Monday, August 31, 2015


Judith Sloan being profoundly dumb to her favourite audience of the wilfully ignorant*, again, all because her local winter was colder than recent ones.  Not even record breakingly cold; just a bit colder.
You'd think she sharpen up on the fence sitting skills, just in case, you know, people who she would like to influence notice that on climate she's the equivalent of an anti-vaxxer - impervious to facts, ideologically committed to an extreme minority view, and a nuisance to good public policy.

And economics is bit math-y and a bit science-y (sort of), so you'd like to think she has a clue on those subjects.

But no, because she has a self selecting audience of the dumb-as-she-is on climate, she flaunts it for all to see.

* Not Q&A, it's just that this was the best photo in which to make her sing.

Heydon explains...

Update:  many amusing tweets to be seen about the Commissioner's techno fail.  Such as this:

Update 2:

It all puts me in mind of this Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch, too:

McDonalds and the Power of the Wood Platter

I had been making the observation to my family for about 8 months now:   this idea of serving food on wood platters actually works by making everything taste better.  I don't know how - it seems like some form of culinary Deep Magic - but it works at home as well as at eating establishments.  (We bought a large one for those Saturday nights where we make a meal of a large antipasto style platter.  I swear they taste better since we stopped using the ceramic platter.)

So I have been interested to test this out at McDonalds, where even half alert viewers of commercial television may have realised that they are serving their "Your Creation" burgers on wooden platters - brought right to your table, no less.

I was cynical about this idea - suddenly the joint known for compiling a burger in about 12 seconds flat is going to carefully produce a particularly tasty and attractive one?   Would people go for the extra price (which remains very unclear in all advertising)?

Well, I'm happy to report that yesterday I had my first creation, and it was delicious.   (Cost $10.55 for the burger alone - I stole the kids' chips to make it more economical.)  

The ingredients, for those who are still reading:  brioche bun, one beef patty, swiss cheese, crispy bacon, grilled mushrooms,  caramelised onion, tomato, lettuce, chipotle mayo.    What's more, it was fairly late at night, and I could see the guy compiling my burger.  He really did seem to take care.

During the meal, I mentioned the power of the wood platter several times, as well as the fact that it now simplifies where to eat out for wedding anniversaries. 

I do hope this works out for the company....


New kid in town

You know, once you reach your mid fifties, there's a really good way to depress yourself about your advancing years:  work out how old you'll be if the new pup you've just brought home lives as long as the previous dog you had since a pup who died a few months ago. 

Anyway, here she is:

Friday, August 28, 2015

Neat. Fits right in with the "proto-fascist government" meme I've been using...

Border Force to check people's visas on Melbourne's streets this weekend - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

How can anyone think this is going to look like a "positive" to the public?

And why did Lefties over-use "fascist" as an insult to the Howard government, but have under-used it (til now, I'm guessing) against the actual proto-fascist actions of the Abbott government?


Tony Abbott joins with Border Force, being helpful in Melbourne:

Update 2:  this is, quite possibly, the most spectacularly inept and amusing PR disaster ever orchestrated by a government body.  (The summary misses the instantaneous street protests in Melbourne, but still):


Bruni's right... is disconcerting that the American evangelicals are liking Trump:
Let me get this straight. If I want the admiration and blessings of the most flamboyant, judgmental Christians in America, I should marry three times, do a queasy-making amount of sexual boasting, verbally degrade women, talk trash about pretty much everyone else while I’m at it, encourage gamblers to hemorrhage their savings in casinos bearing my name and crow incessantly about how much money I’ve amassed?
Seems to work for Donald Trump.
Polls show him to be the preferred candidate among not just all Republican voters but also the party’s vocal evangelical subset.
He’s more beloved than Mike Huckabee, a former evangelical pastor, or Ted Cruz, an evangelical pastor’s son, or Scott Walker, who said during the recent Republican debate: “It’s only by the blood of Jesus Christ that I’ve been redeemed.”
When Trump mentions blood, it’s less biblical, as Megyn Kelly can well attest.
No matter. The holy rollers are smiling upon the high roller. And they’re proving, yet again, how selective and incoherent the religiosity of many in the party’s God squad is.

Not sure if this is just a little bit scary...

How a Computer Predicts Schizophrenia and Psychosis - The Atlantic

Most of the time, people don’t actively track the way one thought
flows into the next. But in psychiatry, much attention is paid to such
intricacies of thinking. For instance, disorganized thought, evidenced
by disjointed patterns in speech, is considered a hallmark
characteristic of schizophrenia. Several studies of at-risk youths have
found that doctors are able to guess with impressive accuracy—the best
predictive models hover around 79 percent—whether a person will develop
psychosis based on tracking that person’s speech patterns in interviews.

A computer, it seems, can do better.

 That’s according to a study published Wednesday
by researchers at Columbia University, the New York State Psychiatric
Institute, and the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center in the Nature
Publishing Group journal Schizophrenia. They used an automated
speech-analysis program to correctly differentiate—with 100-percent
accuracy—between at-risk young people who developed psychosis over a
two-and-a-half year period and those who did not. The computer model
also outperformed other advanced screening technologies, like biomarkers
from neuroimaging and EEG recordings of brain activity.

Actually, having recently re-watched the first part of it, this also puts me in mind of the interview technique with the replicants in Blade Runner.

Quantum spookiness confirmed, again?

Spotted in Sabine Hossenfelder's tweets, an article about a new, loophole closing (so it seems) test of quantum spookiness.

Sabine also has a lengthy go at explaining what the physicists are getting at when they talk about the universe being hologram.  I haven't read it carefully, yet, but it seems more-or-less comprehensible.

Checking in on Dyson

Thursday, August 27, 2015

At least a metre by end of the century?

Nuts, guns and race

This black nutter killing a couple of white people is going to send the American nutty Right completely over the edge in nonsense and offensive claims.  (I see that it seems they have no hesitation in posting the video, too.)   Let's face it, as countless threads on American Right wing sites attest,  a significant part of those on that side of politics have never gotten over having a black President.

