Thursday, January 31, 2013

David Byrne admiration post (again)

I see that David Byrne was in Australia a couple of weeks ago for a few shows with St Vincent, a nice young woman with whom he did his most recent musical collaboration.  They didn't come to Brisbane, and I didn't care too much for a couple of the songs I briefly heard on the 'net, but I see they still got good reviews.  Actually, as long as he throws a few Talking Heads songs into any show, I think he will always get admiring reviews:  there just seems to be an enormous well of public affection towards that back catalogue from everyone in the age range of 25 to 65.  (With good reason, I might add.)

But the main reason for the post is to link to the great series of posts he has put up on his journal following his visit.

I've recommended this before:  he is a great writer with eclectic interests, and whether he's covering his visit to MONA in Hobart, watching Spanish experimental theatre doing Verdi at the Sydney Opera House, eating a Moreton Bay bug and (in particular) his long account of the eccentric interests of  Percy Grainger, he is always a great pleasure to read.  

I think I read he is 60 now, but that charisma and strong voice is still there.   I shouldn't be embarrassed about finding him so appealing - just read the comments after nearly any Youtube video and you can tell how much people like him.   

So, to end my annual renewal of devotion to Mr Byrne, a couple of videos.   First, a video of one of the songs he did with St Vincent which I only found tonight and don't mind at all.  It shows him making the odd moves which people like (even though black and white makes him look older):

And secondly, just a short interview where he talks a bit about Talking Heads and how he views collaboration:

And finally - no, seriously, this time - his book published last year "How Music Works" sounds interesting and had some enthusiastic reviews too.

So much for self defence and guns

I haven't looked at the links provided, but I expect this is quite right:
IWF's Gayle Trotter testified at today's Senate hearing on gun safety, and unsurprisingly claimed that guns make women safer. She apparently seems to believe most violence against women resembles Buffy the Vampire Slayer facing down a gang of vampires: 
“Guns make women safer,” Trotter argued, because they eliminate the advantage violent criminals might have in size and strength. “Using a firearm with a magazine holding more than 10 rounds of ammunition, a woman would have a fighting chance even against multiple attackers.”
The conservative claim, made by Trotter, that guns are an "equalizer" is about as serious a misrepresentation as you can muster when it comes to violence against women. Most violence against women is perpetrated by men the victim knows in situations that are intimate or social, where guns aren't usually out. If someone during a domestic violence incident scrambles for the gun, it's rarely going to be the person who doesn't want this situation to get more violent....
The fact of the matter is that more guns put women in danger. The Harvard Injury Control Research Center has found that states with more guns have more female violent deaths. Their research also found that batterers who owned guns liked to use them to scare and control their victims, and would often use the gun to threaten the victim, threaten her pets or loved ones, clean them menacingly during arguments, or even fire them to scare her. The Violence Policy Center's research showed that in 1998, the year they studied, 83 women were killed by an intimate partner for every woman who used a gun in self-defense. Futures Without Violence compiled the statistics and found that guns generally make domestic violence worse, both by increasing the likelihood of murder and also by creating situations where abuse is more violent, controlling, and traumatic.
People convicted of domestic violence aren't allowed to buy guns, a sensible reaction to the realities of domestic violence and guns. Unfortunately, the private sale loophole makes it easy enough for a man who wants to stalk or control a woman to get the weapon to do so. If Trotter were truly concerned about preventing violence against women, she would be demanding an immediate closure of this loophole that allows batterers to avoid background checks when trying to buy guns. But she's too busy imagining that women might have to fend off the zombie apocalypse to worry about the real dangers that ordinary women face in this country every day. 

As seen on Baden-Powell's bookshelf

This refers back to a 2004 Christopher Hitchens article on the "mildly Fascist" Baden-Powell.  If I had read it before, I had forgotten this bit:
If Baden-Powell had had his way, the Boy Scouts might have formed close ties with the Hitler Youth. In 1937, he told the Scouts' international commissioner that the Nazis were "most anxious that the Scouts should come into closer touch with the youth movement in Germany." Baden-Powell met with the German ambassador in London and was invited to meet the F├╝hrer himself, though the war prevented him from visiting the Third Reich. But he continued to admire Hitler's values, writing in a 1939 diary entry that Mein Kampf was "a wonderful book, with good ideas on education, health, propaganda, organisation etc."

As Hitchens reports, Baden-Powell also seemed to tacitly approve of the Nazi attitude toward homosexuality. When the head of his international bureau told him that a German scout leader had been sent to a concentration camp, Baden-Powell dismissed it by saying the scoutmaster had been taken away for "homosexual tendencies."
I know that the scout movement still contains some learning about their founder's life and good deeds.  They seem to skip over what was on his bookshelf, though.

A sudden bit of optimism

How Obama will deliver his climate promise - environment - 30 January 2013 - New Scientist

BARACK OBAMA is certainly talking the talk on climate change - promising to put the fight against global warming at the heart of his second term. What's more surprising is that the US - historically, the world's biggest emitter - actually seems to be walking the walk. It is on track to meet Obama's 2009 pledge to cut US emissions by 17 per cent, from 2005 levels, by 2020. The target could even be exceeded, which may give a boost to the long-stalled international climate talks.

Right wing commentary run amuck

Sinclair Davidson seems to have written a piece for the Conversation about the announcement of the Federal election date in a hurry and with nothing of importance to say.

The silliest thing it contains is this:
The date of the election is known, but the government is not in caretaker mode. Given the expectation that the government will lose the coming election, should it be in caretaker mode? Reasonable people can disagree on this point. After all, having the government in caretaker mode for eight months is a bit too long.
No, reasonable people cannot disagree on this point:  no one can credibly even attempt to argue that knowing an election date in advance (as in Parliaments with a fixed term) is relevant to "caretaker mode"; nor has bad polling  8 months from an election ever been suggested before as a reason for a government to stop governing.

Another thing I want to note is this:   I used to get really annoyed with Tim Dunlop when he was a paid blogger for News Ltd putting on the "voice of reason" approach in that forum, and then sneaking off to his own personal blog to make snarky, nasty and personal attacks on John Howard.

Sinclair Davidson is exactly the same on the Right side.   For the Conversation, the voice is Mr Reasonable.  Or when he turns up on Andrew Bolt's show to warn of "stagflation" more than a year ago.   (No sign of that yet, by the way.)  But at the blog he runs, particularly in comments threads, it's the abusive, over the top, voice
There is no role for “civility” in a free speech debate. Those who would steal our birthright are scum who deserve all the contempt they have earned. There can be no surrender, no compromise, and no meeting of minds.
Or in the gun control issue:
 Gab – don’t be nice about it. Steve and his ilk are happy to have children murdered to make political points about gun ownership.
And of course, he lets the blog threads run that way too.  Where else on the Right side of politics can we find such witticisms such as suggesting that the way to "deal with" Leigh Sales is to "kick her in the s__ts?"   Or people can tell hilarious [/sarc] jokes about the PM sleeping with her dog.  And Michelle Obama - she's so ug-ly (a theme repeated at various times by nice old conservative Catholics CL, nilk and the most annoying commentator in the world Mk50.)  I see that only today there's yet another reference to Obama as the "Magic Negro"; and who can forget Steve Kates, an economist with an absolute obsession with (what he says is) everyone else in the world not understanding Say's Law (and Keynesian economics being the root of all evil), blaming the Romney loss on "damaged women"?   (OK, that link is to his Quadrant article where the term appeared, but I'm pretty sure he linked to it from Catallaxy.)

Bizarrely, conservative Catholicism gets special protection from Davidson, and in fact the blog seems to be a special haven for them; absolutely rabid sweeping generalisations about Muslims on the other hand - well, they're OK.

