Sunday, September 30, 2012

A pleasant day out

I'd been looking at Google maps and pondering places around Brisbane I had never been to, and settled on Jacobs Well - a small spot on the water stuck away between Brisbane and Southport, and mainly known (as far as I could recall) for fishing.   Insert map here:

I work on the assumption that all places are interesting for at least one visit, so it was the destination for a day out yesterday.

The drive between the motorway to Jacobs Well reminded me a lot of driving around Bundaberg - fields of sugar cane (which I thought had more or less stopped being grown in the South East corner) and very flat land.  Jacobs Well itself is, as I expected, small but pleasant enough.  It has a swimming enclosure in the bay waters, but the day was cloudier and much windier than expected, so no one felt like getting wet, or even fishing off the jetty.   I just took a photo of some slightly disgruntled pelicans instead:

Jacobs Well does feature a small tavern, but I saw a sign saying on the Sea Rescue building advertising an Irish pub at nearly "Calypso Bay"; an expensive canal/marina estate just outside of town that looks like its been there for a few years, but presumably has been suffering sales problems given the GFC.  There's certainly plenty of land still available around the millionaires houses.

But what a surprise Harrigans Drift Inn is.   It has a bland exterior, but inside it's very nice indeed:

The menu was very good and reasonably priced for an Irish pub: there was a four piece jazz band playing (music on a Saturday and Sunday is routine, apparently); it has a lovely beer garden area outside near the water; and its own jetty to pull up to when I own a two million motor yacht.   I guess it goes to show that it does help a small village to have rich people move in next door.

Anyway, after lunch, and given that it was still windy, we went back to the motorway and down another exit or two to visit Hope Island/Sanctuary Cove, which I haven't been to for some years (maybe 6 or 8?)   It seems to have been developed a hell of a lot more since then, and this area really reminds me a lot of parts of Florida.  (Mind you, it's been 25 years or so since I was happily spending days by myself at DisneyWorld.)

Someone had told me a couple of years ago that Sanctuary Cove itself was suffering quite a bit with the downturn in the economy, and that several cafes were closed.  As far as I could see, there were plenty open yesterday, and not many shop spaces vacant.   "Ladies who lunch" were very much in evidence, as well as rich Asians.   The place still screams money.

If ever a cyclone devastates the marina, I hate to think how many hundreds of millions of dollars worth of damage would be incurred - have a look at this local site for prices of new and used boats in the area.  All we could afford was an ice cream for the kids, but it's nice to dream. 

So, there's my recommendation, particularly if you are on the South side of Brisbane - Jacobs Well will take less than an hour, and an Irish pub awaits you.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Graham Lloyd's transparent war on science

Sea level fall defies climate warnings | The Australian

The defiantly transparent attempts to twist stories which do not contradict climate change warnings into ones that do continues apace at The Australian.

I mean, seriously Graham (and whoever it is who comes up with the headlines for your stories,)  people can read, you know.   Or do you simply hope (probably with good reason, I fear) that climate change fake skeptics simply read headlines and are convinced by them alone?

Anyway, the interesting thing in the article is the talk about how it does indeed seem that the drop in sea level rise over the last few years was due to water - a huge amount - going onto the land in the form of rain.  Queensland knows all about that.  I can't actually find the paper or articles Lloyd is talking about, however. 

As with my earlier post this week about the Brisbane floods, it seems that News Ltd has developed a special talent for headlines which don't gel with the material within the article.

The divided media

This article in the SMH today, about the sharply divided media coverage of the US presidential election, was a good read.

One thing I know for sure:  Fox News will be a pretty entertaining watch when Obama is re-elected.   (I'm on the media side that just can't see Romney coming back, because of the intrinsic problem that he is captive of the running away from reality element of the US Right.)

Friday, September 28, 2012

A long, long complaint about Hollywood

Has Hollywood Murdered The Movies? | The New Republic

Wow.  David Denby must have been working on this essay about what has gone wrong with Hollywood movies for a long time.  There may not be too much that hasn't been said before, but it's said in a lot of detail, and it is all convincingly argued and gives voice to many similar thoughts I have had over the years about the decline of Hollywood.   One of his main themes (about how digital technology has meant many directors don't really film "spatially" any more) makes for a good extract:  
 It is also a drama of space. What audiences feel about characters on the screen is probably affected more than most of us realize by the way the space surrounding the people is carved up and re-combined. In John Ford, the geographical sense is very strong—the poetic awareness of sky and landscape and moving horses, but also the attention to such things as how people are arrayed at a long table as an indication of social caste (the prostitute at one end, the fine lady at the other). The best use of space is not just an effective disposition of activity on the screen, it is the emotional meaning of activity on the screen.

Directors used to take great care with such things: spatial integrity was another part of the unspoken contract with audiences, a codicil to the narrative doctrine of the scriptorium. It allowed viewers to understand, say, how much danger a man was facing when he stuck his head above a rock in a gunfight, or where two secret lovers at a dinner party were sitting in relation to their jealous enemies. Space could be analyzed and broken into close-ups and reaction shots and the like, but then it had to be re-unified in a way that brought the experience together in a viewer’s head—so that, in Jezebel, one felt physically what Bette Davis suffered as scandalized couples backed away from her in the ballroom. If the audience didn’t experience that emotion, the movie wouldn’t have cast its spell.

This seems like plain common sense. Who could possibly argue with it? Yet spatial integrity is just about gone from big movies. What Wyler and his editors did—matching body movement from one shot to the next—is rarely attempted now. Hardly anyone thinks it important. The most common method of editing in big movies now is to lay one furiously active shot on top of another, and often with only a general relation in space or body movement between the two. The continuous whirl of movement distracts us from noticing the uncertain or slovenly fit between shots. The camera moves, the actors move: in Moulin Rouge, the camera swings wildly over masses of men in the nightclub, Nicole Kidman flings herself around her boudoir like a rag doll. The digital fight at the end of The Avengers takes place in a completely artificial environment, a vacuum in which gravity has been abandoned; continuity is not even an issue. If the constant buffoonishness of action in all sorts of big movies leaves one both over-stimulated and unsatisfied—cheated without knowing why—then part of the reason is that the terrain hasn’t been sewn together. You have been deprived of that loving inner possession of the movie that causes you to play it over and over in your head.
 Any regular reader will know what I am likely to say next:  this is one reason why Spielberg remains an awesome director - he gives the audience an excellent sense of space; his action sequences are rarely too quickly edited and you can understand what's going on perfectly.  And,  to concur with Denby,  Spielberg's most artificial film of all, last year's Adventures of Tin Tin, was a failure because of the technology taking away the same sense of spatial and kinetic realism that his best films have.

One other incidental point near the start, which I didn't fully realise before:
In the 1930s, roughly eighty million people went to the movies every week, with weekly attendance peaking at ninety million in 1930 and again in the mid-1940s. Now about thirty million people go, in a population two and a half times the size of the population of the 1930s.
 I am not entirely sure about this next selection, but from my own childhood, there is a certain element of truth in it:
 My friends’ attitudes are defined so completely by the current movie market that they do not wish to hear that movies, for the first eighty years of their existence, were essentially made for adults. Sure, there were always films for families and children, but, for the most part, ten-year-olds and teens were dragged by their parents to what the parents wanted to see, and this was true well after television reduced the size of the adult audience. The kids saw, and half understood, a satire such as Dr. Strangelove, an earnest social drama such as To Kill a Mockingbird, a cheesy disaster movie such as Airport, and that process of half understanding, half not, may have been part of growing up; it also laid the soil for their own enjoyment of grown-up movies years later. They were not expected to remain in a state of goofy euphoria until they were thirty-five. My friends think that our current situation is normal. They believe that critics are naïve blowhards, but it is they who are naïve.
I remember sitting in the back seat at the drive in being bored by The Graduate, and falling asleep.   But certainly, I think that the moderation in the depiction of sex and swearing in pre-1960's cinema certainly meant that children could be exposed to what was still "adult" cinema and influenced their feel for the medium in a positive way.

