Saturday, November 30, 2013

Paying in more ways than one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 29, 2013

Much uncertainty, but none of it good

Continued global warming after CO2 emissions stoppage : Nature Climate Change 

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

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

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Biology is getting weird

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

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

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

Unhappiness continues

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

On Mexican religion

BBC News - The country where exorcisms are on the rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Man stands by statue of Santa Muerte in front of cathedral

 I wonder if people put this image in their homes?

And about time, too

Evangelii Gaudium: Pope Francis vs libertarian economics.

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

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

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

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

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

Still awful

I feel a need to make this observation:   after using it for (what?) a couple of months now, and giving yself time to try to used to it, there is still no doubt:  Slate's last re-design was the most awful news magazine re-design in internet history.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Digging up Oswald

Exhuming Lee Harvey Oswald: JFK’s killer’s corpse was raised based on a conspiracy theory.

OK, maybe one last anti-conspiracy post about the Kennedy assassination.

The Slate article above tells the story of a little remembered conspiracy theory: that the Oswald who shot Kennedy was not the Oswald who went to Russia.

I didn't realise, or didn't recall, that the idea was taken seriously enough that Oswald's body was dug up and examined to confirm it matched Marine dental records.   Amazing.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Odd Russian thoughts to sympathise with

Russian resurrection | TLS

Quite an interesting book review here on the work of Nikolai Fyodorov in Russia, who seems to be credited with starting a peculiarly Russian semi-mystical approach to the potential for science.   The article starts:

According to Tolstoy, Nikolai Fyodorov was a saint, whose programme for the universal resurrection of the dead was “not devoid of sense”. “It is amazing”, he told his sons’ tutor, how Fyodorov “believes in science and the unlimited capability of the human mind”. But what does it mean to believe in science, and what happens to science when it is so dependent on belief? Fyodorov’s legacy in Russia raises a number of questions, including how to explain his attraction and continued appeal for some of Russia’s best minds.
 He was born in 1829, and his key idea is described as follows:
“The common task” was the physical resurrection of the dead. All mankind, Fyodorov wrote, was under a moral obligation to identify and collect the dust of its ancestors; this was a duty every son owed to his forefathers, a duty constantly under threat from the blind forces of nature, by which Fyodorov meant the elemental forces outside and within man: not only the climate but also human sexuality. The hunt for these lost particles was to be an act of gigantic filial labour and “positive chastity”. Motivated by piety, sons and daughters were to devote themselves fully to scientific discoveries that would make the task of resurrection possible. These discoveries would entail not only bringing the dead back to life, but finding space for them to dwell. The deserts would have to be made fertile; other planets would need to be made habitable, and modes of transport to other worlds developed. In effect, Fyodorov was providing a scientific basis for religious myth, the way other nineteenth-century scholars traced the historical existence of Jesus Christ. 
Actually, this reminds me of the approach of Frank Tipler, in that he tries to justify his Christian God and resurrection via science.  And as I have argued before, Tipler's weakest idea was always to do with resurrection - he had to invoke the Many Worlds to get there, which seems extraordinarily untidy.

Fyodorov's idea seems more akin to what I have speculated about - whether the information stored written by a person (particularly on the internet) could ever form the basis in future for the resurrection of personalities.   OK, it's a silly idea, but no worse than some of Fyodorov's speculations:
It is easy to pick out passages that are both moving in their conviction and absurd in their flirtation with literalism: one can see his entire project as born of distrust of the symbolic order. The anthropocentrism occasionally takes striking turns, as when Fyodorov envisions an evolutionary process in which sexual attraction would be replaced by heightened consciousness, a transformation already signalled by the fact that higher animals, as opposed to plants, do not have sex organs on their heads: “If progress will continue in this direction, then the time will come when consciousness and activity will replace birth”. Fyodorov’s worldview betrays a distressing repugnance for physiological function and femininity: maternal attachment is bad because it betrays the past in its attention to the future, but a lack of maternal attachment (in mothers) is even worse. Women who want to act like men are a “teratological phenomenon”, perhaps because they parody the only positive form of femininity – “daughterliness” – as represented by Antigone or Cordelia. Fyodorov fought against decomposition but may have loved dust more than flesh, the way some of Dostoevsky’s heroes love mankind but have difficulties with man.
 Anyhow, his line of thought is said to be behind Russian "Cosmism" which has been influential in their science. I guess it would appeal to those who have to do science under an officially atheist regime. Here's the part that explains a bit about it:
The lineage of Russian Cosmism begins in the eighteenth century with a meteorologist and some metaphysical poets, moves through nineteenth-century speculative fiction, and then blossoms out in religious and spiritual thought of the fin de siècle. Young details the points of contiguity and difference between Fyodorov and some of his better-known contemporaries in Russian religious and spiritual thought: Vladimir Solovyov, Sergei Bulgakov, Nikolai Berdyaev, Pavel Florensky. He finds resonances with Fyodorov in the work of some of the leading figures in Soviet science – Tsiolkovsky; the geochemist Vladimir Vernadsky, with his concept of the noosphere, a kind of ideal superstructure gradually superseding Earth’s original base; the polymath Alexander Chizhevsky, with his theory of the influence of sun spots on history; the botanist Vasily Kuprevich, with his campaign to extend longevity to the point of immortality. The result is a series of thumbnail sketches, linked by “a highly controversial and oxymoronic blend of activist speculation, futuristic traditionalism, religious science, exoteric esotericism, utopian pragmatism, idealistic materialism – higher magic partnered to higher mathematics”.

Uniting many of the Cosmists is an insistence on universal connectivity, on the fluidity of the border between organic and inorganic matter, and confidence in the ability of man to shape his own evolution.
I'm not sure if the "noosphere" of Vernadsky is like the "noosphere" of Teilhard de Chardin, whose ideas I find very appealing.  I'll have to look that up later.

