Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Christmas elsewhere

NRA Fail

NRA press conference: The lesson of Newtown—when gun nuts write gun laws, nuts have guns. - Slate Magazine
This is just one of the many savage media attacks on the NRA approach that "more guns, more guns" is the only response it will consider to mass shootings. 

Funny how it won't acknowledge that it was legally acquired guns that caused the latest horror.   Or that it is not even clear that any increased regime of reportable mental illnesses would have helped.  (For an organisation so keen on civil liberties, I would like to see how many mental or personality issues it thinks should be notifiable to a government register, and how close to access to guns such a person has to be to be included.)

The fact that the Columbine shooting happened in a school that regularly had an armed, uniformed deputy from the local sherriff's office eating lunch in the caferteria was probably something they weren't keen to take questions on either.

It may be early days yet, but there seems to be a sense that the latest killing has turned the tide of opinion against the likes of the NRA.  I  have to say, though, that I agree that the issue of violent games (and movies) is not getting enough attention.  It's just that the NRA is the last organisation that can credibly bring that up...

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Abbott considered

What does it profit a man? Between Tony's faith and Abbott's ambition – Opinion – ABC Religion & Ethics (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

This essay by fellow Catholic Chris Uhlmann about Tony Abbott is very good, I think.

It certainly raises the question of how much conflict Abbott may privately feel about what he does in his current role in politics.

I just still think he is a man who has been appointed above his level of competency and comfort, and I do not imagine him being a good PM.

PS:  Uhlmann does made a crack about Greens being modern pantheists - which has an element of truth to it, I suppose - but it also indicates to me that he can't get over his previously stated belief that climate change is not really science but a religious belief.   He may be OK on the humanities and religion; I don't think he's smart when it comes to science.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Gun control discussed

Well, I certainly hope it is annoying gun lovers of Australia that Slate is running an article noting how John Howard's gun buyback actually did put a sudden end to mass shootings of the kind all so frequent in the US.

While no one realistically suggests such a buy back is politically possible in the US, and the general tone is of pessimism as to what can really be achieved in a country already brimming with private weaponry, Slate does have an interesting article arguing that history tells us the certain forms of violence have been successfully tackled in the US.  I wasn't aware of the incidents mentioned in this aspect of US history:
 One example is class violence, once seen a shameful but ineradicable feature of American life. Beginning in the 1870s, the United States became infamous around the world for the brutality of its labor clashes, in which gun battles, dynamitings, and hand-to-hand combat produced what seemed to be an unending stream of senseless death. Sometimes the violence came at the hands of police: 100 strikers killed during the rail uprising of 1877, 11 children burned to death in the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. On other occasions, it came as retaliation from below. In 1910, men employed by the Bridge and Structural Iron Workers blew up the headquarters of the anti-union Los Angeles Times, killing 21 printers and laborers working inside.
Elsewhere in Slate, a comment in National Review Online that the Bushmaster semi-automatic is not worth worrying about banning because it is (apparently) not powerful enough to reliably kill a deer is given a thorough ridiculing, including showing this ad that illustrates the mentality behind some gun ownership in the States:

If I had enough time, I'd adjust the slogan to "Consider your penis inadequate".

But one thing about Slate bothers me:  amongst all this talk of gun control and violence, they are still running prominently an episode by episode commentary on the series Dexter - a show about a psychopath made for entertainment value that has nonetheless (as I detailed a couple of months back) been clearly implicated as having inspired several murders by nutters internationally.

I haven't noticed anyone in the comments section following the Dexter article comment on this weird juxtaposition, where the same liberal leaning publication is both deeply concerned about violence in culture, and celebrating it as entertainment on the same page.

Meanwhile, over in the Atlantic, James Fallows puts succinctly the case against the "more guns is the answer" argument:
To spell it out:
  • Being in a shopping mall, on a train, in a theater, or at a school where someone starts shooting is statistically more frequent in America than anywhere else, but is vanishingly unlikely for any individual. Yet if we were to rely on the "more guns make us safer" principle, logically we'd have to carry guns all the time, everywhere, because ... you never know. Jeff Goldberg and I have both railed against TSA policies based on the premise that every single passenger is a potential terrorist. A more-guns policy would involve a similar distortion in everyone's behavior based on outlier threats.
  • There is very little real-world evidence of "good guys," or ordinary citizens who happen to be armed, taking out shooters in the way the more-guns hypothesis suggests. After all, and gruesomely, the mother of the murderer in Newtown was heavily armed and well experienced with weapons, and that did not help her or anyone else.
  • It is all too easy to imagine the real-world mistakes, chaos, fog-of-war, prejudices, panic, and confusion that would lead a more widely armed citizenry to compound rather than the limit the damage of a shooting episode.
It is, to Australian ears, extremely odd that such an argument even has to be explained.  But we're not talking a normal country here. From another Salon article (worth reading in full):
Although the NRA has temporarily gone to ground, it’s no secret that its solution to this sort of gun violence is more guns. Indeed, chief spokesman LaPierre has made clear that he believes every American should be armed with a concealed weapon.  “Every American wife and mother and daughter, every law-abiding adult woman should be trained, armed and encouraged to carry a firearm for personal protection,” LaPierre told the NRA’s national convention, and he wasn’t trying to establish his feminist credentials.  LaPierre thinks every man in America should be packing heat as well.  The NRA believes that armed citizens in places like Newtown, Aurora, Tucson, Virginia Tech and Columbine can stop determined killers.  ”The presence of a firearm makes us all safer,” LaPierre said.  ”It’s just that simple.”

Whether or not a “responsible,” law-abiding adult trained in the use of firearms could make a difference in any particular situation is worthy of discussion.  Likewise the question of how to ensure that adult gun owners are responsible.  The problem is that the NRA and its congressional allies don’t want a rational debate about guns.  Two months after the 2011 Tucson rampage, which left six dead and 14 wounded, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, LaPierre rejected an invitation from President Obama to discuss ways of keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and the mentally unstable.  LaPierre said there was no point talking to “people that have spent a lifetime trying to destroy the Second Amendment.”  Following the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, which left 13 dead, the NRA urged a similar boycott of a meeting called by President Clinton to discuss ways of addressing teen violence.

