Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Spooky Stuff

I've never added a blog about UFOs to my blog roll, but I've occasionally looked at the one by long time Australian UFO writer Bill Chalker, The Oz Files.    It seems, as far as I can tell, pretty sensible for a UFO blog, so I'll add it.

I've also found an infrequently updated blog called Parasociology, which seems to cover some interesting topics, and has a handy list of links to bodies involved in parapsychology.

And for my third new source of spooky stuff, I see that Dean Radin has put together a list of links to studies that have been published since 2000 that he thinks are collectively a good introduction to the evidence for psi.  It looks like there is plenty of interesting abstract reading to be had from that springboard.

Made me laugh

Spotted in a discussion in The Guardian about whether Ben Elton is now too old for comedy:
I'm guessing that maybe someone like Louis CK (aged 45) holds a place in your heart once occupied by Ben Elton many years ago? Louis CK is no spring chicken and his stuff is just getting better and better. No one is older than Joan Rivers (actual age: 197) but I didn't see anyone walking out of the sold-out 6,000-seater Royal Albert Hall when she played there a couple of months ago.

Testosterone can send men mad

Scientists unpack testosterone's role in schizophrenia

Hormones are a worry...

Waiting for stagflation

Krugman wrote about the "stagflation myth" as favoured by conservative economists in June 2009:
Ever since Reagan, conservatives have been using the evils of stagflation to denounce liberal economic policies. Yet mainstream economics — even at Chicago — has never made that connection.

Stagflation was a term coined by Paul Samuelson to describe the combination of high inflation and high unemployment. The era of stagflation in America began in 1974 and ended in the early 80s. Why did it happen?

Well, the textbooks basically invoke two factors. One was a series of “adverse supply shocks”, mainly the huge runup in the price of oil. The other was excessively expansionary monetary policy, especially in 1972-3, which allowed expectations of inflation to become entrenched. (Ken Rogoff — a Republican, by the way — attributes that expansion to the desire of Arthur Burns to see Richard Nixon reelected.)

The appearance of stagflation was a win for conservative economics, but it was conservative monetary economics that was partly vindicated: Milton Friedman’s assertion that there is no long-run tradeoff between inflation and unemployment turned out to be correct, and is now part of the standard canon.

But where is the Great Society in all this? Nowhere. The claim that stagflation proved the badness of liberal ideas is pure propaganda, which not even conservative economists believe.
Two years later, anti-Keynesian and all round hater of taxes and government spending Sinclair Davidson gave "stagflation" for Australia a run on The Bolt Report and The Drum:
It is the consequence of pursuing Keynesian economic policy. It should come as no surprise that the return of Keynesianism during and after the Global Financial Crisis could see the return of stagflation.

In 2007 Kevin Rudd argued, 'this reckless spending must stop'. He was quite right then, he would be even more correct today. The Australian economy is in trouble – according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), the first quarter of 2011 experienced negative growth. Second quarter figures will be published in early September. This week the ABS reported that inflation is well above the Reserve Bank's two to three per cent inflation target.

Normally an inflation result like that would see an increase in official interest rates. After all the previous inflation figures were also on the high side. But the economy is very sluggish at the moment. A second consecutive quarter of negative growth would mean that the economy is officially in a recession.
 So what has happened to inflation since then?:

 Hmm.  Looks like inflation is under tight control.  

When asked today, about 20 months after his stagflation warning, we get this, in Catallaxy:

How is your stagflation call going anyway, Sinc?
Going well. The economy is stagnant, unemployment rising, cost of living amongst the highest in the world. Interest rates almost back at the depths of the GFC. The Americans are yet to unravel their QE. I don’t why you’re so happy – it brings me no joy.
So in the absence of actual inflation, you can just substitute "high cost of living"?  
What's also interesting is the anti-Keynesian spin put on it.    Yet when I Google on the topic of stagflation, I find that there has been a sudden recent burst of stagflation warnings from the UK:
Indeed, Britain has suffered persistently from higher inflation than any other advanced economy since the financial crisis struck. Unlike in the US and the eurozone, where inflation has remained broadly on track, inflation has been above the BoE’s 2 per cent target since the end of 2009, rising as high as 5.2 per cent in the autumn of 2011.     
So the country which gone much further down the anti-Keynesian "austerity" path than the US is the one facing potential "stagflation".

Looks like a theoretical "fail" too, then; not just a practical one.

A long article on why austerity doesn't work

The Austerity Delusion | Foreign Affairs

Haven't had time to read it all yet, but this section is at the core, I think:
Austerity is a seductive idea because of the simplicity of its core claim -- that you can’t cure debt with more debt. This is true as far as it goes, but it does not go far enough. Three less obvious factors undermine the simple argument that countries in the red need to stop spending. The first factor is distributional, since the effects of austerity are felt differently across different levels of society. Those at the bottom of the income distribution lose proportionately more than those at the top, because they rely far more on government services and have little wealth with which to cushion the blows. The 400 richest Americans own more assets than the poorest 150 million; the bottom 15 percent, some 46 million people, live in households earning less than $22,050 per year. Trying to get the lower end of the income distribution to pay the price of austerity through cuts in public spending is both cruel and mathematically difficult. Those who can pay won’t, while those who can’t pay are being asked to do so.

The second factor is compositional; everybody cannot cut their way to growth at the same time. To put this in the European context, although it makes sense for any one state to reduce its debt, if all states in the currency union, which are one another’s major trading partners, cut their spending simultaneously, the result can only be a contraction of the regional economy as a whole. Proponents of austerity are blind to this danger because they get the relationship between saving and spending backward. They think that public frugality will eventually promote private spending. But someone has to spend for someone else to save, or else the saver will have no income to hold on to. Similarly, for a country to benefit from a reduction in its domestic wages, thus becoming more competitive on costs, there must be another country willing to spend its money on what the first country produces. If all states try to cut or save at once, as is the case in the eurozone today, then no one is left to do the necessary spending to drive growth.

The third factor is logical; the notion that slashing government spending boosts investor confidence does not stand up to scrutiny. As the economist Paul Krugman and others have argued, this claim assumes that consumers anticipate and incorporate all government policy changes into their lifetime budget calculations. When the government signals that it plans to cut its expenditures dramatically, the argument goes, consumers realize that their future tax burdens will decrease. This leads them to spend more today than they would have done without the cuts, thereby ending the recession despite the collapse of the economy going on all around them. The assumption that this behavior will actually be exhibited by financially illiterate, real-world consumers who are terrified of losing their jobs in the midst of a policy-induced recession is heroic at best and foolish at worst.

Austerity, then, is a dangerous idea, because it ignores the externalities it generates, the impact of one person’s choices on another’s, and the low probability that people will actually behave in the way that the theory requires. To understand why such a threadbare set of ideas became the Western world’s default stance on how to get out of a recession, we need to consult a few Englishmen, two Scots, and three Austrians.

Gatsby considered

Gatsby may be great, but F Scott Fitzgerald is greater | Books | guardian.co.uk

Someone writing in The Guardian is a big fan of The Great Gatsby (re-reads it every year) and notes that the Luhrmann film coming out about it may well be disappointing.  (Let's hope so - Luhrmann's lurid style never seems to get quite the uniform rubbishing it deserves.)

