Wednesday, October 31, 2012

As approved by Bugs

Carrots Gain Bigger Roles at Some Restaurants -

If this article is any guide, we might be seeing more new varieties of carrot in our supermarkets soon.   I haven't even tried the purple ones yet, though. 

Could it work?

Disney buys Lucasfilm and Star Wars franchise 

I don't know:  it seems to me that it might just be possible that, if you keep George Lucas' hands away from the script and themes and direction, someone else could come up with another decent movie in the Star Wars universe.

Still, it is hardly a good sign for those who like to complain that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lakeside disaster

Ancient tsunami devastated Lake Geneva shoreline 

I didn't know this:
 In ad 563, more than a century after the Romans gave up control of what is now Geneva, Switzerland, a deadly tsunami on Lake Geneva poured over the city walls. Originating from a rock fall where the River Rhône enters at the opposite end of the lake to Geneva, the tsunami destroyed surrounding villages, people and livestock, according to two known historical accounts.
It seems to have been caused by a rock fall, but not involving an earthquake.  How odd. 

The Ayn Rand Show

Sounds like a lot...

Not-so-permanent permafrost

As much as 44 billion tons of nitrogen and 850 billion tons of carbon stored in arctic permafrost, or frozen ground, could be released into the environment as the region begins to thaw over the next century as a result of a warmer planet according to a new study led by the U.S. Geological Survey. This nitrogen and carbon are likely to impact ecosystems, the atmosphere, and water resources including rivers and lakes. For context, this is roughly the amount of carbon stored in the atmosphere today.
The article is a bit vague and unclear, but maybe we'll be hearing more about this estimate soon.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Steve's Data Dump

Darren the Robot from Good Game Spawn Point gets some humour every few weeks by talking about the enormous data dump he can barely contain. Who am I to not follow such champagne humour?  Here are some things that have caught my eye the last coupla weeks:

 * The Guardian had a profile of Derren Brown, whose shows on SBS I have recently mentioned. Interesting.

* Another Guardian profile, this one of David Mitchell, who is probably the funniest comedian/actor in Britain at the moment. He's written an autobiography (probably at an inappropriately young age) but still, as he is soon to be married, I forgive him.

* Localised electronic warfare via cruise missile appears to be getting closer (remember, I suggested this sort of device, which I guessed may already exist, would be useful in any Israeli attack on Iran):
The Counter-electronics High-powered Microwave Advanced Missile Project (CHAMP) is an effort to build a missile that flies over -- not into -- a target, be it an entire military base, neighborhood, or a even a lone tank and shuts down all the electronics inside without harming a soul. (Think of it almost as a mini-EMP in a rocket.) On Oct. 16, a CHAMP missile flew an hour-long preprogrammed route low over the Utah desert, "degrading and defeating" the electronics inside seven different targets. In a building along the route packed with computers, the screens all went dark as CHAMP sailed by, emitting a blast of high-power microwaves, according to CHAMP-maker Boeing's Oct. 22 press release announcing the test flight. (The weapon even took out the remotely controlled TV cameras that were monitoring the tests, claimed Boeing.)
 *  Here are two Fukushima stories:

1.   Cosmic rays may be able to be used to provide a sort of "x-ray" of the interior of damaged nuclear reactors.  Cool.

2.   Fish from near Fukushima are still not safe to eat, which is hardly surprising, I guess.

*   New York's finest:  via Mind Hacks, you can read a New York Times story about the police Emergency Service Unit, which has the task of talking down would be suicide jumpers off the city's building and bridges.   They get about 500 jobs a year, by the looks, and if you want some confirmation of the type of person who might be expected to be the most selfish, look no further:
 On building rescues, the reactions of onlookers are as varied as the city’s neighborhoods. In Midtown Manhattan or the financial district, for instance, pedestrians are more likely to yell, “Jump!”; in residential areas, like Harlem or Brooklyn, where the would-be jumper might be a familiar face, residents will provide officers with information about the person. They will cheer and applaud officers who make a successful grab, Detective Taylor said.
*  One of the oddest ideas for a medical test ever:
The medical engineers at Queen Mary used 60 healthy volunteers and 60 patients to test whether self-measurement of the shape of the urine stream could be used to predict maximum urine flow rate. They found that a simple measurement of the characteristic shape of the flow pattern could accurately predict the maximum urine flow rate; important in the diagnosis of urinary problems such as those associated with prostate enlargement.
 *  A study indicating that sea surface temperatures (in at least parts of the ocean) 250 million years ago could have been very hot indeed:
It is also the first study to show water temperatures close to the ocean's surface can reach 40°C – a near-lethal value at which marine life dies and photosynthesis stops. Until now, climate modellers have assumed sea-surface temperatures cannot surpass 30°C. The findings may help us understand future climate change patterns. The dead zone would have been a strange world – very wet in the tropics but with almost nothing growing. No forests grew, only shrubs and ferns. No fish or marine reptiles were to be found in the tropics, only shellfish, and virtually no land animals existed because their high metabolic rate made it impossible to deal with the extreme temperatures. Only the polar regions provided a refuge from the baking heat.
 *  The Babbage blog at the Economist said that its possible that the future zero emission car of the future will be powered by vaporising liquid nitrogen.  I had never heard of this idea before...

*  Horrible Histories continues to amuse.  I did like this Shakespeare song the other week, even if it wasn't laugh out loud funny:  it was just clever and well done:

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Testing still....

The Secret of Our Non-Success -
More testing of blog entries from android tablet....

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Away to climb a mountain of books

Here's some of the backlog of books I've got waiting to be read, by description if not title:
a Charles Sheffield science fiction novel; the first volume of the famous multi-volume biography of Graham Greene; three Graham Greene novels (I'll have to space them out, as too much "Greeneland" in one go is almost certainly depressing); "The First Blitz" about Zepplin bombing raids in WW1;  "The Third Man Factor" about the experience people in crisis or isolation often have of some other presence;  a book from the 1960's by some German author about religion in ancient Israel; "Lucky Jim" by Kingsley Amis; a memoir about growing up in Ireland in the 50's and 60's; "Johnno" by David Malouf (actually, I haven't spotted that for a while, but it will turn up somewhere); "The Surgeon of Crowthorne" by Simon Winchester; an early Michael Crichton medical thriller I had never heard of until my wife found it;  two books of World War 2 memoirs (one about the air force, the other POW experiences); and a James Glieck book about information.