I've noticed the blog - train wreck that it is - has been attracting more women commenters lately.  And, of course, Judith Sloan contributes posts, often blithely dismissive of things like climate change and matters in which I have my doubts she has any particular expertise.  (Yes, it's the branch of the right that most resembles the Tea Party.)    Ever a comment from her about how the threads deal with women on the Left of politics?  Not that I've ever seen.   Same with Quadrant writer (and conservative Catholic) Phillipa Martyr.  The threads were absolutely full of foul "slut calling" of Sandra Fluke last year; Rush Limbaugh was the voice of reason, according to them.

The only thing good about this is that it seems to me that Sinclair Davidson can't really have any friends or be influential on the Liberal Party, can he? given that he is so dismissive of them if they don't follow the line on matters he is over the top about, such as free speech.

But what is more annoying is the way that Andrew Bolt, Catallaxy and the opinion pages of The Australian have all become dominated by the same characters who cross reference each other continuously.  It's a mini version of what has gone on in the US with the right wing blogosphere and the Wall Street Journal (and Andrew Bolt's TV show counts as a mini Fox News too.)

What has happened to moderate and sensible right wing commentary in this country?  And why does a large part of the Right have to proudly display the same  (actually, worse) ugliness in discourse that those on the rabid left used to show under (say) John Howard?  

Just can't understand how it lost

National Review post-election summit: Conservatives descend on the magazine’s conference. - Slate Magazine

David Weigel opens his article on attending the National Review post-election "what went wrong?" summit with this:
Early on Friday evening hundreds of conservatives pack the room, stepping in and out of line depending on whether they’re thirsty or whether they’d rather talk to one of the available icons—Mark Steyn! Jonah Goldberg! Rich Lowry!

I get stuck between Steyn, a ring of his fans, and a bar, where I meet an Orlando dermatologist named Darrin. He’d volunteered for Mitt Romney’s campaign, “making calls from my office” when he wasn’t working or raising his kids, and he wasn’t surprised when Romney lost, because he doesn’t put any graft past Barack Obama. “I’m worried about a dictatorship,” he says—really, we have been talking for maybe three minutes before he lays this on me. “I mean, it happened in history. History repeats. Why couldn’t it? How about all the Muslim Brotherhood czars? He’s got like eight different guys in the administration who are members of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
When I start to sound skeptical, Darrin pulls out his iPhone and forwards me an infographic. It’s titled “Muslim Brotherhood Infiltrates Obama Administration,” and it shows six Muslims who work in the administration and “enjoy strong influence.” Another way of putting it: Six mid- and low-level staffers in the administration have, in the past, appeared on panels staged by frightening-sounding organizations. But the evidence worries Darrin. “If I have to go to a freakin’ island to save my kids,” he says. “I’ll do it. I’ll leave the country.”
But, to be fair, over at MediaMatters, Eric Boehlert notes that some voices at the conference did acknowledge that the Fox News led perpetual outrage machine of the last 3 years had been counterproductive.

Baby steps back towards reality, I guess.

Update:  on the third hand, the Salon commentary on the summit thinks that too many Republicans still think the problem was just with the messaging, not their ideas.

About that election date

So, last Sunday Tony Abbott had an event that everyone acknowledged as being exactly like an election campaign launch.  Everyone knows an election has to be held by November at the latest.

This week, Julia Gillard announces the election date, and she's the one some commentators are saying has started the election campaign?

This was certainly the line Chris Uhlmann took, with questions like these in last night's interview with Wayne Swan:
CHRIS UHLMANN: Why you have decided to run the longest election campaign in Australia political history?

CHRIS UHLMANN: Treasurer, this is now a campaign, no matter what you say.
I still say Uhlmann is not very bright and routinely gives soft interviews to Coalition figures and aggressive interviews to Labor figures.  His interview technique rarely adjusts questions much according to the responses.  

I cannot see what the drama is about announcing the election date.   Journalists and political commentators probably find it annoying because it cuts down by about a quarter the normal content of their annual writing in an election year.

It is disturbing that Rudd supporters within Labor are still backgrounding journalists like Uhlmann with their dissatisfaction with virtually anything Gillard done.  Uhlmann noted last night:
So is this a stroke of political genius, or in the words of one disgruntled Labor MP, an "unmitigated disaster of historic proportions".
There is no doubt at all that, in the event of a Labor loss, they will have to take a large amount of the credit.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Single Mums/Moms

What does Ross Douthat blame Roe v. Wade for today? The rise of single moms.

There's an interesting argument put here in Slate as to why there are more single mothers these days:

 The dynamics among abstinence, abortion, contraception, and the decline of marriage are complex, but here we’ll give the short version of an argument that we’ve made in various law-review articles and will continue to make in our forthcoming book, Family Classes. We think the big story of the past 40 years is the disappearance of the shotgun marriage. The shotgun marriage used to hide nonmarital pregnancies. It has disappeared not because of abortion, but because it didn’t work. The shotgun marriage kept couples together only when women had no ability to leave. The sexual brinkmanship of the 1950s (as teens discovered the car and lovers’ lanes) increased the number of brides pregnant at the altar to highs last seen in the 18th century and fueled the divorce revolution of the 1970s. Douthat is right that a young woman with a promising future preferred the security of the pill and abortion to early marriage to a man who happened to get her pregnant. He refers to a perceptive study by economists George Akerlof and Janet Yellen that observed that once women took charge of their own reproductive futures, men no longer had to “volunteer” to marry the women they had impregnated. The economists, however, were referring to the combined effect of abortion and the pill; a more recent study by economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz found that, between the two, contraception was a key development in the norm shift that began with college graduates. Douthat leaves that part out.

All of this, however, is so 1980s. In the era Akerlof and Yellen studied, men no longer had to propose to women who, after all, had the option of using contraception and had failed to do so. Something different is taking place today: The “Bristol effect” is that the women reject the men who do propose, and then they still have the child. They do so because marriage is no longer a good deal for women with more reliable incomes than the men in their lives. Blue-collar wages flatlined for white men in the ’90s (and did so a generation earlier for black men). During the same period, blue-collar jobs generally become much less stable. The men became less reliable earners at a time when women’s workforce opportunities continue to increase. And while wages alone do not determine marriage, the behavior that often accompanies the lack of a steady job is a turnoff. These trends had already begun in the ’80s for the worst-off portions of the population, but they accelerated for most of the working class in the ’90s.

So the issue is not whether we are going to use anti-abortion sentiment to bring back the scarlet letter. Certainly, not with Bristol celebrated on reality TV. Instead, the question is whether we are going to face up to the challenge of caring for the children who result and the pretense that abstinence can cure the problem.
In the Kansas heartland, the single moms we meet are in tears because the same politicians who oppose abortion are cutting health care and education funding, raising taxes on the poor to finance income tax cuts for the wealthy, and eviscerating protections that had helped keep single mothers employed. Let’s recognize that the celebration of the unintended birth comes with an obligation to care for all our children.
Certainly, the shotgun wedding has been around a long time, if some examples from my mother's family are anything to go by.  In fact, what went on in her rural, working class family in the 1930's and 40's dispels any idea that people held back from pre-marital sex at a time where contraception was extremely limited and - I presume -  abortion in country towns was not readily available.

The funny thing is, as far as I could see, the marriages that happened quickly due to pregnancy turned out to be long and pretty happy looking ones.   I don't really know why that should be - the economic arguments about stable jobs and income noted in the article above seems at first a bit improbable to me.  (It makes it sound like women are more into hard nosed calculations about what's best for them financially than I would have assumed.)  But then again, we are talking about marriages in the 40's and 50's to men with blue collar but long lasting and stable jobs, and limited opportunities for the women to make a good living.  (They also would have had to take much time off to raise children, as child care was not generally available like it is now.)   So, you could say, economics and limited options forced them into marriages.  That sounds unfortunate, except for the fact that they turned out to be happy enough,  long term marriages.  Arranged marriages are also often quite successful.  And there was that recent report about a study showing that people routinely underestimate how much they will change in the future.  

