Friday, August 31, 2012

How did that slip through?

Activation of old carbon by erosion of coastal and subsea permafrost in Arctic Siberia : Nature : Nature Publishing Group

I noticed this article via a mention on The Australian's website this morning.  Yes, that's right, The Australian.  What's going on?  The regular science editor on holiday?  

Anyhow, while it is basically an estimate of how much carbon (and CO2) could be coming from defrosting Siberian permafrost, the figures are quite large sounding:

Thawing of Arctic permafrost could release significant amounts of carbon into the atmosphere in this century3. Ancient Ice Complex deposits outcropping along the ~7,000-kilometre-long coastline of the East Siberian Arctic Shelf (ESAS)4, 5, and associated shallow subsea permafrost6, 7, are two large pools of permafrost carbon8, yet their vulnerabilities towards thawing and decomposition are largely unknown9, 10, 11. Recent Arctic warming is stronger than has been predicted by several degrees, and is particularly pronounced over the coastal ESAS region12, 13. There is thus a pressing need to improve our understanding of the links between permafrost carbon and climate in this relatively inaccessible region. Here we show that extensive release of carbon from these Ice Complex deposits dominates (57±2 per cent) the sedimentary carbon budget of the ESAS, the world’s largest continental shelf, overwhelming the marine and topsoil terrestrial components. Inverse modelling of the dual-carbon isotope composition of organic carbon accumulating in ESAS surface sediments, using Monte Carlo simulations to account for uncertainties, suggests that 44±10 teragrams of old carbon is activated annually from Ice Complex permafrost, an order of magnitude more than has been suggested by previous studies14. We estimate that about two-thirds (66±16 per cent) of this old carbon escapes to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, with the remainder being re-buried in shelf sediments.

For those who say "why does a thawing Arctic ice cap matter?", there's part of your answer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Yes, no doubt about it, I have finally succumbed to (what I assume is) this season's flu.

At least an illness like this makes one better appreciate how good "normal" feels. I used to feel that way about hangovers too, but as they get worse as you get older, it does seem a waste of the next day for something that can be avoided.

Some random observations:

*  I like the way you can customize Google news now;

* Who can really admire Apple when they seek to enforce some ridiculous patents.

* I hate websites that scroll sideways. The Global Mail will fail for this reason alone.


Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Potty mouth Luther

Horrible Histories recently featured a sketch about Luther and his toilet issues, noting (amongst other things) that he used to write to his friends describing recent bowel movements.

Although I knew that he had spent a lot of time sitting on the toilet, I wasn't quite aware of how much he referred to poop and scatological matters generally in his writings and sermons, so I went looking for more information.

And here's what I found:  a pretty interesting research paper from 2008 that looks at the question of why Luther engaged in scatological expressions so much.   This has, apparently been the subject of much academic attention over the years, and the paper summarises the various schools of thought, before concluding that, in the context of German culture at the time, throwing literary "shit" at his enemies gave him the desirable air of virile masculinity.

It would seem that Germans have always had a scatological bent - I'm sure someone has had a go at explaining that, but I'll go looking for that another day.   This part notes the way poop was used in disputes at the time:

 Ain't history grand?

(As an aside, this description of Luther's eyes is of interest:

Seems a good lead for a science fiction story based on his being a robot; but I guess all of the sitting on the toilet suggests a design fault.)

Reading about this reminds me that the other great nation with an unusual degree of interest in poo is Japan.  I'm sure there must be lots of material on the net about this, but here's  a short-ish but useful essay on the topic.

I may well have noted this unusual connection before:  why do two nations so far apart have this in common?   Like the esoteric stories of Jesus travelling to India (or Japan), was there a prophet of digestive  health who travelled from Germany to Japan in the first millennium AD, proselytising the importance of having well formed poo, but who remains mysteriously unrecorded in history?

Just a thought for someone's future research endeavour.

Calling the aliens

Backreaction: How to beat a cosmic speeding ticket

Well, this is very hard to follow in the details for a non physicist, but Sabine Hossenfelder has a go at explaining her new paper looking at (what I take to be) speculative physics that may allow faster than light communication.

I want to note it here just in case she's right.

Possum returns

The possum under the balcony has been away for quite a while, but she's started turning up again - with youngster in tow.    (The photo could be clearer, but you get the idea.)

No big surprise

BBC News - Young cannabis smokers run risk of lower IQ, report claims

The findings come from a study of around 1,000 people in New Zealand.
An international team found those who started using cannabis below the age of 18 - while their brains were still developing - suffered a drop in IQ.

A UK expert said the research might explain why people who use the drug often seem to under-achieve.
For more than 20 years researchers have followed the lives of a group of people from Dunedin in New Zealand.

They assessed them as children - before any of them had started using cannabis - and then re-interviewed them repeatedly, up to the age of 38.

Having taken into account other factors such as alcohol or tobacco dependency or other drug use, as well the number of years spent in education, they found that those who persistently used cannabis - smoking it at least four times a week year after year through their teens, 20s and, in some cases, their 30s - suffered a decline in their IQ.

Natural variability is not always your friend

Given that we now have now officially got an extraordinarily low Arctic ice extent (with a couple of more week's melt to come), the climate change "skeptics" are casting around for reasons as to why it doesn't mean all that much.

One of the more credible attempts at this appears to come from Judith Curry, who points us to a recent paper arguing that the enhanced warming in the Arctic from 1965 to 2000 was mainly due to a natural variability:
There seems to be a large multidecadal variability in the complex ocean–atmosphere system that can superimpose itself atop the global warming signal. It seems to be identifiable with a few large-scale patterns in the temperature fields; when phases of the pressure modes match up one with another they can enhance the rate of warming, especially on the large, wintertime continents. It is not yet known whether cooling periods can happen as well in this scheme. Nor do we know exactly the origin of the multidecadal long-term variability that has been identified. It could be related to anthropogenic causes, or it could just be part of the natural system’s internal variability.
But - as the summary notes before this conclusion:
What causes the two primary decadal empirical pressure patterns to ramp up their amplitudes and line up their phases in such a way as to encourage lots of warm air polewards onto the big continents during the study period and not at other times? Wallace et al. do not address this issue but list several contenders.

One possibility is that the anthropogenic factors are actually inducing this change in circulation, perhaps even through stratospheric connections as mentioned earlier. They seem to lean toward unforced natural variability at the decadal scales.
So:   even if you accept that the radiative forcing alone is not doing this (and I would presume that the fact that the IPCC did not predict an Arctic ice melt this fast indicates this may be right)  it remains quite possible that anthropogenic changes to circulation patterns are altering what appears to be natural variability to make it worse.

Besides which, even if there are no anthropogenic reasons affecting the circulation change, doesn't the whole exercise mean that even modest AGW is a problem when it gets a multi-decade boost from natural variability?

I mean, you see this failed excuse making re solar influences too:  sure, a quieter sun could make parts of the Northern Hemisphere cooler for a couple of decades, and that could be partially offset by AGW, but none of that helps when the sun goes back to normal.   What could be a mere bit of breathing space for just one area of the world would be no reason to not be working to dramatically reduce CO2 for when a short term cooling effect wears off.

Also - the particular problem with loss of Arctic sea ice - even if it is largely happening at the moment due to natural variability - is the feedback potential that it gives to AGW.   This might be a particularly unlucky coincidence that gives the AGW effects on the polar region a boost up to a level that it's not going to drop back from anytime soon. 

The "do-nothing" climate skeptics are interested in the short term only.  They do not take seriously the long term interests of the residents of the planet.

UPDATE:   In any case, here's a 2012 paper which appears to contradict the claim that natural variability has had much role to play in the recent Arctic ice loss.