And I haven't even mentioned the 3 or 4 I have somewhere on the iPad (two about paranormal stuff, and one fairly academic tome about Thugee in India).

Most of these have come from second hand book purchases or were free downloads.

I need to take a couple of weeks off from blogging, and start reading of an evening instead.

I should do something stupid for Dodopathy again too.  

Remember to come back!

The uncertain Abbott

It was interesting to read yesterday that Tony Abbott, in letters to BA Santamaria before he moved into politics, did not really seem clear about the side in which he should seek a home:
But which of the major parties was the more suitable?

Labor's previous 30 years of hostility to Santamaria weighed against it but Abbott wrote, "our roots and the origins of our political culture are there". But if the ALP was not "dominated" by Santamaria-style ideas, it would succumb to "the grip of the Left or of soulless pragmatists". This was intolerable.

However, the Liberal Party was just as problematic. It was "without soul, direction or inspiring leadership", while its members were divided between "surviving trendies and the more or less simple-minded advocates of the free market".

The Liberal Party's mixture of "hand-wringing indecision or inappropriate economic Ramboism and perhaps their lack of political professionalism" struck Abbott as a fatal combination.

The choice on offer was bleak. "To join either existing party involves holding one's nose," he wrote. "Either way would upset some. But to do nothing dooms us to extinction." For a while, the choice for Abbott seemed to be the ALP. The NSW Labor government led by right-wing stalwart Barrie Unsworth was due to fight an election in March 1988 and this was surely "a window of opportunity" to be exploited.

In a careful but forceful reply, Santamaria rejected the suggestion of the NCC "going back to our Labor origins in an organised way, as our central strategy".

Santamaria noted that Catholics had largely run the NSW ALP since the 1950s but that the only result of Catholic influence in Labor governments, both in NSW and federally, had been "jobs for the boys".

Santamaria also was dismissive of "the reptilian Liberals", who lacked the capacity to win or wield power.

So perhaps Abbott was not so wrong after all. Santamaria did not doubt that, in the person of young Tony, there was an opportunity for "a real apostolate in Labor ranks".
I find the "the Party no longer knows what it stands for" analysis of either Labor or Liberals rather boring, and this story of Abbott's uncertainty as to where to jump just goes to confirm how the lines between both were pretty blurred since the 1980's.

I also am reminded that Bob Carr had a very clever come back at Lindsay Tanner's "Labor has lost its purpose" burst of publicity a few weeks ago.  He's what Bob noted on 7.30:
I just think there've been so many books on the subject "What's wrong with Labor?," it's become like other - it's just become another genre, it's like vampire fiction. I've dug out a quote because I knew you were going to raise Lindsay's book with me. The earliest book written analysing the experience of Labor in government is called How Labor Governs, by Vere Gordon Childe. It came out in 1923. And here's one sentence from it: quote: "The Labor Party, starting with a band of inspired socialists, degenerated into a vast machine for capturing political power, but did not know how to use that power when attained except for the profit of individuals," unquote. Now, this line of indictment has been used against every Labor government, against Ben Chifley's government, against John Curtin's, against Gough Whitlam's, against Hawke and Keating, until years after the government has passed, it's seen as being a champion of Labor values. The tradition of writing books lamenting the decline of real Labor is almost as old as the party itself.
 Clever Carr.

Choice at whose cost?

New singers, old songs: alcohol bans in Aboriginal communities

Here's an interesting article by a researcher in the area about the Liberal governments in Queensland and the NT plans to ease restrictions on alcohol in aboriginal communities.  

The issue is complicated, and but the writer thinks there is much danger in relaxing the restrictions.  I wasn't aware of this:
Another favoured policy response has been to urge remote communities to establish licensed clubs (as the Bjelke-Petersen government did in Cape York in the 1980s), in the belief that communities with clubs will export fewer drinkers to towns. The limited evidence available to test this proposition does not support it, but its plausibility to urban voters is obvious. The real problem for NT governments, however, has been that most communities have repeatedly made it clear that they do not want clubs. Out of more than 100 Aboriginal communities in the NT, just seven currently operate licensed clubs, and one has a licensed store. All of these are located in the Top End.

A few other communities have run clubs in the past, only to abandon them as too much trouble. In two or three other communities, discussions are currently under way that may or may not lead to those communities applying to the NT Licensing Commission for club licenses.
I think the Liberal Party's approach on this is quite cynical, and more about capturing the aboriginal vote than caring about the cost.

A simulating idea

Is it real? Physicists propose method to determine if the universe is a simulation

The report contains the abstract, which I think is (sort of) clear:
Observable consequences of the hypothesis that the observed universe is a numerical simulation performed on a cubic space-time lattice or grid are explored. The simulation scenario is first motivated by extrapolating current trends in computational resource requirements for lattice QCD into the future. Using the historical development of lattice gauge theory technology as a guide, we assume that our universe is an early numerical simulation with unimproved Wilson fermion discretization and investigate potentially-observable consequences. Among the observables that are considered are the muon g-2 and the current differences between determinations of alpha, but the most stringent bound on the inverse lattice spacing of the universe, b^(-1) >~ 10^(11) GeV, is derived from the high-energy cut off of the cosmic ray spectrum. The numerical simulation scenario could reveal itself in the distributions of the highest energy cosmic rays exhibiting a degree of rotational symmetry breaking that reflects the structure of the underlying lattice.
Update:  here's a more detailed explanation, from the arXiv blog.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Still growing up...

A photo this morning of mother and child, who looks like a teenage possum now:

Romney tax still does not work...

