Thursday, October 31, 2013

Seems an odd bit of defence planning...

Navy new destroyer: USS Zumwalt is bigger, badder than any other destroyer ( video) -

This sounds odd:
The USS Zumwalt is big: It is 610 feet long, has an 11,000-square foot flight deck, and displaces 14,564 tons of water. That’s about 100 feet longer and 50 times the water displacement of other destroyers, the Military Times reported.

Despite its colossal size, Zumwalt is also stealthy, with concealed antennas and an angular frame that makes it much less detectable to radar than are current warships. It also packs a punch. Its “Advanced Gun System” fires warheads at a range of about 63 miles with impeccable precision, three times farther than current destroyers can fire, CNN reported. Its massive electrical capabilities are also expected to support future laser weapons.

But, as precedent suggests with ships of unprecedented size, there’s a problem: Engineers aren’t quite sure if Zumwalt ships are capable of weathering giant waves, according to Defense News. A single sizable swell that hits the ship’s back end might take the ship down, engineers have said. That’s because these ships sport a new, downward-sloping hull that primes the ship to move stealthily, but not necessarily stably; traditional ships have upward-flaring hulls.

The ships are controversial for more than just their Achilles hull: They are expensive – the most expensive Navy ships ever built, to be exact.
 Not sure that I would want to be on the crew of the first one that gets into very heavy seas.

(The Defence News article in the link is from 2007, so the issue has been discussed for a long time.)

Dark matter is really hard to find

First results from LUX dark matter detector rule out some candidates

It sounds like a big, expensive experiment that may well turn up nothing.  Still, the challenges of finding dark matter are huge:

Though dark matter has not yet been detected directly, scientists are fairly certain that it exists. Without its gravitational influence, galaxies and galaxy clusters would simply fly apart into the vastness of space. But because dark matter does not emit or reflect light, and its interactions with other forms of matter are vanishingly rare, it is exceedingly difficult to spot.

"To give some idea of how small the probability of having a dark matter particle interact, imagine firing one dark matter particle into a block of lead," Gaitskell said. "In order to get a 50-50 chance of the particle interacting with the lead, the block would need to stretch for about 200 light years—this is 50 times farther than the nearest star to the Earth aside from the sun. So it's an incredibly rare interaction."

Capturing those interactions requires an incredibly sensitive detector. The key part of the LUX is a third of a ton of supercooled xenon in a tank festooned with light sensors, each capable of detecting a single photon at a time. When a particle interacts with the xenon, it creates a tiny flash of light and an ion charge, both of which are picked up by the sensors.

To minimize extraneous interactions not due to dark matter, the detector must be shielded from background radiation and cosmic rays. For that reason, the LUX is located 4,850 feet underground, submerged in 71,600 gallons of pure de-ionized water.

But even in that fortress of solitude, occasional background interactions still happen. It's the job of LUX physicists to separate the signal from the noise.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The JFK anniversary

Adam Gopnik: The Assassination of J.F.K., Fifty Years Later : The New Yorker

Quite a good essay by Gopnick.   I liked the last couple of paragraphs in particular, even though I'm not keen on the very last sentence:
Again and again, the investigation discloses bizarre figures and coincidences within a web of incident that seem significant in themselves. The case of Judith Campbell Exner is famous. She really was J.F.K.’s mistress, and a Sinatra girlfriend, and the mistress of the Chicago Mob boss Sam Giancana, all within a few years. Even if she wasn’t actually a go-between from one to the other, that would not alter the reality that she had slept with all three, and so lived in worlds that, in 1963, no one would have quite believed could penetrate each other so easily. Still more startling is the case of the painter Mary Pinchot Meyer, who was also unquestionably one of Kennedy’s mistresses. She was the ex-wife of a high-ranking C.I.A. officer (who himself had once had pacifist leanings), an intimate of Timothy Leary, at Harvard, and an LSD user. She was murdered, in 1964, on the towpath in D.C., in murky circumstances. Even if none of this points toward a larger occult truth—even if her death was just a mugging gone wrong—the existence of such a figure says something about the weave of American experience. Worlds that seemed far apart at the time are now shown to have been close together, unified by men and women of multiple identities, subject to electric coincidences—no one more multiple than J.F.K. himself, the prudent political pragmatist who was also the reckless erotic adventurer, in bed with molls and Marilyns, and maybe even East German spies.

The passion of J.F.K. may lie in the overlay of all those strands and circles. The pattern—weaving and unweaving in front of our eyes, placing unlikely people in near proximity and then removing them again—is its own point. Mailer was right when he claimed that the official life of the country and the real life had come apart, but who could have seen that it would take a single violent act, rather than “existential” accomplishment, to reveal how close they really were? Oswald acted alone, but the hidden country acted through Oswald. This is the perpetual film-noir moral lesson: that the American hierarchy is far more unstable than it seems, and that the small-time crook in his garret and the big-time social leader in his mansion are intimately linked. When Kennedy died, and the mystery of his murder began, we took for granted that the patrician in tails with the perfect family and the sordid Oswald belonged to different worlds, just as Ruby’s Carousel Club and the White House seemed light-years apart. When Kennedy was shot, the dignified hierarchy seemed plausible. Afterward, it no longer did. What turned inside out, after his death, was that reality: the inner surface and the outer show, like a magician’s bag, were revealed to be interchangeable. That’s why the death of J.F.K., even as it fades into history, remains so close, close as can be, and closer than that. 