Of course, you can't credibly argue that women should go back to having less options, both economically and in terms of contraception.

But what about the attitude that children will likely be happiest - and have the best life outcomes  - when being raised with the stability of two parents who will be together for the long term?   Why does that have to get lost in the matter of more choice for adults?

And speaking of choices and consequences:  no one is going to put the genie back in the bottle of relatively reliable contraception encouraging fertile people into sexual relationships that are seen as convenient and experimental.  (In the sense that, at the start, people are not sure whether it would work long term.)  But the fact is, no contraception is 100% reliable, and if (unlike your grandparents) you cannot bear the idea of making a decision to live for the next 20 years with your bedroom partner if one of you falls pregnant, then you really should not be having the ongoing sexual relationship in the first place.  And besides which, stop panicking about how unhappy you might be if a partnering decision  is made in circumstances not entirely within your control.*

Well, that's how it seems to me anyway.    Kind of simple, really, yet I have a great deal of trouble seeing what's wrong with thinking that way.     

*  Of course, people will say I am taking no account of safe abortion as an option now in most Western countries.  The thing is, I am cynical about the number of not entirely committed relationships which actually survive an abortion decision.  I know that anti-abortion groups almost certainly exaggerate the psychological harm that abortion causes, but looking at some pro-choice pages, it seems most studies concentrate solely on how it affects women, and not so much on how it affects relationships in the long term.

This man does not deserve to be PM

Tony Abbott made a quasi campaign launch the other day.  It hasn't attracted that much attention both because of it coinciding with the Queensland floods, and the fact that he had no actual policies to announce.

I note, however, that he made this statement, indicating again his attempts at right wing ignorant populism which demonstrates he's just not a serious character when it comes to the serious matter of climate change:
We will have a cleaner environment. Isn’t it bizarre that this government thinks that somehow raising the price of electricity is going to clean up our environment, stop bushfires, stop floods, stop droughts? Just think of how much hotter it might have been the other day but for the carbon tax! We will bring in sensible measures to improve our environment. There will be more trees, better soils, smarter technology. There will be incentives, not penalties and there will be a Green Army marching to the rescue of our degraded bushland, our waterways under pressure. We will work with the Australian people, not against them.
This is childish and pandering to the Tea Party inspired rump of the Right in Australia.   As far as I can see, no economist of note thinks that the Liberal Party's policy, which is supposed to have the same goals in terms of emission reduction, is a more sensible way to do it than carbon pricing.  

Moreover, as this article notes, Abbott is proposing to have prominent climate change skeptics giving him advice. 

Abbott does not deserve the job of Opposition Leader or PM.  The Coalition does not deserve the job of running the country until it has purged itself of the element that is under the sway of the stupid wing of the American Right. 

Floods in the future

I've been muttering ever since the enormous floods in Australia in 2011 that I wasn't sure how well anyone could anticipate how much increased floods due to climate change could cause damage to the economies of countries so affected.

I've been poking around a bit and see that there certainly have been a lot of attempts to try to quantify this, but I guess I am just worried that predicting changed rainfall in regions is one of the less clear aspects giving current climate modelling, and while this may mean that current estimates may be overly pessimistic, they might also not be pessimistic enough.

I note this as an example of one estimate, from one IPCC page:
The impact of climate change on flood damages can be estimated from modelled changes in the recurrence interval of present-day 20- or 100-year floods, and estimates of the damages of present-day floods as determined from stage-discharge relations (between gauge height (stage) and volume of water per unit of time (discharge)), and detailed property data. With such a methodology, the average annual direct flood damage for three Australian drainage basins was projected to increase by a factor of four to ten under conditions of doubled atmospheric CO2 concentrations (Schreider et al., 2000). 
That does sound serious.   I know nothing more of the paper; I should go looking for it.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Would prefer robot ones myself...

Soldier who lost four limbs has double-arm transplant (Update)

This guy has had some bad luck, to put it mildly:
Marrocco expects to spend three to four months at Hopkins, then return to a military hospital to continue physical therapy, his father said. Before the operation, he had been living with his older brother in a handicapped-accessible home on New York's Staten Island built with the help of several charities. The home was heavily damaged by Superstorm Sandy last fall.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The weather report

Brisbane is having the cyclone you have when not having a cyclone.
It is currently very windy in the part of Brisbane where I live, which is not near the coast.   Funnily enough, on the evening news, all the reporters on the coast seemed to standing in calmer conditions.  

I hope it calms down in the suburbs soon...

Update:   It's gone 11.30pm and it's still a bit worryingly windy.   I see it's been gusting up to 90 kph earlier this evening, so its not just my imagination. Here are the BOM weather observations:

Update: Apart from a couple of leaks around windows which haven't happened before, everything was OK at home. Haven't even lost power.

As a child in the 60's and 70's, small-ish cyclones heading down the Queensland coast towards Brisbane were more common than these days, but my recollection is that they tended to peter out as a cyclone usually around the Sunshine Coast. Sure, they could turn into a rain depression, but I don't recall much in the way of wind in the suburbs. That's what made this ex cyclone unusual - the widespread wind across the city that started late yesterday and didn't end until late this morning.

The most remarkable video from this event which I saw on a News Ltd website this morning has turned up in several Youtube accounts. If you haven't seen "Surprise car", you ought to. (I think this happened up at the Sunshine Coast.)

As to how bad the flooding will get in Brisbane tomorrow - it seems all very much guesswork.  It seems that one small area near me might be affected again, but I am hoping the modelling is erring on the pessimistic side.  We will see.

Of course, there are parts of Queensland doing it much, much worse (especially Bundaberg, which appears to be facing an all time record flood.)

Interestingly, until this rainfall started in Brisbane, the city was having an exceptionally dry January.  Not sure how the figures will look now.  It did seem to be illustrating what a climate change paradigm of swings from one extreme to another might look like, and it's not pretty.   As I suggested after the 2011 flood, if climate change means one in a 100 year floods start happening (say) once a decade, it's going to be a change of big economic consequence.  

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Cheese with an unwanted extra

Poisoning toll rises, 100 foods recalled

So, there's been a major outbreak of listeria from soft cheeses made by the Jindi Cheese company:
 In NSW, a further three cases of the bacterial illness have been identified, bringing the national total to 21. A 34-year-old woman in NSW has miscarried and two men - an 84-year-old Victorian, and a 44-year-old Tasmanian - have died. Each of the new cases have been in people aged over 65, and one of them is in a serious condition.
What I didn't realise before this was how long it can be between eating the contaminated food and getting symptoms - it has a 70 day incubation period!   

I am curious on another point - when you open a soft cheese but forget to finish it for a couple of weeks, you can get some pretty powerful stinky growths on it.  I always worry a bit about how safe it is to eat it, or eat the bits around it the worst bits which I cut off.  I am trusting that it can't develop into anything too dangerous.  After all, Francis Lam at Salon did tell us a couple of years ago about some extraordinarily strong French cheese that seemed it was trying to kill him:
Fromage fort translates as “strong cheese,” and is a bit of a Frankenstein — a potted mash of old bits and pieces, the Parliament-funky rinds of leftover cheeses, and left to molder together for a bit. There’s usually some kind of booze in there for extra kick (and extra protection from bacteria). Whether it’s a food or a dare is largely up to interpretation. You can only imagine what earns the title of “strong cheese” in the homeland of stinky cheese.
Hmm.  Maybe I should try mushing up the old soft cheese with a bit of wine or brandy and see what that comes out like...

