Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Weekend calls from Kevin Rudd

Monday's outcome

With apologies to Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Is it on DVD yet?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012


Things to do for a week or two...

But I'll come back to moan if Kevin Rudd become PM again.

This time, I am a skeptic

Pass the Ketchup, Test-Tube Burger On the Menu Soon? | Climate Central

Research on growing meat in the lab is in the news again, with a "proof of concept" beef patty coming soon, apparently.

Look, there are some things in science and technology that deserve scepticism, and this is one of them. Growing sheets of muscle fibre does not necessarily mean it is easy to turn them into something resembling the texture and flavour of meat. This was explained on the Science Show last year.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Droning on

There was a really interesting report on Lateline tonight about the rapid expansion of the use of unmanned drones by the US. Lots of interesting bits of information from interviews with USAF staff, such as the the number of drone "crews" soon outnumbering all other pilots. The video (and presumably later transcript) available here.

And while you're visiting the ABC, have a look at this interesting article on the emergence of drone journalism, including some footage taken by camera drone last year. Neat. Flying buzzing cameras make the world feel very modern and science fiction-y. Until they appear at your bedroom window, I guess.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ten Stupid Things

I have been writing this on and off for a week.

I spend a lot of time criticising the Right now, because it used to be the side displaying common sense and not letting ideology trump results. Then along came climate change denialism, the re-invention of voodoo economics in the States, and the rest is history. So, in fairness, let's start today's list -

On the Left hand

1. Chaotic Leader Wants Second Chance.

So, political leaders are supposed to always be completely open about leadership spills are they? I can't believe such a fuss is being made over the precise extent to which Julia Gillard was involved in the leadership challenge to Kevin Rudd. The sensible attitude to this is "politicians will always be economical with the truth about leadership challenges - and it doesn't matter." Those on the Left who think this is important want their head read.

It's kind of absurd, isn't it, that internal leadership talk should be out and about as Gillard makes an early-in-the-year win on the health insurance rebate: a matter of real significance to the budget bottom line and one that can readily be sold as a matter of Labor principle.

2. Academics for Chaotic Leadership. Chief amongst those needing phrenology are Leftist academics who think Rudd must be re-instated. John Quiggin and Robert Manne both seem to see intellectual and leadership qualities in Kevin Rudd that the politicians who have worked with him can't. In fact, Kevin Rudd and his supporters in Parliament cannot do anything other than continue to hurt the government, and in my view replacing Gillard with anyone at the moment will show a Labor Party that is completely consumed by internal personality politics, just as the Liberal Party was in the tedious 1980's fight between Andrew Peacock and John Howard.

3. Another project where chaotic leader ignored advice. So Kevin Rudd was warned he was spending money on clean coal in a wasteful way. I have been writing posts on the dubious idea for years now; you can search the blog if you want to.

4. Why not send a cheque and let them sort it out? I bought a TV digital set top box for $38 the other day: people are right to wonder how it can cost the government an average of $700 to get them installed for pensioners. For a government that wants to appear economically cautious, this looks silly. It's not much money in the big picture, but it will be taken as confirmation that Labor just can't handle money wisely.

5. Search for a Climate Change Star. Why did the government re-instate Tim Flannery as a climate commissioner? Look, I think he is unfairly (and dishonestly) quoted out of context as a matter of routine now by the Right wing commentariate, but this has become impossible to be undone. Those who trust him and those who don't are in firm camps and neither is ever likely to move: he's damaged goods to the AGW cause. And more importantly, why can't they find an more articulate climate scientist with plenty of experience in the field who can take on the role?

Now for the Right

1. Pope Santorum: "One of the things I will talk about that no president has talked about before is: the dangers of contraception in this country, the whole sexual libertine idea."

Can anyone outside of the United States believe that Rick Santorum is a serious player for Republican Presidential candidate? That his, not just "worn on his sleeve", but "yes I will talk about it and tell people how they are living their lives wrong" brand of Catholic sexual ethics has a hope in hell of doing anything other than galvanise socially liberal Democrats and sensible Independents against him?

As one cute headline put it: Is Santorum running for president or pope?

It's not a matter of whether you agree with him - as it happens, probably quite a lot of people (even with a not so conservative background) think that too many people take sex and relationships too casually these days. But "the dangers of contraception"?? Catholic priests gave up talking about that from the pulpit, or hearing anyone confess it as a sin, since about 1970.

Rick, Rick: Social conservatism is not inconsistent with responsible use of contraception. Look at your Mormon competitors: big families (by today's standards), conservative values (ask a gay Mormon) and no fretting by their religion that couples can't use contraception responsibly.

But more importantly: politicians can do what they can to bolster family life via various policies, but it's been many a decade since anyone expects them to deliver talks on sexual morality, and in particular contraception. Lead by example, by all means: oh wait a minute, the Mormons seem to be doing that better than new Catholics (but old Christians) like Newt Gingrich.

But that's the problem isn't it: this is really all about American evangelicals who can't stomach voting for a Mormon.

2. Call it "bad judgement" or "just dumb"?

In listening to climate change "skeptics", particularly loudmouth, aggressive, know-it-all ones it from a blog like Catallaxy, or those who comment at Andrew Bolt, there is a continual temptation to react by just thinking "they are so dumb, this is unbelievable."

But that can't really be the explanation. I mean, they hold down jobs, make money, etc. They count amongst their fold a disproportionate number of geologists and engineers, which suggests a personality connection of sorts.