Given the lack of evidence of substantial polar ice loss in other warm Earth periods, it seems to me to not make much sense that natural variability (uninfluenced by humans) is the substantial cause.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tax in the US

Paul Ryan tax cuts: American fiscal conservatives who ignore the debt are gambling. - Slate Magazine

This article looks at the current Republican obsession with reducing taxes.   I can certainly understand how widening the tax base would make sense, as would reforming the tax system to reduce deductions; but the rush to first of all move in and reduce taxes in a way that the rich simply don't need at this point in time makes me think the party is simply stuck in a stupid ideological mode.  As it says:

In most countries, to be “fiscally conservative” means to worry a great deal about the budget deficit and debt levels—and to push these issues to the top of the policy agenda. In many eurozone countries today, “fiscal conservatives” are a powerful group, insisting on the need to boost government revenue while bringing spending under control. In Great Britain, too, leading Conservatives have recently proved willing to raise taxes and attempted to limit future spending.

The United States is very different in this respect. Leading politicians who choose to call themselves “fiscal conservatives”— such as Paul Ryan, now the Republican Party’s presumptive vice-presidential —care more about cutting taxes, regardless of the effect on the federal deficit and total outstanding debt. Why do U.S. fiscal conservatives care so little about government debt, relative to their counterparts in other countries?
 The article goes on to talk about the history of the idea, and ends on this note:
Ryan and other Republicans undoubtedly want to cut the size of the federal government, and they have articulated plans to do this over several decades. But, in the near term, what they promise is primarily tax cuts: Their entire practical program is frontloaded in that direction. The calculation is that this will prove politically popular (probably true) while making it easier to implement spending cuts down the road (less obvious). The vulnerability caused by higher public debt over the next few decades is simply ignored.

For example, Ryan supported George W. Bush’s spending spree. He also supports maintaining defense spending at or near its current level—resisting the cuts that were put in place under the Budget Control Act of 2011.

The assumption here—unstated and highly questionable—is that the U.S. will be able to sell an unlimited amount of government debt at low interest rates for the foreseeable future. There is no other country in the world where fiscal conservatives would want to be associated with such a high-stakes gamble.

The battle of the cutes

Trouble at Kangaroo Island - Nature - Environment - The Independent

I seem to have missed this, if it was in the Australian media:  
Kangaroo Island, south of Adelaide, is one of Australia's most popular tourism destinations, thanks to its profusion of native wildlife, which includes koalas, kangaroos and the world's smallest penguin species.
But lately there have been dark goings-on in the animal kingdom: the New Zealand fur seals have been devouring the fairy penguins.

Penguin numbers have dropped by half on the island, according to some locals, who want the seals to be sterilised, relocated or even culled. Now they have come up with a new suggestion: shoot them with beanbag rounds – a method more commonly used to control riots – if they approach penguin colonies.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Personal taste

Not all of these David Mitchell soapbox rants are so good, and as with nearly every single modern comedian except for Jerry Seinfeld, he's starting to swear a bit too much, but I quite liked this one:

Some of the comments following this at The Guardian are pretty funny too.   Bacon is always a good subject for humour.

Speaking of swearing comedians, I saw Tony Martin's second book of autobiographical stories (A Nest of Occasionals) going for $5 in some remainder-ish bookshop, and have finished reading it.  He really is a talented and funny writer, even though he swears too much.  I particularly liked the last story, about a trip back to New Zealand to learn about his grandparents.   (Young Tony had a quite unsettled, and unsettling, childhood.  In fact, one gets the impression from an earlier chapter - about all of the medical probes he has had over the years -  that he may still suffer from the lingering stress of his childhood.)

I see from Martin's fairly extensive Wikipedia entry that he's now divorced.  His last TV venture was also not so good.  As far as I know his falling out with Mick Molloy has not yet ended in a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin style televised reconciliation.   Maybe he needs a hug.

The universe and all that

There was a university press release that got a lot of publicity recently, about "quantum graphity" - rather a bad name by whoever came up with it, I thought.

Anyhow, ars technica has a cynical look at the PR exercise, and as I expected, there is probably less to this than it seems.

Of more interest, I think, is this story about measurements indicating that spacetime is pretty 'smooth':
Some theories of quantum gravity say that the universe is not smooth but foamy—made of fundamental units called Planck lengths that are less than a trillionth of a trillionth the diameter of a hydrogen atom. Planck lengths are so small that there's no way to detect them, except via photons like those that make up gamma-ray bursts. Here's why.

The wavelengths of these photons are some of the shortest distances known to science—so short they should interact with the even smaller Planck length. And if they interact, the photons should be dispersed—scattered—on their trek through Planck length–pixilated spacetime.

 In particular, they should disperse in different ways if their wavelengths differ, just as a ping pong ball and a softball might take alternate paths down a gravely hillside.

 You wouldn't notice the scattering over short distances, but across billions of light years, the Planck lengths should disperse the light. And three photons from the same gamma-ray burst should not have crashed through the Fermi telescope at the same moment.

 But they did, and that calls into question just how foamy spacetime really is. "We have shown that the universe is smooth across the Planck mass," Nemiroff said. "That means that there's no choppiness that's detectible. It's a really cool discovery. We're very excited."

Armstrong remembered

This ABC site has many tributes from all over the place to Neil Armstrong.

Isn't it funny how real life works out compared to fiction?   A science fiction story with the first man on the Moon being such an incredibly modest and self effacing character just wouldn't have worked, yet that's the way things panned out. 

Goodbye, ice

There is likely to be a lot of (well deserved) publicity about the new Arctic sea ice extent minimum that will be reached in the next day or two.   In fact, according to some ways of counting the sea ice, we're already there.

People also need to remember that it has been a long time since the Arctic was ice free in summer;   according to a 2005 article, it may be 800,000 years ago, although I think I have seen suggestions to the contrary elsewhere.   It seems the Eemian period of global warmth about 125,000 still had winter sea ice in the Arctic, even while ocean levels were 3-7 m higher than today.   (While Googling, I stumbled across the question posed by the Institute for Creation Research - "Are Polar Ice Sheets Only 4500 Years Old?"  What was I worried about?)

But apart from the extent of Arctic ice, the volume of ice gives the better picture of what has been happening.  Tamino came up with this moving graph (click on it) some time ago, but he has reposted it.   It is pretty amazing.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

20 years is a long time in politics - (subtitle: "Against the Hedley")

Last year, when the issue of Gillard and the AWU scandal came up, I made the observation that, given that virtually all Labor politicians can be counted on as having made some factional enemies during their life in the party, isn't it extremely unlikely that there is a bit of evidence out there that is only now being produced to harm her?  If there was something to prove her knowledge of, or involvement in, an obvious fraud, it would have been used against her before now.

A year or so later, we know that:

a.  her ex boyfriend Wilson still seems to support her, and has attacked the sleazy internet campaign;
b.  the Greek builder says Gillard paid for her renovations and has got nothing against her;
c.  she did some legal work that appeared quite minor without opening a file; it turned out subsequently to have a high embarrassment factor for her firm and the partners weren't happy.  There appear to have been tensions within the firm over other matters anyway, with several lawyers leaving around the time.  
d.  as predicted, there is no evidence being produced that she had knowledge of the fraudulent way the association was run by her then boyfriend, or that she benefitted in any substantial way.   (I am betting that maybe the Greek or one of the tradies working on her renovation might have been expecting to be paid by Wilson, but if he told Gillard that they owed him a favour, so what?)

As for the media treatment of this, Hedley Thomas is having a tantrum today that the rest of the media weren't showing enough interest in the office politics and embarrassment that Gillard caused Slater & Gordon nearly 20 years ago.

Hedley:  it was 20 years ago.

Quite frankly, Mr Thomas as a serial pest with no sense of proportion.   He gets lucky at times, noticing (for example) some inconsistencies in the Brisbane flood inquiry evidence, the embarrassment factor of which then seemed to lead to the lawyers for the inquiry going in too hard on the hapless dam engineers who had been exhausted working out what to do during a huge flood event.

And look at the final outcome:  the engineers referred to the Crime and Misconduct Commission, only to be found last week to have no case to answer. 

This was reported in brief detail by some other reporter in the Australian. As far as I can see, Thomas has made no comment.   He was too busy on a beat up of another story beyond its importance.