Elves are big in Iceland

Why So Many Icelanders Still Believe in Invisible Elves - Ryan Jacobs - The Atlantic

A few paragraphs of particular interest:

Though Jónsdóttir’s belief in elves may sound extreme, it is fairly common for Icelanders to at least entertain the possibility of their existence. In one 1998 survey, 54.4 percent of Icelanders said they believed in the existence of elves. That poll is fairly consistent with other findings and with qualitative fieldwork, according to an academic paper published in 2000 titled “The Elves’ Point of View" by Valdimar Hafstein, who now is a folkloristics professor at the University of Iceland. “If this was just one crazy lady talking about invisible friends, it's really easy to laugh about that,” Jónsdóttir said. “But to have people through hundreds of years talking about the same things, it’s beyond one or two crazy ladies. It is part of the nation.” ...

The elves differ from the extremely tiny figures that are typically depicted as assistants to Santa Claus in popular American mythology. And unlike the fairies of Britain and other parts of Europe, Icelandic elves live and look very much like humans, according to Simpson and other experts. “You’ve got to get right up close before you can be sure it is an elf and not a human,” said Simpson, who began studying Old Icelandic in her undergraduate days and later compiled a book full of Icelandic legend translations. When elves are spotted, they are typically donning “the costume of a couple of hundred years ago,” when many of the stories really came alive.

 Their behavior is also similar to that of people: “[T]heir economy is of the same sort: like humans, the hidden people have livestock, cut hay, row boats, flense whales and pick berries,” Hafstein writes. “Like humans, they too have priests and sheriffs and go to church on Sundays.” This would explain the elf church in the lava field. According to Jónsdóttir, elves can range wildly in size, from a few centimeters to three meters in height. But Icelanders typically come into contact with the smaller ones: one “around one foot tall” and “the perhaps similar to a 7-year-old child.” They may live in houses, sometimes with multiple floors, and, if you leave them alone, they’ll generally mind their own business. According to Simpson, “treat them with respect, do not upset their dwelling places, or try to steal their cattle, and they’ll be perfectly ... quite neutral, quite harmless.”
The whole article is a great read, actually.  (Including views from the elf skeptics of Iceland.)

I guess this may explain a lot about the peculiarity of Bjork, too....

Two years without trial for "blasphemy"

Saudi 'blasphemy' prisoner Hamza Kashgari tweets for first time after release |

Don't think I had heard this story before:
A writer and newspaper columnist in the Saudi city of Jeddah, Kashgari in February 2011 tweeted a series of comments reflecting meditatively on the human side of the Prophet, and imagining a meeting between himself and the Prophet.
Religious conservatives in the kingdom called the tweets blasphemous. Clerics — one of whom posted a video on YouTube of himself weeping at the perceived insult to the Prophet — called for Kashgari’s death.
After fleeing Saudi Arabia to escape death threats, Kashgari was arrested in Malaysia. Saudi authorities jailed him for nearly two years without trial.
Yeah, well, good on you Malaysia. [/sarc].

(It's pretty obvious, given his release, that the tweets were not truly blasphemous.)

We already knew it, but again - Tony Abbott is a "say anything" flake

I didn't note this from a few days ago:
Mr Abbott also said the carbon tax was a socialist policy in disguise.

"Let's be under no illusions the carbon tax was socialism masquerading as environmentalism," he said.

"That's what the carbon tax was."
Rhodes scholarship or not, this man is a not very bright flake of a politician who will just take a "say anything" approach to policies - particularly on climate change - depending on the audience he is talking to.

I am completely unconvinced that he has good judgement in this or any other field.

Having said that, it is near impossible for any government to make only bad decisions.  Being a collective thing, some good policy will get through.

But there are no grounds at all to believe that it will be due to Tony Abbott's intellectual credentials or good judgement.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Government spending needed

Is Australia ready for 2.3 million more people?

Michael Pascoe makes a convincing case that, with significant population growth, it is not the time to be talking of small government:
Thus there's a difficult contradiction at the heart of the new government. It aspires to small government, but it is responsible for a growth country that requires greater public investment. There is a potentially dangerous faith that everything can be left to the private sector to fix, but our duopoly and oligopoly-riddled private sector doesn't make for the purest of market mechanisms.

How to feel inadequate

Restoring F. P. Ramsey | TLS

Can't say I had heard of FP Ramsey before, but this review in TLS says he was a rather important contemporary of Wittgenstein:
F . P. Ramsey has some claim to be the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century. In Cambridge in the 1920s, he singlehandedly forged a range of ideas that have since come to define the philosophical landscape. Contemporary debates about truth, meaning, knowledge, logic and the structure of scientific theories all take off from positions first defined by Ramsey. Equally importantly, he figured out the principles governing subjective probability, and so opened the way to decision theory, game theory and much work in the foundations of economics. His fertile mind could not help bubbling over into other subjects. An incidental theorem he proved in a logic paper initiated the branch of mathematics known as Ramsey theory, while two articles in the Economic Journal pioneered the mathematical analysis of taxation and saving.
And here's the kicker:
Ramsey died from hepatitis at the age of twenty-six in 1930.
Something else of interest from the article is yet another illustration of the way intellectuals at that time seemed to all know each other.  It's particularly odd to hear of Wittgenstein upsetting Keynes' wife!:
Ramsey was by no means all work. As his celebrity grew, so did his circle of acquaintances. Readers of conventional 1920s memoirs will be pleased to find Virginia Woolf, Liam O’Flaherty, Kingsley Martin, Lewis Namier and other luminaries making appearances. Not everybody is shown in a good light, but it should be said that for bad behaviour Wittgenstein was in a league of his own. When Ramsey first met him in Austria, he had given away his vast inherited fortune, and was refusing all offers of financial assistance. This occasioned many practical difficulties, to which he would react like a spoiled child, falling out with well-meaning friends who tried to help him circumvent his problems. Somehow Ramsey and Keynes managed to remain in his good books and arranged for him to visit Britain in 1925. He turned up shortly after Keynes’s wedding to the ballerina Lydia Lopokova. Small talk was not Wittgenstein’s thing. He quarrelled badly with Ramsey and reduced Lopokova to tears with his furious responses to her friendly remarks.