The 6 Studies Paul Ryan Cited Prove Mitt Romney's Tax Plan Is Impossible - Matthew O'Brien - The Atlantic

Isn't it a bit puzzling that all Romney and Ryan do is keep repeating that their tax plan can work, and it would seem enough swinging voters are starting to believe them?   Mind you, unless voters go reading elsewhere, all they are getting in the debates seems to be "your plan can't work mathematically" versus "yes it can".

But as the article explains above, the main factor for arguing that maybe Romney's plan can work would be by factoring in strong growth.   Yet here is what the (key defender) Rosen paper (you can find it via the main link) actually says on what can be expected regarding growth (click on it to make it bigger):

That's it?    "No one knows for sure".    And all it seems that Rosen was out to show was that Romney's claim (of being able to knock out enough deductions in a way that won't hurt the middle class yet reduce everyone's tax) was not mathematically impossible.

Let's put it this way:  the best Romney and Ryan can really claim is - we have someone who says our plan might not be impossible - but even then, he doesn't know for sure.

(And, by the way, Rosen's assessment is strongly criticised as flawed for other assumptions too.)

Backing that Rosen's "no one knows for sure" statement was the recent release of a Congressional research paper concluding there is no clear connection between past tax cuts and growth at all.   This article notes that as early as late 1980's, Reagan's own economics adviser had acknowledged academically that he had no evidence that cuts to personal income tax had had any effect on growth.  I like the way the last mentioned article ends:
At some point, when observed reality keeps differing from predicted reality, it makes sense to examine your predictions. That is not what’s happening. This particular Republican argument continues to rest on a prediction—and because the test of any prediction lies somewhere out there in the awesome future, it can never be refuted. Lower income taxes and the economy will grow: It’s a unicorn of an idea, always feeding in the next meadow.

And if you want more loads of links to economists who have said there is no clear connection between past tax cuts and growth (or, at the very least, you have to look at what tax cuts achieved in the context of everything else that was going on economically at the time) have a look at this lengthy post at MediaMatters. 

There seems no doubt to me at all that the Republican's economic policy should simply be re-titled "The Return of Voodoo Economics". 

I am no economist, but I can read.   I just can't see how the criticisms of the Romney/Ryan tax plan are wrong.  American voters need to read a bit more, too.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Primitive mating rituals*

The Swingers’ Guide To Islam | The Global Mail

This is really a very surprising article on a way to get ahead in Java.  The key point is to be found in the middle of the second paragraph:
 Like the of thousands of pilgrims that have turned up this night to Gunung Kemukus, Sarimah is here to seek her fortune. According to local belief, the ritual here can guarantee success in business, usually for those at or near the bottom of the ladder – bus drivers, rice farmers, market stall traders and the like. Pilgrims mostly come from Indonesia’s Javanese-speaking core, but some travel days across the massive archipelago to get here.

But the ritual needs to be done right. First, prayers and offerings must be made at the grave of Pangeran Samodro and Nyai Ontrowulan. At some stage, pilgrims must wash themselves at either one or two of the sacred springs on the hill. Then they must find a sex partner who meets two conditions. First, your mate for the night must be of the opposite sex; and second, they cannot be your spouse. Many people believe the ritual only works if you return at seven consecutive, 35-day intervals, either the night before Friday intersects with Pon, or when it crosses with another Javanese day, Kliwon.
Read the whole thing; if you are like me, you had no idea that animism/Islam/Hindu/whatever mix had such practices.

*  from, if I recall correctly, the failed seduction scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

Still writing

Paul Johnson’s Darwin, Portrait of a Genius: Conservatives smear Darwin by blaming him for Holocaust. - Slate Magazine

I was only talking about Paul Johnson's work and life on another site last night.  Well into his 80's now, I was aware that he was still writing, but his recent books don't seem to attract much attention, and I haven't read him for many years.   I really think his reputation suffered somewhat from the disclosure of his long standing affair near the end of the 1990's, after he had spent years being critical of the Royal family for not sticking to their marriages. 

Anyway, this Slate review says his latest book, on Charles Darwin, is really quite good, until it starts (allegedly) blaming his work on for most of the ills of the 20th century.

In fact, if I recall correctly, early in his book Modern Times, he partially blamed the Theory of Relativity as promoting belief in moral relativity in 20th century society, or at least the Left-ist side of it.

So, yes; Paul is usually very happy to point the finger at science as having detrimental effects on society.   Mind you, Bryan Appleyard's book Understanding the Present, which I enjoyed a lot, could be said to have a similar thesis, but goes way back further into the matter of the development of science since the enlightenment.  Appleyard's take on the matter is more convincing, I expect.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Tiny message from space

CubeSats launched from the space station alerts me to the fact that 3 tiny Japanese cube satellites, looking for all of the world like escapees from a recent Dr Who episode, were recently released from the International Space Station.  Here's a photo:

They seem more of a novelty device than anything else, but one of them is full of LED's which will flash a simple morse code message which should be visible with binoculars, or perhaps the naked eye.   The story links to this Japanese site which shows one of them in more detail.

I'm not exactly sure how to check when they will be visible from Australia.  Will they just stay close to the ISS?

I'm surprised that LCDs from a small cube in orbit might be visible with the naked eye.  I will go looking for more information about sightings.  I can't see anything from Google blog search yet.

Where's the nerdy satellite watching community when you need them?

No green light

HPV vaccination does not lead to an increase in sex

A study in England found this amongst a group of teenage girls with a mean age of 17.

I suppose it is consistent with other, somewhat counter-intuitive, facts regarding how teenagers approach sex; such as the extremely open and detailed sex education in Holland not leading to earlier commencement of sex and teenage pregnancy compared to other countries. The issue is a bit complicated, though.

Space news Part 2

Testing Mars and Moon soil for sheltering astronauts from radiation

About time they got around to testing simulated Moon and Mars dirt for its radiation protection capacities.

The fact is, the long term living there is going to be underground.   We should know how deep the first astronauts will have to bury themselves.

I'm impressed...