All in all, a job well done, David.

That's ridiculous

Japan's NTT breaks fibre optic data speed record 
Japan's incumbent telecommunications carrier, NTT, is claiming a telecommunications speed record, demonstrating a fibre technology able to carry 1 Petabit-per-second - a million gigabits - over a distance of 50 kilometers, using a single fibre.

The technology - at this stage a research demonstration not ready for commercialization - would serve not end users, but the "trunk" links between exchanges. The carrier selected the 50 km distance as reflecting the typical distance between medium-haul telecommunications exchanges in Japan.

NTT's report states that it used a specially-designed optical fibre in which one fibre strand contained 12 "cores" - light paths within the fibre that don't interact with each other. Each of those fibres carried an 84.5 Terabit-per-second signal to achieve the total 1 Pbps throughput.
So, how much data does this really represent in something we can understand?:
 The 1 Pb/s capacity of the NTT-demonstrated link would carry the equivalent of 5,000 two-hour HDTV movies each second, the company says.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

More on the Republicans not making sense...

A column in the Washington Post puts the problems with Romney squarely on where his party has gone:
Why won’t Romney, an intelligent man, fluent in economics, explain his economic policy? Because any sensible answer would cause a firestorm in his party.

It is obvious that, with a deficit at 8 percent of gross domestic product, any solution to our budgetary problems has to involve both spending cuts and tax increases. Ronald Reagan agreed to tax increases when the deficit hit 4 percent of GDP; George H.W. Bush did so when the deficit was 3 percent of GDP. But today’s Republican Party is organized around the proposition that, no matter the circumstances, there must never be a tax increase of any kind. The Simpson-Bowles proposal calls for $1 of tax increases for every $3 of spending cuts. But every Republican presidential candidate — including Romney — pledged during the primaries that he or she would not accept $10 of spending cuts if that meant a dollar of tax increases.

So Romney could present a serious economic plan with numbers that make sense — and then face a revolt within his own party. His solution: to be utterly vague about how he would deal with the deficit.
And it ends:
 The Republican Party has imposed a new kind of political correctness on its leaders. They cannot speak certain words (taxes) or speculate about certain ideas (immigration amnesty) because these are forbidden. Romney has tried to run a campaign while not running afoul of his party’s strictures. As a result, he has twisted himself into a pretzel, speaking vacuously, avoiding specifics and refusing to provide any serious plans for the most important issues of the day.
 All sounds about right to me.

Williamstown discussed

Maritime and tide

This short article in The Age talks about some of the history of Williamstown, which is pretty much my favourite part of Melbourne.

Clever mice

BBC News - 'Scar free healing' in mice may give clues to human skin repair, says study

There was a report just a day or two ago that new work on how axolotls re-grew limbs indicated that it was trick unlucky to be able to be artificially copied in humans.

But then this article on some African mice can repair skin with no scars, and full hair, indicates mammals may be better at regeneration than we thought.

Rubbery figures?

Climate change already harming the global economy - environment - 26 September 2012 - New Scientist

I remain very skeptical that reliable economic modelling can possibly be done for the economic effects of global warming over the long term.

Just use common sense, and don't limit your thinking to some artificial target like the turn of the century.

I mean, can anyone reliably model the economic effects of eventual ocean level rise of (say) 3 metres over the course of 100 - 200 years?   I would rather just assume that turning many centres of civilisation (known as "cities") into empty versions of Venice is a bad idea, and you do what you can now to reduce the possibility in as economically sound way as you can.

We'll see

Short Sharp Science: Newly spotted comet may outshine the full moon

These predictions when new comets are spotted so far out are not at all reliable, but we'll see around Christmas 2013.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Hedley stamps his foot

First, I noticed that the Courier Mail website this morning has a headline that is utterly at odds with the contents of the story:

How strange.  An independent report that looks at the dam operation and backs the SEQWater engineers is going to "open lawsuit floodgates"?

The headline at the actual report page is just slightly better:
Multi-billion dollar lawsuit in wake of report backing Wivenhoe Dam flood engineers 
Readers might still be somewhat puzzled as to the chosen headline when the report opens:
A MULTI-BILLION-dollar lawsuit is set to become the next chapter in the January 2011 flood saga after a crucial US Government report backed the actions of the four flood engineers who controlled Wivenhoe Dam.
The report - by the Department of the Interior and the US Army Corps of Engineers - has warned the massive dam sitting above Brisbane is far more lethal than previously believed, and further re-inforced previous criticism of the dam's manual.

But it strongly backed the actions of the four dam engineers who were repeatedly accused in the $15 million flood inquiry of mismanaging the dam and confecting a fraudulent report to cover their tracks.

The report
is a potential blow to flood victims seeking compensation but lawyers are determined to proceed with legal action, with thousands of claimants signed up to a class action demanding billions of dollars in compensation.
Where's Hedley Thomas' commentary about this?  Well, he's having a big stamping of the foot over at the Australian:
Why Campbell Newman has a billion reasons to airbrush the floods 'facade'
 Hedley complains that the Queensland government asking the US engineers to review the report that the SEQWater engineers wrote but without considering the inquiry's findings that the engineers had been not accurate as to how and when they made their water release decisions.

Hedley, you see, is exceptionally proud of having made life a living hell for the three engineers for about 18 months, despite the fact that the CMC recently declined to take any action against them, and explained in its review that the problem basically lay in a poorly drafted manual: 

Retired Appeal Court judge John Jerrard, QC, headed up the CMC investigation and wrote in his findings the engineers had believed they were following the dam manual when they adopted their water release strategies during the floods.

In his advice Mr Jerrard said prosecution of the trio would be ‘‘oppressive’’ if they were simply trying to follow a manual that contained contradictory statements....

‘‘An honest belief that the engineers had always intended to comply with the Manual would justify the engineers describing themselves as adopting strategy W3, when strategy W2 was not appropriate, even when they had earlier thought W2 was appropriate, and had said that they were in it,’’ Mr Jerrard said in the CMC report.

‘‘If the engineers believed they had followed the Manual, it is not dishonest, criminal, or misconduct, for any of them to say that they did.

‘‘Nor is it dishonest, criminal, or misconduct, to misunderstand what the Manual required.’’

Has Hedley ever done a detailed report on the findings of this review?   Not as far as I know.   (Correct me if you're reading, Hedley.)
No, instead, Thomas is still on a campaign to encourage people that there is someone to blame for a natural disaster.   His longer review article in The Australian today complains:
IT should be no easy feat to turn the serious, damning, evidence-based findings of a $15 million royal commission-style inquiry -- one that nailed an egregious cover-up - into a glowing endorsement barely six months later. 