It has to be more a case of reasonably intelligent people displaying bad judgement when the psychological conditions are right. There are many examples of this from history - I guess we shouldn't be surprised that it is happening again.

And yet, as noted in a previous post, how can you show a graphs like these to people:

and yet get a response of "haw, haw, you're convincing no one; give it up, you've lost"? I mean, it sure sounds like dumb.

John Quiggin, even though I think he is wrong on Kevin Rudd, takes a very tough line when he writes bluntly in a recent post:
There is no such thing as an honest climate sceptic. Those who reject mainstream science are either conscious frauds or gullible believers.....While many low-information “sceptics” have simply been misled by reading the wrong material on the Internet, or trusting the wrong sources, the great majority of active opponents of climate science are complicit in their own deception, preferring to believe obvious lies because it suits their cultural and political prejudices.

Is he overstating the case there when he uses "conscious frauds", particularly when you look at what passes for commentary on climate change by economists at Catallaxy?

I'll be polite and say I'm sitting on the fence - I can't work out how they got to the position they are in. But certainly, I think they sound dumb as a matter of routine in the (often snide and dismissive) way they talk about climate change science.

I also can't avoid the feeling that when any economist, being a profession that is supposed to be used to assessing statistics and information of all types, starts being a polemicist for AGW and climate change denial, the credibility of policy views on just about anything else they write about also deserves to suffer.

3. Right wing and US racism

Charles Johnson at Little Green Footballs has been reading comments to stories at Fox News, and it is truly astonishing the racism that is on display there, until Fox disappears them if they get too ugly. Have a look at these:

Fox News Commenters Respond to Whitney Houston’s Death With Deluge of Hatred and Racism

Reactions to ‘Fox News Commenters Spew Racism at Whitney Houston’

Update: Fox News Makes Racist Comment Thread Disappear

Fox Nation Commenters Spew Hatred and Racism at First Lady Michelle Obama

Has this been an issue for comment on any of the popular right wing commentary blogs in the US, such as Hot Air, PJ Media or Instapundit? Not as far as I can see from Googling around. It's just ignored. The Right has developed a blind spot to the ugliness on their own side. They do this with the ugly attacks on climate scientists too.

But they will still take the time to note books criticising multiculturalism, though.

4. We love nuclear power...we just don't want to help it.

Right wing people instinctively like nuclear power. Not because of low emissions, since a large slab of the Right doesn't believe in global warming, but just because it's shiny, new and modern sounding, and used to appear in a lot of science fiction that the libertarian wing of the Right used to read as a teenager.

So they like it, but then they don't care about when it arrives. In a country like Australia, where coal is always going to be dirt cheap without carbon pricing, do they want carbon pricing to make nuclear at least competitive? No, of course not.

This exchange between me and the climate change denialist Rafe took place over the weekend:
Me: Which leads me to a fundamental Catallaxy and Coalition bit of nonsense: you are (mostly) dead keen on nuclear, but totally against a carbon price that would actually make implementing it competitive.


Great idea Steve, intervene to make an existing service more expensive to help an alternative to get up.

R&D will take care of the greater cost of nuclear power, if it is allowed to proceed instead of being brought to a halt as occurred in the US (under Carter?).

Of course, Rafe would have absolutely no idea as to how long the R&D will take and whether it truly has any prospect of ever making it as competitive as coal for Australia. But the free market takes care of everything, doesn't it?

If pressed further, Rafe and other free market types will no doubt complain about excessive regulation of nuclear power being the reason it doesn't evolve faster, and in doing so like to pretend that it isn't inherently dangerous. So we get them and the likes of Andrew Bolt acting as if nuclear accidents are not a big deal. "80,000 people displaced indefinitely from their homes? What's it matter - no one was killed!"

Given what we currently can see as potential sources of energy, and the length of time involved in replacing existing power sources, there is not much chance of the free market dealing with climate change without some involvement of government to skew things towards faster adoption of clean energy. Because the libertarian right hates the government doing anything, they are useless on climate change, and would rather devote their time to dismissing the idea that anything need be done at all.

Their legacy in 30 years time will, I expect, be looked back on with bitterness.

Link5. Blair's Law on the Right. I'm still on Tim Blair's blog roll, and I see the occasional visitor still drops in here via that. Not sure how much longer that will last, though, when I note here how Andrew Bolt's blog, Blair's blog and Catallaxy are increasingly inter-related and referring each other to stories, and it all makes a pretty convincing case of Blair's Law ("the ongoing process by which the world's multiple idiocies are becoming one giant, useless force") applying just as much to the Right as to the Left.

Does Tim Blair, for example, ever bother reading the comments threads at Catallaxy, where CL (who seems to be in daily contact with him) writes nutty, extremely conservative Catholic stuff about Obama, one recent example starting like this:
Not enough attention is paid to the ‘why’ of Obama’s Hitlerian attack on Christianity, specificially in relation to contraception.
It's all because Obama and the Democrats and "homosexualists" have a "passionate hatred and fear of human sexuality and fecundity," according to the 1950's style Catholic conservative CL, which seems a bit odd to me because most conservatives feel the Left's fondness for non-interference in sex lives indicates they are generally pretty keen on sex.

But the Right is increasingly willing to overlook nonsense in its fellow travellers. The number of people who call out CL on Catallaxy, even when he stupidly starts using slurs like "whore" for female politicians he disagrees with, can be counted on one hand; a hand that's lost a couple of fingers in an industrial accident, even.

Start having a good hard look at yourself, right wing commentariate. You might not like what you see.