As for the book, which I read some years ago:  it struck me as adequate but pretty light weight.  I caught a bit of the Robert Redford Gatsby movie on TV recently, and it seemed that it did the opposite of usual cinema compression of a novel:  it was very long for a book that was very short.  

But anyway, The Guardian writer gives a potted history of the trouble life of Fitzgerald, and I don't think I knew  this:
When he died in Hollywood in 1940, Fitzgerald was almost completely forgotten. His funeral was attended by just 30 people, including his editor Maxwell Perkins. Sales of his books had virtually dried up. His publishers, Scribners, still had unsold stock from the first printing of Gatsby. He had lived the American dream, and it had turned into a waking nightmare.
Given that (as I recall) Gatsby ends with the funeral of the title character attended by virtually no one, that's a bit of an unfortunate "life imitating art" episode.

Colebatch puts revenue and spending in perspective

Before we tackle the budget, let's clarify a few points

In the last eight years of the Howard government, cash revenues averaged 25.4 per cent of GDP while spending was 24.2 per cent. Result? Budget surpluses averaging 1.2 per cent of GDP.

In 2012-13, revenue will be roughly 23.2 per cent of GDP. Underlying spending, after adjusting for last year's budget fiddles (which shifted $9 billion of spending into 2011-12), will be roughly 24.5 per cent of GDP.

You do the sums. Which is the bigger problem: revenue or spending?

The gap was meant to close in 2012-13. Revenue was forecast to swell 11.8 per cent, mostly from company tax and the mining tax, while spending, thanks to the fiddles and ''efficiency dividends'', was meant to shrink 2 per cent. It hasn't worked out like that.

Spending in the eight months to February was up 1.8 per cent year on year, but Finance Minister Penny Wong insists it will end up on target. But revenue has risen only 4.5 per cent year on year. For the three months to February, tax revenue was 0.5 per cent less than it was a year earlier.

Why? We've been told again and again, but some don't want to hear. Mining companies, which have been doing well, have been quite legitimately reducing tax by writing off the record $285 billion they invested here over the past decade. And the mining tax was so poorly designed that it has raised virtually nothing, and might not for years.

Apart from the banks, the rest of the economy has not done well, mainly due to the overvalued dollar, so it's not paying that much tax. Company tax was meant to reap an extra $6 billion this year, but in the first eight months, its take rose just $381 million, less than 1 per cent.

But the government spends too much, you say. Well, all of us can think of areas where we think it should cut spending. Equally, we can all think of areas where it should spend more. The International Monetary Fund estimates that, excluding east Asian countries where welfare is left to the family, Australia already has the second lowest spending of any Western country, behind only Switzerland.
Noting changes in spending and revenue as a percentage of GDP puts the figures in a perspective that propagandist economists for the Coalition who infest The Australian and News Ltd (and spend their days at Catallaxy) would rather not talk about.  For them, it's all "but revenue has increased!" 

[Catallaxy has, incidentally, been just about completely taken over by conservative Catholics or wannabe Catholics who want to condemn abortion all day; complain about Labor politicians who are pro-choice (let's not fret about Liberal ones who are too - or Tony Abbott adopting the "legal, safe and rare" formula); and worry about how the Catholic Church is being persecuted on the sex abuse issue.    Oh, and Islamists - they are very, very worried about Islam.     Strangely, Sinclair Davidson seems to very sympathetic to anti-abortion calls himself - he has never objected to one particularly neurotic visitor linking continually to his own anti-abortion posters featuring graphic photos of aborted foetuses.  Davidson also complained about the sex abuse enquiry that has just started, and one poster made (and never retracted, despite his being shown how bizarrely wrong he was) the  ludicrous claim that more Labor politicians had been to jail for child sex abuse than Catholic clergy.   It's like the Tea Party (Traditionalist Catholic sub-branch) of Australia.   A weird place.]  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Show way past its peak gets Slate column

Doctor Who "Journey to the Centre of the Tardis" recap. - Slate Magazine

Isn't it odd.  Now that Dr Who is way, way past its prime (I have been seriously underwhelmed with it in the latest series,)  Slate has started giving it the Dexter treatment.  That is, started giving a show which doesn't deserve it a discussion column after every single episode.

Last night's episode, which should have been full of fun with the interior of the Tardis being exposed for the first time, was the typical shambles of late.   The problems are:

a.  Everything can be solved with time travel, so there is no tension.

b. There is an endlessly malleable explanation of time travel used in the series.

The show needs to be put out to pasture again for 5 years, until better stories can be conceived.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Talking about Antarctica

A white and inexpressibly horrid land | TLS

I learnt some things from the above review of a handful of new books about Antarctica.  The number of people who visit during summer, for example:
...every (southern) summer sees more than 30,000 visitors arrive, swelling the resident population of some 5,000 scientists and support staff, though in winter that number drops to just over 1,000, many of whom apparently regard themselves as the luckiest people on earth. 

The charms of penguins:
Gabrielle Walker recalls that she began her time on the ice determined to resist these “clichés of Antarctica”, distrusting the way their cuteness is used to reduce the continent’s alien vastness to a manageable human scale. She would write about them only “because there was interesting science to tell. That was all”. Her vow did not last long, however, and the day an Adélie penguin played statues with her – “each time I turned it was motionless. Each time I walked, it walked with me” – was the day she finally lost her battle with the anthropomorphic impulse.
 and the "Antarctic stare":
One of those lucky ones was Gavin Francis, who spent a year working as the base-camp doctor at a remote British research station on Antarctica’s Caird Coast. Empire Antarctica is his record of that year, an intense and lyrical portrait of the slowly changing polar seasons, at the heart of which lies the cold monotony of the lightless southern winter. At first, as the sun gradually dipped below the horizon, Francis felt he was adjusting well to the coming of the polar night. But by the end of the second month, he writes, the frozen darkness had lost any beauty it once held: “it became a pause, a limbo, a drawn breath between history and the future”. His colleagues on the isolated station grew listless and forgetful, while tempers frayed, owing as much to the lack of privacy as the lack of natural light. Some even developed the notorious “Antarctic stare”, brought on by months of isolation, as though zombified by the pitiless dark. 
On a related note, my handful of long time readers (hello?) may recall that I very much enjoyed the account of the Mawson expedition that is a large part of Heather Rossiter’s biography of Herbert Dyce Murphy.   (Heather actually commented here too about my post about the book.  It's good to be noticed by authors.)   The expedition came to mind again when listening to a Radio National show on Anzac Day last Thursday.

I think Heather may have mentioned it in her book, but one of the unfortunate crew who had to winter over for the second time when Mawson turned up hours too late to catch the boat was killed soon thereafter at Gallipoli.

Edward Frederick Robert Bage was an engineer.  Here's a photo of him with a particularly large pipe which presumably helped him get through two Antarctic winters.  Poor old (actually, he was much younger than he looked) Bage was killed following orders of dubious merit.  Googling around, this article in The Australian seems to be the script of the radio show:

BAGE returned to full-time soldiering, and five months later the Great War began. He joined the Australian Imperial Force, and was appointed deputy commander of an engineers company. Soon afterwards he announced his engagement to Dorothy Scantlebury, a university student.

He left Australia with the first contingent, trained his company's sappers in Egypt, and landed with them under fire at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. They rated him highly. "Besides being a good officer, Captain Bage was a fine fellow in every way," declared Tom Prince in a memoir of his war service. Another sapper, Jim Campbell, a 27-year-old carpenter, described Bage as "an excellent officer".

