Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Children: do not trust that candy bar you found in the boarding gate waiting area

Man Accused of Smuggling Meth Disguised as Candy Bars - ktla.com

LOS ANGELES -- A Long Beach man is charged with attempting to smuggle more than four pounds of methamphetamine out of the U.S. in packages designed to resemble a well-known brand of candy bar....

Harris was was searched after baggage inspectors became suspicious of what appeared to be a large box of candy bars inside his checked luggage.

Upon closer inspection, CBP officers discovered the 45 individually wrapped, full-sized “candy bars” which contained a white substance that was subsequently determined to be methamphetamine.

According to the criminal complaint, each bar “was coated in a chocolate-like substance to make the contents of the package appear to be a real candy bar.”

Good to know

BBC News - Apollo Moon flags still standing, images show

Not that I care .....

....but this just sounds greedy, doesn't it?:

Peter Jackson's The Hobbit to be extended to three films | Film | guardian.co.uk

Maybe it will cause people to cast a cynical eye towards Jackson himself, who seems a nice enough fellow, but I can't see how he rates as a director.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Fake meat news

Beyond Meat: Fake chicken that tastes so real it will freak you out. - Slate Magazine

The only thing is, you can't get this fake chicken yet.

As it happens, on the weekend, I make spaghetti bolognese using Quorn (which gets a mention in the article) in its "minced meat" version.   The result was not bad, and certainly it looks exactly like the "real" dish.  The Quorn itself is, however, soft on the tooth and feels less "weighty"  than meet, as well as not really having much flavour of itself.   But, following a Quorn recipe using quite a bit of vegetables (small diced carrot, celery and mushroom) the result was still pretty pleasing.

In looking at the packet, I think I saw that the Quorn was about 11grams of protein per 100 grams.  That doesn't sound much, but then again I had to go find out how much protein you get in a piece of steak.   Looking at this site, it appears to be 20 gram per 100 grams, which is a bit less than I would have guessed.   I see that chicken breast is actually a bit higher in protein than steak.  I wouldn't have guessed that either.

Quorn sure isn't cheap ($6 for the 300 gram bag at Coles), but as a substitute just when it feels like you've been eating too much meat lately, it's not bad.

For future reference

I haven't read this paper yet, but the topic looks interesting:

Watts over the top

I have this strong suspicion that this is not going to end well for the chronically immature Anthony Watts.  (I mean, who else would speculate that his critics just aren't patriotic enough, or that a passing reference to his mother - dead as it turned out - was beyond the pale.)

His latest spat in his traumatic falling out with Richard Muller, whose temperature record re-appraisal  project Watts said he would trust, until, of course, it basically reaffirmed the existing temperature records, has been on display over the weekend.

Muller got a piece in the NYT on Sunday, confirming that his latest analysis still says the temperature record is OK; when the rumours about this column were floating around late last week, Watts went all "drama queen" by announcing a controversial something of international significance would be announced on Sunday.

The announcement turned out to be that he and a bunch of AGW skeptic mates had an un-reviewed paper that showed the US temperature record did suffer from siting problems after all.    Yay Anthony!  All those fans who spent their holidays taking photos of weather stations for you instead of doing something actually enjoyable with their family will feel vindicated after all.

But wait - even taking it at its best - doesn't it still show US warming at the pretty much the same rate as the satellite record shows globally?  

Not only that, David Appel writes that the satellite record for the US alone is in fact quite a bit higher than what Watts now thinks the surface temperature record indicates, yet weren't skeptics always putting their faith in the satellite record as being the one which was likely to be more reliable?  And John Christy (who works on the satellite record) is a co-author of this new (unreviewed) Watts work.   Explain yourself, Sir.*  AGW skepticism has always been a hydra-headed opportunistic thing against which science has been playing a 10 year game of Wack-a-Mole,  but it seems it's getting particularly schizophrenic (in the colloquial sense) lately.

Here's the Appel quote:
 First of all, it's exactly the kind of paper that most needs peer review: based on a lot of judgements and classifications and nitty gritty details that only siting wonks can evaluate. (So does a paper like BEST's -- but their conclusion is nothing surprising.)

And it just doesn't compete with the narrative -- record US heat, the US drought, BEST -- that is quickly sweeping by. It smells a little desperate. If it withstands peer review, then it's worth a good look. Until then it looks like PR, which is, of course, exactly how it's being delivered.

(Can I just say that delivering science as PR, or PR as science, is off-putting and worrisome, whether it comes from private groups or professional journals like Nature.)

Then there are the inconvenient facts that

(1) USA48 is 1.6% of the Earth's surface area, and

(2) the trend of the USA48 lower troposphere, as measured by satellites as calculated by UAH, is 0.23 ± 0.08 °C from 1979 to present (95% confidence limit, no correction for autocorrelation). Satellite measurements almost completely avoid the urban heat island problem.
Stoat is similarly unimpressed, and his take on the self aggrandising Muller is worth reading too.

The other fascinating thing about this is that it appears that Steve McIntyre, another co-author of the new paper, appears to have had no idea that Watts was putting out a press release about the unreviewed paper.  I wonder if he has a problem with that.

Update:     I like Ben's take on this:
 Anthony’s been hiding behind a fence, nursing his snowball-with-a-stone-in-it waiting for Muller to walk past. Hell hath no fury like a betrayed denialist.

Update 2:  I see that in the paper itself, it's claimed that the satellite temperatures can be expected to be higher than the surface temperature, and that's why the Watts claimed trend is right.  Yet, I have read at least one comment around the place that this only applied to the tropics.  So let's wait and see what comes of this.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Making it "relevant"

Gary Younge had a column in The Guardian last week noting the rise of specifically "gay-friendly" high schools in the US.  Such schooling is not exactly welcomed by conservatives, but some gay advocates think it's a bad idea too, for basically letting normal schools off the hook for not dealing with bullying more effectively. 