All kind of interesting....

Who gives a toss?

I am surprised that anyone can get excited about the fact that a Governor General with a short time remaining in the job said she was pro Republican and for gay marriage.

Neither issue is going to be a matter she has anything to do with.  There is no prospect of a constitutional crisis in the next few months.  She has already offered to resign because of her Labor connections, and Abbott said it wasn't necessary.

Andrew Bolt has gone over the top about it, but then again, he seems determined to make himself the Human Headline continually full of puffed up outrage about his pet issues. 

Safe as cars

Man survives after car struck by lightning in Newcastle: video

If ever there was proof needed that the inside of a car is a pretty safe place to be during a thunderstorm, this must be it.

Still wouldn't like to be in one struck like this, though...

Sunday, November 24, 2013

How not to regret

Last week, as I observed elsewhere on the internet, I immediately thought that Tony Abbott's response to the Indonesian phone tapping story was very peculiar when he started regretting the embarrassment "caused to" the President.   Why, I said, would we be suggesting that the President has anything to be embarrassed about - he has reason to be angry, not embarrassed.

I see from this weekend's press that my reaction was not alone:

Certainly, Abbott rankled Indonesia in the aftermath of the revelations by not only failing to provide an explanation or an apology, but the manner in which he conveyed his sentiments. Abbott said that the Australia's intelligence activities were to ''help our friends and our allies, not to harm them''.
This was no doubt an attempt to remind Indonesia about the crucial assistance the signals directorate provided in apprehending scores of terrorists. But, given he was responding to the furore over the surveillance of Yudhoyono, it was taken quite differently. As Marcus Mietzner, an analyst of Indonesian politics from the Australian National University, observed: ''To say 'we are spying on [Yudhoyono] for your own good' is outrageous.''

Then there was Abbott's well-intentioned expression of regret for the ''embarrassment'' suffered by Yudhoyono due to ''media reports'' of the spying.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa retorted it was Australia that should be embarrassed. Even so, Abbott repeated the comment in Parliament the next day. A few hours later, Indonesia announced the suspension of military and people-smuggling co-operation.
What I also find odd about this is that I have been assuming that Abbott has been careful to use words crafted for him by his Foreign Affairs specialists.   But if that is right, what is the explanation for the "tin ear" for diplomacy the words illustrate?   Has anyone important from that Department already left after the election?   Does Peta Credlin get to re-work suggestions they make?   Because I think it is pretty clear something has been going wrong here...

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Lewis legacy

It's good to see the 50th anniversary of CS Lewis' death is also being widely remembered, and his legacy analysed.

There's an very lengthy article about him up at the ABC.   The best part of it, I think, is it describes his revival in influence, after the somewhat silly cultural milieu of the 1960's:

Intellectual historians have noted that the cultural trends of this turbulent period reflected an assumption that the prevailing cultural trends represented permanent changes in western culture. Tom Wolfe's essay "The Great Relearning" (1987) captures the Promethean aspirations of this age, in which the past would be discarded as an encumbrance, and the future reconstructed from ground zero. Yet historians such as Adrian Hastings have suggested that this period merely witnessed a temporary change of cultural mood, which some were unwise enough to treat as a fixed and lasting change in the condition of humanity. Hastings remarked that the "dominant theological mood of that time in its hasty, slack, rather collective sweep reminds one a little painfully of a flight of lemmings," propelled forward by "a sheer surge of feeling that in the modern world God, religion, the transcendent, any reliability in the gospels, anything which had formed part of the old 'supernatualist' system, had suddenly become absurd." For Hastings, it was as if the bright new ideas of the 1960s were doomed to implode, incapable of sustaining serious reflection on the deeper questions of life.

He seems to have been right. In the 1970s, the disillusioned began to search again for meaning and existential depth. Lewis bounced back, securing a growing and appreciative readership which kept growing in the final decade of the twentieth century. The reasons for this reversal in Lewis's fortunes are not totally understood. However, there are a number of straws in the wind which help us understand this remarkable resurgence of someone who had been written off by many as a relic of the past. Let me note three.

In the first place, the cultural upheavals of the 1960s gradually gave way to a fresh engagement with some of the deeper questions that Lewis had championed, and to which he provided engaging and winsome answers. His relentless championing of the ongoing relevance and validity of the cultural heritage of the past offered stability in the midst of what many regarded as cultural chaos and anarchy. Lewis's rejection of what he termed "chronological snobbery" opened the way to a revalidation and reappropriation of the religious and cultural legacy of the past.
The rest of the essay is good too:  Rowan Williams has written very favourably of aspects of Lewis too.   (In some very convoluted language, I expect.)

Williams also made an appearance in an article in The Guardian about Lewis, which also mentions Pullman, who loathes Lewis.   [I certainly don't expect Pullman's legacy to count for much in 50 year's time though.   Is that too bitchy?  :) ]

The Guardian article does make the point that the Shadowlands movie with Anthony Hopkins was about as far from fact in characterisation as a movie based on a real person could possibly be.   The old (BBC?) telemovie version was infinitely better.  I would hope someone might be replaying that somewhere this weekend. 

Friday, November 22, 2013

A fight continued

For Philippa.  The rest of you can ignore it.

Old airships

That Time Jules Verne Caused a UFO Scare

When I was a child, my local Council library carried quite a few Jules Verne novels, and I used to enjoy reading them.   I bet their popularity amongst modern kids is pretty non-existant, which is a pity.  

Apart from talking about the peculiar plague of airship sightings that occurred before they existed outside of fiction, this article gives a very good background about the popularity of Verne in his day.   In Back to the Future 3, when Doc and his wife to be talk of their mutual admiration of the author, this was far more plausible than I realised.  

A good article.

"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" used to be even more interesting 50,000 years ago

Mystery humans spiced up ancients’ sex lives 

I don't really try to keep up with human evolution news:  it seems to change too often on too little evidence.