In fact, even Andrew Bolt - not the greatest Australian exemplar for reasonable analysis of race relations, to put it mildly - seems to be endorsing some utterly nonsensical gut reaction from John Hinderaker.

As for gun control, it does seem to me that this is the type of killing that most upsets people:  the senseless type by a person who, while not insane for criminal liability purposes,  clearly has mental issues and nutty obsessions and uses a legally obtained gun.   The less legal guns in circulation in a country, the less of this type of killing happens, no?  Seems a formula pretty clear to most of the world, except Americans.   (OK, unfair - some Americans get it.) 

Somewhere in Sydney, crucial decisions are being made...

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Ice mountain?

NASA's latest Ceres photo shows a strange, conical mountain

The sides look like ice.  Or glass. And on the right hand side, looks like a cliff.  Odd.

Physics conference report from a physicist

Backreaction: Hawking proposes new idea for how information might escape from black holes

This provides a "live" insight into the reports of Stephen Hawking thinking they've solved the black hole information problem.

More in the series "Deep Thoughts while Wandering Sydney"

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Dyson has a message

PS:  Labor still leading 54/46 in Newspoll?   Shorten improves in net satisfaction?

I think it's official: the Royal Commission is a politically backfiring blunderbuss. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Fundamentalist idiots with explosives

Palmyra's Baalshamin temple 'blown up by IS' - BBC News

Some background as to why they do this can be found in this article.   Here's a crucial section:

Saudi authorities destroyed this mausoleum, part of the al-Baqi cemetery in Medina, in early 1926, shortly after taking power in the city in the prior year. In fact, they flattened the entire site, which dated back to the seventh century and is thought to have contained the bodies of some of the prophet Mohammed's early compatriots.

The act "shocked the international Muslim community," Dr. James Noyes, author of The Politics of Iconoclasm, told me.

The Saudis didn't just do this on a whim. They were, and still are, aligned with a religious faction called the Wahhabis — a group of Sunni fundamentalists who, like some Christian denominations, reject any form of worship through religious shrines and icons.

"The attacks on shrines and tombs are a rejection of 'shirk' (the worship of God through shrines)," Noyes explained.

Theologically, Wahhabis and other Islamists trace this back to the story of the golden calf that appears in the Koran and the Bible, in which the Israelites build and pray to an idol, sparking God’s fury. A number of Muslims see the story as a blanket prohibition against the worship of images and shrines altogether.

As the Wahhabis and Saudis consolidated control over what's now Saudi Arabia, they destroyed anything that even hinted at idol worship. "The Arabian peninsula used to have Jewish communities, pagan pre-Islamic tribes, shrines favoured by Shiite and Sufi pilgrims on the Hajj to Mecca and Medina, Ottoman and Egyptian influences, and the Hashemite kingdom," Noyes wrote via email.  "All of that is gone."

Perhaps more than you needed to know about Gore Vidal

Life out loud | The Economist

This review of a biography of Vidal notes this:
“NEVER lose an opportunity to have sex or be on television” is a
familiar Gore Vidal quip—and, as Jay Parini notes in a marvellous new
biography, Vidal enthusiastically followed his own advice. The sex was
almost always homosexual; invariably “on top”; and usually in the
afternoon, to allow for disciplined writing in the morning and
extravagant socialising in the evening. For Vidal, television meant a
show of eloquent punditry projected on both sides of the Atlantic, but
most memorably—as any trawl through YouTube will confirm—in the form of
confrontations on American chat shows with William Buckley, editor of
the conservative National Review, and with a pugnacious fellow writer, Norman Mailer. ...
Vidal, knowing everyone who was anyone (from Princess Margaret to
Rudolf Nureyev), was certainly a snob. He was also delighted to be rich,
having as a young man not known “where the next bottle of champagne
might come from,” Mr Parini writes. It mattered immensely to Vidal that
he could live well, whether in huge homes in America and Italy or in
comfortable suites at the best hotels in London, Paris and Bangkok.
Yet Mr Parini’s Gore Vidal is a man hiding his shyness with a mask of
suave sophistication and with viper-like scorn for his enemies (he
called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” in one TV clash, and said Truman Capote’s
death was “a wise career move”). Though Vidal accused Buckley of being a
“closet queen”, this was not the retort of a militant homosexual:
Vidal, a “pansexual”, always saw “homosexual” and “heterosexual” as
adjectives, not nouns.
Update:  some far more extreme details of the Gore-ian sex life may be found in this article.   Mind you, I'm mildly dubious about some of the actors he claimed to have slept with.    Gives the impression it was hard to find an actor in the 50's who was not bisexual.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Drugs and harm

FactCheck: is ice more dangerous and addictive than any other illegal drug?

I made a complaint recently that there is a lot of dubious rhetoric floating around when it comes to drug reform advocates talking about comparative risk for drugs.

This article does provide some useful figures, some of which are surprising:
 Fewer people use ice than alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, ecstasy and pharmaceuticals
for non-medical purposes; 2.1% of Australians are methamphetamine users
(1% use ice), while 80% are alcohol users and 10% are cannabis users.
That's fewer meth users than media attention to the problem might suggest, but as the article goes to note, the "ice" phenomena is about the growth of it as the preferred type of methamphetamine, and its increase in frequency of use:
The same data show that about half of methamphetamine users prefer
ice over other forms. The proportion of users who use ice as their main
form of methamphetamine has doubled since 2010 - from 22% of users to
50% of users. This suggests that regular users are switching from speed
to ice.
In addition, these data show that existing users are using more
frequently, with a larger percentage of users reporting using weekly or
daily, but a lower quantity. As a result of these changes, we have seen
an increase in harms associated with methamphetamine use.
The part that surprised me more, however, is the one about the number of ambulance attendances for cannabis use.  Don't hear that bandied about much in drug reform circles:
 In Victoria, there are an average of 4.7 methaphetamine-related ambulance attendances
a day (3.4 of those for ice) and about 87% of those cases are transported to hospital. This is less than alcohol (34 attendances per day), benzodiazepines (8.3 attendances per day) and heroin (5.1attendances per day). And it is similar to cannabis, with 4.4 attendances a day and around 86% transported to hospital.
Perhaps the article doesn't contain enough accurate information to be sure, but if alcohol is used by 80% of people versus 10% cannabis, it would seem the ambulance attendance figures for alcohol compared to cannabis are about the same.    Very interesting...