I hadn't heard things had gone quite this far before:
  "Kids are definitely coming out earlier, and middle school is definitely the worst time for bullying, whether you're straight or gay," says Savin-Williams. There are several summer camps around the country, that cater to transgender children as young as eight.
But the paragraph I found most ready for parody was this:
....Chad Weiden, who led efforts to set up a gay-friendly school in Chicago, says that part of the skill in teaching is making sometimes abstract issues accessible to students. "It's all about making it relevant to kids. If you're doing probability in math, you could illustrate it by looking at GLBT suicides or stop-and-frisk or unemployment. A good curriculum would also deal with issues of sexual orientation when covering things like evolution, biodiversity, anthropology, history and literature. That should be true of any school, not just one that considers itself gay-friendly."
Gosh.  What a cheery class Chad must run.

South for Cameron

The New York Times notes that James Cameron has bought a large farm in New Zealand and plans on living there for half of every year.  

I hope he likes sauvignon blanc.

The locals are not all convinced this is a good thing:
Some of Mr. Cameron’s new neighbors seem to have an open mind. But most worry about his ability to inhabit this paradise without becoming the kind of disrupter he pilloried in “Avatar.” Will the millions he plunked down for the property increase everyone’s taxes? What about continued access to Lake Pounui for the eel researchers at Victoria University of Wellington? Mr. Cameron has already closed a little hall on his land that had been used for wedding receptions, thus severing the public from what locals now refer to as “his lake.” 

There is also the question of what Mr. Cameron farms. To obtain governmental approval to buy the land, he had to agree to keep at least part of it as a working farm. But the current operation — built mostly around cows — poses a problem for Mr. Cameron, who said his wife, Suzy Amis, had pushed him and their children toward a plant-based diet. “So we’re looking for something more crop based,” Mr. Cameron explained. “I don’t want to be a hypocrite.”
Yes, the famously shouty and aggressive on set Mr Cameron appears to be a vegetarian.  Huh.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Samsung un-sung

I guess I've been vaguely aware of how well Samsung has been doing, but I didn't really it was to this extent:
Samsung, the world's largest technology company by revenue, reported another record-high quarterly profit as customers flocked to Galaxy smartphones, helping it outdo rivals at a challenging time for the global tech industry.

Samsung Electronics Co. said Friday its net profit swelled to 5.2 trillion won ($4.5 billion) in the April-June quarter, a 48 percent jump from a year earlier.

The earnings were lower than a median forecast of 5.6 trillion won in a poll of seven analysts by Yonhap Infomax. But Samsung shares jumped 5.2 percent to close at one-month high in Seoul as investors expect its earnings to continue growing strongly.

Samsung, the world's largest maker of mobile phones, televisions and memory chips, benefited from runaway demand for its Android-powered smartphones as rivals including Apple Inc. were yet to release new models.
Clearly, this is a company doing something right, yet we don't seem to hear much about how it built its success.  Not like Apple, with its hero worship of Jobs.

Not just me

I watched Source Code on DVD tonight.  This one, in the ongoing series "movies-from-the-last-decade-which-I-am-catching-up-with-now-that-the-kids-are-older", is only from last year in fact, but it was surprisingly terrific.  Well, OK,maybe not terrific; but good, solid, entertaining science fiction with vague plausibility and some emotional depth and pleasing direction.

It's the second film by Duncan Jones, and I haven't even seen Moon yet, even though it received very high praise.

I only had a vague recollection of Source Code coming out last year, yet I see now it did get very good reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.  So, it's not just me who found it to be high quality.

I do wish there was an attempt to explain what happened to guy whose body Jake kept turning up in, though.  

So, this is 21st century life....

When I was 10, and reading about and watching the Apollo program with much enthusiasm, I imagined headlines around now to be something like this:

Lunar Tourist Discovers Alien Artefact

Instead, what do I get this morning?:

Gay Dad and Obese Mum in Battle Over Kids

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

I want to do this...

At Space Center, a Launch Pad Tour - NYTimes.com

 For the first time in the 50-year history of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, visitors can now venture almost a quarter-mile inside the security fence and have a close look at Launch Pad 39-A, the starting point for most of the space shuttle flights and all six Apollo missions that landed on the moon.

“Visitors will travel the same route as astronauts to the launch pad,” said Bill Moore, the chief operating officer of Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex, in a statement.

The “KSC Up-Close: Launch Pad Tour” will include visits to structures that supported and protected the space shuttle, water tanks that fed a noise suppression system, and the flame trench that deflected fire and smoke from the engines.

Let's not politicise this now...

I can't stand the way gun loving Republicans bemoan how it is "political grandstanding" that is happening "too soon" after a shooting tragedy when people question gun laws and suggest practical changes to help reduce mass shooting.  As noted at Huffington Post:
It's a trick. When people tell you that you shouldn't politicize a tragedy like the shooting in Aurora, Colorado they are unwittingly helping to spread NRA propaganda. After a tragedy like that, it is the most logical thing in the world to ask what went wrong and how we can fix it. When you ask that question, the obvious answer is our gun laws. It's awfully hard to stab 70 people and kill 12 of them in a short period of time like that. It's very easy to murder those same people if you have an AR-15 assault rifle, a shotgun and two glocks.

This is the obvious conclusion that the NRA desperately wants you to avoid. So, they do a brilliant trick where they tell you that you are not allowed to talk about the problem in the immediate aftermath of the violence and death their guns caused -- that would be politicizing the tragedy.
 He calls it "a trick", but I think people can increasingly see that it is a very, very transparent one.

The military gay wedding that wasn't

As First Things notes, the recent "military wedding" of a US Air Force guy with another guy attracted a lot of news attention; only thing is, it was a civil union, and isn't the definition of "wedding" the start of a marriage?

I read about the "same sex wedding" (its headline) in a long article at Slate.   Sure, within the body of the article they note it was a civil union ceremony, but it takes a while to get to the point.

What's more interesting about the Slate article is the detail of the background of these guys.  Both come from conservative religious backgrounds; both have been married (to women, one of them twice) and have 2 children.   They fell in love via meeting at church, while was of them was still married; the discovery of the relationship (I don't think it is clear whether it was physical at that stage) sounds like it was pretty traumatic for his wife.   