The challenge today is not coming up with “the answer” to the nation’s gun violence; rather it is to move beyond the absurd but prevailing myth perpetrated by the extremists who currently run the NRA that nothing should be done because any effort to limit access to guns will lead to gun confiscation and tyranny.
When it comes to random mass shootings, Americans don't need protection from crims:  they need protection from the insane paranoia of the NRA and its supporters.

Update:  a good article here in Salon, citing lots of academics and their studies, on why more guns is not the answer.

The violent Hobbit

Peter Jackson's Violent Betrayal of Tolkien - Noah Berlatsky - The Atlantic

I don't intend seeing The Hobbit, but I am happy to note criticism of it.  

Given that my impression was that even Lord of the Rings movies graphically hyped  up the battle and slashing quite a bit compared to the books (which I haven't read fully - yes please just ignore me it attacking things I haven't seen really gets up your nose), this commentary in The Atlantic on The Hobbit sounds convincing:
Bilbo then (in both film and book) leaps over Gollum's head, leaving the creature despairing but unharmed. Later, in The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf suggests that Bilbo's pity for Gollum "may rule the fate of many." At the end of Rings, it is ultimately Gollum who, inadvertently, destroys the ring and saves Middle Earth. Mercy is ultimately salvation, and Bilbo's decision not to use violence is at the heart of the quasi-Christian moral order of Tolkien's world. 

If Jackson meant for Gandalf's comment to highlight Tolkien's nonviolent ethic, though, the rest of his film undercuts it—and, indeed, almost parodies it. The scene where Bilbo spares Gollum in the movie comes immediately after an extended, jovially bloody battle between dwarves and goblins, larded with visual jokes involving decapitation, disembowelment, and baddies crushed by rolling rocks. The sequence is more like a body-count video game than like anything in the sedate novel, where battles are confused and brief and frightening, rather than exuberant eye-candy ballet.

The goblin battle is hardly an aberration in the film. I had wondered how Peter Jackson was going to spread the book over three movies. Now I know: He's simply added extra bonus carnage at every opportunity. The dwarves, who in the novel are mostly hapless, are in the film transformed into super-warriors, battling thousands of goblins or orcs and fearlessly slaughtering giant wolves three-times their size.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Extraordinary Christmas house

On the weekend I took the family on the annual run around suburbs not too far from us to view Christmas lights.

There is one house, which I had never seen before, that is set up with an extraordinarily professional  light and sound show, with hundreds of people coming on a warm night to sit across the road (in supplied chairs, I think) to watch.  I can imagine this might be kind of annoying to the other people in the street!

But here is a little bit to illustrate, when the lights are co-ordinated with that classic Christmas song(?), the Chicken Dance: 

Gun violence, revisited

On Friday, I was going to do a post noting disappointment that the latest Quentin Tarentino movie had received very strong reviews.   I didn't read many of them, but noted that they seemed to have a common thread, with phrases like "the director's trademark violence" turning up often.  Here is an example from Rolling Stone:
 In his last class, cataloged as Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino burned down the damn Third Reich, Hitler included. This time, with Django Unchained, he lines up slave traders so a black man can blow their fool heads off.

As noted in detail in my post after the Batman cinema shooting in the US earlier this year, there are few people in the world who note anymore the extent to which violence as entertainment in the cinema has reached levels that would simply have been inconceivable 45 years ago.   Back then, Bonnie and Clyde was very controversial, and although it has been years since I have seen it, this critical reaction remains to my mind entirely appropriate.   (Interestingly, Tony Martin, a real cinema fan and sometime director and screenwriter, made the point in his autobiographical book that it was this film, shown perhaps by mistake to his class at high school, that showed him the power of movies, due to the highly excited reaction the ending got from one of his schoolmates.)  That movie should make people think hard about whether it is violence being depicted as quasi porn.  To my mind, all realistic ultra violence in cinema that is being presented for entertainment should make people think. 

But now it rarely does.   It doesn't matter that movie reviewers are nearly all politically liberal; they nearly all accept it in all forms and in all contexts - praise it even if it is "done well".  I am not one of those people.  Tarentino is at the forefront of moviemakers who use violence for entertainment, and he concentrates in particular on realistically depicted, violent revenge scenarios. He does not deserve his success.

I also have a son who is of an age where computer games are of intense interest, and we usually watch together the ABC's Good Game, which reviews computer games of all varities, including quite violent ones.

Even from the clips I see there, I frequently object to the level of violence, regardless of whether the splattered figures are meant to be zombies or not.   Call me naive, if you want; but games featuring increasing realistic buckets of blood sprayed all over the room, often from a first person shooter perspective, are not a healthy thing for society.  Parents frequently ignore age ratings for games, and simply let their kids play them because their mate has it already.   Again, this would have met with some moral outrage only (say) 20 or 30 years ago.  Not now.

Yes, I know:  bright people play them; they are not made into rampaging killers by doing so, and sure, they tell the difference between reality and games.  (As can nearly all movie goers - see my comment regarding ironic detachment in my earlier post linked above.)

And yet, when mass rampage killings show up in countries such as the US, with the appalling and upsetting Connecticut school shooting, people are always asking "but why"?

As with some previous shootings, it appears this guy did the shooting in military like dress.  It is said he was very much into computers and (I would guess) gaming.    It is being reported this morning that he had some altercation with staff at the school last week - hence revenge for a real or imagined slight is once again an issue, as it frequently seems to be for the socially isolated who take it out on school or university grounds.    (Mind you, it is also early days since the incident, and there already are signs that there has been much initial misreporting.)

Where do mentally disturbed people get the mental image of the (to them) justified vengeful excitement of a mass shooting?   Is it that hard to tell?  Really?  

Of course, Americans are (in very large proportion) sickeningly mad when it comes to the issue of  gun ownership, and of course one of the responses to this year's shootings should be a legislative response which any other country would be able to manage. 

