Saturday, December 31, 2016

This is really bad news...

From The Guardian:
Swimmers are being urged to take extra care in waters off Queensland amid warnings the deadly irukandji jellyfish is moving further south.
Four people have been taken to hospital since Wednesday after suffering suspected irukandji stings off Queensland’s Fraser coast.
The irukandji – the world’s smallest and most venomous box jellyfish – is usually found in waters north of Mackay, about 700km further up the coast.
The James Cook University associate professor Jamie Seymour said it was clear the species was following warming sea temperatures south.
“We’ve got good data now that shows quite nicely that irukandji has been spreading down the east coast of Australia, moving slowly but surely southwards,” he told ABC radio.
“It’s only a matter of time before they get to the southern end of Fraser Island down to the Sunny coast.”
If irukandji become an annual problem at my favourite Australian beach area - beautiful Noosa - I suspect it could mean a big hit to its tourism industry.

As for the number of people stung around the Fraser Island area - I see that a few years ago, there were 6 people hospitalised for it, so the numbers are staying pretty constant recently.

I've only ever had one decent bluebottle sting in my life, on my forearm, and the welts and pain from that were pretty excruciating.  I hate to imagine how painful and distressing a sting from a jelly fish that routinely puts people in hospital must be.  And, according to that last link, the sting effects can be somewhat delayed:
...the irukandji can take days before its effects are fully felt.

The initial sting is typically mild, followed by vomiting, profuse sweating, headache, agitation, rapid heart rate and high blood pressure. 

The increase in blood pressure may be life-threatening and can be associated with abnormal heart beat and heart failure.
Actually, according to Wikipedia, it is more commonly only about 30 minutes before the pain and distress hits in.  And note the unusual psychological effect it seems to have:
 Because the jellyfish is very small, and the venom is only injected through the tips of the nematocysts (the cnidocysts) rather than the entire lengths, the sting may barely be noticed at first. It has been described as feeling like little more than a mosquito bite. The symptoms, however, gradually become apparent and then more and more intense in the subsequent five to 120 minutes (30 minutes on average). Irukandji syndrome includes an array of systemic symptoms, including severe headache, backache, muscle pains, chest and abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting, sweating, anxiety, hypertension, tachycardia and pulmonary edema.[4][11][12] One unusual symptom associated with the syndrome is a feeling of "impending doom".[13] Patients have been reported as being so certain they are going to die, they beg their doctors to kill them to get it over with.[14] Symptoms generally abate in four to 30 hours, but may take up to two weeks to resolve completely.[6]
A creature best avoided, that's for sure.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

A few movies noted

We still haven't been to the cinema since Christmas, but I've watched at home:

*  the 2016 Ghostbusters.    Pretty harmless, pretty dumb, comedy;  in other words, pretty much like the first one.  I think the climatic fight in this one was better, actually.  Being surprised by the number of cameos from the original cast was fun, too.  Still, nothing to get excited about either way, just like the first one.  As was entirely to be expected, the alt.right, 4chan twerps were getting their testicles in a twist for no good reason.

The Secret Life of Pets.   Going by the credits, much of the animation for Illumination is still done by the French, and they really have an impressive Pixar/Disney quality look about their product now.  The story is very charming and cute, especially if you like dogs.  Enjoyable.  (Also, it's the first rental I've done using the Google Play app on the smart TV.  It worked a treat, with high definition looking great.)

Moon.  Found on Google Play, I've been wanting to watch this 2009 film by Duncan Jones (famously, son of David Bowie) for quite a while, given its mostly good reviews.  (Also, I had been very impressed with Jones' second feature, Source Code, which I commented on in 2012.)  Well, sad to say, I was pretty underwhelmed.

Complete spoiler!  Avoid if you don't want to know      Unlike Source Code, the basic explanation of what is going on is just stretches credibility too far, and in a broad sense, the concept had been much more interestingly dealt with in Bladerunner.    (It doesn't hurt that visually, if not narratively, Bladerunner looks like it is happening in a much more distant future, when the improbable technology behind both films seems more vaguely plausible.    The other film with which it invites comparison, Oblivion, also had the advantage of it being aliens who had the "clones with implanted memories" technology available.  Again, it was a much more enjoyable film.)  

It just doesn't pass my sniff test to think that it would ever be worthwhile to use this type of technology to caretake a moon mine, when Earth is so close by and rocket technology is clearly meant to be very advanced.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

I want Spielberg taken to a secure location until 1 January

So, the 2016 terrible run of relatively early deaths of entertainers who a lot of people liked continues, with Carrie Fisher dying today.   She was, apparently, very likeable in person; but to be honest, I didn't follow her post Star Wars career all that closely.  (Didn't read any of her autobiographic books, or see the movie based on the first one, for example.)

There is much speculation on Reddit and the like that she may well have had heart trouble due to her earlier years of cocaine and alcohol abuse.   Seems a reasonable guess.  Google shows me that she was a smoker, too, both when young and even quite recently.  I also see she said she started smoking marijuana at 13 - probably well before it was so well recognised that using it at such a young age is the most dangerous time for developing serious mental health issues.   Again, one of those cases where it's hard to know whether the drug use led to the problems for which she later "self medicated" with more drugs.

As for her later disclosures of drug use - I assume she didn't seek to glamorise it at all, but there is always the worry that any reformed drug abuser who talks too much about their past use inadvertently signals to some people that it's OK to overuse it for a while because they will be able to recover, after having their youthful fun.  However, given that I don't really know how she wrote or talked about it, I don't know whether she ever had that effect or not.

I see this morning that there is increasing speculation that George Michael had gotten back into serious drugs (heroin) in the last year.

And although it seems his death was accidental, pain killing drugs were behind Prince's death too.

So, while all of this deaths have saddened many, many fans, I hope at least that some people, particularly the young, are taking some lessons about drug abuse from them.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Celebrity and unhappiness

I've written on this general topic before, but anyway...

I noted a couple of posts back that I knew little of George Michael's private life, but obviously, those gaps are being filled in now by the media attention following his death.

He really seems a prime example of how celebrity and happiness are so often strangers to each other, and how hard it is to know which way the causation flows in any individual case.  Does the personality type that makes public performance in any field an attractive career mean they are already primed for future depression?  (That seems an especially likely scenario for modern comedians who base their act - as so many do now - on "confessional" comedy about their problematic personal lives.   Older style comedians, who didn't rely on milking their own family or failed relationships, don't give the impression of having been so prone to being unhappy in real life.)

Or is it that financial success and celebrity attention exacerbates any dissatisfaction in relationships and life to such an extent that someone who otherwise might not have developed depression gets it anyway?  One obvious contributing factor to that is the ease with which money gives access to drugs (and the popularity of their use within the entertainment industry.)   Michael apparently had a very big marijuana habit, and also took "party drugs"; but as a means of "self medication" for depression, it seems even pro-cannabis websites are very cautious about it being a good idea. 

As for relationships and sex:  of course, The Guardian's gay writer Owen Jones thinks he shouldn't be criticised for only "coming out" after an arrest made it more or less inevitable, and also notes the rather shameful media reaction to it, which just shows how far England has changed; and this is fair enough.   Yet Jones also seems to think there is something admirable about Michael subsequently reacting by wearing anonymous sex and having open relationships on his sleeve as a honest advertisement for gay people being able to chose to live however they want.

Yet, oddly, Jones doesn't mention perhaps the most problematic thing Michael even said about his sex life, namely that had given up being tested for HIV because he was afraid of the results.  This was in 2007 in an interview that Stephen Fry was going to use in a documentary, but which Michael subsequently asked not to be used.  (It got into the media anyway.)