I mean, just imagine what a misery these engineers' lives have been with this hanging over their heads.  To get greater detail of the CMC's finding, you have to go to a Fairfax outlet, or the ABC report, but basically it is all put down to problems with the manual:
Mr Jerrard has found the dam was operated in breach of the operating manual but said this was due to shortcomings in the manual design.

"There is no evidence that I have seen which suggests the conduct of Mr Tibaldi, Mr Ayre and Mr Malone relating to the preparation of documents surrounding the January 2011 flood event, and oral testimony given to the flood inquiry, evidences offences against the Criminal Code or official misconduct under the Crime and Misconduct Act 2001," he said in advice released today.

Mr Jerrard said any inconsistencies in the engineers' explanations of how they managed the flood could be explained by the contradictions in the operation manual.
As I have argued in detail before, Hedley Thomas and the Australian's campaign to encourage flood victims to believe there was someone to blame for an unavoidable natural disaster, all based on the opinion of one of two engineers of dubious ability and knowledge of the true situation at Wivenhoe, remains a disgraceful example of journalism doing harm to public understanding.

Going back to Gillard, I think her being aggressive on the matter this week, even with the boring and pompous Paul Kelly, will help her public image.    And as for The Australian's coverage of the matter, I think Barrie Cassidy got it right:

Speers was also right to say, "These may not be serious matters."

And that goes to the heart of the coverage in The Australian. Of course the newspaper did well to gain fresh information. But the newspaper grossly exaggerated the value of that information and the worth of the story.

Nobody is suggesting the newspaper should not have pursued the issue. It's a question of prominence.
According to The Age, The Australian has published more than 40 articles and opinion pieces about the allegations since 1995, three quarters of them in the last month.

Some of that coverage included front page banner headlines and full page transcripts. This was not the Loans Affair or Tampa. This was a story about the Prime Minister showing a lack of judgment 17 years ago. As the Australian and others repeatedly said, nobody was accusing Julia Gillard of wrongdoing, nobody apart from those Gillard has dismissed as misogynists and nut jobs.
There are a couple of things still confusing about this.   As I noted before, the Gillard sympathising Brisbane journalist Dennis Atkins referred to her living with Wilson, but I thought this was the particular claim that I thought cost Glenn Milne his job.   Gillard seemed to be claiming that Milne's 2007 article falsely claimed she set up an account and this was the subject of a retraction, but I'm not sure if that is quite right either.

In any event, it is, more than ever, "time to move on".  I don't blame Gillard for being furious about the way the right wing shock jocks in particular have dealt with this - particularly Michael Smith, the sympatico support Andrew Bolt offered him, and then the increasingly execrable Alan Jones.   And of course Larry Pickering - I mean the utter hide of a bankrupt (widely suspected of fraud) making obviously defamatory statements and then claiming that the lack of legal action against him somehow vindicated him.

There is no doubt at all that this campaign was a "dog whistle" one, where there were lists of "serious questions to be answered" (ignoring the fact that the material had been out there for years and repeatedly denied already) followed by pathetic attempts at arse covering by the occasional (very occasional) statement "not that we're saying Gillard knew what Wilson was doing."   Well, boys, that's exactly what you wanted people to believe, and don't pretend otherwise.

My opinion of Andrew Bolt in all of this has sunk further than ever before.   He was clearly gleeful that the obscene, bankrupt and utterly careless-of-facts Pickering was getting attention for his claims, and while not specifically referring people to his blog, eventually decided to comment that Pickering was "brave" to be doing this, and only belatedly making some reference to the scumbag nature of the campaign:
It was terrific how she made out the controversy started with the utterly scurrilous blog of Larry Pickering..
 As far as I am concerned, anyone associated with Labor should freeze him out completely by never appearing on his smug faced Sunday show.    He deserves their contempt. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Movie mystery solved

Ratatouille with olives: a traditional Provençal summer vegetable stew.

Fans of the movie Ratatouille may have wondered about the version of the title dish that Remy the rat made at the dramatic climax of the film.  Well, I certainly did, anyway, as I had never heard of it being made with thin slices of vegetables.  But the above article from Slate explains:
Unfortunately, the adorable rat was doing ratatouille wrong. The version of ratatouille featured in Ratatouille, also known as confit biyaldi, is a visual delight: razor-thin slices of tomato, zucchini, and eggplant arranged artfully over a bell-pepper purée and baked for hours. But ratatouille is not supposed to be a visual delight; it’s supposed to make short work of as many late-summer vegetables as possible simultaneously. Ratatouille was invented by Provençal peasants, and Provençal peasants possessed neither the time nor the inclination to slice vegetables with such precision or to bake them as gently and slowly as possible. What they had the time and inclination for was stew.
The article then goes on to explain, roughly, how to made the real version of ratatouille.  I've never been that big a fan of the dish, but I'm half tempted to give it a go again.

Worth a look

Arctic Death Spiral: How It Favors Extreme, Prolonged Weather Events ‘Such As Drought, Flooding, Cold Spells And Heat Waves’ | ThinkProgress

Sure, Romm can be shrill sometimes, but in a post like this he has lots of links to scientists explaining the increasingly convincing proposal that less Arctic ice is leading to more heat in the Arctic ocean which is leading to jet stream changes which bring weird and extreme weather South.

Younger fatherhood encouraged

BBC News - Older dads linked to rise in mental illness
 According to Dr Kari Stefansson, of Decode Genetics, who led the research, the results show it is the age of men, rather than women, that is likely to have an effect on the health of the child.
"Society has been very focussed on the age of the mother. But apart from [Down's Syndrome] it seems that disorders such as schizophrenia and autism are influenced by the age of the father and not the mother"....
 "The average age of fathers has been steeply rising [in industrialised countries] since 1970. Over the same period there has been an increase in autism and it is very likely that part of that rise is accounted for by the increasing age of the father," he said....

Older fathers and therefore genetic mutations have been linked with neurological conditions because the brain depends on more genes for its development and regulation.

So mutations in genes are more likely to show up as problems in the brain than in any other organ. But it is unclear whether the age of fathers has an effect on any other organ or system. The research has not yet been done.

The reason that men rather than women drive the mutation rate is that women are born with all their eggs whereas men produce new sperm throughout their adult life. It is during sperm production that genetic errors creep in, especially as men get older.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Under the sea

Life on board a British nuclear submarine | UK news | The Guardian

I can happily read about astronauts travelling in small spaceships without getting twinges of claustrophobia, but submarines are a different matter.  I think I can imagine too well how I would be  aware of the crushing pressure of dark water all around me.  How James Cameron could bear to drop, alone, kilometres to the bottom of the ocean while looking out into the darkness I'll never know.  (By the way, is there some special about that coming out?  I assume it would on National Geographic, which means I won't see it, but that's no great loss because that network seems to have a strange ability to make any documentary on any subject boring.)

Anyhow, this account by a Guardian journalist of a week in a British nuclear submarine is quite interesting.  Here's the bit that made me feel claustrophobic:
You can hardly move in the bunk – sitting up is impossible – and if you turn over you are likely to tip out and end up on the floor. You have to share your rack with a gas mask and various other bits of safety equipment, plus a lot of your own gear. There are small lockers, but I am never offered one, so sleep with bag, clothes and shoes in the bed. Each bunk has an air vent, which does offer some respite from the heat but also blows a blast of cold air into your right ear. "If the air stops blowing, it means something bad has happened," one of the men tells me reassuringly. One morning I am woken by a sudden thud and fear the worst. Later, I discover it was just air being released – a routine operation.

Several men mention "coffin dreams" – nightmares in which the sleeper shouts out that the control room is flooding or he is being pursued by a torpedo. I sympathise: though I have no nightmares – I don't sleep deeply enough for that – the racks do feel like coffins. A better option is to sleep in the "bomb shop", where the missiles and torpedoes are kept. It is the quietest, most spacious room on the boat and hugging an 18ft cruise missile keeps you cool.