Drunk authors, again

Hemingway hits the bottle | TLS

A few posts back, I mentioned the badly behaving famous writers of the first half of the 20th century.

Well, here's a review of a new book about their problems with alcohol.  A taste:

The reasons why these particular writers drank, or more precisely why they became dependent on alcohol, were inter alia weak, suicidal or resentful fathers (when Cheever was conceived his father’s first act was to invite the local abortionist to dinner), suffocating mothers, class anxiety, sexual anxiety (Cheever endured the dual burden of passing for both bourgeois and heterosexual), shyness, guilt, pram-in-the-hall pressures, disastrous role models (Dylan Thomas in the case of Berryman, who trailed his bad mentor through New York’s traditional stations of dissolution, the White Horse, the Chelsea Hotel; Hart Crane, the alcoholic poet and suicide, in the case of Williams), and a shared genius for self-sabotage. None of them drank to improve his writing, but addiction and recovery became for some an important theme, something to chronicle, and, moreover, had a subterranean but profound impact on their literary styles. Laing is acute about the warping impact alcoholism has on memory, a writer’s major resource. Reading Cheever, for example, she identifies “a persistent attribute of his work: a kind of uncanniness produced by radical disruptions of space and time”. Excess drinking might have contributed special effects to Cheever’s prose, but Laing refuses to romanticize this given the damage done. Similarly, after waxing lyrical about the landscape of Port Angeles, Washington, and empathizing with Carver’s view of Morse Creek as a “holy place”, she adds: “Watching water work through rock, you might come to a kind of accommodation with the fact that you’d once smashed your wife’s head repeatedly against a sidewalk for looking at another man”. 

Monday, October 28, 2013

Tea Party stupidity noted

A Very Expensive Tea Party 

The shutdown and debt ceiling brinkmanship did real damage to the economy. The immediate and direct costs are nicely summarized in a blog post by James H. Stock – an academic economist on the president’s Council of Economic Advisers. His assessment is that the effect is a
0.25 percentage point reduction in the annualized G.D.P. growth rate in the fourth quarter and a reduction of about 120,000 private sector jobs in the first two weeks of October (estimates use indicators available through Oct. 12th).
This is actually lower than the impact expected by some private-sector forecasters; after talking with people I trust, I would not be surprised if the overall impact ends up being closer to a 0.5 percentage point reduction in the fourth-quarter growth rate (annualized, as in the quotation from Mr. Stock.)
Does the country make up this growth later, for example because federal workers can now pay their bills? Probably not, because there is a persistent effect in terms of increasing uncertainty about public finances and about economic performance – and this will depress both some kinds of consumption and many forms of productive investment....

Members of the Tea Party movement express concern about the longer-run federal budget – and the potential negative impact of future debt levels. But their tactics are directly worsening the budget over exactly the time horizon that they say they care about.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Dami admiration

As prepared by my daughter, and posted while watching the X Factor final:

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Krugman, Nordhaus, climate

It must be a weekend for reviews.

Paul Krugman has an excellent one of a new book by somewhat controversial climate change economist Nordhaus.

There are many interesting points made in the review, but I'll just extract some parts from the end about why Krugman thinks it is impossible to get Republicans, as currently constituted, to take climate change seriously:
The point is that there’s real power behind the opposition to any kind of climate action—power that warps the debate both by denying climate science and by exaggerating the costs of pollution abatement. And this isn’t the kind of power that can be moved by calm, rational argument.

Why are some powerful individuals and organizations so opposed to action on such a clear and present danger? Part of the answer is naked self-interest. Facing up to global warming would involve virtually eliminating our use of coal except to the extent that CO2 can be recaptured after consumption; it would involve somewhat reducing our use of other fossil fuels; and it would involve substantially higher electricity prices. That would mean billions of dollars in losses for some businesses, and for the owners of these businesses subsidizing climate denial has so far been a highly profitable investment.

Beyond that lies ideology. “Markets alone will not solve this problem,” declares Nordhaus. “There is no genuine ‘free-market solution’ to global warming.” This isn’t a radical statement, it’s just Econ 101. Nonetheless, it’s anathema to free-market enthusiasts. If you like to imagine yourself as a character in an Ayn Rand novel, and someone tells you that the world isn’t like that, that it requires government intervention—no matter how market-friendly—your response may well be to reject the news and cling to your fantasies. And sad to say, a fair number of influential figures in American public life do believe they’re acting out Atlas Shrugged.

Finally, there’s a strong streak in modern American conservatism that rejects not just climate science, but the scientific method in general. Polling suggests, for example, that a large majority of Republicans reject the theory of evolution. For people with this mind-set, laying out the extent of scientific consensus on an issue isn’t persuasive—if anything, it just gets their backs up, and feeds fantasies about vast egghead conspiracies.
 Nordhaus thinks that immediate action to start reducing carbon is important; but it would seem Krugman's hunch is that he is too optimistic in many respects.

This is also noted in Eli Rabbet's post via which I found the review:
 Of course, these models have both their uses and abuses like any model.  One of the problems, of course, is that damages are a non linear function of the warming and that is hard to capture if the economic world, the one we function in has never experienced such conditions.  For example, since progress, encapsulated as an increase in world GDP, is assumed to grow, one finds that economic damage in IAM models tends, shall one say, to be charitable, to be limited for even global warmings of 10 C.  There is a lot of misplaced confidence by practisioners of IAMism.

