Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Humble beginnings

A pleasant Christmas, World.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Good Christians

Heart of the slums

This was a pretty remarkable story in Fairfax over the weekend about a couple of Christians who take their religion very seriously in terms of helping others.

Amongst other things, I did not realise Bangkok was quite as "slummy" as the article indicates.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

You can tell the news isn't inspiring me this weekend...

Yes, I'm down to re-posting cat Christmas photos...

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Baby face

I was very amused by the photo used for this story on Slate this morning:

Friday, December 20, 2013

Smoke away, kids

If Marijuana Legalization Sends the Wrong Message to Teenagers, Why Aren't They Listening? - Hit & Run : Reason.com

Reason, unsurprisingly, poohs poohs the idea that legal marijuana (medical or otherwise) has caused an increase in teenage use of the drug.   Yet it does note:
It is true that marijuana use among teenagers has been "drifting higher in recent years" (as the University of Michigan researchers who oversee the Monitoring the Future Study put it). But this upward drift began around 2007, whereas the first medical marijuana law (California's) was enacted in 1996. In between, past-month use among high school seniors went up and down, but it did not exceed the 1996 rate until 2011, 15 years after cannabis was first legalized for medical use. It certainly does not look like marijuana reform is driving increases in adolescent pot smoking. If you dig a little deeper, comparing cannabis consumption trends in states with and without medical marijuana laws, there is little evidence that such legislation boosts pot smoking by teenagers.
 and they end up saying:
  I would therefore not be surprised if legalization is accompanied by an increase in marijuana consumption by teenagers, although not because of the message it sends so much as the increased access it brings.
Yeah, talk about your finest of lines, there.

In all honesty, given that there seems to me to now be clear acceptance amongst the medical researchers that teenagers in particular should not be using marijuana due to its effect on still developing brains, what I am most surprised at in the Reason story is the percent of American teenagers who do use it by year 10, let alone year 12.

This, of course, will be a matter of little concern to libertarians. 

Note to time travellers

Was Jesus a common name back when he was alive?

If one was travelling back to Israel at the time of Christ, it seems to me that it may not be all that easy to identify Him until he started to get a reputation as a preacher*:
Many people shared the name. Christ's given name, commonly Romanized as Yeshua, was quite common in first-century Galilee. (Jesus comes from the transliteration of Yeshua into Greek and then English.) Archaeologists have unearthed the tombs of 71 Yeshuas from the period of Jesus' death. The name also appears 30 times in the Old Testament in reference to four separate characters—including a descendent of Aaron who helped to distribute offerings of grain (2 Chronicles 31:15) and a man who accompanied former captives of Nebuchadnezzar back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2)....

What was Jesus' last name? It wasn't Christ. Contemporaries would have called him Yeshua Bar Yehosef or Yeshua Nasraya. (That's "Jesus, son of Joseph" or "Jesus of Nazareth.") Galileans distinguished themselves from others with the same first name by adding either "son of" and their father's name, or their birthplace.
Now, I don't know how big a town Nazareth was at the time, but it seems a very good bet that there was more than one "Jesus of Nazareth", and (I would guess) another local "Jesus, son of Joseph" sometime before our Jesus hit 30.

And while on the topic:  I see that Wikipedia has at this entry (under the subheading "Jesus") a list of science fiction books and stories featuring time travel back to Jesus' time.

The one story idea which I don't see mentioned there is a time travelling expedition from the future to make sure the Jesus story as shown in the Gospel happens.  (Sponsored by someone from the Catholic Church who has lost faith, but figures on utilitarian grounds that the net benefits of belief to society would be worth the fraud, and employing one of the modern illusionists of the kind we see on TV now apparently performing convincing tricks in the middle of the street.) 

Having thought of this idea quite some time ago, it has had the unfortunate effect that when hearing a Gospel reading at Church, my mind often wanders to how a modern illusionist would replicate the effect.   Certainly, the glowing or shining appearance of angels, especially at night, is easy to imagine with simple UV light; unconsumed burning bushes (yes, I know, wrong Testament) would be easy as, too, and so  on.

*   Yes, I know a bit of Jesus identity confusion did feature in one episode of Red Dwarf, and I'm not being completely original.

Abbott's understanding questioned (again)

RET cuts: Why Abbott has got it all wrong on green energy | Crikey

The argument about the effect of renewable energy on costs to business and households is, I do tend to find, a difficult one to follow.

But, given that I think Abbott is not smart enough to know who to take advice from, I'm naturally willing to believe he's wrong on this, for the reasons outlined in the article above.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The creepy Watts

Quark Soup by David Appell: Being Clear About Watts

It's been clear for years that Anthony Watts is immature in his personal attacks on people in climate science he disagrees with.   (Who can forget his snide questioning of whether they are patriotic enough to fly the American flag), but David Appell has been a recent target of his attention.

What's clear is that Watts just makes things up, both on science*, and in his personal attacks.  

* He had no basis for a claim he made to Andrew Bolt, which I covered a couple of years ago.  Andrew Bolt never corrected it.

Bitcoin dissed

Why I want Bitcoin to die in a fire - Charlie's Diary

I have pretty much ignored the Bitcoin story - it seemed to be a popular idea with the same Libertarian crowd that likes the idea of floating artificial islands of nerds doing whatever Libertarians fantasise think it would be cool to do together all day (I dunno - play paintball?) - and therefore it was safe to assume it was a bad and anti-social idea.

So, today I see an article by Charlie Stross with his list of reasons why it is, indeed, a bad and anti-social idea.  (I would have my doubts about the carbon cost issue, though, but everything else seems fair enough.)

I repeat my recent theme - Libertarians are useless.  It probably would be a good idea if they all lived on one giant ship together, as (of course) they would be well armed (you know, just in case), and within 12 months some argument over an arcane matter of economics that no one else in the world worried about would result in a civil war and the sinking of their ship, both literally and metaphorically.

Two issue Tim

What did I say in ranty post yesterday about Tim Wilson not exactly being inundated with work as Human Rights Commissioner?

I noted two issues he is or is likely concerned with:  s18C as used against Andrew Bolt (he's against it), and the anti bikie legislation in Queensland and elsewhere (where anyone could accurately guess - he'd be against it.)

And so it came to pass (it is nearly Christmas), Tim has an article in the Fairfax press this morning in which he talks about two issues - the ones I identified.  (Oh, alright, he mentioned a third one, which has already been decided yesterday by the High Court, so he ain't going to be taking a lot of phone calls on that matter either.)

So we can pretty much see the future here:   Tim will have a lot of arguments at Commission meetings about how his mate Andrew Bolt should never again face the horror of being taken to court when he refuses to acknowledge insulting, race based, mistakes, and will fail to persuade them that the law should be abolished in its entirety. 

And he might take some extra phone calls (more than the 4 or so the HRC currently annually takes on freedom of expression issues) from bikies, in which his response will be "mate, I sympathise, I really do.  And I'm writing an article about it as we speak.  But not much else I can do at the moment, we're waiting on the High Court decision."

What a completely useless, partisan, appointment.

Update:  I see that in comments flying about the internet, many have noted that one would have thought the biggest concern of a "Freedom Commissioner" might well be the incarceration of thousands of attempted immigrants on Christmas and Manus Island.   Has Tim ever been known for talking about them, instead of his mater of Bolt and his really hurt feelings?   Is there a little bit of a problem with "freedom of expression" from those who are involved in this hush-hush business?   And is there anything that the HRC could do about it anyway? 

I see that someone says he was on Insight once when the topic was assylum seekers, but no one has turned up what he actually said.