A few men go "wibble" after years under water; they just can't stand it any more – the lack of proper sleep, the absence of privacy, the endlessly repeated conversations, the cycle of meals (it's Wednesday so it must be curry), the unspoken dangers. How do you know when someone has gone wibble? "The noisy ones go quiet, and the quiet ones suddenly become noisy," one man tells me. Chief Johnson recalls one experienced submariner who went wibble and started keeping a book of shipmates he thought had wronged him. "You're on my list as well," he told Johnson before being taken off the boat. He only agreed to leave as long as he could be designated captain of the rescue vessel.

Bugs R Us

The human microbiome: Me, myself, us | The Economist

Click the link for a quite long, quite interesting, article about how humans are incredibly reliant on the bacteria that we're full of.  For a start:
A healthy adult human harbours some 100 trillion bacteria in his gut alone. That is ten times as many bacterial cells as he has cells descended from the sperm and egg of his parents. These bugs, moreover, are diverse. Egg and sperm provide about 23,000 different genes. The microbiome, as the body’s commensal bacteria are collectively known, is reckoned to have around 3m. Admittedly, many of those millions are variations on common themes, but equally many are not, and even the number of those that are adds something to the body’s genetic mix.
The article then gives many examples of ways in which the bacteria may affect our health.  The one I found most surprising:
The link with diabetes was noticed in morbidly obese people who had opted for a procedure known as Roux-en-Y, which short-circuits the small intestine and thus reduces the amount of food the body can absorb. Such people are almost always diabetic. As a treatment for obesity, Roux-en-Y is effective. As a treatment for diabetes, it is extraordinary. In 80% of cases the condition vanishes within days.

Experiments conducted on mice by Dr Nicholson and his colleagues show that Roux-en-Y causes the composition of the gut microbiome to change. Dr Nicholson thinks this explains the sudden disappearance of diabetes.

The diabetes in question is known as type-2. It is caused by the insensitivity of body cells to insulin, a hormone that regulates the level of blood sugar. Insulin sensitivity is part of a complex and imperfectly understood web of molecular signals. Dr Nicholson suspects, though he cannot yet prove, that some crucial part of this web is regulated by the microbiome in a way similar to the role played by formic acid in the case of high blood pressure. The intestinal bypass, by disrupting the microbiome, resets the signal, and the diabetes vanishes.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Dealing with the voices

Michael Prescott's Blog: Who's there?

Michael Prescott has a particularly interesting post here about a movement that is encouraging schizophrenics who hear voices to engage with them.   It works for some, apparently.

Quite fascinating. 

Breakfast discussed

On a bit of a whim while in the supermarket some weeks ago, I decided to vary my breakfasts (usually cereal based) by buying this:

Not too bad.  Throw in some sultanas before you microwave it, and quite nice.  I always had the vague idea that Uncle Tobys was an Australian brand, too. 

But last week, I tried this instead:

and I have to say, it makes a nicer oat porridge.   But I feel slightly guilty for going with a brand which has an odd American character as its symbol.  (Even though this is made in Australia with Australian oats.)

But the real puzzle is:  why do oat brands insist on 19th (or 18th?) century characters as being appropriate for their product?   The original of the Quaker man is explained in Wikipedia:
The company has no formal ties with the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). When the company was being built up, Quaker businesspeople were known for their honesty (Truth is often considered a Quaker testimony). The Straight Dope writes "According to the good folks at Quaker Oats, the Quaker Man was America's first registered trademark for a breakfast cereal, his registration taking place on September 4th, 1877. "The name was chosen when Quaker Mill partner Henry Seymour found an encyclopedia article on Quakers and decided that the qualities described — integrity, honesty, purity — provided an appropriate identity for his company's oat product."[19] In the 1800s, when the company was formed, Quakers did wear clothes similar to those shown in the picture. This was because of the Quakers' Testimony of Simplicity — they did not want to show off their wealth with expensive clothing. Most Quakers currently do not tend to dress in that manner — they might instead avoid clothing with brand names advertised.
Well, yes, but new consumers today are not likely to know much about the reputation of 19th  century Quakers, are they?

As for Uncle Toby's, the explanation is even more obscure:
 The UNCLE TOBYS logo was designed by Nellie Love who was a keen artist and a student of literature. It is based on the character Uncle Toby who is prominent in the literary classic ‘The Life And Times of Tristram Shandy’ by Laurence Sterne, first published in 1759. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest comic novels in the English language. The most familiar and important character in the book is Uncle Toby, gentle, uncomplicated lover of his fellow man. In 1893 the name was accepted and Nellie Love proceeded to design the original logo of Uncle Toby standing with the Widow Wadman, a design which to this day has hardly changed.
 Well, I'm sick of this.  It's about time an oat brand using a robot came out.  Bender from Futurama, maybe?  

Monday, August 20, 2012

Three strange stories of biology

1.    Aphids are weird, and Nature reports that they show the first evidence for photosynthesis in insects:
The biology of aphids is bizarre: they can be born pregnant and males sometimes lack mouths, causing them to die not long after mating. In an addition to their list of anomalies, work published this week indicates that they may also capture sunlight and use the energy for metabolic purposes.

Aphids are unique among animals in their ability to synthesize pigments called carotenoids. Many creatures rely on these pigments for a variety of functions, such as maintaining a healthy immune system and making certain vitamins, but all other animals must obtain them through their diet. Entomologist Alain Robichon at the Sophia Agrobiotech Institute in Sophia Antipolis, France, and his colleagues suggest that, in aphids, these pigments can absorb energy from the Sun and transfer it to the cellular machinery involved in energy production1.
This reminds me of how the advanced modified bodies given to the characters in John Scalzi's Old Man's War had (I think) greenish tinged skin because they could photosynthesise.  I wonder if aphid genes could be the way to do that.  (I didn't care for the book much, by the way.)

2.   It still pays to look carefully, it seems.  Isn't it odd that this is only being found now?:
A previously unrecognized system that drains waste from the brain at a rapid clip has been discovered by neuroscientists at the University of Rochester Medical Center....

The highly organized system acts like a series of pipes that piggyback on the brain's blood vessels, sort of a shadow plumbing system that seems to serve much the same function in the brain as the lymph system does in the rest of the body – to drain away waste products.

 Nedergaard's team has dubbed the new system "the glymphatic system," since it acts much like the lymphatic system but is managed by brain cells known as glial cells. The team made the findings in mice, whose brains are remarkably similar to the human brain. Scientists have known that cerebrospinal fluid or CSF plays an important role cleansing brain tissue, carrying away waste products and carrying nutrients to brain tissue through a process known as diffusion.

The newly discovered system circulates CSF to every corner of the brain much more efficiently, through what scientists call bulk flow or convection. "It's as if the brain has two garbage haulers – a slow one that we've known about, and a fast one that we've just met," said Nedergaard. "Given the high rate of metabolism in the brain, and its exquisite sensitivity, it's not surprising that its mechanisms to rid itself of waste are more specialized and extensive than previously realized."
 3.    Israel seems to have a particularly clear case of decreasing sperm quality, and no one is sure why:
Over the last 10 to 15 years, the concentration of sperm samples collected by the bank dropped 37% from 106 million cells per milliliter to 67 million, according to Dr. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, a leading Israeli infertility researcher at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center.

Though declining sperm quality is an international phenomenon, the change in Israel is occurring at nearly twice the pace as other developed countries, Haimov-Kochman said. If current trends continue, she said, by 2030 the concentration of sperm from Israeli donors will drop below 20 million cells per milliliter, which many international health experts define as abnormal.
One of the more surprising possible reasons is from their dairy practices:
"People in Israel are getting quite a load of estrogen," said Laurence Shore, a retired hormone and toxicology researcher at the Kimron Veterinary Institute near Tel Aviv. "I don't think it's a good idea to expose children to such high levels of estrogen."