But, of course, the general tenor of the article is that everything is fine and wonderful now because two guy have finally found their love match.

This type of treatment of this type of story shows the sort of bias that the media treats sexuality with these days; although to be honest, many people go along with it.

Of course, what I mean is that if this were a heterosexual story, would the media see much there to celebrate?   People falling out of love with their wives, particularly while they have children, and falling in love with someone else is rightly seen as kind of sad, no matter how happy the new couple are.   And given statistics of divorce and remarriage, most cool headed people know that no matter how brightly the new relationship seems to be burning at the start, there is a very good chance it will not last.  

But finding a dude who you really like and gets you going in bed is supposed to change this equation entirely?   Yes indeed.  The national media will give you lots and lots and lots of attention, because imitation marriage by same sex couples are just meant to be so heartwarming. 

Update:  having a look at the slide show of the "wedding" at the Slate site, I have a modest request:  can gay couples do us marriage conservatives* a favour and stop appropriating heterosexual marriage imagery (down to slow dances on the reception floor, what looks like jokes about a garter on a leg, etc) for their wedding/commitment ceremonies/whatever?      

Do it in the nude maybe; or put the ring on the tubular organ that wasn't available for the purpose at the last wedding; I really don't care.   But do something original for God's sake to show that what you've come up with is an original idea that is new to the entire human race.

* by which I mean:  those who think a cultural and religious phenomena that everyone understood and accepted was heterosexual and about reproductive potential for the last 10,000 years shouldn't be changed on the whim of modern sexual identity politics of the last 20 years.  

A handy headline

Gorillas filmed performing amazing feat of intellectual ability

Please feel free to use this to make your own jokes of the "So, I see the [insert political party/profession/other class of person] conference is getting some publicity this year" variety.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Smith on the Murdoch game

Rupert Murdoch's tolerance of climate change skepticism in his media outlets, when he claims to be convinced it is a legitimate thing to be concerned about, has long been a puzzle. 

I think Dick Smith gets it right:
In his letter, Mr Smith, who is a vocal supporter of the need to act on climate change, said it was in News's commercial interests to oppose the idea that people were responsible for the rise in global temperatures.

''And I'm on to you. When friends ask me why your organisation runs such opposing views on climate change - from Fox News's claims that it's all bunkum to The Australian newspaper occasionally claiming it's accepted science - I am able to say: 'It's simple'.

''It's all about making more money. They have worked out they will get more advertising and make more money on Fox News if climate change is debunked using sensationalism while they are likely to get greater circulation and more advertising dollars if The Australian shows a different view, so staff are directed accordingly.''
Really, the only alternative explanation is that Murdoch has stopped believing its true, but thinks there is some value in not "coming out" with his change of heart.

Update:   I should say that Dick may be getting it wrong when he says "staff are directed accordingly", as Bruce Guthrie has suggested that Murdoch operates in a more subtle way.   It may just be that he makes it known that he feels "all sides of the debate should be covered", but as he never objects to Fox News one sided take on the matter, they understand that to have his approval.

Monday, July 23, 2012

US and guns, revisited

Well, I didn't know that.  It appears that there is good evidence that gun ownership (well, at least in the sense of the number of households with guns) in the US has actually been declining in line with the reduction in the homicide and violent crime rate since the early 1990's.

In the comments thread that follows that post, some people point out that gun sales are such that this ownership survey must be wrong.  Others then give the potential explanation:
A growing number of homes have NO guns, while an increasingly smaller number have more and more and more.
Given the paranoid stylings of many on the Tea Party side of the nutty Right in the US at the moment, I suspect this is probably right.

Theology talk

While stumbling around the net recently, I found the blog of an Australian Catholic theology lecturer Ben Myers called Faith and Theology.  It seems to be active, moderate, and pretty good.  His links have led me to some interesting sites as well, including a group blog by a bunch of American theological academics called Catholic Moral Theology.

I don't know why I haven't really searched for moderate theology blogs before, but there you go.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Guns and movies

There has some interesting commentary at the New Yorker about the cinema shooting in Colorado last Friday.   Anthony Lane made the point that movies don't make people kill; but at the same time, does suggest that if ever there was a movie franchise that suffered from fanboy zeal that was kinda disturbing, it was this one:
 The fuss surrounding this movie did, and does, have something fevered and intemperate about it, something out of proportion to its nature; it is, after all, just a motion picture. Rottentomatoes.com suspended its user comments, this week, ahead of the film’s release, because the pitch of resentment, directed at critics who had dared to find the movie less than wonderful, had tipped into fury; Marshall Fine, of Hollywood and Fine, was told by readers that he should “die in a fire” or be beaten into a coma with a rubber hose. Such aggression was issuing, it should be noted, from those who, by definition, could not yet have seen the film.
David Denby then has a piece that is much less sanguine about how violence in movies is now received, and as I have never been a fan of overly violent films,  I find his commentary pretty insightful.   This, I think, is the crucial part:
There was a second element in the old critical defense of violence: audiences know that it isn’t real. Well, some audiences. I’ve sat next to people—often, but not exclusively, elderly people—who squirm with discomfort when vicious or cruel things happen onscreen. They react as if the violence were happening to an actual person—or, at least, their sense of identification is strong enough to make them miserable. But this discomfort has become a minority response. Most audiences, especially young ones, accept violence as illusion, artifice, spectacle—they relish it as play. We are all pop-culture ironists: we know that we’re being entertained by people making pictures and that none of it is real; we enjoy it and forget it the next day. In particular, horror movies with their ghoulish excesses are attended in a carnival spirit. Teen-age girls especially love horror—year after year, they keep it going as box-office phenomenon. The grosser the outrages, the greater the fun. Surviving the movie becomes a kind of rite of passage. They laugh it off and go again.