The engineers were given a series of urgent tasks during the chaotic first few days at Anzac. They widened roads, made bombs, strengthened trenches, carted ammunition, constructed loopholes and excavated emplacements for the artillery.

Bage spent the morning of May 7 surveying the terrain near Lone Pine. As it happened, the commander of the First Australian Infantry Division, Major-General W.T. Bridges, was appraising his tactical options in a nearby trench. He had just decided on his preferred course of action when Bage materialised along the trench. War historian C.E.W. Bean wrote that Bridges cried: "Here's the man!" When Bage found out why he was the man, he became concerned.

Bridges wanted the infantry to occupy a forward post, and wanted a reliable officer from the engineers to mark out the position beforehand as soon as possible. He wanted Bage to venture out in front of the AIF front line for 150m, and then bang in some marker pegs - this in broad daylight and in view of the Turks. Bage respectfully pointed out that the best chance of tackling such a risky undertaking successfully would be to do it at night. But Bridges was adamant that it had to be done that afternoon.

As a loyal and capable officer, Bage accepted that an order was an order. He resigned himself to his probable fate, and arranged for the dispersal of his belongings.

Bage did his utmost to carry out the task, which "could hardly have been more perilous", as Bean confirmed. Bage was hammering in a marker peg when he was killed by a fusillade of fire from Turkish riflemen and at least five machine-guns.

After his years at Antarctica, Bage was well known and widely admired. The way his life was imperilled so cavalierly by Bridges filled those on the spot with repugnance. It was "madness - he is a great loss to us", Campbell wrote. Indeed, what happened to Bage on May 7, 1915, confirms that Australian soldiers died not only as a result of incompetent decisions by British commanders; Australian commanders were also flagrantly culpable at times.
 Sad, hey?

Family photo

Winnie the Pooh author AA Milne was first world war propagandist | Books | The Guardian

I don't recall seeing a photo of AA Milne before, and this surely can't be his best:

That's his son in the picture.  (And the top of a bear - which would be interesting to see.) 

I trust AA did not always look vaguely sinister.

Friday, April 26, 2013

A major problem with nuclear

IAEA: Japan nuke cleanup may take more than 40 years - AJW by The Asahi Shimbun

When you read stuff like this, you have to wonder whether the fantastic, extraordinary cost of dealing with major nuclear accidents is adequately factored into economic studies on the nuclear industry:

A U.N. nuclear watchdog team said Japan may need longer than the projected 40 years to decommission its tsunami-crippled nuclear plant and urged its operator to improve plant stability.

The head of the International Atomic Energy Agency team, Juan Carlos Lentijo, said April 22 that damage at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is so complex that it is impossible to predict how long the cleanup may last.

"As for the duration of the decommissioning project, this is something that you can define in your plans. But in my view, it will be nearly impossible to ensure the time for decommissioning such a complex facility in less than 30-40 years as it is currently established in the roadmap," Lentijo said.

The government and plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. have predicted the cleanup would take up to 40 years. They still have to develop technology and equipment that can operate under fatally high radiation levels to locate and remove melted fuel. The reactors must be kept cool and the plant must stay safe and stable, and those efforts to ensure safety could slow the process down.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Safer living via technology

The future of the car: Clean, safe and it drives itself | The Economist

To be honest, I hadn't really thought of the wider implications of self driving cars before:

Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, predicts that driverless cars will be ready for sale to customers within five years. That may be optimistic, but the prototypes that Google already uses to ferry its staff (and a recent visitor from The Economist) along Californian freeways are impressive. Google is seeking to offer the world a driverless car built from scratch, but it is more likely to evolve, and be accepted by drivers, in stages.

As sensors and assisted-driving software demonstrate their ability to cut accidents, regulators will move to make them compulsory for all new cars. Insurers are already pressing motorists to accept black boxes that measure how carefully they drive: these will provide a mass of data which is likely to show that putting the car on autopilot is often safer than driving it. Computers never drive drunk or while texting.

If and when cars go completely driverless—for those who want this—the benefits will be enormous. Google gave a taste by putting a blind man in a prototype and filming him being driven off to buy takeaway tacos. Huge numbers of elderly and disabled people could regain their personal mobility. The young will not have to pay crippling motor insurance, because their reckless hands and feet will no longer touch the wheel or the accelerator. The colossal toll of deaths and injuries from road accidents—1.2m killed a year worldwide, and 2m hospital visits a year in America alone—should tumble down, along with the costs to health systems and insurers.

They can talk under water

LED devices let divers talk underwater | SmartPlanet

I'm a little surprised this has only been invented now.   My science fiction mind also is thinking that such a system might be the basis for secure communications between space-suited spies.  (Heinlein just had people in spacesuits putting their helmets together, and I have always been curious as to whether that works well, or if you have to shout.)  Anyway, back to the invention:
A Japanese firm claims it has developed the “world’s first” communication device that allows divers to “talk” to each other by using LED technology to convert voices into light signals.

The Okinwa-based firm, Marine Comms Ryukyu, has created the “i-MAJUN system,” which combines a light-emitting diode (LED) flashlight with a diving mask that is able to convert a diver’s voice into LED signals that blink. When a diver wishes to talk to another underwater, the diver says their message — and then once converted into LED signals, the data is transmitted to the other diver. Signals are then converted back into speech and played back through speakers embedded in the diving mask.

Local Anzac Day

The local Anzac Day service is very well attended, in a memorial park garden that is kept in very nice condition.  It's almost too small for the day, though:

My father didn't participate in Anzac Day parades, perhaps because he served in the British Navy and felt he didn't have adequate Australian connection. My mother felt more interested in the parade itself, having served in the air force in Townsville. She's in a low care facility now, and I should visit her later today. I hope they put the march on TV for her.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

High temperaure solar

Collaboration aims to harness the energy of 2,000 suns

An interesting idea:

Based on a study by the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and Greenpeace International it would take only two percent of the 's land area to supply the world's electricity needs. Unfortunately, current on the market today are too expensive and slow to produce, require and lack the efficiency to make such massive installations practical.

The prototype HCPVT system uses a large , made from a multitude of mirror facets, which is attached to a tracking system that determines the best angle based on the position of the sun. Once aligned, the sun's rays reflect off the mirror onto several microchannel-liquid cooled receivers with triple junction photovoltaic chips—each 1x1 centimeter chip can convert 200-250 watts, on average, over a typical eight hour day in a sunny region.

The entire receiver combines hundreds of chips and provides 25 kilowatts of electrical power. The photovoltaic chips are mounted on microstructured layers that pipe liquid coolants within a few tens of micrometers off the chip to absorb the heat and draw it away 10 times more effective than with passive air cooling.

The coolant maintains the chips almost at the same temperature for a solar concentration of 2,000 times and can keep them at safe temperatures up to a solar concentration of 5,000 times. The direct cooling solution with very small pumping power is inspired by the hierarchical branched blood supply system of the human body and has been already tested by IBM scientists in high performance computers, including Aquasar.

A deserved cynicism

Video: American culture now generating entire movie franchises about Thor � Hot Air

There is precious little worth linking to from Hot Air lately, but this short post lamenting the extent to which superhero movies have taken over Hollywood is fine.