But lots of people haver noticed his tweet from 2011:
Walked past Occupy Melbourne protest, all people who think freedom of speech = freedom 2 b heard, time wasters ... send in the water cannons
Yes, just what the HRC needs:  a commissioner not afraid to use water canon on people he disagrees with.    

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Useless Libertarians Who Think They're Useful

I don't recall the libertarian types of the Institute of Paid Advocacy (the right wing think tank funded, at least formerly, if not presently, by tobacco companies, and now in the pocket of Gina Rinehart and - I expect - Rupert Murdoch) being particularly concerned about s18C of the Racial Discrimination Act until Andrew Bolt found himself being prosecuted under it.

I assume that Bolt decided to fight rather than apologise for making inaccurate claims in an article with a clearly ridiculing tone.  Or was he put up to a fight by his bosses prepared to fund his defence for the purposes of a bit of corporate grandstanding?  Who knows?  In any event, Bolt lost, has been carrying on like the biggest martyr ever in the history of Australia for free speech, despite his offending columns still being easily Googled to this day (with a "corrective notice" as ordered by the Court heading them), and all the while has had his hand held by the likes of John Roskam and Tim Wilson of the IPA, and Tony Abbott (the professional weathervane who became Prime Minister) while being told soothing words about  how outrageous this whole action has been and he really is a tragic victim.

This has, psychologically for Bolt, been the worst thing that could have been done.

But the IPA, taking their cue from that and the Labor government's Finkelstein review into media regulation (which went no where, given that the government had no particular media scandal to hang their hat on) have decided that Freedom of Speech is the top way they can build a fake political crisis; and their supporters, clearly not the brightest people when assessing genuine political problems, have been happy to send money, despite the publicly available financial reports on the IPA website showing they have cash reserves of 1.5 million dollars which they appear to be saving merely for a rainy day.   Fools and money, etc.

And now this is all topped off by the Abbott government appointing Tim Wilson to be a "Freedom Commissioner" on the Human Rights Commission.   Yes, Tim Wilson from the organisation that has as a policy position the abolition of the HRC.

In this exchange on the Drum with the President of the Commission, Wilson was all outraged that the Commission did not specifically use the words "free speech" in a submission made to the government a year or two ago.

But what is more interesting is what Triggs notes in response (at 2.31) - the Commission takes 17,000 calls a year from the public, with a total of 4 being about freedom of expression.

Yes, Brandis:  for the sake of 4 complaints a year, there is a need to have a Freedom Commissioner on the HRC.

Wilson's sole job seems to be to advocate for a repeal of s18C - the Bolt section - and Wilson's background in IP, trade and climate change denialism indicates no particular experience in matters of human rights at all.   (Oh sure, he's no doubt been to dinners with Andrew Bolt and assured him he's a martyr.)    What else he is supposed to spend his time on once the 18C issue is dealt with by the government - who knows?    Prime advocate for bikies, perhaps, to have the freedom of association in criminal gangs?   Yes, they'll be some useless grandstanding to be done over that, perhaps.  And apart from that issue, given that the Abbott government is not going to introduce anything like what Labor was contemplating for media regulation reform, what is he going to spend his time on?

This is the most blatant political appointment conceivable to an unqualified big mouth and wannabe politician from what has become he most disreputable think tank in the land.  (On that last point, as an example - as far as I know, Sinclair Davidson has never sought to defend the IPA's adoption of Gina Rinehart's Northern Australia "special treatment" program from this criticism by John Quiggin.  Indeed, Davidson carries on like the biggest drama queen of all on the free speech issue, recently telling anyone from the Jewish lobby who are expressing concern about repeal of s18C that this is a some sort of dramatic fork in the road.)

Remember my rule of thumb:  any person who has a good education yet spends their time on climate change denialism - they're not to be trusted on anything.  This applies to Wilson, and anyone from the IPA.   Of their crew, I only have a bare tolerance for Chris Berg, who (as far as I know) tends to steer away from the climate change issue.  Yet he, of course, is also a Freedom drama queen.  They all are. They are also useless and not to be trusted on the matter of the development of good policy.  They know the answers already (small government!  less taxes! climate change is a fraud! Repeat and repeat), and always work backwards from there.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013


Conservatives Have No Idea What To Do About Recessions | Business Insider

Thanks to monty for the link, which explains exactly the problem with the Republican economics, and indeed with Australia right wing economists:

Log your dreams in public

Naked in public? Dreams Cloud wants to get inside your mind | Crave - CNET

I haven't looked at the app yet, but the idea of people publicly logging their odd dreams sounds like it might be sorta fun, at least for a while.

Does Tony Abbott know what he is doing?

Reserve Bank Reserve Fund foreign currency Australian dollar | Crikey

Bernard Keane in Crikey notes that Tony Abbott seems to think that his government giving the Reserve Bank $8 billion (and causing an immediate increased "blowout" - don't media organisations love that word  - to the budget deficit) is about the Reserve Bank being able to intervene to drive down the Australian dollar.

Bernard says this is  not the case:
But the odd thing about Abbott’s remarks linking the $9 billion to pressure on the dollar is that there is no link. In contrast to the urgency portrayed by Hockey, the RBA hasn’t received the funding yet — as Treasury’s briefing on the issue to then-treasurer Wayne Swan earlier this year noted, there is no mechanism for the government to simply hand $9 billion to the RBA, so it will require a parliamentary appropriation. The RBA will in turn use the funding to buy foreign currencies, mainly the US dollar, because it aims to hold just over half of its assets in foreign currencies.

The $9 billion in fact has no bearing on whether the bank can intervene against the strength of the dollar — for one thing, it’s nowhere near enough to make a big difference. And pushing the dollar down will actually increase the value of the bank’s foreign currency holdings, rather than deplete its assets as Abbott appeared to suggest. It seems that Abbott doesn’t have a basic grasp of why exactly he’s blowing a $9 billion hole in his own deficit (no matter how much he might insist it’s Labor’s deficit).

Worse, he has created the impression that the $9 billion handout has a quid pro quo that the independent RBA will now intervene against the dollar. Our trade-exposed sector, particularly manufacturers but also miners (whose contracts are usually set in US dollars) will all benefit from a fall in the dollar, with flow-on benefits for federal government tax revenue. This will help the Abbott government avoid the nightmarish fate of the Gillard government, which had to sit back and watch as the Aussie dollar hammered the trade-exposed sectors of the economy and slashed corporate tax revenue while the RBA hummed and hawed about why the dollar wasn’t reacting like normal to a fall in our terms of trade.

Abbott’s remarks apparently caused confusion and concern at senior levels within the bank — yet another legacy of Hockey’s $9 billion handout, and the Prime Minister’s hazy grasp of economics.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Pressure on mothers to be

Developmental biology: Support mothers to secure future public health

Quite an interesting commentary here on the vital role for public health that science increasing sees in having healthy mothers right from pregnancy.

For example:
The Hertfordshire data and similar records from other UK towns revealed, for instance, that a person weighing 2.7 kilograms (6 pounds) at birth has a 25% higher risk of contracting heart disease in later life, and a 30% higher risk of having a stroke, compared with someone weighing 4.1 kilograms (9 pounds) at birth3.

These findings were soon strengthened by data from a cohort of 20,000 people born in Helsinki between 1924 and 1944. This study showed, for example, that if all the babies at birth had had weights within the highest third of the total range, the incidence of diabetes in later life would have been halved4. In the years since, numerous other studies, involving people from places as diverse as Europe, India, Guatemala, the Philippines and South Africa, have revealed similar correlations with effects that extend to the health of grandchildren.