But I do like to imagine what versions of Guess Who's Coming To Dinner could have been many years ago:
The results suggest that interbreeding went on between the members of several ancient human-like groups in Europe and Asia more than 30,000 years ago, including an as-yet-unknown human ancestor from Asia.

“What it begins to suggest is that we’re looking at a Lord of the Rings-type world — that there were many hominid populations,” says Mark Thomas, an evolutionary geneticist at University College London who was at the meeting but was not involved in the work.

The first published Neanderthal1 and Denisovan2 genome sequences revolutionized the study of ancient human history, not least because they showed that these groups bred with anatomically modern humans, contributing to the genetic diversity of many people alive today.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Anti conspiracy summary

John F. Kennedy conspiracy theories debunked: Why the magic bullet and grassy knoll don’t make sense.

I was impressed by the documentary on ABC last week (JFK The Lost Bullet) which really took apart the "magic bullet" theory, and featured a couple of witnesses who were there.

As I said in another post recently, the 1960's seems a long time ago now, and it feels odd to see people who are witnesses to the event who don't look so old.  

Slate features another witness story too which is interesting.

Oh, and here's a detailed and convincing rebuttal of the recently revived Secret Service shot Kennedy by Accident theory.

A different sort of philosophical enquiry

The FBI files on being and nothingness

The FBI under J Edgar Hoover must have been a fun place to work:

The FBI had been keeping an eye on Sartre from as early as 1945. Soon after, they began to investigate his contemporary, Albert Camus. On 7th February, 1946, John Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wrote a letter to “Special Agent in Charge” at the New York field office, drawing his attention to one ALBERT CANUS, “reportedly the New York correspondent of Combat [who] has been filing inaccurate reports which are unfavorable to the public interest of this country.” Hoover gave orders “to conduct a preliminary investigation to ascertain his background, activities and affiliations in this country.” One of Hoover’s underlings had the guts to inform the director that “the subject’s true name is ALBERT CAMUS, not ALBERT CANUS” (diplomatically hypothesizing that “Canus” was probably an alias he had cunningly adopted).

The irony that emerges from the FBI files on Camus and Sartre, spanning several decades (and which, still partly redacted, I accessed thanks to the open-sesame of the Freedom of Information Act) is that the G-men, initially so anti-philosophical, find themselves reluctantly philosophizing. They become (in GK Chesterton’s phrase) philosophical policemen.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

I hope this works...

Hola – free program lets you enjoy any website from any country [Freeware] | The Red Ferret Journal

...but I haven't tried it yet.

Update:   it works!   At last, Colbert is mine again.   (Don't spread this around too much, though.)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Some like it hot

Chilly lab mice skew cancer studies 

International guidelines call for laboratory mice to be kept at room temperature. Yet the rodents find that range — 20–26 °C — uncomfortably chilly, says immunologist Elizabeth Repasky of the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, New York. Mice, she notes, lose body heat more rapidly than humans, and, when given a choice, prefer to reside at a balmy 30 °C.

At stake might be more than just creature comforts. In a study published today by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1, Repasky and her colleagues report that in mice housed at room temperature, tumour growth was faster than in those housed at 30 °C, and immune responses to cancer were suppressed.

Sea level rise is complicated

Changing winds dampen Antarctic sea-level rise 

Working out the future of global sea level rise under AGW is very complicated, as this article shows.

Anti Randianism noted

Ayn Rand’s vision of idiocy: Understanding the real makers and takers -

I love a good bit of anti-Randianism, and this article is quite a detailed attack. 

Argument for age of consent reform

Lowering the age of consent: U.K. public health advocate John Ashton wants to relax the age of consent to 15.

From Slate, an interesting article on this issue starts as follows:
 In 16th-century England, the age of consent was set at 10 years old in an effort to protect young girls from sexual abuse by adult men. In 1875, parliament raised the age of consent to 13; in 1885, it upped it to 16. Now, a leading public health advocate has proposed that the United Kingdom bring the age down again in light of the high proportion of British adolescents who are having sex—with one another—before they’re legally capable of granting consent.

Lowering the age of consent to 15 (where it stands in Sweden) or 14 (where it’s set in Germany and Italy) would “take these enormous pressures off children and young people” who feel they need to hide their sexual activity, said John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health.
It makes quite a difference to realise the substantially lower age in some European countries hasn't caused their society to fall apart.

Update:  I would have thought that the most obvious necessary reform for this area would be the adoption of "Romeo and Juliet" style laws, which (as far as I can see from Wikipedia) has surprisingly been an innovation in some American states, including currently conservative ones.   

Krugman, Colebatch, and the big picture

Paul Krugman has an interesting column in which he seems somewhat persuaded by an argument that the world may have moved to a sort of permanent economic slump:
Again, the evidence suggests that we have become an economy whose normal state is one of mild depression, whose brief episodes of prosperity occur only thanks to bubbles and unsustainable borrowing. 

Why might this be happening? One answer could be slowing population growth. A growing population creates a demand for new houses, new office buildings, and so on; when growth slows, that demand drops off. America’s working-age population rose rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s, as baby boomers grew up, and its work force rose even faster, as women moved into the labor market. That’s now all behind us. And you can see the effects: Even at the height of the housing bubble, we weren’t building nearly as many houses as in the 1970s

Another important factor may be persistent trade deficits, which emerged in the 1980s and since then have fluctuated but never gone away. 

Why does all of this matter? One answer is that central bankers need to stop talking about “exit strategies.” Easy money should, and probably will, be with us for a very long time. This, in turn, means we can forget all those scare stories about government debt, which run along the lines of “It may not be a problem now, but just wait until interest rates rise.” 

More broadly, if our economy has a persistent tendency toward depression, we’re going to be living under the looking-glass rules of depression economics — in which virtue is vice and prudence is folly, in which attempts to save more (including attempts to reduce budget deficits) make everyone worse off — for a long time. 