Friday, February 17, 2012

For medicinal purposes only...or so they say

Fruit flies use alcohol as a drug to kill parasites

Fruit flies infected with a blood-borne parasite consume alcohol to self-medicate, a behavior that greatly increases their survival rate, an Emory University study finds.

Salacious Friday

The first sexual revolution: Pleasure principles | The Economist

An interesting review of a book here about how sexual mores changed dramatically in the mid 18th century:

By the mid-18th century sexual mores in England (and in much of Europe, too) had undergone a revolution, writes Faramerz Dabhoiwala, an Oxford historian who has spent much of the last 20 years researching the subject. This rupture was far more dramatic than anything that happened in 1963 when, according to the poet Philip Larkin, “sexual intercourse began”. Less than 100 years after the execution for adultery of Mary Latham, a young woman in Puritan New England, many people were thinking about sex in ways that would make some contemporary readers blush. The wealthy and powerful proudly and openly displayed their mistresses. A public agog for salacious gossip followed the lives of courtesans and high-society prostitutes (such as the oft-painted Kitty Fisher), and pornography was widely available.
...as Mr Dabhoiwala persuasively argues, the reasons for the first sexual revolution were complex and varied. The migration of people to big cities had made the bonds of traditional morality much harder to enforce, while the explosion of mass-printed media both spread ideas and exploited prurient interest in sexual shenanigans. Exploration also had an influence, as travellers returned with tales of very different sexual cultures. But the key driver, Mr Dabhoiwala believes, was the spread of religious tolerance and nonconformity, which eroded the church’s authority and let people define morality more personally.
But for salacious, somewhat unpleasant detail, you can't go past this:
The upper-middle-class members of the Beggar’s Benison club in Scotland, founded in 1732, apparently thought nothing of arranging meetings where they could drink, sing and fondle naked women. Such evenings were brought to a fitting climax, as it were, when they would communally ejaculate into a ceremonial pewter platter.
I hope they didn't use it for the haggis the next day.

UPDATE: Tim's comment, of highly questionable taste, makes me keen to clarify that "it" in the last sentence refers to the platter...

I have had a further thought: assuming there might have been something on the platter to identify its intended use and history, you really wouldn't want one accidentally turning up on Antiques Roadshow. Valuer (to sweet old lady owner) "Well, this is very interesting indeed: do you know what the intended use was? It's a bit surprising..."

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Money for nothing (or very little)

Heartland Documents Leaked, Climate Skepticism Exposed | Climate Central

Although the Institute is claiming one document is a fake, this is well worth reading.

Apparently, Bob Carter is getting $1667 per month from the Institute. Carter has not denied this; in fact, his non committal statement on the amount he receives can reasonably be implied to confirm it.

That's odd. His scientific work on climate scepticism convinces absolutely no one of scientific importance, as far as I can tell. (His last co-authored paper is still attracting attention for how wrong it was, with Michael Tobis questioning how it ever got published.) He doesn't even seem to have a very high profile in media appearances, if you ask me. (Actually, I see now that he did have a recent piece in The Australian, but seems to be his first for quite a while. Ian Plimer, the other geologist to make money out of being a professional AGW denier, keeps writing books for the Right to launch for him, and I would say has a higher profile.

Graham Readfern has a great post about this, which shows Carter's laughably hypocritical attitude to this revelation:

Professor Carter added: “The details of any of these payments are private to me. I can’t imagine that Heartland has released this document – so the question is, how this document was released.”

Scientists are paid not to have agendas or opinions, but to summarise the scientific evidence.”

Now I have to say I found this last statement pretty rich, coming from someone who is continually writing opinion pieces for newspapers and websites.

For example, during the carbon tax debate of last year, Professor Carter collectively described Chief Scientist Ian Chubb, Climate Change Minister Greg Combet, now Climate Commissioner Tim Flannery and former Australian Government climate adviser Professor Ross Garnaut as the “four horsemen of the climate apocalypse”.

Was this his opinion, I wonder? The kind of opinion he says scientists aren’t allowed to have?

It gets worse (the hypocrisy, that is):

“I’m a senior scientist and I speak in public on climate change. My scientific authority has nothing to do with who is paying me. I’m not implying a threat here, but I would advise you to be very cautious about what you impute. “
He said he “emphatically denies” any suggestion that his opinion on climate change was swayed by funders, but then stated this would not matter in any case.

“Professional scientists cannot have their opinion bought,” he said, adding it was not important who funded research, but whether or not it was correct.

This is an odd assertion for Professor Carter to make, given that he has regularly over the years attempted to suggest that mainstream climate scientists are motivated by research dollars.

As far back as 2006, in the UK’s The Daily Telegraph, Professor Carter wrote: “scientists are under intense pressure to conform with the prevailing paradigm of climate alarmism if they wish to receive funding for their research.”

Oddly, on Professor Carter’s webpage he chooses to state that he receives no research funding from “special interest organisations such as environmental groups, energy companies or government departments”.

Yet, if this funding doesn’t matter, then why make this statement? If he takes no interest in who funds his projects, then how would he know if he is receiving funding from “special interest groups” like those he describes.

I pointed out to Professor Carter that it was standard practice for scientists to disclose the funders of research when they publish in peer-reviewed journals. This, said Professor Carter, was “a very quaint and old fashioned practice”.
Of course, Carter has been noteworthy in the Institute of Public Affairs, which refuses to disclose funding too.

The Heartland leak at least shows what sensible people already knew - it is not interested in genuine science, it's a mere advocacy group that wants to dissuade the public's belief in genuine science.