Now, he apparently said he had stopped being tested since "at least 2004", and his gay partner had died of AIDS long before that, so it appears he did not catch HIV from him.   It would indicate that he had a fear of catching HIV from his promiscuous sex life after that boyfriend's death.

Of course, this seems a very irresponsible attitude, but there are a couple of ways of mitigating it, I suppose:  first, he did have depression for a long time, it seems, and that alone can affect judgement.  Secondly, although I think this is pulling a long bow:  a person who is scrupulous about safe sex might feel their status is irrelevant if they are always going to only engage in the safest sex activities.  But really, how likely is it a drug taking depressive is going to be that careful during every sexual encounter?

And more generally:  Michael's defiant attitude to gay promiscuity is very close to the view expressed by Freddie Mercury, who nonetheless made sad comments towards the end of his life that being surrounded by people all the time does not mean you can't be lonely.  I always found it hard to read that as anything other than an admission that throwing yourself completely into sexual hedonism is not a reliable path to happiness, but it seems a particularly hard lesson for some gay men to accept.

And no, I am not convinced of this attitude being a case of "straight" hypocrisy - you know, the sort of argument that people think a man who sleeps with scores of women over a few years is just a "lad" having fun, whereas the same thing in a gay man is disgusting irresponsibility.   First, I think many people do draw a mental line as to how responsible it is for straight men to bed a different woman every week or two.  But also, in many cases, I think there is a bias, but one which is hypocritical in the other direction - that people don't criticise cases of gay promiscuity when they would if it were straight encounters.   It's the attitude of "well, that must be what's good about being gay - men know men can have casual encounters with no emotional baggage, so why wouldn't they have lots and lots of sex?  I would."

But don't cases like Michael and Mercury indicate the dubious credibility of that?   Sure, it is understandable that gay men think differently about casual sex, but let's be real and admit that excessive hedonism of any kind is probably not good for the emotional life of anyone, and is nothing to be admired....

Update:  of course, to be fair, it appears he was pretty generous with charitable donations, and there are many people speaking well of him.   I'm not trying to paint him as a bad man, but he was certainly a troubled one who openly admitted to having a "self destructive" impulse.

Monday, December 26, 2016

The silly, simple capitalist

The election of Donald Trump has brought out a burst of "ain't capitalism grand?" commentary by certain economists, and amongst them is the always annoyingly simplistic Deidre McCloskey.

Her recent column in the NYT carries the message of "don't worry about inequality in the US, you can never fix it, and trying to do so only makes things worse" is chock full of over-generalisations of the most irritating kind.

She doesn't address criticism of inequality by economists such as Stiglitz and Piketty, she just ignores them outright, and goes on to talk as if any attempt to address inequality is akin to the full blown Socialism of Russia and China in the 20th century:
 Another problem is that the cutting reduces the size of the crop. We need to allow for rewards that tell the economy to increase the activity earning them. If a brain surgeon and a taxi driver earn the same amount, we won’t have enough brain surgeons. Why bother? An all-wise central plan could force the right people into the right jobs. But such a solution, like much of the case for a compelled equality, is violent and magical. The magic has been tried, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So has the violence. 
 McCloskey distinguishes herself amongst Right wing straw man loving economics writers only by seeming to accept that climate change is real (oh, and perhaps by accepting that it is appropriate for the State to pay for education to year 12).  So why does she not devote any time to criticising the abject failure of the American Right to accept the need for capitalist friendly policies (obviously, a price on carbon) for the problem that is bound to have vast economic consequences and affect the growth she loves?  Instead, let's just write a swooning love letter to capitalism.

Yes we know, Deidre, capitalism has done a great job in many respects and outlived the doomed to fail examples of Russia and nearly every other communist state.  And free trade has helped drop poverty levels globally - even Krugman is a fan of it.

But stop pretending that inequality critics are Communists, and that inequality counts for naught in nations like the US, where examples of the working poor are legion, in comparison to other successful capitalist nations that manage to reduce inequality by policies that haven't killed their economy and don't stop the rich being rich.

Failed conversions

Ross Douthat's Christmas column, about his interest in "secular moderns" who have supernatural seeming experiences, but who don't come out of it with any particular conversion to belief in the supernatural, is  interesting.  I like reading about those sort of experiences too.  

He links to a recent article by The Exorcist director William Freidkin, who visited (out of curiosity, really) the Vatican exorcist to see how accurately his film reflected real life exorcisms.   I don't find the case he follows particularly convincing of anything, but one of the stories a New York psychiatrist tells him is more interesting:
LIEBERMAN: I’ve never believed in ghosts or that stuff, but I’ve had a couple of cases, one in particular that really just gave me pause. This was a young girl, in her 20s, from a Catholic family in Brooklyn, and she was referred to me with schizophrenia, and she definitely had bizarre and psychotic-like behavior, disorganized thinking, disturbed attention, hallucinations, but it wasn’t classic schizophrenic phenomenology. And she responded to nothing,” he added with emphasis. “Usually you get some response. But there was no response. We started to do family therapy. All of a sudden, some strange things started happening, accidents, hearing things. I wasn’t thinking anything of it, but this unfolded over months. One night, I went to see her and then conferred with a colleague, and afterwards I went home, and there was a kind of a blue light in the house, and all of a sudden I had this piercing pain in my head, and I called my colleague, and she had the same thing, and this was really weird. The girl’s family was prone to superstition, and they may have mentioned demon possession or something like that, but I obviously didn’t believe it, but when this happened I just got completely freaked out. It wasn’t a psychiatric disorder—you want to call it a spiritual possession, but somehow, like in The Exorcist, we were the enemy. This was basically a battle between the doctors and whatever it was that afflicted the individual.
As for The Exorcist itself:  I think I have mentioned before that I have never watched more than perhaps 10 minutes of it on TV, and found it too over the top to be scary or convincing.   It's a pity, in a way, that the book/movie did this; from what I have read (a long time ago, now) cases of possession with much more subtle aspects could be much more persuasive of the supernatural.

An unshared enthusiasm

No disrespect intended for the value of the life of George Michael as a fellow human, but I do have an odd urge to express my unfashionable opinion that most of his musical output was either gratingly bland (Last Christmas - a "straight to Muzak" song if ever there was one - I actively dislike) or annoying (have people forgotten "I want your sex"? I know I had, until I just read his obituary.)   And, while I'm speaking inappropriately of the deceased (again, I'm not dissing him as a person - I know very little about him - just expressing an opinion of his work that I know few agree with), I may as well spread the disrespect and admit that, amongst other signs, I always thought that Princess Diana's fondness for Wham! to be a pretty good indication that Prince Charles really had made a mistake in marrying her....
His voice was OK, I suppose, but I just found the material it was used for was usually not to my taste.  But then again, in music, my taste is very limited...

Continuing the Christmas theme

There's a good read to be found at The Japan Times on the "first" Japanese Christmas. 

Those missionaries really made converts work for their salvation:
The Christmas of 1552 could hardly have been more different from the Christmases we know today. Familiar Yuletide iconography — Christmas trees, reindeers, mistletoe and the like — was not yet established anywhere in the world (and, naturally, there was not a whiff of the commercialism that marks modern-day Christmas festivities.) The setting for this Christmas was the abandoned Daido-ji Buddhist temple, converted into the Jesuits’ house of worship and living quarters. It would be among the first of Japan’s nanban-dera, or southern barbarian temples, the name given to the makeshift Christian churches housed in Buddhist buildings, with shoji and engawa (a type of terrace) and, often the sole exterior visual difference, a cross erected upon the kawara roof tiles.