I remain completely unmoved by Iron Man (I've watched bits and pieces of No1 and 2 on TV - I lose interest within about 15 minutes).  Now No 3 has received good initial reviews in England.  I doubt this is enough to get me over the 15 minute barrier when I see it on TV in 2 years time.

I forgot to mention that this was another pleasure of Oblivion:  it was adult science fiction that was OK for older kids (one discrete bit of female nudity and no blood splattering violence) that had nothing to do with superheros.

We need more films like that.

Bomb building made easy (and America the not so bright?)

I've always regretted the fireworks ban in Australia:  one week a year of experiments and fun with small fireworks seemed to me worth the public risk of a finger lost here or there.

But in the US, where everything from polyester slacks to fireworks are bigger, it appears that the public can readily buy firework kits which provide in one easy hit all the explosives you need for a deadly bomb:
 Where They May Have Gotten the Materials: Wall Street Journal: "Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder brother suspected in the Boston Marathon bombings, bought two large pyrotechnic devices in February from a New Hampshire branch of a national fireworks chain, according to executives at the chain's parent company. William Weimer, a vice president of Phantom Fireworks, said the elder Mr. Tsarnaev on Feb. 6 purchased two "Lock and Load" reloadable mortar kits at the company's Seabrook, N.H. store, just over the border from Massachusetts. Each kit contains a tube and 24 shells, he said. Mr. Tsarnaev paid cash for the kits, which cost $199.99 apiece. It wasn't clear if the powder from these fireworks was used in the bombings. ... One federal law-enforcement official briefed on the probe said the government's working theory was that the powder used in the bombs could have come from high-powered fireworks. The official said there were other possible sources for similar powder and investigators hadn't drawn any firm conclusions."
Before now, didn't sales of things like that to the public strike anyone in the US as dangerous?

While I'm on that theme, and sorry to kick a country while its down and all, but events last week didn't exactly paint America as a country that has a good grip on common sense:

*   why allow a fertilizer plant using famously dangerous chemicals so close to a nursing home and residential area?   (I've heard some commentary in Australia over the last few years praising some American States as having affordable housing because of very relaxed town planning laws.  I think Texas is amongst them.   I'm not sure that this accident can be said to be due to planning decisions, but it's certainly an illustration of the value of planning that keeps industrial plants at a significant distance from residential.)

*   by what insanity is a tightening of background checks from gun shows sales controversial?   Sure, it won't have stopped recent killings, because they show that legal gun owners can be too stupid to realise the danger of keeping guns at home in a house with a disturbed relative.   But seriously, as I have argued elsewhere, can you imagine if in Australia there were gun shows in Western Sydney where anyone could rock up and walk out with a gun without a background check?  We would, rightly, think that insane, as would about 95% of the rest of the world.

*  there was something else, but it will come to me later.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Amusing myself

If you have seen the movie, and know Australian politics from a couple of years ago, it might be deemed slightly amusing:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Fairfax, once we could rely on you

Huge deficits loom

Who's running Fairfax these days?   Formerly able to be relied on to put the best possible spin on matters for Labor, at least on most topics, they seem to be increasing joining News Ltd with the worst possible headlines for articles.  Such as the above.

Anyhow, the actual body of the story is kind of interesting, more for the point as to how governments can (or cannot) save money:

The Grattan Institute says that while notionally on track to surplus at the moment, the combined total of state and Commonwealth budget deficits could reach 4 per cent of gross domestic product by 2023, which is about $60 billion in today's dollars and would be about $100 billion in 10 years' time.

"Initiatives such as the national disability insurance scheme, the education reforms, direct action on climate change and parental leave are only a small part of it," Grattan Institute chief executive John Daley said.

"The big driver, costing $30 billion, is extra spending on health. Contrary to popular belief, the extra spending isn't being driven by ageing. It's that compared to 10 years ago today's 60-year-olds see the doctor more often, have more tests, face more operations and take more drugs. We are getting something out of the extra spending: more people are staying alive. But the question is - who is going to pay for it?"

The institute also believes welfare spending will have to climb because the present Newstart unemployment allowance is unsustainably low. It says company tax revenue, mining and carbon tax revenue and general tax takings will slide as a proportion of the economy as the price of exports slips.
"The problem is the attractive solutions won't buy that much money," Mr Daley said. "Cutting middle-class welfare won't be enough …''

''Even if you axed the baby bonus, the Schoolkids Bonus and parts of family tax benefit B that go to high earners you'd only make $4 billion.

"Eliminating government waste won't help much either. Axing the Commonwealth departments of Education and Health might save the wages of 5000 public servants, but that's only around half a billion.''

The Grattan Institute says the gap can only be closed by higher taxes, meaning that the days of "painless" budget fixes are over.

"The places to look are company tax and company tax concessions, income tax and goods and services tax,'' Mr Daley said. ''The old idea you can introduce a change with no losers, at least none earning less than $100,000, won't work. Everyone will have to share the pain.''

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Looks like the future

Japan's 1st hydrogen refueling station for general public opens in Kanagawa

Good old Japan.   They're developing fuel cell vehicles to use the hydrogen.   Good to see them tacking new technology.

Into Oblivion

We went and saw Oblivion yesterday:  the new Tom Cruise science fiction film that is just starting this weekend in the US.

It's a good, solid science fiction movie that looks great and contains some pretty cool plot twists. 

What I liked about it most is how it makes more sense in its details as it goes along.  For example, even just visually, early on you might be thinking "that's the coolest looking post apocalyptic apartment I have ever seen"  or "they didn't spend much time worrying about the look of the aliens", but these stylistic things end up making sense.

In fact, with its somewhat incongruously cool and distinctive style in the domestic setting, it reminded me a bit of Gattaca, where the future was very neat and immaculate business dress, even if you were getting on board a rocket. 

Sure the film has derivative elements, but I didn't think jarringly so, and my son and wife liked it too.

I haven't read many reviews, but I think Kenneth Turan in the LA Times puts it well:
This Tom Cruise vehicle is a throwback to the days when on-screen science fiction was about speculative ideas rather than selling toys to tots — think of it as the most expensive episode of "The Twilight Zone" ever made....

More adventurous than your typical Hollywood tent pole, "Oblivion" makes you remember why science fiction movies pulled you in way back when and didn't let you go.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Some articles on mistaken identity in the Boston bombings

Some people think that the social media rush to try to ID the bombers was useful, or harmless.

They should consider what it was like to be misidentified.

What's more, I don't think it has been established yet than any of the crowdsourcing amateur detective players did actually get the right suspects.  They certainly were not at the top of the list.

While you probably couldn't say that the geeky participants at Reddit were predominantly of one political stripe (in fact, being younger, you would have to suspect they probably leaned left), but outside of those sites, it seems clear that it was the right wing press and right wingnut-o-sphere that promoted the alleged identifications with gusto.  Especially if the suspect was one of those swarthy types.   

Here's what follows:
The same week that the New York Post first falsely reported the Boston bombing suspect was  a Saudi national then falsely put a Moroccan-American track runner on its cover, it accurately reported on Friday an attack on an innocent Bangladeshi man living in the Bronx who some "idiots" mistook for an Arab. Abdullah Faruque, a South Asian network engineer, was at an Applebees on Monday night when he was accosted by a group of three or four men, reports the Post, after they asked if he was an Arab. It wasn't until he got home, his shoulder dislocated, that he found out about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. “I saw the news, and then it hits me: That’s why I got jumped,” he told the Post.

