Sunday, April 29, 2012


What an excellent bit of video which was not shown on the ABC's fairly forgettable climate change documentary last week "I can change your mind about climate."

I think Nick Minchin (the skeptic ex-politician), obviously liked Anna Rose (the young climate change "believer"), so much so that by the end he tried to come up with a compromise, along the lines of saying that as all fossil fuel sources are finite, he could support a move towards renewable energy now.

It's a pity this position doesn't make much sense, as far as doing anything about emissions - especially in Australia, where we have enough coal to burn for hundreds of years.   There is no urgent imperative to implement clean electricity at all out of concern for running out of dirty ways to make it.  (The argument might have a chance of working if it restricted to finding a way to make good electric cars, given oil will presumably start running out sooner than coal.)

As someone wrote about Minchin:
In all, five of Minchin’s seven experts appeared in the documentary, but only three of Rose’s. While this might sound unfair to Rose, I think that Minchin’s experts did more harm to his cause than good.

That said, I was concerned to read Minchin being quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald yesterday as saying that the documentary was a “terrific opportunity to convey to an ABC audience that there remains a significant debate”. If Minchin had any insight he would realise that the documentary simply exposes his gullibility.
 Quite true, I think, and all the more galling that the documentary left out the video above.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Sounds like an important paper

From Science:
Fundamental thermodynamics and climate models suggest that dry regions will become drier and wet regions will become wetter in response to warming. Efforts to detect this long-term response in sparse surface observations of rainfall and evaporation remain ambiguous. We show that ocean salinity patterns express an identifiable fingerprint of an intensifying water cycle. Our 50-year observed global surface salinity changes, combined with changes from global climate models, present robust evidence of an intensified global water cycle at a rate of 8 ± 5% per degree of surface warming. This rate is double the response projected by current-generation climate models and suggests that a substantial (16 to 24%) intensification of the global water cycle will occur in a future 2° to 3° warmer world. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Prisoner of war: my father's story - The Drum (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Barrie Cassidy tells at length the story of his father's war.  A good read.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Sunday, April 22, 2012

More Beard

Lucky me. Here's another, meatier, bit of writing by Mary Beard. She's reviewing a new book about Caligula.

While he was undoubtedly a terrible man, Beard notes that some of the stories about him are not quite what they seem. In fact, the worst thing he did in I Claudius (the TV series of which I have only seen, once, when it was first run on TV in the 1970's) was completely invented:

Much more shocking was the portrayal of Caligula in BBC Television’s 1976 adaptation of I, Claudius. In his novels, Robert Graves had exploited the ancient allegations that Caligula had a suspiciously close relationship with his sister Drusilla. The inventive Jack Pulman, author of the screenplay, went even further. In a terrifying scene that has no source either in ancient accounts or in Graves’s narrative, he has Caligula (John Hurt) take on the guise of Jupiter and cut the baby Drusilla is carrying from her belly and – on the model of some versions of divine gestation and paternity in Greco-Roman myth – eat the foetus. The ‘Caesarian’ itself was not shown on screen, but Caligula’s very bloody mouth was. Deemed too much for American audiences, the scene was cut out of the PBS version of the series.

Odd how we got the full scene on the ABC, but the Americans didn't.

Anyhow, there is lots more good stuff in the review, and as usual, Beard is a good read.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Revelation considered

A witty and informative review by Adam Gopnik in the New Yorker about a new book by Elaine Pagels on the Book of Revelation can be found here.

In my experience, Revelation has not been paid much attention in Catholic education or liturgy.  I think most see it as a bit of an oddball book full of obscure references and not really worth trying to decode in full.   Protestant evangelicals, on the other hand, do treat it as a big Hollywood movie, as Gopnik amusingly compares it to in his opening paragraphs:
That ending—the Book of Revelation—has every element that Michael Bay could want: dragons, seven-headed sea beasts, double-horned land beasts, huge C.G.I.-style battles involving hundreds of thousands of angels and demons, and even, in Jezebel the temptress, a part for Megan Fox. (“And I gave her space to repent of her fornication; and she repented not.”) Although Revelation got into the canonical Bible only by the skin of its teeth—it did poorly in previews, and was buried by the Apostolic suits until one key exec favored its release—it has always been a pop hit. Everybody reads Revelation; everybody gets excited about it; and generations of readers have insisted that it might even be telling the truth about what’s coming for Christmas.
Gopnik notes the unoriginal part of Pagel's book:
Pagels then shows that Revelation, far from being meant as a hallucinatory prophecy, is actually a coded account of events that were happening at the time John was writing. It’s essentially a political cartoon about the crisis in the Jesus movement in the late first century, with Jerusalem fallen and the Temple destroyed and the Saviour, despite his promises, still not back.
but goes on to point to the more novel argument put by her:
 Revelation is essentially an anti-Christian polemic. That is, it was written by an expatriate follower of Jesus who wanted the movement to remain within an entirely Jewish context, as opposed to the “Christianity” just then being invented by St. Paul, who welcomed uncircumcised and trayf-eating Gentiles into the sect. At a time when no one quite called himself “Christian,” in the modern sense, John is prophesying what would happen if people did. That’s the forward-looking worry in the book. “In retrospect, we can see that John stood on the cusp of an enormous change—one that eventually would transform the entire movement from a Jewish messianic sect into ‘Christianity,’ a new religion flooded with Gentiles,” Pagels writes. “But since this had not yet happened—not, at least, among the groups John addressed in Asia Minor—he took his stand as a Jewish prophet charged to keep God’s people holy, unpolluted by Roman culture. So, John says, Jesus twice warns his followers in Asia Minor to beware of ‘blasphemers’ among them, ‘who say they are Jews, and are not.’ They are, he says, a ‘synagogue of Satan.’ ” Balaam and Jezebel, named as satanic prophets in Revelation, are, in this view, caricatures of “Pauline” Christians, who blithely violated Jewish food and sexual laws while still claiming to be followers of the good rabbi Yeshua. Jezebel, in particular—the name that John assigns her is that of an infamous Canaanite queen, but she’s seen preaching in the nearby town of Thyatira—suggests the women evangelists who were central to Paul’s version of the movement and anathema to a pious Jew like John. (“When John accuses ‘Balaam’ and ‘Jezebel’ of inducing people to ‘eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication,’ he might have in mind anything from tolerating people who engage in incest to Jews who become sexually involved with Gentiles or, worse, who marry them,” Pagels notes.) The scarlet whores and mad beasts in Revelation are the Gentile followers of Paul—and so, in a neat irony, the spiritual ancestors of today’s Protestant evangelicals.
 All interesting stuff.
But, as a long time fan and promoter of the importance of gnostic writings (perhaps too much so), Pagel's book apparently goes on to talk about them, again, in the context of the times.  Gopnik quotes a "feminist" poem found at Nag Hammadi with this very funny line:
As an alternative revelation to John’s, she focusses on what must be the single most astonishing text of its time, the long feminist poem found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 and called “Thunder, Perfect Mind”—a poem so contemporary in feeling that one would swear it had been written by Ntozake Shange in a feminist collective in the nineteen-seventies, and then adapted as a Helen Reddy song.
As to how the book got into the Bible at all:
Pagels’s essential point is convincing and instructive: there were revelations all over Asia Minor and the Holy Land; John’s was just one of many, and we should read it as such. How is it, then, that this strange one became canonic, while those other, to us more appealing ones had to be buried in the desert for safekeeping, lest they be destroyed as heretical? Revelation very nearly did not make the cut. In the early second century, a majority of bishops in Asia Minor voted to condemn the text as blasphemous. It was only in the three-sixties that the church council, under the control of the fiery Athanasius, inserted Revelation as the climax of the entire New Testament. As a belligerent controversialist himself, Pagels suggests, Athanasius liked its belligerently controversial qualities. “Athanasius reinterpreted John’s vision of cosmic war to apply to the battle that he himself fought for more than forty-five years—the battle to establish what he regarded as ‘orthodox Christianity’ against heresy,” she writes.
That's probably about as much as I should fairly quote.  Go read the whole thing: it's great.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Credibility down