This willing dissociation of response from violent spectacle has a downside, as many people have said: we become inured to actual violence when it excites us on; we forget that that there’s pain and death, we become connoisseurs of spectacle. This kind of connoisseurship showed up in the response to 9/11, which many people, with obvious relish as well as awe, said resembled a movie, a remark that left anyone with half a brain feeling queasy, if not furious.
He's quite right about the "pop-culture ironists" bit, I think:  it's really the only way to understand how a movie franchise like "Saw" (which I understand to be entirely based on sadistic and gruesomely detailed horror scenarios) can make money.   I accept that the young-ish audience for that series, for example, is not a bunch of wannabe sadistic torturers.   But what I don't understand is this:  why does anyone want to be sufficiently distanced from a movie experience such that realistically detailed gruesome violence washes off them?    This is why I have never been a fan of cinema violence, and can count the number of R rated movies I have seen on one hand: I do not usually have a ready sense of detachment from what's on the screen.   If the movie is not affecting me, it has in a sense failed.    And it bothers me that movie studios, and critics to a large extent, play up to this ironic detachment by making over-the-top films with only rare critical complaint that de-sensitisation to realistic violence is perhaps not really all that good an idea for society.

Denby then goes on to really rip into The Dark Knight.     I had forgotten, but I presume he was one of the critics who first earned virtual death threats from Nolan fanboys for failing to follow the near universal praise for the film.  While I don't have any real grounds for suspecting that I would be bothered by its violence per se, I guess I am always a bit bothered by movies that make bad characters "cool".   (Pulp Fiction is the stand out example where I had a big, big problem with a movie for that reason.)

I don't know if Denby's criticism of the movie is valid or not:  I haven't seen the current Batman series  because, as I have made clear before, I have trouble engaging with the superhero genre at the best of times.   And given that my impression from reviews is that Nolan rarely leavens the bleak atmosphere with any humour or lightness: well, that just gives me all the more reason to suspect I won't like them.  Sorry fanboys, but men (or women) dressing in costumes to fight crime is basically a silly concept;  if you aren't going to have some light hearted fun with it, it's not likely to win me over.

In fact, going back to Anthony Lane, his review of The Dark Knight Rises wittily describes this over-seriousness as follows:
 Be honest. How badly would you not want Bruce—or Batman—to show up at one of your parties? He has no small talk (and Bale, as an actor, has charisma but no charm), although ask him about fear, anger, and other large abstract nouns, especially as they relate to him, and he’ll keep you in the corner all night. He doesn’t eat or drink, besides toying with a flute of champagne. Basic human tasks are beyond his reach; direct Batman to the bathroom, and it would take him twenty minutes of hydraulic shunting simply to unzip. On the rare occasions when Bruce, fresh from his helicopter or his Lamborghini, enters a reception with a girl or two on his arm, he looks deeply uncomfortable, and Nolan, as if sharing that unease, tends to hurry him through the moment. The point—and, after three installments, it seems a fatal one—is that the two halves of our hero form not a beguiling contrast but a dreary, perfect match. Both as Wayne and as super-Wayne he seems indifferent, as the films themselves are, to the activities of little people, and to the claims of the everyday, preferring to semi-purse his lips, as if preparing to whistle for an errant dog, and stare pensively into the distance. Caped or uncaped, the guy is a bore. He should have kids; that would pull him out of himself. Or else he should hang out with Iron Man and get wasted. He should have fun.
Finally, Adam Gopnik writes with outrage about how Americans will likely take no major action regarding any aspect of gun control as a result of the numerous and repeated massacres of this kind:
Only in America. Every country has, along with its core civilities and traditions, some kind of inner madness, a belief so irrational that even death and destruction cannot alter it. In Europe not long ago it was the belief that “honor” of the nation was so important that any insult to it had to be avenged by millions of lives. In America, it has been, for so long now, the belief that guns designed to kill people indifferently and in great numbers can be widely available and not have it end with people being killed, indifferently and in great numbers. The argument has gotten dully repetitive: How does one argue with someone convinced that the routine massacre of our children is the price we must pay for our freedom to have guns, or rather to have guns that make us feel free? You can only shake your head and maybe cry a little. “Gun Crazy” is the title of one the best films about the American romance with violence. And gun-crazy we remain.
By far the most appalling response to incidents like this is argument from the gun crazy that maybe this wouldn't have happened if the cinema didn't have a "no guns" policy for the audience.  That's right, there are a large number of gun loving Americans who would prefer not to think about, say, the wisdom of letting just anyone buy oversized magazines that let scores of bullets be shot off before reloading (as did this madman,)  but instead propose that if there were a dozen armed amateurs firing towards gunflashes in a darkened crowded cinema filled with smoke, well, maybe that would have been a good outcome.   
Just appalling.

No comment from Frank?

This Particular God, at Least, Appears to Be Dead at Steven Landsburg 

Until today, I had been forgetting to check, but it kept crossing my mind that Frank Tipler had predicted ages ago that his Omega Point theory meant that the Higgs boson should fall within a certainly energy range.

Has the recent LHC announcement indicated he was right?   As the post above explains, it appears "no".  Mind you, it was written at the start of the year before the announcement, but double checking around it appears that the Higgs has an energy of about 126 GeV, a fair bit less than his initial prediction of around 220.  (Although I think somone in comments at the top link says he later had revised it downwards to 190 GeV.)

On the other hand, the current candidate may turn out to be an imposter.

I wonder what Frank say about this.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The traditional Olympic orgy story

It's party time for Olympic athletes - Yahoo!7 Sport

Isn't everyone getting a bit tired of these articles every 4 years about how much sex takes place in Olympic villages?   Or maybe everyone would be happier if they did away with the sports and just ran the 10 or so days as a giant version of Big Brother* with a camera in every building?

I can't remember if the ancient Greek Olympics were known for debauchery too.   Let's see - yes, it appears they were: 
It was the sheer spectacle of it. Sports [were] one part of a grand, all-consuming extravaganza. It was first and foremost a religious event, held on the most sacred spot in the ancient world. It had this incredible aura of tradition and sanctity.

Today's Olympics is a vast, secular event, but it doesn't have the religious element of the ancient Olympics, where sacrifices and rituals would take up as much time as the sports. And there were all these peripheral things that came with the festival: the artistic happenings, new writers, new painters, new sculptors. There were fire-eaters, palm readers, and prostitutes.
This was the total pagan entertainment package.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess.  (Although it sounds as if the ancient version may have had more attraction for me.)