But to my mind, it is a pity that it takes a shooting to happen inside a cinema to make the country, and indeed the world generally, to think culturally about the depiction of fictional violence and the "frog sitting in the slowing heated pot" situation that has developed with scant objection over the span of my life.

And finally - Charlie Brooker had a point about the counterproductive nature of over publicising mass shootings in 2009.   It is a lesson impossible for the media to follow, it seems.  Mind you, without such an approach in the US, it would seem that the political movement to increase gun control would never have a chance of making any inroad at all.  It is, therefore, a dilemma in that nation as to whether the blanket coverage is for good or bad.

Update:   William Salatan has an article up at Slate in which he, quite rightly, notes that the problem with guns in the school yard attack scenario is the speed with which they allow large numbers of people to be killed.   Laughably, gun advocates in the US thought they were on a winner when, by co-incidence, there was a school yard attack in China on the same day.  They were so overjoyed to run the "this can happen anywhere regardless of guns" argument that they forgot to note the number of kids killed via the knife attack - none.

Salatan also notes a Wikipedia list of school yard attacks.   Now, Salatan takes the view that these have happened in so many countries that:
 They’ve falsified every pet political theory about what kind of culture or medical system or firearms legislation prevents mass murder.
Maybe, but here's what I've noticed from the list:  look at the decades in which they have occurred.

Even though there was the largest shooting of all in 1927, there is a mere handful of incidents before the 1970's.   The concentration of incidents in the 1990's and 2000's  is clear.

It can be dangerous to draw conclusions from Wikipedia lists, but I would have thought that my general concern with the cultural influence of fictional violence in games and the media is given a bit more credence with this information.

Friday, December 14, 2012

And the award for most hypocritical performance by an Australian newspaper goes to...

The Australian, with Dennis Shanahan in his column this morning, opining that the public is tired of politicians trying to smear each other.   Yes, that would be the same paper that was running for months Hedley Thomas' protracted game of "but what about this bit of paper?", attempting to smear the PM over a minor bit of legal work and her poor choice of boyfriend 20 years ago.

Now, of course, when a Coalition candidate gets a shellacking from a judge for legal games that went on a mere 10 months ago, it's time to move on, isn't it Dennis?   The obviously shifty game of denying knowledge that went on amongst Canberra Liberals 9 months ago is of no interest whatsoever, hey.

Oh, and of course the political hypocrisy continues as far as the prospect of investigations are concerned.

Tony Abbott (additional words by me]:
"There are all sorts of rumours that have been running around about Mr Slipper for years," Mr Abbott said.  [And I have supported him wholeheartedly throughout this.] ... "I think any such inquiry would plainly be a bit of a witch-hunt" [whereas my promise to hold an inquiry as to the PM's choice of boyfriend 18 years ago and legal matters for which no criminal prosecution has ever been instituted despite investigation at the time would be a matter of crucial public interest and not motivated by political self interest at all.]

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A hard life

Abraham Lincoln, bare-knuckle brawler? - Salon.com

Well, this interview with an author of (yet another) book about Lincoln contains a lot of stuff that I didn't know.  He had a hard life:
The thing I hope readers take away from my book is this: Lincoln truly suffered in life.  He had horrible bouts of depression. He was on suicide watch several times. He was sometimes completely bed-ridden. He said he was haunted by the thought of rain falling on graves all of his life. His mother died when he was nine; his sister died when he was sixteen. The first woman he ever loved died within a few months of him meeting her. He had one son die before the boy was four years old. He lost another son named Willie not too long after they got to the White House.  And given Lincoln’s depressive nature, all of that almost pushed him over the edge. He suffered with the massive themes of his administration: slavery, spies, and ordering troops into battle. But I think, like Churchill, it was his private suffering that prepared him to help a nation that was suffering. William Herndon, Lincoln’s first biographer, said that he, “dripped melancholy as he walked.” I think his suffering drove him to faith and deepened his faith once he got to it. But he also had an atheist phase earlier in life.
 OK, some of that I knew, but a fair bit is new to me.  As is this:
  His family were what used to be called “hard-shelled” Baptists, and they were caught up in the second great awakening, which swept the frontier and was really, quite frankly, violent. It was barking and being “slain the in Spirit.” People would run around and climb trees and it was all too emotional, all too sweaty for Lincoln. His father was the kind of man that would get all weepy at dinner over something that was happening in the revival, and then beat his son the next day to make him work. Lincoln had a hard childhood but he’s the archetype of a person who rises largely through self-education. He probably didn’t have a year of school in his entire life. He read voraciously. All the stories about walking miles to borrow books are absolutely true. He began to read religious skeptics: Thomas Paine, Edward Gibbons —those men challenged Christianity. A lot of the American heroes of the Revolution were that way, Ethan Allen and others. Lincoln bought into it and went through quite a long “village atheist” phase. He schooled himself on how to attack the myths of Scripture and would carry around a Bible just to undercut it. He called Christ a bastard; it was very heated. This is one of the keys to understanding Lincoln’s life: Lincoln’s mother was illegitimate. Her grandmother had been raped by a Virginia aristocrat and Lincoln concluded that God had rejected him, given him the mark of Cain because his mom was “a bastard.” He would even call her that. So, strange as it is to us, Lincoln thought he was cursed. And he began to conclude that all of the sufferings he’d endured were because God had cursed him. So his atheism, his friends said, really was not that he didn’t believe in God, it was that he was angry at God.

Feeling for others

Understanding How Children Develop Empathy - NYTimes.com

A somewhat interesting column here on the human sense of empathy.  

It seems that this is something that must be worked out so we can program it into AI - have a look at Bryan Appleyard's recent piece on whether AI will be the death (or enslavement) of us. 

(It did occur to me, though, in reading the Appleyard piece, that given the amount of trouble viruses and bacteria can cause us, I don't know that we should have too much concern about AI's being able to wipe humanity out of contention.)

Currency woes

Dollar dazzler: why they want our money

Michael Janda seems to be saying that the high Australian dollar is a problem, but there's nought to be done about it now.