On Christmas Eve, Japanese believers were invited to spend the night in the Jesuit living quarters, cramming the venue as they embarked upon an all-nighter of hymns, sermons, scripture readings and Masses. For today’s readers, at least, de Alcacova’s account comes across as a rather gruelling experience, although there’s no reason to doubt the missionary’s numerous references to the “great joy” of the Japanese converts. From dusk until dawn, the new converts were treated to sermons and readings about “Deus” — the Portuguese word for God. The entire celebration contained no fewer than six Masses.

Father Juan Fernandez, an important Jesuit who wrote the West’s first lexicon of Japanese, opened the midnight scripture sessions. When his voice grew weary, he was relieved by “a Japanese youth with knowledge of our language,” de Alcacova writes. At the crack of dawn, Cosme de Torres — leader of the Jesuit mission after Xavier’s departure for India — led a new Mass, while another priest read passages from the gospels and the Epistles. After this night of Christian immersion, the faithful were allowed to go home, likely exchanging greetings of “Natala” — the Portuguese word for Christmas, meaning “birth.”
 There is much more of interest in this lengthy article, which you can read here.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Re-working the classics

For my 2016 Christmas graphic, I thought I would run some classics through Prismsa.
I wonder what da Vinci would have thought of this.   Here's the original, with the most Italian looking Christ child ever:

And here's part of it, turned a bit Japanesque via Prisma:

You know what I find interesting: I reckon this filter makes the Christ child look very much like a photo that's been filtered, not a painting.

I tried others through Prisma too, but I liked this the best.

As for your more classic Nativity scenes, how's this one for bright colours and an amazing amount of peculiar detail to analyse:

I find it very odd. Merry Christmas, anyway!

Update:  I've added a bit...

I expect such behaviour to be banned under ...ugh..President Trump

US Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, and a bunch of her staff, show themselves to understand what can please the Japanese, by dancing to a popular song, and including a mascot too:

Friday, December 23, 2016

An example of Trump not knowing who to listen to

Wow.  A really clear explanation by Matthew Yglesias as to why the simplistic ideas about trade by Trump approved advisers Ross & Navarro are just wrong. 

A good example of how Trump has no judgement as to who has credibility on virtually any subject.

Tiny food before the big food season

A Japanese thing I didn't know about:
YouTube is replete with Japanese tiny-food videos. Their creators shrink recipes to Lilliputian dimensions: pancakes the size of nickels, burgers compact enough to flip with chopsticks. The meals may be extremely diminutive, but they’re edible. Most of the ingredients are hulking compared with the finished products, but whenever possible, the chefs choose smaller stand-ins: Pearl onions or shallots sub for their bigger counterparts, and quail eggs replace chicken eggs.
Some of the YouTube channels devoted to tiny food post only periodically, while others roll out new installments a few times a week. Miniature Space, to take one example, has more than 1 million subscribers; its most popular video—a strawberry shortcake made from a single berry—has been viewed more than 8.5 million times. The videos are addictive; there’s something at once mesmerizing and weirdly funny about a gigantic hand trying to chisel a tiny sliver of meat, or smooth whisker-thin coats of icing on a multitiered “cake” cut from a single slice of bread.

All we want for Christmas - charcoal underpants

BBC - Future - How to tackle the most embarrassing problem on planes
I think I missed this article from two Decembers ago, about the problem of expanding intestinal gases on planes. (I'm glad to read it's not just my imagination - I had wondered for some time if the reduced cabin air pressure was really enough to cause this.  Apparently it is.) I also didn't know that you can buy charcoal filled underpants:
Even so, Rosenberg’s personal feeling is that more could be done – particularly since no smoking policies have made other odours more easily discernible. It may be possible to place charcoal within the seats themselves, he suggests – though previous studies have suggested that is not particularly effective, perhaps because most trousers and skirts create a “tunnel effect” that direct the fumes away from the cushion. Instead, he thinks that airlines would do better to use blankets with charcoal woven into the fabric. For people who are especially worried about their own flatulence, he points out that you can now buy underwear designed along similar principles; the American Journal of Gastroenterology reports that charcoal-lined underwear absorbs nearly 100% of the odour, compared to removable (and reusable) pads placed within trousers, which only absorb about 70%.
Somehow, I had previously missed reading about this brand of charcoal filtering underwear, and their rather upmarket looking website   You can thank me later...

No wonder defence industries like him...

The shambolic embarrassment of a President elect announcing potential policy as half-arsed thoughts on Twitter continues, I see:
 President-elect Donald Trump has said the US should enlarge its nuclear arsenal, an apparent reversal of a decades-long reduction of the nation's atomic weaponry that came hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated calls for his country's arsenal to be reinforced.

And while the stoopid who voted for him thought it was great that careless reporting indicated Boeing was willing to shave about $1 billion off the cost of a new Air Force One (seriously, do reporters really think Boeing just admitted that it had bolstered the cost by 25% just because it could get away with it?), they might want to consider that all defence companies do have a great incentive to be seen to be flattering his massive ego, because they know he is a cash cow just waiting to be milked:
Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Northrop Grumman are already competing to build a next generation of intercontinental ballistic missiles for the US Air Force, a project expected to cost at least $85 billion.
That is just one part of a modernisation plan that will contribute to what defence analysts call a gathering "bow wave" of spending in the coming decade on major weapons that future presidents will face.
Defence companies stand to benefit from a resurgence in military spending promised by Mr Trump and already under way in Western Europe and Asia as global tensions rise.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Vanilla coffee

On a whim, I recently put a few (well, maybe 5 or 6) drops of vanilla extract in my morning instant coffee.  (Moccona, if you're interested.)

It works well.  Not a strong taste, but sort of smooths out the flavour somewhat, I think.  Or perhaps I need to do a blind taste test to make sure I'm not imagining things.

Carry on.

Something vaguely optimistic

From The Guardian:
The Indian government has forecast that it will exceed the renewable energy targets set in Paris last year by nearly half and three years ahead of schedule.
A draft 10-year energy blueprint published this week predicts India will be generating 57% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2027. The Paris climate accord target was 40% by 2030.
The forecast reflects an increase in private sector investment in Indian renewable energy projects over the past year, according to analysts.
The draft national electricity plan also indicated that no new coal-fired power stations were likely to be required to meet Indian energy needs until at least 2027, raising further doubts over the viability of Indian mining investments overseas, such as the energy company Adani’s Carmichael mine in Queensland, the largest coalmine planned to be built in Australia.

Some astonishing figures

Why are rural areas seeing a rise in drug-dependent newborns? -

Gee, this isn't the cheeriest series of posts so close to Christmas. But Trump is on the way to the White House and the sense of doom is palpable.

Anyhow, here's one surprising sign of societal problems in rural America:
Roughly 1 out of every 130 babies in rural America are born dependent on drugs, according to a study published Monday.
The report, published in JAMA Pediatrics, shows a dramatic increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome – when a newborn baby is dependent on drugs and goes through withdrawal after birth – in rural areas between 2004 and 2013. In just a decade, the number of rural newborns suffering from chemical dependency skyrocketed from 1.2 per every 1,000 hospital births to 7.5 per 1,000.

While previous research has suggested an increase in neonatal abstinence syndrome in certain areas, the findings published Monday are the first to show just how widespread of a problem newborn drug dependency is across rural America, fueled by an increase in opioid use among women of all social classes and insufficient resources in far-flung areas to treat drug addiction.

Not a good sign...

Ice-melting temperatures forecast for Arctic midwinter | Environment | The Guardian

Earlier this year, when Arctic ice extent was low before summer, it looked possible that the summer melt would set a new record, and I thought that would be a good thing as the final nail in the coffin of AGW deniers, on top of record global temperatures convincingly beating the 1998 record, even on the dubious satellite records.  Well, it wasn't quite to be (a new record low ice extent, I mean), even though the summer melt was still very low.