BBC News - Sarah Brightman to travel to space station

This will be the first truly well known celebrity to become a space tourist, and I am sure her trip will attract a lot of attention.

Quite a surprise...

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Offensive no matter male or female

How much is a man's virginity worth?

This is just a really weird story of a deeply offensive documentary.  

How it's (sometimes) made

Birth of ball lightning

I found this via a climate change site, or all places.  It sounds like an interesting paper on the still not well understood phenomena of ball lighting.  The abstract:
 Many observations of ball lightning report a ball of light, about 10 cm in diameter, moving at about walking speed, lasting up to 20 s and frequently existing inside of houses and even aeroplanes. The present paper reports detailed observations of the initiation or birth of ball lightning. In two cases, navigation crew of aircraft saw ball lightning form at the windscreen inside the cockpit of their planes. In the first case, the ball lightning occurred during a thunderstorm, with much lightning activity outside of the plane. In the second case, large “horns” of electrical corona were seen outside of the plane at the surface of the radome, just prior to the formation of the ball lightning. A third case reports ball lightning formed inside of a house, during a thunderstorm, at a closed glass window. It is proposed, based on two-dimensional calculations of electron and ion transport, that ball lightning in these cases is driven and formed by atmospheric ions impinging and collecting on the insulating surface of the glass or Perspex windows. This surface charge can produce electric fields inside of the cockpit or room sufficient to sustain an electric discharge. Charges of opposite sign to those outside of the window accumulate on the inside surface of the glass, leaving a ball of net charge moving inside of the cockpit or room to produce a pulsed discharge on a microsecond time scale.

Ruining a good story

DNA has a 521-year half-life : Nature News

Quite an interesting story on working out exactly how quickly DNA degrades:

Determining that rate has been difficult because it is rare to find large sets of DNA-containing fossils with which to make meaningful comparisons. To make matters worse, variable environmental conditions such as temperature, degree of microbial attack and oxygenation alter the speed of the decay process.
But palaeogeneticists led by Morten Allentoft at the University of Copenhagen and Michael Bunce at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, examined 158 DNA-containing leg bones belonging to three species of extinct giant birds called moa. The bones, which were between 600 and 8,000 years old, had been recovered from three sites within 5 kilometres of each other, with nearly identical preservation conditions including a temperature of 13.1 ºC. The findings are published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B1.

By comparing the specimens' ages and degrees of DNA degradation, the researchers calculated that DNA has a half-life of 521 years. That means that after 521 years, half of the bonds between nucleotides in the backbone of a sample would have broken; after another 521 years half of the remaining bonds would have gone; and so on.

The team predicts that even in a bone at an ideal preservation temperature of −5 ºC, effectively every bond would be destroyed after a maximum of 6.8 million years. The DNA would cease to be readable much earlier — perhaps after roughly 1.5 million years, when the remaining strands would be too short to give meaningful information.

“This confirms the widely held suspicion that claims of DNA from dinosaurs and ancient insects trapped in amber are incorrect,” says Simon Ho, a computational evolutionary biologist at the University of Sydney in Australia. However, although 6.8 million years is nowhere near the age of a dinosaur bone — which would be at least 65 million years old — “We might be able to break the record for the oldest authentic DNA sequence, which currently stands at about half a million years,” says Ho.
 I guess mammoths and Tasmanian tigers are still in with a chance, though.

Foreign policy Mitt

Mitt Romney foreign policy speech at the Virginia Military Institute was the most dishonest one he has delivered yet. - Slate Magazine

Fred Kaplan really serves up the criticism of Romney for his recent speech on foreign policy.

I certainly get the feeling that Romney is way, way too simplisitic and Tea Party populist in what he will say on foreign policy.   Whether that translates into action if he were president is another matter - in the same way that many Democrats are disappointed that Obama went way more "gung ho" on military matters as president that his earlier rhetoric might have indicated.

But that's the worry with Romney - a former moderate Republican who has had to swing Tea Party right to get the nomination, and now is making (some) vague swings a bit back towards the middle (re his tax promises), but all without detail.   Where he would end up as president seems to be anyone's guess.

Slipper slipping away

It suited the Right to act appalled at the "misogyny" of Peter Slippers' stupid and deeply embarrassing text messages to a staffer, and of course, it was not practically possible for Lefty politicians to defend the texts as acceptable.

But in truth, there is quite a lot of puffed up fakery in this:   as if there aren't thousands of things said every year by male (and female) politicians of a lewd, crude or ribald nature which would be deeply embarrassing if revealed to the public or other politicians. 

As far as I am concerned, the text message causing the most outrage is not an example of misogyny (a hatred of women) per se:  seriously, how often have drunk young women in a ribald mood talked to each other about how they think men's bits are not inherently attractive to them, and do we call them men haters?

However, there is also no doubt that the whole series of texts between Slipper and Ashby do show a character of great immaturity and poor judgement. It reminds me most of the Troy Buswell chair sniffing incident.  Even if he had done the act to an audience of men only after the woman concerned had left the room, surely people hearing it would think "what sort of mental 15 year old have we got doing this job?" 

Given Ashby's frequent ribald responses to Slipper's text, and his entire highly suspect and self serving way he has handled the matter, I think it's a very hard call to say whether it should be found to be sexual harassment by Slipper.   Certainly, if it is, Ashby deserves virtually nothing in compensation.

But regardless of the outcome, Slipper's character as exposed by the texts did render him as too embarrassingly immature a figure to be Speaker in the long run.   I think Labor would have moved to encourage him to resign anyway, but caught yesterday by Abbott's early move, they were in a difficult situation.

At least Abbot got to also shoot himself in the foot by, stupidly, using a similar refrain as Alan Jones.  What poor taste political judgement was that?   The Right in Australian politics at the moment is, to a large extent, very embarrassing in the way it is treating women politicians in Labor.   