Alan Kohler blames our economic blues on another thing as well:
....Australians have had it up to here for three long years - nothing but mad, hysterical politics, day in, day out. And a strong currency.

So what we are seeing in Australia is the effect of a very unusual double whammy: political instability coupled with a strong currency.

Usually the first leads to the opposite of the second, but unfortunately the credit ratings agencies don't watch Question Time in Federal Parliament: if they did they would have cut Australia's credit rating several notches below AAA long ago.
But one of the worst things about the current popular mis-perception of the Australian economy was in the media again recently - the idea that Australia's budget deficit would not have happened under a Coalition government.

This is absolutely outrageously wrong - and Christopher Pyne's dishonest (but probably successful) attempt to further lodge this meme in the brain of the public just illustrates further why I cannot see myself voting for the Coalition next election.

Update:   it occurs to me that, if the sudden deterioration in polling for Federal Labor in Newspoll is correct, and is maintained next year, the electorate is going to be acting in pretty much the same way as it did in the run up to the 2007 election win of Kevin Rudd.   That is, it will not be under the influence of much in the way of credible policy alternatives, or acting against a government that the great majority of economists have a problem with:  it will simply be voting because of the "vibe".

Update 2:  as I understand it, this news this morning only makes worse for our over valued currency problem:

Fed makes new rate pledge, pumps cash into US economy

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Life in London

iPad mini, Kindle Fire HD, or Google Nexus 7? What's in your stocking? | Money | The Observer

So, I'm not too interested in the article itself, comparing a few (but only a few) different options for people buying a tablet device for Christmas.

But what did catch my eye was that in the comments section, a few people noted that the photo in the article (showing a woman reading an iPad on a bus) was definitely something you should not do in London if you don't want to be an ex-iPad user.

That surprised me a bit.

I still want to write about how I've found using an Android vs an old iPad, as I know the world is just waiting for my erudite comments...

Reason to go to Sydney?

Wallace and Gromit get a hand at home

A Wallace and Gromit exhibition is at the Powerhouse museum.    Sadly, though, the article says no W & G film is currently in production.  

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Wouldn't have guessed that

Caffeinated coffee may reduce the risk of oral cancers

High or Low?

Studies differ on climate change and warming severity, researchers trade jabs - Capital Weather Gang - The Washington Post

There's a really good post here summing up the contradictory conclusions of two recent papers - one saying climate sensitivity is likely to be at the higher end of the range (Trenberth), and one saying it should be on the lower side (Schlesinger).

Each criticises the other's approach quite strongly.  

But even Schlesinger is pragmatic and thinks the world still needs to be cautious:
Despite Schlesinger’s more optimistic outlook, he stresses sharp emissions reductions must begin, in case his estimates are wrong.
“...for argument’s sake, let’s suppose the [climate sensitivity] is larger than the values we determined....humanity must act sooner and more rapidly...” Schlesinger said.

A useful figure to know

BBC - Future - Health - Sex: What are the chances?

I missed this article from earlier in the year, but I reckon it has a good figure that is handy to know for anyone who needs to talk to teenagers about consequences:
 The bottom line is that a single act of intercourse between a young couple has on average a one in 20 chance of pregnancy – this assumes the opportunity presented itself on a random day, as these things tend do when you are young.
 However, the article then goes on to talk about the effectiveness of various forms of contraception, but only seems to quote figures if they are used correctly.   This seems a bit of an oversight.

Stupid right wing moochers

If there's a right wing thing I can't stand, it's when they use the Randian term "moochers", even if half in jest.   Anyone who has been a fan of Rand is automatically suspect, in my books; but to use her terminology just shows the continuing influence of a crank and a sympathy to her appalling lack of a social conscience.

But the funniest thing is when right wing starts "mooching" themselves.   Climate change fake skeptics are pretty expert at this.  Who can forget the request for money from the American family who ran into environmental problems with their feed lot in WA.    They blamed their alleged prominence in the climate change skeptic movement for their problems (never with any real evidence, as far as I could see.)   Promoted via Jonova and Watts Up With That, there appeared to be a lot of money pledged for their "save the farm" action, which may or may not be continuing, as they decamped back to the US anyway.

Now look at the latest example - Mark Steyn, who has stupidly decided to go out of his way to insult and defame Michael Mann on the pages of National Review Online, got full NRO support, which now publishes this ad:

Oh diddums?  More from their webpage:
As many of you know, National Review is not a non-profit — we are just not profitable. A lawsuit is not something we can fund with money we don’t have. Of course, we’ll do whatever we have to do to find ourselves victorious in court and Professor Mann thoroughly defeated, as he so richly deserves to be. Meanwhile, we have to hire attorneys, which ain’t cheap.
Righto.  So a publication that is making no profit decided to escalate a fight by challenging him to sue after they called him "the man behind the fraudulent climate-change “hockey-stick” graph, the very ringmaster of the tree-ring circus" and approved this quote:
Mann could be said to be the Jerry Sandusky of climate science, except that instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet.
What idiots.

Steyn and (much of) the Right in the US have become an intellectual embarrassment. 

And yes, it's affecting the Right as constituted in Australia:
South Australian senator Cory Bernardi, formerly Mr Abbott's parliamentary secretary, said: ''I do not think human activity causes climate change and I haven't seen anything that changes my view. I remain very sceptical about the alarmists' claims.''
Queensland senator Barnaby Joyce said the whole debate about whether humans were causing the climate to change was ''indulgent and irrelevant''.
The Coalition has a large fracture line within its ranks on this issue, and it has serious consequences on leadership and policy more broadly, since dismantling the Labor carbon "tax" and replacing it with the half baked Abbott scheme (which no economist supports as a better scheme for its intended purpose) will have  serious knock on budgetary consequences.   

It's the issue that poisons everything on the Right.  

Monday, December 10, 2012


Brain cells made from urine 

It's about using kidney cells excreted in urine and reprogramming them to be (something like) embryonic stem cells.

Hobbit hobbled

Time for celebration for those of us in the very, very small club of  "Go Away, Tolkien" (an incorporated association):  The Hobbit has only* got 74% on Rottentomatoes, and quite a few of the more prominent critics have been giving it a pretty good thrashing for being way, way too long and mostly dull.