But that is precisely what a group of US engineers, asked to review the performance of another group of engineers - those in control of Wivenhoe Dam's massive releases of water in January last year, water that became most of the Brisbane River flood - have managed to achieve.
 As ever, he is more interested in a populist campaign: 
Nine months ago, as a direct result of a series of stories in The Australian highlighting the evidence of a cover-up that had been overlooked by the floods inquiry, Holmes decided to restart public hearings and resume investigations. An inquiry that had effectively completed its year-long assignment, save for the release of a final report yet to be printed, went back to work. Flood victims saw a glimmer of hope that their concerns of a man-made disaster, or at least a disaster that could have been minimised with a more prudent dam operation, were justified.
 I have explained in detail before how the flood inquiry shows convincingly that this was not a man-made disaster, and it's only because of a shameful campaign of sensationalist reporting by News Ltd outlets and Thomas in particular that any member of the public should be thinking this way.

Furthermore, the evidence at the commission by the independent expert was that the rate of water release  (despite a technical non-compliance with the manual) was only likely to have been inappropriate for a period of about 7 hours.  That expert's modelling indicated that following other release scenarios was likely to have been only capable of modifying flood levels by (perhaps - subject to many uncertainties) 30 to 50 cm.  For a city that looked like this at the height of the flood, 30 cm was not going to make a hell of a lot of difference:

It is therefore no surprise that other water engineers should be agreeing that the engineers here had acted reasonably. 

Hedley Thomas, it's time you starting reporting realistically on the matter, and give up on running campaigns more in your own interests than those of the public.

Monday, September 24, 2012

One extreme to another?

Andrew Glikson from ANU has a new article up at The Conversation, arguing that there is ample evidence of an increase in the number of anomalous weather events since the 1970's to be confident that they have been caused by the AGW that has presently only reached .8 degree.  Give the planet  another 1 or 2 degree increase, and things can be expected to be much worse.

But as for the attribution of any individual extreme events, that work is still tricky, and Nature last week noted that some climate scientists doubted whether it was really useful to try to make attribution claims at all.  The editorial thought this was too harsh, and in any event, it seems to me that it was more concerned with whether climate modelling could predict future individual anomalous events, rather than attribution in hindsight.

There certainly still seems to be a tension between some folk at NOAA who were very, very fast to claim the Russian heatwave was just one of those things, and other scientists who thought it was attributable in significant part to AGW.   Climate fake skeptics, like Anthony Watts, lap this all up as reason to do nothing, of course.

At the local level, Brisbane's weather, which was extremely wet and cloudy about two years, just seems to have had the water turned off like a switch over the last couple of months.    A month ago they said it had been 32 consecutive days without rain; I would say that it has effectively been extended to 62 days now, even if at Brisbane Airport they might have had a day with technically 1 mm of rain.   On the side of town where  I live, there was one day last week where a very fine spray came down for about 10 minutes,barely damping the bitumen before it evaporated.  I'm not counting that as break in the dry spell.  The small-ish water tank we have at home has emptied for the first time since it first filled 3 or 4 years ago.

Well, at least I expect it will be good weather to be a the beach this year; but I also expect more fires around Brisbane than usual.

Update:  After yesterday's complaint, Brisbane got its first widespread storm of the season, with a bit of hail thrown in.   We'll see how this changes things. 

Roger defects? Maybe not...

Why doesn't Roger Scruton want to be labelled as "of the right"?

Well,  England has still got something going for it when people there can go to a debate between Roger Scruton and Terry Eagleton.  The New Statesment notes that it was most interesting for the fact that Roger Scruton declared that he does not like being labelled as "of the Right" (although the magazine just uses small "r" right):
It was at this point that Scruton’s squirming began - both physically and rhetorically. He has, it turns out, a great aversion to being identified as “of the right”.

“People on the right don’t identify themselves as such, not as part of a group. We’re just holding on to the things we love,” he said, in what appeared to be a sleight-of-hand justification for secretly quite liking the Changing of the Guard.

“But you said of Thatcher...” Eagleton began, only to be interrupted as Scruton retorted: “I’ve grown up since then.”
I wonder what Scruton thinks of the Right as currently represented by the Republican Party. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A good question

Christof Koch, Robert Sawyer: Could the Internet ever become conscious? - Slate Magazine

If memory serves me right, I think I suggested to friends years ago that you would know something was up with the internet when electronics factories start getting orders for chips and computers, and where to install them, but with only fake human authorisations.

I see that Robert Sawyer has novels about the internet becoming conscious.  I wonder if that happens in his stories.  Or did it happen in some short science fiction story I've read and forgotten about? 

Alternative ideas

Dark matter effect might be explained by modified way to calculate inertial mass

I've mentioned MOND theory from time to time as an alternative explanation for dark matter, but this MOND-ish proposal is possibly testable.

Furthermore, Mike McCulloch claims that his idea might explain the acceleration of the universe as well. 

Who is he, though?   Well, I would be a little surprised if stunning new understandings of physics come from some who works part time at the Plymouth University School of Marine Science and Engineering, and whose personal page features  cartoons of dubious quality (yes, I know - I should talk!) and bad short stories, but I should retain an open mind, I suppose.

Gopnick does fantasy

“The Lord of the Rings,” “Twilight,” and Young-Adult Fantasy Books : The New Yorker

The always readable Adam Gopnick has a discussion here about "high fantasy for young adults", and starts with a look at Tolkien in a way that I can almost approve (ie it's sort of disparaging.)

I liked the wittiness of this bit:
It’s true that his fantasies are uniquely “thought through”: every creature has its own origin story, script, or grammar; nothing is gratuitous. But even more compelling was his arranged marriage between the Elder Edda and “The Wind in the Willows”—big Icelandic romance and small-scale, cozy English children’s book. The story told by “The Lord of the Rings” is essentially what would happen if Mole and Ratty got drafted into the Nibelungenlied.
 this too:
Modernist ambiguity, or realist emotional ambivalence, is unknown to Tolkien—the good people are very good, the bad people very bad, and though occasionally a character may be tossed between good and evil, like Gollum, it is self-interest, rather than conscience, that makes him tip back and forth. Betrayal and temptation happen; inner doubts do not. 
and this:
What substitutes for psychology in Tolkien and his followers, and keeps the stories from seeming barrenly external, is what preceded psychology in epic literature: an overwhelming sense of history and, with it, a sense of loss. The constant evocation of lost or fading glory—Númenor has fallen, the elves are leaving Middle-earth—does the emotional work that mixed-up minds do in realist fiction. We know that Westernesse is lost even before we know what the hell Westernesse was, and our feeling for its loss lends dimension to those who have lost it. (There is also, in Tolkien, the complete elimination of lust as a normal motive in daily life. The wicked Wormtongue lusts for Éowyn at the court of Rohan, but this is thought to be very creepy.)
Of course, as I am happy to explain that I dismiss LOTR on the basis that I lost interest after about 100 pages both times I tried it, and found the first movie boring, I have no idea what characters Gopnick is talking about in that last sentence; but anything that criticises the book in any respect appeals to me.  It's very, very hard to find other people who share my attitude.   You try Googling for anti-Tolkien mutual support groups - it's been a while since I did, but I couldn't find one.

But seriously: I think Gopnick has given me better justification for my disdain, so for this he must be praised.