In other economics talk of note, Tim Colebatch gives the thumbs up to a new book by Garnaut about what Australia should be doing:
What to do? The first priority, Garnaut insists, is to try to bring the dollar down, a lot. It's not the only thing we have to do, but without that, all else is in vain. Newman's contrary view that the dollar is only a minor issue is silly, as his muddled comparison of Australian and US wages shows. In $A, our average manufacturing wage rose 11 per cent between 2009 and 2012. In $US, it rose 42 per cent. Three-quarters of that rise came from the rising dollar. We cannot restore our lost competitiveness without bringing it down.

Garnaut hopes that more interest rate cuts could do the trick. Experience suggests that's optimistic: in my view, the Reserve Bank needs to intervene in the markets to drive the dollar down, with the government helping by removing the $2 billion a year tax break to foreign owners of government bonds.

What about the budget? Garnaut's forecasts imply that, without action, the deficit could blow out horribly ahead - yet to cut spending and/or raise taxes would slow the economy further. He advocates doing both, trimming middle class welfare while closing tax breaks, but offsetting this (as Hockey plans to do) by a strong push to build productivity-enhancing infrastructure - chosen on economic merit, not for political reasons.

Monday, November 18, 2013

St Francis revisited

Here's an enjoyable article by Joan Acocella reviewing a couple of recent biographies of St Francis of Assisi, which gives a decent short history of his life.

I had not realised he had been such an immediate success.  But I had heard of his eccentricities before:
A corollary of Francis’s devotion to humility was his distrust of book learning. Almost proudly, it seems, he called himself “illiteratus.” He never owned a complete Bible. He never became a priest. To him, book learning smelled of wealth—only rich people had books at that time—and thus of arrogance. One medieval source records his response to a novice who asked for a psalter: “When you have a psalter, you will want a breviary; and when you will have a breviary, you will install yourself in a throne like a great prelate, and you will command your brother: ‘Bring me my breviary!’ ” He then took some ashes from the hearth and rubbed them into his body, all the while repeating, “I’m a breviary, I’m a breviary!” Over time, his hostility to scholarship encouraged some people—for example, members of religious orders devoted to education, such as the Dominicans—to regard the Franciscans as a bunch of oddballs and half-wits, which, no doubt, some of them were. Francis accepted into the community anyone who applied. There was no test, no waiting period.

The story about the psalter seems to represent Francis as a man of rigid principles. He was not. To every rule, he made exceptions, on the spot. No friar could ride a horse (a symbol of wealth), but if the friar was sick, all of a sudden a friar could ride a horse. No new entrant, in divesting himself of his goods, could give them to his family, but if it turned out that the man’s giving away his ox would impoverish the family, the ox stayed home. Francis believed in discipline—fasting, hair shirts—but he didn’t eat bugs, and he warned the friars that excessive fasting was harmful to “Brother Body.” Also, he occasionally advised his followers to find their own way to salvation. On his deathbed, he said to them, “I have done what was mine to do. May Christ teach you what is yours!” This is strange, since he had so clear a program for a Christian life. He may not have meant to be permissive, but he often was.

Which was certainly owing in part to another of his characteristics, attested to by everyone who knew him: an extreme natural sweetness. He was courteous, genial, extroverted—he was fun, a quality not always found in saints—and he laid it upon the brothers, as a duty, to be cheerful.
Read the whole thing.

Unusually preserved singers

English singer Petula Clark is back 'Downtown' -

The 1960's now feels like a long, long time ago, and as with Shirley Bassey, it can be startling to realise a singer from that era is still alive and still working.

It turns out Petula Clark, aged 81, is still at it.  I haven't thought about her for a long, long time; but when thinking of "Downtown", I am inclined to join Gerald the Gorilla* and observe that the production on that album is amazing.  

Speaking on the big production values of the 1960's, I thought this recent article in The Guardian by Jimmy Webb about the making of Macathur Park with Richard Harris was interesting.  (When did Harris die?  2002?  Doesn't seem that long ago.)

I suppose I shouldn't be all that surprised that famous singer from the 1960's are still with us, given Paul McCartney and the Stones rarely being out of the news.   But it's the ones who you don't think of for ages who suddenly turn up still alive who cause the surprise.  

* yes, I know, he was talking of Johnny Mathis, who I see is still alive and aged 78.  (I am contractually obliged to mention this sketch at least once a year.)

Stoic revival

I see via Mary Beard's blog that the second "Live Like a Stoic Week" is soon upon us, and more detail can be learnt from the "Stoicism Today" website.

Well, I suppose it's just lucky that we don't have any academics into reviving Cynicism by following the example of Diogenes:
From Life of Diogenes: "Someone took him [Diogenes] into a magnificent house and warned him not to spit, whereupon, having cleared his throat, he spat into the man's face, being unable, he said, to find a meaner receptacle."
That was from the Wikipedia entry on unpopular house guest Diogenes.  I also learn from there the origin of the "cynic":
The term "Cynic" itself derives from the Greek word κυνικός, kynikos, "dog-like" and that from κύων, kyôn, "dog" (genitive: kynos).[48] One explanation offered in ancient times for why the Cynics were called dogs was because Antisthenes taught in the Cynosarges gymnasium at Athens.[49] The word Cynosarges means the place of the white dog. Later Cynics also sought to turn the word to their advantage, as a later commentator explained:
There are four reasons why the Cynics are so named. First because of the indifference of their way of life, for they make a cult of indifference and, like dogs, eat and make love in public, go barefoot, and sleep in tubs and at crossroads. The second reason is that the dog is a shameless animal, and they make a cult of shamelessness, not as being beneath modesty, but as superior to it. The third reason is that the dog is a good guard, and they guard the tenets of their philosophy. The fourth reason is that the dog is a discriminating animal which can distinguish between its friends and enemies. So do they recognize as friends those who are suited to philosophy, and receive them kindly, while those unfitted they drive away, like dogs, by barking at them.
 Maybe I had read that before, but forgotten.   