He said that no studies so far have determined that estrogen levels in Israel are harming humans, adding that exposure may be too low for that. But he said it might be a factor in the sperm decline.  His research has found Israeli milk and associated products such as butter and cheese can contain 10 times as much estrogen as products from other countries because of Israel's aggressive milk-production practices.

Israel is a world leader in producing milk, pumping twice as much from its cows as other parts of the world, he said. That's partly because cows here are milked up to their eighth month of pregnancy, when natural estrogen levels in the milk soar, according to Shore. In nature, he said, cows usually stop giving milk to their own young when they are three months pregnant with a new calf.

Even though many other nations have adopted similar milking practices, Shore said, Israel is one of the first and most aggressive, so it could be seeing the effect sooner.

Local mystery

That's odd.  I would have thought mysterious stars would all be distant objects that are hard to study, but I seem to have missed that there's something quite simple that's not understood about the sun:
The sun is nearly the roundest object ever measured. If scaled to the size of a beach ball, it would be so round that the difference between the widest and narrow diameters would be much less than the width of a human hair.
Apparently, it's not supposed to be like that, but new satellite measurements confirm its shape:
Because there is no atmosphere in space to distort the solar image, they were able to use HMI's exquisite image sensitivity to measure the solar shape with unprecedented accuracy. The results indicate that if the Sun were shrunk to a ball one meter in diameter, its equatorial diameter would be only 17 millionths of a meter larger than the diameter through its North-South pole, which is its rotation axis.

They also found that the solar flattening is remarkably constant over time and too small to agree with that predicted from its surface rotation. This suggests that other subsurface forces, like solar magnetism or turbulence, may be a more powerful influence than expected.

Kuhn, the team leader and first author of an article published today in Science Express, said, "For years we've believed our fluctuating measurements were telling us that the sun varies, but these new results say something different. While just about everything else in the sun changes along with its 11-year sunspot cycle, the shape doesn't."

Political slime

I don't really have time to formulate a detailed post on the Gillard situation at the moment.    I will simply say, though, that I think Gillard's aggressive approach to this yesterday was right.  Furthermore, she needs to have some aggressive support in the Parliament.

People with common sense, of which there are remarkably few in Australia when it comes to this Prime Minister, should be thinking the following thoughts:

a.    has the Australian political scene ever witnesses such an appalling personal sliming of a politician as has happened with Pickering?    Now that the mainstream media is making brief mention of how this has hot on the "blogoshphere" for several weeks, and some readers of Pickering's posts have wondered why no one has taken him up on his taunt to be sued for defamation, it's a great pity that this report about Pickerings recent bankruptcy (and long history of avoiding legal responsibility) is not more widely known:
Mr Pickering, who has 11 children to five women, has had a complicated business life that has paid for his lifestyle but, according to the ASIC database, has had his name on the books of only one company, ZRD Technologies Pty Ltd, which has no connection to CSI.

Mr Pickering remains an undischarged bankrupt having been made bankrupt most recently in August last year on a petition by his former de facto father-in-law, George Luckardt. In reply to the bankruptcy, he  said he disputed that he owed any money and that his only asset was a $250 set of golf clubs.
Hence Pickering has felt completely free to say anything he likes.  His posts on other topics other than this show that he is completely carefree of facts, yet he has developed a following of fawning right wingnut types for whom defamation of Gillard and other Labor politicians will be gobbled up without question.

It is ironic, however, that Pickering's disreputable past was only brought to my attention at Catallaxy, a blog full of people routinely showing the worst displays of common sense and caution this side of a Lyndon LaRouche Youth Movement convention.

b.   are we really going to spend time in Parliament examining the working relationships in previous careers of politicians from nearly two decades ago?    

c.   Isn't it likely that in a matter like this in a law firm, the response by other partners will not be uniform?   I would not be surprised if she had some support, and in fact there is an old video of another Slater & Gordon partner around on (I think) Fairfax somewhere indicating that Gillard was well regarded in the firm, was always known to be going into politics.  I haven't found the video yet, but maybe later today.  (Update:  here it is, a five minute interview with Peter Gordon, who appears quite happy to support Gillard generally.  Dennis Atkins though indicates it was a "rift" with him about the direction of the firm that led to her going, though.  All very complicated.)

d.   I do not doubt that there was potential for Gillard's relationship with Wilson to have caused embarrassment to her law firm.    But law firms partnerships have internal disputes all the time, and quite frankly, it is no clear indication at all of wrongdoing or lack of integrity of a partner if they leave a firm in dispute with some or all of their other partners.   

Gillard needs her supporters out there today making points like these, and ripping into the smear aspect of this campaign that has been ludicrously unfair and sordid.

Update:    What's going on here?

Dennis Atkins, who has struck me as reasonably fair political commentator from the News Ltd Courier Mail, has a column which is defending Gillard, yet in the course of doing so, makes this claim:
 The public record tells us Gillard was involved with an influential and powerful Victorian union figure, Bruce Wilson, in the early '90s.   He was state secretary of the Australian Workers Union and they lived together in the inner city.
Um, wasn't the Milne article detail for which The Australian apologised and withdrew last year problematic only because it contained the "fresh" allegation that Gillard and Wilson actually lived together?   Has Dennis missed that somehow?

Even Hedley Thomas in his recent reporting did not revive the Milne allegation exactly - I think he said that Gillard sometimes stayed with him, but I can't find the actual words right now.

In any event, Atkins goes on to note that the departure of Gillard from Slater and Gordon has to be seen in the broader context of partnership frictions, which is entirely consistent with what I said before:

The other version of events, known to and believed by people close to Gillard, has it that Gillard resigned of her own volition following the rift that arose from the argument about the firm's direction.

Her mate and ally, Murphy, quit after an acrimonious time with senior partner Peter Gordon. Other industrial lawyers Josh Bornstein and Kate Hawkins left at the same time and Gillard left soon after, saying she wanted to pursue a political career.

One bit of history that cuts across the current conspiracy theory is that Gillard has been and remains a close friend with Murphy, the Slater and Gordon partner who uncovered the Wilson fraud and took immediate action.

What is missing is any specific allegation and exact questions Gillard should answer, as the Prime Minister said yesterday.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

A nice profile

John Williams, the music master -

Gosh.  John Williams is 80 and still working as Spielberg's composer:  he's doing the music for Lincoln.

This profile paints a picture of a modest man, who clearly has had an excellent working relationship with Spielberg from day one.  I enjoyed this passage:

He recalls the moment they met, at a lunch, when the 23-year-old director, who was seeking a composer for The Sugarland Express, stunned Williams by “knowing more of my music than I did”.

Right from day one, he says, he and Spielberg have worked together with a rare level of trust. One of their early projects, Close Encounters, required the composer to step in much earlier than usual, and Williams’ memory of it reveals a creative process that is still flourishing. “We had to establish that five-note motif before filming, so that Steven could shoot the arrival of the ETs,” he explains. “I remember to this day – I still have my notebooks – writing out countless combinations of five notes. We had several meetings, we circled this one and we kept coming back to it. We never really had a moment where we said: ‘Eureka! A melodic signal that’s travelled across the cosmic void!’ But from the outset, Steven has been a director who is comfortable with music in his films, and with that process with me. We’ve never had problems. It combines a loyalty, a friendship, trust, security; a set of shared aesthetic notions.”

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Six Grand into the Future

According to my Google stats, this is the 6,000th post at this blog.   Seems hard to believe, but looking at the numbers for the annual totals, it looks right.

Born in 2005 at a time when blogging was all the rage,  I've been thinking lately that it's a bit sad to see that this method of recording thoughts, interests and some aspects of personal history has been usurped in popularity by the needy instantaneousness and somewhat artificial sense of connectedness of Facebook and Twitter.   As with devotion to mobile telephony,  I seem to be about 5 to 10 years beyond the cut-off age at which being permanently available via social networking is vitally important.   I can't even stand texting if I can avoid it.  