Yet another aspect of the War considered

Literary Review - David Cesarani on the disturbing role of women in the Nazi era

I was in the only newsagent I know that carries Literary Review this morning, and once again I found myself thinking how good a publication it seems.   I must put a link to their website at the side.

Anyhow, checking the site this afternoon, it's got a review of an interesting sounding book that takes a bit of a revisionist view of the role of women in Nazi Germany.  It's not pretty:
Making superb use of postwar investigations, interrogations and the transcripts of trials in both West and East Germany, Lower reconstructs the short, frequently brutal careers of 13 woman who served in the East, either on assignment or as volunteers. Some followed boyfriends or spouses, taking a job nearby or moving in with them. With a few exceptions, they took to genocide like little girls take to dolls....

Secretaries who typed up orders and instructions for ghetto clearances were already a species of 'desk murderer'. Yet some did more than just the paperwork. They joined the lads in the shooting, carousing with the killers in breaks between murder. Killing invaded sensual life. One woman recalled that after a day of executions men would return to base and require their female assistants to complete the after-action reports, leading to more than a spot of dictation. It was common for a secretary to become the girlfriend or mistress and then the wife of an SS man, sharing his bed and his murderous pastimes. In these relationships the boundary between the home front and the front line blurred. Already a racially determined process in the Third Reich - what Lower dubs 'racial mating' - marriages in the East 'became essentially partnerships in crime'. Handsome marital homes were available thanks to state-run pillaging, while slave labour provided a supply of (expendable) domestic servants. The power to kill heightened erotic experiences.

In some of the most shocking evidence that she has unearthed, Lower describes how race overrode supposedly natural maternal instincts. One woman, married to an SS officer, beat a Jewish child to death with her bare hands. Another, whose husband ran an expropriated estate, personally killed starving Jewish children who had escaped from a transport. She offered them sweets then shot them in the mouth. Her own child was three years old.

Update:   I just had a read of another review on the site: this one of a second volume of collected Hemingway letters.  I haven't really read any major work by him (at high school, we read "The Old Man and the Sea", but I think that is considered one of his less significant efforts) but it's always sort of fun to read about authors who behaved badly.   (And, indeed, it seems that all the big ones from the first half of the 20th century did.)  In that vein, I enjoyed these paragraphs:

The first volume of the Letters, closes with a disastrous setback to Hemingway's literary aspirations - the theft of all his manuscripts, left unguarded by his wife, Hadley, in a suitcase at the Gare de Lyon - and the second opens with another, no less crushing blow: Hadley's pregnancy. Fatherhood was an unwelcome cramp on Hemingway's style, as the intoxications of European travel and bohemian life in the Latin Quarter gave way to the sober prospect of parental responsibility. Plans were made to return to Toronto, where the couple quickly settled into a new apartment and Hemingway started work as a staff writer for the Toronto Daily Star.

The pall of domestic drudgery dogs Hemingway's letters of this time. He wrote to Gertrude Stein with news of the baby's birth, adding, 'The free time that I imagined in front of a typewriter in a newspaper office has not been. There hasn't been any time free or otherwise for anything.' To Ezra Pound he complained, 'I can't sleep just with the horror of the Goddam thing. I have not had a drink for five days.' He begged his friend to throw him the lifeline of a letter from Europe. The complaints continued even after the family's move back to Paris. 'We have been experimenting with living with a baby etc,' wrote Hemingway to Pound, apologising for the lack of correspondence. 'Hadley sick in bed for quite a while, me for a few days, baby hollers etc. Have tried to write but couldnt bring it off.'

Mawson reconsidered

Mawson doubts: hero or heel?

My handful of long time readers will recall my post about Heather Rossiter's enjoyable book about a (one time) cross dressing Antarctic explorer who was on the Mawson expedition.  (Heather made an appearance in comments too.   That's pleasing.) 

Those people may recall that I found the book's take on Mawson particularly interesting, given that it argued he was actually a bit of a jerk, as it seemed to me he has a fan base to this day.

In light of this, it's of interest to read of a new book that suggests Mawson night have eaten one of the two expeditioners who died on his trip away from the hut!

I only suggested that maybe there had been a bit of a push and shove fight on the edge of a crevasse that caused the first one to disappear.  I hadn't gone as far as to think he might have covered up cannibalism.

Good fun.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A corrective

Are Japanese people really having less sex than anyone else?

I was nearly going to link to the Slate article about young Japanese giving up not just on marriage, but sex, but I am sort of glad I didn't in light of this follow up which puts a more balanced view of the matter.

While it remains true that Japan does have a serious fertility decline, one can play up the weirdness of the culture a little too much.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Surprising news from inside your mouth

Well, I would not have expected this:
The bacteria in the human mouth – particularly those nestled under the gums – are as powerful as a fingerprint at identifying a person's ethnicity, new research shows.

Scientists identified a total of almost 400 different species of microbes in the mouths of 100 belonging to four ethnic affiliations: non-Hispanic blacks, whites, Chinese and Latinos.

Only 2 percent of bacterial species were present in all individuals – but in different concentrations according to ethnicity – and 8 percent were detected in 90 percent of the participants. Beyond that, researchers found that each ethnic group in the study was represented by a "signature" of shared microbial communities.

"This is the first time it has been shown that ethnicity is a huge component in determining what you carry in your mouth. We know that our food and oral hygiene habits determine what bacteria can survive and thrive in our mouths, which is why your dentist stresses brushing and flossing. Can your genetic makeup play a similar role? The answer seems to be yes, it can," said Purnima Kumar, associate professor of periodontology at The Ohio State University and senior author of the study.

"No two people were exactly alike. That's truly a fingerprint."

Well, that's creepy...

Trick or Treat

All about performing masked monkeys in Indonesia.  (Have a look at photo 3 in the slide show in particular.)