This is, of course, what the IPA does as well.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

As I suspected...

Contraception objections fail Catholic's moral reasoning – USATODAY.com

A very clear and convincing analysis explaining why, from a moral theology point of view, the bishop's objection to the Obama contraception compromise just does not stand up to scrutiny.

(Although, it doesn't deal with how the self-insurer compromise is supposed to work.)

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

As shared in Australia

David Frum on the GOP’s Lost Sense of Reality -- New York Magazine

I read this a while ago, but don't think I have linked to it before.

David Frum writes in detail, from an insiders perspective, about how the Republicans and the Right in the US have "lost touch with reality". It's a good summary of how the Right in the US has gone bonkers.

The Australian Right is, unfortunately, too readily infected by American ideas; such that, for example, means testing of a rebate for those on comfortable incomes (a family has to earn more than $166,000 to even start having it reduced) is called "class warfare".

Of course, those complaining the loudest about this also want the government to reduce the deficit. Tony Abbott is at least smart enough to recognise the benefit of this measure to helping him with the budget should he win government, and hence he won't promise to re-instate the rebate, and nor should he. If the Labor government runs its full term, the Coalition's opposition to the rebate change will have been largely forgotten anyway.

This is, I suppose, just routine political humbuggery and gamesmanship; but honestly, when you see the insistence from the American Right that for their deficit problems, the answer is to reduce taxes for the rich, you have to worry about how much their ideology will affect the Coalition.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Contraception and the Bishops, continued

dotCommonweal � Blog Archive � Conscientious objectors?

Of all the commentary around about the Obama compromise deal for the contraception mandate, I thought this blog post, and the comments following, were the best I have seen.

I also like this comment, although I think it might be an old joke I have heard before:
As always, Stephen Colbert captures the heart of the issue: “A woman’s health decisions are a private matter between her priest and her husband!!!”
There is the matter of how "self insured" institutions can work with this compromise deal. But if that can be sorted, I don't see either the Bishops or the Republicans benefiting from trying to keep this a live issue.

Not encouraging

Climate change causes harmful algal blooms in North Atlantic: study

The study, published in Nature found there has been a dramatic switch between the prevalence of to diatoms – two groups which include many of the microscopic planktonic plants forming the base of the ocean’s food chain.

The patterns show shifts in the distribution of species known to cause harmful effect through toxin poisoning.

The researchers, from Swansea University’s Institute of Life Science and the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science in Plymouth said the effects of the shift could already be impacting UK waters, with shellfish harvesting sites off the Scottish west coast closing.

“Imagine looking at your garden one morning and finding that the grass had suddenly been replaced by bushes,” said Professor Graeme Hays, one of the paper’s authors from Swansea University.

“This may sound far-fetched but we have found changes of this magnitude in the biology of the North Atlantic, with a dramatic switch in the prevalence of dinoflagellates to diatoms.”

Using over 92,000 samples spanning 50 years from the Continuous Plankton Recorder survey, the team found that increases in temperature – a key element of climate change – had helped to drive this shift.

It's always worth asking whether this type of research is only finding something novel, or just something no one had previously looked for. But a 50 year survey of plankton seems a pretty good basis for saying significant changes have happened.

Quality journalism

I used to visit the Times of India to be amused at the lurid quality of their local crime reporting, but I think I may have found a site from Ghana with even more spectacular journalistic "flair":

A 53-year-old woman, Janet Appiagyei, went berserk and stripped an 18-year-old sales boy, Godfred Darko, and beat him to pulp by pulling and squeezing his genitals until they turned livid.

Janet Appiagyei, who is the wife of Apostle Daniel Boateng of Joyful Life Ministry International, a charismatic church at Kwashieman, and the sole importer of Mama Honey mackerel at Okaishie, accused Godfred of stealing GH¢1,600 from the sales they made on Friday, January 27 and Saturday January 28, 2012.

According to a source close to the Striking Force Unit of the Ghana Police Service, the woman stripped the boy after subjecting him to severe beatings and began to pull his manhood until it was bruised.
I like the bit about "sole importer of Mama Honey mackerel" thrown in the middle.

I see in another report with the headline
"Kennedy goes 'gaga' on Twumasi Appiah; calls him a “wee smoker” " there is a sudden outbreak of civility:
“I take [an] exception to what he said that I don’t even attend meetings. As a chairman as he is, even [when we were discussing the budget] how many times did he come with a clean face. You go and smoke your wee. .. He is a wee smoker, he goes out there, he doesn’t even do anything, please, please, I am not scared of that id***.”
Oh wait a minute. The lurid nature of the reporting includes a graphic photo of a dead alleged thief with a bullet hole in the chest. I won't link to that, but of the comments following the story (many doubting the police version of how they shot the guy), no one seems concerned about the photo.

Things are different in Ghana in many ways, it seems.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The anti-science candidate

Rick Santorum has been busy throwing red meat to the conservative anti-science base.

That he now appears to be a (almost) serious contender, at least in terms of present polling, is indeed a matter of grave concern for the state of the American Right.

The Colorado Independent reports:
The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania argued that science has been hijacked by politicians on the left, and that climate change is “an absolute travesty of scientific research that was motivated by those who, in my opinion, saw this as an opportunity to create a panic and a crisis for government to be able to step in and even more greatly control your life,” Santorum said.