As for a valid comparison between the "danger" of different drugs, the article goes squishy at the end:
 While we certainly need to address the harms associated with methamphetamine use, we should keep in mind that our most widely used drug – alcohol - still results in more harms to individuals and the community, and other illicit drugs are also associated with more harms.
Of course alcohol causes more harms "to individual in the community" - it's used by 80 times more people.

And the article does link to a 2007 study by former UK drug policy adviser David Nutt. But as another article shows, the exercise Nutt went through with drug experts to rank drugs in terms of their danger is fraught with difficulties:
Nutt's analysis measures two different issues related to drug use in the UK: the risk to an individual, and the damage to society as a whole.

The individual scores account for a host of variables, including mortality, dependence, drug-related family adversities, environmental damage, and effect on crime.

Even if two drugs score similarly in Nutt's analysis, the underlying variables behind the scores can be completely different. For instance, heroin and crack cocaine are fairly close in the rankings. But heroin scores much higher for mortality risk, while crack poses a much bigger risk for mental impairment.

There's also some divergence within the specific categories of harm. Alcohol and heroin both score high for crime. But alcohol's crime risk is due to its tendency to make people more aggressive (and more prone to committing crime), while heroin's crime risk is based on the massive criminal trafficking network behind it.

The analysis doesn't fully account for a drug's legality or accessibility. If heroin and crack were legal and more accessible, they would very likely rank higher than alcohol. The harm score for marijuana would also likely rise after legalization, but probably not too much since pot use is already widespread....
"You can always create some composite, but composites are fraught with problems," Caulkins said. "I think it's more misleading than useful."

The blunt measures of drug harms present similar issues. Alcohol, tobacco, and prescription painkillers are likely deadlier than other drugs because they are legal, so comparing their aggregate effects to illegal drugs is difficult. Some drugs are very harmful to individuals, but they're so rarely used that they may not be a major public health threat. A few drugs are enormously dangerous in the short-term but not the long-term (heroin), or vice versa (tobacco). And looking at deaths or other harms caused by certain drugs doesn't always account for substances, such as prescription medications, that are often mixed with others, making them more deadly or harmful than they would be alone.
Excellent.  Backs up the skepticism I've had about comparative "drugs harms" claims for years.


Saturday, August 22, 2015

More "something about the eyes"

Staring into someone’s eyes for 10 minutes induces an altered state of consciousness - ScienceAlert

It was a bit odd this week to read about an experiment indicating that staring into someone's eyes can induce hallucinations, when earlier in the year the big story was how staring into your partner's eyes could be a key part of falling in love, if you do it right.

As I wrote at the time "what is it about the eyes?".   Since then, I have wondered if it is to do with bonding with babies.  Seems as good an explanation as any.

Anyhow, the link at the top notes that the same Italian psychologist who did this recent experiment also wrote back in 2010 about how staring at your own face in the mirror in a dimly lit room is a good way for a lot of people to have some weird, face changing, hallucinations.   This discussed in detail at the time at the Mind Hacks blog, and the very long thread that follows indicates that anyone with a susceptibility to mental illness is well advised not to try it.

Given my brain's dogged reluctance to experience weirdness, even though I find the paranormal and unusual perceptions very interesting topics, I pretty much expect my face would not morph a bit if I tried it.  Perhaps I should give it a go and report back.  (If the blog ends abruptly, someone send around the men in white coats, please.)

Friday, August 21, 2015

Secret thoughts of a Royal Commissioner

For a while now, everytime I see Dyson Heydon's picture, I've been thinking "Gawd, he's got a high forehead."   I associate high foreheads with large brains, and large brains remind me of brains the size of a planet (that is, Marvin the glum, paranoid android), and Dyson does look sort of glum to me all the time too.  Hence, the following:

Even if he's right, he's wrong

It's funny how Sinclair Davidson's posts at Catallaxy about poring over government figures to try to work out if "tobacco clearances" really went up or down after plain packing laws attract so little attention in comments at the site.   Maybe the meta message he's not getting is this - people are over it.  And the true sign of the success of the policy was never going to be instantaneous anyway.

But while I can't judge whether his claim in the post above is accurate or not (it's a complicated argument in which we're invited to never believe the bona fides of the Treasury, but to trust the analysis of a member of a think tank that has done the policy PR of big tobacco for years)  even if he's right, he then goes on to obvious wrong over-reach in his next barely read tobacco post.  Here:
 The fact is we now know the plain packaging policy is based on fabricated evidence.
This links back to his own post, the one I linked to first, in which he disputes that tobacco clearances went down in the first 12 months after the introduction of the policy.

Given that he was talking about trying to judge the effectiveness of the policy by evidence collated after it's introduction, how can he claim that the policy is "based on fabricated evidence"?   (His entire post is also about looking at one 12 month period - the one with confounding factors involved - and ignores the tobacco clearance rates for subsequent periods.  It's a desperate, nitpicky argument that refuses to look at the big picture, just like he did with the "climategate" emails and  statistic significance of the global temperature record.)

The policy was and is based on it's anticipated long term effect on helping continue the downward trend of tobacco consumption.  It certainly was not introduced based on "fabricated evidence" that didn't exist at the time.  And tobacco clearances are not the only evidence, in any case.

As with stagflation, and climate change, he's on a long term losing argument here, and the longer we go the sillier he'll look.   Neat.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The giant cannabis experiment

There's a lengthy, cautious and sensible sounding article over at Nature News about the giant experiment in public health that cannabis legalisation is going to represent.  