In the past 15 years, researchers have begun to understand the biology underlying the links between development and chronic disease. The evidence suggests that women should start eating healthily well before they get pregnant. Women who are obese, for example, accumulate more metabolites (such as insulin, lactate and triglycerides) in their ovarian follicles5 than do women who are not obese. This accumulation can reduce their fertility and increase the likelihood that their offspring will develop certain diseases, such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease or cancer, later in life.
 And how about this for some justification for my feeling that IVF has involved too much mucking around with nature:
 At the moment of conception, the growing embryo seems to be exquisitely sensitive to its nutritional environment. Studies of babies born through in vitro fertilization, for instance, have shown that birth weights can be affected simply by changing the constituents of the medium in which the embryos are cultured.
It would certainly appear that it will be decades yet before we truly know the long term health consequences of the IVF techniques.

Spin, spin, Sheridan

Now this is a phone call I would like to have the exact transcript to.

Greg Sheridan took a call from the Indonesian ambassador to the US on the weekend who was  delivering President SBY's reaction Sheridan's (and The Australian's) Saturday story that there really was good reason to spy on his wife.

I found the reasons given pretty unconvincing, and could only imagine that SBY would find them offensive, but Sheridan is trying to put the phone call in the best possible light:
Dr Yudhoyono instructed Dr Djalal to ring me to convey the President's personal reaction to the stories. Dr Djalal checked with Dr Yudhoyono that these remarks could be publicly attributed to the President. The President said he found elements of The Weekend Australian's coverage showed balance and that there were some positive aspects of the coverage.

Dr Yudhoyono also pointed out that it was he, as President in 2005, who first moved to elevate the Indonesia-Australia relationship to the higher plane it has existed on in recent years. Since that time, he said, he had worked consistently to improve the relationship between the two countries.

He said the dispute over the spying story had hurt him personally. The President said he was determined to repair the relationship and would work towards a solution. This needs to happen through the steps the two nations had agreed on. It also needed to happen in a way that satisfied his domestic needs.
This has the heavy smell of spin around it, doesn't it?    On Sheridan's part, I mean.  I would like to know how much of the conversation was about the "personal hurt", and whether they was mention of "negative elements" as well as the "some positive elements".

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Politicians and movies don't mix

It's regrettable that Al Gore headed "An Inconvenient Truth":  he gave Right wingers an excuse to claim a serious environmental issue as being something only a "Lefty" should worry about.

But now we seem to have another good example of a politician unwisely getting into the movie business.  Rick Santorum is the CEO of a Christian movie company, and its first release "A Christmas Candle" is receiving some disastrous, but pretty funny, reviews.  The movie features Susan Boyle, a bit of casting that appears to have very wrong.

Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian:
The urgent question of when Susan Boyle will give us her cinema debut has been settled. She makes a truly extraordinary appearance in this film, not just singing but acting, too, playing a churchwoman with the voice of an angel in a stilted, treacly, and, frankly, bizarre tale of yuletide miracles....

Every 20 minutes or so, Boyle is allowed on to say a line, which she does weirdly quietly, as if talking in her sleep. Her facial expression never changes. And all the professional actors around her look stunned, like those Dallas cops when Jack Ruby stepped forward to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald.
It's not just a Left wing Guardian reviewer, though.  In the Daily Mail:
So I didn’t go to watch The Christmas Candle, Boyle’s big-screen acting debut, with the same negativity as the audience when Ant and Dec sent her out on stage four years ago.

Maybe she’d be just fine.

Unfortunately, she isn’t. Boyle really can’t act.

In fact, Ant or Dec might have been more convincing as church warden’s wife Eleanor Hopewell, and one of Boyle’s co-stars, Lesley Manville, has publicly questioned the decision to cast her.

Yet the big problem with this film is not dear old Subo and the slightly creepy little giggles she keeps emitting, it’s the muddled narrative.
And another (although this review does leave poor Susan alone):
"The Christmas Candle" is a determinedly retro-minded holiday saga that contains no foul language, gruesome violence indeed anything beyond the mildest suggestion of hanky-panky, and for a certain portion of the moviegoing public, these absences alone would be enough to warrant a recommendation. The trouble is that the filmmakers have also neglected to include such other elements as wit, style, energy or anything resembling a coherent narrative.
Better luck next time, Rick! 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

It's OK when Rupert does it...

So, how's this supposed to work?

The Guardian and the ABC report from the Snowden leaks that Australia had targeted the Indonesia President's wife's mobile phone, causing a major diplomatic falling out which is supposed to cured with some future protocol.  Presumably, this will involve an indication from us that we agree it's not a nice thing to spy on politicians' wives.

The ABC Collective* condemns the Guardian and the ABC for publicising the spying story.  Against our national interests, etc etc.

Story goes quiet for a couple of weeks.

Then today, The Australian comes out with headline stories that read:

Hey!  It's quite OK to spy on Indonesian President's wives after all!  Kevin Rudd made a good call!

How the hell is that supposed to help repair the relationship?

In fact, isn't it just about the worst possible thing that you could do if our robot Foreign Minister is still negotiating some future promises with the Indonesians?   No, according to Bolt, it's important that the Right attack the Left for criticising the decision to spy on her.

This is ludicrous behaviour by the Right, if you ask me.

 * The Australian, Andrew Bolt, and Catallaxy, for any new reader.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Who knows what this means for education policy?

Nature trumps nurture in exam success: GCSE results 'mainly determined by genes,' says landmark study of twins

Michelle's summary seems pretty right to me

Grattan on Friday: 100 days and the "adults" still have a lot of growing up to do.

It starts:

It is just 100 days on Monday since the election, but the Abbott government lacks that air of excitement that power often brings. Rather, it is staggering towards Christmas, mugged by moving from rhetoric to reality, from the disciplined order of opposition to the setbacks and unexpected challenges of office.
We will do, Abbott pledged before the election, reeling off intentions, only to find there are many things, including the core promises of repealing the carbon and mining taxes, that he can’t do, at least for the moment.

He’d run a government of no surprises, he said. Well, he has been surprised, unpleasantly – most notably by the revelations about Australian spying in Indonesia, as well as by Holden’s intended departure.

And there’s been the unsettling reminder that voters were more anxious to throw out Labor than enthusiastic about the Coalition; now they’re unimpressed by the government’s early efforts. This week’s Newspoll had the ALP leading 52-48%. Satisfaction with Abbott’s performance was 40% - it has fallen steadily from 47% in October. Opposition leader Bill Shorten’s satisfaction rating was 44% - it has risen steadily from 32% in October.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Spooky children's stories

The Science of Reincarnation | The University of Virginia Magazine

The work of the late University of Virginia Professor Ian Stevenson on reincarnation was mentioned in comments here recently, and I see now that the University still has a psychiatrist who conducts research on the topic.

The link gives a pretty good example of one case he knows about in detail.

I am  a bit surprised to see that 70% of children who suddenly claim to have lived before are male.   But it is interesting to hear of American cases.  If I recall correctly, one of the big issues with Stevenson's work which (I think) dealt with a lot of Indian cases, is that the kids were being raised in a society which already accepts reincarnation, and they would surely be influenced by that in their imaginative life.

That's a lot harder to see as an influence in America.  

You should also read the comments following the article.   Some people are "appalled" that the University magazine would run such an article.

Wasted trip

BBC News - Dinosaur asteroid 'sent life to Mars'

 The asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs may have catapulted life to Mars and the moons of Jupiter, US researchers say.

They calculated how many Earth rocks big enough to shelter life were ejected by asteroids in the last 3.5bn years.