Update:   I see the WSJ recently had a brief article on the old Olympics too:
...the menfolk left their respectable women at home and headed off for the festival with fathers, brothers, sons, friends, neighbors and (male) lovers. Fringe events might include philosophy lectures, poetry readings and sundry charlatans and cranks offering to predict the future, but the real added attraction of the games wasn't the cultural Olympiad but the sexual one. At the Olympics, parties went on through the wee hours, and hundreds of prostitutes, both women and boys, touted their services until dawn.

*  this reminds me, I see that Big Brother has switched networks and is due to return to Australian television later this year.  The traditional response is appropriate:   nooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo!

More on Jim Holt's big question book

No Small Talk: Jim Holt on Why the World Exists - NYTimes.com

Amongst other parts of the email interview, I liked this:
After talking with Richard Swinburne, a British philosopher who believes in God, you wandered down a street “engulfed by a diffuse sense of contentment.” Might it make sense to believe in God for the possible contentment it offers when other answers may be equally unprovable, no matter how scientific their basis?
That sense of contentment, as I suggested in the book, probably had more to do with the bottle of Shiraz I downed in the Oxford brasserie after leaving Swinburne. But Swinburne’s own religiosity, while it may offer him contentment, is based on rigorous intellectual foundations. You could question or reject his premises — I certainly did — but they weren’t a matter of wishful thinking or wallowing in cheap contentment.
 I also was interested in this, because while writing a long rambling piece on sex and sexuality, soon to be posted, I started talking about the question of personal existence too:
There’s a chapter about your mother’s death that I found incredibly moving. What impact, if any, did it have on you with regard to the big questions asked by your book?
The question “Why does the world exist?” rhymes with the question “Why do I exist?” Both cosmic and personal existence are precarious in the extreme. This was borne in upon me when, just as I was writing the last chapters of the book, about the self and death, my mother unexpectedly died. I was alone with her in the hospice room at the last moment. To see a self flicker into nothingness — the very self that engendered your own being, no less — is to feel the weirdness of existence anew.

A slow argument

Dumping iron at sea does sink carbon : Nature News

It seems odd that Nature is reporting a paper just published that appears to confirm that a 2004 iron ocean fertilization experiment did seem to work to sink carbon to the bottom of the ocean.

I agree with the basic conclusion:  this is a technology that deserves further investigation, despite serious misgivings about how it may hurt those parts of the ocean where it is done.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

A promising approach to reducing malaria

Fighting Malaria Inside a Mosquito's Guts - Technology Review

They haven't tried it in the field yet, but feeding mosquitoes with a bacteria that fights the malaria parasite in their gut sounds a promising tactic.   

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Earthquake advice for the Tokyo visitor

Urbanites urged to head up, not down, to survive tsunami | The Japan Times Online

Here's an interesting article, suggesting that when (not if, it seems) Tokyo gets its next big earthquake, you may be best off heading up, rather than anywhere else:
Should, as government agencies are predicting, a major earthquake occur within 100-150 km of Tokyo Bay in the Tokai area or Ibaraki's Oki region, Hiroshi Takagi, an associate professor of engineering at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, believes the resultant tsunami would be similar to or greater in height than the Tohoku tsunami.

"The southwestward opening of Tokyo Bay makes it particularly vulnerable to tsunami from the Tokai region," said Takagi.

Takagi, who coauthored "Behavior of the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake Tsunami and Resultant Damage in Tokyo Bay," reported that major quake-induced tsunami have struck Tokyo Bay in 1703, 1854, 1923 and 1960 as well as on March 11, 2011. The largest tsunami to hit Tokyo Bay is thought to have been the result of the 1703 Great Genroku Earthquake, which flooded areas of Miura 6-8 meters above sea level in the south, parts of Yokohama at 3-4 meters elevation and, as far north as Funabashi, areas at 2 meters elevation.
 So, what to do?: 
"The only safe way to escape a tsunami," said Tossani, "is up." Our restaurant, in fact, was 11 meters above sea level, or four meters shy of the minimum 15-meter clearance he believes is required to avoid an advancing tidal wave, should it resemble the Tohoku tsunami of 3/11.

Although counterintuitive, if a tsunami was to strike Tokyo, you might well be safer on the top floors of a Tokyo skyscraper than anywhere else. Tossani should know: He is an architect, master planner and urban designer who researched the actions of those who survived and perished in Tohoku last year for the newly published "Natural Disaster and Nuclear Crisis in Japan" (Routledge).
 I didn't know this about last year's Tohoku earthquake, either:
"What we discovered in Tohoku was that many of the maps published by the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transportation distributed to local municipalities indicated areas as low risk that were in fact death zones," said Tossani. "Because many of the municipalities had distributed maps that showed only the four-meter zones, many people made a beeline for them, only to be overwhelmed."

Twelve evacuation sites out of 25 designated by the Onagawa government as safety zones were swept away. In Minamisanriku, also in Miyagi Prefecture, 31 of 80 sites were washed away. In total the tsunami swept away more than 100 evacuation sites along the Tohoku coast. "That contributed to the direct loss of thousands of lives," said Tossani.
 How unfortunate.

A quick review

From Time, talking about The Dark Knight Rises:
For once a melodrama with pulp origins convinces viewers that it can be the modern equivalent to Greek myths or a Jonathan Swift satire. TDKR is that big, that bitter -- a film of grand ambitions and epic achievement.
I can be pithier than that:
It's a man, dressed in a bat costume.
Update:  I've got my review for The Hobbit worked out already:
Some men, pretending to be short, and a fake dragon.

As you may expect...

...news about how much money Jeremy Clarkson makes from Top Gear and the BBC does not please Guardian readers in the comments that follow:
Top Gear bonus lifts Jeremy Clarkson's pay above 3m | Media | guardian.com

I find him pretty annoying too.  James May, on the other hand, is likeable, although how much more mature is (I suppose) debateable.