“I for one never bought the hoax. I for one understand just from science that there are one hundred factors that influence the climate. To suggest that one minor factor of which man’s contribution is a minor factor in the minor factor is the determining ingredient in the sauce that affects the entire global warming and cooling is just absurd on its face. And yet we have politicians running to the ramparts — unfortunately politicians who happen to be running for the Republican nomination for president — who bought into man-made global warming and bought into cap and trade,” he said, before criticizing presidential rivals Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney by name for their previous positions on cap and trade and climate change.
Funnily enough, the relatively cautious and moderate climatologist John Neilsen-Gammon had a post out this past week entitled "Three Simple Facts About Carbon Dioxide" which begins:
Some things about carbon dioxide in the climate system are so firmly established and fundamentally important, you can use them as litmus tests to determine whether the person you are listening to is honest and knowledgeable. Note that somebody contradicting these facts may be dishonest or ignorant or both, but it’s usually not possible to tell which.

Fact #1: A small concentration of CO2 is a big deal.
Rick should read.

Does Hedley Thomas care to report this?

Brisbane Flooding 'Inevitable', Hydrologist Tells Flood Inquiry

Hedley Thomas and the Australian have been doing their best to convince the public that the Seqwater engineers were responsible for the Brisbane flood.

What then don't they report (as far as I can tell on the 'net) is this crucial bit of evidence yesterday by the independent hydrologist Mark Babister, we have to go to the Fairfax press to read about it. (Even then, it is not given much prominence):

In his report released last night, the hydrologist found that "although hindsight indicates a better flood mitigation result could have been obtained ... it would have been unjustifiably risky using the information available at the time".

"The primary factor when forming this view is that there would generally be no grounds to release large flows from Wivenhoe Dam during a flood event that are greater than the inflows so far received," the report says.

The strategies would have relied on operators releasing large flows from Wivenhoe in anticipation of drastic inflows.

"Between 11am on January 8 and 1pm on January 9, both of these strategies would have involved dam outflows significantly in excess [almost double] the peak dam inflow observed until that point," the report says.

"During this period, the above scenarios would have required Wivenhoe Dam to operate as a flood amplification dam rather than a flood mitigation dam.

"The only reason to increase flows so dramatically at such an early stage would have been if there was a sure indication that future inflows [would] exceed the remaining flood mitigation space in the dam, and that storage capacity should be 'created' for later."

When similar evidence was given in July 2011, Hedley Thomas and the Australian's article on it was headed "Qld flood damage 'could have been cut' "

The Australian's, and Thomas' reporting on this has been sensationalist and pretty disgraceful.Link

Friday, February 10, 2012

A likely story, Part 2...

Mills denies giving access to voicemails:

Earlier, the Australian owner of Big Pictures photo agency, Darryn Lyons, told the inquiry that photographers "didn’t know where they stand" when taking images of celebrities.

"We do not know from one day to the next whether they are going to want it or not," he said, speaking via video link from Australia.

"It is so ambiguous - we do not know what is right and what is wrong.

"Fifty per cent of celebrities want to be photographed and they love it but others will pick and choose their terms."

Thursday, February 09, 2012

A likely story...

Ancient Antarctic lake thought to harbor prehistoric life, Hitler clones - CSMonitor.com

You should read the link - it's very amusing. And a little bit enlightening about Nazis.

There has been some odd links around on news.com sites saying something about the Russians drilling into the lake having "disappeared"; I thought it all sounded like nonsense from the Weekly World News (now sadly only a pale online imitation of its former self), but I didn't track down the source of the story.

Stupid spice challenge

Can the cinnamon challenge kill you? | MNN - Mother Nature Network

I've mentioned before that nutmeg can be abused, but I see there is now a "cinnamon challenge" on the net, and it also appears not to be the safest thing to try.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

The big fuel cell

Solvay’s 1 MW Nedstack Fuel Cell Delivers Impressive Performance During its First Two Months

We don't read enough about fuel cells and their potential contribution to cleaner energy. At the link above, you can see the photo of a very big one in Belgium, being run successfully for a couple of months, and apparently can power about 1400 homes.

A question of influence

BBC News - Did Charles Dickens really save poor children and clean up the slums?

The BBC looks at the question of how influential Dickens really was for social reform in the 19th century. Maybe not quite as much as people think, say some historians; but this has an air of pop contrariness about it if you ask me.

Climate change stuff

* Skeptical Science has a good post explaining Hansen's recent paper that details why they expect rapid warming in the near future.

* At Real Climate, a post on the study of tree rings, showing they don't well reflect cooling caused by volcanic activity. The end result is that this may have led to some underestimates of climate sensitivity.

* Nature reports that some measurements of the amount of leaking methane from at least one natural gas field indicate that gas may not be much better than coal for the warming atmosphere. There seems to be uncertainty as to how representative this is of other gas production areas, but it is still a bit of bad news.

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Around the solar system by nuclear power

Robert Heinlein, writing in the the 1950's, used to have families cruising around the solar system via simple nuclear powered rockets (I remember the family discussion of the merits of different rocket models in The Rolling Stones - also known as Space Family Stone) and it may yet turn out that nuclear propulsion will be what gets astronauts around in future.

This report notes that NASA has had highly variable funding for nuclear rockets over the years, but they still think it has a lot of merit and may yet re-fund it to more realistic levels.

It's always going to be a bit controversial, though, getting the fuel into space on the top of a controlled explosion.

Speaking of Heinlein, I've recently bought a couple of Charles Sheffield novels from second hand stores. I've been reading him on and off for years, and am currently half way through The Web Between the Worlds.