There are so many complicating factors when trying to judge what may happen (or even in working out which other countries' present experience make for a good comparison) that prediction seems little more than guesswork.

Still, I lean towards the "it'll all end in tears" side, as you may expect.

Update:   as I have noted before, it's actually pretty astoundingly weird how drug problems differ from country to country.    Russia has virtually always been off its face on alcohol; China has had its opium and now meth and heroin problems on quite a vast scale;  I'm not sure for how long Japan has been drinking heavily, yet they barely touch anything else (apart from tobacco);  apparently some small Pacific Islands are actually way at the top of the table of heavy marijuana users (beating the Caribbean, surprisingly); Sweden, while famously relaxed about sex, is an outstanding drug free country, although their controlled use of alcohol is no doubt partly due to a system (a State monopoly on the sale of any above 3.5%) which would horrify a  libertarian; and who would have thought 20 years ago that ice would become a chronic problem in rural Australia, more so than in the inner cities, it seems?   (As it happens, I was today talking to someone from Western Queensland whose family had been devastated by it.) 

My point being - given the curious lack of any clear pattern about which country develops overuse problems with which drugs, it wouldn't be surprising if full legalisation of cannabis in one nation did not lead to any great problem, while in another place it sent the country into a sort of stoner lead economic decline. 

It may sound like I'm just giving myself an "out" if, in 10 years time, everyone declares cannabis legalisation in the States a great success.   But honestly, I think I am making a valid point.

So, Trump apologists now, hey?

Wow.  The American Right is flaying around not knowing what to do until Trump crashes and burns.  "What if he doesn't?" is their concern.

Now, true, some are not giving up the attack, particularly after his announced immigration policy which had huge slabs of the patently absurd:
Mr. Trump wants to remove all illegal aliens from the United States. This is, of course, impossible and, even if it were possible, an outrageous waste of tens or hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. When asked by Chuck Todd on NBC’s Meet the Press if he would split up families in which one or more of the parents is an illegal alien but their children are U.S. citizens, Trump said no, clarifying in one of the most reprehensible statements I have ever heard from an American candidate for public office, “We’re going to keep the families together, but they have to go.” Yes, Trump would try to deport American citizens. Did I mention how ignorant of history Donald Trump sounds to this Jewish columnist?

What amazes me most is not that Trump would say such a thing, proposing something obviously both immoral and illegal, but that so many Americans still support a man bursting with hatred and idiocy. Donald Trump is to politicians what P.T. Barnum was to entertainers, knowing that you can reach great success by pandering to the many suckers out there. (Actually, the attribution of “there’s a sucker born every minute” to Mr. Barnum is probably both erroneous and unfair, but it remains a powerful piece of American lore.)
By contrast, look at the heading for this editorial at National Review:

Trumps' Immigration Plan is a Good Start - for all GOP Candidates. 


It is sensible in its basic outline and better in many respects than the ideas presented by his rivals.
Sure, the column goes on to note that key parts of the policy are "obviously illegal" and never going to withstand the Supreme Court, even if they could be enacted, but you know, it's like they want to write "he has his heart in the right place."  
I find it impossible to read that piece without getting a distinct whiff of some 1920's apologists for Hitler.  "Sure, he seems a bit of a hot head, but who can doubt his basic good intentions for his country?"

Glass apartments

Something you would have noticed if you watched the ABC report on Tianjin linked in my last post (not seen it? - well go back and do so now) was how many apartment tower blocks in the area lost every window in the blast.

I have been noticing in my wanderings around Brisbane lately that quite a lot of the new high rise apartments are being build with full length glass walls to the street, at least in some of the rooms.   Blinds provide privacy as needed.

I don't care for this trend.  Apart from glass being problematic from a heat regulation point of view (well, sometimes it works well if you want to warm a room in winter, but let's face it, for most of the year in Brisbane you are trying to keep a room cool), it just makes for what looks to me like a structurally insubstantial building.    I like bricks and concrete to provide shelter to me from the outside elements, and don't other people feel this way too?   (As well as not particularly wanting to feel like their block look like one of those kid's ant farms from the outside?) 

And, of course, you never really know when your building might be subject to a destructive air blast of human or celestial cause, and having your entire bedroom or living room wall blown over you is not an optimal outcome.

No, give me apartments with some external solid concrete walls, any day.

The ABC earning its keep, again

After Tianjin explosions, angry families return to toxic wasteland - 19/08/2015

The single best report I've seen on the Tianjin disaster was on the ABC last night by its resident foreign correspondent Stephen McDonell.

Excellent work which you just don't see from commercial networks.   

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Dirty work

I would assume that someone, somewhere, is presently doing a word search through this enormous file for Australian parliamentarians' names. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

As discussed on Saudi social media...

Well, they don't have cinemas or pubs, and while spectacularly stupid things happening on their roads provides some entertainment, mostly it seems the Saudis amuse themselves by discussing the big topics on social media:
Manama: Saudi social media users have poured scorn on a fatwa that allowed young men married to ugly women to take drugs before intimate relations in order to have the delusion they are as beautiful as houris.
The fatwa said that hallucinogenic drugs can be taken for 30 minutes during sexual intercourse and only by men who are less than 40 years old. The drugs can be used only in the evening, it added.
“This is the ideal men who are unfortunately married with ugly-looking wives so that they can see them, under the effects of the drugs, as beautiful women, like Houris or lovely nymphs,” the fatwa said.
Houri is a Quranic term referring to “to be beautifully dark-eyed” women in heaven.
The origin of the religious edict is not known, although some users attributed it to a Moroccan figure, but it went viral on the Internet and sparked a huge debate in which most people expressed shock and sarcasm

Sounds nutty, but you should read more

Apollo Astronaut Says UFOs Came to Prevent Nuclear War

Edgar Mitchell, who has long believed in ESP and the paranormal, is turning up sounding like a nutter for talking about UFOs and nuclear war.