But the most interesting thing is the poor reaction to the high frame rate version.  This, from Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian, is pretty typical:
The second unexpected point is the look of the thing. Jackson has pioneeringly shot The Hobbit in HFR, or High Frame Rate: 48 frames a second, as opposed to the traditional 24, giving a much higher definition and smoother "movement" effect. But it looks uncomfortably like telly, albeit telly shot with impossibly high production values and in immersive 3D. Before you grow accustomed to this, it feels as if there has been a terrible mistake in the projection room and they are showing us the video location report from the DVD "making of" featurette, rather than the actual film.
Some other critics have noted that it makes it way easier to spot the changes from special effects shots to reality, and that it makes fast motion look wrong (speeded up, I think they say.)

Isn't this fascinating?  I'm pretty sure I read about high frame rate film back in about the 1980's, maybe in something like Omni magazine, or perhaps Discover.   It was thought to be the way of the future.

But, it turns out, too much clarity look bad. 

I wonder why that is.  I could go for the philosophical explanation:  maybe we prefer soft edges over reality, just as people don't like to think too much of the materialist/existentialist view of the world that says it is ultimately meaningless after the suffering and temporary bursts of happiness of life. (I am full of Christmas cheer, hey?)   Of course, the religious and (in particular) Christian come back is that ultimate reality is better than what we get living in this muck.  I take it that Heaven looks better than high quality video, though.

Or it could be that part of our normal vision that we concentrate on means the perimeter is not sensed as if it is in focus, and hence our normal vision does not have a widescreen clarity that sharp digital has?

Anyway, all that matters is that some people don't like it.  Yay. 

*  all of the Lord of the Rings movies scored in the 90 percent range.  It was a lonely job, being bored with those films.  

Death of the monocle too?

Astronomer Sir Patrick Moore dead, aged 89

I noticed Moore's name on the cover of some magazine the other day, which surprised me because I assumed he had probably died already.

Anyway, now he has.  We never saw much of him in Australia, as far as I can recall, but his grumpy face was memorable.  (Like Julius Sumner Miller, looking rather stern and easily annoyed seemed to be part of the pop scientist mystique in the 1960's.  These days they have to be all smiley so as to not scare the kids.)

But as the title of this post suggests, Moore's photo at the link shows him wearing a monocle.   Surely he must have been one of the last surviving monocle wearers?  Or is there an Eastern European country where this is still the fashion?

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Fun with tablet

Update:  these were done using Paper Camera, an Android app which to my mind does this conversion to sketch or painterly image far better than any other app I have seen.  It also does it "in camera" so you can immediately tell what shots look good with it.  I must write about the differences I've found using Android and an iPad soon. 

Saturday, December 08, 2012

The problem with practical jokes

What a sad story, how the nurse who was taken in by a prank call from Australian FM radio appears to have committed suicide. 

The Age is still running a column from a day or two ago about whether the radio station should have apologised, and basically suggesting that the answer is "no", as it was only the silly English who were upset.  An online poll suggested most people agreed:

The column did make the observation, which has now been rendered a major, major understatement:
The jokesters, however, know it can go badly wrong. A Kyle Sandilands radio stunt involving a lie detector test and a 14-year-old, who revealed she was a rape victim, was deplored across the nation.
I don't listen to FM Breakfast Radio, and never have really, and the only prank calls I remember from AM radio were ones where a friend or family member was involved in the set up.   These type of calls, I think, have little chance of going wrong.  

But calls that may put the job or reputation of the receiver on the line - isn't it time there were recognized as always immature and inherently cruel?  

Time to grow up, FM Radio.

And as for the radio hosts who made the call:  they shouldn't appear on air, anywhere, again.  They're not going to starve to death, I'm sure.  It's the least they or the radio industry can do to show remorse.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Gopnick on Lincoln

The high cost of Abraham Lincoln’s uncompromised morality. : The New Yorker

Always a fine writer, Adam Gopnick here looks at Lincoln.  I haven't read it properly yet, but I'm sure it's worth reading...

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Sounds like a solar power "win" to me

Solar power keeps electricity peak down | National - Rural | BigPond News

Record temperatures across Queensland have helped show solar power units on private homes are keeping peak electricity demand down in rural areas of the state, a utility says.

Ergon Energy, which supplies regional areas of the state outside Brisbane and the south east corner, says the most noticeable impact is on the mid-afternoon peak loads.

Temperatures on Tuesday soared to 40 degrees across much of Queensland, with new records for December were set in the southeast, and while they dropped slightly on Wednesday, temperatures were still above the monthly average.

With solar power units in regional areas capable of generating around 173 megawatts (MW), Ergon says as much as 150mw is flowing back into the system from private homes.

Chief executive Ian McLeod says peak demand of 1957 MW during the heatwave was down by 14 per cent on the record peak of 2285 MW in January 2010.

'After a number of mild summers this heatwave has been the first real test of where peak demand is heading on those few hot days of the year,' Mr McLeod said in a statement.

'The record growth of the last decade may be behind us.

'A reduced peak demand reduces the need for more investment in new substations or increasing the capacity of existing substations and powerlines and this takes the pressure off rising power prices.'

Carbon pricing needed everywhere

U.S. energy revolution transforms climate debate - CNN.com

This article by Dieter Helm from Oxford makes the point that the technological advances in the US which have provided it with heaps of  (gas) energy resources has really changed expectations as to how to deal with encouraging a move off fossil fuels.  But at least gas is less harmful than coal, as a stepping stone.

Still comes down to this:
The next steps are harder: A carbon price is a necessary condition for facing up to the pollution our consumption is causing. If we don't want to pay the price of our pollution, then we don't want to tackle climate change. So far, the sad reality is that we are not prepared to act. That is why nothing much has been achieved on the carbon front since 1990.

Why then might the U.S. consider putting a price on its carbon emissions, through taxing pollution? One powerful reason has nothing to do with climate change: It needs the money. Taxing carbon might be politically painful, but not as painful as taxing income. So for the wrong reason there are some grounds for optimism.