It might just be my imagination, but I get the impression that Facebook may have just slid past some sort of peak of popularity as well.  A lot more people now seem to recognize the harmful uses to which it can be put for spreading gossip and bullying, particularly amongst the young.   (Or the old, come to think of it.   A certain ageing cartoonist in Australia has recently put it to appallingly scurrilous use for personal rumour-mongering about the Prime Minister.   I may do a post about that soon.)  But maybe I am just being unduly influenced by headlines about Facebook's poor performing share float.

In any event, it's time to give myself another burst of mild self congratulation for maintaining this eclectic place for so long.  It's funny how after doing it for this length of time, I forget quiet a few of the things I have said in years past, but I am happy to say that most of the time, upon re-reading old posts, I am pleasantly surprised at their quality.  

It's odd to think that the blog may exist in cyberspace into the far future.   Given my interest in speculative matters such as how a technological recreation of a person may be achieved*, and after re-watching the end of Spielberg's AI recently (with its short term quasi-resurrection from information somehow caught up in the cracks of space-time),  I wonder if readers will think this too grandiose a thought:  if a person has a big enough blog written for a long enough time, will future super-advanced  quantum computers with some sort of extraordinary ability to analyse neurological function from a long enough example of the use of language, as well as from life events and thoughts recorded in a diary-like thing such as a blog,  be able to derive enough information from it to be able a make a perfect cyber copy of the author?  Of course, a few photos of me and a detailed breakdown of DNA analysis being embedded in the blog would help too.**

Maybe that idea has already been dealt with in a science fiction novel or story -  there seem to be few new ideas in that genre now.  But there you have it - the most self aggrandising idea for keeping a blog going possible - it might be for my literal immortality.***  Or, it could just be that it's more diverting than other things I could be doing with my time.

And thus begins the next six thousand....


*  long term readers - the number of which remain I have no idea:  if they are like me, they are reading fewer personal blogs less regularly anyway - will recall that I always thought the weakest link in Frank Tipler's Physics of Immortality was his extraordinarily clumsy mechanism for future resurrection, whereby all possible versions of every person have to recreated to come up with the one that is actually me.   If it turns out to be true, I guess that maintaining this blog will at least help the Omega Point not bother recreating those versions of me which are inconsistent with events noted here.  But, now that I think of it, I suppose that if  Tipler is right, and I want to have future versions of me having (say) an eternal memory of a pleasurable life not lived, I should start lying here.   

**  There is actually one photo of me buried in the middle of this blog, which at least shows me in vague outline.   I've googled my name in the past and never found a photo of myself.   I'm not making it easy for the Omega Point...

***  It would be ironic if this future quantum computer has the complete set of the works of Shakespeare fed into it and recreates Chris Marlowe, or (even worse) a hundred monkeys.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Moving a big file

I had to try to get a large movie file to someone over the internet today.  It was just under a gigabyte, making it too large for email.

Googling the problem led me to We Transfer, which seems to work in a very simple fashion, letting files of up to 2 Gb be uploaded for free, and an email notification to go to a download page goes to the recipient.   The file remains there for 2 weeks.  

As usual, the upload took forever (about 4 hours!)  and I don't yet know if the file has been received at the other end, but it seemed to be working well enough for such a free service.

Update:  maybe I spoke too soon. The first attempt failed, but it was my fault for forgetting to change the power settings on the computer so that it didn't go to sleep mode just before the upload finished.  The second time, however, I saw that it got to within 14 minutes of finishing, then when I clicked back on the tab an  hour later, it said that Flash had crashed, and I never got an email telling me that the upload had succeeded.   I presume that under the National Broadband Network, this will be less of a problem....

Just go for a walk

Blood pressure drugs for mild hypertension: Not proven to prevent heart attacks, strokes, or early death - Slate Magazine

Interesting article here about the uncertainty of whether treating mild hypertension really helps.

I really should start getting some exercise myself...

Nuts for nuts

A pack of walnuts a day keeps the fertility specialist away?

OK, the title is a bit Benny Hill, and the research was paid for by the walnut industry, but still, who would have guessed the ways in which walnuts could be good for you:
A paper published 15 August 2012 in Biology of Reproduction's Papers-in-Press reveals that eating 75 grams of walnuts a day improves the vitality, motility, and morphology of sperm in healthy men aged 21 to 35.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Filled with the Holy Spirit"

This week's episode of Horrible Histories had a segment about a German crusade which involved following a goose  and a goat "filled with the Holy Spirit" that was meant to take them to the Holy Land.  You can watch it here.

I had a vague feeling I had heard this before, but thought it was worth a Google.

Wikipedia is, surprisingly, low on detail about this; but it does note that this is part of Count Emicho's story:
The original idea for the First Crusade that had been preached by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095 had already turned into a much different popular movement, led by Peter the Hermit. Peter's preaching of the Crusade spread much more quickly than the official versions of Urban's call. Peter's version, which probably involved the Second Coming of Jesus, influenced Emicho, who spread his own story that Christ had appeared to him. Christ promised to crown him emperor, and would help him convert the Jews of Europe, if Emicho would join the Crusade.

He did so, and in the first half of 1096 he gathered an army, which arrived at Speyer in May. Emicho, or his followers in separate groups, also went to Worms, Mainz, Cologne, Trier, and Metz, where they forcibly converted the Jewish communities, and massacred those who resisted. Eight hundred Jews were murdered at Worms and one thousand at Mainz. Peter the Hermit's mob massacred communities in other cities as well.
Well, that's not amusing at all.  But further down:
Emicho's army attracted many unusual followers, including a group who worshipped a goose they believed to be filled with the Holy Spirit.[2] 
That's not enough detail.  A history student's blog gives us more information:
 We hear of this goose in Albert of Aachen's (or Albert of Aix's) chronicle which also described the events of the Peoples Crusade, led by Peter the Hermit.
'There was also another abominable wickedness in this gathering of people on foot, who were stupid and insanely irresponsible, which, it cannot be doubted, is hateful to God and unbelievable to all the faithful. They claimed that a certain goose was inspired by the holy ghost, and a she-goat filled with no less than the same, and they had made these their leaders for this holy journey to Jerusalem; they even worshipped them excessively, and as the beasts directed their courses for them in their animal way many of the troops believed they were confirming it to be true according to the entire purpose of the spirit.'
 The blog writer seems to not be 100% certain as to whether the story is to believed or not, but he does note that variations on the story appear in two other sources.  One of them acknowledges from the start that this sounds hard to believe:
'What I am about to say is ridiculous, but has been testified to by authors who are not ridiculous.
As the blog author notes:
Whether these accounts are based on real events or not, that they were even recorded gives us an insight into the mindset of these people who were caught up in the whirlwind of the First Crusade. That people believed a goose had been blessed by the Holy Spirit and would lead them to Jerusalem, shows the mass hysteria conjured up by the preaching of the First Crusade.

A position rarely held

The New New Deal: A Book Argues That President Obama’s Stimulus Has Been an Astonishing Success - Slate Magazine

Well, you don't hear the argument as set out in the title of that article, do you?

The author explains in an interview that the Obama stimulus is not understood or appreciated for its far reaching effects.  It's quite an interesting read.  

This bit certainly sounds right:
 I don’t think my book portrays the Republicans as “vicious,” but I do show—thanks to a lot of in-depth interviews with GOP sources—how they plotted to obstruct Obama before he even took office. I show how the stimulus was chock full of stuff they claimed to support until Jan. 20, 2009—not just things like health IT and the smart grid and energy efficiency and scientific research, but the very idea of Keynesian stimulus. Every presidential candidate in 2008 proposed a stimulus package, and Mitt Romney’s was the largest. So I do spend a fair amount of time chronicling Republican stimulus hypocrisies. (Readers might enjoy the backstory of Sen. Judd Gregg’s short-lived nomination to be Obama’s commerce secretary.) In general, I’d have to say my reporting backs up the Norm Ornstein-Thomas Mann thesis that the Republicans have gone off the policy deep end—denying global warming, denying Keynesian economics (except when it comes to business tax cuts and defense spending!), trashing Obama’s government takeover of health care and also his Medicare cuts, drumming stimulus supporters like Crist and Specter out of the party.

Spielberg's favourite?

'Raiders of the Lost Ark' to Receive Imax Rerelease -

This might be good to see in IMAX; I'm not sure.  But as there is no IMAX theatre in Brisbane I'm not likely to be seeing it this way.  But anyway, the item is of most interest because of what Spielberg says about the movie (even if it does have a ring of advertorial puffery about it):
 “‘Raiders’ is a movie of my own, that I can actually stand to watch from beginning to end,” Mr. Spielberg said. “In that sense, it has a special place in my heart. I don’t rewrite it in my mind; I’m not kicking myself for what I didn’t do. I’m just going along for the ride like everybody else. It’s one of the few films that I’ve directed that I can sit back objectively and observe and enjoy with my family or whoever I’m with, or even alone. Most of my other films, I’m hypercritical of them.”

Call me extremely dubious

Vets call to end 'dangerous' dog breed bans - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Hugh Wirth, a vet who I think has often been extreme on animal welfare matters, used to want American bull terriers banned and said they were " "lethal" and "time bombs waiting for the right circumstances".  Now he's decided breeding bans don't work, but what's more incredible is this:
Mr Wirth says his change of heart was brought about by the latest veterinary and dog behaviour research.
"What I believed years ago, when I made those statements... was the common approach that even the veterinary profession was using," he said.

"Now that this research has been done and it's quite widespread we've discovered that our understanding of dogs and their behaviour was completely wrong."
I find this very hard to believe.

Here's what my common sense tells me:  some breeds are recognised by the public for good reason to be particularly dangerous, either in temperament generally, or as to the particular severity with which they will attack when they do attack.    Give people a choice as to enter a yard with a King Charles Spaniel or an American Pit Bull, and tell me which yard they think would be safer to enter.  Would you trust the person who says "well, contrary to popular belief, I consider the risk of harm equal."? 

There are ways to spin statistics, and I would bet money that a credible case can readily be made out from statistics in various countries that certain breeds deserve banning due to their higher representation in severe bit incidents.  Even if this results in the dogs being bred  underground, the illegality of the activity is likely to make the owner much more careful about the exposure of the dog to the public in any event, and in that sense it is still partially effective.

Professional bodies can go off the rails and against good sense, and I reckon this is what has happened here.  As someone else says in the article:
Graeme Smith of Victoria's Lost Dogs Home says the AVA's recommendations are a backward step.
"The old system of 'deed not breed' is a system that allows dogs one free bite," Mr Smith said.

"In the case of American Pit Bull terriers one free bite can often be a fatal bite.

"Ten years ago I wouldn't have been a breed specific person myself but I've seen what American Pit Bull terriers do and people are fearful of them and we need to protect the community from these dogs."
The people who want to breed such dogs always remind me of American gun nuts:  full of excuses that aren't in the interests of the general public.  In fact, they are even worse:  it's not as if there aren't hundreds of other breeds they can get into.

Update:   speaking of Americans, I see that in Florida there is a vote happening to un-ban pit bulls, and with the support of the American Veterinary body too:
Other experts concur. In a recent report on dog-bite prevention, published in April, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the nation’s leading veterinary organization, concluded: “Owners of pit bull-type dogs deal with a strong breed stigma. However, controlled studies have not identified this breed group as disproportionately dangerous.”

The report points out that pit bulls are not more prone to biting than breeds such as German shepherds, Rottweilers, Jack Russell terriers and even collies and St. Bernards, but some are made dangerous by owners who abuse them or use them for fighting. A pit bull's size and strength can make its attacks more lethal, but that also applies to other large dogs, the report said.
The AVMA concluded that because of the lack of solid data, "it is difficult to support the targeting of this breed as a basis for dog bite prevention."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention agrees, offering this statement: “There is currently no accurate way to determine which breeds are more likely to bite or kill.”
 Seems to me we are in "does marijuana cause schizophrenia" land here - where common sense in the public was ahead of the scientists who took a couple of decades to confirm that use of cannabis is indeed an issue for mental health, especially for teenagers.

Dollar problems

Tim Colebatch writes that the Reserve Bank should definitely do something to bring down the Australian dollar.

As usual, I find him convincing and reasonable:
On the broadest measure, the Australian dollar is now 72 per cent higher than it was a decade ago. Against the US dollar, it has almost doubled. At $US1.05 or more, it is 50 per cent higher than its long-term average of US70¢, between 1985 and 2005, before the mining boom drove it up......

What could we do? Two options stand out:

■The Swiss solution: impose a cap on the Australian/US exchange rate, maybe at parity, and print dollars to sell whenever the cap is threatened. There is no limit on the Reserve's ability to create Australian dollars - only the risk that they will end up back here adding to inflation, and the risk that it will become a huge holder of US dollars and other currencies.
■The McKibbin solution: since the main surge in demand for Australian dollars is from other central banks buying them as safe investments, the Reserve should sell them directly to its cousins, printing dollars to meet their needs, and so taking pressure off the dollar in the markets.
I'll say it again: we need to talk about this. We should not let fear of trying something new cost us good enterprises and good jobs.
Update:   David Uren in The Australian strongly disagrees, claiming that the Swiss experience exposes the country to big dangers.

Hmm.  I can't tell how valid his arguments really are, but I generally do not trust the Australian with its current set of writers and editors to do an adequate and unbiased job on reporting anything political, economic or scientific.     

I am therefore skeptical that he's got the better case.

And incidentally:  doesn't this just show was a hopeless bunch economists are?   They can barely agree on the source of problems, let alone solutions.  

Monday, August 13, 2012

Corny reproduction

I see that Elizabeth Kolbert's comment piece in the New Yorker about the US drought and heatwave begins with a reminder about how odd corn sex is:
Corn sex is complicated. As Michael Pollan observes in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” the whole affair is so freakishly difficult it’s hard to imagine how it ever evolved in the first place. Corn’s female organs are sheathed in a sort of vegetable chastity belt—surrounded by a tough, virtually impenetrable husk. The only way in is by means of a silk thread that each flower extends, Rapunzel-like, through a small opening. For fertilization to take place, a grain of pollen must land on the tip of the silk, then shimmy its way six to eight inches through a microscopic tube, a journey that requires several hours. The result of a successfully completed passage is a single kernel. When everything is going well, the process is repeated something like eight hundred times per ear, or roughly eighty thousand times per bushel.

It is now corn-sex season across the Midwest, and everything is not going well.
It is a bit weird, isn't it.  

Paul Ryan summarised

Paul Ryan's Budget Games : The New Yorker

This short article is consistent with what Krugman and others have said about Paul Ryan, and I suspect it is right:
That may sound a bit strange, since so many stories about Ryan emphasize how serious and wonky he is, and insist that, unlike most politicians, he’s actually willing to talk in detail about the policies he’s advocating. Yet the reality of Ryan’s approach is actually very different. His tax plan, for instance, calls for trillions of dollars in tax cuts (heavily weighted, of course, toward high-income earners), but also claims to be revenue-neutral, since Ryan says that the tax cuts will be offset by eliminating loopholes and tax subsidies. But when it comes to detailing exactly what loopholes and subsidies he wants to get rid of, Ryan clams up—just as Romney has done with his tax plan. This is politically astute, since eliminating the tax benefits that have a substantive budget impact would mean eliminating things voters love, like the mortgage-tax deduction. But it’s a far cry from being honest and tough-minded.

Similarly, while Ryan has been reasonably upfront about his plans for Social Security (which he wants to privatize) and Medicare (which he wants to turn into a defined-contribution, rather than a defined-benefit, plan), he has been both substantively and rhetorically obfuscatory when it comes to the way his budget cuts would, over time, radically shrink the federal government, and effectively make it impossible for the government to do most of what it does today. As the Congressional Budget Office analysis of Ryan’s budget makes clear, Ryan’s plan would mean that by 2050, all of the government’s discretionary spending (including the defense budget) would account for less than four per cent of G.D.P. Since defense spending in the postwar era has never been less than three per cent of G.D.P., and since Romney has said during the campaign that he doesn’t want defense spending to be below four per cent of G.D.P., this means that the only way for Ryan’s numbers to work would be to effectively eliminate nearly all non-defense discretionary spending, including not just much of the social safety net but infrastructure spending, R. & D. investment, federal support for education, air-traffic control, regulatory and public safety spending, and so on. This would be, needless to say, a radical remaking of the federal government. Indeed, as I wrote in a column earlier this year, with the exception of support for health care and retirement, it would basically return the federal government to something like its nineteenth-century role—and early nineteenth-century at that.

Good luck getting Ryan (let alone Romney) to admit this to you.
I was quite surprised to read Will Saletan's enthusiasm for Ryan at Slate over the weekend, and the New Yorker article finds it difficult to believe too:
Ryan has been able to pull off this bait-and-switch game, and win the hearts of many Washington pundits, because his earnest, wonky manner makes it seem as if he’s a hard-nosed pragmatist who’s just listening to what the numbers tell him. (In Slate yesterday, Will Saletan, in a column extolling Romney’s choice, wrote that while he would be voting for Obama this time around, he could easily imagine voting for Ryan in 2016, which is an utterly incoherent position, something like voting for John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Barry Goldwater in 1964.) But Ryan is not a pragmatist; he is an ideologue.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Hypno time

The most interesting thing about this year's visit to the Brisbane RNA Show (I am feeling more formal for the annual report this time around) was the hypnotism show by Shane St James.   He's a son of Martin St James, the famous Australian stage hypnotist, who I recall as a child (or teenager) having quite a run on TV for a time.  (I thought he had died,  but his website seems to indicate he's still with us.  In fact, it notes he's had 20 children, the latest son at the age of 77 only last year!)

I've never been to this type of entertainment before, and I didn't really know that there was anyone out there still making a living this way.  The public fascination with it had moved on, I thought, although there were a large number of people there yesterday for a show which I didn't think had much publicity.   

I remember from some of the old TV series that St James the elder featured one guy as a regular subject who was supposed to be particularly hypnotise-able and particularly funny in the some of the things he would do.  However, after seeing him a few times over several weeks, I recall my father saying "this guy's faking it - he's just acting for fun" and I remember suspecting the same thing.   With these type of shows, familiarity does breed contempt.

So, how did this one go?  It was very much in line with my (somewhat fading) memories of the old TV shows.   A bunch of people are self selected from the audience and (allegedly) hypnotised en mass, but there was no secrecy about the hypnotic induction method.  (I seem to recall M St J - or perhaps another TV hypnotist - doing it in secret, so as to not accidentally hypnotise anyone at home.)   When it's done, there are clearly some on the stage who are not feeling under the spell (so to speak) at all.   They leave the stage when the hypnotist notices, leaving the "live" ones up there.

The things they do are the old fare - pretending to be anything from a typewriter, a musician, or famous singer or actor.  At the end, it's the "when this music plays, you will do this...." routine.

As entertainment, it's not bad in small doses, I guess.   Even if one is completely cynical about whether there is any "real" altered state in the minds of subjects, the enthusiasm with which some of them will do ridiculous acts can be fairly amusing, even if they are just "playing along" in some sense or other.

Being the enquiring, and perhaps not very suggestible, mind that I am, this naturally led to me Googling around today about the scientific status of stage hypnotism.  Given that even therapeutic hypnotism has a very uncertain standing amongst researchers, I expected that no scientist took stage hypnotism seriously.

And it would seem from the Wikipedia article on the topic that this is true:
Due to stage hypnotists' showmanship, many people believe that hypnosis is a form of mind control. However, the effects of stage hypnosis are probably due to a combination of relatively ordinary social psychological factors such as peer pressure, social compliance, participant selection, ordinary suggestibility, and some amount of physical manipulation, stagecraft, and trickery.[10] The desire to be the center of attention, having an excuse to violate their own inner fear suppressors and the pressure to please are thought to convince subjects to 'play along'.[11][page needed] Books written by stage hypnotists sometimes explicitly describe the use of deception in their acts, for example, Ormond McGill's New Encyclopedia of Stage Hypnosis describes an entire "fake hypnosis" act which depends upon the use of private whispers throughout:
[The hypnotist whispers off-microphone:] “We are going to have some good laughs on the audience and fool them… so when I tell you to do some funny things, do exactly as I secretly tell you. Okay? Swell.” (Then deliberately wink at the spectator in a friendly fashion.)[12]
It was indeed clear (he doesn't really attempt to hide it) that Shane St James talks off microphone to some of the people he gets to do certain things.   Is it all a matter of extroverts being able to be made relaxed enough to put on what they would otherwise consider an embarrassing performance?

The Wikipedia article notes that some stage shows use plants in the audience.   I would not think there were any obvious ones in the show I saw yesterday.  

The odd thing about stage hypnotism, however, is that it has caused enough concern that it can affect some people that it is banned or regulated in some countries.   A woman sued a stage hypnotist successfully in 2001 in the UK, and I can't recall where, but I have read or seen something some years ago by (I think)  a researcher saying that stage hypnotism was somewhat risky for its unintended effects.   There is a bit of an explanation of a 1990's UK enquiry into stage hypnotism after a couple of controversial cases to be found at this website.  Googling around, it seems that some suggest that Scientology uses what amounts to hypnotic methods, which I guess would not be a surprise.

Anyhow, the whole topic of hypnosis is a bit of a puzzling one.  While it is more-or-less understandable that deep relaxation akin to sleep might help a person ignore pain, for example, the reason as to how it helps some conditions is much more of a mystery.  For example:
  The early report by Sulzberger[2] on the efficacy of suggestion in treating warts has since been confirmed numerous times. Numerous reports attest to the efficacy of hypnosis in treating warts.[31, 32] In a well-conducted randomized controlled study by Spanos et al[33] that serves as a typical example, 53% of the experimental group had improvement of their warts 3 months after the first of 5 hypnotherapy sessions, while none of the control group had improvement. Hypnosis can be successful as a therapy for warts.
I believe there is even a well attested case of hypnotherapy working to remove warts on just one side of a patient's body, although I can't find a good internet reference for that yet.  I find that a particularly hard to fathom result, if (as I think it is) true.

By co-incidence, I see that the New York Times yesterday had a fascinating article about the "nocebo effect" - where warning patients of possible side effects of medicine or treatment helps ensure that they will develop the problem:
In a curious study, a team of Italian gastroenterologists asked people with and without diagnosed lactose intolerance to take lactose for an experiment on its effects on bowel symptoms. But in reality the participants received glucose, which does not harm the gut. Nonetheless, 44 percent of people with known lactose intolerance and 26 percent of those without lactose intolerance complained of gastrointestinal symptoms. 

In one remarkable case, a participant in an antidepressant drug trial was given placebo tablets — and then swallowed 26 of them in a suicide attempt. Even though the tablets were harmless, the participant’s blood pressure dropped perilously low.
That second case certainly is reminiscent of  aboriginal deaths caused by "pointing the bone," isn't it?

The article goes on to note a less surprising example of the effect:  
The nocebo effect can be observed even when people take real, non-placebo drugs. When medical professionals inform patients of possible side effects, the risk of experiencing those side effects can increase. In one trial, the drug finasteride was administered to men to relieve symptoms of prostate enlargement. Half of the patients were told that the drug could cause erectile dysfunction, while the other half were not informed of this possible side effect. In the informed group, 44 percent of the participants reported that they experienced erectile dysfunction; in the uninformed group, that figure was only 15 percent.
All of this certainly ties in with the idea that quite a large proportion of people are very "suggestible", and as such should stage hypnotism really be seen as tantamount to mere acting?  A bit hard to say, I think.

Finally, I hope that the hypno-duck at the top of this post (whose photo I took yesterday - the poultry and bird area is always a favourite place to visit) is not making any reader drowsy.