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Absorbed into the hive mind

iPhone 5 review: Marveling at the existence of the greatest phone ever made. - Slate Magazine

Farhad Manjoo apparently dissed the iPhone 5 at first, but now has been absorbed into the Apple hive mind, which has ordered him to pay penance by writing some of the most over the top praise of the product imaginable:
 When I pick up the iPhone 5 and examine it closely, I find it difficult to believe that this device actually exists. The iPhone 5 does not feel like a product that was mass produced. In a strange way, it doesn’t feel like it was built at all. This is a gadget that seems as if it fell into the box fully formed. If you run your hands around its face, you scarcely feel any seams or other points of connection; there’s little evidence that this thing is a highly complex device made from lots of smaller things. Instead it just feels like a single, solid, exquisitely crafted piece of machinery, and once you pick it up you never want to put it down....
With the iPhone, Apple is building products at a level of quality that may be unprecedented in the history of mass manufacturing. But the only way to know what that means for you, a user of the phone, is to pick it up and feel it, because objectively it does not sound like a big deal. If I tell you the greatest thing about the iPhone 5 is how it “feels,” you’ll accuse me of being a superficial aesthete who cares more for form than function. You don’t care how a phone was built or how it looks; you just want it to work. But I think that argument misses something important about what it means for a phone to “work well”: When you’re holding a device all the time, how it feels affects its functionality. Or, as Steve Jobs might say, how it feels is how it works.
 I think he just left his girlfriend for an iPhone5.

Across the light barrier

Physicists extend special relativity beyond the speed of light

I have no idea whether their work is likely to hold up or not, but it's always interesting listening to real scientists talking about faster than light:
Now two physicists – James Hill and Barry Cox from the University of Adelaide in Australia – have shown that Einstein's theory of special relativity can be logically extended to allow for faster-than-light motion.

They're quick to point out that their finding in no way contradicts the original theory, but simply provides a new aspect of it. "As far as I'm aware, this is the first natural, logical extension of Einstein's own theories," Hill said. "We certainly haven't superseded Einstein. The two theories are entirely consistent."

There have been other suggestions of objects exceeding c – tachyons, for example – but these superluminal motions require complicated mathematics such as imaginary masses and complicated physics to ensure real, meaningful outcomes. In contrast, Hill and Cox's proposal arises from the same mathematical framework as Einstein's theory.
The bit where they get a bit more speculative, perhaps for a PR boost?:
Although the theories cannot answer what happens at c, the scientists suspect that an object crossing the "light barrier" may have some very interesting consequences. They compare our current understanding of this boundary to that of an object crossing the sound barrier for the first time, an event that was highly disputed before it was achieved in 1947. "People wondered what would happen," Hill said. "Were we all going to disintegrate? Would the plane fall apart? It turns out passing through the speed of sound led to a big bang. I suspect going through the speed of light will be more interesting. I have a feeling the world will change in some dramatic way as we move through the speed of light. All sorts of things could happen. Time and space could interchange." He thinks that an experimental test of such a feat is not out of reach.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Food porn to the max

A wild goose barnacle chase | Life and style |

The Guardian is a pretty good site for food porn, and there's no better example than this post about eating barnacles in Portugal.

The food itself is described as follows:
The goose barnacle has to be one of the most beautiful foods on the planet. The bright enamelled head with its ruby lips sits atop a snakeskin sleeve which pulls away to reveal a glossy, lucent finger of flesh, marbled and grey at the neck, bright orange at the tip. They're the punks of the crustacean family.
Actually,  the writer is making them sound like the disturbingly genitalia-like members of the crustacean family.

As to the experience of eating them, well:
Not a drop of goodness escapes the barnacle when it's cooked. The tightly-woven sleeve acts like a bag, sealing in the essence of the ocean. There's a gentle intensity to the barnacle flesh. Similar, in a way, to octopus, only more refined. They're nothing like a mussel, all tubes and organs. They're simpler. Purer. The best of the sea boiled down into a mouthful.

But goose barnacles don't just taste of the ocean: they actually immerse you in it. Quite often (unless you're an expert, which I'm not) when you pinch off the sleeve, you get a fat squirt of brine in the eye or down your chest. It's a strangely mimetic experience. In being eaten, the goose barnacle shares the theatre of its life with you.

You finish the meal wet, as if you've just been out on a wave-splashed rock with your mouth open.
For good measure, the writer concludes with a phenomena that often happens with that other pleasure of the flesh:
 And yet, after 20 minutes on the beach to dry the front of your shirt you find your thoughts turning back to the barnacle.
I trust I'm not the only person to have successfully decoded the writing.

In the comments that follow the article, there are quite a few people scoffing at the prose, but I liked this entry in particular:

Sweet? Living in Galicia. I've had them many times. To me, they taste of nothing but rubber in sea water. It's small wonder they need the myth that they are an aphrodisiac - just like oysters and the dreadful durian fruit.

Interesting to note that they used to used only as fertiliser on the fields and that, during Spain's years of hunger in the 50s, the locals still wouldn't eat them.

Wonderful what marketing can do.

Oh, and they can reach 300 euros a kilo at Xmas. In Madrid at least.

I guess it will callos (tripe) next for the treatment.
 Update:   I suppose if I'm talking seafood as a stand-in for genitalia, it's hard to avoid the fuss being made over the whole Slipper/Ashby texts which give new meaning to "things you wish you never knew a politician thought or said".   If Slipper likes mussels, even if he also has a interest in goose barnacles, does talking this way really indicate misogyny?   Bad taste and embarrassing to hear, sure; much like Prince Charles' weird way of chatting to his girlfriend.   And it's not as if a lot of women don't have less than complementary things to say about men's rude bits:  if you Google the topic, you'll see a lot of consensus on the matter that quite a lot of straight women think they may be useful but aren't at all attractive.

I think a lot of right wingers like Bolt are just getting precious about this because they want to see Slipper go, and Labor embarrassed.

Moving pictures for those who do not understand words

It has been widely noted that climate change fake skeptics from Anthony Watts, to Graham Lloyd in The Australian (if he isn't one, he sure writes like one) have been trying to deflate interest in the remarkable Arctic ice loss of past couple of decades by pointing to increasing sea ice in Antarctic, as if one off sets the other.