It's possible for this sort of baseless revenge to happen, with or without the Post's help. But it's worth wonderng where these men— and the one who assaulted a Muslim doctor in Boston, and the ones who vandalized the future site of a Boston mosque—got the idea for taking out revenge on a "dark skinned male"  in the wake of the bombing.
The right wingnut-o-sphere has also been pretty creative in trying to save face:  the Saudi student in hospital went from being a prime suspect under police guard, to an innocent man, to a man about to be deported for terrorist connections anyway.   A clear denial from Washington was countered by an anonymous "Congressional source" who spoke to the Blaze that "a file had been opened" and he really, really was going to be deported.  (I suspect that only a nutty right wing source would talk to The Blaze - which appears to have a particular fondness for Glenn Beck, who is going berzerkoid on the issue.)   This has set off the wingnut conspiracy theorist (see comments following The Blaze story).

Meanwhile, given that the actual bombers are Muslim, and it is looking likely that they are inspired by radical Islam, the right wing blogosphere is already bleating at huge volume at anyone who dared speculate on it being another version of Timothy McVeigh. 

Never mind that domestic anti-government extremism was indeed behind the biggest ever domestic terrorism incident outside of 9-11.

And never mind that, at The Blaze, following the story about the Saudi student, we have a typical example of wingnut rhetoric about civil war that has become extremely common, especially since gun control became an issue:

Yeah, according to the Right wing nutters, there is no legitimacy at all in journalists wondering if the bombing could be from their political side of the fence.   They don't recognize their own paranoia.

And finally, at Slate, Farhad Manjoo is swearing off participating in Tweeting on such events.  

A good idea, I think.

Update:  As another article in Slate says:
After a week in which Reddit’s r/findbostonbombers page rocketed to prominence—and controversy—as a hub for crowd-sourced criminal investigations, the FBI’s two main suspects are dead or in custody. And Reddit had nothing to do with it.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Discussing low sensitivity

Climate Sensitivity Single Study Syndrome, Nic Lewis Edition

So, Nic Lewis, who created a bit of news in the climate change blogosphere for coming up with quite  a low estimate of climate sensitivity, has actually got a paper published in a reputable journal.

James Annan, who truly has a tin ear for how fake skeptics will use his words when he is speaking about sensitivity, had already found some grounds for doubting parts of Lewis' approach, but a very detailed look at Lewis' work is now up at Skeptical Science. (See above.)

The comments following are worth reading too.

It certainly does not look like this should be taken as sweeping all other work on the issue away.

But watch the fake skeptics treat it that way.

Update:   this passage in the Skeptical Science article caught my attention:
In Figure 3, the PALEOSENS team also illustrates the amount of warming we can expect to see at various atmospheric CO2 levels, based on these paleoclimate studies, using several different approaches.  Doubling of CO2 from 280 to 560 parts per million results in close to 3°C global surface warming at equilibrium, when accounting for relatively fast feedbacks.  The paper also discusses various estimates of 'Earth System Sensitivity', which includes slower feedbacks that operate over thousands of years.  They estimate this longer-term warming in response to doubled CO2 would be closer to 7°C.
 There is very much a tendency for climate change skeptics to not notice how much of the discussion about climate change merely looks to what the situation is likely to be by the end of this century:  "Oh, sea level rise of 60cm over a century.  That's manageable."   There is inadequate discussion by scientists of the longer term consequences, if you ask me.

Also, a new paper in Nature Climate Change talks about land biosphere feedbacks:

Atmospheric concentrations of the three important greenhouse gases (GHGs) CO2, CH4 and N2O are mediated by processes in the terrestrial biosphere that are sensitive to climate and CO2. This leads to feedbacks between climate and land and has contributed to the sharp rise in atmospheric GHG concentrations since pre-industrial times. Here, we apply a process-based model to reproduce the historical atmospheric N2O and CH4 budgets within their uncertainties and apply future scenarios for climate, land-use change and reactive nitrogen (Nr) inputs to investigate future GHG emissions and their feedbacks with climate in a consistent and comprehensive framework1. Results suggest that in a business-as-usual scenario, terrestrial N2O and CH4 emissions increase by 80 and 45%, respectively, and the land becomes a net source of C by AD 2100. N2O and CH4 feedbacks imply an additional warming of 0.4–0.5°C by AD 2300; on top of 0.8–1.0°C caused by terrestrial carbon cycle and Albedo feedbacks. The land biosphere represents an increasingly positive feedback to anthropogenic climate change and amplifies equilibrium climate sensitivity by 22–27%. Strong mitigation limits the increase of terrestrial GHG emissions and prevents the land biosphere from acting as an increasingly strong amplifier to anthropogenic climate change.
I'm not sure how much difference that makes to overall long term climate sensitivity estimates, but it sounds as if it might be new and significant.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The problem with droughts

Climate models fail to ‘predict’ US droughts 

It's a bit surprising to see that climate models are still not good enough to replicate US mega-droughts.

The results were puzzling. Although the simulation produced a number of pronounced droughts lasting several decades each, these did not match the timing of known megadroughts. In fact, drought occurrences were no more in agreement when the model was fed realistic values for variables that influence rainfall than when it ran control simulations in which the values were unrealistically held constant. “The model seems to miss some of the dynamics that drive large droughts,” says study participant Jason Smerdon, a researcher at Lamont-Doherty who studies historical climate patterns.

Other climate models tested by the team fared no better, he says. In particular, the models failed to reproduce a series of multi-decadal droughts that occurred in the southwest during the Medieval Climate Anomaly, a period between AD 900 and 1200 when global temperatures were about as high as they are today.

The problem may lie in the models’ inability to reproduce the cycling between the ENSO’s El Niño and La Niña phases, especially given that many scientists think that La Niña is the major driver of drought in the southwest. The ENSO “behaves much messier in the real world than in climate models”, says Jessica Tierney, a climate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts who has investigated the role of the ENSO in East African rainfall variability2. “We’re not sure how it has varied in the past, and we don’t know how it might change in response to climate change. This is really one of the big uncertainties we’re facing.”

In addition to their failure to reproduce El Niño and La Niña, existing models do not fully capture other factors that influence rainfall, such as clouds and vegetation. But Smerdon adds that the atmospheric and oceanic dynamics that inhibit rainfall and favour prolonged drought may be essentially random and so almost unpredictable.

Last week’s findings highlight the broader challenge of predicting how precipitation patterns will change as the global climate warms. Models are often at odds over the very direction of regional changes. For example, different projections prepared for the Colorado Water Conservation Board disagree on whether mean precipitation in the state will increase or decrease by 2050.
 Presumably, there is therefore legitimate reason to be somewhat skeptical of climate model predictions for changes in rainfall patterns in Australia due to climate change.  But then again, it may be that some climate effects in some parts of Australia are easier to model than those affecting the US.  The long term decline in rainfall in the southern corner of Western Australia is, I think I have read, consistent with climate modelling, for example.