What would be even better is if some of the money were spent on new technologies. Current renewables can't bridge the carbon gap. Low-density intermittent energy just doesn't generate enough electricity to carry though decarbonisation. But future renewables just might, and here is not only the best hope on the climate front, but also precisely where the U.S. stars. Its deep technological base and its entrepreneurial culture provide one of the best places to drive through the necessary advances.

For the rest of the world, the lessons are much the same. Everyone needs to switch out of coal, and gas provides a now much more abundant alternative whilst we develop new technologies. Sadly Europe is engaged in a dash from nuclear and gas towards coal.

It needs to waste less money on current expensive renewables -- especially the really expensive options like offshore wind -- and get serious about future renewables. Next generation solar technology is an obvious candidate. And everyone needs to put a carbon price in place.

The climate change problem can be cracked, but not through current policies. And in the meantime the world needs to get used to the idea that the U.S. no longer needs the Middle East to keep its cars and industries moving.

Back to climate change

I've given readers a bit of a  break from climate change posts, but this item from a couple of weeks ago is important.

Real Climate noted some new research indicating the (possibly) very strong regional differences in a warming world.   It's all to do with how atmospheric flow changes.  Here's a couple of key paragraphs:
I think there were some surprising aspects in Deser et al.‘s results. Not that I didn’t expect natural multi-annual variations to be important (on shorter time scales, they are very pronounced), but what strikes me is the strong contrast (on a 50-year time scale) between the global mean temperature (lower graph), which was not very sensitive to the regional atmospheric circulation, and the regional temperatures which were strongly influenced.
It has long been recognized that local and regional climate would warm at different rates than the global mean, but not with such large differences as presented by Deser et al. at the time scales of 50 years and for continental scales. Their results imply that while some regions could experience almost zero warming over 50 years, this will be compensated by substantially stronger in other regions (because they also find that the global mean temperatures to be largely insensitive to the different model initial conditions).
These results also imply a surprisingly long persistence of weather regimes in different parts of the world. Usually, one tends to associate these with inter-annual to decadal scales. However, Deser et al observe:
Such intrinsic climate fluctuations occur not only on interannual-to-decadal timescales but also over periods as long as 50 years… even trends over 50 years are subject to considerable uncertainty owing to natural variability.
These findings were in particular important for the winter season at mid-to-high latitudes. Hence, they could be entirely attributed to chaotic dynamics. On the other hand, the two simulations that they highlighted in their study represented extreme cases, and most of the simulations suggested that the future outcome may be somewhere in between.
My interpretation of Deser et al.‘s results is that the range of possible future temperatures gets broader at the same time as the most likely outcome follows a warming curve. This means that the most likely scenario is warming for the future while there still is a small possibility that the temperature for a particular location hardly changes (or even cools) over a 50-year period.
What strikes me as important about this is it surely means that those economists or advocates who argue for money to be spent more on adaptation to climate change rather than limiting emissions are barking up the wrong tree.

It has long been acknowledged that regional effects of climate change are harder to predict that the bigger picture - this research seems to go further in demonstrating this.   So if you are a politician, how can you reliably predict what adaptation projects are most appropriate to your particular region?

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Not a novel story - but a somewhat worrying one

It was only in August that I noted a report that Israeli researchers had found long term decline in human sperm count and quality:
Over the last 10 to 15 years, the concentration of sperm samples collected by the bank dropped 37% from 106 million cells per milliliter to 67 million, according to Dr. Ronit Haimov-Kochman, a leading Israeli infertility researcher at the Hadassah Hebrew University Medical Center.
Now a very similar sounding study in France finds much the same:
New research shows that the concentration of sperm in men's semen has been in steady decline between 1989 and 2005 in France. In addition, there has been a decrease in the number of normally formed sperm.
The study is important because, with over 26,600 men involved, it is probably the largest studied sample in the world and although the results cannot be extrapolated to other countries, it does support other studies from elsewhere that show similar drops in semen concentration and quality in recent years.
They found that over the 17-year period there was a significant and continuous 32.2% decrease in semen concentration (millions of spermatozoa per millilitre of semen), at a rate of about 1.9% per year. The researchers calculated that in men of the average age of 35, semen concentrations declined from an average of 73.6 million/ml in 1989 to 49.9 million/ml in 2005.
In addition, there was a significant 33.4% decrease in the percentage of normally formed sperm over the same period. Changes in the way sperm shape (morphology) was measured during this time may partly explain this decrease and make it difficult to give an estimate for the general population. However, the researchers say that these changes do not account for the total decrease in the quality of sperm morphology observed over the study period.
In their paper, the researchers write: "To our knowledge, it is the first study concluding a severe and general decrease in sperm concentration and morphology at the scale of a whole country over a substantial period. This constitutes a serious public health warning. The link with the environment particularly needs to be determined."
 A few observations:

a.   the Israeli's decline seems to have started from a much higher starting point.  I wonder what the explanation for that might be.

b.  the Israeli report at my first link noted that 20 million per ml and below count as "abnormal" sperm counts, and the French figures indicate that the average is heading that way very rapidly.

c.  As noted at the end of the French report - surely it's most likely that it is something environmental that is causing this, and the figures do sound as if it is something deserving really serious and urgent research.

This deserves greater attention in the media, I reckon.

UPDATE:  the Guardian has a good article looking at this study, and noting the history of controversy over whether declining sperm counts are "real" or just an artefact of changing  laboratory methods.

Certainly, it seems to my amateur scientist eye that the French study goes a long way towards showing that it is real.  The Guardian article notes that there is no detail of socioeconomic factors that might account for why the men in the study had lower sperm counts (such as if they were more likely to be smokers or drinkers), but as the original article I linked to suggested, the men who end up in fertility clinics are probably more likely not to be from the poorer classes, and to have reasonable health if they have been trying to conceive.  The sample, in other words, may be biased for higher than average sperm counts, not lower.