The Chicxulub impact was strong enough to fire chunks of debris all the way to Europa, they write in Astrobiology.

Thousands of potentially life-bearing rocks also made it to Mars, which may once have been habitable, they add.

"We find that rock capable of carrying life has likely transferred from both Earth and Mars to all of the terrestrial planets in the solar system and Jupiter," says lead author Rachel Worth, of Penn State University.
"Any missions to search for life on Titan or the moons of Jupiter will have to consider whether biological material is of independent origin, or another branch in Earth's family tree."

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Sounds kind of improbable to me...

Life possible in the early Universe 

Aliens might have existed during the Universe’s infancy. A set of calculations suggests that liquid water — a pre­requisite for life — could have formed on rocky planets just 15 million years after the Big Bang.

Abraham Loeb, an astrophysicist at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has realized that in the early Universe, the energy required to keep water liquid could have come from the cosmic microwave background, the afterglow of the Big Bang, rather than from host stars. Today, the temperature of this relic radiation is just 2.7 kelvin, but at an age of around 15 million years it would have kept the entire Universe at a balmy 300 kelvin, says Loeb, who posted his calculations to the arXiv preprint server this month (http://arxiv.org/abs/1312.0613).

Loeb says that rocky planets could have existed at that time, in pockets of the Universe where matter was exceptionally dense, leading to the formation of massive, short-lived stars that would have enriched these pockets in the heavier elements needed to make planets. He suggests that there would have been a habitable epoch of 2 million or 3 million years during which all rocky planets would have been able to maintain liquid water, regardless of their distance from a star. “The whole Universe was once an incubator for life,” he says.
 But as one critic says further down in the article:
Christopher Jarzynski, a biophysicist at the University of Maryland, College Park, is not convinced that life could exist in a uniformly warm Universe. Life on Earth depends thermo­dynamically not only on the heat source of the Sun, but also on the cold cosmic microwave background, which provides a heat sink, he notes. “Life feeds off this,” he says. And Alexander Vilenkin, a cosmologist at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts, says that a few million years is too short a time to produce intelligent life.
 Anyway, if true, and aliens did evolve then, it certainly sets up well the idea that our alien overlords (like the ones in 2001 A Space Odyssey) are very old indeed. 

Love fight

A rather odd on line fight has broken out between those who hate the movie Love Actually, and those who defend it.  (The 10 year anniversary of its release seems to be the motivation for this re-assessment.)

Christopher Orr started it with his lengthy explanation of why he thinks the movie is awful and actually anti-romantic.  His critique is not perfect - he says he thinks Bill Nighy is terrific, whereas I always find him hammy and annoying.   But he makes a pretty strong case against the movie overall.

(I just found the movie extremely unconvincing in virtually every story thread.   I wrote at the time that I found some of the stories verging on creepy, but I've actually forgotten which ones now.)

Orr's article has now been followed by this:

I Will Not Be Ashamed of Loving Love Actually - Emma Green - The Atlantic

and she brings in CS Lewis to defend her take on the movie.  (!)  [I somehow have my doubts that he would have taken to the love story between actors doing fake porn scenes.]

Other haters and lover of the movie have taken this as a cue to join in.  I see that this Australian entry is pretty good - she seems to dislike it in pretty much exactly the same ways I do.  After than, you can read a defence of the movie on Mother Earth News.  Then you can go visit another Australian woman who dislikes the movie.

I think the "noes" have it.

UPDATE:  An English young bloke in The Guardian now has a go at Australians for criticising it, even though this round of criticism started in America, declaring it his favourite movie, ever.  (!)   I think he should be a little embarrassed about that, in all honesty.

Drink up

BBC News - Artificial sweetener aspartame 'is safe'

I work on the assumption that if the Europeans think a food additive is safe, it almost certainly is.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An early Christmas present...

...at least for those of us who didn't vote for Abbott.

From the Financial Review:
The Abbott government’s extraordinary collapse in public support has been confirmed in the latest Newspoll, which puts Labor well ahead on a two-party basis and shows the Coalition has lost its carbon tax advantage.

The Newspoll, published in The Australian on Tuesday, finds the Coalition’s election-winning margin has been erased in just three months, with Labor now leading the two-party preferred vote with 52 per cent compared with the Abbott government’s 48 per cent.

The poll result confirms an Australian Financial Review/Nielsen poll, published two weeks ago, which was the first since the election to show that voters had dramatically shifted allegiance away from the Coalition, despite the party’s landslide win on September 7.

This translates into a 5.5 per cent swing against the government since the country voted, a shift strongly represented in the Financial Review’s Poll of Polls.
 Actually, I don't really think that it was "a landslide victory", but apart from that, a good report!

Monday, December 09, 2013

Counting men

I've noticed in the last 6 months that some conservative Catholics in the blogosphere have taken to claiming that the CDC in the US thinks that only 2% of men engage in "same sex behaviour".   (And conclude from that "hardly anyone is gay - why is gay marriage needed?)

In fact, the 2011 study they rely on says this in the abstract:
Estimates of the proportion of men who engaged in same-sex behavior differed by recall period: past year = 2.9% (95%CI, 2.6–3.2); past five years = 3.9% (3.5–4.4); ever = 6.9% (5.1–8.6).
 Which, of course, indicates that the true percent of gay or bisexual men would likely be around 4 - 5%.

With that background, it was interesting to read this article in the New York Times  in which a guy with a PhD in economics looks at the different threads of evidence and agrees with a 5% figure for "men who are predominantly attracted to men".

The most interesting aspect of the article is, however, the evidence he looks at for those parts of America where it seems men are more likely to be "in the closet".   (It's centred in the Southern, evangelical States.)    I thought this part was an innovative bit of research, and a bit darkly amusing:
Additional evidence that suggests that many gay men in intolerant states are deeply in the closet comes from a surprising source: the Google searches of married women. It turns out that wives suspect their husbands of being gay rather frequently. In the United States, of all Google searches that begin “Is my husband...,” the most common word to follow is “gay.” “Gay” is 10 percent more common in such searches than the second-place word, “cheating.” It is 8 times more common than “an alcoholic” and 10 times more common than “depressed.” 

Searches questioning a husband’s sexuality are far more common in the least tolerant states. The states with the highest percentage of women asking this question are South Carolina and Louisiana. In fact, in 21 of the 25 states where this question is most frequently asked, support for gay marriage is lower than the national average.
 The other point that gays rights activists can rely on when talking about the relevance of numbers is this (I only thought to look this up on the weekend):
By 1933, German Jews were largely urban, middle class, prosperous in business, and well represented in the professions (especially medicine and law). They were culturally integrated but represented less than 1 percent of the total population.
PS:  I still don't support gay marriage, and would prefer it be dealt with by civil unions, perhaps even following the Tasmanian model which allow for other co-dependency relationships to be registered too.  But at least I don't argue dishonestly about it.

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Australian applauds itself

Given that The Australian has possibly the most annoying paywall system on the planet, as well as being essentially a print version of the Catallaxy blog on its opinion pages and its politics generally, I missed a truly remarkable editorial they ran last week, until I read about it on John Quiggin's blog.

This loonpond post contains the editorial in full as illustrated by First Dog on the Moon.  (You may notice it is also where I read the Tom Tomorrow cartoon featured in my last post.)

Although we don't know who wrote it, as Uncle Milton at JQ's blog noted:
The Oz’s piece, while anonymous, reads like it was written by Nick Cater. His writing has the air of painful frustration that the enemies of everything he holds near and dear refuse to go away.
I find Cater very annoying and shallow.  I have read reviews of his book indicating that he really spends a lot of time on environmentalism as a culture war dividing line.   I suppose it is, but only because the Right went stupidly anti-science about it.