But in any event, are these uncertainties reason to let what is essentially the biggest experiment ever devised to continue?   I mean, if some relatively small, random things determine US megadroughts, doesn't it mean that some clear non-random things (say, a 2 degree global temperature increase, and increased humidity) is likely to have a very big effect indeed?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The hilariously dim Detective Hoft

I guess people sort of expect the identification of suspects behind bombings to happen very quickly these days, and therefore we still have the news dominated by the Boston bombing and the apparent lack of success in working out who was behind it.

It's presumably not the work of a group that wants to claim responsibility, which one would think tends to make it a little less likely to be inspired by Islamist.  On the other hand, it does have the same indiscriminate terror aspect of the 2005 London bombings.

Speculation that it is the work of the extreme Right does have some things going for it:  the date, the recent wingnut hyperventilating about armed resistance over gun control laws, and the fact that it happened in a national Democrat stronghold.  On the other hand, it didn't target a government building or service, which seems a little odd.

For novelty value, I think I heard Alan Jones on Sunrise this morning speculating that it could be Left wing radicals from Harvard.  Why exactly they would want to target a marathon - surely the cleanest and Greenest of public events - remains a mystery only known to Alan.  (He's just out to try to even up the score.)

There's also the "generic, attention seeking nutter" scenario, which isn't getting all that much of a run, but didn't the last Batman film (which I didn't care to see) feature general terrorist mayhem caused by bombing public places?   Given the cinema shooting caused by a deranged Batman fan, I have to wonder if this will be another cinema inspired piece.

But the stupidest response to the event has been by dumb Right wing blogger Jim Hoft at his Gateway Pundit blog.  Amongst other dim sins, yesterday I noticed that in response to news that the police were searching someone's apartment, Hoft (for unfathomable reasons) decided it would be  a good idea to look up some address site to find a list of apparent residents in the building and link to it!  The reason he did this is pretty clear:  in a later post, he specifically says "several foreigners live in the building."   Ooh.  Scary stuff, hey?

Then, overnight, it was a bunch of photos of the young Saudi national who lived in the apartment taken from his Facebook page.   The scoundrel:  there he is, doing a silly jump at Disneyland.

But later of course:   whoops, sorry folks, he's been ruled out as a suspect by the police.  (Actually, I am making up the "sorry" bit:  there is no apology from Hoft.)

In fact, the dimwit is upset that "Left wing blogs" have "gone on the attack" about him.  Diddums, Jim?

But hey, who is the idiot who is blaming President Obama for the attack, before we have any clear idea  about who is behind it?

Hoft is the stupidest popular Right wing blogger out there, as Charles Johnson has said for years.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Build your own ice dome on the moon

Ice Dome Construction for Large Scale Habitats on Atmosphereless Bodies

Well, I suppose this could be useful if they found a lot of underground ice in the shadowed areas near the lunar poles.   Just start with a thin plastic film dome, inflate it a bit with nitrogen, and boil off the ice underneath to get it to sublimate on the film above.  Then pressurise it underneath.

Make it a meter thick, and it would even be reasonably good for cosmic ray protection. 

He's not talking tiny domes:  600 or 900 m diameter.   I wonder how chilly you might have to keep the breathable atmosphere beneath it. 

Neat, in any case.

Monday, April 15, 2013

A very Japanese app

Answering nature's call with a smartphone 

Users of Japan’s first smartphone-controlled toilet can simply touch their screens to flush, adjust bidet functions, change seat temperatures and even keep a “diary” of all those relaxing moments.

Housing equipment manufacturer Lixil Corp. said it developed the toilet after learning that an increasing number of people take their smartphones with them to the bathroom.
“It is popular among those who want to relax in their bathrooms,” said a Lixil public relations official. “It has also received positive responses thanks to its built-in speaker to play music downloaded into smartphones.”

The new toilet is remotely controlled through application software.
Users first register their favorite position of the water spray, water temperature and other settings in advance. When they enter the bathroom, their smartphones automatically relay the information to the toilet to change the settings.

That eliminates the troublesome task of manually changing the configuration set by family members and other people who share the same bathroom.

Pepsi Max may continue

Sweet news: No evidence that artificial sweetener aspartame's bad for you

I suppose I have, on average, 5 cans of Pepsi Max in a week.

The safety of aspartame is therefore of some interest.  This article is full of reassurance that it is.

However, some discussion in the comments regarding blood sugar reaction to it are of interest.  I hope this has been looked into adequately.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Arrietty appreciated

On Saturday night, the family watched the recent Studio Ghibli animation Arrietty on DVD.

I once read an interview in which Miyazaki (who didn't actually direct this, but has a writing credit, and his typical character design is very evident) said that he regrets that children today spend so much time in the "virtual" world, as it prevents them from getting out and exploring the natural world which he so lovingly illustrates in his movies.  He would rather they watched his films once, and then got outside.

That's a nice and quaint sounding sentiment, but the problem is, Miyazaki's films are so routinely  full of beautiful and detailed artwork, they are just about the most re-watchable animation ever made.

Arrietty is no exception - in fact, it seemed to me to be just about the most consistently beautiful Ghibli film I've seen.  It's impossible to illustrate this adequately here, but if you click to enlarge the following, you'll get at least an idea of the detail with which it has been made:

I have looked on Youtube at the trailer for American and English voiced versions, and they both seem rather wrong for the Japanese atmosphere.  The Australian DVD can be watched in Japanese with English subtitles, and that's what I would recommend.

The story ends a bit abruptly for my liking; but it's more about the trip.  Highly recommended.

Not sure that they should always be listened to...

Critics back restoration of earthquake hit Christchurch Cathedral, photo by Searlo

Architects back restoration of earthquake-hit New Zealand cathedral

I see that there is a bit of fight going on as to what Christchurch should do regarding the restoration of its Anglican cathedral, which currently looks like this:

(My own photo of how it used to look, a year or so before the earthquake, is here.)

The proposals are basically either to rebuild it to look something like it used to, or to go with something completely different, like this:

Critics back restoration of earthquake hit Christchurch Cathedral

Call me an architectural heathen if you will, but I think that looks quite nice.  Here's how it is imagined to look inside:

I still can't see a problem.  It is, according to the Cathedral's website, where you can read more about the design, " a lightweight engineered timber structure reinterprets the gothic architectural tradition."

A timber cathedral in New Zealand seems quite reasonable to me.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Sounds encouraging...

Emissions from power sector drop to decade-low: study

Australia's greenhouse gas emissions from electricity generation have fallen to a 10-year low as coal-fired power slumped to its lowest level in a decade, a new report says. 

At the same time, the share of renewable energy in the National Electricity Market (NEM) has soared beyond 12 per cent and looks set to continue rising.

In its latest quarterly emissions outlook, energy and carbon research firm RepuTex found coal power made up 74.8 per cent of the NEM in the three months ended in March - its lowest point in 10 years.
Coal was at more than 85 per cent of the NEM four years ago, when wind made up just half a per cent of the overall mix.

Today, wind generation is at 3.8 per cent, hydro 8.7 per cent and gas at 12.7 per cent of the NEM.
"Renewables are basically cancelling out coal," RepuTex executive director Hugh Grossman told AAP on Thursday.
But, hey, where is solar?

Things in Space

Three space related stories:

*  that video that's been around for a week or so showing the gloopy way tears would hang around an astronaut's face is worth watching:

*  that story about an experiment on board the International Space Station which might, or might not, finally solve what dark matter is about is given a pretty good treatment in New Scientist.  A key part:

Since May 2011, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer has been sitting on the International Space Station, sifting through billions of charged cosmic rays for evidence of those annihilations. If it sees an excessive number of positrons relative to electrons at a certain energy, that might just be a compelling sign of dark matter.