Roy Spencer, man of mystery | Open Mind

Roy Spencer, the satellite temperature lukewarmer climate scientist, has been fiddling with figures from the US Historical Climate Network (which is supposed to be accurate) and speculates that urban heat island type effects accounts for nearly all of recent US temperature increase.

As Tamino points out, this doesn't make sense when you consider Spencer's own satellite work contradicts this.

Spencer is firmly amongst the "skeptic" group that just spends all day speculating that something, anything, must be able to explain that temperature rises from increased CO2 will not be dangerous.

Believing, more or less

Belief in God strongest in US and Catholic countries, surveys find

According to this research looking at changes in belief in God internationally since 1991,  theism is gradually declining, but is increasing in a few places such as Russia, Slovenia and Israel.  (The last one is a bit of a surprise.  Maybe the Holocaust took its toll in that respect.)

But in an international survey that did not include China, one surely couldn't place too much  faith in the accuracy of the estimates.

The most curious part of the research is perhaps this:
Belief is highest among older adults. On average, 43 percent of those aged 68 and older are certain that God exists, compared with 23 percent of those 27 and younger, according to the report.

"Looking at differences among age groups, the largest increases in belief in God most often occur among those 58 years of age and older. This suggests that belief in God is especially likely to increase among the oldest groups, perhaps in response to the increasing anticipation of mortality," Smith said.

He noted that the higher level of belief was not simply a cohort effect, in which people carry forward attitudes shaped in younger years.

In the United States, for instance, 54 percent of people younger than 28 said they were certain of God's existence, compared with 66 percent of the people 68 and older.

In countries with low overall , the difference in belief between age groups is also strong. In France, for example, 8 percent of younger people said they were certain that God exists, compared with 26 percent of the people 68 and older. In Austria, 8 percent of the younger generation said they were certain in their , while 32 percent of people 68 and older were confident of God's existence.

I'm not sure if this is somehow related to decreasing belief in global warming amongst older people, which has often shown up in surveys. (I have long been maintaining that such denial is, essentially, a matter of faith in its own way.) It's worth remembering, though, in the US at least, all ages in the Evangelical churches are prominent disbelievers in AGW. On the other hand, I'm pretty sure Catholics in any country are more likely to not dispute it.

Someone else will have to work out what this all means.


A remarkable and sad article here on the incredibly high rate of suicide in aboriginal communities in the Kimberley region. Alcohol abuse, and (it seems) a sort of cultural hopelessness is at the heart of the problem, making it very hard to address adequately.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The not so secret life of Richard?

So, here's how it goes. A not very interesting article found via Arts and Letters Daily about Walt Whitman leads me to a page full of links to essays by a homosexual academic and author which are, actually, pretty interesting about the history of this activity, particularly in England; particularly in the Georgian period. Have a look at this page where he lists many primary sources about the situation in the 18th century London. I saw a bit of documentary on SBS about the somewhat strange "Molly" gay culture in England at the time, but this website provides a lot of detail.

With all the disproportionate media attention that is given to gay marriage and rights these days, it's odd to realise that even three hundred years ago in London, I might have still been cursing that the local paper was carrying on so much about the topic, albeit from a very different perspective.

I don't believe everything Norton says on the whole subject; as with other gay academics, he seems inordinately keen to claim anyone in history as homosexual. But somewhere in there he notes Richard the Lionheart as been suspected of having a relationship with (at least) King Philip II of France. I think I had seen this article in the Guardian a couple of years ago, but noted that some historians were keen to explain that the idea of two blokes sharing a bed back then, even if they later talked about how much they liked each other, didn't necessarily mean sexual contact of any kind had taken place. (And, in fact, if it was just one overnight bedsharing visit - a point I'm not entirely clear on - it does seem unlikely.)