Big hail

Having suffered some house damage in a hail storm exactly one year ago, I certainly have a good idea how scary it would have been to be in the huge and damaging hail that hit the Sunshine Coast on the weekend.   

The biggest hail stones appear to be the of the type which are make up by smaller hail freezing together, but that still makes for a massive chunk of  ice falling out of the sky.  I think there was a report of one person injured directly by the hail; it's a wonder there weren't more.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Dubious theory noted

I seem to have missed "biocentrism," as coined by medical Professor Robert Lanza, but it got a run in The Indpendent the other day, in a somewhat confusing article which says Lanza thinks his theory means that there is definitely life after death.  It sounds rather like Hugh Everett's idea that he would continue living in another corner of the multiverse - but not quite.   (I don't know that anyone has put this "multiple versions of everyone" idea to much philosophical, theological or science fiction consideration yet.  It always seems to me that it must be good for some interesting conjecture about God and the meaning of the universe, and it's a topic I often find myself thinking about in the shower.  Never with any worthwhile result, however.) 

Reddit has an article on it which contains more criticism, and there is a Wikipedia entry too.

Doesn't seem all that promising to me...

Captain Shaky

I knew nothing really about the events portrayed in Captain Phillips, even though they only occurred in 2009, and this is an excellent way to have seen the movie yesterday.

It's a very solid film:  good acting, pretty good writing, and just a really interesting story.  But there are a couple of, not exactly reservations, but at least observations I would make:

a.  the US military obviously fully co-operated with the film, and it's no wonder, given they are the heroes of the piece.   But the movie does perhaps treat them as so superbly efficient that, on reflection,  they seem just about too good to be true.   I can't really call this a criticism of the film - the US military probably deserves some unreserved cinematic high praise at least once in a while - but it wouldn't have hurt to shown one military character being a bit more human.

b.  Given that I have spent the last decade or so concentrating more on children's movies than adult ones, this was the first film I have seen by Paul Greengrass.  David Stratton and others have long complained or at least noted this director's love of hand held camera, or "shaky cam", and I have finally seen what it is like.

It's self evident that the style works best for documentary style story telling, and this movie certainly fits the bill.   As I have already indicated, it didn't ruin the movie for me, but I have got to say, it must surely make a director's job a hell of a lot easier to do an entire movie in this fashion.  I mean, it's virtually a complete jettison of concern about careful composition of a shot:  the actors just need to be approximately where they should be, and the cameraman just has to get them approximately in shot.  I would also assume it makes shooting the film a hell of a lot faster.

But given its limitations, it would seem almost a cheat to me if Greengrass got a Director's award for the film, no matter how much critics liked it.     

Still, I recommend it.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Yet another possible solar/hydrogen "breakthrough"

Researchers create a low-cost, long-lasting water splitter made of silicon and nickel

New proposals for putting together solar power and hydrogen production from water seem to be cropping up all the time.   It would be good if one of them ever got to production scale.

I see this article suggests the hydrogen would be used in fuel cells to generate power overnight or when it is cloudy.   (Well, hot salt systems seem to work overnight anyway.)   I wonder if this is more efficient than just burning hydrogen under the salts to keep them hot?  

Some other article I read recently suggested that putting small nuclear reactors at solar power stations could work well too.  I can't find it right now, though...

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Friends in high places

Gina Rinehart meets Coalition MPs in secret trip to Canberra

Australia's richest woman, Gina Rinehart, invited a small group of Coalition friends for drinks in her private hotel suite, after planning a secret flight to Canberra to visit the Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce.

Some of Mrs Rinehart's closest political friends, the Speaker Bronwyn Bishop and Liberal Party senators Cory Bernardi and Michaelia Cash, were invited to join the billionaire for the intimate gathering on Wednesday night.

The iron ore magnate, who has vigorously supported Prime Minister Tony Abbott's plans to abolish the carbon and mining taxes, suggested the politicians meet for drinks in her Canberra hotel room to avoid media attention.

It is understood the reason for Mrs Rinehart's surprise trip to Canberra was so she could attend Parliament House to watch Mr Joyce's maiden speech on Thursday as the newly elected MP for New England.

It is understood Mrs Rinehart's secretary booked a room in the Hyatt Hotel and organised a private jet to fly from Sydney to Canberra late on Wednesday.

The billionaire had also planned to meet senators Bernardi and Cash and the Speaker, Ms Bishop, for lunch on Thursday after Mr Joyce's speech.
Yeah, well, that's a great look isn't it.  Not just swinging by to dine with old buddy Joyce, but to meet up with the new Speaker of the house, during a term in which several policies in which Gina is personally interested financially will be hotly contested.    
And Abbott's idea of government in secret (covered well on 7.30 last night) continues to attract only muted criticism from the Murdoch press.
Abbott is just showing himself as the most appalling hypocrite, even by the normally low standards of politicians. 

The Kevinburg finale

As I wrote elsewhere last night:

Rudd performed well in initial interviews on his return, but his old policy-on-the-run habit re-asserted itself during the campaign, as well as his vanity. Still, it’s true, I would have preferred Labor to have won this election under him, as I consider Abbott has certainly become a flakey politician with no sign of having good intuitions on anything currently important.

But having lost the election, it is indeed a good thing to see the final end of the Rudd experiment, which in terms of the internal affairs of Labor, was a clear disaster.

Julia Gillard has wished Kevin Rudd well following the announcement of his resignation from Parliament.
Ms Gillard tweeted her best wishes on Thursday morning to the man who ended her prime ministership.
 She's obviously not an embittered ex politician.   She was always likeable, and remains so.  