On 3 April, AMS designer Samuel Ting of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reported an expected rise in the ratio of positrons to electrons at energies between 10 and 350 gigaelectronvolts. Frustratingly though, the upturn is not yet sharp enough to attribute to dark matter collisions since the extra positrons could still come from more mundane sources like pulsars. "It's an indication, but by no means is it a proof," Ting says.

In the meantime, a further quirk in the results suggests that if the particles are dark matter, they may not be vanilla WIMPs.

The simplest models predict there should be only a certain amount of dark matter hanging around, and that WIMPs should rarely meet. But AMS has spotted too many positrons for that – so what could make WIMPs collide in space more often than expected?

In 2008, when the PAMELA satellite found a similar excess of positrons, Neal Weiner of New York University and colleagues suggested that WIMPs are drawn together under a force of their own. This new force increases their collision rate but would have escaped our gaze until now because it ignores ordinary matter entirely.
 But perhaps the biggest surprise is:  who knew there was valuable science being done on the space station?

*   I'm sure why the story of the escaped poo during the Apollo 10 mission turned up on the internet s this week, but it is very hard not to laugh while imaging the crisis on board:

"Oh -- Who did it?" Tom Stafford asks at one point. Confused, Young and Cernan reply, "Who did what?"
Cernan: "Where did that come from?"
Stafford: "Get me a napkin quick. There's a turd floating through the air."
Young: "I didn't do it. It ain't one of mine."
Cernan: "I don't think it's one of mine."
Stafford: "Mine was a little more sticky than that. Throw that away."
Young: "God Almighty"
 See - an unmanned satellite has never made you laugh, has it?   

Thursday, April 11, 2013

I wonder what Krugman says about this...

IMF ponders missing inflation mystery - Business - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Paul Krugman loves to point out that economists aligned with the Right have been Wrong in their warnings about dangerous inflation  being just around the corner for years.  So, it's interesting to hear the IMF saying they're not sure why inflation has gone away, too.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

An amusing story found while looking for something else

A former Canberra journalist, writing about an incident in Canberra in the 1960's:
One of the more spectacular drunken performances of the 1960s was in the Senate chamber, when Labor Senator from Western Australia Harry Cant found himself seriously drunk and trapped by a division. The doors were locked and the division required Labor senators to cross to the other side of the chamber, sitting in the places of the government senators for the count, while the government senator moved to the opposition benches. Cant was overcome by an urgent need to vomit. Looking around desperately, he came to a decision. Opening the desk drawer of the government senator’s desk where he was seated, he was violently and noisily sick into it.

When the division was over and the senators resumed their normal places, the government senator in whose place Harry had sat was understandably disgusted. The stench created by this extraordinary happening filled the chamber. He did not draw the President of the Senate’s attention to the outrage or make a fuss. Urgent action was required. All this had taken place in the full view of the journalists in the Senate press gallery and those in the public gallery. News of the outrage was soon all over Parliament House and journalists rushed to get the story. Medical practitioner Dr Felix Dittmer, a Queensland Labor Senator, had the answer. He denied Cant was drunk and ordered that an ambulance be urgently called to take Cant to the Royal Canberra Hospital, just across Commonwealth Avenue Bridge in Acton. Dittmer stated that Cant was suffering from an acute case of ‘renal colic’.

The ambulance arrived and a Labor colleague suggested to Dittmer that it would be discreet for Harry, now prone on a stretcher, to be taken through the back exit of Parliament via the kitchen. Labor Deputy Senate Leader, Pat Kennelly, rejected this. So the little procession of the two ambulance officers carrying the stretcher with Cant prone, and Dittmer leading, made its way through the Senate opposition lobby, across King’s Hall where visitors gaped, and down the front steps to the waiting ambulance. In hospital, Cant made a speedy recovery and was discharged the next day. From then on, if an MP entered either the house or the Senate looking a little confused, the interjection would go out: ‘Renal colic.’

More reason to believe the importance of heat in oceans

New Study: When You Account For The Oceans, Global Warming Continues Apace | ThinkProgress

The abstract of the paper itself:
 Despite a sustained production of anthropogenic greenhouse gases, the Earth’s mean near-surface temperature paused its rise during the 2000–2010 period1. To explain such a pause, an increase in ocean heat uptake below the superficial ocean layer2, 3 has been proposed to overcompensate for the Earth’s heat storage. Contributions have also been suggested from the deep prolonged solar minimum4, the stratospheric water vapour5, the stratospheric6 and tropospheric aerosols7. However, a robust attribution of this warming slowdown has not been achievable up to now. Here we show successful retrospective predictions of this warming slowdown up to 5 years ahead, the analysis of which allows us to attribute the onset of this slowdown to an increase in ocean heat uptake. Sensitivity experiments accounting only for the external radiative forcings do not reproduce the slowdown. The top-of-atmosphere net energy input remained in the [0.5–1]Wm−2 interval during the past decade, which is successfully captured by our predictions. Most of this excess energy was absorbed in the top 700m of the ocean at the onset of the warming pause, 65% of it in the tropical Pacific and Atlantic oceans. Our results hence point at the key role of the ocean heat uptake in the recent warming slowdown. The ability to predict retrospectively this slowdown not only strengthens our confidence in the robustness of our climate models, but also enhances the socio-economic relevance of operational decadal climate predictions.

The important  conclusion:  a "pause" in average surface temperatures does not mean the planet is not warming.

Laser weapons, yay...

Navy deploys laser weapon to shoot down drones. (video)

The video's not that exciting, but it was interesting to read this: 
On Monday, the Navy announced that it plans to deploy its first shipboard laser in the Persian Gulf next year, for use against Iranian attack speedboats and drones. The laser isn't powerful enough to shoot down a missile, but as the video below shows, it can burn right through a small unmanned aircraft.

Less-powerful settings give it the option to "dazzle" a drone's sensors without taking it down.
The laser system is still in development, but so far it has successfully destroyed all 12 of the small boats and drones that the Navy has tested it on, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The system is far from perfect. It doesn't work in bad weather, and it fires only in a straight line, so it can't aim around obstacles, limiting its usefulness on land.
The upside is that it's cheap and easy to use. A nonpartisan study for Congress puts the cost of a sustained pulse at less than a dollar, compared to some $1.4 million for a short-range interceptor missile.
 I didn't think they would be so cheap to run...

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

That odd 1960's event re-visited

UFO returns to park

I had a post in 2010 about this peculiar UFO incident in Melbourne in 1966.  (Something odd was definitely seen, and it seems the military knew about it, but what it was remains very obscure.)

Nice to see that they local area is to get a UFO playground to commemorate it!

Monday, April 08, 2013

More than you probably needed to know

Passing gas: A modern scientific history - Salon.com

This is a really long extract about flatulence, and other related intestinal facts.  There is quite a bit to be amused by, such as this about early research into smells:

I ask Levitt whether it was difficult to recruit volunteers for the flatus studies. It wasn’t, partly because the subjects were paid for their contributions. People who sell their flatus are more or less the same crowd who turn up to sell their blood.