But - before you dismiss him entirely, you should read the surprisingly good Wikipedia entry explaining the very real controversy and concern in the late 1940's that mysterious green fireballs were indeed spying on the American nuclear program.

While I had read a short account of this before in some UFO book or other, the Wiki explanation makes it pretty clear that many people had seen them, including the scientists and technicians in New Mexico, and many genuinely thought they were so odd that were not a mere natural phenomena.

It does appear to be one of the greatest UFO style mysteries still around. 

Update:   Ooh.  This report, which I don't think I read at the time, contains a suggestion from a physicist in Brisbane that sometimes meteors might cause a ball lightning effect close to the ground.   I have a feeling that there was at least one case of what looked like ground following ball lighting in New Mexico at the time of the green fireball panic, so that idea does sound half plausible:
"A transient electrical link between the ionosphere and ground, created by meteors or some other means, could help to solve the mystery of many UFO sightings," Hughes told LiveScience. "Since such balls would be very insubstantial they would be able to move and change direction very fast as has often been observed."
Hughes detailed his findings online Nov. 30 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A.

El Nino and La Nina from an Australian viewpoint discussed

2015-16 is shaping up to deliver a rollercoaster from strong El Nino to La Nina

A good explanation here of how these things usually pan out.  (Short answer - not good for Australia.)

Abbott, Heydon and the self inflicted wounds

I dunno, maybe I'm just reflecting my own judgement about this appalling government, but with all the TURC controversy going on, I strongly suspect that the public view of the Royal Commission has turned in a serious political negative for Abbott.   I think the Labor movement has succeeded in its PR to cast it as a political witch hunt, and that voters are thinking it is a sign of a government that is politically self indulgent and has no idea about getting on with more important priorities.   That the Abbott commissioned enquiries could backfire as political revenge over-reach was always on the cards, and I think it has indeed worked out that way.

And why does Tony Abbott even answer questions about bias of the Commissioner by praising him?  By doing so, he makes it sound all the more to the public that he has (or wants) the Commissioner in his pocket.  Surely the wise politician (yes, I know, we're talking Abbott) would take more a line of expressing confidence in the Commissioner making appropriate decisions regarding the conduct of the Commission, and leave it at that.  But Abbott goes further - much further - and hence worsens the self inflicted wound.

Much the same can be said about the Abbott approach to same sex marriage.   It seems that people really like the idea of a plebiscite (about 80% in favour in this morning's Newspoll of Canning), and that doesn't surprise me.  But Abbott wanting to not hold it until 2 or 3 years time? - as with the Royal Commission, this will all too obviously come across as mere playing politics.   Isn't that clear to Abbott's political advisers, especially when an election in 12 month's time is the obvious opportunity when the plebiscite could be conducted, at minimal cost?

PS:  having viewed a bit of Heydon's conduct of the commission yesterday, I think his skill and talent for this type of work may well have been (actually no, has been)  over-estimated.   Telling the ACTU barrister that he had an hour to decide whether to apply to disqualify himself?   It was a tactic that could only make Heydon look more biased.   He backed down, but it was a bad look that could only hurt himself.  Again, wasn't that kind of obvious?    He may have been great in other forms of jurisprudence, but I see no clear sign that he has a talent for this line of legal work.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Judith does a Steyn

I assume that Judith Sloan assumes she will never have another government or government authority job in which she professionally has to interact with any economist in the Productivity Commission, or indeed any economist who has ever so much as hinted at believing that climate change is real, and hence she can spend her early semi retirement in slagging off others to her heart's content, especially at Catallaxy.

In her latest outburst of note, I see she has followed the Mark Steyn route, using the "f" word:
As the Cats realise, the long march through the institutions continues.  But when it comes to the Climate Change Authority, no marching was required – it was set up with all the required poseurs and frauds in place from the getgo....
But how could chair of the CCA, Bernie Fraser, think it appropriate to give a running commentary on government policy, opposition policy and the wild estimates the CCA puts on these policies?

This is serious weird – nay outrageous – stuff and Bernie knows it (given his history in the bureaucracy).  But I guess he is on a mission, in part to help his mates in the industry super funds which are still overweight renewables.

The CCA comprises Bernie Fraser, Ian Chubb, David Karoly, Clive Hamilton and John Quiggin.

I wonder if Judith could expand upon which of them are the "frauds".   I note the use of the plural.

I also wonder why economists and academics on the receiving end of her condescending, and now (in my view) clearly defamatory vitriol never call her out for it. 

And not for the first time, I wonder why Sinclair Davidson never seems very worried about his potential legal liability for what the blog under his control says?   Maybe he can claim ignorance of some thread content, but he certainly can't do that very credibility for what one of his "star" contributors writes.

The Economist goes multiverse

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Carbon capture was always a pipe dream

Over at ATTP, someone in a recent thread posted this 2011 video of Vaclav Smil explaining why carbon capture just never looked credible.  It's great, and it's a sign of the dissembling that has gone on in climate change policy (even amongst the well intentioned) that it was given credence for so long:


Varieties of weirdness viewers

Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog is a continual delight, and I was amused by this paragraph in a recent post which was, initially, about the number of people who have hallucinations:
Beach has had some experience with collecting fairy reports: that is children, men and women who believe they have seen an entity that they would describe as a fairy, here is a little (ahem) ‘wisdom’. Those who see fairies split neatly into two groups: there are the shamanic mystics and the Joe Publics. Mystics are individuals who have recurrent visionary events throughout their lives: the lady who is presently cleaning the Beach family kitchen has spotted fairies in the garden; she has encountered ghosts and she has ‘feelings’ and ‘instincts’ that she chooses to act upon. In short, she would have been burnt alive in the sixteenth century, whereas today she is pleasantly eccentric company and a bad influence on the kids. Joe Publics, on the other hand, are those who have never had these experiences prior to a one off bizarre event. Some will absorb it, some will ignore it, some will eventually discount it. Back in the sixteenth century they were doing the burning, and if they did see aliens with tin-foil helmets descending from the sky they shut the hell up or blamed their neighbours.