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

High dollar frustration

Reserve Bank should intervene to push down the Australian dollar

Tim Colebatch continues his argument that the ongoing problem for the Australian economy is the high Australian dollar, and it deserves Reserve Bank intervention.

I had thought that the Abbott government would reap the benefit (under false pretences) of an Australian dollar which appeared to be heading down to a permanently lower rate.  But it keeps hovering around the mid 90's, which is not good enough.  As Colebatch argues:
The high dollar cannot last forever. But there is a limit to how long companies can go on losing money while waiting for the dollar to fall. We are allowing a temporary over-valuation to shut down economic capacity permanently. This is not how the successful Asian economies operate.
I find this a very convincing take on the matter.

How many still displaced in Japan

Little hope of evacuee homecoming | The Japan Times

I had been wondering recently about the number of people in Japan who are still displaced as a result of the Fukushima reactor accident, but it's been hard to find current numbers via Google.

The article above gives an indication, however:
There is still little prospect that nuclear refugees will be able to return to their homes near the Fukushima No. 1 power plant, the government said in a new report.

The report, submitted to the Diet on Tuesday, notes that the reclassification of evacuation zones around the plant has been completed and that the cleanup is continuing.

But the government failed to specify when evacuated residents — some 81,000 as of September — will be able to return to their hometowns.

Challenges cited by the government include the need to ease health worries and stop false rumors about radiation exposure.
According to the report, which covers progress between October 2012 and September this year on reconstructing areas hit by the 2011 natural and nuclear disasters, the total number of evacuees is now around 280,000, compared with about 470,000 shortly after the disasters.
 So, about 81,000 appears to be the answer.

When nuclear goes wrong, it is massively disruptive and hugely expensive to clean up.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

They chose the wrong typhoon

HotWhopper: Ethically-challenged Anthony Watts is seeking revenge, playing games with tragedy. How low can he go?

I have been meaning to add a link to the Hot Whopper blog, where Sou puts in what is now almost certainly the most detailed and comprehensive critiques of Anthony Watts and his increasingly desperate Watts Up With That blog.

As the story linked above explains, Watts unwisely chose to publish a way-too-early post along the lines of "you see, this typhoon wasn't as bad as the media made out" post.

I'm not sure if they are still updating the number of dead, but the post is one of the most embarrassing things Watts has ever published.

As David Appell and Andrew Friedman note, actual climate scientists are cautious in their comments about climate change and typhoons.   But even Lomborg says it would seem the research is pointing towards possibly fewer, but stronger, typhoons in the future.   Then he goes on to complain that it is immoral (!) to use this typhoon to argue for CO2 cuts, because adaptation is better!   He's become a one track idiot - adaptation to 6 m storm surges in seaside towns and villages in poor countries like the Philippines or Bangladesh?  Yeah, sure. 

UPDATE:   someone in comments wanted me to update this.   You can see my response, but I will add an update after all, from a blog post that has a good discussion of why typhoons are particularly destructive and deadly in that part of the world.  I thought this part was especially interesting:
There are hints that global warming may be playing a  role here: One 2008 study (pdf) in Nature found that the very strongest typhoons in the northwest Pacific seem to have become somewhat more intense since 1981 — by about 20 mph, on average — as the oceans have warmed. Yet making out a clear trend in tropical cyclones over the past few decades is notoriously difficult, and attributing the strength of a single storm like Haiyan to man-made climate change is even harder.
Interesting.  You have to wonder whether those scientists in the "attribution wars" who always urge caution (to the point of being dismissive) on AGW contribution to an extreme weather event are actually the ones being somewhat prematurely misleading.

Monday, November 11, 2013

In defence of Tom

Tom Cruise did not make widely reported claim that acting is as tough as combat 

I saw them talking about this on Sunrise over the weekend - how Tom Cruise had said that making movies was like fighting in Afghanistan.

If you read the above link, in fact poor old Tom was careful to be specifically dismissive of the suggestion. 

This was just an appalling bit of mischief making by someone in the media, by the looks.

Tom may be in a nutty religion, but he has made many very good science fiction and action films, and I just want people to leave him alone.  (Readers are invited to imagine me overly emotion in a Youtube video making this plea.)  

Ted Cruz - Student jerk

Ted Cruz was a polarizing figure at Harvard Law, foreshadowing his partisan profile in the Senate - Politics - The Boston Globe

Tea Party "hero" (for leading a campaign that failed and led to the Republican's loss in popularity, but hey, whoever said the Tea Party had smarts?) Ted Cruz is the subject of a not very complimentary story in the Boston Globe about his time at Harvard.  An example:
As they were entering their second year in law school, Melissa Hart agreed to give Cruz a ride from New York, where Cruz was at the end of the summer, back to Cambridge. She didn’t know him well, but he sought her out after she had been given a prestigious award for first-year students.

“We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ,” Hart said. “When I told him I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, what’s your SAT score? That’s closely coordinated with your IQ.’ ”

“It went from, ‘Nice guy,’ ” she said, “to ‘uh-oh.’ ”
 Strangely, he was very keen on acting at that age.   The article suggests he still is.

I also see that the Australia Tea Party sub branch known as Catallaxy has commenters who think he is a promising Presidential candidate.  I suspect the Democrats would celebrate if he does run.

Arty photography made easy

The range of free or cheap apps available on tablets these makes arty photo manipulation ridiculously easy.  One effort by my primary school daughter, for a school project, for example:

I am still a little surprised, however, that it is hard to find a photo app that really does everything you can on (say) some PC software.  There is usually something I can't do on my Android tablet.  Then again, I haven't gone and just got the Adobe Photoshop Touch app, which I see is only $10.  

This will probably be my Christmas present to myself.