Climate scientists know and have explained in media articles that this is a rubbish comparison, but still it seems that fake skeptics just can't read, or have trouble with comprehension, or something.

Now I'm doubt I am the first blogger to put these videos in the same post, but here they are.

You, yes you - the climate change skeptic in the back row - don't you dare leave this post without clicking on both videos, and then say after me "I'm sorry, I didn't really understand before what a con this argument was.  There is no comparison whatsoever between the minor differences in Antarctic sea ice over recent years and the amount of Arctic ice lost over the same period."

One:  Antarctic sea ice in September over the last few decades:

Two:  Arctic sea ice over the same period:

Economics and climate change, again

Andy Revkin recently linked to this post talking about how can you make the best judgements about dealing with climate change when there is still a lot of uncertainty about the exact extent of the problem, particularly at the small regional level.

I thought it pretty much confirmed what I had been thinking recently about the dubious use of economics to try to forecast the effects many decades into the future:

The politicians and other leaders who make (or influence) such decisions do not like deep uncertainty. They do not like it, Sam I Am. They want something specific to plan for. Expert recommendations. Metrics, targets, and “deliverables.” Otherwise there’s no way to determine the most efficient use of resources, how to minimize costs and maximize benefits, which course is optimal. So they ask analysts for cost-benefit analysis (CBA).

CBA is useful in some circumstances, particularly where there are bounded time spans and known risks. But remember, there’s a difference between risk (statistically quantifiable) and uncertainty (not). It is the difference, if you will, between Rumsfeld’s “known unknowns” and his “unknown unknowns.”

As time horizons and uncertainty increase, CBA becomes less and less useful, more and more “a knob-twiddling exercise in optimizing outcomes,” as economist Martin Weitzman put it. Differences in social/political/ethical assumptions, like discount rates, start determining model outcomes. “Results from the CBA,” says the World Bank, are “extremely dependent on parameters on which there is no scientific agreement (e.g., the impact of climate change on hurricanes) or no consensus (e.g., the discount rate).” It’s still possible to construct models and get answers, but the danger becomes higher and higher of getting the wrong answer, i.e., optimizing for the wrong thing.
The answer, says David Roberts, (and he is quoting the approach that is argued in a World Bank white paper) is to go "robust":

Now, whenever I criticize cost-benefit analysis, someone will ask, Well, what’s the alternative? What else can you do but weigh costs and benefits? How else would you make decisions?

Funny you should ask! Turns out the World Bank white paper everyone’s* talking about has a great deal to say on that very subject. It describes various alternative decisionmaking procedures and gets into the weeds of some case studies. And if that doesn’t sate your nerd thirst, have no fear, the literature on climate change and uncertainty is extensive. Go nuts.

For the rest of you, though, I just want to focus on the top-line idea. It is this: Shift the focus from optimality to robustness. Rolls right off the tongue, no?

The optimal decision is the one that achieves the best cost-benefit ratio in a given set of conditions. A robust decision can be expected to hold up, and perform reasonably well, under a wide variety of possible conditions. To make the optimal decision, you must be able to quantify risks. When there is uncertainty rather than risk — “multiple possible future worlds without known relative probabilities” — one is better off with robust decisions.

The optimal decision aims for efficiency; the robust decision aims for resilience. A resilient solution may not be — probably won’t be — the one best suited for whatever circumstances do end up coming to pass. But it is, from the present-day perspective, the one most broadly suited to the widest array of possible futures.
An optimal solution is cost-effective, if you get it right (obviously). But strategies aiming for optimality are brittle. If you optimize for one thing and run into another, you risk degradation or collapse (or, like Ho Chi Minh City, just wasting a buttload of money). Robust decisions and investments often cost more in the short- to mid-term; the extra money is effectively spent as insurance against unforeseen outcomes. A robust solution retains its integrity in a wide array of circumstances.

When it comes to climate change, most economic models are premised on CBA — the search for efficiency. The World Bankers suggest an alternative, based on robustness, and yes, it involves yet another acronym: CIDA, or Climate Informed Decision Analysis, also known as “decision scaling.”
This sounds quite sensible to me.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Another documentary recommendation

I see this is the second episode in the series, and I missed the first one, but tonight's documentary on SBS "Battle Castle - Chateau Gaillard" was very good. 

I did point out to my son that I somehow doubted that Richard the Lionheart and King Philip of France really had their strategy meetings while fully suited up in chainmail, as the re-enactments indicated.

Still, it taught us quite a bit about castle design, and then castle siege techniques, of 1200.

The show is available on SBS for another 2 weeks.  Beyond that, I can't see it on Youtube, but the Wikipedia entry on the castle is pretty detailed.

Friday, October 05, 2012

The increasingly odd quantum world

Photon reaches from beyond the grave in quantum trick - physics-math - 04 October 2012 - New Scientist

This sounds quite significant:
 If you have two pairs of entangled photons, taking one photon from each pair and entangling them disengages the two original pairs, and creates a second, fresh entanglement between the two, left out photons. Eisenberg's team used the swap to entangle a photon with one that no longer existed.
More details in the article.

Thursday, October 04, 2012

An atheist assesses the movement

Why Richard Dawkins' humanists remind me of a religion | Michael Ruse | Comment is free |

I'm not familiar with Michael Ruse, but it is evident from this column that he an atheist of some prominence who nonetheless sees that the in-fighting within the broader atheist movement is very much like the fights between religions.  An entertaining and accurate sounding assessment.

Wednesday, October 03, 2012

Words needed

The somewhat alarming appearance of John Laws at the start of his 7:30 interview last night is another photo crying out for a caption, word or thought bubble.   I've been toying with some ideas, but a winner is not yet obvious...