He really does strike me as writing very much in the style of early Heinlein. He is more technically minded, but the way he sketches characters, has a basic optimism for the future of humanity, only ever implies sex and never describes it, and throws in the occasional off hand bit of future quirk (of the type "the door dilated", or "he took a bulb of beer") reminds me of Heinlein all the time.

I find him a very entertaining science fiction writer, and it's a pity he does not quite seem to have had the recognition he deserved. (He died a few years back.)

Monday, February 06, 2012

Worse than the disease...

gulfnews : Black magician stabs man 'to cure illness'

Time for a bizarre black magic story, this time from India:
Patna: The Bihar police have arrested a black magician who ruthlessly stabbed a man claiming that it would cure him of his mental illness and help him lead a normal life.

The 55-year-old accused was apprehended on Friday evening while he was stabbing the victim Taleshwar Murmu (45) at the latter's residence in the Mehboob Khan locality in eastern Bihar's Purnia district.

"The more you endure the pain of the stab, the faster the cure," the black magician kept on telling the victim who, police said, kept on screaming loudly due to the severe pain from the stabbing.

Zapping away fatherhood

'Sonicated' Sperm: Scientists Test Ultrasound as the Next Male Contraceptive | Healthland | TIME.com

Have I posted a story about this before?* I can't quite remember, but anyway, from the report above:
In the study, the rats’ testes were exposed to high frequency ultrasound at 3 MHz for 15 minutes each, two days apart. The sessions were enough to kill the existing sperm in the testes and stop the development of additional sperm. The first study to look at the effect of ultrasound on sperm production, in the 1970s, showed that the depletion was temporary, and Tsuruta hopes his studies will show the same result...
Some men are keen to get in on the technique:
Tsuruta stresses that the procedure isn’t something you should try at home, despite the fact that commercial ultrasound machines are available online and men are apparently purchasing them for this purpose. “I get emails asking me what conditions men should use,” Tsuruta says. “This is really not something you should do at home because we don’t know nearly enough about its safety and reversibility and what other effects there might be long term.”
I'm not sure that something that is working to disable sperm cells could be trusted to not be causing damage to testicular cells you don't want damaged.

* Yes I did - in 2010. It was a story about the same researcher in fact, and I am not entirely sure why this has made it to the news again last month.

Toilet tales

Dirty little secret: the loo that saves lives in Liberia | Global development | The Guardian

This article is quite interesting; covering both the tortured history of Liberia, and that fact that people there still need a lot of convincing that building toilets is a worthwhile activity.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Floods, politics and engineers

There's always been the very strong whiff of a Right wing witch hunt against the dam operators following the Brisbane flood. It would seem this happened with unusual haste because:

a. there is Labor government in power;
b. a theory instantly developed that, being a Labor government, it had fretted too much about releases from Brisbane's water supply because it believed climate change warnings that longer droughts are coming;
c. people like to blame someone, if it is at all possible, when natural disasters happen.

Why the government should be penalised at all, even if there was any evidence (I don't think there is) that it withheld recommended water releases out of concern for future droughts is a complete puzzle, given this report from October 2010, barely 3 months before the flood, when water was being released due to spring rains:

Seqwater said all south-east dams were receiving heavy inflows from surrounding catchments after heavy rainfalls across the region.

The water body’s decision to open the flood gates at the officially 100 per cent full Wivenhoe came under fire from the state opposition.

Opposition spokesman Jeff Seeney told parliament the dam was not completely full.

“Is not this release of water from Wivenhoe Dam, when it is holding only 40 per cent its available storage capacity, a clear indication that the government has learnt nothing from the water crisis,” Mr Seeney said.

But Natural Resources Minister Stephen Robertson said the extra capacity was needed to prevent a repeat of the 1974 floods.

“What Mr Seeney on behalf of the LNP suggests is that Wivenhoe Dam should not be used for flood mitigation purposes,” Mr Robertson said.

“As a result, that puts into jeopardy the very safety of people in Brisbane and surrounding areas.”

And on 20 December, only a few weeks before the flood, Deputy Opposition Leader Springborg repeated in detail the same view (that the dams should store more water, not less) on Brisbane radio.

The decision was made (post flood) to reduce dam levels seeing there is still a La Nina weather pattern hanging around, but I can't say that I have noticed evidence that anyone influential was being outspoken about reducing dam levels in anticipation for summer 2010/11.

In any event, the flood enquiry has taken a curious turn, after having finished its report and sent it to the printers, by virtue of journalist Hedley Thomas (who was running around promoting an "independent" expert or two who were pointing the finger at dam management almost before the flood subsided.)

It turns out that the inquiry seems to have missed that in emails and notes circulating at the time of the flood, the dam engineers were not talking about the same response levels as their later formal report to the Commission indicated.

The dam engineers have therefore been recalled and grilled over how they wrote their report: the accusations of fraud and cover up have flown fast and thick from the Counsel Assisting the inquiry: I have had the feeling that their new found aggression is partly due to the fact that a journalist has shown up the well paid lawyers, as much of this evidence was already before the inquiry, just its importance seems to have been missed.

So, the basic problem is that although the manual gives escalating classifications of response, each involving discretionary faster releases of water, on the weekend before the flood, the engineers were being rather careless to record what level their actual response was at. It even seems a bit unclear whether they recognised the level they were at. So (if I understand it correctly) when writing the report, after an incredibly tiring and stressful period, they looked at how much water they had started releasing, combined with other inflows coming into the river, and petty much retrospectively nominated that they had moved to level W3 by the Saturday morning.