Take in moderation

Death by caffeine really is a thing, if you're susceptible

A good explanation of death by caffeine here.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Questionable link

Are California's giant dead oarfish a sign of an impending earthquake disaster? |

I don't recall reading before that oarfish had been caught off Japan in large numbers before its Tohoku earthquake.   But it was reported in the Japan Times in March 2010, so the fish being caught in unusual numbers, and the folklore part, is true.  But then again, the earthquake was March 2011, so these oarfish are pretty extraordinary if they can forecast earthquakes a full year ahead. 

As I was saying a week or two ago....

A deafening silence: the media's response to asylum secrecy
It is remarkable how complacent Australia’s media has been in response to the federal government’s brazenly cynical suppression of information about asylum seeker boat arrivals. There were a few indignant editorials and then the circus moved on.
Read the whole thing...

Monday, October 21, 2013

Kubrick's aliens

2001italia: 2001: The aliens that almost were

Here's a good article talking about all the trouble Stanley Kubrick (and Arthur C Clarke) went to in trying to come up with a credible cinematic alien for the climax of 2001.  

Of course, by not showing them at all, the movie suggests God-like mystery and power, which even goes beyond Clarke's so-called third law:  any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It's just lucky that none of experimental aliens worked.

The return of mother possum....

She's been gone for many months, and the last possum visitor we had was a shy youngster who didn't hang around for long.  But today, the mother possum, easily recognized by the notch in one ear, was back.   Whether or not there is another baby in the pouch is not yet established.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Rubbing it in

A Push to Sell Testosterone Gels Troubles Doctors -

The story starts:
The barrage of advertisements targets older men. “Have you noticed a recent deterioration of your ability to play sports?” “Do you have a decrease in sex drive?” “Do you have a lack of energy?”  

If so, the ads warn, you should “talk to your doctor about whether you have low testosterone” — “Low T,” as they put it. 

In the view of many physicians, that is in large part an invented condition. Last year, drug makers in the United States spent $3.47 billion on advertising directly to consumers, according to And while ever-present ads like those from AbbVie Pharmaceuticals have buoyed sales of testosterone gels, that may be bad for patients as well as the United States’ $2.7 trillion annual health care bill, experts say.

Sales of prescription testosterone gels that are absorbed through the skin generated over $2 billion in American sales last year, a number that is expected to more than double by 2017. Abbott Laboratories — which owned AbbVie until Jan. 1 — spent $80 million advertising its version, AndroGel, last year.
Can anyone explain to me why Americans are so silly as to even allow such direct advertising of prescription drugs directly to the public?   Surely drug companies still make adequate monies from their products which are genuinely needed in those countries which do not permit such open advertising.

Old actor

Sir Christopher Lee and Johnny Depp

Christopher Lee is 91.   Here he is receiving an award from an unrecognisable Johnny Depp.   (Depp must be one actor who can walk down the street with little fear of immediate recognition, his looks are so changeable from film to film.)  

Old skulls

Update:  I've been trying to post to the blog from various Android browsers with not much success. So this post with the following link:

should perhaps be expanded.

The story, which I will now turn into a proper link,  is a pretty good summary of the strangely imprecise and (shall we say) excitable world of  evolutionary anthropology.

It's a subject I have trouble holding much interest in, to be honest, because it has always seemed to be an academic field in which there are particularly strong differences of opinion, yet they are all based on such limited evidence.  

I therefore like this story because it feels like a justification for not being interested in the subject.

And while on the topic of old skulls - I liked the documentary on SBS tonight about the surprisingly successful dig to turn up the skeleton of Richard III.   

Friday, October 18, 2013

Another Wes movie

It's very pleasing that, despite his (what seems) limited commercial success, Wes Anderson's eccentric films still manage to get funded and made.   Here's the amusing trailer for his next one.  (With the talented Ralph Fiennes in the lead, too.   As a good rule of thumb, any movie he is in, of any genre, is worth watching.)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Stress test

I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed at work at the moment.   Back soon-ish.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Here we go...

There is a feeling of doom approaching politics, when an eccentric rich man with no clear political or social philosophy and some hair-brained, half baked economic ideas is going to have considerable negotiating power in the Senate from next year:
CLIVE Palmer is demanding Tony Abbott repeal the carbon tax retrospectively and refund billions in revenue in exchange for his party's crucial Senate support in a move that would enable the businessman to escape a $6.2 million disputed charge for emissions.

The Palmer United Party has formed an alliance with the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party's Ricky Muir, giving the bloc four of the six crossbench votes needed to pass legislation in the Senate without Labor or Greens support from July, subject to a recount in Western Australian.

PUP's official policy is to scrap Labor's carbon pricing regime but the party wants the repeal backdated to start of the carbon tax on July 1, 2012, so companies and households can be refunded.

The Coalition's election promise to scrap the tax is not retrospective, and Mr Palmer's push would force the government to refund the $3.6 billion raised last financial year and $6.5bn in receipts forecast this year.

"In relation to the carbon tax, we've said that we want it abolished from the day it was introduced because if it's a bad tax, it's always been a bad tax," Mr Palmer told the Ten Network.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Making problems disappear

Scott Morrison imposes information blackout on self-harm in detention | World news |

There is something really pretty appalling going on here in terms of political gamesmanship and media co-operation with it.

It suited the Coalition when it was in Opposition to have maximum media exposure of all problem associated with boat arrivals from Indonesia.

The media was happy to co-operate.

Now, it suits the Coalition to minimise media exposure of all problems associated with boats arrivals, and the involve the military in a weekly PR exercise in which limited information is feed out once a week.

Sure, the media can ask questions at these, and the response is increasingly "we won't talk about that for operational reasons."