But the recent patterns of global ice extent, and these odd winter temperatures, perhaps indicate we really don't have long to wait for the next record low.

Nick Cohen walking back from his Left hate?

I haven't followed his opinions all that regularly over the years, but I think it fair to say that, with this column, Nick Cohen's putting his attacks on the Left a bit more into perspective now, given the rise of the far Right in Europe and the US.   He really doesn't trust Russia, either.  Here's part of what he says about the murder this week in Turkey:
The propagandists of dictatorship are the most blatant exploiters of other people’s deaths. They use murder to brainwash their subjects at home and their fellow travellers abroad. Under the Tsars, Bolshevism and now Putin’s mixture of gangster capitalism and orthodox nationalism, hatred of the West has always been a defining feature of Russian ideology. When a Turkish police officer killed a Russian diplomat in Ankara this week – yelling ‘Don’t forget Aleppo!’ moments after the murder – Russia’s politicians and lickspittle ‘journalists’ instantly blacked out his real motives so they could fit him into their anti-Western story.

Even by the abysmal standards of Russian propaganda, the response to the assassination was breathtaking. It was either the result of Western protests about the Russian destruction of Aleppo or the direct result of a plot by ‘Nato secret services’. Despite helping Donald Trump to victory, and despite having the support of every far right party in Europe and Jeremy Corbyn’s contemptible British Labour party, Russia still has to regard the West as an enemy with supernatural powers. The propaganda is too deep-rooted and too useful to change. The naïve who think that Putin can be placated should watch it. Russia is telling us that not only that it cannot be appeased, it does not want to be appeased either. I doubt even a Trump presidency will stem the paranoid hatred.

Fear of blood

Menstruation really, really struck some old societies as something to be feared, didn't it?  And I see that in some corners of the globe, it still causes some terrible treatment of women and girls:
A 15-year-old girl died in a menstrual hut in western Nepal sometime between the night of Saturday, Dec. 17, and the morning of Sunday, Dec. 18. According to Nepal's Republica newspaper, Roshani Tiruwa, from Nepal's Achham district, went to the shed after eating dinner around 6 p.m. She lit a fire in the tiny mud hut before going to sleep. Tiruwa's father found her body the next morning. District police suspect the ninth-grader died from a lack of oxygen....

Since 2007, at least eight other deaths related to menstrual seclusion have been reported in Achham, a district with a population of 250,000. Carbon monoxide poisoning from lighting fires to heat the sheds was a common cause of death. Wild animal attacks was another.

The practice of menstrual seclusion is widespread in western Nepal. Taboos surrounding menstruation, rooted in Hindu mythology, have led to a range of restrictions on menstruating girls and women: from forbidding entrance to kitchens or temples to the practice of sleeping outside the house, called chaupadi. Many people believe that a menstruating girl who breaks the rules risks angering the gods and inviting misfortune on her family.

Chaupadi was outlawed by Nepal's Supreme Court in 2005 but proves difficult to eradicate. A 2011 U.N. report estimated 95 percent of women in the Achham district follow the practice. The government has invested in awareness campaigns and village by village has been declaring "chaupadi-free" zones. But that hasn't stopped the practice: Tiruwa's village was declared "chaupadi-free" in September 2015, according to Republica.

Tangled wins

Continuing my grudge against Frozen, this comedy song highlight from Tangled is about 20 times wittier than anything in the former movie.  You can read the lyrics on this version:

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Not just me

I was watching Rick Stein's latest pleasant cooking/travel show last night, and he ended up in Greece, where he noted that a lot of people are "rather rude" about Greek cuisine.

Count me in on that.  Of all the European cuisines, I have always said that Greek is the least interesting, and I invariably find Greek restaurants are dull and way, way too similar.   Mind you, a good moussaka can be pretty nice, even though last night's example must be pretty damn heavy with olive oil.  But overall, I like to give Greek food a miss.

And in another example of confirmation that I am not alone, after all, I see that quite a few readers of The Guardian are criticising Frozen, a movie which I agree is completely underwhelming, with a popularity based on one song.  

Oh, and Jonathan Greene on Twitter has been sharing a three year old ribald attack on Love Actually, with which I also agree.  I really find that movie the pits, and would force people who love it into re-education camps if I were a not-so-benevolent dictator.  

Thanks, Hollywood cowards

Tom Arnold has a career to worry about?  Who knew?

I would say it is a near certainty that there is material of the kind Arnold describes floating around somewhere in Hollywood, but fear of legal action from Trump kept it in the closet.

What a bunch of cowards.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Clever mice

It turns out mice have a clever ability which has only just been discovered - the ability to sense oxygen levels through their nose: 
The genome of mice harbors more than 1000 odorant receptor genes, which enable them to smell myriad odors in their surroundings. Researchers ... have discovered that mice can also sense the oxygen level of the inhaled air using neurons in their nose. For this newly discovered sensory property, mice rely on two genes termed Gucy1b2 and Trpc2, but apparently not on odorant receptor genes.

The research team discovered that a specific type of chemosensory neuron in the mouse olfactory mucosa responds to oxygen decreases in the environment. Chemosensory cells typically detect an increase in the concentration of a substance. In mammals, a lack of oxygen was thought to be detected primarily by the carotid body, a sensory organ situated at the carotid arteries in the neck. Activation of the carotid body results in activation of the respiratory center in the brain. As mice live in burrows, it appears that during evolution an additional mechanism has developed in order to protect the individuals and their offspring from a shortage of oxygen....

Moreover, the scientists found that mice can learn very quickly where locations with low oxygen levels are, and then avoid these areas. By contrast, mice with inactivated Gucy1b2 or Trpc2 genes cannot distinguish between normal and modestly decreased oxygen levels in the external environment, and do not show avoidance behavior of these areas with a low oxygen level. These genes thus enable mice early on to select locations with an optimal oxygen level.

Blockchain doubts

I like to think I'm reasonably technology literate, but I have to admit, I can't for the life of me get what the IT pundits' excitement about Blockchain technology is all about.  I don't get what is meant to be transformational about it.  (Well, I think that this is what a bunch of people are claiming.)   That linked article is not the only thing I have read about it, but none of it convinces me that it is particularly exciting, or different, to the way things are done now.

I was always skeptical of 3D printing as being anything other than a niche method of manufacturing, and I think the early claims about it as the way of the future already look silly and overblown.   Bitcoin I always thought wildly oversold, too, and a bit of a silly idea that would mainly appeal to criminals and tax evaders.  I see that it was declared a failure early this year, although I am sure others will beg to differ.

I strongly suspect that Blockchain is something similar - an idea that has an odd ability to excite technophiles in a way that is out of proportion to the actual technology.

But, of course, I could be wrong.

A cinematic killing

I haven't seen the television news this morning, but the photos all over the media sure make this look like something from a movie rather than real life.  (Stating the obvious, sorry.)

And as we're not used to seeing Islamic inspired killers looking clean cut and in a suit, I'm surprised that more "false flag" claims aren't already out there.  The first to come up in Google is one on an odd looking site "Veteran's Today."   A quick look at its home page indicates it posts lots of odd things, but I can't quite see the political lines its conspiracy stuff usually follows.  Anyway, the link to their page seems to claim it is a Mossad hit, yet the headline is now reading that it was from "Turkish Intel" and a "false flag" by Erdogan (!)  

And how is Trump going to comment?  Via Twitter?  We'll see.  However he does, there's at least a 50% chance it'll be something gormless in either content or delivery.

Monday, December 19, 2016

A few comments

I'm really busy at the moment, but a few observations:

* did you see Jamie Oliver's Christmas cooking show last week: "A Very Clementine Christmas"? I don't think anyone in Australia knows what a clementine is, but Jamie mentioned them about 20 times in the 20 minutes of the show I watched.