The second category is more interesting than the first, because their experiences demand more of an explanation.

More photos noted

The Atlantic has an extraordinarily good set of weekly photos up at this link.  (Hope it's a permanent one.)

It includes this one, from China, the viewing of which alone makes me nervous:

On squeezing a teat

At this year's RNA Show, I forced the initially reluctant family into watching the very kid-centric milking and dairy display, but it was worth it all because we (wife, daughter and me - my son was too teenage to try) got to squeeze a cow's teat.  Never done that before.

I asked the high school student (from Nambour State High, where they keep cows) who was supervising my handiwork closely "how many litres can you get from one milking", and after some consultation, I was given the answer - 25 litres (!).

I said that seemed an awful lot, but I was assured that a cow's milk producing parts extend way, way up inside her.  I was given the impression that the tank, so to speak, extends well beyond the udder.

But, while not wanting to question the standards of Kevin Rudd's alma mater, I think the student was a bit misleading.

As far as I can tell, from this detailed slide show from the University of Wisconsin, where they seem to know a thing or two about cows, there are bits that help suspend the weighty udder that extend way up the internals of a cow:

 but the parts that produce the milk are pretty much in the udder area:

In any event, on the question of how much milk you can get from a cow in a single milking, given that there are normally two milkings a day, and there are sites saying that an average cow can produce 35 to 50 litres a day, 25 litres at once seems certainly a possibility, if on the high side of the range.    It's remarkable to think that, at a generous household consumption of 2 litres a day, one cow could make enough to keep 25 families happy.

While looking into this, I discovered that the Israelis are actually world leaders in coaxing high yields out of cows:
The average cow in Israel produces 12,000 litres of milk a year, double what Australian dairy cows produce, at 5,500 litres a year (Dairy Australia 2014).
It could provide useful lessons for Australia, with our similar climate.
"The Israeli dairy industry is cutting edge technology for dairying," said Dr Ephraim Maltz, of the Institute of Agricultural Engineering at Israel's Volcani Centre.
Israel has pushed the boundaries of what dairy cows can do.
Now, 12,000 litres a year is about 33 litres a day, if you count every single day of the year.  But as I think they are "rested" before being pregnant again, this isn't inconsistent with a higher yield when they are milked.   One animal's rights site says cows on average are milked 10 months of the year, so in Israel, that would indicate an average of 40 lives per milking day.   Why is the Australian figure in the ABC report above much lower than that?  Do they have more rest periods per year?

As just mentioned, the amount of milk cows are now enticed to produce is the subject of criticism from animal's rights groups.  It is a pity that unwanted calves are killed at a very young age - something I have noted here before.  In fact, it seems we don't even eat the meat ourselves:
Most will be destined for the slaughterhouse within days of birth. Bobby calf meat is considered to be of low value and is predominantly exported as ground beef and offal to Japan and the US.
Hence there is an ethical reason for the search to make a genetically engineered, yeast based, milk equivalent. Good thing I handled a teat while there was still time... 

Supersymmetry and the scale problem

To Avoid the Multiverse, Physicists Propose a Symmetry of Scales | Quanta Magazine

For some reason, this year old article turned up on my Zite feed, but I've decided it's blogworthy.

It's not a super easy article about supersymmetry (ha!), but it deals with an alternative idea that's being explored.

I see that multiverse cynic Peter Woit was quoting Joe Lykken (one of the physicists mentioned in the article) back in 2013 at Not Even Wrong with approval, so perhaps I should pay more attention...

Judging what works in education

Another NPR story, this time about a researcher in education from Melbourne, yet I am not familiar with him.   As with all of education research, it may be that some of his claims are debatable, but I strongly suspect this one is right:
Many education reformers tout school choice as a tool for parent empowerment and school improvement through competitive pressure. But Hattie says his research shows that once you account for the economic background of students, private schools offer no significant advantages on average. As for charter schools? "The effect of charter schools, for example, across three meta-analyses based on 246 studies is a minuscule .07," he writes.
On the other hand, I don't quite understand how you study this at all:
Putting televisions in the classroom, on the other hand, has an average negative impact of -0.18. Holding students back a grade really does hold students back, with an effect of -0.16.
How do you judge how the child would have done if they had not been "held back"?  

Update:  I also note that Naplan results in Australia indicate that having a mother born overseas is a good way to stay above the average. Bit hard to address that in your education system, though....

A credible argument about Art?

People Love Art Museums — But Has The Art Itself Become Irrelevant? : NPR

As this guy argues about the success of "art museums":

They offer a titillating experience. Lively interaction with the people
around you, well-dressed people — it's exciting. But what has happened
is the art museum used to offer objects, works of art, the finest that
we have. And it's gone from offering objects to offering an experience.

There's the critical moment: 1978. I was in college at the time. It
was the King Tut exhibit at the Met: 1.8 million people lined up to see
that show. And that got the attention of the administrators — not just
of the Met but the trustees of every museum in the country.

This hadn't happened before. Museums tended to be doudy places run by
superannuated financiers who every year would write a personal check to
cover the deficit. They suddenly realized that, well, "I don't have to
cover the deficit if you can produce more of these blockbuster

I actually talk about this in the piece. It was almost 20 years to the day, 20 years after The Treasures of Tutankhamun, the Guggenheim did The Art of the Motorcycle.
And it was equally thrilling, equally successful, but it tells us that
our society can no longer distinguish — effectively distinguish —
between a Harley-Davidson Sportster and a 3,000-year-old golden mask
from Egyptian New Kingdom, can't make a qualitative judgment about
intrinsic value.

So, the museum seemed to be more and more successful, but there's been a little bit of a bait-and-switch that's going on behind the doors of many.
The argument is not inconsistent with what I wrote about modern art and my reaction to it in 2009.  (The post also remains the only time I have posted a photo of myself on the blog.)

Friday, August 14, 2015

Not exactly a true "space elevator", but may still be useful

Canadian firm patents inflatable space elevator

The dodgiest bit is the flywheel system for "dynamic stability".