This isn't an ideal way to demonstrate that you were working in accordance with a manual. In fact, in evidence on the last day, one engineer seems to have acknowledged (unwisely, if you ask me) that not knowing what level your response was at would constitute a "breach of the manual". This raises a good philosophical question: if you do the same things a manual would have required just based on your own judgement, you may not have been "following the manual," but have you actually "breached" it?

As far as I could tell from some of the figures, the move out of the lower W1 response did, for much of the weekend, involve not a whole lot more water than the maximum W1 release. (I could be wrong on that, though, as the chief engineer said it was clear that they skipped level W2 and went straight to W3.)

But - given that other independent engineers have already said they think the dam operators mitigated the flood as best they could - getting too hooked up on demonstrating compliance with the manual should surely not triumph over the practical outcome of how they operated it.

As I understand it, each response classification is triggered by the dam reaching certain levels, and it seems the dam engineers certainly recognised the significance of the threshold levels being reached. In other words, they did increase water flow as levels grew, and they did make decisions as to how fast to release water based on how fast the dam level was responding. The manual even at level W3 allows them to consider problems caused downstream by flooding the highest bridges near Fernvale, and they also took that into account in deciding rates of release.

The thing is, as far as I can tell, the manual does not say (at least at the first 3 levels - W4 is doing whatever must be done to save the dam) "once level X is reached, reduce dam levels by Y metres as soon as conceivably possible." And you wouldn't want it to. If there was blue sky forecast for the next week, you wouldn't want to be flooding Brisbane for no real reason.

So: surely you are always going to have to rely on judgements of the dam engineers as to rate of release based on a variety of factors that it is probably difficult to define precisely for all circumstances.

The importance is the outcome, and those who say they should have released a lot more water starting on the Saturday are, of course, doing this with the advantage of hindsight about what was soon to become record inflows into the dam. There must be hundreds of ways to model how releases could have been done differently - but high early releases would have caused earlier flooding of the lowest areas, and how do you recognize at the time the release rates which will turn out to strike the "ideal" balance?

I therefore await the inquiry's findings in this regard with some interest. Non compliance with the manual is said to have significant legal implications, as it would allow class actions. I wonder, however, whether a finding of non compliance might allow legal cases which nonetheless fail due to inability to prove negligence, or flood levels that would have been significantly lower. Surely insurance companies won't get paid much, or at all, if some modelled difference amounts to less than (say) 30 cm? And hydrology seems a rather imprecise science anyway. Lots of Brisbane flooded on land the Council did not expect would flood in a repeat of the 1974 flood - and this one peaked lower.

So the engineers have my sympathy, as do the politicians; the lawyers and the journalists - not much at all. In fact, I suspect Mr Thomas may only be giving false hope to a bunch of witch hunters.

UPDATE: as Hedley Thomas and the Courier Mail are hell bent on criticising the engineers (and just about everyone else associated with the enquiry,) you have to read another media outlet to get the same point I was making. From the ABC:

If the commission finds the engineers breached the operating manual, then it opens the Government to a class action, which law firm Maurice Blackburn estimates could exceed $1 billion.

Insiders question that figure, but regardless of the record keeping both Mr McDonald and an independent hydrologist have found the four engineers released the appropriate amounts of water and that has not yet been challenged.

If it stays that way, it means the only damage from these allegations are to the reputations of the four men.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

A very worrying virus, somewhere in a freezer

Norman Swan ran an extraordinarily scary interview on the Health Report last week that put a lot of detail on that recent avian flu research story.

To be honest, I hadn't paid all that close attention to the controversy until now, but the details in the interview really surprised me. For example, the influenza pandemic of 1918 managed to kill about 90 million people with a mortality rate of 2%.

The bird flu in nature appears to transmit rarely between humans or mammals. The man made variety, however, spread airborne to infect about 80% of ferrets used in the experiments, with a 60% mortality rate.

And some of this is sitting in a freezer somewhere, and the details of how to make are pretty obvious to many scientists from information put out already.

Mind you, as a terror weapon, it is surely the equivalent of all out nuclear war - no one would want the world it leaves. I think the bigger worry is its accidental release, as well as the news that there appears no reason why natural mutations of bird flu won't turn as deadly, eventually.

You should read the whole thing...

Friday, February 03, 2012

Underwater circle

Even if you think it unlikely that the underwater circle on the Baltic seabed is really a UFO, this CNN report is worth watching for the view of the old Vasa ship in its own museum in Stockholm. Looks very impressive:

The museum website is here.

Update: why does this CNN video, for the last day or two, not load for me? I just watched it again on Huffington Post, so it is still available.

Getting in first

Climate Change Okay for One Coral - ScienceNOW

Climate change/ocean acidification skeptics will be onto this sooner or later, so we may as well mention it first. On the west coast of Australia, porites coral seems to be doing fine, with the benefits of warming outweighing any acidification. The article notes that this seems to be in contrast to the Great Barrier Reef, although I expect someone has probably argued that the run off effects from a much larger coastal population might be behind the coral slow down there.

Anyway, ocean acidification is just getting underway, as well as increasing sea temperatures which lead to bleaching events. I wouldn't rush to forecast the next 100 years based on this.