Absurd Apple

Apple trademarks "distinctive design" of stores

Friday, January 25, 2013

DNA trying to tell us something

Synthetic double-helix faithfully stores Shakespeare's sonnets 

This was a surprising story:
A team of scientists has produced a truly concise anthology of verse by encoding all 154 of Shakespeare’s sonnets in DNA. The researchers say that their technique could easily be scaled up to store all of the data in the world.

Along with the sonnets, the team encoded a 26-second audio clip from Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream" speech, a copy of James Watson and Francis Crick’s classic paper on the structure of DNA, a photo of the researchers' institute and a file that describes how the data were converted. The researchers report their results today on Nature’s website1.

The project, led by Nick Goldman of the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) at Hinxton, UK, marks another step towards using nucleic acids as a practical way of storing information — one that is more compact and durable than current media such as hard disks or magnetic tape.
Here's the  most amazing part:
DNA packs information into much less space than other media. For example, CERN, the European particle-physics lab near Geneva, currently stores around 90 petabytes of data on some 100 tape drives. Goldman’s method could fit all of those data into 41 grams of DNA.
 Lots more detail of how it is done is in the article.  As to its potential long term value:
Goldman adds that DNA storage should be apocalypse-proof. After a hypothetical global disaster, future generations might eventually find the stores and be able to read them. “They’d quickly notice that this isn’t DNA like anything they’ve seen,” says Goldman. “There are no repeats, and everything is the same length. It’s obviously not from a bacterium or a human. Maybe it’s worth investigating.”
I wonder if this means there might be a short to medium length message put there by my Creator for use at about this time in history.  "Don't buy Betamax" maybe*.
Has science fiction ever covered this?  The nearest I can think of is the ending of Carl Sagan's "Contact", where a message is found hidden inside of Pi.

*  A joke stolen from Good Omens.

Maybe built that way?

Chameleon pulsar baffles astronomers

An international team has made a tantalizing discovery about the way pulsars emit radiation. The emission of X-rays and radio waves by these pulsating neutron stars is able to change dramatically in seconds, simultaneously, in a way that cannot be explained with current theory. It suggests a quick change of the entire magnetosphere....

Pulsars are small spinning stars that are about the size of a city, around 20 km in diameter. They emit oppositely directed beams of radiation from their magnetic poles. Just like a lighthouse, as the star spins and the beam sweeps repeatedly past the Earth we see a brief flash.

Some pulsars produce radiation across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, including at X-ray and radio wavelengths. Despite being discovered more than 45 years ago the exact mechanism by which pulsars shine is still unknown.

It has been known for some time that some radio-emitting pulsars flip their behaviour between two (or even more) states, changing the pattern and intensity of their radio pulses. The moment of flip is both unpredictable and sudden. It is also known from satellite-borne telescopes that a handful of radio pulsars can also be detected at X-ray frequencies. However, the X-ray signal is so weak that nothing is known of its variability.

To find out if the X-rays could also flip the scientists studied a particular pulsar called PSR B0943+10, one of the first to be discovered. It has radio pulses which change in form and brightness every few hours with some of the changes happening within about a second.

Dr Ben Stappers from The University of Manchester's School of Physics and Astronomy said: "The behaviour of this pulsar is quite startling, it's as if it has two distinct personalities. As PSR B0943+10 is one of the few pulsars also known to emit X-rays, finding out how this higher energy radiation behaves as the radio changes could provide new insight into the nature of the emission process."...

Geoff Wright from the University of Sussex adds: "Our observations strongly suggest that a temporary "hotspot" appears close to the pulsar's magnetic pole which switches on and off with the change of state. But why a pulsar should undergo such dramatic and unpredictable changes is completely unknown."

Bat family life

Bats split on family living

An odd report here on how one species of bat has different family arrangements depending on where they live.  That seems unusual.

This part suggests that bat bachelors are unlike human ones:
"But it is also possible that the males choose not to roost with the females. When you look at the nursery colony in Ilkley, mothers and pups often have a lot of ectoparasites like ticks and mites. In a warm, crowded nursery, parasites can thrive, especially if there's less time for good personal hygiene. Parasites not only make life uncomfortable but can affect a bat's health. The males that live by themselves are usually very clean in their bachelor pads, so you can understand why they might not want to move in," he added.
I continue to be amazed at how black flying foxes in the colony I pass every day still hang around in the summer sun instead of going for shadier trees.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

When the American Right used to be sensible

7 uncovered quotes that reveal just how crazy the NRA’s become -

I like this one in particular:
“There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” said California Gov. Ronald Reagan in May 1967, after two dozen Black Panther Party members walked into the California Statehouse carrying rifles to protest a gun-control bill. Reagan said guns were “a ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will.”
 This article notes that Reagan then swung around to be very pro-gun rights in 1975 in "his column"  in Guns and Ammo magazine, but post presidency he swung again:
The Firearm Owners Protection Act of 1986 will be remembered as an important piece of legislation for gun rights. However, Reagan also cast his support behind the two most controversial pieces of gun control legislation of the past 30 years. His support of the Assault Weapons Ban in 1994 may have directly led to the ban winning the approval of Congress. Congress passed the ban by a vote of 216-214. In addition to Klug voting for the ban after Reagan’s last minute plea, Rep. Dick Swett, D-N.H., also credited Reagan’s support of the bill for helping him decide to cast a favorable vote.
Does the NRA blame Alzheimer's Disease for his later support of gun control, I wonder?  I see from this article that he was not formally diagnosed with it until 2004, even though many suspect he started to suffer from it during his second term.  (That linked article makes out a pretty convincing sounding case that he was, actually.) 

A spot of good news

With group effort, Japan suicides fall to 15-year low -

Of minor interest:
“As they keep blaming themselves for business failure, saying, ‘I’ve done wrong’ or ‘I’ve caused trouble to society,’ that totally impairs their judgment,” says Hisao Sato who started a suicide prevention program in 2002 in Akita city, some 720 miles north of Tokyo. The region is notorious for being home to the highest suicide rates.
I've been within 80 km or so of Akita quite a few times but never visited it.   I am told there is not much there, but it is such a lonely looking corner of the country I've always felt it would welcome my presence as an international tourist.  It is also close to a Marian apparition, complete with weeping statue.  (Mind you, we briefly had one of those in a Brisbane suburb a few years ago, and I went and had a look.  I think I have mentioned that before.)

A look at Hare Krishna

My years as a Hare Krishna

This is an interesting account of a woman who got into Hare Krishna but who has now moved away from it.  She's still sympathetic to the religion, though.

I note that she was obviously no stranger to recreational drug taking before she got into it.  I have a family member who is (last I heard) still in the religion, who came to it with some recreational drug experience (of a worrying degree, apparently.  I don't know the full details, though.)

I guess this is of no great surprise:  I tend to think anyone who tries anything more psychoactive than, say, marijuana, is showing signs of spiritual aimlessness which a strong communitarian religious practice like Hare Krishna is able to address.  (Gee, I still don't like using the word "spiritual".)  

Anyhow, one of the comments that follow the article is cruel, but funny:
I used to live over the back fence from a Hare Krisna house in Brisbane - 24 hour cycle chanting hare krisna, hare krisna, hare rama, rama rama etc. - so I got to know the words.
My take was it suited wimpy directionless people attracted to traditional conservative roles with an appearance of something special and different

Just when you thought nuclear holocaust had gone away...

Nuclear war accidents: Minutemen missiles in silos should be abolished. - Slate Magazine

Ros Rosenbaum argues that the risk of an accidental nuclear exchange is still high, particularly from the land based Minuteman missiles.   Computers are now a large part of the problem:

The silo-based missiles have been "detargeted," we've been told, but can easily be retargeted in seconds with a burst of code containing—say, Moscow's GPS coordinates. They've been detargeted but not de-alerted (something I called for back 2008 in Slate). They're still ready to go, at a moment's notice, vulnerable to hackers despite the claims by some security experts they're "air gapped from the internet"—but think USB sticks.