PS:  for anyone who cares what I think about apps, I find Sketchbook Pro is really a very good art app which is very useful for dealing with photos too.  It does take a bit of getting used to, though.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Friday, November 08, 2013

Babies and bugs

Babies weak immune systems let good bacteria in 

As any new parent knows, infants are notoriously susceptible to bacterial infections. A study now suggests that the body engineers this vulnerability deliberately, allowing beneficial microbes to colonize the baby’s gut, skin, mouth and lungs. Learning to manipulate this system could lead to treatments for infections in newborns, and perhaps even improve the way babies are vaccinated.

n the womb, a fetus is sterile. But from the moment that a baby travels down the birth canal, bacteria and fungi begin their colonization. How the immune system tolerates this sudden influx of invaders has been a mystery.
I wonder, from where do babies born via caesarian pick up their useful bugs.   Must look around for that information later...

Update:  an answer? -
In vaginally-born babies, the bacteria destined for the gut microbiota originate primarily in the maternal birth canal and rectum. Once these bacteria are swallowed by the newborn, they travel through the stomach and colonize the upper and lower intestine, a complicated process that evolves rapidly.

Infants born by cesarean section—particularly cesareans performed before labor begins—don’t encounter the bacteria of the birth canal and maternal rectum. (If a cesarean is performed during labor the infant may be exposed to these bacteria, but to a lesser degree than in vaginal birth.) Instead, bacteria from the skin and hospital environment quickly populate the bowel. As a result, the bacteria inhabiting the lower intestine following a cesarean birth can differ significantly from those found in the vaginally-born baby.

The wages of sin (or at least, dubious taste)

To dye for? Jury still out on tattoo ink causing cancer

Given that I would be pleased if the entire tattoo industry was banned, and my "anti tattoo league" post continues getting hits and (often) upsets the tattooed of the world, I have been reading the stories about the possible dangers of tattoo ink with interest.  The article above is not sensationalist enough for my purposes, but it gives a reasonable background.

I hear the trip is going well...

Just trying to get an extra click or two...

Longer lives

An extra six months to live: babies can now expect to reach 82 in Australia 

That's nice.

But I was surprised that we are third behind not only Japan (that was expected) but also Hong Kong.

Given that I would say the average diet in Hong Kong contains much more fat than Japan, I am surprised it is up there in the longevity stakes.  Is it because they both eat a lot of fish?

Thursday, November 07, 2013


Risk of massive asteroid strike underestimated 

The asteroid that exploded on 15 February this year near the city of Chelyabinsk in the Urals region of Russia was the largest to crash to Earth since 1908, when an object hit Tunguska in Siberia. Using video recordings of the event, scientists have now reconstructed the asteroid's properties and its trajectory through Earth’s atmosphere. The risk of similar objects hitting our planet may be ten times larger than previously thought, they now warn....

The rock was an ordinary chondrite from the asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, as revealed by its trajectory and by its elemental and mineral composition, mainly silicates that formed the Solar System billions of years ago. At the time it entered the atmosphere, its mass was of the order of 12,000–13,000 metric tonnes, report two studies published online today in Nature1 and another study published at the same time in Science2. This is nearly twice as heavy as initial estimates had suggested and also larger than revised estimates published in June.

The asteroid roared through Earth’s upper atmosphere at an initial speed of around 19 kilometres per second — more than 50 times the speed of sound. At an altitude of between 45 and 30 kilometres, the heavily fractured, and hence rather fragile, body broke into pieces and finally burst into gas and dust at around 27 kilometres' altitude.

“Luckily, most of the kinetic energy was absorbed by the atmosphere,” says Jiří Borovička, an asteroid researcher at the Astronomical Institute, part of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic in Ondřejov, near Prague. ”A more solid rock that might have blasted closer to the ground would have caused considerably more damage.”

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Where Pope Francis is coming from

This does sound consistent with the way Pope Francis has talked since taking on the top job, and it is very remarkable:
What is the fundamental difference between Judaism and Christianity? Writing for Commentary in 1948, Irving Kristol argued that while Judaism took human experience as its starting point, Christianity began with principles it believed to be eternally true and demanded that human life conform to them. Judaism, he averred, posits “an unbreakable bond between the love of God and the love of all reality” and sanctifies all dimensions of life. Christianity, in contrast, encourages asceticism as a means of transcending our creaturely nature.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio—now better known as Pope Francis—strongly disagrees. In On Heaven and Earth, a series of conversations with Rabbi Abraham Skorka of Argentina translated in April, he asserts that Christianity must understand the needs of humans. He rejects attempts to impose dogmatic principles onto human life, and thinks that the Church must be sensitive, and even sometimes deferential, to cultural change. Indeed, he notes, “religion has a right to give an opinion as long as it is in service to the people.” In so arguing, he presents a vision of Catholicism that is both deeply principled and unabashedly heterodox.   
Bergoglio insists that the Church cannot transcend culture. He is unafraid to illustrate how the Church has changed in response to shifting cultural trends, pointing to, for instance, its recent acceptance of divorcees as full members. He takes this point further by suggesting that more changes might be necessary. In an astonishing concession, he opines that the Church’s sensitivity to the course of human events might someday lead it to discard the celibacy requirement for the clergy.

Krugman rubs it in

Paul Krugman has some fun in yet another post about Republicans who refuse to give up on their "dire inflation just around the corner" warnings:
Back to the evidence versus the orthodoxy. I can, in a way, understand refusing to believe in global warming — that’s a noisy process, with lots of local variation, and the overall measures are devised by pointy-headed intellectuals who probably vote Democratic. I can even more easily understand refusing to believe in evolution. But the failure of predicted inflation to materialize is happening in real time, right in front of our eyes; people who kept believing in inflation just around the corner lost a lot of money. Yet the denial remains total.

I guess it’s a matter of who you’re gonna believe — Ayn Rand or your own lying eyes.

Norman explains

What the research says about cholesterol and statins - Health Report

I tend to trust Norman Swan when he summarises where medical science is at, so this article in response to the recent kerfuffle about the Catalyst program seems pretty good to me.