If the media is not taking an active role in circumventing this attempted and cynical government control of the issue, I want to know why. 

Why is this approach not being the subject of criticism from commentators?   I really find it offensive.

And here's your weekly photo of the Tony Putin quasi military government in action:

Scott Morrison (right), Tony Negus and Air Marshal Mark Binskin

Friday, October 11, 2013

Smacking Niall

Niall Ferguson names and shames me.

Amusing come back from Matthew Yglesias, who Niall Ferguson chose to drag into his feud with Paul Krugman:
The historian Niall Ferguson has decided for some reason to drag your humble blogger into his feud with Paul Krugman:
For too long, Paul Krugman has exploited his authority as an award-winning economist and his power as a New York Times columnist to heap opprobrium on anyone who ventures to disagree with him. Along the way, he has acquired a claque of like-minded bloggers who play a sinister game of tag with him, endorsing his attacks and adding vitriol of their own. I would like to name and shame in this context Dean Baker, Josh Barro, Brad DeLong, Matthew O'Brien, Noah Smith, Matthew Yglesias and Justin Wolfers. Krugman and his acolytes evidently relish the viciousness of their attacks, priding themselves on the crassness of their language.
In my case I'm genuinely unaware of a situation in which I employed crass language to amplify a Paul Krugman attack on Ferguson, though I certainly have had occasion to disagree with Ferguson when he misstates Mitt Romney's educational credentials or blames Barack Obama for rapid Chinese economic growth or says J.M. Keynes was a bad economist because he was gay. Ferguson might want to consider a meta-rational approach in which he wonders if the range of people who disagree with him about such matters doesn't possibly reflect Ferguson's own wrongness rather than the vast reach of the Krugman conspiracy.

Update:  Krugman refers us to a couple of other "acolytes" who have responded.  The one where Josh Barro reviews some of the things he has said about Ferguson is pretty funny.  

They seem to be pretty keen on Ferguson at Catallaxy threads.   I should have known that would mean that he has indeed said many stupid things about economics in the last few years, apart from the "Keynes was gay and therefore a crap economist" theory.

Tony responds

 Carbon price a necessity, says OECD

The head of the OECD has challenged world leaders to put a price on carbon, arguing that fossil fuel emissions must become more expensive if they're to be phased out over the second half of the century.

In a clarion call to industrialised nations, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned that climate change poses a very real risk that doesn't come with a ''bailout option'' like financial crises.

Outlining a new climate agenda from the Paris-based economic club, OECD secretary-general Angel Gurria said there was ''strong consensus'' that carbon pricing - either through a tax or emissions trading scheme (ETS) - should be at the cornerstone of all global efforts to tackle climate change....

The Climate Institute's John Connor said the OECD report was significant given the heads of two other major economic bodies - the IMF and World Bank - had called for similar action just one day earlier.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A sensitive viewer

Gravity: I love you George Clooney but you make me sick | Film |

A poor woman explains how she gets very ill during certain movies; and Gravity sent her stomach into freefall.

Watch this tongue

Niki Savva's column today was quite explicit on unhappiness in the Abbott camp at the role of Peta Credlin, who I saw on TV tonight, stuck by Tony's side during some meeting in Asia:

Behind the scenes his chief of staff Peta Credlin has unfettered licence to roar at the most senior of his colleagues, an entitlement that they resent greatly and which could backfire spectacularly at some point down the track when he, or she who must be obeyed, becomes vulnerable.

People elected to office don't take kindly to being tongue-lashed by unelected staff. Abbott has already been told by at least one senior cabinet minister he will not tolerate it.

While Abbott's decision to tone down is so far working well publicly, it has not won universal applause. Four times in the past few days, four keen observers and participants I spoke to in preparation for this column, one Labor and three Liberal, referred to the rigid staff selection orchestrated by the chief of staff, media restrictions imposed by central command, the seemingly languid responses, and then all mentioned one former leader: Ted Baillieu in Victoria.

None of them meant it as a compliment. Even though no one seriously believes Abbott is another Baillieu, these early markers have sent ripples through the executive corridors and those who watch them closely.
Trouble brewing, by the sounds...

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Some personal information from a female physicist

Backreaction: Women in Science. Again.

Bee's Backreaction blog is always a good read, and it's interesting to see this explanation as to why she is in science.   Seems that girl geeks are very much like boy geeks, and both have trouble "getting" people:

I’ve never been a girly girl; quite possibly having three brothers played a role in that. My teachers constantly complained that I was too quiet, not social enough, did not speak up often enough, did not play with the other kids and was generally awkward around people. I spent a lot of time with books. I never had problems at school, unless you count that I was about as unsporty as you can be. As a teenager I was very into science fiction. And since I wanted to tell the science from the fiction, I piled up popular science books alongside this. You can extrapolate from here.

I studied math and physics primarily because I don’t understand people. People are complicated. They don’t make sense to me and I don’t know what to do with them. Which is probably why I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether or not my male colleagues behave appropriately. They don’t make sense either way. And the women, they make even less sense. Take in contrast a problem like black hole information loss or the recent firewall controversy. Clean, neat, intriguing. So much easier.

Yes, there’ve been some guys who’ve tried to pick me up on conferences but for what I understand of human mating rituals it’s the natural thing to happen among adults and I just say no thanks (the yes-thanks days are over, sorry). Indeed, there’ve been sexist jokes and I try to stay away from people who make them because such jokes come from brains preoccupied with differences between the male and female anatomy rather than the actual subject matter of the discussion. There have been the elderly guys who called me “little girl” and others who pat my shoulders. And yes, that’s probably the reason why I’m sometimes acting more aggressive than I actually am and why my voice drops by an octave when I’m trying to be heard by my male colleagues.