By the way, the rest of the article talks about other examples of fantasy that appeal to young adults, particularly the Eragon series, and even Twilight, and he makes some pretty good points that I think my regular reader Tim would like to see.  This part in particular:
 And the truth is that most actual mythologies and epics and sacred books are dull. Nothing is more wearying, for readers whose tastes have been formed by the realist novel, than the Elder Edda. Yet the spell such works cast on their audience wasn’t diminished by what we find tedious. The incantation of names is, on its own, a powerful literary style.
True, I think.   Although I did like what the Coen brothers did with the Odyssey.  :)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Yet more sound Republican judgement

Herman Cain: Let’s face it, I’d probably have a substantial lead right now if I was the nominee 

Are they competing for some sort of comedy award in the Republican Party at the moment?


Rand Paul Says 2012 Election Over, Romney has Already Won

Even without his making silly statements like that, I still find Rand Paul's hair prevents me taking him seriously.  Curly hair on a male politician just has that effect on me.  I am not sure why...

Friday, September 21, 2012

Living forever...kind of...

Multiverse: A Religion ?

Why have I never paid much attention to the Science 2.0 site?   Somehow or other, I stumbled onto this recent blog post by particle physicist Tommasco Dorigo talking about whether the idea of the multiverse is popular with the public because it's a bit like religion-like:
The discussion was scheduled to last one hour, but we kept our audience glued to their chairs for almost two, without boring ourselves nor apparently them. Being unfamiliar with discussions of the multiverse in public, it was interesting to me to detect how the idea is fascinating to most laypersons. I believe one reason is the religious aspect of the whole thing.

Indeed, long ago man invented religion as a way to explain what he could not figure out by logical methods, as well as to accept his own mortality: religion made acceptable the concept of death, as well as give an explanation to other natural phenomena. And man is now inventing the multiverse in what appears to me a new, albeit well disguised, attempt in the same direction. One as reassuring and sweet as the idea of an almighty entity: because by throwing one's hands up with the idea of a landscape of universes with any possible combination of parameter values one relieves the pressure of feeling powerless, as of yet, in the task of understanding the new layer of mysteries that fundamental science has come to face.

 I think one additional appeal of the idea of a continuous birth of universes of all kinds is the built-in feature of an eternal comeback of the same initial conditions, or infinitely similar ones. We might be immortal after all, but not in the sense that Tipler figured out in his entertaining but crazy book "The Physics of Immortality" - a host of intelligent computers allowing the best of us to be reborn as emulations short before the big crunch. Rather, if we accept that the universe is a multiverse unlimited in time, with bubbles continuously regenerated, we must conclude that we are bound to live again not one, but an infinite number of times. Hopefully still with a choice of what to do with our lives.
 I have mentioned way back in 2007 that Hugh Everett, who came up with the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum physics actually thought it guaranteed him a type of immortality.   Seems to me that the multiverse could be argued to guarantee something more like re-incarnation. 

I must think about this more.

Stock up for the end of the world

Beer and the Apocalypse | Restricted Data

Cute post here from a pretty interesting looking blog (found via The Browser website - see link at the side) about how atomic tests in the 1950's did check to see if beer and soda would survive close to an atomic bomb.   It mostly did.  Cheers.

Brulee'd to death

How to cook perfect creme brulee | Life and style | The Guardian

Hey, time for another entry in Felicity Cloake's food blog where she spends an inordinate amount of time explaining the different recipe variations on a simple dish, and which variation she prefers.

It's always a case of "more than I ever really needed to know", but I still enjoy them, in a food porn sort of way.

Update:  I really shouldn't complain about Felicity's work.  I just noticed another recent article on the Guardian's site:  How to boil an egg.    Seriously....

New drug, new problem

Party's over: mephedrone causes memory impairment

Apparently known as Meow, this (relatively new sounding) party drug sounds like it has bad consequences for memory, and brain function generally.

I don't know why people are so keen to wander from the old, established and tasty means of mild mental modification known as alcohol.

An explanation...

With an operating history just marginally better than the Chernobyl power station, and currently in meltdown mode, I like to use the Catallaxy website (the preferred site for "libertarian and centre right" types who are actually fans of the way the American Right has run away from the centre at a rapid pace, and up and over the barrier at the edge of the cliff marked "Warning:  you are about to leave political, economic and scientific common sense") as an example of the way free enterprise sometimes stuffs some things up pretty spectacularly.   This is, perhaps, unfair;  it nonetheless amuses me and hopefully annoys some of them. 

This may mean that some will come here and make rude comments.  Bad language is never tolerated here, so they will be deleted when noted.

The Medium is the message

I've been forgetting to recommend the documentary series on SBS that was started last Monday - Derren Brown Investigates.  I am unfamiliar with Brown, but he appears to be a well known illusionist in England who specialises in faking psychic abilities.

This first episode was devoted to his following around a medium in Liverpool -  Joe Power - a middle aged man who seems to have a reasonable business at the local level in giving private readings and the occasional group show in smallish venues.

It was all pretty fascinating, as Derren dealt with the issue of whether Power was a fake or not in a polite but insistent way.   The show contained a great summary in the middle of the various techniques used in "cold readings". 

As the flakiness of Power became clearer and clearer through the show,  I almost started to feel sorry for him for not being bright enough to not put himself at risk of exposure.   You have to watch to the very last to find out the explanation as to how Power did his apparently successful reading at the start of the show.  (OK, there is no 100% proof against him; just an obvious way that he could have obtained the information.)

You can still see it on SBS on Demand for another week or so, if this is of interest, but the whole thing is also on Youtube.

The show also reminded of John Edward, who has obviously made a squillion from his mediumship shows, and how he is obviously open to the charge that he uses "cold reading" techniques, yet similarly seems to occasionally pull surprisingly relevant detail out of the air.

Given that he is such a "rich" target, and that his show obviously has so many people involved in its production, it is a wonder that there has never been anyone associated with it who has (to my knowledge) come out with explanations of how he has sometimes had convincing sounding "hits" on his TV or stage shows.

I remember reading somewhere that his Australian tours produced some pretty unconvincing shows.  I think he even claimed the problem was he often couldn't fully understand spirits with Australian accents! 

But as far as mediums go, I do find him a bit unusually likeable in demeanour.   Joe Power seemed a bit of a sad, arrogant type who lived alone. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Re-visiting Titus-Bode

Spacewatch: The Titius-Bode Law | Science | The Guardian

I haven't thought about the Titus-Bode law for some time, but the above post gives a good summary of it:
Nasa's Dawn probe has now left Vesta, its ion thrusters accelerating it gently towards the dwarf planet Ceres. It was back on the first day of the 19th century that Ceres became the first object to be discovered in what we now know as the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
That something was orbiting in that gap was suspected because of a numerical curiosity noticed a few years before. Known as the Titius-Bode Law, it begins with the sequence 0, 3, 6, 12 etc, where each number after the 3 is double its predecessor Add 4 to each and divide by 10 to arrive at 0.4, 0.7, 1.0, 1.6, 2.8, 5.2, 10.0, etc. To within 5% or so, these correspond with the distances of the known planets at the time when expressed in astronomical units (AU), the unit of the Earth's average distance from the Sun. Mars sits at almost 1.6AU and Jupiter at 5.2AU, but nothing was known at 2.8AU. Belief in the law was boosted, though, when Uranus was discovered in 1781 very close to the next-predicted distance of 19.6AU.
Ceres fitted the 2.8AU slot almost exactly and when other bodies began to be found at similar distances the idea grew that these are the debris from a single shattered planet. We now realise that Jupiter's powerful gravity has never allowed the material there to coalesce into a single object. Whether the Titius-Bode Law is anything more than a coincidence is still debated, but its prediction of 38.8AU fails for the outermost planet, Neptune, which orbits at close to 30AU.