The New York Times does not approve

Mr. Romney’s Government Handout -

The above editorial in the New York Times really takes a torch to Mitt Romney's use of complicated tax system to minimise his taxes.   Their position is this:
What his tax practices show is not illegal or unethical behavior, but rather the unfairness of a tax system that provides its most outlandish benefits only for the very, very rich and savvy. What is worse is that Mr. Romney has proposed making this profoundly dysfunctional system even more unfair.
After detailing ways Mitt has avoided gift taxes, the article ends on a note that I think really hones in on the point that he not only wants to maintain benefits that only the rich use, but make the tax changes to benefit the rich even further:
Like most Republicans, Mr. Romney wants to eliminate the estate tax entirely, even though it currently applies only to estates of more than $10 million for a married couple. That would cost the treasury more than $1 trillion over a decade, but it would be a huge benefit for Mr. Romney’s heirs and for the other 0.3 percent of estates rich enough to qualify for the tax. Getting rid of the estate tax would subvert the gift tax (it was established as a backstop, to keep estates from being passed on before death) and would spare the rich all this complicated “estate planning,” which is just a euphemism for avoiding the tax.

As Warren Buffett has said, the estate tax increases equality of opportunity and curbs the movement toward a plutocracy. Mr. Romney’s plan to get rid of it, helping his family but few others, is one of the sharpest illustrations of his distance from ordinary Americans.

But I have a question...

How intuitive morality has challenged the rationalists

Ross Gittins spends this column summarising a book he has just read:   The Righteous Mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion, by Jonathan Haidt, a moral psychologist at the University of Virginia.

Here's the key part at the end:
Haidt argues morality is, in large part, an evolved solution to the free-rider problem. We develop norms of acceptable, co-operative behaviour and find ways to sanction people who aren't co-operating.

His empirical research into the moral sentiments of people from around the world leads him to identify six dimensions to people's moral concerns. First is care/harm; we are sensitive to signs of suffering and need, and despise cruelty. Second is liberty/oppression; we resent attempts to dominate us. Third is fairness/cheating; people should be rewarded or punished in proportion to their deeds.

Then there's loyalty/betrayal; we trust and reward team players, but want to sanction those who betray the group. Next is authority/subversion; we recognise rank or status and disapprove of those not behaving properly, given their position. Finally there's sanctity/degradation; we care about what we do with our bodies and what we put into them.

Haidt believes these moral concerns are shared by people regardless of their culture, nationality or wealth. But, of course, people interpret them differently and put more weight on some than others.
Our differing moral emphases are reflected in our differing political sympathies. So the unending battle between small-L liberal and conservative policies is a manifestation of ''deeply conflicting but equally heartfelt visions of the good society''.

Haidt finds that small-L liberals' moral concerns are limited to just the first three dimensions: they care deeply about the harm suffered by minorities and the needs of the poor, about oppression and about fairness.

Conservatives, on the other hand, care about all six dimensions. Their most sacred value is to ''preserve the institutions and traditions that sustain a moral community''. So they worry also about maintaining loyalty, acceptance of authority and the sanctity of our bodies.

The conservatives' broader range of moral concerns means they understand the motivations of liberals better than liberals understand the motives of conservatives.

Haidt argues the community benefits from the ever-present tension between the two sides - each emphasises important aspects of maintaining a good society - if only we could restore a greater degree of civility between the contending parties.
OK, that sounds pretty good for conservatives.  But here's the thing: in the matter of the biggest free rider problem of all, why are conservatives in the US so prominent in climate change denial?   
Is it that they are merely temporarily in the midst of a over-inflated concern about liberty (the second moral sentiment listed above)?    Certainly, that would explain why US libertarians have (mostly) aligned against believing in AGW, but why are US social conservatives (including evangelicals, for example) along for the ride with them? 
Of course, the Pope and European conservatives are counter-examples and show conservatism does not have to be that way.   (See Roger Scruton in particular.)  But the US remains a special example.

Maybe a good product?

V3Solar | The Most Efficient Solar Energy Under the Sun

A somewhat dubious sounding report at  led me to the above site, for a company promoting its new spinning solar panel system.

Interestingly, it seems to be based in Australia.   Looking at the website, I'm not entirely sure that there aren't some big exaggerations.   Parts of their claims just don't sound right to me, but I'm no electronics engineer.

If it does work as claimed, and can mean a massive reduction in area devoted to solar panels, I wonder whether they would make PV solar farms a more viable thing.  We'll see.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Ignoring the evidence on "Dexter"

I see that Slate is giving Dexter publicity (again.)   It's funny how certain TV shows are deemed so important as to gain continual assessment on certain liberal media outlets, isn't it?   The Guardian does it with Doctor Who; Slate with various Showtime or other cable shows.

In any case, I've never watched more than 20 minutes or so of the show, but I've always had reservations about it thematically:  a man with a compulsion to kill who channels it only towards those who deserve to be killed.   The psychological set up for it is pure comic book:  as a kiddie he saw his own mother murdered and sat in her blood for days.

Apparently, the show did have its critics at the start who worried about it encouraging empathy with a serial murderer, as this discussion in the article linked above notes:
Waldman: I'm interested in the way the show portrays people stressed to the breaking point. Everyone has an idiosyncratic coping strategy. Quinn and Batista knock back doubles at the bar. Deb runs alone on her treadmill. Dexter murders people. Do you think the show is trying to normalize Dexter's kills? By showing us all these dysfunctional outlets for stress in other characters?
Bosch: I've always thought that this is less about normalizing serial killing—when the show debuted, many critics were disgusted at being asked to empathize with a murderer—than about trauma. How Dexter might have been a normal person had he not been subjected to the unthinkable trauma of witnessing his mother being murdered, then sitting in her blood for days. Really, the show tackles PTSD—and its lesser forms—in a spectacular way.
Waldman: Yes. I think you’ve nailed the show’s philosophy. But in its throwaway details, I sometimes feel we’re asked to believe that Dex isn’t that bad. And then there’s the question of whether he could be a vigilante hero.
But such quibbles seemed to stop worrying critics (and the studio) a long time ago.