Nobody has yet explained the incident in late 2010 when 50 nuclear missiles in Wyoming stopped responding to the C3I system for a frightening period of time. The Pentagon hastened to say, hey, no problem, don’t worry that our computer system isn't capable of error-proof command and control of 50 nuclear missiles for just a little while. The episode was not confidence-inducing, and it reminded us how much world-destroying power is entrusted to glitch-prone computer architecture. The fact that this sensational story was virtually ignored is further evidence of head-in-the sand consciousness we have about nuclear power. 
When I discussed the matter of our "launch posture" with a Pentagon general who specialized in nuclear affairs, he refused to say whether these missiles could still be launched on the basis of "dual phenomenology." This obfuscatory euphemism means that once we receive signals from two electronic tracking systems—radar and satellite—that something on the screens looks like an attack, we'd face the "use it or lose it" choice. We'd have to "launch on warning" before we knew that the warnings were not "false positives" like the flock of geese. Fortunately, it's unlikely there could be two simultaneous false positives in our dual phenomenology, but a statistician's analysis has argued that eventually it would happen. One prominent statistics expert, Martin Hellman, one of the inventors of the "trap door" and "public key" methods of encryption for the Internet, calculated a 1-in-10 chance of a nuclear exchange in the next decade, and Scientific American put it at a not-so-reassuring 1-in-30 for the same period.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bad news from the Andes

Unprecedented glacier melting in the Andes blamed on climate change

While judging what's going on with glaciers in the Himalayas seems to be quite tricky, it has always seemed that the fate of South American glaciers has been clearer.  And it does have serious implications for water supply:
The Santa River valley in Peru will be most affected, as its hundreds of thousands of inhabitants heavily rely on glacier water for agriculture, domestic consumption, and hydropower. Large cities, such as La Paz in Bolivia, could also face shortages. "Glaciers provide about 15% of the La Paz water supply throughout the year, increasing to about 27% during the dry season," says Alvaro Soruco, a Bolivian researcher who took part in the study.
I should also mention that this is one reason I liked Quantum of Solace:  the writers seemed to be well aware of climate change causing problems in that part of the world, and hence the evil scheme to store desperately needed water underground kinda made sense.

An interesting list

What doctors won't do | Life and style | The Guardian

I don't know how came up with the idea for this, but it's interesting to read a list of medical things doctors would not do.

PSA testing gets a mention more than once...

The cold up there explained

Stratospheric Phenomenon Is Bringing Frigid Cold to U.S | Climate Central

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

People don't like The Bunker

King George Square designer wouldn't change a thing despite calls to bring back the grass  | The Courier-Mail

Obviously, it's not just me then.

I reckon the redesigned King George Square in the heart of Brisbane is a horrendous hot, glare-y and unwelcoming space which people scuttle across as soon as possible to avoid heat stroke, with lines that make it look like there's a bomb shelter beneath it.

Many people seem to agree.

In fact, I have long thought that Brisbane's general appearance took a turn for the worse under Campbell Newman as Lord Mayor.   I never liked his predecessor Jim Soorley at a personal level, but at least he seemed to have a team of urban designers who had decent ideas for the look of the city.  I think Newman  is a typical engineer;  all interested in efficiency and machines, but wouldn't recognize pleasing aesthetic design if it bit him.

More details needed

Spacecraft caused car crash, say pair

Here's a peculiar story from just outside of Brisbane that happened last weekend.  Surely if they were genuine, one of the guys involved is going to turn up on TV to explain more?:

TWO men who walked away from a car crash near Brisbane's Wivenhoe Dam claimed to be chasing an alien spacecraft when found by police.

Police and the driver's insurance company received several sketchy phone calls from the men, who appeared to be convinced paranormal activity caused the crash.

Police received the first call from the men at 2.25am on Friday, saying they had been in an accident at Split Yard Creek and asked for the RAAF to attend...

Police said the conversations with the men were vague and at times barely understandable.
The men began to ''freak out'', telling the insurance company they were about to disappear and referred to the area as the Bermuda Triangle, police said.

Police called the men back, with the second male answering the phone, telling police there were ''some really weird things going on'' and they had abandoned the car.

Police received another call from the men at 4am, claiming that ''something paranormal'' had occurred and ''big bright lights'' caused the car accident.

Police found the men at 4.10am at the intersection of Wivenhoe-Somerset and Hyne roads. They were armed with knives and appeared to be protecting themselves.

The men became aggressive, claiming ''there were more of them around''.
The car's driver was breathalysed. He was over the limit and given a notice to appear in court.
The drink driving offence doesn't necessarily mean much with our .05 limit.  Drunks rarely freak out that way anyway, I reckon.   I have a hunch there might have been more in their system than alcohol, but I would like to be wrong.

Sauerkraut, scurvy and Australia Day

Why sauerkraut is good for you | Life and style | The Guardian long as you choose the unpasteurised sort, sauerkraut is teeming with beneficial lactobacillus bacteria – more than is in live yoghurt – which increase the healthy flora in the intestinal tract.
But where does one get unpasteurised sauerkraut?  Surely the stuff in tins or jars doesn't count?

In fact, the article does point out:
Do not confuse sauerkraut with vinegary, pickled cabbage.
I am not sure now whether I have had proper sauerkraut or not.  The real stuff sounds as if it is easy to make at home:
Sauerkraut is made by lactic fermentation, an age-old technique now in vogue for its health benefits. The necessary bacteria and yeasts are naturally present on cabbage leaves. Apart from salt, which starts the process, no other ingredients are required. So avoid buying brands with added chemical preservatives.
This all reminds me;  I didn't know until the visit to the replica Endeavour in Sydney a couple of years ago that Captain Cook had sauerkraut on board to help ward off scurvy.  According to this detailed BBC history article, it's not clear how successful it was.

Scurvy sure doesn't sound pleasant to see:
Their symptoms were vividly described by Richard Walter, the chaplain who wrote up the official account of the voyage. Here were descriptions of its ghastly traces: skin black as ink, ulcers, difficult respiration, rictus of the limbs, teeth falling out and, perhaps most revolting of all, a strange plethora of gum tissue sprouting out of the mouth, which immediately rotted and lent the victim's breath an abominable odour.
 But there's more:
There were strange sensory and psychological effects too. Scurvy seems to have disarmed the sensory inhibitors that keep taste, smell and hearing under control and stop us from feeling too much. When sufferers got hold of the fruit they had been craving they swallowed it (said Walter) 'with emotions of the most voluptuous luxury'. The sound of a gunshot was enough to kill a man in the last stages of scurvy, while the smell of blossoms from the shore could cause him to cry out in agony. This susceptibility of the senses was accompanied by a disposition to cry at the slightest disappointment, and to yearn hopelessly and passionately for home.

Now we know that scurvy was a cocktail of vitamin deficiencies, mainly of C and B, sometimes compounded by an overdose of A from eating seals' livers. Altogether these produced a breakdown in the cellular structure of the body, evident in the putrescence of the flesh and bones of sufferers, together with night blindness and personality disorders associated with pellagra. In the 18th century no one knew what caused scurvy, whose symptoms were so various it was sometimes mistaken for asthma, leprosy, syphilis, dysentery and madness.
The article points out that, although it had been worked out that citrus juice prevented it, Cook believed it was malt that was keeping his men (relatively) healthy.   In fact, it doesn't mention Cook having citrus on board at all.   I thought he did?