Novel topic No 8 - the Evils of Tea

An odd article in phys.org:
Poor women who drank tea were viewed as irresponsible as whisky drinkers in early 19th-century Ireland, new research by Durham University has unearthed.

Critics at the time declared that the practice of tea drinking – viewed as a harmless pastime in most past and present societies – was contributing to the stifling of Ireland's economic growth, and was clearly presented as reckless and uncontrollable. Women who drank tea wasted their time and money, it was said, drawing them away from their duty to care for their husbands and home. It was felt this traditionally female responsibility was vital to progressing the national economy.

Pamphlets published in England at the time suggest that the concerns about tea drinking were also felt widely outside Ireland. Some believed it threatened the wholesome diet of British peasants and symbolised damage to the social order and hierarchies.

 According to the Durham University paper, published in the academic journal Literature and History today (5 Dec) and funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, reformers singled out tea drinking amongst peasant women as a practice which needed to be stamped out to improve the Irish economy and society.

Author Dr Helen O'Connell, Lecturer in English Studies at Durham University, who analysed pamphlets and literature from that time, said: "Peasant women were condemned for putting their feet up with a cup of tea when they should be getting a hearty evening meal ready for their hard-working husbands.
  This is the best bit:
Pamphlets the reformers distributed to peasant households lambasted tea drinking as a luxury poor women could not afford and which could even cause addiction, illicit longing and revolutionary sympathies. It was also said that tea drinking could even be akin to being a member of a secret society, a belief which heightened political anxieties at a time of counter revolution within the Union of Britain and Ireland.

Dr Helen O'Connell said: "The prospect of poor peasant women squandering already scarce resources on fashionable commodities such as tea was a worry but it also implied that drinking tea could even express a form of revolutionary feminism for these women.

"If that wasn't enough, there were also supposedly drug-like qualities of tea, an exotic substance from China, which was understood to become addictive over time."

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

A novel topic No 7: the birds' bath

One of the nice things about our house is that we have a birth bath in the back yard which is easily visible from the dining table and kitchen.  Hence, we often get to watch birds bathing while eating lunch.  (You can also see the bath from the main lounge area too.)   It's fun watching birds bathe:  everyone should have such avian facilities in their yard.

But, it has occurred to me - why do they bathe at all?   Does the water help remove lice?  Google is my friend, and leads me to some information:
When birds bathe in water or saturate themselves with dust they are actively maintaining their plumage. In well-watered areas bathing is most common, in arid ones dusting is more often observed. Experiments with quail show that frequent dusting helps to maintain an optimum amount of oil on the feathers. Excess plumage lipids, including preen oil, are absorbed by the dust and expelled along with dry skin and other debris. If quail are prevented from dusting, their feathers quickly become oily and matted. Dusting may also help to discourage bird lice, but no experimental evidence exists as yet showing that to be the case.

Wrens and House Sparrows frequently follow a water bath with a dust bath (one reason to suspect an anti-parasite function for dusting). Overall, the amount of time and effort birds put into bathing and dusting indicates how critical feather maintenance may be. Feathers are marvelous and intricate devices, but keeping them functional requires constant care.

A bird is considered to be bathing whenever it uses any of several stereotyped movements to wet its feathers. One pattern, wading, is commonly observed in birds with strong feet and broad, short, flexible wings. In a typical sequence a bird stands in the water, fluffs the feathers to expose the bare skin between their bases, and rapidly flicks the wings in and out of the water. The breast is submerged and rolled vigorously back and forth, and then, as the front end emerges, the head is thrown back, forming a cup with the partially elevated wings and tail, and dousing the feathers of the back. Those feathers are elevated so that the water reaches the skin, and then lowered, forcing the water between them. The sequence may be repeated, with the bird submerging farther in each cycle, until it is a mass of soaked disarranged feathers. Variations on this theme can be seen in different species, such as robins, thrushes, mockingbirds, jays, and titmice.

So, it seems the dust might be more important than the water in removing lice?  Oddly, I can't find, even via Google scholar, any papers on water itself removing parasites.   But preening is important:
After bathing, birds dry themselves using ritualized movements. Even swimming birds must force the surplus water from between their feathers to protect their insulating properties. Anhingas and cormorants, which often sit in a characteristic sunbathing posture with drying wings spread, are perhaps also thermoregulating. (Vultures take on similar sunbathing postures in the morning. Sunbathing, which occurs in many birds, may stimulate skin parasites into activity so they can be more readily picked off.) Songbirds shake themselves to throw off water by vibrating wings and tail and ruffling feathers. All birds normally follow bathing with preening.  

More on preening from another website: 
 Preening is the simplest and most common of feather care activities. It involves two different actions, nibbling and stroking. All other feather care activities seem to be a prelude to preening, or at least end in a bout of preening. Preening serves the function of returning feathers to their correct position and form and often involves the addition of oil to the feathers from the Uropygial gland. Wiping is simply wiping the feathers with the bill, pressing them into place and perhaps spreading some oil over them. Nibbling is a more serious attempt to put the feathers back into pristine condition. The bird uses its bill to nibble along the edges of feathers straightening them out and ensuring the barbules are all zipped up.
 One thing I am not sure I have heard about before, however, is "anting":
Many different songbird species have been observed picking up single ants or small groups and rubbing them on their feathers. Less commonly, other songbirds "ant" by spreading their wings and lying on an anthill, and squirming or otherwise stimulating the ants to swarm up among their feathers.
The purpose of anting is not well understood, but the most reasonable assumption seems to be that it is a way of acquiring the defensive secretions of ants primarily for their insecticidal, miticidal, fungicidal, or bactericidal properties and, perhaps secondarily, as a supplement to the bird's own preen oil. The former explanation is reinforced by a growing body of evidence on the biocidal properties of ant secretions and by an observation of a jungle Myna (Acridotheres fuscus) actively "anting" with a millipede, whose potent defensive secretions (evolved to fend off the millipede's enemies) could be smelled from 15 feet away. Likewise, the observed correlation of anting activity with high humidity might be explained by the documented fungicidal properties of ant secretions. Because the seasonal timing of anting and molting (spring and summer) often correspond, some have suggested that anting may soothe the skin during feather replacement. It seems more likely that the seasonal relationship simply reflects the greater activity of ants during those periods.