For a co-incidence, it seems a fairly curious one.  If God, or the alien solar system builders, were trying to tell humans something, it turned out to be just a touch too subtle.  Or maybe, now that I think about it, along the lines of 2001 A Space Odyssey, is the missing planet spot where Neptune should be where humans are expected to go to see what's waiting for us there?   Has someone else suggested this before?  (My vague hopes of having an important original thought continue unabated.)

Southern ice

unknowispeaksense has an excellent post explaining that what's going on in Antarctic sea ice is not inconsistent with AGW.  

Antarctica was never expected to react in the same way to AGW as the Arctic.  Fake skeptics need to be reminded of that, even though they will ignore it again within the next 10 minutes.  They have short attention spans.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

How's that slushy pole going?

Like this:

Improbable sounding reason for going to the Moon

 Build a supercomputer on the moon

NASA currently controls its deep space missions through a network of huge satellite dishes in California, Spain and Australia known as the Deep Space Network (DSN). Even the Voyager 1 probe relies on these channels to beam data back to Earth as it careers away into space. 

But traffic on the network is growing fast, at a rate that the current set-up can't handle. Two new dishes are being built in Australia at the moment to cope with the extra data, but a researcher from University of Southern California has proposed a slightly more radical solution to the problem. 

In a presentation to the AIAA Space conference in Pasadena, California, last Thursday, Ouliang Chang suggested that one way to ease the strain would be to build a supercomputer and accompanying radio dishes on the moon. This lunar supercomputer would not only ease the load on terrestrial mission control infrastructure, it would also provide computational power for the "first phase of lunar industrial and settlement development".

Chang suggests that a lunar supercomputer ought to be built on the far side of the moon, set in a deep crater near a pole. This would protect it somewhat from the moon's extreme temperature swings, and might let it tap polar water ice for cooling.
 Well, I have suggested before that the Moon be used as a biological and information lifeboat for the Earth, so I guess the supercomputer could fulfil part of that task. 

The Gaffe-tastic Mr Romney

I didn't really think much about Mr Romney before this election campaign.  As a moderate Republican governor who reformed health care and seemed to say the right things about climate change, I thought he might be OK in a head to head with a President who has, basically, had to learn on the job.

But really, who knew he could be so incredibly gaffe-tastic?  Not just when talking to the media (dissing England, sounding silly on Russia, jumping in too early on Muslim ) but put him behind closed doors and what the insults to half the US population fly.

There's so much commentary on how stupid his comments make him sound, it's hard to pick a favourite.  David Brooks in the NYT with "Thurston Howell Romney" was pretty good.  His concluding paragraphs are generous:
 Sure, there are some government programs that cultivate patterns of dependency in some people. I’d put federal disability payments and unemployment insurance in this category. But, as a description of America today, Romney’s comment is a country-club fantasy. It’s what self-satisfied millionaires say to each other. It reinforces every negative view people have about Romney.
Personally, I think he’s a kind, decent man who says stupid things because he is pretending to be something he is not — some sort of cartoonish government-hater. But it scarcely matters. He’s running a depressingly inept presidential campaign. Mr. Romney, your entitlement reform ideas are essential, but when will the incompetence stop?
And I guess this is consistent with a piece in Bloomberg yesterday.  The problem might not be Romney per se, but the way his Party has become entrenched in simplistic ideology to the extent they have stopped making sense and don't care about things like (as Bill Clinton said) arithmetic or (as I say) other evidence on something like climate change:
Most of Romney's troubles stem from his inability to shed a broad range of toxic Republican dogmas. The rhetorical and policy workarounds required for him to be both a loyal Republican and a viable candidate for the presidency have stretched him thin and pretzelly.

Why is Romney unable to discuss health care policy -- his most significant government success -- with any coherence or conviction? Because Republicans told their base that Obamacare was the devil's spawn and Romney (who originated the role of the devil in this theater of the absurd) must maintain the fiction.

Why is the most salient aspect of Romney's budget the gaping hole at its center? Because contemporary Republicans like to play fantasy league politics, in which vast swaths of government are magically excised by a legion of Randian Harry Potters. Voters, however, lack a similar imagination. If they saw real numbers signifying real cuts, they would punish Romney. So the numbers stay hidden and Romney's rhetoric and budget documents appear untrustworthy.

Why must Romney, a multimillionaire, push for highly unpopular tax cuts for the wealthy in an era of guilded inequality? Because his base demands it. If such cuts are bad economics (see the Bush administration, 2001-2009), bad fiscal policy (ditto) and unpopular with the broad electorate, so what? The Republican nominee must support tax cuts for the wealthiest -- no matter how much it costs him in credibility or votes.

The list goes on and on. Indeed, Romney's ill-fated foreign policy attack this week may be derived from the same impulse to appease the fantasies that have taken root in the Republican base, which clings to its belief that Obama is anti-American and vaguely in cahoots with terrorists (though presumably not the ones he has had assassinated).

Romney was a fairly successful governor who made a valuable breakthrough in an extremely complex policy arena: health care. His particular brand of business success would probably not be an unmitigated political boon under any circumstances. But any positive political effects have been buried amid Republican protests that the very wealthiest require additional tax breaks and the poorest need more "skin in the game."
But then again, maybe it is Romney after all.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Eating London rat

BBC News - Cane rat meat 'sold to public' in Ridley Road Market

Well, I didn't expect this.  There's quite a problem with illegal meats being sold in London: 
Cane rats and "shocking" quantities of illegal and "potentially unsafe" meat have been sold to the public in east London, a BBC London undercover investigation has found.

Secret filming in one of the capital's busiest food markets has revealed butchers and food stores prepared to sell large quantities of meat that breaks food safety laws. 

West African and environmental health officer sources told the BBC the Ridley Road Market, in Dalston, was a known hotbed of illicit meat activity, including sales of illegal "smokies", a delicacy made by charring sheep or goat with a blow torch.
 What's this about "smokies"?  The background is even stranger than eating a cane rat:
The practice of creating "smokies" is outlawed under UK and European food laws amid fears about public safety and animal welfare. 

It has also been linked to mafia-style gangs in Wales who steal sheep and goats, slaughtering them in unlicensed abattoirs. 

Dr Yunes Teinaz, a chartered environmental health practitioner, said: "Behind the underground trade in smokies are criminals who don't observe the law and are just after financial gain.
Gosh.  Why hasn't Scorsese  made a mafia movie about the sheep stealing (and burning) gangs of Wales? 

They grow up so fast...

Taken this morning, when possum and child suddenly re-appeared:

Neighbourhood Flying Foxes

For a year or more, at the edge of a golf course in my local area, a fairly large flying fox colony has taken up residence in some trees which are clearly visible from a road I drive along nearly every day.

I've been meaning to tax some photos, which I finally got around to doing on Sunday.  First a few zooming in on the colony:

And now a short bit of video:

One thing I don't understand about flying foxes is this:  they are black winged and dark furred, yet they are happy to roost in these trees which don't provide shade.  In Brisbane, if I wore a black leather coat and hung in the sun for the entire daylight hours, I would expect to be way too hot for about 90% of the year.   Why don't these animals find shade? 