Ah, here we go.  Another article about Cook and scurvy, pointing out that he took "rob":

But, the author tells us, there probably was enough useful vitamin C in the Sour Krout (amusingly, that's apparently the spelling at the time) to be an "anti-scorbutic."  Cook used psychology to get the crew to eat it:

It goes on to note that Cook knew that fresh vegetables of most kinds would cure it:

Despite this, some on the voyage did have trouble with the scurvy, including Banks himself:

Well, I think we've all learnt something tonight....

Update:  It's occurred to me that Australians underappreciate the importance of sauerkraut in the maritime exploration of Australia, so I have changed the title.   I suggest making sure some sauerkraut is available at the Australia day bar-b-q this weekend, and if anyone asks why, feel free to quote from this post in your best Robert Hughes imitation voice.

Monday, January 21, 2013

About comedians

Alan Davies interview: 'I'm like a fine wine. I'm maturing' | Media | The Guardian

Alan Davies makes an interesting comment in this interview:
During his career he has seen plenty of clowns who could also benefit from time on an analyst's couch: "There are two types of comedians, self-harmers and golfers. The second lot are out on the golf course, they love being famous, playing golf, having their Rolls-Royce and house in Barbados, with no guilt. For others there is a sense that you had to pay your dues – 'my life is shit'. Why not just play golf and enjoy it?"
I see he is aged 46.  I'm not sure if he seems that age or not.

The Right in the US has gone nuts - Part Whatever

Noonan: His Terms Are Always Hostile Ones -

Peggy Noonan, who I don't read all that often, but who has seemed at times to represent moderate Republicanism reasonably well,  has well and truly decided she's on side with the nutty Tea Party wing of the Republicans after all:
President Obama has been using the days and weeks leading up to his inauguration to show the depth of his disdain for the leaders of the other major party and, by inference, that party's voters, which is to say more or less half the country. He has been spending his time alienating instead of summoning. It has left the political air more sour and estranged. 

As a presidential style this is something strange and new. That has to be said again: It is new, and does not augur well. 

 What was remarkable about the president's news conference Monday is that he didn't seem to think he had to mask his partisan rancor or be large-spirited. He bristled with unashamed hostility for Republicans on the Hill.  They are holding the economy "ransom," they are using the threat of "crashing the American economy" as "leverage," some are "absolutist" while others are "consumed with partisan brinkmanship." They are holding "a gun at the head of the American people." And what is "motivating and propelling" them is not a desire for debt reduction, as they claim. They are "suspicious about government's commitment . . . to make sure that seniors have decent health care as they get older. They have suspicions about Social Security. They have suspicions about whether government should make sure that kids in poverty are getting enough to eat, or whether we should be spending money on medical research." 

And yet, "when I'm over here at the congressional picnic and folks are coming up and taking pictures with their family, I promise you, Michelle and I are very nice to them."

You're nice to them? To people who'd take food from the mouths of babes? 

Then, grimly: "But it doesn't prevent them from going onto the floor of the House and blasting me for being a big-spending socialist." Conservative media outlets "demonize" the president, he complained, and so Republican legislators fear standing near him.

If Richard Nixon talked like that, they'd have called him paranoid and self-pitying. Oh wait . . .
 I'm happy to allow that Obama is not, and never was, the Messiah.  He may have a big streak of vanity for all I know.

But  Noonan's shock and outrage that Obama is telling Republicans that he doesn't think they are acting in good faith and criticising their 4 years of over-the-topic hyperbole and crank theories - that is ridiculous in the extreme.   Republicans have been absurd in the way they have argued under Obama - everything is "socialism", "death panels" (you don't need links for those, surely), "treason", deserving impeachment; even when the ideas under discussion are ones that Republicans at the State level have implemented and only now being expanded to the Federal level (Romney and health care; the contraceptive mandate in many States, Republicans in the New York Senate on gun control.)  The hypocrisy and hyperbole of the Republicans over the last 4 years has been breathtaking.

And as for the President's recommendations on gun control - Noonan thinks they are OK, but still has to struggle to find a way to criticise him:
His gun-control recommendations themselves seemed, on balance, reasonable and moderate. I don't remember that the Second Amendment died when Bill Clinton banned assault rifles; it seemed to thrive, and good, too. That ban shouldn't have been allowed to expire in 2004.

What was offensive about the president's recommendations is what they excluded. He had nothing to say about America's culture of violence—its movies, TV shows and videogames. Excuse me, there will be a study of videogames; they are going to do "research" on whether seeing 10,000 heads explode on video screens every day might lead unstable young men to think about making heads explode. You'll need a real genius to figure that out.

The president at one point asked congressmen in traditionally gun-supporting districts to take a chance, do the right thing and support some limits. But when it comes to challenging Hollywood—where he traditionally gets support, and from which he has taken great amounts of money for past campaigns and no doubt will for future libraries—he doesn't seem to think he has to do the right thing. He doesn't even have to talk about it. It wouldn't be good to have Steven Spielberg or Quentin Tarantino running around shouting "First Amendment, slippery slope!" or have various powerful and admired actors worrying their brows, to the extent their brows can be worried.
What, pray tell, does Noonan think a President can do, exactly, about cinema violence?  (And putting Steven Spielberg in there as if his movies have been groundbreaking in the gratuitous gun violence stakes is ridiculous.   The trend was really started by Right wing Hollywood figures, if you ask me.)

Noonan's commentary has therefore officially become nuts.  The list of moderate Right wing commentary worth reading has become vanishingly small.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

A mild dose

I mentioned a couple of posts back that I was having an interesting viral infection.   It's shingles - the illness you can get years after you've had chickenpox, when the varicella-zoster virus comes out of its hiding place on your nerves and gives you a skin rash with possible complications.

I don't like the way certain viruses do that "never leave your system" trick.  Like most in my family, I'm unlucky enough to get cold sores too, so now I've got two herpes related viruses always hanging around waiting to re-emerge if feeling run down.  (In fact, now that I think of it, how come people like me don't always get a break out of cold sores at the same time that they get shingles - both are thought to be related to the immune system dipping a bit.)

My chickenpox experience was as an adult and was of average unpleasantness, I guess.  My Mum had an attack of shingles in her 50's and it bothered her quite a bit for a couple of months; I remember David Letterman had one a decade or more ago which kept him off TV for a while.  So I was generally aware of the illness.  (One website says about 1 in 5 adults in Australia will have an attack.)

On Monday last week I noticed an itch on my back.  It felt a bit unusual, and looking in the mirror it seemed to be in a smallish oval red patch just off the spine, but I thought the redness may have just have been from scratching.  It was still looking like a rash on Tuesday evening though, and after checking some photos on the internet of what a shingles rash could look like, I headed off the GP.

He seemed to very much doubt it was shingles, as it was only moderately itchy, and didn't have any pain or much in the way of "pins and needles" feeling.   Anyway, he took a swab and gave me a week long course of anti-viral tablets just to be safe.

Over the next day or two, I asked everyone at work about whether they had shingles, and whether they had much pain with it.  As with the doctor, everyone I spoke to had the attitude "I think you'd really know about it if it was shingles - it's pretty painful."  Yet I was continuing with just mild itchiness.

The GP rang a couple of nights later and said the test was positive for the virus - it was shingles; just a very mild case apparently.  So I'll continue my anti-virals for a couple more days and just hope that is as bad as it gets.   (The rash is now less distinct and less itchy, but still there.)