UPDATE:  here's another way birds deal with parasites - by lining their nests with cigarette butts!
Birds have long been known to line their nests with vegetation rich in compounds that drive away parasites. Chemicals in tobacco leaves are known to repel arthropods such as parasitic mites, so Monserrat Suárez-Rodríguez, an ecologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Mexico City, and her colleagues wondered whether city birds were using cigarette butts in the same way.
In a study published today in Biology Letters1, the researchers examined the nests of two bird species common on the North American continent. They measured the amount of cellulose acetate (a component of cigarette butts) in the nests, and found that the more there was, the fewer parasitic mites the nest contained.

A musical interlude

One of these kids is my daughter, playing the weekend before last:

But she told me that piece was really easy.  Last weekend, there was a mini concert at school, and she got to show her skill with very nice piano accompaniment.  I videoed it on our not so expensive camera, but have deleted the video part for privacy reasons.  The ending is very special:


Monday, December 03, 2012

Novel topic No 6 - watch out below!

So, some people study landslides.  Hence, we have The Landslide Blog.

With increased intensity of rainfall expected under AGW (whoops, sorry, that's not a novel topic) there will probably be more and more work for landslide specialists.

The blog is full of scary photos of the aftermath of landslides.   For example, this row of terrace houses in England did not do well out of the recent rains:

And some landslides seem to just be giant boulder slides:

A better view of this road hazard:

An even better bit of road blockage was in Malaysia earlier this year:


No one was killed.  

Anyway, it's an interesting natural disaster blog.

Novel topic No 5

This beer is highly recommended:

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Novel topic No 4 - a cheap shave

I don't mind using shaving soap and a brush for shaving, but my preference has been for the tube lather soaps, which don't require a cup.  The Fauldings brand has been in supermarkets forever.

But I have always wondered about shaving sticks.  These have also always been in supermarkets, but I never understood the shape.  A couple of years ago I bought one, broke it in half and used it in a cup, but the pieces moved around and it was kind of annoying.

Of course, if I had checked the Web, I would have learned how to use one in the proper way.   Some guy has an illustrated guide (with some upmarket looking stick) here.

It is acknowledged in comments there that the more ubiquitous Palmolive shaving stick is pretty hard, and needs a bit of a dip in water before application.   However, it is clear that the stick has its fans. 

It's also clear that some men think a great deal about their soap-and-brush shaving experiences.  For example: 

I just used a Palmolive shave stick for the first time - wow! I have a heavy beard and had two-days growth.

After soaking the stick for a few minutes, I face lathered with a semi-broken in semogue 1305 boar, a 3rd use Personna IP and a 61 Fat boy. I had three good passes with the lather on the brush and touched up a bit with the stick after for some buffing.

I had tried to stick on Saturday thinking that it would behave like my Tabac stick (wet face, rub stick). The Palmolive is a much harder soap, so there was little lather. I did some B&B research and learned to soak the soap a bit and today perfection.

It provided a nice cushioned lather, lubricated and protected well. I like the scent, finding it to be be damp-forest smelling. Palmolive will be a permanent part of my rotation.

***OLD MAN SCENT ALERT*** The scent of Palmolive is definitely old school. If you like the scent of Williams, Tabac, Van Der Hagen, you'll like this scent. I happen to like all of these very much, so the scent of Palmolive is a plus for me.

Is there any benefit to grating this stuff into a bowl? Has anyone does this?
Yes, there are men who know a great deal about shaving brushes, with terminology that sounds vaguely associated with weaponry.  I still use a cheap-ish looking one I know for a fact I got in 1984.  I did not use it for many years, but still.

Anyhow, yes I have found using a Palmolive stick the "right" way works well, and the stick seems to be lasting a very long time.

Novel topic No 3 (although Spielberg gets a mention)

‘Cyndi Lauper - A Memoir’ - NYTimes.com
Everyone finds Cyndi Lauper likeable, don't they?    I still do, even though she seems (like most female pop singers from the 80's - don't ask me why) she's become a gay icon and seems to spend a lot of time on gay marriage advocacy.

Anyway, I was always vaguely aware that she had had a fair few troubles in her life.  Her memoir, which the NYT likes, gives some idea:
Unlike recent books by Patti Smith, Bob Dylan and Keith Richards that have come to be regarded as models for the art of rock literature, Lauper’s memoir makes no attempt to be the least bit literary. Lauper essentially lays out the events of her life in something close to straight chronology, with digressions, in the rhetoric of lunchtime chat. Lauper grows up in a two-­family house with “shingles that looked almost like the color of Good & Plenty candy.” She struggles as a young woman, so hard up at one point that she skins and cooks a squirrel for dinner. She works almost anywhere that will have her, including as a hostess for a Manhattan club catering to Japanese businessmen. She develops as a singer and songwriter, loses her voice, regains it and pampers it ever after as the precious gift that it is. She endures a vile sexual episode with her own friends and bandmates. She becomes famous, then gravely ill with endometriosis, and she proves to have a habit of saying “the wrong things to the right people” — like the time she told Steven Spielberg, in a meeting, that he wasn’t being very ­creative.
(Actually, if she is referring to the video for that Goonies song, she was right.   I'm pretty sure he was supposed to have personally directed it, and it was rather dull.)

PS:  she was also charming and likeable in her one and only movie outing - the little seen "Vibes" - with (the also innately likeable) Jeff Goldblum.  

Saturday, December 01, 2012

Novel topic No 2

The Old Foodie: An Incomplete History of Hash Browns.

I was interested to learn the origins of this way of eating potatoes (I never cared for hash browns at McDonalds, but have learnt that cooking them at home and eating them while crisp makes all the difference,) and in the process found this very interesting blog about old food recipes.

How people used to eat has become a very popular topic in recent years, I think.

I also recently heard on Radio National an English author who has a historical novel all based around a large kitchen in, (I think) the middle ages?   It sounded rather interesting.   I'll find the title later and update.

A novel topic