But by and large the men I work with are decent and nice guys and I get along with them just fine.

Tuesday, October 08, 2013

Absolutely realistic, except for...

We went off to see Gravity yesterday, and it's true, it's a truly awesome ride of a movie that is a crowd pleaser and technically amazing, and you should watch it in 3D.  I do not want to discourage anyone from seeing such a spectacle of a movie.

But:  I had did have a problem with its physics.  And with a couple of other things.  On the other hand, one thing which David Stratton had a problem with that I think he is absolutely wrong about.


I suppose I could just refer people to Phil Plait's column on the science in the movie, which I deliberately did not read before I saw it.  He loved the movie, but (like me) can't help thinking about how it shows science.

I was telling my kids exactly what he explains as the main problem with the movie's physics:  you don't move around any substantial distance in orbit by pointing at something and firing rockets.   Anyone who has read anything about astronautics knows that orbits have to be adjusted up or down to play catch up (or slow down) with with another object in orbit.  There is no reference to this at all in the movie, and in fact, "point and fire" is really explicitly shown.   Thinking out loud here - if you did have something ahead of you in the same orbit by scores of kilometres (and, hey, the fanciful notion that space stations work in the same orbit is another key thing anyone who knows anything about space knows does not happen) "point and fire" would result in a vector that puts you in a bit of a higher orbit and make you start slipping further behind.  I think.

That was my main problem with the physics, and I had not noticed the other problem that Plait notes.  (To do with George Clooney letting go.)

But remember, as Plait says, there is so much that is right with the way it shows movement in space, it's easy to forgive it for its problems.

And quite frankly, when I saw the shorts showing Bullock being flung off into space, I could not work out how it could be made into a movie at all, because I just could not imagine anything short of a newly launched rocket rescuing stranded astronauts in space.   The movie is only possible, really, because it pretends things that are not real (in particular, the bit about space stations all being in identical orbits.)

My other comments are about the screenplay:

a.   it's much, much more realistic than many other space movies, but I still don't think astronauts on EVA in orbit get to ramble on with anecdotes in quite the way George Clooney does in this one.

b.  George seems to be unusually ignorant of the personal life of someone who is on his crew.   I would assume shuttle pilots and mission specialists get to know each other really well before they get into space.   (Hey, I know, how else do you explain a key bit of character background?)

c.   David Stratton in his review evidentally had a problem with a really key scene, which he thinks "corny" and out of place in the movie.   I think, in truth, he objects to it due to a possible supernatural interpretation.    But he seems to be ignorant of the Third Man factor, and the use of this in the movie seemed entirely appropriate to me.  It is entirely conceivable that an isolated person in space would have this type of experience;  it has been reported by many people before.  You don't have to interpret it supernaturally at all - it is ambiguous, as are most of the real life stories like it.  There was also absolutely no laugh or snicker in the cinema in the packed one I saw it in, as Stratton claimed there was in the cinema in which he saw it.  He must move in different circles.

Anyhow, as I say, you should still see it.   It's the nearest 99.999999999 per cent (that's not an accurate calculation) of the population will get to the sensation of being in orbit.

Update:  Slate is trying to get clicks by running a ridiculous article: Gravity Is Going to Be a Camp Classic.

Rubbish.  Bullock does very well in the role, I reckon; and what faults there are in the screenplay cannot be described as "camp" by any stretch.

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Went for a drive yesterday....

A Musical Interlude

I've pretty much always paid pretty low attention to pop music.  I might hear a song on the radio or somewhere else and it can half register as good, but won't bother looking up anything about who sings it or how popular it is with anyone else; then years later, I might hear it again in a different context and finally I think "hey, that's really good, let's find out more about it."  And with all people, I expect, this process has become even more pronounced both as I age, but also, as pop music has fractured severely and no one sits around any more watching TV just to see music videos.  If it weren't for X Factor (go Dami, by the way) giving me an annual summation of what's been popular over the last year, it would be even worse.

Speaking of  music videos, I am always a bit surprised to see that they are still made, and many look  quite expensive.   But given that the only place they are shown now in this country seems to be an overnight show which I assume barely rates (Rage), and MTV is said to only be a channel for trash youth shows, why do they still sink money into them?   This is a mystery that I have never seen explained anywhere.

In any event, it was because of an X Factor cover that I heard this song recently, then yesterday I heard it on the radio, and last night I looked it up and realised the band had done another popular song of the last couple of years, and are from Utah and at least the lead singer is apparently a practising Mormon.  And the song has one of these videos that looks quite expensive, but I've never seen it before.   I like it:

Saturday, October 05, 2013

There they go, walking down the street...

The Monkees prove their staying power with latest tour | Las Vegas Review-Journal

It was hearing in the car today the recent-ish (well, it's years old now, I think, but in comparison to the original...) version of "I'm a Believer" that reminded me that, after the death of Davy Jones in 2012, Mike Nesmith had agreed to tour as The Monkees with the two surviving members.  Scary.  (He had declined to tour with the others while Jones was alive - perhaps it was him that he didn't care spending time with?)

So, I thought I would have a look at how this improbably sounding tour has gone down.  From the above link, dated August, it would seem that they haven't been embarrassing themselves after all.  Rolling Stone seems to agree. (And look at the set list.  It's not a short show.)

And now I read that Nesmith is doing a solo tour!  If I lived in the States, I'd be there.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

Derren Brown and free will

SBS 2 has been showing some Derren Brown stage shows, which I think are a few years old now, but have not been on TV here before. (Not that I've noticed, anyway.)

Last week's one was "Something Wicked This Way Comes", and while parts were impressive, other parts weren't.

But tonight was "Evening of Wonders", and it's very good, especially in the second half.   It turns out the whole show is on Youtube.