* is it just me, or did Colbert seem in a very dark mood last on his show last week? I think it's the sense of doom coming from the upcoming meeting of the electoral college.

 * Conan, on the other hand, has had some very funny clips on his Youtube channel about his recent visit to Berlin. His sense of humour, and that of Germans, does not mix, but that alone makes watching him trying to amuse Germans pretty funny.

* Speaking of doom - I saw a clip of one of his last "thank you: yes we all agree I'm great" rallies by Trump in which he again made the patently false claim of this election victory being historically big. It isn't, of course, and the news that one poll indicates his lies sway Republicans says something remarkable about what you can get away with politically now. At least with Republicans, who seem to have fully embraced (without realising it) a post-modernist attitude to "truth", about a decade after the Left had already moved on from it. Amazing.

* Haven't seen Rogue One yet, but I will, despite being rather sick of Death Stars or uber Death Stars in the Star Wars movies. It's a bit like the whole genre of World War 2 movies being about the atomic bomb, in every movie.

* Yesterday's big, ugly Brisbane storm brought hail to my area, but not big enough to hurt cars or break roofs. Good.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

A delightful explanation re Japanese napping

There's a lot to enjoy in this brief  NYT explanation about how the Japanese will nap anywhere they can get the opportunity:
In most countries, sleeping on the job isn’t just frowned upon, it may get you fired.
But in Japan, napping in the office is common and culturally accepted. And in fact, it is often seen as a subtle sign of diligence: You must be working yourself to exhaustion.
The word for it is “inemuri.” It is often translated as “sleeping on duty,” but Dr. Brigitte Steger, a senior lecturer in Japanese studies at Downing College, Cambridge, who has written a book on the topic, says it would be more accurate to render it as “sleeping while present.”
That, she said, captures Japan’s approach to time, where it’s seen as possible to do multiple things simultaneously, if at a lower intensity. So you can get credit for attending that boring quarterly sales meeting while also dreaming of a beach vacation.
Inemuri is most prevalent among more senior employees in white-collar professions, Dr. Steger said.
And more:
Sleeping in social situations can even enhance your reputation. Dr. Steger recalled a group dinner at a restaurant where the male guest of a female colleague fell asleep at the table. The other guests complimented his “gentlemanly behavior” — that he chose to stay present and sleep, rather than excuse himself.
The article even makes me feel better about whether I am getting inadequate sleep now.  If the Japanese have longevity, then their being well rested would seem not to be part of the explanation:
One reason public sleeping may be so common in Japan is because people get so little sleep at home. A 2015 government study found that 39.5 percent of Japanese adults slept less than six hours a night.
An unwritten rule of inemuri is to sleep compactly, without “violating spatial norms,” Professor Bestor said. “If you stretched out under the table in the office conference room, or took up several spaces on the train, or laid out on a park bench,” he said, that would draw reproach for being socially disruptive.
What a great country...

Happy rat/sad rat news

So Ratatouille was a kind of documentary?   I didn't realise Paris has a rat problem.   Probably because there's too much nice food there.  And how's this for a pest control manager who can still admire his prey (as well as making a dubious sounding claim):
Listening to Mr. Demodice, who has spent much of life observing rats, it is almost possible to feel affection for them.
“A rat is a very intelligent and athletic animal,” he said.
“Rats play a very useful role for us because what they eat we do not need to dispose of, so it’s very economical for us, and when rats are underground they also clean the pipes with their fur when they run through them.
“So we need to keep them. They’re sort of our friends, but they need to stay below. That’s all we ask: that they stay below.”
And in happier rat news, here's how to tell if your rat is happy:
Wondering if your pet rat is feeling happy? You should check its ears, researchers say.
A team of scientists in Switzerland found that a rat's ears are more pinkish and are positioned at a more relaxed angle when it is experiencing positive emotions. The researchers recently published their findings in the journal PLOS ONE.
Previous studies have focused on negative emotions –- for example, identifying how rats indicate that they are feeling pain, with the aim of learning how to avoid those situations.
Now, the research team led by Kathryn Finlayson is focused on promoting positive emotions in rats – rather than simply aiming for the absence of a negative state. As animal behavior researcher Luca Melotti tells The Two-Way, this is centered on the question of "what does it mean to have a life worth living?"
Actually, now that I read the article fully, couldn't the pink ears just be a result of the physical activity of tickling?   The controls should have had physical activity too, surely, before you could read much into pink ears.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Oh dear..

Well, it seems that my concerns that I would be put off by the ridiculously luxurious and enormous interiors of the spaceship may be the least of my worries.  Passengers is not getting great reviews...

Seems an awful long time since I was really completely satisfied with a spacey science fiction film...

Silly man

How much sense does it make for this Catholic from the 50's (who wasn't born til the 70's, probably) to claim this:
None at all really.  Has he no memory of the large number of women, even in Australia, who used to cover their hair to attend Mass before the 1960's?   And if hair covering was a sign of modesty for them, why is it not for Muslims?

Truth is, if there is any way to attempt to convert any Muslim practice into something they should be derided for, CL will try to find it, no matter the level of hypocrisy.

About Syria, and Putin nude

This seems a fairly balanced take on the matter of Syria and the geopolitical mess in the region.

I still don't trust Putin, though.  

Meanwhile, there is much to be somewhat amused about in this report about the Abe/Putin "Onsen Summit" that's just starting.  Some extracts:
Sushi, sashimi and wagyu beef was set be on the menu — and, in what could be a poor diplomatic decision, Mr Abe also planned to serve puffer fish to the Russian President.
One person dies each year in Japan — on average — after eating puffer fish that has been incorrectly prepared. 

I wish Abe would send a gift pack of puffer fish to Trump.   Never know your luck... (Come on - be honest:  his boorish and dumb behaviour would have to make him streets ahead in the "President elect we most want to not to make it to the White House, and we don't care how" stakes, around the globe.)

And the bigger question:   does Putin care to nude up in the interests of better foreign relationships?:
But the big question being asked in Japan is — will the two men climb into a hot-tub together?
It is odd for Australians to think about the idea of two middle-aged, straight men getting nude and chatting about world affairs while sitting in a pool of really hot water (42 degrees Celsius) — but in Japan, it is not that odd.
In a business setting, it is considered a natural extension of a working relationship — stripping back the layers builds trust and familiarity.
Mr Putin and Mr Abe might take an onsen together if the first stage of their talks go smoothly.
What would cause a bigger incident would be if Putin tries to get into the tub with bathers on.   Could cause the outbreak of war, that faux pas.  

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Listening is unimportant; it's the doing that counts

No one knows what is going to happen in Trumpland:  liberals who have spoken to him come out feeling vaguely optimist that he seemed interested in their views (Bill Gates, for goodness sake, is the latest, with a particularly careless comparison that made for some laughable headlines); but I really doubt there is any cause for optimism.   Because, as Jamelle Bouie notes at Slate:
You don’t have to look carefully to see the pattern in President-elect Donald Trump’s picks for his Cabinet. To run the government, he has picked men and women who disdain the missions of their assigned agencies, oppose public goods, or conflate their own interests with that of the public. It’s less a team for governing the country than a mechanism for dismantling its key institutions. And as a cadre of tycoons, billionaires, and generals, Trump’s executive branch is a rebuke to the idea that government needs expertise in governing.
And yet, there are signs of conflict already within his team.  How else to explain the walking away from the McCarthy-esque "have you now or have you ever believed in climate change" questionnaire to the Energy Department?  

Does it all depend on something like Ivanka's complaints to her father?   Is he a pushover for her tears?   (Is that sexist?   Let me know.)