I wonder if such a tower would be a good base from which to then grab onto an orbiting skyhook tether with which to get into orbit?   Maybe just need a short launch up, clear of the tower, to be snared by the hook...

Economists getting random

Can randomized trials eliminate global poverty? : Nature News & Comment

This is my bit of Soon-bait for the day.

Given my skepticism about the utility of economists' analysis of climate change, my first reaction is to be somewhat skeptical of some of the work of the "radomistas" too.

Why does the US presidential gene pool seem so shallow?

There seems something distinctly "off" about the US political system when it keeps throwing up Presidential candidates that seem so underwhelming to the rest of the world.   I don't really remember when I last felt  particularly impressed by the qualities of a candidate.   I didn't even think Obama was impressive; he certainly seemed under-qualified, and his promise of "hope and change" was very much like the shallow sloganeering of the Kevin Rudd ascendency.  (Although, as it happens, I think Obama has turned out to be a pretty good President, after all.   His recent interview with David Attenborough showed an intelligent and decent man, even if his image is assisted by the comparison with the dimwittery that has enveloped his opposition.  His legacy in terms of health care reform, getting serious about some action on climate change, and on dealing with difficult economic circumstance, will stand him well in future, I think.)

Dismissing the Trump clown show, as far as I can tell Jeb Bush still seems the most likely Republican candidate.   As many have noted, it's funny how Americans rebelled against dynastic rule a couple of hundreds years ago only to more or less endorse another form of it now. 

Of course, everyone knows I follow the Krugman line that the Republicans have gone mad, and is currently a lost party that needs some very dramatic changes before it becomes  credible again.   But even on the Democrat side - I have never followed the Clinton family story closely, but remember how vigorously Hitchens condemned them, and I worry when any politician seems prone to self-aggrandising flights of exaggeration such as Hilary has displayed in the past.   (Shades of Reagan telling movie anecdotes, apparently believing they were true, if you ask me.   And no, I never thought highly of Reagan, even before it was known he was well on his way to dementia while still President.)

As for the only other Democrat candidate I have heard mentioned - Joe Biden??   Really?  He may be a decent enough fellow, but I had the impression he was mainly notable for making silly gaffes and had a distinct "Dan Quayle" feel about his vice presidency.

The amount of money that anyone needs to run for President in that country seems truly ridiculous, but I still don't really understand why that results in candidate runs by people who fail to impress.    Or is it just me, feeling underwhelmed ever since the last Kennedy was shot?   I do feel a bit hypocritical, because with John Howard, I sort of liked the way he was underwhelming in physical presence and in oration, but thought he displayed relatively sound judgement and decency and that this is what matters at the end of the day.  Perhaps it is because of the charisma of the Kennedy family that I feel the US leader should be impressive not just in deed but in appearance and campaign rhetoric too. 

The more important story

While the political sideshow of an incompetent and rudderless government sucks up most coverage (as well as media sympathies on gay marriage as the greatest injustice the nation has ever seen, apparently), the truly important story of the government's actual punishment of those people detained in Nauru and Manus in order to stop others leaving Indonesia gets short shrift.

This should have been the lead story in the media this morning, and on  7.30 last night.

Still, they did a decent job, the ABC, and it's pretty disgraceful that there is not more attention paid to this issue.  (It doesn't even appear on The Australian's front web page, as far as I can see.  Fairfax and The Guardian feature it fairly prominently.)

Thursday, August 13, 2015

LDP membership surges by about 50%, I see

Gay marriage: Liberal Party members deserting party over Abbott stance

.... up to 20 rank-and-file [Liberal] party members have torn up their membership
tickets in the last 24 hours and switched allegiances to rival party,
the Liberal Democrats.

About bicycle helmets

I'm not going to die in a ditch (allusion to not wearing a helmet not really intended) defending compulsory bicycle helmet laws, as I think that a more moderate legal line in use of bicycles generally in this country may be justifiable.  (For example, if, as in Japan, the population was polite enough that cyclists could be trusted to ride at moderate speed and cautiously on urban footpaths,  I wouldn't mind seeing that permitted, and for those who ride in such a manner not to be required to have helmets.  Those who use dedicated bicycle lanes that are on the road - they can be treated differently.)

But still, people who say things like this:
But critics claim that helmet laws put people off cycling, causing far wider weight-related health problems due to Australians favouring driving, or not moving at all. One study found that 16.5% of people say they would ride more often if they were not required to wear a helmet at all times. 
should at least exercise some skepticism about what people say they would do were it not for factor X, especially when it comes to health matters.   Just how many people would say, for example, that they know they should lose some weight, and will they take steps to do so, and then never quite get around to it?

In fact, let's look at the actual link at the claim, and here is what it says:
So what are the things that are preventing over 50% of the population from hopping on a bike, and what can our governments do to help the situation? Here’s what the they said was stopping them:
  • Unsafe road conditions: 46.4%
  • Speed/volume of traffic: 41.8%
  • Don’t feel safe riding: 41.4%
  • Lack of bicycle lanes/trails: 34.6%
  • Destinations too far away: 29.9%
  • No place to park/store bike: 23.5%
  • Do not own a bike: 22.5%
  • Weather conditions: 22.1%
  • Not fit enough: 21.8%
  • Too hilly: 19.6%
  • Don’t feel confident riding: 18.6%
  • Not enough time: 16.7%
  • Don’t like wearing a helmet: 15.7%
  • No place to change/shower: 14.6%
  • Health problems: 14.4%
 Oh really?   Having to wear a helmet is just about the least of their reasons?  That's not the impression that article initially gave.

As for other reasons why the "never cycled as an adult in Australia" are not about to take it up now:  the professional amateur cyclist (by which I mean "anyone who has ever wore bicycle pants - while on a bicycle") has probably done a greater deal of harm in the last 25 years than helmet laws which, I suspect, most adults have come to accept as sensible precaution.  How?  By frequently acting like entitled jerks on the road, and even on cycleways.  