The inconvenient Earth

Growth of Earth's core may hint at magnetic reversal - environment - 13 July 2012 - New Scientist

 Lopsided growth of the Earth's core could explain why its magnetic field reverses direction every few thousand years. If it happened now, we would be exposed to solar winds capable of knocking out global communications and power grids.
One side of Earth's solid inner core grows slightly while the other half melts. Peter Olson and Renaud Deguen of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, used numerical modelling to establish that the axis of Earth's magnetic field lies in the growing hemisphere – a finding that suggests shifts in the field are connected to growth of the inner core.

There are signs that the next switch may be under way: rapid movements of the field's axis to the east in the last few hundred years may be a precursor to the north and south poles trading places, the researchers speculate.
"What we found that is interesting in our models is a correlation between these transient [shifts] and reversals [of Earth's magnetic field]," says Olson. "We kind of speculate there is that connection but the chaos in the core is going to prevent us from making accurate predictions for a long time."

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Big Mistake

I've been reading John Nielsen-Gammon's posts detailing a lengthy exchange he had with "Catastrophic climate change skeptic" physicist Robert Brown over at Climate Abyss.   The series of posts starts here.

As I have said before, I find Nielsen-Gammon a bit of a puzzle.  He is no climate change skeptic, and clearly finds some of what he see on anti-AGW sites annoying, yet he is oddly inclined to keep engaged with them despite the lack of good faith that is in abundance at blogs likes of Watts Up With That.   He is also very uncommitted on the question of action regardling limiting greenhouse gases, to the point of (what as I interpret as) being politically opposed to any EPA involvement in the matter. 

Despite all of the this, or perhaps partly because of it (that is, you get no sense that he approaching the topic from the Left of politics) he is always an interesting read, and he did make me aware of what I think is the single biggest mistake that climate change skeptics make.

That is:  thier belief you have to understand everything about how climate works (and has worked in history and pre-history) before you can decide that CO2 being emitted at current levels is likely to cause substantial global warming with profound changes to the planet.

This mistake appears at a few different points of  the Climate Abyss exchanges, I think, but it gets its simplest analogy here:
6. We don’t understand what determines the baseline temperature of the Earth or whether those forces are presently causing a trend.
N-G: I don’t understand what lack of understanding you’re referring to, but in any event a lack of understanding of how exactly my car was painted blue does not prevent me from predicting what would happen if I took a red paintbrush to it.
The rest of that post (No 5 in the series) talks about the difficulty of modelling the ice sheet changes from glacial to interglacial.  John NG believes that the difficulty is no reason to doubt the effects of increased CO2 on the present, relatively ice free, world.   He's right.

I can think of at least one topical further analogy:   physicists don't fully understand the Standard Model for subatomic particles, and the Higgs Boson might have just been discovered (with much work to be done on it yet,) but that doesn't stop us buidling and using nuclear reactors.  

You can see this argument played out often in skeptic circles.   The escapees from Andrew Bolt's blog use this line all the time at Catallaxy.  Just this weekend, for example, one of them repeated yet again (he's been doing it for years) the fact that you had glaciation occurring 400 million years ago when CO2 was at a few thousand (or more) ppm must mean that current models are wrong.    As it happens, the contintents were also stuck all together at that time, the sun was a little bit dimmer, and the work has been done suggesting that this configuration of the planet can be modelled such that glaciation at those CO2 levels can occur.   Here's a summary:

Ordovician glaciation
Geological evidence exists for a late Ordovician (~440 Ma) glaciation. This short-lived (~1 million year) glaciation (Brenchley et al., 1995, 2003) was remarkable because atmospheric CO2 levels were high (14 6 PAL) during the late Ordovician (Yapp and Poths, 1992). Numerical climate models of increasing complexity have been used to determine the conditions permitting glaciation at high CO2 levels. Early studies using 2-D EBMs focused on the role of the late Ordovician paleogeography (Crowley et al., 1987; Crowley and Baum, 1991a), and specifically the orientation of Gondwanaland relative to the South Pole. With an edge of Gondwanaland near the South Pole, the thermal inertia of the ocean prevented continental summer temperatures from rising above freezing, thus allowing permanent snow cover (Crowley et al., 1987; Crowley and Baum, 1991a). Subsequent GCM experiments have confirmed the EBM result (Gibbs et al., 2000), but have also shown that the continental configuration of Gondwanaland is not a sufficient condition for glaciation. The influences of additional climatic factors on Ordovician glaciation have since been tested, including atmospheric CO2, topography, ocean heat transport, orbital parameters, and snow/ ice albedo (Crowley and Baum, 1995; Gibbs et al., 1997; Poussart et al., 1999; Herrmann et al., 2003). These studies generally conclude that glaciation is possible with high (8–14 PAL) atmospheric CO2 levels given favorable orbital parameters (i.e., a cold Southern Hemisphere summer configuration) and continental topography. With orbital forcing varying from cold-summer to warm-summer configurations, ice-sheet model calculations indicate that CO2 levels must fall to 8 PAL to grow a permanent ice sheet (Herrman et al., 2003).
Sure, the precise answer is hard to work out given we don't have perfect knowledge of conditions back then; but - we are not talking Gondwanaland any more.   (By the way, PAL is Present day Atmospheric Levels - so I guess 8 PAL could be anything from about 2400 to 3200 ppm.   I learned this from another paper which believes plants moving onto Gondwanaland is what drove cooling to allow glaciation.)

John N-G's first post (which I have referred to before) about why AGW skeptics are wrong to persist with this "but we need complete understanding before we can do anything" argument is here:   it is well worth reading if you haven't done so.

The corollary to this Big Mistake is, of course, this:   at the current rate of CO2 emissions, the time scale at which climate change occurs, and given the life span of large electrical power plants, by the time you fill in the gaps as to precise climate sensitivity, you are likely making it too late for any effective CO2 reductions to be made at all.