I had read a bit about it before, and knew that he did a demonstration of the old Spiritualist table turning act.   It was good to finally see it.   But the "Oracle" act, and the ending of the show, are just so puzzling as to how they are done.  Do yourself a favour, as they say, and watch it....

Going back to Something Wicked:  Brown's over-arching career misdirection, so to speak (and this is not a novel suggestion) seems to be to claim that he is a master of psychological influence.  This is a large part of the Something Wicked show, which is also on Youtube.  (You have to watch right to the end to understand.)   He is also interested in hypnotism, and some of his "experiment" TV shows have been all about that; sometimes in ways that have appeared to me to be ethically dubious. 

What occurred to me from watching Something Wicked, and thinking back on his hypnotism shows, is that Brown's career seems virtually designed to try to convince some people that they have no free will.  Yet he must know that some audience members won't be convinced and see it all as part of the act.  But surely some won't.

I am not entirely sure of the ethics of this.  There is some evidence  recently that suggesting to people they have no free will can affect their subsequent behaviour.  I would bet that Brown, given his background, would be somewhat interested in that.  He also claims, at times, to be all about people empowering themselves with self belief and confidence.  But this seems to sit uncomfortably with a stage act in which he probably convinces some that they had no choice but to pick a certain word on a page, because he had primed them to do so.

In any event, this is what I have enjoyed about discovering his work over the last year or so since he has turned up on SBS:  there is something very "meta" about trying to understand where he is coming from and what he is trying to achieve.  And yes, I know he's an ex Christian who has come out as gay and is now very keen to promote rationalism.  (Surprisingly, there is a pretty good profile of him here from the Daily Mail.)  I know all that, but as I say, I still find him and his oeuvre a bit puzzling.

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

What a country....

Belgian euthanised due to sex change distress
A 44-year-old Belgian in distress after a failed sex change was euthanised this week after doctors agreed to the mercy-killing on psychological grounds, national media said Tuesday.

Nathan Verhelst died Monday in a Brussels hospital surrounded by friends after requesting assistance to die in a case that has been highly publicised in Belgium, which became only the second country in the world after the Netherlands to legalise in 2002.

"He died in all serenity," said doctor Wim Distlemans, who told the daily Het Laatste Nieuws that he won permission to be euthanised because "we could clearly say he was in unbearable psychological distress."
What is even more surprising is the number of "psychological grounds" cases, and how they have been increasing:
While there were only six cases of euthanasia recorded on psychological grounds in 2004, there were 33 in 2011 and 52 last year.
I'm not sure why they don't go full on Futurama suicide booth and be done with:

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

Regarding SBY

Indonesia’s 2014 elections: Let the games begin | The Economist

According to The Economist, Tony Abbott's meeting was with a pretty lame president:
THESE days few Indonesians pay much attention to Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The president cuts a forlorn figure: he still has just over a year left in office, but steady underachievement during his two terms has so diminished him that politicians long ago turned to the more exciting matter of his successor. Next year the presidential election takes place in July, after parliamentary elections in April. After months of shadow-boxing, the contest to succeed Mr Yudhoyono is set to become more lively.
I wonder what the new year will bring...

What an appalling hypocrite

Grow up, Gillard. No victim ever becomes Prime Minister | Herald Sun Andrew Bolt Blog

Andrew Bolt has the appalling gall to criticise Julia Gillard for sometimes getting upset with her demeaning treatment at the hands of  certain parts of the internet.   Yet the most personal and appalling site for attacks was clearly Larry Pickering's - both his own columns (claiming to be outing details of her personal life which were utterly irrelevant and which Bolt would know cause offence to any politician) and the comments which would follow them.  Did this stop Bolt from referring his readers to his site?  Nope.

Bolt has become an incredible and morally bankrupt hypocrite, full of self pity over legal problems caused by his own mistakes, who thinks he has a grasp on science better than thousands of scientists, and reinforced in his beliefs by the likes of the IPA. 

The wartime government continues...

Popular TV

One good thing about Breaking Bad finishing is that, at last, the sort of websites I visit can stop talking about it.

I never get caught up in these series that develop a huge following about how they will end.   In any event, let's face it, most TV drama wears out its welcome long before the last series, no matter how impressive the first few years were.  (This has been brought to mind recently by my wife and kids watching early X Files on DVD from the library.  It's the classic case of "should've been killed off 3 years earlier.")

I see that the other example of the cultish "bad dude who people love to watch" drama which recently ended is Dexter.  Its ending went over very badly; Breaking Bad's pretty well.

I have no idea whether I would have liked any of Breaking Bad - I am inherently leery of the moral worth of TV series which dwell on pretty evil characters doing bad stuff for years, no matter how much good acting, wit or "coolness" is involved.   As I have said before, at least a movie of that type is over with in a few hours and doesn't have quite the same potential to influence people.   But I haven't heard of cases of people getting into drug manufacturing because of BB, unlike Dexter, where the connection with actual cases of murder seems to have been pretty much skipped by with little media attention.  Maybe everyone figures that they can kill; making drugs takes equipment and (as I understand it) BB also indicates it takes a certain cleverness.

As for my limited exposure to current TV dramas, last night, under the influence of weeks of ads shown during X Factor, I decided to watch the series opening of The Blacklist.   You know, the show where everyone's first reaction is "oh my gosh, James Spader looks old!"

It's completely over the top in nearly all respects, somewhat derivative, and poor at explaining how the characters are drawing connections to solve a terrorist attack.

But it mainly lost me with the pen in the neck.   I hadn't realised before that FBI training included how to unexpectedly thrust a pen an inch into a side of a neck in such a way that you can nearly, but not quite, cause their death during interrogation.

The show was, in other words, really ridiculous.  And James Spader is old.