Therefore, I was surprised to read a few months ago (it previously had some publicity apparently, but I had missed it) about a Canadian murderer who, it was clear, drew inspiration from the show: 
Twitchell, 31, was found guilty by a jury last April 12 in the October 2008 slaying of Johnny Altinger. He is serving a life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

Altinger, 38, was lured to a southeast Edmonton garage by an ad on an internet dating site. He was bludgeoned and dismembered.

Twitchell's fondness for the television show Dexter was well documented during the trial, and he had a Facebook profile under the name of protagonist Dexter Morgan, a vigilante serial killer who masters the perfect crime.
Here's the article in the Fairfax weekend magazine that fills in more detail the highly imitative aspects of this gruesome murder.  It's a really horrifying read.

Googling around, this is not the only murder (or planned murder) associated with the show:   a 17 year old who strangled his 10 year old brother claimed to have felt "just like Dexter";   a 21 year old was committed to psychiatric care amidst allegations that he was directly inspired by Dexter to kill people who he thought had committed crime;   murderers in Sweden and Norway claimed similar inspiration; and a woman who killed and dismembered another in Los Angeles was very clear about the connection:
In a profanity-laced note in which she described in grisly detail how she killed a 22-year-old Marine wife, one of the three people now charged with murder says she patterned the killing after the television show "Dexter," about a serial killer.

In the note to police, Jessica Lopez describes strangling Brittany Dawn Killgore "as if my idol Dexter had spoken directly to me."

Lopez, 25, wrote that she then decided to dismember Killgore's body: "I made a few attempts to chop her up like Dexter with Masters power tools but I was afraid it was too loud and it sucked at cutting flesh."

Killing Killgore was not as easy as the television show, Lopez wrote: "I thought I was defending the family and it would be simple like Dexter."
Yet has this effect of the show received the attention that it deserves?  No.

Is it really necessary for there to be dozens of victims of a murderer imitating a movie villain (as in the "Batman" shootings) before people think hard about the effects of making fictional violence "cool", or deserving of empathy?

I've always been leery of movies that make "bad" cool, or darkly attractive in any way really.  "Silence of the Lambs" left me cold;  "Pulp Fiction" I have frequently complained about; and I can't think of another good example right now, since the genre is not one I am keen to see anyway.  But at least any individual movie is a short lived experience, compared to (what will end up as) 8 seasons of a TV show all about a serial killer.  How many hours of living in the mind of a serial killer is that for the psychologically disturbed viewer?

Now some people will say that this is an over-reaction: if it wasn't Dexter, a mad person might claim inspiration by something else, or indeed may find it convenient when caught to claim fictional inspiration.   (On the other hand, are there psycho killers out there who haven't mentioned to the investigators how they felt Dexter gave them ideas?)

I'm not convinced.   Basically, I think the makers of this show, the critics who got over their doubts about the "empathy with a serial killer" question, and the audience that is care free about its clear, demonstrated and repeated effect on encouraging psychos to attempt to imitate it,  all have something to be a bit ashamed of.  

Monday, October 01, 2012

Derren hunts ghosts

Last week's episode of Derren Brown Investigates was pretty much a waste of time.  No one sensible has ever seriously believed that some Russian system for teaching the blind to see via their psychic power was genuine, have they?   So why bother investigating them?  It was mildly amusing in parts, and showed that people can really fool themselves into believing anything, but still.

This week's episode dealt with more "concrete" psychic stuff:  an American ghost hunter who believed he had good EVP (electronic voice phenomena) and photos of spirits.  I had never heard of the guy before - Lou Gentile (who has died since the program was made) - but it appears he was reasonably well know in the States via a radio show.

Well, the evidence turned out to be very underwhelming.  In fact, I'm starting to suspect that atheist Derren might go looking for evidence of the paranormal from slightly flaky characters.

Still, the show was of interest because Lou showed a video of an exorcism he had organised, and Brown later went to a neurologist who specialised in epilepsy to discuss it.  The neurologist showed video of a woman having a type of fit which did suggest how exorcists could mistake some serious back bending as levitation.  The relevant part is shown starting at about 5min 20 sec into this section of the show:

Lou also got quite irate when an audio expert told him his EVP were most likely interference.  But Brown was basically gentle with the guy, concluding that he was just fooling himself, but not being dishonest.

Quite interesting.

Moonrise seen

I went off to see Moonrise Kingdom, the latest Wes Anderson film which was very well reviewed, yet has mainly had an art house release in Brisbane*.   I pretty much understand why now.

I enjoyed it well enough, but I do think it was a little too "art house arch" for its own good.  I'm a latecomer to WesWorld, and have only seen Fantastic Mr Fox and  The Life Aquatic (etc), so I don't really know whether he always gets a bit over the top silly in parts of  his films or not.  (Yes, I know, I must see Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums:  I will one day, they are waiting at the DVD hire.)  But this one did have a sequence or two which were too unrealistic even for a highly stylised movie like this one.

On the up side, the child actors are very good, but the adult parts are a bit underwritten and the eccentricity seemed bit forced.   The direction is pleasing in its own way; in many respects it is reminiscent of how he did Fantastic Mr Fox.    Music seems really important to Anderson, and this is certainly the case in this film, and it's one of its best features.   The staging of the Noah play in the church was particularly charming.

It's definitely worth a look if you are sympathetic to his eccentric approach.

* It's at the Palace Cinemas, which have (like all cinemas should) a bar in the foyer and the ability to bring your glass of wine into the cinema with you.  Sure, in Gold Glass cinemas they bring the wine to you, but this seems a much better idea.  I've never been to a Palace Cinema before, but I expect I will be going there again...

A fair look at budget woes

Where did the mammoth US budget deficits come from? -

This article from the CSM seems to me to take a very fair approach to the not so simple question of how to apportion blame for the US deficit.

While it agrees that the recent Obama response to a question on this was wrong, it remains clear that Republicans must allow for a very significant part of the problem to have come from George W Bush policies.  Given that tax cuts and defence spending were a large part of those, don't Republicans wonder that Romney  policies to reduce tax rates (yes, I know, even if removing deductions is supposed to make them revenue neutral,) and increase long term defence spending, just don't sound right?