It just shrieks of coming government chaos, if you ask me....

Russians are odd

Inspired by Jason's recent stated sympathy to a "Russian pivot" under Trump, I read this article in New Statesmen about Russian democracy. 

The first point is that it's pretty clear most Russians still don't think they are a fully fledged democracy at all:

 I suppose you could argue the trend there is positive, though.

The odder thing is the ease with which it appears you can find Russians who still yearn for the hard master:
Most people I spoke to have indeed picked the “distinct form of democracy”, arguing that “an American model is unsuitable” for Russia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, no one could elaborate on the specifics of the desired model. One woman volunteered that “the ideal ruler for Russia would be someone like Peter the Great.” Once we have cleared that Russia under Peter was absolute monarchy, my respondent explained her reasoning: “Russia needs a strong leader, a disciplinarian. Russians cannot be ruled with a carrot, they understand only the stick.” In her view, Russians are too emotional and if they are granted too much freedom, they turn into loose cannons. She has a point. When Yeltsin, the most liberal head of state Russia has ever known, finally fuelled economic reforms, initialised by Gorbachev, the unprecedented market freedom has resulted in chaos, which culminated with Russia’s financial default in 1998.

The idea of a “strong ruler with wider powers” than would be implied by a Western constitution was echoed by others. “Russia needs a master,” said a mother of two who lives in Britain. “Russian people need clear directions and control, otherwise they’d just sit there like Brits on benefits, watching TV and complaining all the time.”
 And as to why Russians don't generally blame the top dog for their problems:
The special feature of the Russian mentality is that anyone but the tsar is to blame. Corruption, lawlessness, lack of social infrastructure and inequality are evident to all, but these are the problems associated with the “local imbeciles” and oligarchs, not the person presiding on the throne.
Which is, when you think about it, probably a 100% turnaround from the way most Australians think.  They are usually determined to blame everything on the current Prime Minister, regardless of the degree of control over certain events they may actually have.

The writer sums up how he thinks Russia got to where it is in this matter, and it sounds pretty convincing:
It is, of course, not at all surprising that no one could come up with an eloquent description of an ideal model of democracy, especially moulded for Russian mentality. Quite simply, Russia has no experience of it. From the absolute monarchy, Russia barely had a chance to get used to having a parliament (or Duma), when the Bolshevik revolution had erased all traces of it and kept it under locks for 70years. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia did the best it could to draw a new constitution, draft new laws and declare individual freedoms. Inevitably, there were teething issues, but instead of nurturing the nascent democracy, Russia’s current governing elite has been busy using its power over media to feed people an old tale about Russia’s unique path. “The Western model won’t work here”, the emphasised values of integrity, orthodoxy and “the national spirit” have once again conquered the Russian minds just like these ideas had been advocated by the tsar Nikolai I in the nineteenth century. New terms, such as a “governed democracy” and “sovereign democracy” have popped up to entertain the inquisitive minds. Other minds probably don’t even care. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Don't get too excited

So, "repeal Section 18C" crowd are thrilled that some Japanese community group has apparently made a complaint to the Human Rights Commission about a statue on church land commemorating the "comfort women" of World War 2.

Given that the statue looks innocent enough, and commemorates suffering that no doubt happened, on some scale or other, the free speech culture warriors seem to think this is some proof that the law is an ass.

Which, really, doesn't make much sense.  Do they rush out to claim that defamation law is obviously stupid and wrong and needs to be repealed every time someone takes out a defamation action that most people feel is ill founded, and which subsequently fails?

They might also question who it is that is bringing the action.

Because, if one cares to look at their little used website, it appears pretty clear that the far from well known "Australia-Japan Community Network " seems to spend nearly all of its time complaining about how Koreans and Chinese keep unfairly going on and on about the comfort women issue and Japanese militaristic behaviour in the 20th century.

In fact, there is even a post suggesting that the Nanjing massacre was vastly exaggerated.

It's hard to escape the conclusion that this group (of very indeterminate size) is used as a vehicle for some Japanese who push a  nationalist pro-Japan line, of the kind you hear about as still trying to have some political influence in Japan.

Most of us in the West consider that branch of the political scene in Japan as pretty disreputable, for their failure to acknowledge history.

So, that gives a bit of context into the matter of why the complaint is being made at all.  Just because some grandstanding person attempts to make what I would call mischievous use of law (look at Leyonhjelm's silly recent complaint, too) doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad law: what it mainly suggests is that the HRC procedures need to be able to dismiss them quickly, unlike the situation with the recent QUT case.

So I'm on side with the Australian Council of Jewry on this.

Besides, all the nervous energy libertarians like Davidson, Wilson, Leyonhjelm and the whole IPA crew put into this issue helps keep them looking like the nutty obsessives they are.  Let's keep it that way.

Trump facing extinction

Cheery news for Christmas!
Earth is due for an “extinction-level” event from the sky, and even if we see it coming, we won’t be able to do anything about it, a NASA scientist said Monday.
Speaking at a meeting in San Francisco, Dr. Joseph Nuth of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center said large asteroids and comets, the type that could wipe out civilization, are extremely rare, but tend to hit “50 to 60 million years apart.” Given that a comet wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, one could argue that we’re slightly past “due.”
“The biggest problem, basically, is there’s not a hell of a lot we can do about it at the moment,” he added.
What's worse, can you imagine Donald Trump as President announcing an asteroid was about to hit the planet?   None of the gravitas of movie Presidents.   It would be something like this (read it in your mind in Trump voice):

"They tell me it's serious.  Very, very serious, folks....  [muffled aside]   What's that?..oh, OK

 Well, gotta run, it's every man for himself..."

Old magazines for you

I would be extremely surprised if my mentioning this here led to any success, but I need to get rid of my old magazines from the 1980's to 1990's that I can no longer plausibly justify to my wife that I need to keep.

The star attractions:

*  Lots of Omni
*  A fair few Fortean Times
*  Quite a lot of Discover
*  Some Premiere 
*  Some other bits and pieces.

Anyone want them?   Free to a good home...

The Syria mess

I don't know why current events in Syria wouldn't give you at least pause to consider the wisdom of a "Russian pivot" by Trump, Jason.   Clearly, there were no great options when the Obama administration was working out how to respond to the Syria situation a couple of years ago. 

Dead on Arrival

That's a bit of a harsh pun for a title, but it seems sorta apt.

Went and saw the serious, adult type, science fiction movie Arrival last night; and I had deliberately not read any full reviews of it, just in case I came across a spoiler or two.

My verdict:  worth seeing, but underwhelming.  It looks pretty good, and the acting is fine; a very chilly sort of atmosphere pervades the whole film.

The key reveal towards the end, though, seems to be a silly extension of a reasonable idea re the effect of language, as far as I could tell.  There is room for debate, though, I suppose, over what exactly caused the crucial change in our lead character, and whether this was destined to happen to others, too.  While I don't demand that all films involving aliens explain all plot elements with crystal clarity, I think this one could have done with just a tad more exposition.

[Then again, any film that revolves around the importance of languages conceptually is perhaps not one for me:  I've always been a skeptic of the idea that preserving all language is extremely important because our cognitive and cultural horizons are always skrinking when a language is lost.  All arguments along those lines strike me as quasi scientific "just so" stories;  some languages may make some concepts easier to explain than others, but I just find it hard to believe that with any well developed language you can't find a way to get close enough to the meaning expressed in alternative human languages.   And, of course, I'm not talking about fondness any individual may have for preserving a language they grew up with; that's perfectly understandable.  Or people who want to be able to understand something from the past.   I'm talking about the more high minded arguments that seem to me to make a fetish out of  variety in languages.  It is, now that I think of it, perhaps a branch of identity politics - certainly, it is usually those on the Left of the politics who are most convinced about it. ]

But back to the movie.   My other complaints:  looks too often too much like the visual style of Tree of Life (and, thematically, you could also argue the films are pretty similar.)   And the script could have afforded some lightening in tone, just occasionally.   Yes, the unannounced arrival of aliens would be initially mind blowing; but once the planet hadn't been blown up after a few months, some people would surely start to make jokes about it.