Asians and Republicans

GOP starts a tough struggle to win back Asian American voters - latimes.com

The LA Times has an interesting article here on the way the Republicans lost the Asian vote.

Until they return from the Tea Party Right wing policies (and there is little sign of that at the moment), it is hard to see Asians returning to them.  Some extracts:
Asian Americans have shifted dramatically away from the Republican Party over the last two decades — more so than any other voting group. In 1992, Republican George H.W. Bush won 55% of the Asian American vote against Democrat Bill Clinton. Last year, President Obama won 73% against Republican Mitt Romney, a better showing than the president's 71% support among Latinos, according to exit polls....

The shift in Asian American political sentiments started during the Clinton years and owes much to the prosperity of his two terms as president, which enhanced the appeal of a Democratic Party that, from the civil rights movement on, had always seemed more welcoming to minorities.

Hastening the trend has been the rightward turn of the Republican Party.

Opinion surveys have found Asian Americans more willing than white voters to support tax hikes to reduce the federal deficit, more supportive of a large, activist government, friendlier toward immigrants in the country illegally and more favorably disposed to Obamacare than voters overall. All those positions clash with today's prevailing GOP sentiment.

The harsh Republican tone on immigration, directed mainly at people crossing illegally from Mexico, has been especially damaging.
And speaking of the last US Presidential election, I came across this last week and found it quite funny.  I hope the words are readable:

A good summary

Abbott team in government loses control of conversation | World news | theguardian.com

I thought the above article by Lenore Taylor in yesterday's Guardian was a pretty good summary of how the Coalition government is going.  (Short version:  not very well.)

I liked this bit in particular:
Similarly, there were many in the Coalition who sought to deflect attention from Guardian Australia’s spying stories by trying to start a fight they were itching to have anyway about the role and remit of the ABC.

Both Guardian Australia and the ABC took the decision that publication on the Indonesian spy story, with all requested redactions on actual national security grounds, was in the public interest. Abbott himself acknowledged that “plainly it was a story”. The prime minister and the communications minister, Malcolm Turnbull, asserted the ABC had made an “error of judgement” in partnering with Guardian Australia to run and “amplify” the story, something that has also been done by many other media organisations around the world. (It is unclear how the amplification would have been appreciably reduced had Guardian Australia run the story on its own and the ABC had then begun following it ten minutes later.)

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Cheese in detail

It's Saturday night, and I'm reading an article that contains far more detail about the chemistry and biology of cheese than I really need to know, including this:
In Quicke’s vat, this arrangement has broken down and become curds and whey, on its way to cheddar. If milk is left alone, bacteria quickly start converting its lactose sugar into lactic acid that can eventually start this curdling. This is probably how cheese was first made, but modern needs for safe storage and maturing demand a different approach. Quicke’s minimally pasteurises its milk, and like most modern cheesemakers adds a starter culture including lactic acid bacteria such as Streptococcus, Lactococcus and Lactobacillus. They work hand-in-hand to control which bacteria reach the final cheese, by outcompeting less welcome species and making the environment too acidic for them. And rather than these bacteria doing the curdling, acid conditions help an enzyme preparation known as rennet to do it. Their ongoing acidity development also controls the resulting solid curd’s texture.

Traditional rennet, which Quicke’s uses, comes from soaking a milk-fed calf’s stomach in brine.
 Had some nice goats cheese at dinner tonight, as it happens.

UPDATE:   I was wondering last night how someone first worked out that calf's stomach contained something that was useful in making cheese.  Another site provides the likely answer:
There is a great deal of mythology surrounding the history of cheesemaking, because humans have been making it for a very long time, and the steps involved are actually fairly complicated. The stomachs of ruminants have historically been used to make bags and sacks, and food historians theorize that someone must have stored milk in one a bit too long, allowing it to curdle, and the curdled milk was then turned into a food product. Modern rennet is created through an extraction process that yields neat, dry tablets or a liquid that is very easy to work with.

 Traditional rennet was made by washing the stomach of a young ruminant after it has been slaughtered, and then salting it. The salted stomach is kept in dried form, with cooks snipping off small pieces and soaking them in water when they have a need for the extract. Some cheesemakers continue to make and use it in this way, but the vast majority use commercially processed rennet, which is made by creating a slurry and then subjecting it to a compound that will cause the enzymes to precipitate out.

Friday, December 06, 2013

Another episode of "It's all in the Gut"

Bacterium can reverse autism-like behaviour in mice
Doses of a human gut microbe helped to reverse behavioural problems in mice with autism-like symptoms, researchers report today in Cell1. The treatment also reduced gastrointestinal problems in the animals that were similar to those that often accompany autism in humans.
Applying this to humans might be a little tricky, although I wonder if you could really do much harm by just trying introducing different bacteria until you find one that helps:
Although many anecdotal reports and small studies have suggested that ‘probiotic’ bacteria, such as those found in yoghurt, and antibiotics can help with the symptoms of autism, Cryan says more research needs to be done. Because there are a number of types of autism in humans, it will be important to look at how different symptoms might be affected by different microbes. Another question is whether the microbiomes of the mice — whose symptoms result from maternal infection — differ from those of mice that are genetically predisposed to autism-like symptoms, Cryan adds.
Here's the main point, though:
“I think there is now sufficient proof of concept where people can start to look at probiotic bacteria to improve brain function in humans,” says gastroenterologist Stephen Collins of McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. 
Maybe Freud should have worked with the Kellogg brothers.  (Although, now that I check, they had some freaky ideas about matters sexual such that they might have been a bad influence even on Sigmund.)

Back from the future

Hmmm.  It seems that Blogger's "Search this blog" function has changed to become even more wonky that it used to be - so that the side search box is not working at all now, but I can still use a box at the top left, even though it shows posts in full instead of the way it used to just list them.

Blogger has been a fantastic free service, but it has always puzzled me why they couldn't get this feature quite right.

Anyhoo, that's all by way of background of noting that I am sure I have posted before about my fondness for the idea that aliens are time travelling, very evolved, humans from the future.   Sure, it doesn't explain the whole anal probe meme, but I'm sure dogs, cats and apes get a bit confused as to what's gone on during some interactions with humans, too.

As far as I can recall, there hasn't been a popular science fiction book or movie on this theme, which seems an odd oversight.   I did give credit to Indian Jones and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for presenting aliens as inter-dimensional travellers, though, as that is an idea that has somewhat displaced aliens as mere space travellers, and that's getting closer to the idea that they are future humans.   (I suppose one could argue that The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension far pre-dated Crystal Skull in running with inter-dimensional aliens, though.   Why does that movie - which I enjoyed at the time - never get repeated on TV, I wonder?) 

And all of these musings, which I have probably said all before at this very blog, are inspired by this post at the oddball corner of Huffington Post.  Apparently, the aliens as humans from the future goes back to some guy who allegedly had connections to Roswell:
We still really don't know what happened at Roswell, but there is an ancient alien/astronaut link that adds to the mystery. According to a renowned U.S. Navy Commander named George W. Hoover, the aliens may have been human beings from the future... us... come back to, well, interact with... us.

Allegedly, Hoover had top-secret clearance as part of his work as a Naval Intelligence Officer to view the Roswell debris and bodies during the 1950s...and he eventually told a very select group of people before his death of his beliefs. Those people included his own son, George Hoover, Jr. and later ufologist and researcher William J. Birnes, both of whom were made privy to what the elder Hoover knew before his death. Hoover stated during interviews that he believed the aliens were not extraterrestrial, but were extratemporal -- as in time travelers. In addition, he believed they were not really aliens at all... but humans of the future, with incredible abilities to use the power of consciousness to morph reality and travel through the landscape of time.