I see from a bit of Googling this book section about their thermoregulation (and other matters):

Somewhat interesting, but instead of all that wing fanning and (according to another website, body licking) that they do to keep cool, why not just find more shade?

Monday, September 17, 2012

Modern weapons woes

Microwave weapons: Wasted energy : Nature News & Comment

This article in Nature, of all places, notes how the US has been looking into High Powered Microwave weapons for some time (including EMP "e-bombs") but apparently with limited success.

That seems a pity.  I would have assumed that the e-bombs to fit inside a cruise missile would be working well by now.   

Commentary as approved and disapproved by me

I liked William Saletan's piece explaining to Muslims that the internet means there are always going to idiots seeking to bait them into rioting, and doing so only satisfies the provocateurs. 

Waleed Aly was pretty good in The Age this morning too, with a very similar line.

But not good enough for Andrew Bolt:
That’s the usual Aly stuff. Unrepresentative minority. Understand the anger. See what you’ve done to provoke it. Let’s not question the faith itself. Yada yada yada.
I think this is a completely unfair reading of the Aly piece, but Andrew has to throw some meat to his readers. 

The wingnutty side of the Right is upset that this particular provocateur is questioned with much publicity about a technical way in which he may have broken the law.  Big deal.  As I noted before, the guy has possibly put the lives of a bunch of naive actors at risk too, and it would seem the LA sheriffs let him hide his own identity, which was kind of them.  I find it extremely hard to be upset with this.

As to the other Right wing commentary that is blaming all of this on Obama for being too soft on Islam, it was vaguely encouraging to read that George Will  rejected such simplistic claims over the weekend, in response to a Romney adviser's claim that a President Romney would have prevented this:
 Referring to the unrest over the last week, Williamson said, "[t]here's a pretty compelling story that if you had a President Romney, you'd be in a different situation."

"Is there?" Tapper asked Will.

“No,” Will told Tapper. “The great superstition of American politics concerns presidential power, and during a presidential year that reaches an apogee and it becomes national narcissism. Everything that happens anywhere in the world, we caused or we could cure with a tweak of presidential rhetoric.”

But Will was also critical of the White House, noting that Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary, also misunderstood the situation in the Middle East when he said the riots weren't about U.S. policy, but an anti-Islam video. 

"Actually, they're about neither," Will said. "If the video hadn't been the pretext, another one would have been found."

He added: “There are sectarian tribal civil wars raging across the region that we neither understand nor can measurably mitigate."
 Sounds about right to me.  Just as anyone who thought Obama could magically resolve all of Muslim World's problem by simply being nicer than George W was surely deluded,  the idea of a President Romney equally being able to settle everything down in the Middle East by talking, um, tougher, is equally stupid.

You do better, then...

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Friday, September 14, 2012


Slate has a report on tracking down the creator of the stupid video which has led to riots in the Middle East. 

The worrying part of the video for the actors involved is how it appears the most offensive lines were dubbed over their actual taped lines later.  As someone in the comments thread at Slate says, can't these actors sue this guy for putting their lives at risk?

If idiots want to put American lives at risk, I wish they would at least do it via their putting own face to their material and take the consequences personally.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Downton discussed

Since I never got around to watching Downton Abbey (series 1 or 2), I won't bother embedding the David Mitchell gripe about what happened to show.  It did amuse me, though.  I wonder if he right when he says the second series went nuts.

As found on coffee tables in Poland

Exorcism boom in Poland sees magazine launch – The Express Tribune

WARSAW: With exorcism booming in Poland, Roman Catholic priests here have joined forces with a publisher to launch what they claim is the world’s first monthly magazine focused exclusively on chasing out the devil.

“The rise in the number or exorcists from four to more than 120 over the course of 15 years in Poland is telling,” Father Aleksander Posacki, a professor of philosophy, theology and leading demonologist and exorcist told reporters in Warsaw at the Monday launch of the Egzorcysta monthly.
 Gee.  I wonder if it's available on Zinio for iPad yet?  More from the article:
According to both exorcists, depictions of demonic possession in horror films are largely accurate.

“It manifests itself in the form of screams, shouting, anger, rage – threats are common,” Posacki said.
“Manifestation in the form or levitation is less common, but does occur and we must speak about it — I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” he added.

With its 62-page first issue including articles titled “New Age — the spiritual vacuum cleaner” and “Satan is real”, the Egzorcysta monthly with a print-run of 15,000 by the Polwen publishers is selling for 10 zloty (2.34 euros, 3.10 dollars) per copy.
My personal views on exorcism are tentative and cautious, but I will leave the explanation for another day.  I'm still amused that there should be a magazine devoted to it.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Talking about the Arctic Ice

Ice loss shifts Arctic cycles : Nature News

 A good article here about the loss of Arctic ice.  The uncertainties in the modelling are noted:
Computer models that simulate how the ice will respond to a warming climate project that the Arctic will be seasonally ‘ice free’ (definitions of this vary) some time between 2040 and the end of the century. But the observed downward trend in sea-ice cover suggests that summer sea ice could disappear completely as early as 2030, something that none of the models used for the next report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change comes close to forecasting1.

“There’s a tremendous spread between observations and model projections,” says Serreze. “It might be that natural variability is larger than assumed, or perhaps models don’t get the change in ice thickness right.” Uncertainty also remains over the strength of various natural ‘feedbacks’. For example, an exposed ocean is darker than an ice-covered surface and so absorbs more solar heat, causing yet more warming and melting.

A lack of fine detail about circulation patterns in the Arctic Ocean could also be throwing off the models. For example, a survey carried out in 2008 revealed 20 formerly unobserved eddies, each some 15 to 20 kilometres in diameter, in waters north of Canada. “Whether these are new features, and what role they might play for ocean-mixing processes, we don’t know yet,” says Yves Gratton, an oceanographer and Arctic researcher at the National Institute of Scientific Research in Montreal, Canada.
 Ice loss could also accelerate if the ice pack’s underlying waters warm up. Unlike in most of the world’s oceans, the coldest water in the Arctic, at −1 °C to −2 °C, is at the surface; below a depth of 200–300 metres, saltier and warmer water of about 1 °C flows in from the Atlantic. The cold surface layer — called the halocline — isolates the sea ice from the warmer water below.

But the halocline is vulnerable to warming from above, says Henning Bauch, a marine geologist at the GEOMAR research centre in Kiel, Germany. A thinning halocline — something that has not yet been observed — would not only jeopardize the sea ice but could also melt the carbon-rich permafrost beneath shallow coastal waters2, releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
 The article also notes that it may well mean a lot of snow this winter in the US or Europe.

This and that

Really interesting stuff seems a bit hard to find lately, so I'm going for a handful of moderately interesting things today:

*   Bryan Appleyard had an interview with poor old Clive James in August which I missed (being in the Sunday Times and all), but it is available via Appleyard's website.

Clive says (amongst various other health problems) that he had a complete stoppage of the waterworks.  How often does that happen to men who keep putting off prostate operations, I wonder.   Sounds extremely unpleasant, but surely you have plenty of warning?

Everyone seems to like his "Cultural Amnesia" book.   Maybe I should try it?