As it happens, it was only after I got home that I realised the director was the same guy,  Denis Villeneuve, who made Sicario, the generally well received Mexican drug war film from a few years ago that I watched on Stan a couple of weeks ago.

For me, both films suffer very similar problems:   I thought Sicario was very well directed, looked great, and (like Arrival) does a good job at building up tension.  [And, as a minor observation, both films feature lovely shots of flight.  Villeneuve really seems to like filming flying things.]   But by the end of film, the script had never completely convinced me.   My major complaint - why did the female protagonist stay working for the cobbled together multi agency group so long after she had been convinced in the very first operation that they were really acting like cowboys, above the law?   That just seemed never to be plausibly explained in the script.

Anyway, this post is sounding more negative than I really intended.   Like I said at the start, it's worth seeing, and one of those films which are good at provoking discussion about its merits and faults.   But I don't think it's in any way a classic of science fiction. 

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Message to Jason

Well, gee, Jason:  maybe the Guardian thinks it's newsworthy that a President-elect who broadcasts every damn thought that crosses his mind on Twitter is having share market consequences that he probably isn't even thinking about, and which can certainly annoy share market investors.

You do like to go on with this "leftie hypocrisy" line to a silly extent at times....

Update:  and besides, we all know that Trump will probably have a meeting with Defence, or someone from Lockheed, and then completely reverse his position - again.  The Guardian already says he has not previously criticised the F35 specifically, and even sounded vaguely supportive:
Trump has previously commented on the F-35, but never to criticize. In 2014 he quoted a follower’s criticism of the Affordable Care Act website, saying the US “could have bought 50 F35 fighters or 5 Aircraft Carriers but we got a worthless website”.  
The news is about the unpredictability of this fool President-elect, and the effects it is having.  

Krugman's right, again

I liked this Krugman column, which started by noting the theory (certainly correct, I reckon) that Trump gets "cred" with his working class voters because he likes fast food, and generally has dubious taste*:
What I see a lot, both in general political discourse and in my own inbox, is a tremendous sense of resentment against people like Hillary Clinton or, well, me, that isn’t about policy. It boils down, instead, to something along the lines of “You people think you’re better than us.” And it has a lot to do with the way people live.

If populism were simply about income inequality, someone like Trump should be deeply resented by the working class. He has gold toilets! But he gets a pass, partly — I think — because his tastes seem in line with those of non-college-educated whites. That is, he lives the way they imagine they would if they had a lot of money.

Compare that with affluent liberals — say, my neighbors on the Upper West Side. They aren’t nearly as rich as the plutocrats that will stuff the Trump cabinet. What’s more, they vote for things that will raise their taxes and cost of living, while improving the lives of the very people who disdain them. Objectively, they’re on white workers’ side.

But they don’t eat much fast food, because they believe it’s unhealthy and they’re watching their weight. They don’t watch much reality TV, and do listen to a lot of books on tape — or even read books the old-fashioned way. if they’re rich enough to have a second home, it’s a shabby-chic country place, not Mar-a-Lago. 

So there is a sense in which there’s a bigger cultural gulf between affluent liberals and the white working class than there is between Trumpkins and the WWC. Do the liberals sneer at the Joe Sixpacks? Actually, I’ve never heard it — the people I hang out with do understand that living the way they do takes a lot more money and time than hard-pressed Americans have, and aren’t especially judgmental about lifestyles. But it’s easy to see how the sense that liberals look down on regular folks might arise, and be fanned by right-wing media.

The question is, what do you do? Again, objectively those liberals are very much on workers’ side, while the characters who play on this perceived disdain are set to betray the white working class on a massive scale. Is there no way to get this across other than eating lots of burgers with fries?
* Not referring to fast food here - I like it once or twice a week as much as any Westie.

Skeptical Science on Trump and climate change

A good summary here of the weird things going on in Team Trump - how it seems his daughter is the key reason he met with Gore and DiCaprio, yet it is very clear from actual appointments that Trump is in no way backing down from dismantling the EPA as an effective force to battling greenhouse gases.  (Ivanka is friends with Chelsea Clinton too, isn't she?  which is probably the reason there was never any real chance Trump was serious about pursuing Hillary after the election.)

I get a bit tired of this, because, as many have noted, it seems Trumps just likes the showmanship of all this -  he gets a thrill out of running his current life as a reality TV show.   That cringe inducing photo of dinner with Romney;  the weird, incredibly self indulgent "thank you" tour; the tweeting; the "only I know the winners" quip.

The more the media laps it up, the more he probably likes it.  So once again, I kind of wish the media didn't follow him quite so closely. 

The Republicans and Russia

There's a very clear and understandable account by Peter Beinart at The Atlantic on how the Republicans came to be split on the matter of Russia.   How Trump and his pals react to the Republicans in the Senate who have approved an enquiry into Russian interference in the election will be interesting to watch.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Heisenberg and the Bomb

Quite a good discussion here of the question of why Germany did not get far in its development of an atomic bomb in World War 2.   In particular, did Heisenberg and his German physicist buddies deliberately prevent it by telling Speer that (to paraphrase), sure, they'd love to do it, but it's just too big a job for Germany.  (Mind you, considering the incredible scale of the Manhattan Project, perhaps this was no great stretch of the truth at the time.)

English school horrors - girls' own version

From an otherwise not very interesting TLS review of a book about life in girls' boarding schools in the mid 20th century (I don't exactly expect it to fly off the shelf), I was amused by this particular paragraph:
The louche prize, however, goes to Caroline (Lady) Cranbrook’s 1940s memories of a place called Wings: a grand house, and a drunken headmistress with a fag and crème de menthe ever at hand, encouraging the school sport of rugby (“Jump on me, girls, jump on me!”). She made them dance with her armless, First World War veteran father, whose stumps without prostheses they had to cling to. Biology in the old kitchen involved dissecting an aborted foal. So many teachers left that Cranbrook at fifteen taught two subjects herself and put the five-year-old boarders to bed. When inspectors came she was given make-up so that they would think she was a teacher. Eventually, with difficulty, she smuggled out a letter “betraying” the school. After Wings closed, rumours spread – one had the headmistress knocking out a girl’s tooth in assembly “because she didn’t like the way she was looking at her”.

The similarities are clear

Somethings are very obvious about the current state of the conservative/culture warrior Right when it gets government in Australia or the US:

*  they love surrounding themselves with the military.  I complained constantly about Tony Abbott and his ministers doing this, and now, of course, we see Trump actually embedding the recently retired/sacked military into key positions in government.  Funnily enough, both Abbott and Trump are a conservative's idea of "men's men", yet neither have performed any military service at all.   A bit of psychological over-compensation going on, perhaps?   Or just a love of appearing "tough" by surrounding themselves with professional fighters.

* Their prime rule of thumb for accepting advice:  "if it's inconvenient, don't believe it:  ignore it."   Look, Trump's been upset for 30 odd years that his hairspray changed in response to scientific advice (fully confirmed, of course) that different propellants were needed for the benefit of the ozone layer.  He still can't accept that this was correct advice.   (Yes, there is actually a fact check devoted to a 30 year hunch that his hairspray couldn't possibly affect the ozone layer.)

If this fact alone doesn't give you cause to worry about the judgement of the President elect, there's something wrong with your own judgement.