(It certainly seems the first episode of the two parter - neither of which I happened to see - relied on doctors of the shonky salesmen variety.  Why would a normally good show like Catalyst do that?)

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

They could be right

Nuclear energy needed to head off climate change, scientists say

I still say that there really needs to be a serious look, perhaps by an internal scientific/engineering commission of some sort, at the type of smaller scale, passively safe nuclear reactor designs which could be more rapidly deployed than the enormously expensive large nuclear power plants which take a decade or more to build and forever to decommission.

But I've been saying that for years...

Goal achieved

Health Check: should we aim for daily bowel movements?

This article, by a doctor who seems to have a particular interest in constipation, is most notable for the Bristol Stool Chart.  I am slightly amused at the prospect of being able to assign a particular category to my daily "habit".  

My body seems to have adapted to a daily pattern identical to my father's.  I wonder how other many people find that...

Monday, November 04, 2013

Direct brain stimulation for self improvement coming?

If this story does not end up in Jason Soon's twitter feed, I'll eat my hat.

A fascinating article in the New York Times (Jumper Cables for the Mind) indicates that there has been a lot of study on how mild (very mild) brain stimulation can help improve brain performance.

I have briefly noted such claims before, but I had no idea that it had been the subject of a lot of study.  I thought it was just the odd (possibly crankish) scientist here and there who said it seemed to work well.  But read this:
Fregni and his collaborators at Harvard have published more than 200 papers on tDCS. In 2005, he co-wrote a paper showing that stimulating the left prefrontal cortex while you are doing a particular task can enhance working memory, the ability to track and mentally manipulate multiple objects of attention. He has since tested its effects on migraine, chronic pain, post-stroke paralysis, Parkinson’s disease, depression, tinnitus, fibromyalgia, marijuana craving and, strangely enough, the tendency to lie (or, as the paper more delicately put it, “the modulation of untruthful responses”). 

The evidence, he said, is strongest for depression. Earlier this year he published a study in JAMA Psychiatry involving 120 people suffering from major depression. They received either 2 milligrams per day of the antidepressant Zoloft, 2 milliamps of tDCS, both or a placebo. After six weeks, the mood of those treated with either Zoloft or tDCS alone improved about equally well compared with those in the placebo group. “By itself, tDCS was exactly the same as Zoloft at relieving depression. But when you combine the two, you have a synergistic effect, larger than either alone. That’s how I see the effects of tDCS, enhancing something else.” 

One of the most striking examples of cognitive enhancement comes from research supported by the U.S. Air Force, showing that tDCS improves pilots’ vigilance and target detection. “The military has been looking at how to improve vigilance for the past 50 or 60 years,” said Andy McKinley, a civilian biomedical engineer who has been studying tDCS at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. “At minimum we get a twofold improvement in how long a person can maintain performance. We’ve never seen that with anything else.”
Why isn't this better known?

Sunday, November 03, 2013

Late for Halloween

I'm a few days late for stories which make for some good Halloween reading, but here you go anyway:

*   George Orwell thought he had once seen a ghost in a graveyard.   (Or, at least, thought he had a hallucination which resembled a ghost sighting.)  It wasn't a particularly clear sort of encounter, by the sounds, but it does appear to have puzzled him.

All atheists should have a ghost sighting, I think.  It would be good for their soul.

*  Goblins were not necessarily bad.  A benedictine monk wrote about them in 1746:
Calmet stressed goblins’ helpfulness and lack of malevolence, which meant that they were not devils. They only became dangerous when angered, like Hecdekin. But neither were they angels, their “waggish tricks” lacking dignity. Goblins were somewhere in between.

Brand classified the goblins linguistically. They were the same as Brownies in Scotland, related to fairies, and “a Kind of Ghost”. Brand believed that ‘goblin’ came from ancient Greek, meaning ‘house spirit’, and that hobgoblins were a species known for hopping on one leg. The name ‘Brownies’ referred to their swarthy colour, which came from their hard labour. The origin of the belief itself, Brand suggested, was Persia or Arabia. However, since Samuel Johnson had noted that no one had spoken of Brownies “for many years”, Brand thought they were extinct.

Goblin beliefs were, indeed, changing. Calmet might have dismissed the existence of vampires, but he believed in goblins because of good eyewitness accounts. William Bourne in 1725—and Brand who agreed with him—would have seen this as Calmet’s popish credulity. Goblins only flourished “in the benighted Ages of Popery, when Hobgoblins and Sprights were in every City and Town and Village”. These were stories told around winter fires that added “to the natural Fearfulness of Men, and makes them many times imagine they see Things”. Goblin extinction, then, was a move from superstitious excess (as Bourne and Brand saw it) towards reason. The classification of goblins was a way of putting them in their place. has a fascinating, lengthy article on the origins of the ouija board, as well as talking about some of the fascinating modern studies of it from a psychological point of view.  For example, I don't think I had heard of this before:
 Participants were told that they were playing with a person in another room via teleconferencing; the robot, they were told, mimicked the movements of the other person. In actuality, the robot’s movements simply amplified the participants’ motions and the person in the other room was just a ruse, a way to get the participant to think they weren’t in control. Participants were asked a series of yes or no, fact-based questions (“Is Buenos Aires the capital of Brazil? Were the 2000 Olympic Games held in Sydney?”) and expected to use the Ouija board to answer.

What the team found surprised them: When participants were asked, verbally, to guess the answers to the best of their ability, they were right only around 50 percent of the time, a typical result for guessing. But when they answered using the board, believing that the answers were coming from someplace else, they answered correctly upwards of 65 percent of the time. “It was so dramatic how much better they did on these questions than if they answered to the best of their ability that we were like, ‘This is just weird, how could they be that much better?’” recalled Fels. “It was so dramatic we couldn’t believe it.” The implication was, Fels explained, that one’s non-conscious was a lot smarter than anyone knew.