*  Can't say I know much about the Texas "bone wars" of the 19th century.  Physorg has an article about some historical letters which shed a bit of light on the intrigue, described as follows::
Jacobs describes the late 1800s as a period of intense fossil collecting. The Bone Wars were financed and driven by Cope and his archenemy, Othniel Charles Marsh. The two were giants of paleontology whose public feud brought the discovery of dinosaur fossils to the forefront of the American psyche.

Cope, from Philadelphia, and Marsh, from Yale University, began their scientific quests as a friendly endeavor to discover fossils. They each prospected the American frontier and also hired collectors to supply them with specimens. Cope and Marsh identified and named hundreds of discoveries, publishing their results in scientific journals. Over the course of nearly three decades, however, their competition evolved into a costly, self-destructive, vicious all-out war to see who could outdo the other. Despite their aggressive and sometimes unethical tactics to outwit one another and steal each other's hired collectors, Cope and Marsh made major contributions to the field of paleontology, Jacobs said.
 There's no doubt a book out there somewhere about this.

*   In climate change news, Murray Salby last year got some notoriety by giving a lecture to a skeptic friendly crowd (most of whom, I am sure, could not really make head nor tail of the detail of his argument) about how he had shown that CO2 had little to do with increasing temperatures.  He promised a paper was going to be published about it, but it has not appeared.  From what I can gather, a paper just published from some other scientists runs pretty much the same argument.  Real Climate looks at it and finds the obvious flaws (similar to those that had been pointed out after Salby outlined his idea last year.)

Back to the drawing board, skeptics.

*  The transparently misleading spin put on climate change by The Australian continues, with a subheading to a report about Kurt Lambeck winning a prize for his work in the field as follows:
CLIMATE change moves at a glacial pace, according to an Australian researcher whose work has been recognised with one of the world's richest science prizes.
 Given that Lambeck has had opinion pieces saying things like this:
The independent messages from the four academies and the geological society are consistent and urgent....

Recognising that the consequences of climate change are potentially global, serious and irreversible on human time scales, the Australian Academy of Science has published such an assessment, The Science of Climate Change: Questions and Answers.
I expect he might be a tad annoyed at the spin put on his cautious words about uncertainties regarding the future rate of sea level rises.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Krugman notes

Paul Krugman has a nice, clear writing style, doesn't he?   I note this passage today regarding Republicans not making sense:

Right now Mitt Romney has an advertising blitz under way in which he attacks Mr. Obama for possible cuts in defense spending — cuts, by the way, that were mandated by an agreement forced on the president by House Republicans last year. And why is Mr. Romney denouncing these cuts? Because, he says, they would cost jobs! 

This is classic “weaponized Keynesianism” — the claim that government spending can’t create jobs unless the money goes to defense contractors, in which case it’s the lifeblood of the economy. And no, it doesn’t make any sense.

What about the argument, which I hear all the time, that Mr. Obama should have fixed the economy long ago? The claim goes like this: during his first two years in office Mr. Obama had a majority in Congress that would have let him do anything he wanted, so he’s had his chance.

The short answer is, you’ve got to be kidding.

As anyone who was paying attention knows, the period during which Democrats controlled both houses of Congress was marked by unprecedented obstructionism in the Senate. The filibuster, formerly a tactic reserved for rare occasions, became standard operating procedure; in practice, it became impossible to pass anything without 60 votes. And Democrats had those 60 votes for only a few months. Should they have tried to push through a major new economic program during that narrow window? In retrospect, yes — but that doesn’t change the reality that for most of Mr. Obama’s time in office U.S. fiscal policy has been defined not by the president’s plans but by Republican stonewalling.

Monday, September 10, 2012

It's all connected

Climate extremes and climate change: The Russian heat wave and other climate extremes of 2010

This recent paper by Trenberth and Fasullo notes the combination of ENSO and AGW led to high sea surface temperatures which led to floods and heat waves, at least in part.   The abstract provides more detail:
Natural variability, especially ENSO, and global warming from human influences together resulted in very high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) in several places that played a vital role in subsequent developments. Record high SSTs in the Northern Indian Ocean in May 2010, the Gulf of Mexico in August 2010, the Caribbean in September 2010, and north of Australia in December 2010 provided a source of unusually abundant atmospheric moisture for nearby monsoon rains and flooding in Pakistan, Colombia, and Queensland. The resulting anomalous diabatic heating in the northern Indian and tropical Atlantic Oceans altered the atmospheric circulation by forcing quasi-stationary Rossby waves and altering monsoons. The anomalous monsoonal circulations had direct links to higher latitudes: from Southeast Asia to southern Russia, and from Colombia to Brazil. Strong convection in the tropical Atlantic in northern summer 2010 was associated with a Rossby wave train that extended into Europe creating anomalous cyclonic conditions over the Mediterranean area while normal anticyclonic conditions shifted downstream where they likely interacted with an anomalously strong monsoon circulation, helping to support the persistent atmospheric anticyclonic regime over Russia. This set the stage for the “blocking” anticyclone and associated Russian heat wave and wild fires.
 But nonetheless, the last line is:
Attribution is limited by shortcomings in models in replicating monsoons, teleconnections and blocking. 
The expectation is that 2013 will be hot.  It will be "interesting" to see what knock on effects it has for the climate.

Today's biology lesson - Part 2

There's been a show running on SBS on a Sunday night called Inside Nature's Giants, which involves dead animal dissection to learn about their odd biological features. 

Last night, it was the kangaroo's turn (even though I would hardly think they count as "giants"), but in any event I was reminded about the odd feature of how female kangaroos can keep an embryo in stasis in their uterus (of which they have two, as well as three vaginas) while they have a joey in the pouch. 

I was wondering how much is known about how the biology of that works, but Googling is not showing up all that much information on the topic.  Embryonic diapause has its own Wikipedia entry, but it's pretty brief.  It does show, though, that quite a lot of mammals can do this trick.

The whole topic reminded me of a later Heinlein novel, in which the heroine turns out to have been secretly carrying an embryo, at body temperature of course, in a small genetically engineered "pouch" in her navel.  I think it must have been Friday, but even that has little information on the Web.  Anyhow, I remember thinking at the time that body temperature stasis of a human embryo seemed a bit unlikely, but I don't recall if at the time I realised that there were local mammals doing this trick. 

I wonder how much biological study this has ever received.  It would be a good trick if it could be applied to human embryos, in lieu of freezing them.

Today's biology lesson - Part 1

My seminal link with manga god Osamu Tezuka | The Japan Times Online

Well, here's a strange column about the famous creator of Astroboy (there's a photo of him looking natty in a beret) and his background in science.  Previously thought to have studied medicine, it seems he might only have done a PhD in ... snail sperm.

Which leads the writer to then note his own experience in studying silkworm sperm.  It's odd:
I was looking at another species with unusual sperm: the silkworm, an insect that has been bred for more than 5,000 years in China.

They are amazing animals. They have been bred for so long by humans that they have lost the ability to reproduce on their own: They require humans to bring them together. They have also lost the ability to fly. But they still beat their wings, and when they crawl over your hand, you feel tiny gusts of wind from their wings, like mini fans directed at your skin....