Trump has just re-affirmed that he can't, of course, accept that climate change is real.  No one believes that Tony Abbott was ever convinced either.

When it comes to economics, I see that the Turnbull government is carrying on the same Abbott initiated political re-alignment of Treasury to get the advice it wants.

As for energy policy, they choose to doubt the chief scientist rather than deal with the issue in detail.    
It is a great worry...

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Vaping taken seriously

I had no idea that, in America at least, vaping nicotine "E-cigarettes" had become so popular with the young:
The report released Thursday by the U.S. surgeon general focuses on Americans under the age of 25, the cohort that has embraced e-cigarettes with the most enthusiasm. Teens and young adults are more likely to be using the vaping devices than people in any other age group. Indeed, among middle and high school students, e-cigarettes have become more popular than traditional cigarettes.
These trends are alarming to public health officials for several reasons. Dr. Tom Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has been warning for years that e-cigarettes have the potential to get kids hooked on nicotine, paving the way for them to “graduate” to regular smoking and setting themselves up for a lifetime of addiction. About 90% of adult smokers say they started smoking as teens.
Plus, mounting scientific evidence suggests the adolescent brain is uniquely vulnerable to the harmful effects of nicotine. Among other problems, nicotine exposure can lead to “reduced impulse control, deficits in attention and cognition, and mood disorders,” Dr. Vivek Murthy, the surgeon general, wrote in a preface to the report.
And as for that age bracket using them to quite smoking actual cigarettes - seems not to be the case:
Among young adults 18 to 25, 55% of electronic cigarette users also smoke regular cigarettes, according to CDC data from 2013 and 2014. Although older smokers often use e-cigarettes to help them kick the habit, this is not a common practice for young adults, the report says.
Some heavy regulation, at the very least, would be well deserved.

What with the young brains of American growing up in a country where both marijuana and nicotine are sold, and promoted in capitalist fashion, I don't think this augurs well for the future of the country socially or economically.

The unreality bubble

Bill Maher said back on October 16 something which had been pretty obvious for a long time:
Maher said Trump voters live in "a reality of their own choosing."
"It's not even a race between ideologies anymore. It's not Republican and Democrat or conservative and liberal. It's reality versus alternative reality," he said.
It's this mindset that leads to unerring loyalty, Maher said, despite what he called Trump's predilection for "bold-faced, caught-on-tape lying."
"They don't care. They know, or they don't know, it doesn't matter to them. He's their guy," Maher said.
Hence, Russian involvement in aiding his election either won't be believed by them, or even if believed, won't matter.  Because the culture warrior conservative Right currently has the hots for "strongman"  quasi-dictatorial government, and an enormous crush on Putin.  (Seems their reasoning is a combination of "he knows what he wants and he gets his way; America used to be like that*", and "he don't put up with any nonsense from gays".)

Anyway, back to the objective evidence that Maher is absolutely correct.  Talking about a recent survey, Rachel Maddow went through the details: 
Rachel started the segment by pointing out that President Obama's overall approval rating is at 50%. However, while his favorability with Republicans is 9%, it is only 5% of Trump voters.
Rachel then pivoted to issue after issue where a large percentage of Trump voters were severely misinformed. They live in a virtually fact-free or made-up-fact environment.
The stock market under President Obama soared. The Dow Jones Industrial average went from 7,949.09 to 19,614.91, again, up 11,665.72. In other words, it more than doubled. 39% of Trump voters think the stock market went down under Obama.
Unemployment dropped from 7.8% to 4.6% during the Obama administration. Clinton, Johnson, Stein and other voters are well aware of that fact.
But not Donald Trump voters; 67% of them believe unemployment rose under President Obama.
Rachel continued.
  • 40% of Trump voters believe that Donald Trump won the popular vote.
  • 60% of Trump voters believe that millions voted illegally for Clinton.
  • 73% of Trump voters believe that George Soros paid Trump protesters.
  • 29% of Trump voters believe California vote should not be included in the popular vote.
Rachel's statement near the end of the segment was prescient.
"I think it shows that even after the election, what Trump voters believe about the world is distinctively different from what the rest of the country believe," Rachel said. "And from what is true. And this is an alternate reality that they are in, -- it is weird enough and specific enough that you can't say it just springs from broader a misunderstandings or from a broader ignorance on issues that afflicts the country. And this is a specific alternate reality that was created by the Trump movement for a political purpose. And it worked for that political purpose. And now as the Trump administration takes shape, they have to know that they are in power thanks to their voter base that has these false beliefs about the country. False beliefs about the country, false beliefs about the economy, false beliefs about the outgoing president, false beliefs about what California is. In terms of what happens next in our country, it seems important to know this incoming president basically created this fantasy life for his supporters."
* when actually, the runs on the board for "getting its way" have been decidedly mixed since 1945. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Summing up 2016

I don't even like using the key word here*, but if it's to be taken as a wry way of summing up how so many of us feel about 2016 (and I think it is), this New Yorker cartoon is pretty funny:

* not that I think it's too crude, especially; but it falls into the category of words I just don't like the sound of, for unclear reasons - lesbian is another one.

Violence in (English) history

There are many remarkable things to note from this great TLS review of a book by one James Sharpe about violence in England.  For example:
He refers to a study of the court records of five counties and two cities (London and Bristol) for the period 1201–76, for example, which has produced a homicide rate of 20 per 100,000 population. The equivalent figure today is 1.15 per 100,000. On this reckoning, the southern counties of medieval England were more dangerous than Mexico today – and four times as dangerous as the United States.

One of the many virtues of Sharpe’s book is that he doesn’t leave it there. He looks into the likely victims of England’s murdering classes, which turns up another contrast with modernity (the murder rate dropped to about its present level around 200 years ago). This is that you were much more likely to be killed by a stranger in medieval England than by someone you knew, including a member of your own family. In fact, Sharpe quotes the results of research showing that “murders within the family occurred at about the same level as they do today in the UK and USA”. Perhaps the most dangerous place to bump into a stranger was Oxford. Going to university in the fourteenth century sounds like undertaking a tour of duty in a particularly hot war zone. In the 1340s, the homicide rate was apparently up around 120 – higher than Caracas or San Pedro, Honduras, currently the two most violent cities in the world not officially at war.

....Oxford was just a very volatile place, where around 6,000 inhabitants, among them about 1,500 undergraduates, didn’t get along very well. An armed population didn’t help either. Most men seem to have carried knives, with stabbing the cause of the majority of deaths. But as well as being much, much more violent than today’s Oxonians, the medieval version made use of the sort of weapons that few citizens keep now. Sharpe describes a riot in the High Street in 1298, where students and university servants fought. Edward of Hales, a shopkeeper, went to an upstairs window of his premises and shot an arrow into the crowd, fatally wounding a student, Fulk Nermit.  

Wait - "Fulk Nermit"?   What an odd name.  Anyway, back to the story:
Students themselves appear to have discovered new ways to fight each other, dividing “along geographical lines” between North and South Oxford. Having no affiliation, however, was no guarantee of safety. Sharpe mentions one student who was killed when he stepped into the street – and into the middle of a brawl – “to pass water at the wrong moment”.
The "popularity" of infanticide gets attention, too, in the Tudor to the Victorian period:
These centuries were clearly the high tide of the crime of infanticide, when rigid public morality over illegitimacy combined with a lack of contraception to make it an all too common last resort for some women. The absence of fathers from the stories Sharpe tells is in itself instructive: by allowing the mothers to bear illegitimately, they avoided culpability only in a technical sense. The result was that, even towards the end of this period, “young children were the most vulnerable of all groups in Victorian England”, with 20 per cent of victims of homicide being aged under twelve months.
 There's lots more of interest.  Go read it.