I've had a look around at stuff on the internet about shingles.  I see that there is a vaccine they can give now for those aged over 60, when the complications can be worse.   But the most interesting thing I read was this - about how it is not clear whether widespread childhood immunisation against chickenpox may actually lead to more cases of adult shingles.  (I'll add a couple of the earlier paragraphs which set the scene before the most interesting bit):
 The varicella-zoster virus (VZV) is so named because it causes two distinct illnesses: varicella (chickenpox), following primary infection, and herpes zoster (shingles), following reactivation of latent virus....
  Herpes zoster or shingles is a sporadic disease, caused by reactivation of latent VZV in sensory nerve ganglia. It is usually self-limiting and is characterised by severe pain with dermatomal distribution, sometimes followed by post-herpetic neuralgia which can be chronic and debilitating in the elderly.10,11 Although herpes zoster can occur at any age, most cases occur after the age of 50 with the incidence of complications also increasing with age.12 However, children infected in utero or those who acquire varicella before the age of 1 year, and patients on immunosuppressive drugs or infected with human immunodeficiency virus, are also at increased risk of herpes zoster.13–15 A new herpes zoster vaccine which is over 60% effective in reducing the burden of herpes zoster and post-herpetic neuralgia16 has been available on the private market in Australia since 2008. The zoster vaccine is formulated from the same VZV strain (Oka-derived) as the licensed varicella (chickenpox) vaccines but is of higher potency (at least 14 times greater).
  In 1952, Hope-Simpson proposed the hypothesis that exposure to varicella may boost immunity against herpes zoster.20 There is increasing evidence to support that hypothesis, with two observational studies showing lower rates of herpes zoster in groups who have been exposed to varicella.21,22 If exposure to wild varicella provides boosting and protection against activation of herpes zoster, universal infant varicella vaccination and the subsequent decline in wild varicella may result in an increase in herpes zoster incidence among those previously infected.23 Mathematical modelling has also suggested that widespread infant varicella vaccination might result in a significant increase in the incidence of herpes zoster, possibly over a 40-year period.23 An Australian study, performed to assess the potential impact of universal varicella vaccination based on this hypothesis, suggested that total morbidity due to varicella and herpes zoster in Australia would decrease for the first 7 years of a population program, but, for 8–51 years after vaccination commenced, total morbidity was predicted to be higher than pre-vaccination levels.24 However, this model assumed 90% vaccination coverage and 93% vaccine effectiveness. These predictions might not be correct, particularly given that overall vaccine coverage and effectiveness are now estimated to be less than that originally used in the model. Currently, surveillance data from the USA, where varicella immunisation has been recommended for over a decade, indicates a large reduction in varicella morbidity with no increase in zoster disease yet demonstrated.25
Chickenpox and shingles are therefore a little complicated.  If they go the way of smallpox, good for us.

Deep under [the] cover[s]

A load of Thunderballs: James Bond is fiction, not a police instruction manual | Jonathan Freedland | Comment is free | The Guardian

Well, I haven't paid much attention to this before:  there's a case running in the UK in which a group of women (and one man) are suing the police service for allowing undercover operatives to engage in sexual relationships with them.   As the opinion piece above notes, a judge has referred to what James Bond would be allowed to get up, much to the annoyance of some observers.

This line of work is (or should be, if you were raised right) an ethical minefield for those engaging in it.  At least, you might think, the relationships are over and done with in a relatively short time.

But that is what's really surprising:  some of these relationships gone on for a very long time -
Some may question how much the women involved really suffered: they were with a man long ago who was not what he claimed to be – OK, not nice, but move on. Such an attitude was hinted at in the remarks by a male activist who slept with an undercover policewoman in a tent at a "climate camp" and who told the Guardian he did not want to sue the police because the one-night stand was "nothing meaningful".

But for the others these were not one-night stands, they were relationships of long standing – six years in one case, five in another – that were enormously meaningful. Those involved tell of deep and genuine attachments, the men integrated into their lives as partners, living together, travelling together, attending family gatherings, sitting at a parent's bedside, even attending a funeral.

There are at least four children from these relationships, some of whom have only now, decades later, discovered who their father really was – and that they were born of a great act of deception.

The greatest pain seems to have come afterwards. Uncannily, most of the relationships all seem to have ended the same way: a sudden departure, a postcard from abroad, and then silence. Some women spent months or even years trying to work out what had gone wrong, travelling far in search of answers. Others found that their ability to trust had been shattered. If the man they had loved turned out to be an agent of the state, what else should they be suspicious of? Could they trust their colleagues, their friends? And the question that nags above all others: was it all a fake, did he not love me at all? One woman tells friends simply: "Five years of my life was built on a lie."

There was rightly an outcry about the News of the World's hacking of people's voicemail messages. But this was the hacking of people's lives, burrowing into the most intimate spaces of the heart in order to do a job, all authorised by the police. It is state-sanctioned emotional abuse.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

In defence of thimerosal

Mercury treaty debate: Should thimerosal be banned as a vaccine preservative? - Slate Magazine

A detailed and interesting explanation here as to why the mercury compound thimersol should be allowed to remain in vaccines.

Other forms of problematic mercury are not so harmless, however:
Estimating its global impact is difficult, but in some populations almost 2 percent of children are born with mental retardation caused by mercury poisoning.
This all reminds me:  the 1980 science fiction novel Timescape by Gregory Benford, which I only partially read since I don't care for Benford's inability to write likeable characters, starts with a near future "mercury hunt" in the sewers under some university town.  If I recall correctly, it was an extrapolation that mercury for scientific use was becoming in shorter supply and much more expensive, and hence these scavenging trips through drains and sewers would be viable in the future.  If I am remembering it right, that was one (amongst many) predictions in the book that failed to pass.   [If you want to guarantee a science fiction book with a short shelf life, set it about the near future and make lots of detailed predictions about what will go wrong.]

Your dose of intense nerdiness for today

TheVine - The Right Way to Watch Star Wars 

It's an amusing read for the intensity of Star Wars nerdiness on display.  

As it happens, I was thinking about the silliness of the midichlorians while in the shower last night:  turning an appealing mystical/spiritual force in the first films into something sounding like a virus infection.

And speaking of virus infections - I'm having an interesting one at the moment.  Worth a separate post...


Friday, January 18, 2013

Australia heat wave in detail

What's causing Australia's heat wave?

I haven't commented on all the publicity about the nation wide heatwave of a couple of weeks ago, as I was waiting on a bit more explanation of how they work it out from the Bureau of Meteorology.

Well, the article above does give more detail, and is well worth reading.

No matter how much the reality disconnected Right wing of politics complains, it looks clear that it was a very unusual event.  

Update:  how appropriate that I posted this on the morning that Sydney has (unexpectedly)  had its hottest day on record by .5 degree.  (45.8 - which is by any standard remarkably hot.)

Hobart broke its record by a full 1 degree on 4 January.

A normally temperate place like that breaking its record by a full degree is very remarkable, I reckon.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Inflatable space homes on the way

Space station to get $18 million balloon-like room (Update)

NASA is partnering with a commercial space company in a bid to replace the cumbersome "metal cans" that now serve as astronauts' homes in space with inflatable bounce-house-like habitats that can be deployed on the cheap.

A $17.8 million test project will send to the International Space Station an inflatable room that can be compressed into a 7-foot (2.1-meter) tube for delivery, officials said Wednesday in a news conference at North Las Vegas-based Bigelow Aerospace.

 If the module proves durable during two years at the space station, it could open the door to habitats on the moon and missions to Mars, NASA engineer Glen Miller said.
These will be rather useless as shelters from space radiation, though.

The odourless underarm gene

Deodorants: Do we really need them?

Well, I had always wondered why some people (like my father, actually) do not produce body odour no matter how sweaty a day they may have had.  I always assumed it was a quirk of the bacterial flora on the skin, but it appears that for some it is in the genes:
New research shows that more than 75 per cent of people with a particular version of a gene don't produce under-arm odour but use deodorant anyway. The study was based on a sample of 6,495 women who are part of the wider Children of the 90s study at the University of Bristol. The researchers found that about two per cent (117 out of 6,495) of mothers carry a rare version of a particular gene (ABCC11), which means they don't produce any under-arm odour....