“What was hard,” Levitt says, “was finding the judges.” Levitt needed a pair of odor judges to take “several sniffs” and rate the noxiousness — from “no odor” to “very offensive” — of each of the sixteen people’s flatal contributions. The hypothesis was that noxiousness would correlate with the combined concentrations of the three sulfur gases. And it did.

Curious as to which olfactory notes the different sulfur gases contributed to the overall bouquet of flatus, Levitt purchased samples of the three gases from a chemical supply house. The judges agreed on the following descriptors: “rotten eggs” for hydrogen sulfide, the gas with the strongest correlation to stink; “decomposing vegetables” for methanethiol; and “sweet” for dimethyl sulfide. Though lesser players like methylmercaptan contribute as well, it is for the most part these three notes, in subtly shifting combinations and percentages, that create the infinite olfactory variety of human flatus. To quote Alan Kligerman, “A gas smell is as characteristic of a person as a fingerprint is.” But harder to dust for.
But I did learn things I didn't know:  there is a tablet that is available that is very effective at removing the smell - Devrom.  But even in America - home of the TV advertisement for douching, for goodness sake - no one likes to see or hear advertisements for curing smelly farts.   Hard to believe:
Bismuth pills, on the other hand — and Levitt has tested these, too — reduce 100 percent of sulfur gas odor. Bismuth is the “bism” in Pepto-Bismol. Daily doses of Pepto-Bismol can irritate the gut, but not bismuth subgallate, the active ingredient in Devrom “internal deodorant” pills.

I had never before heard of Devrom. This may be because mainstream magazines often refuse to run the company’s ads. Devrom’s president, Jason Mihalopoulos, e-mailed me a full-page ad he had hoped to run in Reader’s Digest and AARP magazine. A smiling gray-haired couple stand arm in arm below the boldface headline “Smelly Flatulence? Not since we started using Devrom!” Mihalopoulos was told he could not use the phrases “smelly flatulence” and “stinky odor,” or the word “stool.” One of the magazines suggested changing the copy to say that the product “eliminates intestinal gas,” but that’s not what Devrom does. That’s what Beano does. So unless you read the Journal of Wound Ostomy & Continence Nursing or the International Journal of Obesity Surgery, you won’t see the happy, internally deodorized Devrom couple.
 And as for the hydrogen sulfide component, we get this useful bit of information, showing that the worst flatulence won't kill you:
The concentration of hydrogen sulfide in offensive human flatus is around 1 to 3 parts per million. Harmless. Ramp it up to 1,000 parts per million — as can exist in manure pits and sewage tanks — and a few breaths can cause respiratory paralysis and suffocation. Workers die this way often enough that a pair of physicians, writing in a medical journal, coined a name for it: dung lung. Hydrogen sulfide is so swiftly lethal that farm- and workplace-safety organizations urge anyone who enters a manure pit or attempts to clear a blocked sewage pipe to wear a self-contained breathing apparatus. ...

It is fitting that the Devil is said to smell of sulfur. Hydrogen sulfide is a diabolical killer. Its telltale rotten-egg smell, screamingly obvious at 10 parts per million, disappears at concentrations above 150 parts per million; the olfactory nerves become paralyzed.
 What a sneaky gas...

Personal hygiene from far away

I've just noticed that the new deodorant I bought on the weekend (novel because it contains silver ions, which readers will recall work for Japanese space underwear, and therefore hopefully will also work under my armpits) is made in Thailand.   (Mind you, it still contains aluminium, so perhaps the amount of silver ions is inconsequential.  How would you know?)

The toothpaste I am about to start using is from Germany.   So are my preferred toothbrushes.  (Guess which supermarket chain sell them.)   I have noticed razors that come from Greece and France.  I think I tried Korean ones from Aldi once, and they were terrible.   

A lot of soaps and detergents seem to come from New Zealand now.

I am worried that with such globalisation, come the collapse of civilisation, personal hygiene will be one of the first crises.  

Anyhow, the successful meal of the weekend was a beef and beer casserole, based on this recipe.  Next time I would add perhaps half of the sugar, and twice as much Worcestershire sauce.   (I also added a diced carrot and stick of celery too.)  The dumplings came out nice.  I had been wanting to try cooking with beer in a casserole instead of wine for some time.  Can scratch that off the list now.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Black holes and firewalls

Astrophysics: Fire in the hole! : Nature News

Here's a lengthy and interesting article about some relatively new ideas and problems with the physics of black holes.

It's pretty remarkable that working out the physics on the boundary of a black hole is still the subject of such controversy, so many decades after physicists started to think about it.  Still, I guess it's not as if they have one nearby to actually toy with.  In fact, now that I think about it, how close is the nearest likely black hole to Earth?  Seems it might be 1,500 light years - not so far if you're considering the galaxy as a whole.  From a 2012 article:
This beautiful photo from the Hubble Legacy Archive offers a striking look at the Trapezium, four closely packed stars found inside the Orion nebula, some 1,500 light-years away. Lurking inside that image might be our nearest black hole neighbor.

The question of which black hole is the closest to Earth is surprisingly tricky to answer. V4641 Sgr might be just 1,600 light-years away, or it might equally possibly be more like 24,000 light-years away. We've got a better sense of the location of V404 Cygni, which is just 7,800 light-years away. Considering we're a little under 30,000 light-years from the supermassive black hole at the center of the Milky Way, those black holes are certainly in the cosmic vicinity, but they're not exactly super close.

That's why the Trapezium is so intriguing. Something about the stars' movements just isn't right, and the most likely explanation is a hidden black hole.
 Anyway, back to the Nature article.  It's mainly about the idea that the boundary of a black hole might, or might not, have a particularly dangerous aspect to it:
Hawking had shown that the quantum state of any one particle escaping from the black hole is random, so the particle cannot be carrying any useful information. But in the mid-1990s, Susskind and others realized that information could be encoded in the quantum state of the radiation as a whole if the particles could somehow have their states ‘entangled’ — intertwined in such a way that measurements carried out on one will immediately influence its partner, no matter how far apart they are.

But how could that be, wondered the Polchinski’s team? For a particle to be emitted at all, it has to be entangled with the twin that is sacrificed to the black hole. And if Susskind and others were right, it also had to be entangled with all the Hawking radiation emitted before it. Yet a rigorous result of quantum mechanics dubbed ‘the monogamy of entanglement’ says that one quantum system cannot be fully entangled with two independent systems at once.

To escape this paradox, Polchinski and his co-workers realized, one of the entanglement relationships had to be severed. Reluctant to abandon the one required to encode information in the Hawking radiation, they decided to snip the link binding an escaping Hawking particle to its infalling twin. But there was a cost. “It’s a violent process, like breaking the bonds of a molecule, and it releases energy,” says Polchinski. The energy generated by severing lots of twins would be enormous. “The event horizon would literally be a ring of fire that burns anyone falling through,” he says. And that, in turn, violates the equivalence principle and its assertion that free-fall should feel the same as floating in empty space — impossible when the former ends in incineration. So they posted a paper on the preprint server, arXiv, presenting physicists with a stark choice: either accept that firewalls exist and that general relativity breaks down, or accept that information is lost in black holes and quantum mechanics is wrong1. “For us, firewalls seem like the least crazy option, given that choice,” says Marolf.
 There's lots more, and it is well worth reading.