Mainly good news

US pregnancy rates continue to fall

The decrease in unwanted teenage pregnancies is welcome, although I suppose it may be the case that too many women are leaving having kids too late:
Pregnancy rates for teenagers also have reached historic lows that extend across all racial and ethnic groups. Between 1990 and 2009, the fell 51 percent for white and black teenagers, and 40 percent for Hispanic teenagers.

The teen birth rate dropped 39 percent between 1991 and 2009, and the teen abortion rate decreased by half during the same period.

Overall, pregnancy rates have continued to decline for women younger than 30.

"The amount of knowledge that young women have about their birth control options is very different compared to a few decades ago," said Dr. Margaret Appleton, director of the division of obstetrics and gynecology at the Scott & White Clinic in College Station, Texas. "Birth control is more readily available to women, and they are more knowledgeable about it."

At the same time, pregnancy rates have steadily increased for women aged 30 to 44. The rate increased 16 percent between 1990 and 2009 for women aged 30 to 34, for example, and 35 percent for women aged 35 to 39.
 But in not so good news, it seems that there may be a link between IVF treatment and increased risk of dangerous melanoma.  

Thursday, December 05, 2013

The not-so-noble Old West

It Didn’t Save Wild Bill

I can't find much of interest to post today, so try this:

While researching my second Western Mystery for kids, P.K. Pinkerton and the Petrified Man (AKA The Case of the Good-looking Corpse), I discovered a fascinating fact: very few gunfights played out like the iconic Western movie “showdown”. Two antagonists rarely faced each other like self-moderating duelists on Main Street, one honorably waiting for the other to “draw”. More often one man would “throw down” on another without warning, sometimes even shooting from behind through a window or door.

One night in 1876 in a Deadwood saloon, a famous gunfighter with silky golden locks was shot in the back of the head while playing poker. The shooter, a certain Jack McCall, fled. Hurdy girls screamed and other gamblers recoiled in horror. Wild Bill Hickok, already a legend in his own time, was dead. The reputed inventor of the “fast draw”, Hickok usually took a seat in a corner of a saloon or against wall, so nobody could sneak up on him. But on that fatal  night he sat with his back exposed. Perhaps he was feeling tired of life. He was an alcoholic who rubbed mercury on his skin to alleviate the symptoms of venereal disease. This poisonous treatment made him drool and start to lose his sight. According to Deadwood author Pete Dexter, it often took him twenty minutes to empty his bladder.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Opportunistic conservatives

Hobby Lobby and corporate personhood: The alarming conservative crusade to declare everything—except people—a legal “person.” 

A good article criticising the blatantly opportunistic and unreasonable push by Conservatives in the US to expand enforcement of their views by declaring things to be "persons".   This used to be a Lefty tactic to try to help environmentalism, but now the silly Right is trying to grab onto it.

As used by UFO's

BBC News - RF Safe-Stop shuts down car engines with radio pulse

Well, this is interesting.   There is a subset of UFO cases in which drivers claimed their car was stopped.

I am sure I have read of tests of what it would take to do this in terms of electromagnetisms, and it turned out to be very difficult to reproduce.  But then again, this was many years ago, when cars were far less reliant on electronics than they are now. 

Now, it can be done.   UFO implications are unclear.

An odd series of thoughts

Today I was thinking about the slightly silly suggestion that Amazon would soon have a swarm of robot drones zipping about some city delivering stuff to customers, and the first thing that came to mind was - why Amazon?   Don't they sell mostly books, and they're going increasingly digital?   In fact, I thought, in 100 years time, all human needs will be covered by digital delivery, with the possible exception of food and water.  [But even then, perhaps people will buy a lifetime supply of several tonnes of powdered protein and nutrients and have their 3D food printer arrange it into something different and tasty every night.   As for clothes, it will be so hot that everyone will be a nudist, but even if needed for a special occasion, the 3D printer can probably deal with that too.   Perhaps using some of the starches that can be used for food.  My semi-dystopian nude future is efficient, solar powered, and waste free.]  

As for human companionship, well, half of that is already over the internet, it seems, and it's a wonder there's not some groin clutching device available already that allows telepresence to deal with the baser instincts.  Some scientific team in Japan is probably already working on it as I write.

So, in my (already creepy) vision of digital isolation, what's left that flying drones would still need to carry?   Well, um, carrying on with the matter referred to in the last paragraph, they could play a role in reproduction.   Do I need to spell it out?   In fact, male "donations" can already be shipped directly to a person's home (check out this lesbian owned business's website) in the US, if not other countries; and the only innovation in my weird future is that it's delivered via a buzzing drone passing overhead.

 [In many respects, the present era of reproduction day is way, way stranger already than people imagined would ever be socially acceptable even when I was a child.   Exhibit 1:  Elton John and his partner having two kids and not knowing which is the father?  And this is covered in non judgemental fashion on the cover of celebrity magazines?   I'm having strange thoughts about airborne gametes here, making human society resemble coral spawning, but it's only a minor elevation of the oddity of the present day. ]

But going back to drones:  it's not a big stretch to imagine that frozen embryos might be delivered to your home this way in future.  [Where they can be raised in a RoboWomb with a clear plastic window that makes monitoring progress easy.   Spray on bacteria for when baby is decanted will be important, though.]

Isn't this a great explanation for the myth that babies are delivered by storks?:  it's a premonition of the future!

End transmission.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Slate praises Aldi

Aldi grocery store: best in America, related to Trader Joe’s.

Amusing to read someone in Slate praising Aldi stores.

I like them too.  I think it's the surprise element of what weird item they'll be selling on the centre tables this week that keeps me coming back.  (As well as the European products.)

More odd biology

BBC News - 'Memories' pass between generations

Experiments showed that a traumatic event could affect the DNA in sperm and alter the brains and behaviour of subsequent generations. 

A Nature Neuroscience study shows mice trained to avoid a smell passed their aversion on to their "grandchildren".

Experts said the results were important for phobia and anxiety research.

The animals were trained to fear a smell similar to cherry blossom.  The team at the Emory University School of Medicine, in the US, then looked at what was happening inside the sperm. 

They showed a section of DNA responsible for sensitivity to the cherry blossom scent was made more active in the mice's sperm.

Both the mice's offspring, and their offspring, were "extremely sensitive" to cherry blossom and would avoid the scent, despite never having experiencing it in their lives. 

Changes in brain structure were also found. 

"The experiences of a parent, even before conceiving, markedly influence both structure and function in the nervous system of subsequent generations," the report concluded.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Tony lies

Tony Abbott defends Gonski reversal, saying election pledge was misheard

Let's be clear here - Tony Abbott and Christopher Pyne are breaking pre-election commitments regarding honouring the Gonski funding deals Labor negotiated with the States.   Where Tony Abbott is now lying is in his attempt to deny that the pre-election commitment was what it was.

Katherine Murphy in The Guardian does not go quite to the "l" word, although I don't see why she doesn't:
If you promised to match school funding dollar for dollar over the next four years – if you promised that every single school in Australia gets the same deal whether there is a Labor government or a Coalition government after 7 September – then that's what you promised.