Speaking about the novel finding, published today in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, the lead author Professor Ian Day said: 'An important finding of this study relates to those individuals who, according to their genotype, do not produce under-arm odour. One quarter of these individuals must consciously or subconsciously recognise that they do not produce odour and do not use deodorant, whereas most odour producers do use deodorant. However, three quarters of those who do not produce an odour regularly use deodorants; we believe that these people simply follow socio-cultural norms.  This contrasts with the situation in North East Asia, where most people do not need to use deodorant and they don't.' ...

The authors highlight that people who carry this rare genetic variant are also more likely to have dry (rather than sticky) ear wax and that checking ear wax is a good indicator of whether or not a person produces under-arm odour.

Previous studies have shown that there is a link between a genetic variant located in the ABCC11 gene and under-arm odour. Sweat glands produce sweat which, combined with bacteria, result in under-arm odour. The production of odour depends on the existence of an active ABCC11 gene. However, the ABCC11 gene is known to be inactive in some people.

Miller talks, a lot

Bryan Appleyard :  Jonathan Miller: Talking About Termites

Here's a cheery article by Bryan Appleyard about a recent interview with Jonathan Miller.   

Paranoia and the Republicans

From a column in the LA Times, a very accurate take on the nuttiness infecting large slabs of the Right in the US at the moment:
Although assault weapons have been banned in the past without a loss of liberty, and no regulation Obama is considering comes close to negating the right to keep and bear arms, one congressman from Texas said he would push impeachment of the president for trying to nullify the 2nd Amendment.
Tea party hero Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky equated Obama’s proposed administrative actions with the monarchy of King George III and pledged to fight the president “tooth and nail” as if 2013 were 1776.

Clearly, the debate about guns is not going to be a reasoned discussion about how to better regulate the hundreds of millions of guns in America and keep them out of the hands of criminals and crazy people. At least on the right, it will be an exercise in paranoia and fear-mongering.

Meanwhile, in the sane state of New York, Republican and Democratic legislators have joined together to pass new gun restrictions that will ban high-capacity magazines, strictly limit ownership of assault weapons and ban their sale online. They did it quickly in a bipartisan fashion and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the measure into law on Tuesday. So far, the Empire State shows no sign of turning into a Stalinist nightmare. Other than the significant exceptions of Illinois and Michigan, gun deaths are generally lower in states, such as California, that have strict guns laws. New York was on that list even before this newest law was passed.

Of the annual 30,000 gun deaths in the U.S., only 200 are homicides resulting from acts of self-defense, according to the FBI. Still, no one is talking about stripping away the right of anyone to own a gun to scare off a prowler or hold off a rapist (even though most people shot by guns in homes are relatives and friends). The only types of gun anyone is talking about restricting are the assault rifles that former Gens. Colin Powell and Stanley McChrystal say should only be in the hands of soldiers -- the kind of weapon used by a mentally unstable young man to murder first-graders in Newtown.

 But folks on the right disagree with the generals. Apparently, that is the kind of weapon they think they may desperately need in the event of civil war against the would-be monarch in the White House.

Legal issues

Virgin threatens to pull out of projected spaceport | Science |

I've said before that this complicated and expensive form of short joyride may well have a very short life if there is any accident.  It's not like air travel, where people are always going to need and want the product.

This article talks about some of the liability limitation that is involved in the project.  I guess that, given it is only rich people with plenty of money to sue who can afford it,  such limits are absolutely essential.

I still think that high altitude balloon rides into space, (perhaps using cheaper hydrogen?), may well be a better product.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Yet another exotic disease I barely knew

Step closer to parasite vaccine (Science Alert)
 Scientists - including a geneticist at The University of Western Australia - are a step closer to developing a vaccine against a fatally infectious parasite carried in the bite of sandflies.

Visceral leishmaniasis, also known as black fever, is the second-largest parasitic killer in the world after malaria.  The parasite migrates to organs such as liver, spleen and bone marrow and if left untreated will almost always be fatal. Symptoms include fever, weight loss, mucosal ulcers, fatigue, anemia and substantial swelling of the liver and spleen.

Leishmaniasis affects 12 million people and there are an estimated 1.5 million new cases annually mainly in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sudan, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Brazil.
I'll add it to the list of "exotic diseases I feel I should have known about, but didn't."

Stem cell competition

Court lifts cloud over embryonic stem cells : Nature News

Here's an interesting report noting that stem cells sourced by reprogramming adult cells are well on their way to replacing embyronic stem cells in terms of total research volume.

This is a good thing.

To test or not to test

Change in PSA levels over time can help predict aggressive prostate cancer

I think I read years ago that earlier testing - in the mid 40's - was perhaps more useful than a first test in one's 50's, perhaps for the same reason.

I never got around to it then, though, but last night I got the form for some blood tests and PSA is included.  The doctor basically said "well, it's the only way we've got of detecting anything", which is true, I guess.   He agreed though that it may well result in unnecessary further investigation or treatment.
 My impression is Australian doctors are more reluctant to give up testing PSA routinely than are some American doctors.  But I could be wrong.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Bond noted

So, I finally saw Skyfall yesterday.

My impressions:    It is, without doubt, the best directed and most visually impressive Bond film ever made.   In particular, I thought it remarkable how seamlessly visual effects are incorporated into the film.   Unlike the Bonds of old, there is really no point (which I can recall) at which you can think "oh, now its cut to the actor  in front of a blue screen," yet there are incredible scenes of destruction and mayhem which just must be visual effects.   (That's the upmarket term now for "special effects" isn't it?)  It just all looks real and terrific.  There is also a well acted loony villain for a change, and in fact the whole Daniel Craig era of "actors who take it seriously" continues.

A few quibbles though - I thought Quantum of Solace was going to be the end of Bond having mid life "do I really want to be doing this job" style crises, but the first third of this film is back to that thematically.  The competitive drinking scene was too much like the one in Raiders of the Lost Ark, although the addition of the scorpion was a nice touch.  (If Spielberg were directing, one would say it was definitely self referential.)   And really, as for the readiness to leap into bed with the most available woman: it is, I think, pretty much recognised now as being dated sexual politics, but the producers still presumably consider it an essential element.  It seems that the way they deal with it in this film is to make these scenes as short as possible - so much so that one of them happens so quickly it makes him look (at first) more like a break in rapist than a welcome lover.  Would they really lose anything by not showing him bed a woman in the next film?  I doubt it.

But, overall, I would have to say the film remains quite satisfying.   I particularly like Ralph taking over a key role:  I have long admired him as an actor in virtually whatever he does.

Update:  the biggest quibble perhaps should be - where is the extra bullet hole from the opening scene?    That's never explained.  I see that the issue has been given some detailed internet analysis

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Galaxy mystery

I should have noted this story from last week:
"When we looked at the dwarf galaxies surrounding Andromeda, we expected to find them buzzing around randomly, like angry bees around a hive. "Instead, we've found that half of Andromeda's satellites are orbiting together in an immense plane, which is more than a million light years in diameter but only 30 000 light years thick. These dwarf galaxies have formed a ring around Andromeda."

 "This was completely unexpected – the chance of this happening randomly is next to nothing. It really is just weird," said Professor Lewis.

 Large galaxies, like Andromeda and our own Milky Way, have long been known to be orbited by an entourage of smaller galaxies. These small galaxies, which are individually anywhere from ten to at least hundreds of thousands of times fainter than their bright hosts, were thought to trace a path around the big galaxy that was independent of every other dwarf galaxy.

 For several decades, astronomers have used computer models to predict how dwarf galaxies should orbit large galaxies, and every time they found that dwarfs should be scattered randomly over the sky. Never, in these synthetic universes, did they see dwarfs arranged in a plane like that observed around Andromeda.
It's odd how much mystery is still involved in understanding the motion of galaxies, both individually and collectively.