Can someone get this idiot off TV?

Michelle Rodriguez's urine breaks Bear Grylls

I just had to read the story, and it is as ridiculous as the headline indicates.  Grylls makes a living out of faking survival scenarios which are stupid and pointless exercises in degradation for public entertainment.  

Modern marriage

I don't write much about same sex marriage because:   it is, without doubt, the trickiest topic to address without feeling that you're hurting someone's feelings without actually wanting to; sexuality is actually a difficult matter theologically given that all types of relationships involving sex can be loving ones and God's supposed to be about love; and some of those on my side of the issue (against it, basically, while accepting that it appears virtually inevitable) are people:

1.  only too willing to use derisive and insulting language with respect to homosexuals;
2.  make it clear that they have a problem with homosexuality merely because they personally find the very idea of some forms of sex repulsive; and 
3. have the worst possible judgement on the matter of actual great significance to the future of the planet*;

and as such it's embarrassing to be on their side.

Nevertheless, here we go:

a.   I'm sorry, is this just an age related thing?, but whenever I see a same sex marriage ceremony on TV as part of their advocacy for a change in the law, I cannot help but feel it looks like a parody of what I, and (let's be truthful here) several billion other people both now and over history, have understood as a wedding.  I have my doubts I'll ever get over that feeling, especially when you see things such as female couples in bridal gowns, cutting of wedding cakes with same sex couples on top, etc.  

b.  While we're being frank here,  I've noticed what I think is an increasing strain of victimology coming in to some of the advocacy, particularly for those who claim that not being able to marry has made coping with their sexuality much harder psychologically.     This at first blush sounds very plausible, but I was just checking around again on the matter, and as far as I can tell, homosexual people even in remarkably gay endorsing countries such as England still seem to suffer about twice the rate of mental health issues compared to the general population.  Now, sure, I guess that no matter how many gay celebrities are on national television and how gay friendly your national laws are, being gay may well still cause tension and difficulties within families, and that can account for some incidence of depression and other mental health issues.

But....that being the case, and while fulling acknowledging that gay people were genuine victims of some appalling legal treatment via the criminalisation and medical definition of of their sexuality until quite recently, it seems near certain that gay marriage is not going to be a dramatic cure all for the increased rate of  mental health issues which gay people suffer from.

Of course, the argument could be made that, even if the "gay gene" carries with it a predisposition to greater susceptibility to things like depression, that's all the more reason to remove any possible social reason as to why they might feel left out and unhappy.   Maybe.   But I still think some SSM advocates are overselling the benefits of this law reform as a cure all for what makes them - OK, some of them - unhappy.    It reminds me a bit of the cases of the rich and ostensibly successful who find themselves puzzled because there is no longer any obvious reason why they still feel depressed much of the time.  (Stephan Fry might fit into that category.)

c.  I thought that Katy Faust last night on Lateline was actually not a bad advocate for the conservative position - but it's terribly unfortunate for the sake of the political and social argument that she is Christian.  I have never heard of her before, and maybe if I read some of her stuff I might not find her as good as she appeared last night, but it seemed to me that her argument was not religiously based, but SSM advocates will dismiss her views because she is religious.

d.  As Katy Faust would seem to agree, much of the issue that conservatives have with SSM is actually more to do with how SSM inter-relates with child bearing and child rearing.   But heterosexual use of reproductive technology broke the ground for that, so there is no doubt that there has been a "slippery slope" effect in social views.  Conservative Catholics would argue this started with modern contraception severing the natural connection between sex and child bearing, and as much as I disagree with them on the validity of trying to hold back the tide of improved methods of contraception, I have to admit it is a fair enough argument.   The problem is, by over-reaching on the matter of how proscriptive they could be on the matter of what sexual acts are automatically against God's will, they lost all credibility for drawing lines anywhere else on matters of sex and reproduction amongst everyone except Latin loving Mass types, who also invariably happen to be nuttily against science on climate change.

e.  On the matter of social attitudes towards reproductive technology and child rearing, people on the SSM side seem to always be inadequately acknowledging the degree to which they can change back to more conservative positions.   Use of anonymous donor sperm is a great example of this:  it was all the rage for a while there, and advocates for "anything goes" at the time never seemed to credit the importance with which the children from such a system could come in future to view knowledge of their biological parent.

It seems to me that with surrogacy, we could entirely face the same backlash in future, and all the gossip magazine current coo-ing over gay men happy with their adorable new baby pushed out by some well paid poor woman in India is not going to change that.  (I find it deeply ironic that it tends to be women's magazines that see to be so gushing over celebrity gay male families using surrogacy.   One commercial use of a woman's body is fine and dandy, apparently, yet a male celebrity using a prostitute doesn't get quite the same reaction.)

Even with lesbian couples, people seem blithely unwilling to question the matter of the relationship of the child with the biological father.  Now, unlike commercial surrogacy, it may be that some such couples will be on good terms with the father who the child may always know (and, in fact, he may be something of a father figure to them if he is with them enough.)   But it's clear that to a great many SSM advocates that this simply does not matter enough to even question - I'm thinking the case of Senator Penny Wong, for example - it's the fulfillment of the lesbian couple that counts.   As with those who were thinking 30 years ago that anonymous sperm donation would never matter to the kids resulting, this is just a patently shallow attitude that is, in effect,  the mere intellectual fashion of the moment. 

f.  Having said all of this, the popular tide of opinion, especially amongst the young, is strongly for gay marriage, and it appears socially inevitable and will not mean the downfall of civilization, so I don't quite understand why Tony Abbott, if going for a plebiscite on the matter, would not just bring it on for the next election.

I think it is pretty clear that however Abbott proceeds, it will come in, and any approach which is seen to be dragging out the inevitable only hurts him politically.

In order to keep face with his supporters, such that they are because, let's face it, he is a failure of a PM and you have to be nuts to disagree, the plebiscite idea is not a bad one.   But why delay it for 3 years?

*  global warming and climate change, as if you don't know...