Encouraging, kind of

New generation of nuclear reactors could consume radioactive waste as fuel | Environment | The Guardian: A new generation of "fast" nuclear reactors could consume Britain's radioactive waste stockpile as fuel, providing enough low-carbon electricity to power the country for more than 500 years, according to figures confirmed by the chief scientific adviser to the Department of Energy and Climate Change (Decc)....
The engineering firm GE Hitachi has submitted an alternative proposal based on their Prism fast reactor, which could consume the plutonium as fuel while generating electricity.
However, the Prism design is a sodium cooled reactor, said to have passive safety. I've always felt that liquid sodium doesn't sound all that safe. But what do I know? (Then again, what do engineers know? They build reactors besides the sea in earthquake zones.)

Trouble making moss

First plants caused ice ages: research: New research reveals how the arrival of the first plants 470 million years ago triggered a series of ice ages.
Land plants came along that late? I need to memorise evolution time lines better. Anyhow, back to the report:
Among the first plants to grow on land were the ancestors of mosses that grow today. This study shows that they extracted minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and iron from rocks in order to grow. In so doing, they caused chemical weathering of the Earth's surface. This had a dramatic impact on the global carbon cycle and subsequently on the climate. It could also have led to a mass extinction of marine life.

The research suggests that the first plants caused the weathering of calcium and magnesium ions from silicate rocks, such as granite, in a process that removed carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, forming new carbonate rocks in the ocean. This cooled global temperatures by around five degrees Celsius.

In addition, by weathering the nutrients phosphorus and iron from rocks, the first plants increased the quantities of both these nutrients going into the oceans, fuelling productivity there and causing organic carbon burial. This removed yet more carbon from the atmosphere, further cooling the climate by another two to three degrees Celsius. It could also have had a devastating impact on marine life, leading to a mass extinction that has puzzled scientists.

Thursday, February 02, 2012

All your "bear in the woods" questions answered

Snoring dormouse video: Do hibernating animals wake up to go to the bathroom? - Slate Magazine

Well, there's a lot of information here about bears and their winter toilet habits (they really don't go for the entire winter, and have some odd metabolic abilities to achieve it) that I never knew.

(The dormouse video is cute too.)

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Rupert Post - The Second

I can't find a link to it right now, but I am sure that I have heard someone, probably former Murdoch editor Bruce Guthrie, explain that Rupert Murdoch's editorial control was not overtly a matter of directing editors what he wants them to run; it is more a matter of Rupert expressing his general feel on an issue, and then newspaper editors doing a "pre-emptive fold" to slant coverage to the way they think Murdoch might approve.

This has been on my mind ever since Rupert took to Twitter, and very early on in the piece, praised Matt Ridley's book The Rational Optimist, which has been most noted for its "meh, climate change probably isn't that big an issue after all" attitude.

I've been waiting for the "pre-emptive fold" ever since, and I take the Wall Street Journal's publishing of a letter by 16 prominent skeptics part of this. (Not that the WSJ ever needed much prompting to run with climate change skepticism.)

Today, I see that The Australia re-prints the letter, just in case people here haven't already heard about it.

Fold, fold away, opinion editors.

And perhaps let someone note that the article is outrageously dishonest in one key section, at the very least:

The piece completely misrepresented my work. My work has long taken the view that policies to slow global warming would have net economic benefits, in the trillion of dollars of present value. This is true going back to work in the early 1990s (MIT Press, Yale Press, Science, PNAS, among others). I have advocated a carbon tax for many years as the best way to attack the issue. I can only assume they either completely ignorant of the economics on the issue or are willfully misstating my findings.

UPDATE: for a very detailed take down of the letter, have a look at the Skeptical Science post about it.

UPDATE 2: Andy Revkin, who first publicised Nordhaus' complaint about how the letter misrepresented his views, has another post about the letter, and the rebuttal, which takes a very soft line on the scientists involved. He seems strangely un-inclined to note the lack of expertise in the area under discussion, just noting that "most of the authors in both camps are scientists."

UPDATE 3: I still can't work out where I got "pre-emptive fold" from (maybe a radio interview), but here is Guthrie writing about Murdoch in the context of News Ltd paper's coverage of the Labor government here:
Either way, it certainly wouldn't have been a direction. That's not Murdoch's style. It would more likely have been an observation expressed by him or a lieutenant during or after dinner or at a coffee break between sessions. His editors, better than most at reading the wind, would have noted the boss's latest leanings and applied this knowledge at the first opportunity - many of them would have arrived back in Australia the morning of the budget lock-up. Of course, it would be open to an editor to ignore the boss's preferences, but as I discovered, that can sometimes come at a cost.

Rupert Post - The First

I came across this while looking for something for my next post, but it struck me as very noteworthy in light of the arrest of four Sun journalists last week for (allegedly) making payments to police. Here is Bruce Guthrie, former Murdoch employee, writing last year when the News of the World scandal was on:

IN 1988, while attending a conference of News Corporation editors in Aspen, Colorado, I made the mistake of raising the thorny issue of journalistic ethics. The proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, was not amused.

In short order, Murdoch, who was hosting the session, turned red, then purple, as I repeatedly asked a senior executive from his London paper The Sun whether the publication had any ethical framework. It didn't, the paper's news editor finally admitted. In most media companies that admission might have earned the executive a rebuke. But instead, I copped it, with Murdoch later dismissing me as a ''Fairfax wanker''. (For the record, I wasn't at that point; I became one 12 months later.)...

I left that conference in Colorado more than 20 years ago concerned that Murdoch saw ethics or, at least, the discussion of them, as an inconvenience that got in the way of the newspaper business.

To Murdoch's (waaaaay too late) credit, it is being reported that these arrests have arisen from information News Ltd itself has provided to police. Huh: a boss who telegraphs that ethics is for sooks, then later facilitates arrests for breaching them.

What a man.