But as I say, this is really just a follow on from the fundamental Big Mistake.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Badly priced Apples

Apple profit margins: You’re paying way, way too much to get a little more space on your iPad and iPhone. - Slate Magazine

It's rather worse than I suspected:
 Once you decide to move beyond the entry-level iPad, the company’s profits soar. According to iSuppli, it costs Apple about $316 to make the low-end 16GB iPad, which the company sells for $499—a margin of about 37 percent, not including non-manufacturing costs. Doubling the storage space to 32GB costs Apple $17 more, but it charges you $599 for that model, boosting its margin to 45 percent. On the high-end Wi-Fi model, which offers you 64GB of space for $699, Apple’s non-manufacturing profit margin shoots up to 48 percent. But that’s not all! If you get an iPad with 4G cellular connectivity, you’re really in for it. The very top-end iPad, a 64GB model with 4G, will set you back $829 for a device that costs Apple $408 to make—a margin of 51 percent, or twice what Apple makes on the cheapest iPad. There may be other popular products that carry such a breathtaking markup, but I bet most of them are monitored by the DEA.
My suspicion that I am better off in future buying a basic 16 GB Android tablet with a slot for additional SD memory seems justified.

Some Chinese at the end of the universe

There seem to be a fair number of Chinese physics papers on arXiv now, and this one about the variety of possible "rip" ends of the universe is quite interesting. They come up with their own - the "Quasi Rip", but I'll paste this from the introduction (clicking on it may, or may not, make it more readable):
Quasi rip paper
Anyway, The paper then goes on to suggest a "quasi rip" is a possibility, from which the universe may rebuild. It also acknowledges that all of these ideas are currently up for grabs, in terms of being consistent with observations of the universe. I wonder for how long that will be the case.

Preparing for the worst

What happened when I had a heart attack | Andrew Brown | Comment is free | guardian.co.uk

The variety of ways the pain and discomfort of a heart attack can manifest itself is a somewhat interesting topic:  especially to a person like me who gets nearly no exercise and sits all day, which the doctors like to tell us is a bad thing.  So reading Brown's well written description about what his heart attack felt like serves a useful cautionary purpose.

Getting up earlier and going for a walk ever second day would be even better, I suppose.  (On the other hand, Brown did start his heart attack while cycling.   If this is something he does regularly, maybe he thought he was too fit to be having such a problem.  See, this is one good thing about not exercising -  I will be under no such illusion if crushing pain starts anywhere near  my torso.) 

Must get those long delayed blood tests too ...

Socks in space

Design for a long duration, deep space mission habitat

I like the way this article starts:
There are all sorts of details to take into consideration when traveling in deep space, such as where to go, what to do, and how to get back. Since starry-eyed dreamers often don’t take into account the practical realities of putting a human into such an environment, steely-eyed engineers are left to decide the gritty details of such a mission, such as how many pairs of socks are needed.
Well, it's good to see that NASA is putting serious work into how much sock drawer room is needed in space.  (That sounds sarcastic, but it's not really meant to be.   I would love to have my childhood doodling of spaceship designs as a real job.)

Anyway, NASA is coming up with estimates for spaceship size for long missions (this one to an asteroid.)  Apart from the summary at the link, you can see the whole paper here.   This is what they think a deep space mission may look like:

Design for a long duration, deep space mission habitat

And here's the inside:

Design for a long duration, deep space mission habitat

Those ceilings look very low and claustrophobic; but then again, I suppose in weightlessness you're  not standing up often.

This also gives me the opportunity to again note that, as anyone who has ever stayed at a cheap Japanese hotel and been in one of their ultra compact bathrooms would know, the nation with the most Earth based experience for long distance space travel is clearly the Japanese.  They have space underwear too.   (Search my blog at the side if you are interested.)

Friday, July 13, 2012

A bunch of dates

gulfnews : Liwa Date Festival begins
It can be argued that the Liwa Date Festival is one of the truest experiences of all things date-related and the Emirati culture as a whole.
 It kind of makes me miss the days of HG & Roy on ZZZ.   (For Australian readers only.)

The NH cooling trend is not new...Grrr

I just Googled "long term cooling trend" and saw that many media and blog commentary about the Esper tree proxy study have headings like this:   "New Tree Ring Study Shows 2000 years of COOLING on Earth".  Obviously, they think that the existence of some long term cooling is a new finding.

This just shows how easily people are misled.

As this Skeptical Science post (last updated in 2010) shows via a few graphs - knowledge of a long term cooling trend in the Northern Hemisphere (up to last century) is nothing new.

The point is also made in the Real Climate commentary on the Esper paper.  The Esper cooling trend, based on its Lapland trees, is just a bit higher than other proxy studies conclude.

This really is frustrating.

A wetter world? [Continued]

11 dead, 18 missing in record deluge | The Japan Times Online

Eleven people were killed, at least 18 others were missing and tens of thousands were ordered evacuated Thursday as downpours lashed Kyushu and other areas in the southwest, police and firefighters said.

The Meteorological Agency said rainfall in parts of Kumamoto and Oita prefectures reached levels that have "never been experienced before."

The agency meanwhile forecast heavy rain and landslides in other areas of Japan, including the west and northeast.
 The photos of the damage at this site show it to be quite severe.

A bunch of hypocritical twits

Over at Catallaxy, I see that Sinclair Davidson's tedious "broken promise" campaign entry for day 13 of carbon pricing put up a video of David Murray (an ex banker who headed our Future Fund) criticising the policy as bad economically.   Never mind that he (Murray) has long said he doesn't even believe CO2 can cause AGW.  That wouldn't make his views on the economic effects of the policy suspect now, would it?  Wayne Swan appears on the video making this point, and ABC host Emma is the other person who makes an appearance.

Anyway, in the comments following, in the middle of the night, we get this contribution from mareeS:

Last I looked, there were about 16 or so comments after Maree's, by Catallaxy regulars, none of whom make any comment about her contribution.

For a group of people who scoff at the idea that climate scientists have been at the receiving end of torrid and disgusting email campaigns  from skeptics who wish them dead, and quite a few of whom have spent time this week talking about how they wouldn't be surprised if  Gillard suspended the next election due to some drummed up, climate change related "state of emergency", they are a really a bunch of unselfaware and stupid people.