You cannot subsequently put it down to some well-meaning person's hallucination, a mass delusion, as Abbott suggested on the Bolt Report on Sunday. "But Andrew, we are going to keep our promise. We are going to keep the promise that we actually made, not the promise that some people thought that we made or the promise that some people might have liked us to make. We're going to keep the promise that we actually made."
 But, of course, no one should be surprised by this.   As Bernard Keane wrote back in 2010, Abbott is simply very prone, even by the low standards we expect of politicians,  to resort to dishonesty when he is put under pressure (as well as being a policy flake who will "say anything" to get elected):
The other issue is that there is long-term context to Abbott’s remarks. In my follow-up piece today, I refer to John Howard’s remarkable capacity to backflip on beliefs he’d held for decades, but still be perceived by voters as a bloke who stood for what he believed in. I was going to include Abbott in that, as one who had learnt well from his mentor. But the difference is that while most of Howard’s back flips took place over a period of years, Abbott’s take place over weeks, as if by being younger and subject to an ever-faster media cycle, Abbott had accelerated the process. While he took several years to change his mind on parental leave, his reversal from dogged advocate of the Malcolm Turnbull ETS strategy to die-hard opponent happened over a matter of months, and his no-new-taxes promise barely last a few weeks.

But Abbott also has long-term form in struggling with the truth in interviews. In 1998, he — commendably — undertook a personal mission to destroy One Nation, partly by funding a disgruntled member, Terry Sharples, in legal action. Trouble was, he later denied to the ABC ever funding Sharples — a blatant lie he was sprung on in 2003. Then there was his curious denial of meeting George Pell during the 2004 election campaign, until Tony Jones jogged his memory and Abbott suddenly recalled that he’d met him the previous week.

Other Abbott credibility gaps haven’t been his fault — such as when his “rolled gold” Medicare safety net election promise was overruled by Cabinet (which would appear to disprove the idea that scripted remarks will always be honoured).

But the impression remains: when put on the spot by the media, Abbott makes stuff up to get himself out of trouble. Stuff that eventually gets found out.
 I will make my bet now:   history will judge Abbott poorly because of this.   What he could get away with as a Minister doing the dirty work of another leader is not going to extend to his time as the actual Prime Minister.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Tape still important

Monitor: Magnetic tape to the rescue | The Economist

I was surprised to learn of the importance still of magnetic tape for large scale data storage.  This article explains why, although there are quite a few objections to certain claims in the comments that follow. 

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Paying in more ways than one

I see this evening that the French National Assembly (led by the Socialist Party) has "endorsed" a law to deal with prostitution by fining the customer, not the prostitute.  This apparently goes to a proper vote soon.

This is a curious and vexed area of public policy if ever there was one, and the idea of discouraging prostitution by fining the customer was first tried in Sweden.   It's odd, I suppose, how it's these two  "traditionally" sexually relaxed countries who are following this method of discouraging commercial sex.

This background article from the BCC notes that there is a fair amount of opposition in France on the grounds of sexual privacy:
The row has thrown into relief one of the intellectual faultlines in modern-day France, where there is a rumbling "fronde" or insurrection against the "politically correct".

Opponents see the signatories as right-wing reactionaries, malevolently usurping the cry of Liberty in order to defend their macho privileges.

But for the Salauds, the fight is against a nannyish and intolerant ruling class that has turned the feminist slogans of 40 years ago into a moralistic crusade.

"Today the left - which is supposed to be the cutting edge of progressivism - is dominated by an irrepressible urge to control and prohibit," wrote Causeur's editor Elisabeth Levy.
But the government can argue that it not about morality, but about the exploitation of women:
According to the French interior ministry, foreign prostitutes make up 80-90% of all sex workers in the country and most of those are the victims of trafficking rings.
And certainly, particular in Europe, legalising prostitution can draw extraordinarily large numbers of prostitutes to a country:
France's proposed crackdown contrasts sharply with the situation in Germany, where the stigma has been removed from prostitution.

As a result, there are now some 400,000 prostitutes in Germany, or 10 times the estimated number in France.

Sweden cracked down on clients with a similar law in 1999, since when street prostitution has reportedly fallen sharply in its largest cities. However, street prostitution in neighbouring Norway and Denmark increased.

The Netherlands legalised prostitution in 2000 but campaigners say the measure played into the hands of criminals and human traffickers.
 The Netherlands only legalised it in 2000?  Yes that appears right, but the government there has started cracking down on the industry as well, again with the main concern seeming to be the criminal organisations that bring women in for this role.

So a large part of the problem in Europe is not from the "home grown"prostitution (which is, I assume, mostly what you get in countries like Australia and America, and is probably always self limiting in the number of women who take up that "profession") but the exploitation of women from other, poorer, countries.

In those circumstances, I think a more aggressive approach to limiting it is the right thing to do, and the approach of making it potentially a very expensive thing for a man to do seems an effective way to discourage women to try it.  In Sweden:
But while a recent government-commissioned evaluation concluded the move had resulted in a 50% drop in the number of women working as prostitutes, the picture is by no means as simple as the figures would suggest.
A bit better result than in Germany, where The Economist notes:
Prostitution seems to have declined in Sweden (unless it has merely gone deep underground), whereas Germany has turned into a giant brothel and even a destination for European sex tourism. The best guess is that Germany has about 400,000 prostitutes catering to 1m men a day. Mocking the spirit of the 2001 law, exactly 44 of them, including four men, have registered for welfare benefits.

The details vary regionally, because the federal states and municipalities decide where and how brothels may operate. (Berlin is the only city without zoning restrictions.) In some places, streetwalkers line up along motorways with open-air booths nearby for quickies. In others, such as Saarbrücken, near the border with a stricter country like France, entrepreneurs are investing in mega-brothels that cater to cross-border demand.
The article says that there probably will be legal changes soon in Germany, but the politics are very odd:
 ... whereas progressive Swedes view their state as able to set positive goals, Germans (the Greens, especially) mistrust the state on questions of personal morality as a hypocritical and authoritarian threat to self-expression. Only this can explain why Swedes continue overwhelmingly to support their policy, and Germans theirs.
 So the Greens in Germany want to ensure prostitution remains legal and unfettered?  Not sure if that is how the Greens in Australia would think, but who knows.

Anyhow, I am not sure of the answers, but I do blame customers more than women for creating the industry, so my sympathies lie towards the Swedish/French approach.

Update:   The Guardian has an article about some disenchantment in Germany with its overly liberal approach to prostitution:
The tide seems to be turning when it comes to German public opinion as well. Last month the veteran feminist Alice Schwarzer published a book entitled Prostitution: A German Scandal. Emma, the feminist magazine started by Schwarzer in 1977, has also published a petition against the current law, signed by 90 celebrities from both the right and the left of the political spectrum.

They argue that Germany's experiment with liberalising prostitution has failed spectacularly, turning the country into "the bordello of Europe", with more and more brothels popping up near the border. The 2002 law was trying to make sex work a job like any other. But currently only 44 sex workers in Germany are registered with the national insurance scheme. Social workers say that most prostitutes cannot afford the luxury of putting aside money for a health insurance policy.

Schwarzer and her supporters have championed the legal situation in Sweden, where it is illegal to buy sexual services but not to sell them. She likens current attitudes to prostitution in Germany to those towards paedophilia in the 1970s: a wilful blindness towards an apparent injustice. "Prostitution, like paedophilia, is characterised not by equality, but drastic power imbalances," she recently wrote in Die Zeit.

Schwarzer is not without her critics. At the launch of her book last week, she was harangued by a group of pro-prostitution campaigners....

She accused Schwarzer of spreading ignorance and churning out misleading figures. Criminalising the clients of sex workers, as it is done in Sweden, she says, would only cement their victim status. "We are not victims, we are adventurous sex goddesses!" she said.