And here's why I briefly studied them: Like all butterflies and moths, silkworms have two types of sperm, produced in a roughly 50:50 ratio of ones with cell nuclei containing the DNA needed to fertilize the egg, and ones containing no DNA that are therefore unable to fertilize eggs. A sperm that can't fertilize an egg! What good is that?
That's the mystery, and while there are lots of ideas — the best among them being that the dud sperm are used as some kind of soldiers to fight off the sperm from other males in order to give their DNA-carrying brothers a chance — there is no consensus on their function.
 Yes, when you raise silkworms at home, as I have done a couple of times with the kids (involving a drive every second day to a mulberry tree in a neighbouring suburb on a vacant block of land to fetch leaves), the moths that emerge look weak and pathetic as they merely flutter a bit and don't move much.   But, in fact, this is normal.  

As you were....

You say "pomodoro", I say "tomato"

For some reason, this article from May was showing as special report on the SMH site this morning.  It's actually an interesting look at why Italian canned tomatoes are so cheap in Australia, and way outsell the home grown product.

I do sometimes buy Australian cans out of sympathy for a struggling industry, and I think it is true that their quality is now equivalent to the overseas ones.

Update:  here's a review of a book all about the history of the tomato in Italy.

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Hard to disagree

Two conventions, two Americas. Seldom has the divide been greater | Michael Cohen | Comment is free | The Observer

This column begins with this:
Over the past two weeks, both major American political parties held their nominating conventions – and that's pretty much where the similarities end. After interminable speeches, cloying videos and occasional moments of rhetorical eloquence, the philosophical and tonal divide between them has never felt broader. Quite simply, Democrats and Republicans operate in two completely distinct realms, one that is defined by an attachment to reality and one that is increasingly detached from it.

If their three-day convention in Tampa is any indication, Republicans reside in a fantasy world where government plays no role but that of malevolence, where the free market is the salvation to all that ails this nation and where the country is locked in a Manichaean struggle between the forces of freedom and a failed, socialist interloper named Barack Obama.

It was a point driven home to me in Tampa when I overheard a Republican delegate declare in a sweet voice, reflecting more pity than anger: "There's a communist living in the White House."
 I find it hard to disagree (with Cohen, not the nutty Republican).

The bits of the conferences that I saw are reflected pretty accurately in this part of Cohen's piece:
Moreover, a party once derided for playing interest-group politics showed no hesitancy about going down that road in Charlotte. The convention was full of obvious appeals to women, gays, blacks, Hispanics, young people and, in the constant references to the successful bailout of the US car industry, organised labour. These are the groups that form the backbone of the Democratic coalition and are essential to the party's long-term success. Democrats far better than Republicans appreciate the destiny of demographics and they have done a far more effective job of cultivating these voters. Indeed, the contrast between the hues in Charlotte and Tampa was remarkable. The Democratic party is a party that looks like the palette of the American experience, not just in skin colour, but in class level. The Republican party (the one in the Tampa convention hall) is one that looks like Sunday brunch at a country club.
 And yet, you have right wing commentators like John Hinderaker scratching their heads over why the polling between Obama and Romney is close.  It should, according to JH, be an obvious walkover for Romney.

Funny, isn't it, how it doesn't seem to occur to those currently to the forefront of the Right in America that, you know, voters might actually be smart enough to realise that Republican policies such as:

a.   at a time of serious government budget deficits, the first step should be to reduce taxes, especially for the rich;

b.  at a time when both sides of politics agree that America is right to get out of Afghanistan, and defence spending should accordingly be able to be reduced,  a permanent and substantial increase in the defence budget is the right thing to do

don't make any sense at all.

Honestly, I can't recall the Right of politics in the US ever looking as stupidly ideologically driven as it does now. 

It surely cannot go on this way.

More HH amusement

On this week's episode of Horrible Histories, the kids and I were most taken by this segment:

And that was even before I Googled it to find what it was parodying:

All very amusing...

In further defence of Obama

I see that Charles Johnson has had a series of posts called "The Myth of Obama the Socialist", which argue that he is not the "big spending socialist" that Republicans claim.

Part III, which summarise his argument, and looks specifically at the debt he inherited, is here.   Interestingly, it's full of graphs and figures, some from what people would say are "suspect" sites (such as Think Progress), but also the Cato Institute (!) and the Ludwig von Mises Institute (!!).  

Johnson,  now loathed by the Right for his abandonment of them, seems to me to make a pretty good looking case.

Googling around, I also found this column by Ezra Klein in February this year, looking at the question of the Obama deficits.  He starts:
When Obama took office, the national debt was about $10.5 trillion. Today, it’s about $15.2 trillion. Simple subtraction gets you the answer preferred by most of Obama’s opponents: $4.7 trillion.

But ask yourself: Which of Obama’s policies added $4.7 trillion to the debt? The stimulus? That was just a bit more than $800 billion. TARP? That passed under George W. Bush, and most of it has been repaid.

There is a way to tally the effects Obama has had on the deficit. Look at every piece of legislation he has signed into law. Every time Congress passes a bill, either the Congressional Budget Office or the Joint Committee on Taxation estimates the effect it will have on the budget over the next 10 years. And then they continue to estimate changes to those bills. If you know how to read their numbers, you can come up with an estimate that zeros in on the laws Obama has had a hand in.
 It turns out to be a bit of a complicated question as to who to assign responsibility to for various things that affect the deficit, but the conclusion he reaches is this (my bold):
In total, the policies Obama has signed into law can be expected to add almost a trillion dollars to deficits. But behind that total are policies that point in very different directions. The stimulus, for instance, cost more than $800 billion. So did the 2010 tax deal, which included more than $600 billion to extend the Bush tax cuts for two years, and hundreds of billions more in unemployment insurance and the payroll tax cut. Obama’s first budget increased domestic discretionary spending by quite a bit, but more recent legislation has cut it substantially. On the other hand, the Budget Control Act — the legislation that resolved August’s debt-ceiling standoff — saves more than $1 trillion. And the health-care reform law saves more than $100 billion.

For comparison’s sake, using the same method, beginning in 2001 and ending in 2009, George W. Bush added more than $5 trillion to the deficit.
 My feeling that Obama has been relatively competent, as far as Presidents go, seems better justified than I realised.  

Mary and the Romans

I've been meaning to note that I quite enjoyed the 3 part doco series "Meet the Romans" on SBS the last 3 weeks.

Mary Beard wrote and hosted the series, and as I liked reading her Times columns, at least until they went behind a paywall, I was looking forward to seeing this.

That said, she did take a bit of getting used to as a host.  She was a bit repetitive, particularly in the first episode, and a bit, um, over enthusiastic at times; but by the last episode tonight I had become  accustomed to her style.

The theme of the series was to look at ancient Rome from the point of view of the day to day life of the ordinary folk:  the goings on in politics and emperors was definitely not the subject of the show.   Given that the Romans had a habit of writing their life story on their tombs, many of which are recorded or still standing, their stories are still very readily accessible.

Episodes 2 and 3 can still be viewed on line at SBS (for now), and I think large chunks of it may also be permanently on Youtube.  (This clip from tonight's episode showing a baby's cradle was touching.)

UPDATE:  soon after posting this last night, I checked my email account via which I get notice of comments left on posts, and found this:
 I'm not behind the paywall... easiest way to access is through the TLS website, totally free (glad you got to like the series) 

But it hasn't (at time of writing this) appeared in comments on the post, and I can't see why.    

In any event, thanks Mary.   Yes, her blog is here.  Silly me.