insane.  And let's face it:  women can have substantial influence on men, but it ain't going to happen with tattoos while ever they are in a competition for garish arm covering ones too.

So the tactic is identified, and all we need now is to apply it. Join the league.  I won't do it alone...

*  Oddly enough, I Googled "kitsch" to check the spelling, which led me to the Wikipedia entry on the topic which notes the important contributions of both Kant and Hegel to the philosophy of aesthetics; two philosophers who I have recently been discussing at this very blog in other contexts.   I was obviously destined to make this post.

UPDATE:  whaddya know:  Kant did discuss tattoos briefly, and did not approve.

Say anything..

I don't normally find myself reading the (Brisbane) Sunday Mail, but I had time to kill while my daughter and her friend were in the cinema watching the latest Alvin and the Chipmunks travesty (well, after no.2, I think we can safely assume the latest was dire for anyone over the age of 12) and found myself reading this story about the Walter Mitty style Facebook life of a sometime Brisbane school teacher.

Apparently, people enjoy reading Facebook pages of people they don't know and get upset when they realise there is not a shred of truth in them. According to the report, this guy named an imaginary girlfriend (well, at least the life story was imaginary) who was said to be a drugs squad police officer who had been shot during a raid last November, made a recovery, only to die unexpectedly of a heart attack at the end of December. An imaginary funeral was then announced and took place, and our fiction writing "hero" made the following entry on Facebook:
"One thing that Kell said to me the day before she passed away will always stay with me: 'You have made me the happiest woman in the world . . . I love you Clintypoo . . . I'll always be with you'," Mr Acworth wrote on his Facebook page last week.
People kept reading his Facebook after that? Really?

Was this all an in joke, or maybe a deliberate lesson to his students about the dangers of trusting strangers on Facebook? As far as I can tell from the odd comment I hear, Facebook has had nothing but a malign effect on high school student relationships. (I heard someone on talk back radio in the last year or two complaining that half of each Monday at a high school he/she was involved with was taken up with having to deal with the the fall out from the weekend's vindictive slagging off and bullying on Facebook.)

I remain quietly confident that Facebook has been a net detriment to the betterment of society.

Bryan Appleyard seems inclined to feel the same way, and a couple of days ago he was discussing "twittercide", the phenomena by which a politician or celebrity makes ridiculously unguarded, career-endangering comments on Twitter. Bryan seems to fear the worse:
I suspect there’s a neuroscientific aspect to all this. The neurological walls that divide public from private utterance are crumbling. Our brains are being hollowed out. At this rate there will be no unexpressed thoughts and all the sustaining complexity of the human world will drain away to be replaced by a featureless, babbling simplicity. But you’ll now have to buy my book to find out what I mean.
But to get back to Facebook, I am curious as to whether the possibly apocryphal story at the end of this comment to Appleyard's post is true:
Yes I’m shocked at some of what I see on my 17yr old nephew’s Facebook page but the shock is because I’m 40 and not used to seeing that sort of thing set out so publicly, not in the content itself (which, largely, is the same as anyone’s teenage years). This habit of documenting everything is becoming the norm so if he applies for a job in 15 years then all the other candidates – not to mention the hiring manager, HR department etc. – will be in a similar position. They may be apocryphal but I’ve heard stories about shops & supermarkets actively discriminating against applicants without Facebook profiles etc. on the grounds that it’s an indicator of a normal, hopefully gregarious teenager. In other words the absence of social media history may, in time, become more problematic than its presence.
God help us if this right.

Sweaty palms flying

Qantas passengers injured in turbulence

Given last week's news of small cracks developing in the wings of the A380, this is exactly the sort of flight in one which would make me a tad nervous:

Qantas says seven passengers have been injured on a flight from London to Sydney.

The airline says the seat belt sign was turned on and passengers were returning to their seats when an A380 experienced turbulence over India yesterday.

Seven people suffered minor cuts and bruises during the incident.

Extreme cuteness

As appearing inThe Age this morning:

It's a baby Leadbeater's possum. Irresistibly cute, no?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

A remarkably warm winter temperature

Climate Central notes that much of the US has had little snow this winter, and some of the Plains states have just had some very high temperatures:

The National Weather Service said on its Sioux Falls, S.D., website that one sign pointing to the unusual nature of the warm weather was the fact that old records were exceeded by huge margins, as much as 17 degrees warmer than previous records, the agency's website states. As noted by the Weather Channel's Twitter account, the high temperature of 61°F in Minot, N.D., — an all-time January record — was the average high temperature in April, according to The Weather Channel.