Fair enough, but when I Google the topic of Richard, this link comes up. From a Jesuit university. And it notes that the contemporary chronicler Roger of Hovedon wrote, apart from the short passage usually quoted about Richard and Philip sharing a bed and plate and really, really liking each other's company, another story about Richard which seems to directly record that Richard did not have a problem with "illicit intercourse":

In the same year, there came a hermit to king Richard, and, preaching the words of eternal salvation to him, said: "Be thou mindful of the destruction of Sodom, and abstain from what is unlawful; for if thou dost not, a vengeance worthy of God shall overtake thee". The king, however, intent upon the things of this world, and not those that are of God, was not able so readily to withdraw his mind from what was unlawful, unless a revelation should come to him from above or he should behold a sign. For he despised the person of his advisor, not understanding that sometimes the Lord reveals to babes the things that are hidden from the wise; for the lepers announced the good tidings to Samaria [2 Kings 7], and the ass of Balaam recalled its master from the unlawful way. Wherefore, the hermit, leaving the king, went his way, and hid himself from before his face. In the process of time, however, although the before-named king despised the admonitions of the poor hermit, still, by inspiration of Divine grace, he retained some part of his warning in his memory, having faith in the Lord, that He who recalled the publicans and the Canaanitish woman to repentance, in his great mercy would give to him a penitent heart.
Hence it was, that on the Lord's day in Easter when the Lord visited him with a rod of iron, not that he might bruise him, but that he might receive the scourging to his advantage. For on that day the Lord scourged him with a severe attack of illness, so that calling before him religious men, he was not ashamed to confess the guiltiness of his life, and after receiving absolution, took back his wife, whom for along time he had not known, and putting away all illicit intercourse, he remained constant to his wife and the two become one flesh and Lord gave him health of both body and soul…"
It's hard to read that any other way, isn't it? Unless one assumes he liked "illicit intercourse" only with women other than his wife. That seems a bit unlikely when the hermit's warning was specifically about sodomy, though. (In fact, had someone close to the king arranged the visit to encourage him to stop embarrassing behaviour, I wonder.)

As I see now from the Wikipedia entry on Richard notes that the "gay" theory only started in 1948, and summarises the situation as follows:

Victorian and Edwardian historians had rarely addressed this question, but in 1948 historian John Harvey challenged what he perceived as "the conspiracy of silence" surrounding Richard's homosexuality.[102] This argument drew primarily on available chronicler accounts of Richard's behaviour, chronicler records of Richard's two public confessions and penitences, and Richard's childless marriage.[103] This material is complicated by accounts of Richard having had at least one illegitimate child (Philip of Cognac), and allegations that Richard had sexual relations with local women during his campaigns.[104]

Leading historians remain divided on the question of Richard's sexuality.[105] Harvey's argument has gained considerable support;[106] However, this view has been disputed by other historians, most notably John Gillingham.[107] Drawing on other chronicler accounts, he argues that Richard was probably heterosexual.[108]

Historian Jean Flori states that contemporary historians quite generally accept that Richard was homosexual.[106][109] Flori also analysed contemporaneous accounts; he refuted Gillingham's arguments and concluded that Richard's two public confessions and penitences (in 1191 and 1195) must have referred to the "sin of sodomy".[110] Flori cites contemporaneous accounts of Richard taking women by force[111] and concludes that Richard was probably bisexual.[112]

Flori and Gillingham agree that the contemporaneous accounts do not support the allegation that Richard had a homosexual relation with King Philip II of France, as suggested by some modern authors.[113]

So, there is more to this than I thought, and I find it rather odd to think that such a figure, more commonly thought of now for gallivanting around Europe on a Crusade, and turning up unexpectedly at the end of Robin Hood movies, was actually the subject of much speculation as to his sex life at the time.

Well, I found it interesting, anyway.

A minor lunar mystery

Scientists suggest evidence of recent lunar volcanism

The article notes:
A team of researchers at India’s Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) claims it has found evidence of relatively recent volcanic activity on the Moon, using data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Chadrayaan-1 spacecraft. According to the findings the central peak of Tycho crater contains features that are volcanic in origin, indicating that the Moon was geologically active during the crater’s formation 110 million years ago.

But the more interesting bit:
In addition, large boulders ranging in size from 33 meters to hundreds of yards across have been spotted on Tycho’s central peaks by LRO, including one 400-foot (120-meter) -wide specimen nestled atop the highest summit. How did such large boulders get there and what are they made of?

The researchers hint that they may also be volcanic in origin.

“A surprise findings revealed the presence of large boulders–about 100 meter in size –on top of the peak. Nobody knew how did they reach the top,” said Prakash Chauhan, a PRL scientist.

Beard reappears

BBC News - The 'pushy parent' syndrome in ancient Rome

Mary Beard, the Professor of Classics whose blog at The Times used to be good value (I assume it is behind the paywall now) makes a welcome appearance at the BBC, talking about Roman families.  This bit about the useless nature of ancient doctors caught my attention:

There was no such thing in the ancient world as reliable family planning.

 Roman doctors recommended having sex in the middle of the woman's menstrual cycle if you wanted to avoid pregnancy (as we now know, precisely the time when you are most likely to get pregnant). Not to mention the range of almost completely useless contraceptive creams and potions they peddled.

The fact is there must have been vast numbers of unwanted babies. Many of them would have been literally thrown away - left out on a rubbish dump to be "rescued" maybe by a passer-by and turned into a slave.

Calculating your family size was made even more complicated by the terrifying rates of child mortality before modern medicine. In ancient Rome roughly half the kids born would have been dead by the time they were 10.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Three pieces of Slate

Three stories from Slate last week:

* Yay! A complaint about Word leads to hundreds of comments, amongst which, if you go down far enough, are ones by the hidden secret devotees (and users) of Wordperfect. This is a secret cabal to which I belong too; although I must say that I have found the latest version of Word to be much better than earlier versions for some things.

Many people in that thread mention the wonders of Reveal Codes - a Wordperfect feature that does often let you work out a formatting issue, and which Word has never implemented.

I am often amazed when I have had young people out of university, and who have never known anything other than Word, still can't solve some formatting mystery problem in the program that I assumed I couldn't fix simply due to lack of familiarity.

Long may Wordperfect live (it's still updated every 2nd year or so, you know.)

* A complaint about tattoos also makes claims close to my heart (and is rather brave. Mentioning strong dislike of this trend is usually met with some very rabid insults about how us clean skins just don't understand.)

But what is most interesting is that part - a link to an article about research on the possible health consequences of some of the stuff in tattoo inks. I mentioned this before here. Doesn't sound so hot.

* American teenage birthrate is down, and it seems due to increased use of contraception.

I put it down to the decline of the influence of Sex and the City too. Maybe the second movie was so bad that it convinced teenagers who saw it that the show never got sex and relationships right.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Digital cinema and what it means

Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm Film. But the Consequences of Going Digital Are Vast, and Troubling 

A few months ago when I went to one of the big, refurbished, cinema complexes (which I usually avoid in favour of cheaper venues), it looked to me as if they must have gotten into digital projection.  The bright looking result looked pretty good to me, and I assumed that it must indicate that Australian cinemas were finally following the US trend I had been seen mentioned on the 'net over the last couple of years.

The big attraction for studios is that digital distribution saves an enormous amount of money in printing copies of movies on film and couriering them all over the country.

Yet, I had also read that Spielberg (amongst other directors) does not want to shoot on digital cameras.  His films are still shot on film and then converted to digital format.   But increasing, I think,  films (especially special effects heavy ones) are made with digital cameras too.

Anyway, the changes this all means to the movie making business are all set out in interesting detail in the above article.

One of the most surprising things is that, as with computer file format wars generally, the movie industry doesn't have its act together on this yet:

 And even after the films are converted to digital, Jan-Christopher Horak, director of the UCLA Film & Television Archive, calls the challenges of preserving them "monumental." Digital is lousy for long-term storage.

The main problem is format obsolescence. File formats can go obsolete in a matter of months. On this subject, Horak's every sentence requires an exclamation mark. "In the last 10 years of digitality, we've gone through 20 formats!" he says. "Every 18 months we're getting a new format!"

So every two years, data must be transferred, or "migrated," to a new device. If that doesn't happen, the data may never being accessible again. Technology can advance too far ahead.

Anyhow, I just found the whole article a good read.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Climate change, probabilities, etc

Well, the scientific debate about how to properly think about the effects of climate change continues.

John Nielsen-Gammon makes a point about the extraordinarily warm March in much of the US not being quite as extraordinary as it seems. But in doing so, he seems to play into the hands of skeptics whose inclination has long been to shrug shoulders and say things like "what, so global warming might only add 1 degree to what was already a heatwave? Big deal."

Michael Tobis has a problem with this approach, and has a post with a good analogy, and some important diagrams.

And over at AGW Observer, a whole batch of papers looking at the Russian heat wave of 2010. Even Nielsen-Gammon seems to like this paper in that list, which gives a good explanation of how you can reconcile apparently conflicting statements about climate change and the heatwave.

Update: and as if on cue, a person commenting at John N-G's blog takes exactly the wrong message in the way that I (and others in the thread) thought would happen. It should be obvious which one I mean.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Unhealthy expeditions

Mind Hacks notes an extract from a 2008 Lancet article on mental health issues that arose during polar expeditions. I don't recall hearing about the last one before:
Frequently, the entire crew of a polar expedition would experience melancholy and depression, as was the case of the Belgica expedition to Antarctica in 1898–99. As described by the great polar explorer and expedition physician, Frederick A Cook, “The curtain of blackness which has fallen over the outer world of icy desolation has descended upon the inner world of our souls. Around the tables, in the laboratory, and in the forecastle, men are sitting about sad and dejected, lost in dreams of melancholy from which, now and then, one arouses with an empty attempt at enthusiasm.”

Cook tried to treat these symptoms by having crew members sit in front of large blazing fires. This baking treatment, as he called it, could be the first recorded attempt to use light therapy to treat symptoms of winter depression or seasonal affective disorder. Other expeditions, such as the Greely expedition of 1881–84, met a far worse fate than the Belgica exploration. In their attempt to establish a scientific base on Ellsmere Island in the Arctic, the crew of the Greely expedition was driven to mutiny, madness, suicide, and cannibalism, leaving six survivors of a crew of 25 men.

This interesting looking site "Time to Eat the Dogs" (about science, history and exploration) does say that there were "rumours" of cannibalism on the Greely expedition that circulated in the press at the time. Certainly, one man was executed for stealing shrimp from the communal mess pot. Mind you, they were stuck in the Arctic for 3 years before rescue. No wonder they got stressed.

British humour

Well, that went against expectations.

Over Easter, I took the kids to see the latest Aardman film, Pirates! - Band of Misfits. It got a very high 91% approval rating at Rottentomatoes from British and Australian critics; I liked Wallace and Gromit in their movie and TV outings; what could go wrong?

I thought it was pretty awful. Somehow, the jokes were obvious but just not laugh-out-loud, or even charmingly witty. You virtually had to be an adult to get most of them, but even then, they just came across as a bit, I don't know, trying too hard? Certainly, you could tell from the increasing restlessness of the younger members of the audience that the film was just not hitting that target at all. My kids said afterwards that it was only so-so. At least it gave me an opportunity to talk about Charles Darwin and evolution, but a springboard for some mild education is not why one goes to see an Aardman film.

Then today, my wife had hired Johnny English Reborn on DVD for the night (it's school holidays still). I knew it got so-so reviews (38% on Rottentomatoes) and (I now know) made an embarrassing $8,000,000 at the US cinema. (It made more than that in Australia alone.)

Yet we enjoyed it a lot. It's a well crafted, good looking movie with just the right mix of witty satire of James Bond and outright silliness, all without the excessive crudeness of the Austin Powers movies.

Strange how expectations can be upended.

Drug reform and economics

A week or two ago, the issue of drug law reform was again in the news because some advocacy group no one had heard much of before put out a bit of PR stuff about how a panel had met (largely comprising retired politicians, it seems) and decided the "war on drugs" had failed and there should be reform.

When I actually looked at their glossy press release, I thought it was remarkably lightweight and hardly worth the attention. One prominent person on the panel, Dr Alex Wodak, has been calling for drug easing for decades, although how he expects it to help the already heavy drug using population of inner Sydney that he treats has never been clear to me.

Anyway, I was quite happy to see on the weekend that a sort of backlash against the wooliness of this exercise appeared in both Fairfax and News Limited.

Bruce Guthrie wrote:

I am still wondering how the release of their wafer-thin report got the whole country talking about surrendering to illicit drugs. I'm left to conclude that the one-day wonder - for it flamed, burned and went out in less than 24 hours - spoke more to the state of media malleability than it did to our drug laws.

The product of a think tank called Australia21, the basis for its call seemed to be little more than a round table at which a bunch of retirees talked about what they should have done about the drug problem when they had jobs that empowered them to do it - people such as former West Australian premier Geoff Gallop and former federal police commissioner Mick Palmer.

But for real detail on why drug law reform should not remove prohibition, have a look at Henry Ergas' column in the Australian, and (perhaps more importantly, since he links to his source material), his blog entry.

I had not realised that there were economists had considered the question in such detail. While I am generally suspicious of Ergas, as he appears to be climate change skeptic and has devoted much time to criticism of the Gillard carbon pricing scheme, his take on drugs is detailed and (it seems to me) well argued.

I would also point out that you can tell that the issue is a complicated one when you even get strong disagreement on the issue amongst the readers of soft Left blog Larvatus Prodeo.

[And here's news: when checking that LP link, I just saw that the blog is ceasing to exist. Quite a surprise, even though it had become pretty dull in the last couple of years.]

Monday, April 09, 2012

CO2 coming first and last

Shakun et al. Clarify the CO2-Temperature Lag

Skeptical Science has a good explanation here of the recent paper in Nature which looked afresh at the question of whether CO2 increases preceded or followed the start of the bout of global warming that ended the last glacial period 18,000 years ago.

Nothing coming from nothing critiqued

‘A Universe From Nothing,’ by Lawrence M. Krauss -

Found via Not Even Wrong, this review attacking Krauss' key idea in his book ""Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing" is well worth reading.   The key point:
Where, for starters, are the laws of quantum mechanics themselves supposed to have come from? Krauss is more or less upfront, as it turns out, about not having a clue about that. He acknowledges (albeit in a parenthesis, and just a few pages before the end of the book) that every­thing he has been talking about simply takes the basic principles of quantum mechanics for granted. “I have no idea if this notion can be usefully dispensed with,” he writes, “or at least I don’t know of any productive work in this regard.”

But you should read it all.

Snakes and spiders (or at least, snake and spider)

I got quite a surprise today when outside to see if the possum was home (in her hidey hole under the deck just outside the front door).    A rather large (well, about a metre, which is large enough) snake on the rocky garden bed spotted me before I spotted it, and shot off at high speed in front of my feet into the bushes.    Snakes going past me at a distance of 50 cm or less is too close for comfort, no matter what species they are.

The good thing, I suppose, is that  although it was out of sight very quickly, I did at least get to see that it was pretty much a uniform olive green colour, and looking at this website, I would be inclined to think it was a common green tree snake, which is non venomous.   Most of the dangerous snakes seem to have some pattern or banding on them, although the potentially dangerous yellow-faced whip snake seems devoid of pattern too.   In fact, now that I look at this other site, the whip snake seems a distinct possibility.  I mean, do green tree snakes end up on the ground very often? 

Despite living in this house for about 8 years now, with rather large bushes and trees in the front, and bushy neighbours’ gardens, as well as rats in the roof and (sometimes) seen in the back yard, this is the first snake of any kind I’ve ever encountered.  I’m sure they must be around, but out of sight out of mind is the best policy as far as snakes are concerned.

As for spiders, this one was sitting prominently in the sun this afternoon, and stayed still for a close up with my cheapish camera.  


The body colours remind me a bit of the patterns of Jupiter. (Just a little.):

spider 2

It would appear to be a female St Andrews Cross spider.  Now you know.

Fear of white

A review of White Bread, a new book about our nation’s fear of flour. - Slate Magazine

What an interesting story told here about the history of white bread, and how it's been the subject of much condemnation well before my lifetime.  Some extracts:

 As Aaron Bobrow-Strain makes clear in his epically well-researched White Bread, our culture’s tendency to focus what we as individuals put in our mouths often goes along with classism and xenophobia. Just as whole wheat acolytes pity white-trash white-bread eaters, and gluten-free converts showcase their discipline through vegetables and lean proteins, so, too, did turn-of- the-century crusaders attempt to spread the gospel of good food to less enlightened masses.

Between 1890 and 1930, Bobrow-Strain writes, Americans transitioned almost completely from homemade bread to store bought bread—and specifically to bread made in large factories. Hygiene fears were a major reason. The emerging understanding of germ science led pure food crusaders to preach against the dangers of mother’s kitchen, which couldn’t hope to achieve the level of cleanliness of a large bread factory, nor the heat necessary to kill the “yeast germs.” “You and your little oven cannot compete,” one newspaper article informed women after the turn of the century. Scientists and food reformers also warned against mom-and-pop bakeries, whose reputation for substituting cheap substances like chalk and alum was further undermined by the presence of so many swarthy immigrant workers, whose hygiene was considered suspect.
White bread, untouched by human hands and carefully wrapped for hygienic transport, became a symbol of purity....

But during the '20s and '30s, the nation was gripped by panic over white bread. A wave of experts with questionable pedigrees began warning about white bread’s nutritional content, harkening back to the teachings of 19th-century ascetic Sylvester Graham, who believed that refining wheat undermined God’s intent. (Graham had a number of interesting theories, including that consumption of meat, seasonings and rich foods lead to rampant masturbation.)

Dietician and radio show host Alfred W. McCann claimed that 400,000 children a year were sent to “little graves” because they were raised on white bread. Food pundits said that white bread could cause blindness and disfigurement. A 1912 article in a journal called “Life and Health” made the dubious claim that in countries where there was no white bread, there was no cancer. Bobrow-Strain writes that white bread was implicated in a slew of illnesses including “diabetes, criminal delinquency, tuberculosis … rheumatism, liver disease, kidney failure …” White bread’s fortunes sunk, and bakers, who preferred white flour in part because it was cheaper to mill and could be stored longer, were beside themselves.

The article goes on to explain that the food industry got pro-active, and by the 1940's, adding vitamins was one way they successfully fought against the anti-white cranks.   (Actually, as a child, I don't recall seeing any brand of bread advertising its additives, like they do now.  Maybe Australia never succumbed to fear of white bread?)

All very interesting.

More religion reading

I've been looking around for religious themed stuff for Easter.

Slate is having a hard time coming up with anything new. They have again posted a 2008 story on early Christian understanding of the resurrection, and I see that I linked to as a result of their 2010 re-posting of it.

I guess it is a bit of a challenge coming up with new ideas about it; unless, of course, you come up with something like the image on a cloth causing a whole misunderstanding. (See a few posts down below.)

In other religion stuff on the net, I see that Stephen Crittenden has been writing articles at the Global Mail website, and they are pretty good. One is a summary of the story about the forced resignation of Bishop Morris of Toowoomba (a story about which I have always had some trouble finding the details); and a somewhat more critical than I expected review of the troubled leadership of recently resigned Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. (Williams is only 61, I learned to my surprise. His eyebrows seem decades older than that.)

I only know of Crittenden because of his hosting the (now axed) Religion Report on ABC's Radio National, but I see from his Global Mail profile that his background is more in arts and culture generally. He's not snobbish about it, though, writing a piece about how much he likes the Simpsons. (He notes with approval some American analysis that points to the way it both satirises but re-affirms the nuclear family. As I have been watching it in re-runs a little more often lately, and catching up with episodes and evolving storylines over the years since I stopped regularly watching it, the number of times the show does this has been on my mind lately. I was also pretty surprised that the Simpson's Movie was so sympathetic to Flanders, given the degree to which he is routinely satirised for extreme religious conservatism.)

Anyway, I've strayed off religion haven't I...

How about this: a blog post from England about the question of why the Catholic Church still seems a little leery of cremation. However, given that, as with the writer of that post, I know of a Catholic Church with a newly installed columbarium (a place for keeping the ashes), it does seem that at the parish level, accommodation with cremation is being made (literally).

Evil rabbits

Someone at Fairfax has gone through an Easter slideshow at* and picked out some good evil Easter Bunny photos.

Some people clearly have no idea when it comes to costume design.

* a site which is premised on a good idea, but which seems to show that too much of a good idea is sometimes too much.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

The world catches up with me

Hydrogen Storage Could Be Key to Germany's Energy Plans - Technology Review

I've asked this question years ago (it got a mention at this very blog in 2007):  couldn't you potentially get around the "unreliable base load" issue with large scale solar power (at least for plants built near a permanent water supply) by devoting a portion of the electricity being produced on a good sunny day to electrolysing water into hydrogen, storing it, and then burning it to get a gas turbine going for a rainy day?

Seems that it wasn't such a stupid idea after all:
If Germany is to meet its ambitious goals of getting a third of its electricity from renewable energy by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050, it must find a way to store huge quantities of electricity in order to make up for the intermittency of renewable energy.

Siemens says it has just the technology: electrolyzer plants, each the size of a large warehouse, that split water to make hydrogen gas. The hydrogen could be used when the wind isn't blowing to generate electricity in gas-fired power plants, or it could be used to fuel cars.

Producing hydrogen is an inefficient way to store energy—about two-thirds of the power is lost in the processes of making the hydrogen and using the hydrogen to generate electricity. But Siemens says it's the only storage option that can achieve the scale that's going to be needed in Germany.

Unlike conventional industrial electrolyzers, which need a fairly steady supply of power to efficiently split water, Siemens's new design is flexible enough to run on intermittent power from wind turbines. It's based on proton-exchange membrane technology similar to that used in fuel cells for cars, which can operate at widely different power levels. The electrolyzers can also temporarily operate at two to three times their rated power levels, which could be useful for accommodating surges in power on windy days. 
Some day my rightful place as CEO in charge of the Earth will be recognized by the planet, or at least aliens reading this blog who may have a better chance of installing me to that position.  They need to get a move on, though.

Improving mouse houses

Animal testing: Be nice to mice… | The Economist

Quite a charming report here with mouse information that's news to me:
Although medical science’s favourite critters relish temperatures of a little over 30°C, laboratories routinely keep them at five or ten degrees below that. This is not in order to torture the beasts but, rather, because when kept warm they are unmanageably aggressive. The downside is that they have to eat more than they otherwise would, in order to keep their bodies warm. That changes their physiology. And that in turn alters the way they metabolise drugs, with possibly confusing results.

The report then notes a study suggesting that labs don't have to increase temperatures to get them responding better to drugs; they just have to provide them with paper with which to build nests.   


In the toilet

Hey, it's Easter, which always calls for its fair share of religion posts.

Does it count if it at least comes from Biblical Archaeology Review? Yes, that's enough of a connection for me. (The magazine is often pretty interesting reading, actually.)

Today I am recommending: First Person: Privies and Privacy

It's a quick look at some of the history of privacy while attending to one's daily toilet needs, and makes this observation:
We have long known that ancient notions of privacy are different from ours. But how different and in what ways remain far from clear. At several Roman-period sites, like Ephesus, Rome and Pompeii, archaeologists have found long benches with rows of adjacent toilet seats with no provision for privacy. What is less well known is that these provisions were not for the ordinary person but were for the elite.
Which leads me to another observation: The higher the social station, the less concern for privacy. Which brings me back to Eglon (and Henri III): Royalty was unconcerned with privacy. But the issue may not have been privacy at all. Royalty could do what it wanted. What might be distasteful for the average person was a prerogative of status. What would be offensive to or for the average person was permitted to royalty—indeed, may even have been a mark of privilege.
Well, that's interesting, when in the more modern setting, lack of toilet privacy is generally seem as something that de-emphasises privileged status. I remember as a child being surprised when watching the 1950's movie "No Time for Sergeants" on TV, which featured a key sequence involving a barracks latrine. The thing was, this was a row of toilet seats with no privacy screening at all; something which I thought was taking military group cohesion a little too far. (You can it on a short video clip here.) Attending to this in the field is one thing, but making barracks with no toilet privacy seems quite another.

In fact, while everyone is aware that no privacy while showering was long a feature of public swimming pools and sports locker rooms, I have never known of anywhere where there was a lack of privacy for defecation.

Anyway, this also reminds of a recent story from India, a country renowned for its lack of toilets:
New data from the country's 2011 census shows 59% of Indian households have a mobile phone. Only 47% have a toilet on the premises (and that includes pit latrines that don't use running water).
Lack of toilet privacy is certainly no sign of higher status in that country.

So ideas of privacy change. I wonder what ancient Romans would think of someone doing the equivalent of posting about their sex life on Facebook, or a newspaper column. It would be the equivalent of having a board in the public square where you could pin notices about it, I guess, and might have been thought of as rather unedifying. I hope so, anyway.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The odd explanations for the inspiration for Christianity

Mystery solved? Turin Shroud linked to Resurrection of Christ - Telegraph

I meant to post about this a couple of weeks ago but forgot. Now I see that Australian breakfast television is doing a story on it for Easter Sunday morning. How odd.

Anyhow, short version: Cambridge art historian believes the Shroud of Turin is authentically the shroud in which Jesus was buried, but:
It was, suggests de Wesselow, seeing the Shroud in the days immediately after the crucifixion, rather than any encounter with a flesh and blood, risen Christ, that convinced the apostles that Jesus had come back from the dead.
As The Telegraph link above further explains:
What the apostles were seeing was the image of Jesus on the Shroud, which they then mistook for the real thing. It sounds, I can’t help suggesting, as absurd as a scene from a Monty Python film.

“I quite understand why you say that,” he replies, meeting me half way this time, “but you have to think your way into the mindset of 2,000 years ago. The apostles did see something out of the ordinary, the image on the cloth.

“And at that time – this is something that art historians and anthropologists know about – people were much less used to seeing images. They were rare and regarded as much more special than they are now.

“There was something Animist in their way of looking at images in the first century. Where they saw shadows and reflections, they also saw life. They saw the image on the cloth as the living double of Jesus.
“Back then images had a psychological presence, they were seen as part of a separate plane of existence, as having a life of their own.”
How does this rank with other "out there" theories for what inspired the establishment of Christianity? I would say: better than "The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross", the very 1960's inspired idea that the whole Christ thing was (more or less) one big hallucinatory story spread by "magic mushroom" folk of the middle east. As Wikipedia notes about the author (and his book, which was pretty big in its day):
The reaction to The Sacred Mushroom and the Cross ruined Allegro's career.[3][4] His detractors considered his somewhat sensationalist approach deplorable and his arguments somewhere between unconvincing and ludicrous.
The "Shroud of Turin is the resurrection" theory I would also rank above Barbara Thiering's so-called "pesher technique" reinterpretation of the New Testament, which caught the imagination of a certain type of ABC religious types in Australia in the early 1990's. (I seem to recall her getting quite a run on shows hosted by Geraldine Doogue.) I have just found this handy summary of the deficiencies of the professor's theory from the New York Review of Books:
Professor Barbara Thiering’s reinterpretation of the New Testament, in which the married, divorced, and remarried Jesus, father of four, becomes the “Wicked Priest” of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has made no impact on learned opinion. Scroll scholars and New Testament experts alike have found the basis of the new theory, Thiering’s use of the so-called “pesher technique,” without substance. The Qumran pesher—the word itself means “interpretation”—is a form of Bible exegesis which seeks to determine the significance of an already existing prophetic text by pointing to its fulfillment in persons and events belonging to the age of the interpreter. Professor Thiering, by contrast, turns the sequence upside down, and claims that the authors of the New Testament composed the Gospel story so that pesher technique could subsequently be fastened to it.
So, it's a bit of a step up from those theories: at least it acknowledges Jesus existed, and doesn't rely on the Apostles being off their face on magic mushrooms every second day. But still, it ranks quite highly on the implausibility stakes.

Botanic gardens, Brisbane

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Looking on the bright side, I guess...

Indian girls become child brides instead of prostitutes. - Slate Magazine

India is a country still, shall we say, in need of some social reform:

  India accounts for more than 40 percent of the world’s child-marriage cases, according to a recent UNICEF report. But, this wedding and betrothal ceremony is actually a welcome event. That’s because these girls are the youngest generation of the Saraniya community, a nomadic Indian tribe that had once traveled with the Maharaja, where the men had sharpened swords and made weaponry while the women had "entertained” the troops. When India achieved independence in 1947, the Saraniyas found themselves out of work, and for lack of options, returned to prostitution as a means to support their community.
Over time the community became dependent on the income from prostitution. Although the government had allotted the Saraniyas some land, the former entertainers didn’t know much about farming, especially daunting on land without water, working wells, or any sort of irrigation facilities. Faced with a drought and no work, the number of sex workers pushed into the hundreds as villagers recruited new girls into its fold at age 10 or 12. “If a daughter is not engaged or married by the time she’s 10 years old, she’ll be pushed into the flesh trade,” says Mittal Patel, secretary of Vicharta Samuday Samarthan Manch, an Ahmedabad-based NGO that works in the community. Often it’s the mothers who did the pushing, as the families were desperate for some income.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

The solar system's GPS

How interstellar beacons could help future astronauts find their way across the universe

Maybe I've heard of something similar before, but what a neat idea:  using x-rays from pulsars as a sort of GPS system for spaceships travelling the solar system and beyond. 

Could be accurate to within a few km, according to the article.  Provided you're not trying to land your spaceship with it, that sounds pretty accurate.

Colebatch on cuts

Budget cuts will bring on recession

Tim Colebatch is one economics commentator who argues the Federal government's forthcoming budget cuts will hurt the economy rather than help it.  He notes Canada (with a conservative government) has resisted the call of the right wing to do otherwise.

We shall see what happens here, I suppose.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Will Republicans listen?

Shawn Lawrence Otto | A Message from a Republican Meteorologist on Climate Change

This is a really good plea from a Republican meteorologist for his party to stop denying climate change and be realistic about the issue.

No way back?

The news this morning is that the Federal Labor primary vote (according to the Nielsen poll) is back down to under 30%, with two party preferred at 43/57.

As far as I can tell there is no obvious reason for the large 7% (!) slump between this poll and the last. I guess there might have been some Queenslanders in the sample who felt they were on a roll and decided to punish Federal as well as State Labor, but who knows? I don't recall anything at the Federal level in the last month (apart from lingering resentment from the Rudd/Gillard fight?) which should cause this, and in fact most commentators seem to think Gillard looked more confident since winning that stoush.

Anyway, everyone seems to agree that Labor federally is facing a bit of a perfect storm. When the carbon "tax" is introduced and electricity prices go up, people will blame the government and ignore the compensatory measures. (Some of those are pretty significant though, so maybe the commentators are too pessimistic about that?)

And before that, the talk is of the government having to savagely cut back "middle class welfare" to get the budget back to surplus. This is, of course, something that conservative commentators, not mainstream economists, have been urging as a matter of utmost necessity. Yet what's the bet that cuts that are too deep will heighten the complaints that the two speed economy is causing middle class suffering, and the government will be perceived as causing more. I expect a huge amount of cynical posturing from the Coalition along these lines.

In fact, I'm not entirely sure I've ever heard what the government can do about this two speed economy issue. In some sectors, particularly tourism and parts of manufacturing, the high Australian dollar seems to be at the heart of the woes, and there's nothing to be done about that.

I guess that a world wide retreat from the threat of another financial crisis would help improve confidence generally, and signs of improvement in the US economy will too. The things the West does not need right now, I would guess, is an exploding Middle East (due to an ineffective attack on Iran by Israel with US support) or for China to undergo some uncontrolled economic crisis.

Anyway, the fact remains that with its budget, it seems the Labor government is at risk of both losing some support of mainstream economists for cutting too harshly and consolidating its incredibly low primary vote with the electorate.

Yet, it still seems to me that mainstream economists, both in the private sector and academically, have not thought this government has not done anywhere near a terrible job on the economy, and consider it to have been more a victim of circumstances beyond its control, contrary to the perceived views of the electorate. (Who, puzzlingly, still - in the face of all evidence to the contrary - seem to view Kevin Rudd as a saint who was knifed by the witch Gillard.)

It's a very strange time in politics, and while Federal Labor certainly has had its significant mistakes and mis-steps in the last few years (mostly under Rudd), it is being treated much worse by the public than it actually deserves.

By the way - I agree with Barrie Cassidy: Julia Gillard could have dealt with the carbon tax "lie" allegation much better than she did. She did not want to be branded as "tricky", and so said she would not quibble about whether a fixed carbon price leading to a carbon trading scheme is properly called a "tax". But given the huge amount of confusion in the public about this issue, she may as well have argued the point.

As an example of this confusion - Robert Manne last week in a lengthy critique of Labor said twice that Gillard had promised "not to introduce carbon pricing" during this term. This is just wrong, or at the very least very misleading, yet few people in the comments section following that article pulled him up on this.

Here is what was reported in The Australian on election eve:

In an election-eve interview with The Australian, the Prime Minister revealed she would view victory tomorrow as a mandate for a carbon price, provided the community was ready for this step.

"I don't rule out the possibility of legislating a Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, a market-based mechanism," she said of the next parliament. "I rule out a carbon tax."

This is the strongest message Ms Gillard has sent about action on carbon pricing.

While any carbon price would not be triggered until after the 2013 election, Ms Gillard would have two potential legislative partners next term - the Coalition or the Greens.

She would legislate the carbon price next term if sufficient consensus existed.

Now, she obviously started a scheme earlier than indicated by the story, there is no doubt about that, and the quibbling about what is and isn't a carbon tax can be had, but it is still extremely careless and wrong of Manne to represent the story this way:
.....having promised the electorate that her government had no intention of introducing a price on carbon, having scrambled back to government as the leader of a minority government - Prime Minister Gillard now signed an agreement with Greens for the creation of a parliamentary committee to broker the outlines of a carbon tax/emissions trading scheme.
So add that to the swirling mass of confusion and resentment that is the Australian electorate at the moment, and this situation does look pretty crook.

Climate change psychology

I see that Chris Mooney has written a book "The Republican Mind" that looks at the different character types of people who are attracted to the opposing conservative and liberal sides of politics. It is being discussed around the place in relation to climate change in particular.

This is an especially interesting topic, because until the last decade or so, I would not have said that conservatives (at least of the non-American variety) showed signs of being strongly anti-science. Even the Americans, with their significant chunk of disbelief in evolution in the population, still seemed easy convinced of science-y (or at least technological) things like the "Star Wars" laser defence system proposed by Reagan, and nuclear power generally.

But there is no doubt that AGW has changed this.

So, while I have long thought that that conservatives and progressives do tend towards some differences in character and world outlook, I am sceptical that this has much to do with the fierce resistance to accepting what mainstream science is saying on climate change. This blog post at the Economist discusses this, and the comments following it are well worth a read too.

In Australia, John Quiggin has noted the book as well. It is only a matter of time before it is discussed at the frequently embarrassing-as-an-advertisement-for-the-Right blog Catallaxy, but there will be virtually nothing of value said about the topic there by its regular crew.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Far from encouraging

Nankai quake scenario menaces Pacific coast | The Japan Times Online

They've been revising some estimates for potential future tsunamis in Japan, in light of last year's experience, and the results sound remarkable:

 Wide swaths of the Pacific coastline stretching from Honshu to Shikoku may be hit by tsunami over 20 meters high if a newly feared megaquake occurs in the Nankai Trough, a Cabinet Office panel warned Saturday.

The new warning comes after the panel revised its 2003 estimate to reflect new findings from the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Tohoku region's coastline last year.

The 2003 report said no areas would see tsunami higher than 20 meters. The updated report is based on the assumption that the earthquake will have a magnitude of 9.0.

The tidal waves generated by the Nankai Trough temblor would slam areas from Kanto to Kyushu, with waves of up to 34.4 meters likely in Kuroshio, Kochi Prefecture, and between 10 and 20 meters in parts of Shizuoka, Kochi and Miyazaki prefectures.

Urban areas of Tokyo would see tsunami up to 2.3 meters high, but the village of Niijima in the Izu Island chain, which is administered by Tokyo, could face deadly waves up to 29.7 meters high, the panel said.

Sunday morning balloon

I was half awake at 6.30 when I heard a gas burning sound coming from outside. It took me a minute to realise what it was, but the balloon was a bit further from the house than I expected:

Sounds travel a long way on quiet Sunday mornings.