Public confusion via press release

As soon as I read the comments by Jan Esper last week on his team's Lapland tree study I knew that  climate change "skeptics" would exaggerate its significance.   The study indicates a long term cooling trend greater than previously expected, and that the previous warm periods of the last couple of thousand years were a bit warmer than earlier estimates.

That's quite a lot to get from one set of trees in one tiny part of the Northern Hemisphere, I thought.

True to form, climate change skeptics who only get their information from Watts Up With That were thrilled with the paper.  Strangely, it has only turned up on Tim Blair's site in Australia, not Andrew Bolt's yet, but give it another day.

You can bet your last dollar that no more than a few percent of those who note this would read the commentary on the paper at Real Climate, which deals with it as scientists in the field would - pointing out some of its strengths, but also its weakenesses and the reasons to be somewhat cautious about its authors' broader suggestions about the significance of their study.  Here's the important section:

Orbital forcing is indeed substantial on the millennial timescale for high-latitudes during the summer season, and the theoretically expected cooling trend is seen in proxy reconstructions of Arctic summer temperature trends (Kaufman et al, 2009). But insolation forcing is near zero at tropical latitudes, and long-term cooling trends are not seen in non-tree ring, tropical terrestrial proxy records such as the Lake Tanganyika (tropical East Africa) (Tierney et al, 2010) (see below).
Long-term orbital forcing over the past 1-2 millennia is also minimal for annual, global or hemispheric insolation changes, and other natural forcings such as volcanic and solar radiative forcing have been shown to be adequate in explaining past long-term pre-industrial temperature trends in this case (e.g. Hegerl et al, 2007). Esper et al’s speculation that the potential bias they identify with high-latitude, summer-temperature TRW tree-ring data carry over to a bias in hemispheric temperature reconstructions based on multiple types of proxy records spanning tropics and extratropics, ocean and land, and which reflect a range of seasons, not just summer (e.g. Hegerl et al, 2006; Mann et al, 1999;2008) is therefore a stretch.

Indeed, there are a number of lines of evidence that contradict that more speculative claim. For example, if one eliminates tree-ring data entirely from the Mann et al (2008) “EIV” temperature reconstruction (see below; blue curve corresponds to the case where all tree-ring data have been withheld from the multiproxy network), one finds not only that the resulting reconstruction is broadly similar to that obtained with tree-ring data, but in fact the pre-industrial long-term cooling trend in hemispheric mean temperature is actually lessened when the tree-ring data are eliminated—precisely the opposite of what is predicted by the Esper et al hypothesis.

As for the way the study is being mis-reported, one comment in the Real Climate thread does note that a significant part of the blame can be put down to Esper's comments in a press release:
Journalists should only be partially blamed for the bad coverage of the latest Jan Esper paper. Some of them wrote stories without interviewing the authors, which is wrong, but the press release issued by JG University in Mainz helps the denialist fringe by including a couple of odd quotes from Esper himself. Take a look at what he says:
“We found that previous estimates of historical temperatures during the Roman era and the Middle Ages were too low,” says Esper. “Such findings are also significant with regard to climate policy, as they will influence the way today’s climate changes are seen in context of historical warm periods.”
 And some of the Real Climate team do get stuck into that:
I wonder if you guys could please comment on this press release, because it’s very hard for journalists to deal with such vague statements. Do you really think Esper is advocating lowering the tone of the IPCC reports?
[Response: I have no idea. I'd say it was more related to emphasizing the potential implications of one's own work over anyone else's - a frequent occurrence in press releases. I generally find it prudent to wait for the work on the implications to be done (for instance). - gavin]
[Response: Gavin is again quite generous. It would appear that Esper's misleading statements and overstatement of larger implications directly fed the sort of denialist frame represented in the Daily Mail article. It is of course impossible, and unwise, to guess at whether or not that was his intent. -mike]
 Interestingly, John Nielsen-Gammon a couple of weeks ago had a long and useful post in which he looked at how a paper on one particular bit of one Antarctic ice shelve had its significance over-inflated by the skeptic press too.   He also noted at one point that the press release for that study did what seemed to be some exaggeration of the significance of the findings.

If climate scientists don't want the public to be so easily confused (and for their results to not be so readily twisted by "skeptics" who are motivated to twist it), they really need to be careful with how their work is explained in their own press releases.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Holt returns

Back in 2006 and 2007, I recommended articles by Jim Holt.  In fact, I see that my enjoyment of his science eriting (usually looking at the big, big questions of life, the universe, and everything) extends at least back to articles in Slate in 2004.  

So it's good to see he has a book out on the basic question Why Does the World Exist? and it's getting some very good reviews.  I like this extract from that last link:

... the very intractability of the problem turns out to have a salutary (and fun) side effect: All the ordinary kinds of answers being impossible, one begins to think in earnest about the extraordinary ones. This is a book that gets us to take seriously, at least for a few pages, the proposition that the universe was brought into being by the abstract idea of Goodness. (Hey, Plato thought so.) Elsewhere, we get a probabilistic, Bayesian case for the existence of God. We hear Heidegger speculate that nothingness is an agent, that noth-ing is a verb (“Das Nichts nichtet,” or “Nothing noths”: shades of Hopkins, for whom the self “selves”); perhaps, then, nothing nothed itself, thereby creating Being. We contemplate panpsychism, the theory that consciousness is a fundamental property, irreducible to physical components and pervasive throughout the universe: that, in the words of the astrophysicist Sir Arthur Eddington, “the stuff of the world is mind-stuff.”

The weirdness goes on. We learn—and I am quoting here because my powers to intelligently paraphrase this are limited—that “a tiny bit of energy-filled vacuum could spontaneously ‘tunnel’ into existence,” and then, bang, expand to become the universe. We learn that a hundred-thousandth of a gram of matter would suffice to generate a universe like ours, which means it’s conceivable that we were created by some extraterrestrial nerd in an extra-universal lab. We entertain the possibility, favored by some physicists, that “nothingness is unstable,” which means something was bound to happen. And we entertain the possibility that everything was bound to happen. That is the principle of fecundity: the idea that all possible worlds are real. Muse on the implications of that one for your personal life—or lives—on your next subway ride home.