If only 44 sex workers are registered for the public health scheme, she argued, it is because 10 years of the new law haven't been enough to remove social stigma. Most sex workers lead a double life where they do more than one job, and even if they work full-time, they are more likely to register as a "performance artist".

Friday, November 29, 2013

Much uncertainty, but none of it good

Continued global warming after CO2 emissions stoppage : Nature Climate Change 

The depressing course of the recent meeting hoping to get some sort of international co-operation going on climate change seems to have led to less commentary on climate science blogs about the actual science.

This paper seems significant if you are looking on the long term scale, even if it is rather academic (in the sense that CO2 emissions are not going to stop any time soon):
 Recent studies have suggested that global mean surface temperature would remain approximately constant on multi-century timescales after CO2 emissions1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 are stopped. Here we use Earth system model simulations of such a stoppage to demonstrate that in some models, surface temperature may actually increase on multi-century timescales after an initial century-long decrease. This occurs in spite of a decline in radiative forcing that exceeds the decline in ocean heat uptake—a circumstance that would otherwise be expected to lead to a decline in global temperature. The reason is that the warming effect of decreasing ocean heat uptake together with feedback effects arising in response to the geographic structure of ocean heat uptake10, 11, 12 overcompensates the cooling effect of decreasing atmospheric CO2 on multi-century timescales. Our study also reveals that equilibrium climate sensitivity estimates based on a widely used method of regressing the Earth’s energy imbalance against surface temperature change13, 14 are biased. Uncertainty in the magnitude of the feedback effects associated with the magnitude and geographic distribution of ocean heat uptake therefore contributes substantially to the uncertainty in allowable carbon emissions for a given multi-century warming target.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Biology is getting weird

Study shows moms may pass effects of stress to offspring via vaginal bacteria and placenta

I had a post up recently about how vaginal birth set up babies for the gut bacteria they need.  This study suggests that the bacteria affects the brain development as well. 

I presume someone has looked at the issue of increased rates of caesarian birth in Western countries and the rise in autism or other brain development conditions?

Unhappiness continues

About the only thing The Australian is good for these days is the occasional bit of insider gossip from Niki Savva about unhappiness within the Liberals about how Peta Credlin is running the PM's office:
Previously, my criticisms of the PMO have been rebutted by some as a vendetta against Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Piffle. My interest is in sound government, especially after the debacles of the past few years.

Journalists or commentators acting as cheer squads for the Left or the Right help no one, least of all the participants, who then delude themselves that everything is going swimmingly, or that eventually, perhaps by osmosis, it will all come good.

The point I have made consistently is that no one person, no matter how talented, is capable of making all the decisions in a prime minister's office in a timely and judicious manner. They especially will be guaranteed to get them wrong if they make them in an echo chamber.

Unhappiness simmers inside the government, particularly over what ministers regard as the exercise of extreme micro-management. Backbenchers have had electorate staff vetoed and senior ministers have been denied the right to make their most critical appointment, that of their chief of staff.

Eric Abetz, the Employment Minister and leader of the government in the Senate, alluded to the problem in Senate estimates hearings last week. Abetz's friends, meanwhile, sense a wider strategy afoot to replace him as leader with the Attorney-General, George Brandis.
There is a sense generally that this government doesn't really know what to do.  And let's face it, apart from getting rid of carbon pricing and the mining tax, the rest of Abbott's election policy was pretty much to run other Labor policies.  

The similarities with what happened with Rudd in 2007 seem pretty striking, right down to quick unhappiness with how the PM let's his office be run.   As monty said elsewhere last night:
He’s actually acting a fair bit like Rudd. He’s spent years trying to beat his implacable enemy, but now that he’s installed behind the big desk, he doesn’t know what to do. Rudd didn’t have a policy platform to speak of after dethroning Gillard, and Abbott doesn’t seem to have any ideas either. Rudd spent too much time on media management whereas Abbott doesn’t spend enough time on it, but these are two sides of the same problem: a lack of substance, a lack of long term strategic and policy thinking.
Quite right...
Previously, my criticisms of the PMO have been rebutted by some as a vendetta against Abbott's chief of staff, Peta Credlin. Piffle. My interest is in sound government, especially after the debacles of the past few years.
Journalists or commentators acting as cheer squads for the Left or the Right help no one, least of all the participants, who then delude themselves that everything is going swimmingly, or that eventually, perhaps by osmosis, it will all come good.
The point I have made consistently is that no one person, no matter how talented, is capable of making all the decisions in a prime minister's office in a timely and judicious manner. They especially will be guaranteed to get them wrong if they make them in an echo chamber.
Unhappiness simmers inside the government, particularly over what ministers regard as the exercise of extreme micro-management. Backbenchers have had electorate staff vetoed and senior ministers have been denied the right to make their most critical appointment, that of their chief of staff.
Eric Abetz, the Employment Minister and leader of the government in the Senate, alluded to the problem in Senate estimates hearings last week. Abetz's friends, meanwhile, sense a wider strategy afoot to replace him as leader with the Attorney-General, George Brandis.
- See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/echo-chamber-needs-fresh-air/story-fnahw9xv-1226769963862#sthash.lNpvOzXH.dpuf

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On Mexican religion

BBC News - The country where exorcisms are on the rise

An interesting article about how the Mexican Catholic Church is doing many more exorcisms, pretty much as a response to the incredible violence from the drug wars.

Then there is this:
In Bautista's view, the rising demand for exorcism is partly explained by the large numbers of Mexicans joining the cult of Saint Death, or Santa Muerte.

It is estimated that the cult, whose followers worship a skull in a wedding dress carrying a scythe, has some eight million followers in Mexico - and more among Mexican migrants in Central America, the US and Canada.

"It has also been adopted by the drug traffickers who ask her for help to avoid arrest and to make money," Bautista says. "In exchange they offer human sacrifices. And this has increased the violence in Mexico."

Another reason for the surge in exorcisms, he argues, is the decriminalisation of abortions in Mexico City, in 2007. Both the cult and abortion have given evil spirits a foothold in the country, he insists.

"Both things are closely related. There is an infestation of demons in Mexico because we have opened our doors to Death."
This would seem to be a photo of "Saint Death":

 Man stands by statue of Santa Muerte in front of cathedral

 I wonder if people put this image in their homes?

And about time, too

Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis vs libertarian economics.

One of the creepiest combinations on the right of US politics is the mix of Catholic conservatism on social issues with libertarianism on economic issues.   The US Bishops have not exactly been on board with the latter, but have been so keen to have the support of conservative Republican Catholics on matters such as abortion and (for goodness sake) the contraceptive mandate, they don't want to be seen to be too aggressively critical of their perceived allies on matters of economics and social justice.   If it weren't for this dynamic, there should have been sermons across the land condemning Ayn Rand when Paul Ryan's admiration for her was being discussed in the media.

Anyhow, it seems that at last we have a Pope prepared to do some straight talking on this issue, and it'll fun to watch how the American Right spins this:
....some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system.

 While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few. This imbalance is the result of ideologies which defend the absolute autonomy of the marketplace and financial speculation. Consequently, they reject the right of states, charged with vigilance for the common good, to exercise any form of control. A new tyranny is thus born, invisible and often virtual, which unilaterally and relentlessly imposes its own laws and rules.

In this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which become the only rule.

A financial reform open to such ethical considerations would require a vigorous change of approach on the part of political leaders. I urge them to face this challenge with determination and an eye to the future, while not ignoring, of course, the specifics of each case. Money must serve, not rule! The Pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor.