Sunday, April 30, 2017

Successfully smoking fish

Given how much I like eating smoked fish (or smoked anything, really), it's a wonder that I haven't previously tried hot smoking trout in the Weber kettle barbecue.

I think the reason was that the only curing recipe in the Weber official cookbook I have involved a dry cure in lots of salt.  That always seemed to me to be unduly wasteful (even though salt is pretty cheap), and I have never given it a try.

But today, I googled around and found this American guy's* straight forward recipe, involving a salt and sugar curing brine, and gave it a try tonight on rainbow trout fillets.   (Two trout, filleted, gives a satisfying one big smoked fillet per person.) 

It worked a treat.

For my future reference:

One quart of water is close enough to 950 ml.   The brine of 2 tablespoons of salt, and a 1/4 cup of brown sugar, worked fine.  I had the fish in it for about 4 hours, but I suspect longer might have been better.  (The saltiness was OK, but could have perhaps gone longer.)

For cooking - used about 22 pieces of charcoal (I think), and two good handfuls of soaked hickory chips.  One handful still only smokes for about 15 minutes, so I put second handful on after that.  Total cooking time was 45 minutes.

.*  it seems he is particularly fond of pressure cookers, like I am, so I should read his site more. 

Back to Laffer

Quartz magazine succinctly describes what's wrong with the Laffer curve:
The problem is, this tidy arc of cause and consequence doesn’t exist in the real world. Sure, extremely high tax rates douse economic activity. But there’s no reason to assume the relationship between tax revenue and tax rates is perfectly U-shaped. And the equilibrium point at which a government collects the most revenue possible without dragging down the economy is impossible to know—and varies by country. There was no reason in 1974—or, for that matter, now—to think the US was on the curve’s “prohibitive” half (many economists put the inflection point for the highest marginal tax rate at around 70%). In fact, without detailed data, you can’t tell where on Laffer’s curve (or non-curve) you are at all.

Laffer’s general idea of supply-side stimulus can sometimes work. Cutting tax rates that primarily benefit rich people shifts wealth from the middle classes to the rich. That might sound unfair, but in developing countries where there’s not enough money to fund the investment needed to spur growth, a Laffer-style policy could (temporarily) help stimulate economic expansion by channelling wealth to potential investors.

But this scenario is not applicable to the US. Private investment tends to ebb and flow with the business cycle; when demand is feeble, so is investment. Cutting taxes on America’s rich isn’t going to encourage them to invest more—they already have plenty to spend and aren’t spending it. Worse, by shifting wealth from middle class families to the moneyed few—a group that is able to consume far less than the working masses—this sort of policy suffocates demand even more. Slowing demand drags on growth, causing debt and unemployment to rise.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

A classic of the romantic deception genre

Wow.  As stories of romantic deception by compulsive liars go, the confessional, true life account of Stephanie Wood in today's Good Weekend magazine in the Sydney Morning Herald is a great one.

I can't quite work out, though, whether I should feel just a little bit guilty over enjoying it so much.    But I suppose it's the same as reading about a serial killer husband who kept his secret from his wife - it's the curiosity about how the deception was exposed, and how extensive it turned out to be, that is the hook. 

Friday, April 28, 2017

Looking on the bright(er) side

A couple of weeks back, I wondered out loud whether we really have the right impression about how the black American population is doing economically. 

Well, here's an article in the New York Times that shows that, at least, the black upper middle class is acting doing better and better.   And the education trends aren't looking bad, too:
The most important trend driving African-American gains at the top can be found in the data on higher education. Between 1980 and 2016, the percentage of African Americans over the age of 25 who had completed a four-year college education tripled from 7.9 percent to 23.9 percent.
Top-flight colleges and universities have played a crucial role in the growth of a black upper middle class.
According to a January 2016 report in the Journal of Blacks In Higher Education, eight highly selective universities (Columbia, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Emory, Vanderbilt, Duke and the University of Pennsylvania) and five highly selective colleges (Amherst, Pomona, Barnard, Wesleyan and Williams) had freshmen classes with 10 percent or more African-Americans in them. Many of these selective schools had notably high black graduation rates, ranging from 83 to 96 percent.

What a way to run a Presidency

From Politico:
One key development: White House aides have figured out that it’s best not to present Trump with too many competing options when it comes to matters of policy or strategy. Instead, the way to win Trump over, they say, is to present him a single preferred course of action and then walk him through what the outcome could be – and especially how it will play in the press.

“You don’t walk in with a traditional presentation, like a binder or a PowerPoint. He doesn’t care. He doesn’t consume information that way,” said one senior administration official. “You go in and tell him the pros and cons, and what the media coverage is going to be like.”

Downplaying the downside risk of a decision can win out in the short term. But the risk is a presidential dressing-down—delivered in a yell. “You don’t want to be the person who sold him on something that turned out to be a bad idea,” the person said.

Advisers have tried to curtail Trump’s idle hours, hoping to prevent him from watching cable news or calling old friends and then tweeting about it. That only works during the workday, though—Trump’s evenings and weekends have remained largely his own.
So how do the aides come to work out the "preferred course of action" before they put it before the boss?  Especially given a lot of them are in high conflict?

Adam and morality

So Adam Creighton urges caution about the (apparent) Trump tax plan working out all that great.

He likes the company tax cuts, but is doubtful about any economic benefit from the personal tax cuts. This line, though, shows what a jumble of thoughts he is:
The moral case for cutting taxes — “hands off my money” — is stronger than the economic case. On the other hand, the Trump plan could ratchet up inequality — already severe — to levels not seen since ancient times.
So he is acknowledging that inequality, at too severe a level, is immoral?   Which makes quite a puzzle of his years long finger pointing, in the Australian context, of the number of households not paying any net tax.  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Send us your women

Ah, the Faroe Islands - I don't think I had even heard of them before a Foreign Correspondent story a few years ago.

Anyway, the BBC has a story about how quite a few men there are getting their wives from the much, much warmer climes of South East Asia:
There are now more than 300 women from Thailand and Philippines living in the Faroes. It doesn't sound like a lot, but in a population of just 50,000 people they now make up the largest ethnic minority in these 18 islands, located between Norway and Iceland.

In recent years the Faroes have experienced population decline, with young people leaving, often in search of education, and not returning. Women have proved more likely to settle abroad. As a result, according to Prime Minister Axel Johannesen, the Faroes have a "gender deficit" with approximately 2,000 fewer women than men.

This, in turn, has lead Faroese men to look beyond the islands for romance. Many, though not all, of the Asian women met their husbands online, some through commercial dating websites. Others have made connections through social media networks or existing Asian-Faroese couples.

For the new arrivals, the culture shock can be dramatic.

Officially part of the Kingdom of Denmark, the Faroes have their own language (derived from Old Norse) and a very distinctive culture - especially when it comes to food. Fermented mutton, dried cod and occasional whale meat and blubber are typical of the strong flavours here, with none of the traditional herbs and spices of Asian cooking.
 Fermented mutton!   I suppose it couldn't be worse than those Scandinavian swollen cans of fermented fish that make people vomit at the very smell.  Or could it...?

Thank God they're not in the 60's

This is the sort of story I'm reluctant to post about, because trivia doesn't really deserve it.

But Michelle Grattan's headline has it right:  Abdel-Magid Anzac row is a storm over not much.

Is it ever.

Now I perfectly understand that people, especially on the Right-ish side of politics, may not like her views as a sort of politically correct Muslim.   I hardly pay her any attention, but she was one of the ninnies who complained bitterly about Lionel Shriver's not unreasonable criticism of the anti-cultural appropriation set in Brisbane last year, after all; so yeah, she's probably quite the annoying twit.

But the reaction to her ANZAC Day tweet by Right wing culture warriors in the Murdoch press, and politicians, was ridiculously out of proportion.   It demonstrates:

a.   a complete sanctimonious and un-selfaware hypocrisy, when they complain about Lefties, like her, going out of their way to take offence on matters such as identity politics.  I mean, yeah, way to show people how to not completely over-react to a mild political comment promptly apologised for in any event;

b.  as Grattan argued, a complete lack of historical  perspective as to how ANZAC Day was directly criticised in the past, before it underwent its remarkable transformation into a "sacred" day.   I mean, I like the way it is respected now, but I never lost sleep as a young man if there was routine cynicism of it from certain anti-militarism circles.  Thank God Blair, Bolt, Devine, etc etc were still kiddies at the height of anti-establishment protest of the 60's and early 70's.   They would have been bursting blood vessels at the news every single night.

c.  a complete lack of proportion in terms of priorities for any politician who used it as the flimsiest grounds on which to attack the ABC for, I don't know, not being Fox News or Russia Today.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Equality in Japan

Gee, another good long read today - this one in The Guardian about the very low amount of economic inequality across Japan, the reasons for it, and how that may be changing.

Transhumanism and Christianity

There's a long essay here by a woman who lost her faith in Christianity, and then moved her faith, so to speak, to transhumanism.

I hadn't really much thought about the parallels between transhumanism and (some) religious ideas before (and perhaps Jason Soon was the first to mention them to me), but this essay makes them clear and it is a very good read.  Here is a key section:
Of course, mind uploading has spurred all kinds of philosophical anxieties. If the pattern of your consciousness is transferred onto a computer, is the pattern “you” or a simulation of your mind? Another camp of transhumanists have argued that Kurzweil’s theories are essentially dualistic, and that the mind cannot be separated from the body. You are not “you” without your fingernails and your gut bacteria. Transhumanists of this faction insist that resurrection can happen only if it is bodily resurrection. They tend to favor cryonics and bionics, which promise to resurrect the entire body or else supplement the living form with technologies to indefinitely extend life.

It is perhaps not coincidental that an ideology that grew out of Christian eschatology would come to inherit its philosophical problems. The question of whether the resurrection would be corporeal or merely spiritual was an obsessive point of debate among early Christians. One faction, which included the Gnostic sects, argued that only the soul would survive death; another insisted that the resurrection was not a true resurrection unless it revived the body. For these latter believerswhose view would ultimately become orthodoxChrist served as the model. Jesus had been brought back in the flesh, which suggested that the body was a psychosomatic unit. In contrast to Hellenistic philosophy, which believed the afterlife would be purely spiritual, Christians came to believe that the soul was inseparable from the body. In one of the most famous treatises on the resurrection, the theologian Tertullian of Carthage wrote: “If God raises not men entire, He raises not the dead.... Thus our flesh shall remain even after the resurrection.”

There is much, much more in the essay setting out the pre-history of transhumanism, so to speak.   It's also good in that it points out that Christians, with their disdain for humans "playing God" with biology (and, I think, rather appropriately, for fear of inadvertent suffering that such experimentation risks), are perceived by some transhumanists as the enemy of transhumanist progress.

I'm certainly a skeptic when it comes to the idea of uploading mind into a computer - it makes for good imaginative stories in science fiction, but Kurzweil's optimism about when it could be achieved is just over the top.   On the other hand, if he is right, I didn't realise that a comment I made here once, that a reason for keeping this blog running is so that it might aid my virtual resurrection in the distant future, is an idea directly derived from Kurzweil:
I do plan to bring back my father,” Ray Kurzweil says. He is standing in the anemic light of a storage unit, his frame dwarfed by towers of cardboard boxes and oblong plastic bins. He wears tinted eyeglasses. He is in his early sixties, but something about the light or his posture, his paunch protruding over his beltline, makes him seem older. Kurzweil is now a director of engineering at Google, but this documentary was filmed in 2009, back when it was still possible to regard him as a lone visionary with eccentric ideas about the future. The boxes in the storage unit contain the remnants of his father’s life: photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, and financial documents. For decades, he has been compiling these artifacts and storing them in this sepulcher he maintains near his house in Newton, Massachusetts. He takes out a notebook filled with his father’s handwriting and shows it to the camera. His father passed away in 1970, but Kurzweil believes that, one day, artificial intelligence will be able to use the memorabilia, along with DNA samples, to resurrect him. “People do live on in our memories, and in the creative works they leave behind,” he muses, “so we can gather up all those vibrations and bring them back, I believe.”
I've just got to get some of my DNA details embedded into this blog somehow, and I'll be back!

Anyway, go read the essay.

Stopping the Singapore health care fantasy

Well, I don't think I have ever read a better explanation of the Singaporean health care system than that by Ezra Klein at Vox.

And what is excellent about it is that it makes something clear that I've been muttering here for a couple of years - it's actually kind of ridiculous that some of the the American Conservative or Libertarian Right keep talking about it as if it is something Americans can emulate.  As Klein explains carefully, all they are doing is pointing to one or two elements of it, the ones that align with their personal responsibility ideology, while completely ignoring the big picture that it only can work that way in Singapore because of an enormous amount of government control and intervention.   (And not only that, but it is comparing what one tiny city State can achieve when it is setting up a system from scratch, in a population with high trust in government, and laws which control many things somewhat relevant to heath services - such as high taxes on alcohol, the low use of cars and preventing gun ownership.) 

I think it is really a fantasy that America will be able to emulate Singapore in any substantial way at all, and the reason why is because of the fundamental ideology of the same American Right that keeps on oo-ing and ah-ing about how good Singapore looks.  (I should add - there is also the practical matter of whether it is really in any way practically possible to un-do the long standing American system completely enough to be able to revamp it in the image of Singapore.)

It's also somewhat akin to my other complaint of even longer standing - about the libertarian inclined who have been simplistically praising for years the Portuguese decriminalisation of drug use, while completely ignoring that the system there (with its potential to force users into rehabilitation) is quite contra libertarianism.  Sure, the American Right might learn one lesson from that - that their beloved compulsory sentencing and such like is too harsh and probably counterproductive for small time users - but they are also the side of politics least likely to endorse (or fund) compulsory rehabilitation services on principle.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Things I've learnt this year from MKR

Time for my annual confession that the only reality TV competition cooking show I watch is My Kitchen Rules, and each year I learn something about current culinary fashion.  (Saves me going to expensive restaurants to find out.)

In previous years, it was that putting a shambles of dish components on the plate and calling it "deconstructed" was a thing.  That silly idea seems to have well and truly gone.  I get the impression it is now viewed with cringing embarrassment that it ever was a fashion.

In other years, using the sous-vide method to cook virtually any protein seemed to be very in fashion.   Or maybe it was just one team that was obsessed with it - I'm not sure. 

I get the feeling, from this year's show, that confit is also perhaps not as "in" as it was recently.  Sure, there was some confit going on this year, but nothing at all like the ridiculous number of times it was used only a season or two ago.

As for what's "in" this year:  there is (apparently) a huge revival in the use of the pressure cooker - which is something I'm very pleased to see, because some of my nicest meals come out of one, yet I had the impression that many people are scared to use them.

The only novel thing I've noticed is the use of smoking gun by the somewhat creepy brother/sister team.  Didn't know they existed.

As for the show's format - its patent and obvious manipulation [in terms of editing, and (what one might call) the character arcs that are built into a season*] are so familiar but I think still work almost because of the predictability.  My theory is that it makes the audience feel smarter, this understanding of how they are being manipulated.**   However, I do feel that this year they went too far into the "relationship crisis" storylines, and the gormless "seafood king" and his long suffering wife felt just rather too mean and manipulative of the couple.

The show  still rates well, I see, and I'll still watch it next year.  (Not that every single episode is worth viewing - I have to miss a few "home restaurant" instalments each year, otherwise it is too much.)

*  surely everyone's noticed that one of the initial baddies turns out to more or less a sympathetic girl or guy by the end? 

** or is it like TV wrestling, where it's not clear how much of the audience realises that it is a willing participant in a pantomime?

Tidying up the links

I've been doing some blog roll tidying up, and note the following:

*  added STAT, which is pretty good health and medicine site from the US

*  added Crux, which seems to have decent Catholic commentary (not entirely sure where it fits on the conservative/liberal spectrum, though.)

*  io9 link was recently changed by Gizmodo so it redirected to Australian Gizmodo - so I've changed the link to take you to US Gizmodo, where at the top is the link to io9. 

* added the site for the Society for Psychical Research, which has been revamped and holds a lot more reading material and news than it ever used to.  Despite the old fashioned name, it has always been a very reputable source for information on most things paranormal.

* fixed up the link to Asahi Shimbun, for Japanese and Asian news.

There are probably some more links sites I should delete because I just rarely use them, but they can stay for now.

Update:  nearly forgot - have added Axios, with its unique short, sharp and fast style.   

A very cold war (and some Trump and Hitler stuff)

I like to post unfamiliar war time stories on ANZAC Day, but before I get to the main part, I wanted to quote this section out of a recent New York Review of Books article Lesson from Hitler's Rise, which uses a new-ish biography of Hitler's rise to compare and contrast with Trump.   (It's pretty well done, really, and spends more time on the differences than the similarities.)   This part, about who Hitler was initially impressing electorally, was not something I was really aware of:
However, while both men created coalitions of discontent, their constituencies were quite different. The first groups to be taken over by Nazi majorities were student organizations on university campuses. In their electoral breakthrough in 1930, the Nazis won the vast majority of first-time voters, especially the youth vote. Above all, the Nazis vacuumed up the voters of other middle-class parties, and women of different social backgrounds voted in roughly the same proportions for the Nazis as men.

The two groups among whom the Nazis were relatively unsuccessful were Germany’s religious-block voters (in this case Catholics voting for their own Center Party) and blue-collar industrial workers (who more often shifted their votes from the declining moderate Social Democrats to the more radical Communists rather than to the Nazis). Still, the Nazis drew votes much more broadly across German society than any of their rival class- and sectarian-based parties could boast with some justification to be the only true “people’s party” in the country.
That's a pretty big difference with Trump right there:  most polling shows Trump approval is way low with young adults, although I see that one poll in March found that youngsters in "Trump country" (countries that flipped to Trump, and in which he had big winning margins) gave him the highest approval of all age groups. Just goes to show, I suppose:  have too many young people without a job and they'll vote for any idiot.

Anyway, back to the main story.  On a whim, I Google "World War 2 and Antarctica", and, apart from links to various nut sites about Nazi bases and UFO's down there, I found a few links to Operation Tabarin, in which, late in the war, the British sent a small navy crew (14) on a couple of (presumably) small ships to go and re-establish British claim to some cold islands down around Antarctica.

Wikipedia has a short entry about it (which includes the claim that there was concern in 1941 that the Japanese might seize the Falkland Islands, either as a base or just to hand them over to Argentina to encourage their support of the Axis.)

But more interesting is the account in The Telegraph in  2014, which includes comments by the last surviving member of the crew, George James.   As it explains:
For 70 years, little has been known about this most peculiar episode of the Second World War. Even the men involved never quite knew what they were doing there, improbably told that their secret mission, codenamed Operation Tabarin, was designed to deter German U-boats from lurking in Antarctic waters. 

However, the author of a book about it explains that it was actually all about putting Argentina back in its place:
“By 1941, Argentina quite rightly thought the war was going the way of the Axis powers,” said Stephen Haddelsey, the book’s author. “Would Britain have either the will or the resources to challenge them if they staked a physical claim to the territories? They thought not.”

So, in early 1942, the Argentines sent a ship to Deception Island, a tiny volcanic whaling station in the South Shetlands, where they flew the Argentine flag and buried a cylinder with a formal note proclaiming their territorial rights.

When the Colonial Office heard of this, however, our mandarins’ response was not at all what Argentina had predicted. The War Cabinet was determined to respond, to protect vital revenues in the region and prevent a precedent being set that might encourage incursions elsewhere in the Empire.

The war was still at too delicate a point to provoke outright conflict with Argentina, however, especially as Britain was dependent on substantial cargoes of beef from South America. So the U-boat myth was put about to provide cover for the operation.
George James, that ageing crew member, says:
“A few reasons were put out. We were told it was to do with the Germans but when it came to it, the first party to go down were mainly scientists,” said Mr James. “Now that’s not going down to fight off Germans, is it?”

The crew’s first months in the Antarctic, where the average temperature is minus 10 degrees centigrade, were tough. They moved from island to island constructing rudimentary bases from timber and depositing a handful of scientists at each. But they spent most of their time adjusting to the conditions.

“It was completely alien to all of us,” said Mr James. “Life was in the raw. It was hard going at times but it was a bit of a thrill to think you were there. It was a magical place – we’d be breaking through the ice with ice cliffs on either side.”
It was a very lonely wartime operation:
The war was at its height but there was no conflict here. There were no Argentines to be seen, and Mr James had to face another enemy entirely. “I was once chased along a beach by a sea leopard, with its mouth wide open,” he said. “The penguins would get a bit shirty, too, and have a nip at your legs.” On one occasion, a colony of 10,000 penguins took over one of their bases, entirely surrounding it. Rather than face them down, the crew built another hut. 
And as for the poor Argentinians:
At last, a year into the mission, the Scorseby spotted its first – and only – Argentines, defending their meteorological station on Laurie Island, part of the South Orkneys. Yet the crew could not have had a more hospitable reception. Six of the original Argentine party of 10 men had died, and were buried by their fellow men with wooden stakes behind the hut. After being cut off with no supplies for 18 months, they were delighted to meet the advancing Brits.

“They were lovely to us,” explained Mr James. “They came down to the beach to meet us, crying. We gave them cigarettes and edam cheese. The wireless operator got so excited that he put his arms round me. He took all the badges off his uniform and gave them to me.”

In fact, boredom was a much more persistent danger. “It upset some people a lot. One man got quite scary about it and tried to influence the skipper to turn back. But that didn’t happen, of course.”
Better than being shot at, I suppose; on the other hand, probably not the type of service to make you feel you had been particularly useful to the war effort.

Monday, April 24, 2017

About that juicer

The Atlantic has a somewhat amusing report on the Juicero embarrassment.  I liked this paragraph in particular:
And what is the Press? The official description reads like something manufactured by NASA to drill asteroids for root vegetables. The website promises a “bead-blasted aluminum door” constructed with “aircraft-grade aluminum and precision-forged gearing components” to generate “4 tons [of] potential pressing force,” with a “suite of sensors scans” connected to the internet so that “you have the latest updates,” all optimized through “multiple iterations of miniaturization.” And all this for what? A thing that squeezes a bag?
I notice that on supermarket shelves "cold pressed" juice is all the rage.   Yet I would have thought the worst aspect of that Juicero system is that the bags to be squeezed only have an 8 day fridge life.  (Well, I think you keep them in the fridge.) 

The Obnoxious Right (cont.)

Gee, why does the National Review give space to Kevin Williamson, whose attack on Chelsea Clinton is ridiculously nasty, if you ask me.

But I see that he has previously been noted here as being stupidly hyperbolic - the last time it was about Obama.

Way to make a technology fan feel guilty

From the Catholic Herald:
Global demand for metallic ores used in mobile phones is thwarting efforts to end war and violence in Congo, an African priest has said.
Any person who possesses a mobile phone or other electronic device with components derived from such “conflict minerals” is benefiting from bloodshed, said Fr Richard Muembo, rector of a Congolese seminary firebombed earlier this year.
“Anyone who uses modern technology nowadays is in some way using the blood of the Congolese people,” he said in an interview with the United Kingdom branch of Aid to the Church in Need, a pontifical foundation helping persecuted Christians.
“Looters from all over the world come here to exploit the country,” the priest said in a statement by the charity yesterday.
Fighting in Congo is being perpetuated by a struggle over access to such ores as coltan, from which niobium and tantalum are extracted, he suggested. The ore is used in the production of batteries for smartphones, computers and GPS devices.

I suspect he's right this time...

Adam says "Better the dimwit than full employment, broadly available health care, and a President who has a clue about foreign affairs"

Adam Creighton has that typical problem of small government loving quasi libertarians:   he believes in a magic formula of lower taxes and small, low regulation government, and that's all that matters.

Because, any twit reading this who would go along with his line "I know Trump is not very likeable, but he's better than if Clinton had won" - answer me this:   what is the reason you think Clinton would have done anything dramatically different from the path Obama was following, and why was that path (with good overall employment figures, a budget coming under control, a good attempt at broadening affordable health care, environmental regulation that had a chance of modifying CO2 emissions, and a cautious approach to Syria and the Middle East) such a disaster if it had continued?

Sure, the country wasn't going perfect under Obama, but lower taxes and pointing to Right wing think tanks "freedom index" is not a magic cure all.  Furthermore, as Trump has already shown, he is no foreign policy isolationist (a fact already made clear in his campaign, if you had paid attention) and he is a dumb BS artist who has no idea who to listen to on a whole range of issues.   Sure, some better policy or other will happen while he is President - it is virtually impossible for government to do everything wrong under any President.   And companies may be rubbing their hands together in anticipation of more money flowing in soon.   But try thinking longer term and bigger picture, hey?

Update:  the other Creighton perennial is the repetition of the way, way oversimplified matter of the number of taxpayers not paying net tax.   It's like he has a permanent chip on his shoulder that his own tax rate is too high because not enough of the rest of you are paying tax at all. 

He is, basically, one of the shallowest of economics analysts, and just because he occasionally ends up at a slightly different position from his free marketeer mates doesn't change that.

That's a lot of submarines

Something I had missed in the discussion about North Korea and its ability to wage war, until I heard an expert on Radio National this morning, is that it has a really large conventional submarine fleet:
A substantial number of these sailors serve in the KPN’s submarine fleet, which is one of the world’s largest. In 2001, North Korea analyst Joseph Bermudez estimated that the KPN operated between fifty-two and sixty-seven diesel electric submarines. These consisted of four Whiskey-class submarines supplied by the Soviet Union and up to seventy-seven Romeo-class submarines provided by China. Seven Romeos were delivered assembled, while the rest were delivered in kit form. Each Romeo displaced 1,830 tons submerged, had a top speed of thirteen knots and was operated by a crew of fifty-four. The Romeo submarines were armed with eight standard-diameter 533-millimeter torpedo tubes, two facing aft. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was filmed touring and taking a short voyage on a Romeo-class submarine in 2014.
 Sure, the article argues, the models are considered obsolete, but they are still capable of sinking an American ship or two, or more.  As the article says:
North Korea’s reliance on submarines exposes a harsh reality for the country: U.S. and South Korean naval and air forces are now so overwhelmingly superior that the only viable way for Pyongyang’s navy to survive is to go underwater. While minimally capable versus the submarine fleets of other countries, North Korea does get a great deal of use out of them. Although old and obsolete, North Korea’s submarines have the advantage of numbers and, in peacetime, surprise. Pyongyang’s history of armed provocations means the world hasn’t seen the last of her submarine force.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Computer says "No. I can't explain"

Have a read of this article at MIT Technology Review:  The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI.

It's about "deep learning" in AI, which is explained this way:
Artificial intelligence hasn’t always been this way. From the outset, there were two schools of thought regarding how understandable, or explainable, AI ought to be. Many thought it made the most sense to build machines that reasoned according to rules and logic, making their inner workings transparent to anyone who cared to examine some code. Others felt that intelligence would more easily emerge if machines took inspiration from biology, and learned by observing and experiencing. This meant turning computer programming on its head. Instead of a programmer writing the commands to solve a problem, the program generates its own algorithm based on example data and a desired output. The machine-learning techniques that would later evolve into today’s most powerful AI systems followed the latter path: the machine essentially programs itself.
But the odd consequence of this is that it can be impossible (or next to impossible?)to tell how exactly a particular decision was reached by a computer system that has used this method to teach itself.

I was surprised to read (if the article is accurate) that is already being experienced with a medical program:
In 2015, a research group at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York was inspired to apply deep learning to the hospital’s vast database of patient records. This data set features hundreds of variables on patients, drawn from their test results, doctor visits, and so on. The resulting program, which the researchers named Deep Patient, was trained using data from about 700,000 individuals, and when tested on new records, it proved incredibly good at predicting disease. Without any expert instruction, Deep Patient had discovered patterns hidden in the hospital data that seemed to indicate when people were on the way to a wide range of ailments, including cancer of the liver. There are a lot of methods that are “pretty good” at predicting disease from a patient’s records, says Joel Dudley, who leads the Mount Sinai team. But, he adds, “this was just way better.”

At the same time, Deep Patient is a bit puzzling. It appears to anticipate the onset of psychiatric disorders like schizophrenia surprisingly well. But since schizophrenia is notoriously difficult for physicians to predict, Dudley wondered how this was possible. He still doesn’t know. The new tool offers no clue as to how it does this. If something like Deep Patient is actually going to help doctors, it will ideally give them the rationale for its prediction, to reassure them that it is accurate and to justify, say, a change in the drugs someone is being prescribed. “We can build these models,” Dudley says ruefully, “but we don’t know how they work.”
I don't know whether to be happy or scared if AI systems are developed with mysteriously good predictive abilities for something as troublesome as an illness of the mind.

On the other hand, perhaps this provides a basis on which a theist can avoid those tricky theodicy  issues (the matter of why a good God allows so much evil.)   Like this:  "Hey, we've got computers churning out correct answers and we don't understand how, and you expect a clear explanation as to what's going on in the Mind, or Plan, of God?  Huh." 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Seriously, I can't believe it

X-Files is returning.

Can't they just end the show with both of them being alien abducted, and leave it at that?  

As someone at Vox writes:
The problem is that even though the 2016 miniseries had its moments, fully half of it was an absolute disaster, with three episodes that served as reminders of why the show eventually left the air in the first place.

What a country...

I see, via Japan Times, that there was another recent public beating to death of someone accused of blasphemy in Pakistan.   And where exactly?  At a university, of course!:
With the sudden fury of a flash storm, images of an angry mob lynching a young man to death at the Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan, Pakistan, broke across the news cycle and social media platforms to chilling effect April 13. Mashal Khan, a 23-year-old journalism student at the institute, had been attacked after a series of accusations that he had posted blasphemous content online following an argument with a group of fellow students. Whether he had done so or not was irrelevant — the insinuation of wrongdoing was enough.

From the moment the allegations were made he was as good as dead. Everything that took place afterward was a brutal formality in a country long driven by a mindset that allows people to kill with impunity whenever they perceive their religious sentiments have been offended. And so it proved in this case also.

The savagery of the assault was captured in chaotic video footage taken on mobile phones, which showed the crowd shouting “Allahu Akbar” and stomping on Khan’s lifeless body — the final rites of a slaughter in which the victim was stripped naked, clubbed, beaten and shot....
Since then, it has emerged that there is no evidence Khan committed any blasphemy at all. According to some claims, anger against the student might have been whipped up by the university itself after his comments on a television interview about how the institute was being run. It could be that Khan’s only crime was to expose the failings of a few university officials rather than abuse the prophet of Islam.
The writer goes on to note that the problem is deeply embedded in the culture:
Debate on the subject is as good as dead, and those who might choose to enter this Sisyphean undertaking are at risk of being killed themselves. Unsurprisingly, no leading lawmakers or public figures dare comment for fear of the assassin’s bullet.

Moreover, for all the incalculable grief the blasphemy laws continue to cause, there is a great deal of support for the legislation among average Pakistanis, as if the loss of life is a reasonable price to pay to uphold the sacred.

Moves to revise the laws have been rebuffed by public outcry and street protests, forcing the hand of the administration. When Salman Taseer was murdered, his killer Mumtaz Qadri was hailed as a “ghazi,” a warrior, and over 100,000 people attended Qadri’s funeral after he was executed for the crime.
I think this would have to count as within the bottom few countries on the planet that I would chose to visit.   (Perhaps we can exclude certain virtually lawless Horn of Africa states - I'm not sure you can even treat them as serious tourist destinations - although, I see now, that a company will take you to Mogadishu.

Actually, if you want some mild amusement, you can read the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation website, which looks stylistically like it was last updated around 2000.  And some of the information seems about as old.  For example, in customs information:
Tourists are allowed to bring in following items without duty;
Personal clothing, hand bags travel goods and toiletries;
medals trophies or prizes;
jewelry not exceeding Rs.1000/-;
01 watch and 01 travelling clock;
spectacles and physical aid;
01 cigarette lighter and 02 fountain pens;
01 pen-knife and similar items of personal use;
01 electric iron and 01 electric shaver for men or 01 hair dryer for female tourist;
01 still camera and 10 rolls of film;

01 sub-standard cinematography camera with projector and two rolls of films;
01 pair of binoculars;
01 portable musical instrument;
01 portable sound recording apparatus;
01 portable typewriter;
01 invalid chair in use;
Yes, you don't want the country flooded with illegal foundation pen imports, rolls of camera film, and your cinematography camera needs to be "sub-standard"?

Even Japan requires common sense

Japan is an incredibly safe feeling place to visit, but even so:
A self-employed man in his 40s was robbed of ¥40 million in cash during a daylight mugging in Tokyo’s busy Ginza district Friday afternoon.

According to the Metropolitan Police Department’s Tsukiji Police Station, the mugging, believed to involve three men, took place on Suzuran Street in Chuo Ward.

A man hit the victim in the back and kicked him in the stomach before grabbing his bag filled with ¥72 million in cash, police sources said. Some of the cash fell out during the attack.
 Proof, I suppose, that there is no where in the world where it is a good idea to walk down a street carrying $875,000 AUD in cash in a bag.

(Odd how the story does not address why the victim was carrying this money around.)

Friday, April 21, 2017

A dream with an obvious interpretation

I was watching 24 Hours in Emergency last night on SBS, due to a lack of anything else to watch.

As far as reality medical TV shows go, it seems reasonably well done, if (naturally), intrusive of privacy.  But I was interested mainly in the story of a guy who in hospital after falling 40 feet from a tree, onto concrete, but lived to tell the tale.

In talking about his life generally, he explained that his mother had died when he was young - I forget the age, but it might have been around  3-5, I think, because he indicated he didn't really understand what was going on when the police arrived and the rest of the family started crying.  She had been killed by a drunk driver when at a petrol station.  (He said she was standing in front of her own car, and the drunk driver's car rear ended the car and it ran her down.)

Anyway, the son (now in his 20's?) said that a year after his Mum died, he started having recurring nightmares in which a dump truck would unload on - or run over? - a flower, and he would wake up feeling really devastated.

That seems to me to be an unusually clear case of a dream which seems to validate either Freudian or Jungian dream analysis as meaningful.  

I don't mean that I am completely cynical of dream analysis as an exercise - but cases where the dream has such an obvious hidden meaning, and one where it would seem the mind is sort of protecting itself from a full imagining of what happened,  I would still think are a bit unusual.

A seems

Gee, the Samsung 8 is getting good reviews:
The Galaxy S8 and plus-sized S8+ are absolutely brilliant smartphones. They're not without their flaws, but in everything from industrial design to internal hardware to software refinement, Samsung has knocked this one out of the park.
Gimmicks aside this is the best android smartphone you can buy
From the moment I picked up the S8 – and its larger, 6.2-inch sibling the Galaxy S8+ – I realised it was even more special than I expected. This is a phone that feels innovative, a phone that I can’t help but recommend
I would be nervous about carrying around a $1200 device in my pocket continually - but I've never lost or broken a phone before.  Maybe in two years time, if they've dropped below $1,000...

Roots endorsed

I am eating a packet now.  Very nice, especially if you like parsnips (as all right thinking people do):

Currently 2 packets for $5 from Coles. 

(If only I was a paid "influencer"...)

Make them run in the countryside

A surprising finding when looking at the health effect of marathons (not on the silly participants, but others):
A study published Thursday in the New England Journal of Medicine finds that the death rate from heart attacks rises 15 percent on the day of marathons, largely because of delays caused by road closures.

The authors, led by Harvard Medical School’s Anupam Jena, analyzed the death rate for Medicare patients hospitalized for cardiac arrest and heart attacks on marathon days in 11 cities, compared to non-marathon days. For example, they looked at the Monday of the Boston marathon, compared with the death rate for the five previous and five following Mondays. Then, they compared it to the death rate in a nearby city that wasn’t affected by marathon-related road closures.

It turns out that for every 100 people who have a heart attack or cardiac arrest, an additional four people die if they happen to have it on the day of the marathon.

It took about four minutes longer to reach the hospital by ambulance on marathon days. But the study authors suspect the real reason for the heightened mortality is the delays patients encountered when they tried to drive themselves to the hospital—as about a quarter of them opted to do. In those cases, it can take 30-to-40 minutes longer to reach the hospital on a day with marathon road closures, Jena stimates.

Jena acknowledged that we don’t know, for a fact, that those people died because it took them too long to reach the hospital, but that explanation seems most likely.
The obvious solution is to ban city marathons.   Sure, run around in the countryside, if you must, but don't get in my way of the drive to hospital.

Against the "madman" theory

Trump’s ‘Madman Theory’ Isn’t Strategic Unpredictability. It’s Just Crazy.


Also, doesn't the Pence "glaring at the enemy with righteous resolve" tour of South Korea strike people as rather silly looking?  

Journalist catches up with me

Over at Vox, German Lopez writes at length about how the American opioid epidemic has changed his opinion on legalisation of drugs.   (He now thinks free market legalisation is a bad idea, basically because the opioid problem shows addiction to hard drugs is a problem that doesn't readily self regulate.  And it kills people, a lot.)

I was making pretty much the same observation back in 2014.

Better late than never, German.

She's back...

The rather odd Helen Dale is back in the paper, because she's publishing a second novel.

I note that, in the non judgemental piece by Latika Bourke  (who, by the way, seems to lead the most extraordinarily peripatetic existence for a journalist - I find it hard to believe her boss pays for so much travel, and wonder if she is independently wealthy)  Dale notes another short term venture of hers in the past:
Her second novel will appear under her real name and there will be no pretences about its origins. Kingdom of the Wicked came about while she was studying at Oxford funded by a scholarship won through the US-based Institute of Humane Studies. When Dale realised she had six months left and there would be no 100,000-word doctoral thesis in the pipeline, but rather a follow-up to her vexed literary debut, she returned the remaining funds.

"I made sure I wrote to them personally and apologised for what I'd done. They weren't hugely happy but I did at least give some money back," she said.
She does seem to have moved from job to job an unusually large number of times, if you ask me...

Update:  The Australian is running a lengthy, though apparently edited, extract from her introduction to the re-issue of her first book.  I must say, unless it's the editing that has done it, but I don't think it is well written at all.

I don't think she has any idea how she sounds when she talks about herself:  self aggrandisement seems always to be lurking so close to the surface.  Yet she has her followers on the libertarian Right - Sinclair Davidson seems especially smitten with her and her writing.  I find her tedious at the best of times...

Health spending charted

NPR has a short article up about international health spending per capita, and its relationship to good health outcomes.

In the chart at the link, you can hover over each dot to see the spending in each country.  Australia is in the grouping just to the right of Japan and the UK.   (I see that Singapore is in the same grouping, too, right beside Australia actually.)

Once again, it seems abundantly clear that the US system is a ridiculous outlier which wastes money for no great results to show for it.

Kind of encouraging

Experts excited by brain 'wonder-drug' 

No proper trials yet, but one of the drugs is already used for depression, meaning that trialling it for dementia can happen quickly.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Can I just say...

...I don't understand British politics.  The Conservatives didn't really want Brexit, did they? - or at least the PM didn't want it.   But when it narrowly lost, they tossed the towel in and are acting as if a not quite 2% majority decision (in a country with non compulsory voting) is an overwhelming clear endorsement of "leave".   Now with a new leader seemingly wanting to be styled Thatcher 2, it's off to an unnecessary election to (seemingly) just rub it into the face of Labour that they've got a useless leader at the moment.   (As to how and why he is so poorly regarded - I don't really know.)  And as for high profile Conservative Boris Johnson - I don't think he has risen above the poor expectations that most people had of him in the Foreign Secretary role. 

Amusingly, I see that one economist writing at The Conversation claims that the election is being held now out of concern for a worsening economic outlook for Britain, yet people in comments were quick to point out that he was only predicting 6 weeks ago that the Budget and economic outlook meant there would not be an early election. 

Anyway, the Wikipedia entry on it fills in a bit of detail - including the way the country has swung from one side to the other over the decades about whether it wanted to be in the EU, or not.

I find it hard to believe that all of the energy that needs to be devoted to replacing current arrangements is not going to be a waste of time and effort compared to simply staying in and trying to make bones of contention better. 

The American conservative brand has a bit of a PR problem

What with Bill O'Reilly and Roger Ailes gone from Fox News in circumstances which sound like, if you saw it in a movie, you would find hard to believe (and along those lines, let's not forget Sean Hannity pointing a gun at a co-host), and a President who cheated on a wife and thought barging into women's dressing rooms was fun, it does seem as if American conservatives have a real image problem.   But do they care?   Probably not - culture wars, you know, means you can excuse anything as long as it is not the other side.

Update:   Good grief - look at this story - O'Reilly's replacement couldn't be bothered apologising to a spokeswoman for an appallingly sexist attitude shown by his brother in an email accidentally sent to her.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Back to normal

I noted a rare moment of agreement with a position taken by one S Davidson the other day.

Of course it wouldn't last.  The Last Blog in the World You Would Want to Consult on Issues of Racism (or economics, or climate change, or renewable energy) has its owner, one Sinclair Davidson, and most of the commenters, making the completely hyperbolic claim that the ALP is racist for questioning whether a black Kenyan Senator was technically eligible to take the seat vacated by her party mate.

Does he (and his team of decrepit minions) have any evidence at all to back up race as a motivation?   Of course not.  It's just a silly game being hypocritically played by people who dislike it when Lefties call them homophobic for arguing against gay marriage, for example.   And by a economist with apparent  cluelessness about "ape" being able to be used as a racist taunt.


A bit of over-reach

I'm referring to the headline:

Mark Zuckerberg just signed the death warrant for the smartphone

Having read the article, put me in the "not convinced" column.

(For one thing, the "screen door effect" when you try on VR googles seems not the easiest thing to overcome.  Certainly, I expect it's going to be quite a while still before watching a TV show via a VR device is going to be as clear as watching it on, say,  a 60 inch Ultra High Definition TV a few meters in front of you.  Or, I could be completely wrong...)

Not a case of "Always look on the bright side.."

This BBC article How Western Civilisation Could Collapse is not bad, I think.

This section is of particular interest:
According to Joseph Tainter, a professor of environment and society at Utah State University and author of The Collapse of Complex Societies, one of the most important lessons from Rome’s fall is that complexity has a cost. As stated in the laws of thermodynamics, it takes energy to maintain any system in a complex, ordered state – and human society is no exception. By the 3rd Century, Rome was increasingly adding new things – an army double the size, a cavalry, subdivided provinces that each needed their own bureaucracies, courts and defences – just to maintain its status quo and keep from sliding backwards. Eventually, it could no longer afford to prop up those heightened complexities. It was fiscal weakness, not war, that did the Empire in.

So far, modern Western societies have largely been able to postpone similar precipitators of collapse through fossil fuels and industrial technologies – think hydraulic fracturing coming along in 2008, just in time to offset soaring oil prices. Tainter suspects this will not always be the case, however. “Imagine the costs if we have to build a seawall around Manhattan, just to protect against storms and rising tides,” he says. Eventually, investment in complexity as a problem-solving strategy reaches a point of diminishing returns, leading to fiscal weakness and vulnerability to collapse. That is, he says “unless we find a way to pay for the complexity, as our ancestors did when they increasingly ran societies on fossil fuels.”
Also paralleling Rome, Homer-Dixon predicts that Western societies’ collapse will be preceded by a retraction of people and resources back to their core homelands. As poorer nations continue to disintegrate amid conflicts and natural disasters, enormous waves of migrants will stream out of failing regions, seeking refuge in more stable states. Western societies will respond with restrictions and even bans on immigration; multi-billion dollar walls and border-patrolling drones and troops; heightened security on who and what gets in; and more authoritarian, populist styles of governing. “It’s almost an immunological attempt by countries to sustain a periphery and push pressure back,” Homer-Dixon says.

Meanwhile, a widening gap between rich and poor within those already vulnerable Western nations will push society toward further instability from the inside. “By 2050, the US and UK will have evolved into two-class societies where a small elite lives a good life and there is declining well-being for the majority,” Randers says. “What will collapse is equity.”

The black culture question

I see that a Slate column by Jamelle Bouie, criticising a recent bit of  conservative commentary by Andrew Sullivan in which he raised the the success of Asian Americans as a way of questioning the "social justice brigade's" take on why Black Americans are not so successful, is interesting and has attracted more than 4,000 comments.

The truth is, it's a topic I don't really know enough about to be confident of a strong opinion.  I mean, on the one hand, yes, sure, it does seem that Asian Americans reap the reward of hard work, close knit families and high emphasis on education; and it sure seems obvious that in a cultural sense, it's a lot better path than the single parenthood and drug and gangster culture that seems to have become such a norm in at least some American inner cities.  On the other hand, I guess self selection of Asian migrants already with a good education is a thing too; and do you remember that D'Souza clip that obnoxious Right wingers loved when he attacked the college student?  (My goodness, I saw even Nassim Taleb twitter linked to it recently - confirming he's a pretty obnoxious blowhard himself.)   Well, that college student raised a perfectly legitimate point - that blacks were facing clear governmental financial discrimination in the post World War 2 period, and shouldn't we expect that would have long on going consequences?  But then to swing around again - how long do you have to keep trying to compensate for the wrongs of the past before you should expect it to be having a clear effect?  And in any event, is our picture of American society really accurate?   After all, it seems its the struggling white Americans with low education who are killing themselves off now.  If the poorly educated rural white folk are getting desperate and depressed over the way the economy is treating them for the last 20 years, do we have much reason to argue that inner city black folk should just pull themselves up and get on with it despite a much, much lengthy history of being at the losing end of economic treatment? 

All a complicated issue, no doubt.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

A foolish column

I was just about to write that I thought Adam Creighton's column in The Australian yesterday, in which he claims that he would vote for Le Pen if he were French, was very foolish.  Then I discovered that even Sinclair Davidson would seem to agree with my assessment.  (!)

Creighton seems to be taking the Peter Thiel line that things need a gigantic shake up, and hey! may as well let the ethnic/race baiting, fact challenged contender do it because who cares about their actual policies?   (As someone else on the net has suggested, maybe this means he would be a Pauline Hanson voter in Australia, using the same logic.)

Creighton even seems to indicate he doesn't care for a lot of what Le Pen would do, or if he does agree, he devotes no time to the question of how many people would get hurt in the process of her blowing things up (figuratively).

I'm routinely not impressed by Adam, but when the stars are aligned such that even Sinclair Davidson doesn't agree with him on this,  I'll take that as a sign I must be right.


Monday, April 17, 2017

To Redcliffe

What a nice Easter Sunday. Brisbane has finally left the sweltering summer, nights are cooler and sunrise is at a more reasonable hour, along with days of 26 or 27 degrees.  Lovely.

Yesterday we also took advantage of favourable tides and headed to Redcliffe to fish and have a look around.   I was recently told that they had opened a fishing platform at the mouth of the Pine River, on the Redcliffe end of the now demolished Hornibrook Highway (a long, extremely lumpy, bridge that connected Sandgate/Brighton to the peninsula.)

What a good job they've done with it, too.  Lots of shade, seats, two tables for cleaning fish, a sizeable car park, and two robo toilets of the type that self clean, play music while inside, dispense toilet paper and hand soap, and open automatically after ten minutes.   I think the platform has been open for a couple of years now, but these hi tech toilets are in good condition.  Do people respect the effort robo toilets put in?

And then there was the fishing.  Lots of little  bream and other species meant lots of bites and lots of fish caught, but all released.  Other people there, though, had caught bigger fish, so it didn't feel a waste.  Good fun.

Then we drove around to the Redcliffe jetty and the shopping area that fronts it.   Yes, Redcliffe is starting to look upmarket.   Sure, I think the area still has its fair share of car hoons and very cheap housing away from the water, but there is no doubt the gentrification is proceeding at a faster pace than I had realised.

As a particular example, we went looking for an afternoon beer, and went into the very old Ambassador Hotel.  I see from the website that it calls its front bar "working class", which is actually code for "has not been upgraded for 50 years."  It's really unattractive, but what's worse is the old, old fashioned selection of beer on tap - your basic XXXX and Carlton beer, not even a token nod to the craft beer movement by way of a James Squire.   It was like a bar teleported from 1970.

So, we had noticed a fancier place (the understatement of the decade) a block up the road, and went there.   Here's what it looks like: 

They had live music, James Squires in several varieties, an outside area with views of the bay, and looked liked it belonged more in the middle of the Gold Coast (or Noosa) rather than old Redcliffe.  It seems to be an apartment hotel.  (I've since checked - it is.  Called Mon Komo, it's managed by the Oaks chain, although it looks like it's also part residential. I don't think it's long been open.   One suspects it will at least corner the higher end wedding reception market for anywhere close to Redcliffe.)    Remarkably pleasant.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Friday, good

I've always felt it's best to let Good Friday be one of quiet contemplation, and simple food, at home - going out and camping or having fun of some type just doesn't fit in with the theme of the day.

So I had a particularly quiet day yesterday, and found on the shelf a book I bought at a remainder  place a few years ago and never got around to reading - Murder at Golgotha, by Ian Wilson.

Wilson is a historian (originally from England, but living in Brisbane for a long time now) who has written many historical books on Christian topics - most notably, he remains a defender of the authenticity of the Turin Shroud (yes, despite the carbon dating results.)

You may think his position on that hurts his credibility greatly, but I really find he still has a disarming writing style the makes him quite persuasive.   (I'm a bit of a fence sitter on the Shroud, as it happens.  I think it more likely a forgery, but there are quite a few oddities about it that really make me wonder about the extraordinary care that was taken in its creation to reflect what a real crucified body would look like.)

Anyway, Murder at Golgotha is an easy to read account of the Easter story, in which Wilson picks out the Gospel details which he finds most convincing, and the reasons why.  (He feels John gives the most authentic version, actually.)  He also spends quite a bit of time discrediting Mel Gibson's The Passion of the The Christ, a movie which I have only seen a bit of, but it was enough to make me think it was rather ludicrous in its depiction of the violence.

I learnt a thing or two, and it actually made it very easy to visualise the events in a more or less authentic fashion, in contrast to movies and art.

I thereby had an entirely appropriate Good Friday.  Wilson hasn't written anything for a while, and he would be in his 70's now.  I think he may actually live on my side of town, and he is a Catholic.   Would be nice to see him in a Church and say "hi, enjoyed your work..."  

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Revolutionary fiction

Tariq Ali, who I hadn't heard of for quite a while, had an interesting piece in the Guardian recently, about the literature that influenced Lenin.

Apparently, it was a near unreadable utopian novel by one Chernyshevsky which influenced him most.  I guess its terrible reputation as literature is a reason I don't think it counts as a famous book these days.  Just goes to show the writing doesn't have to be good to be disastrously influential.   From the article:

The writer who had perhaps the strongest impact on Lenin – on, indeed, an entire generation of radicals and revolutionaries – was Nikolay Chernyshevsky. Chernyshevsky was the son of a priest, as well as a materialist philosopher and socialist. His utopian novel What Is to Be Done? was written in the Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg, where he had been incarcerated because of his political beliefs. What Is to Be Done? became the bible of a new generation. The fact that it had been smuggled out of prison gave it an added aura. This was the book that radicalised Lenin, long before he encountered Marx (with whom Chernyshevsky had exchanged letters). As a homage to the old radical populist, Lenin titled his first major political work, written and published in 1902, What Is to Be Done?

The enormous success of Chernyshevsky’s novel greatly irritated the established novelists, Turgenev in particular, who attacked the book viciously. This bile was countered with a burning lash of nettles from the radical critics Dobrolyubov (regarded by students as “our Diderot”) and Pisarev. Turgenev was livid. Encountering Chernyshevsky at a public event, he shouted: “You’re a snake and that Dobrolyubov is a rattlesnake.”

What of the novel that was the subject of so much controversy? Over the last 50 years I have made three attempts to read every single page, and all three attempts have failed. It is not a classic of Russian literature. It was of its time and played a crucial role in the post-terrorist phase of the Russian intelligentsia. It is undoubtedly very radical on every front, especially gender equality and relations between men and women, but also on how to struggle, how to delineate the enemy and how to live by certain rules.

Vladimir Nabokov loathed Chernyshevsky but found it impossible to ignore him. In his last Russian novel, The Gift, he devoted 50 pages to belittling and mocking the writer and his circle, but admitted that there “was quite definitively a smack of class arrogance about the attitudes of contemporary well-born writers towards the plebeian Chernyshevsky” and, in private, that “Tolstoy and Turgenev called him the ‘bed-bug stinking gentleman’ … and jeered at him in all kinds of ways”.

Their jeers were partly born of jealousy, since the subject of their snobbery was extremely popular with the young, and born also, in the case of Turgenev, of a deep and ingrained political hostility to a writer who wanted a revolution to destroy the landed estates and distribute the land to the peasants.

Lenin used to get cross with young Bolsheviks visiting him in exile, during the inter-revolutionary years between 1905 and 1917, when they teased him about Chernyshevsky’s book and told him it was unreadable. They were too young to appreciate its depth and vision, he retorted. They should wait till they were 40. Then they would understand that Chernyshevsky’s philosophy was based on simple facts: we were descended from the apes and not Adam and Eve; life was a short-lived biological process, hence the need to bring happiness to every individual. This was not possible in a world dominated by greed, hatred, war, egoism and class. That was why a social revolution was necessary.
Well, I can't say that I had realised that a radical change in gender relations was so closely tied from the earliest days of  Russian revolutionary thought. I see the book is downloadable (all 488 pages of it!) in English translation here.   I've a quick scan - it does seem incredibly turgid, and to mainly be about relationships.   Amazing what people read before TV/movies/the internet....  

Mark it in your calendar

It seems the ageing Japanese Emperor would like to abdicate, and it looks like the government will let it happen, but not until December 2018:
The Japanese government is planning to hold a ceremony for Emperor Akihito’s envisioned abdication in December 2018, in what would be the nation’s first such ceremony in around 200 years, government sources said Wednesday.

The last time Japan held a ceremony for an emperor’s abdication was 1817, when Emperor Kokaku relinquished the Chrysanthemum throne. The government will consider how to materialize the plan by studying documents describing ceremonial manners for abdications in the past.

The abdication ceremony is planned to be held aside from a series of enthronement ceremonies for Crown Prince Naruhito. It may be treated as a state act that requires Diet approval for conducting, the sources said.
Mind you, I wonder whether one reason for the delay is the amount of time it would seem to take to prepare for the enthronement ceremony of his son.   The Wikipedia entry indicates there is a lot of perfection involved:
First, two special rice paddies are chosen and purified by elaborate Shinto purification rites. The families of the farmers who are to cultivate the rice in these paddies must be in perfect health. Once the rice is grown and harvested, it is stored in a special Shinto shrine as its goshintai (御神体), the embodiment of a kami or divine force. Each kernel must be whole and unbroken, and is individually polished before it is boiled. Some sake is also brewed from this rice.
Individually polished rice??

Wikipedia links to a NYT report on the enthronement of Akihito in 1990 (I really had forgotten that Hirohito had lived so long after WW2.)  It's interesting to see that some Left wingers in the country went as far as firebombing some Shinto shrines in protest that the ceremony seemed to be affirming the old idea that it made the Emperor a living Shinto god.  I wonder if the same controversy will happen again, or if Left wingers are less radical now than before.

And, of course, there is the fascinating question of whether the ceremony also implies some symbolic sexual congress with the Sun goddess:
Many articles, for instance, have put forth various theories of scholars about the function of a matted bed and coverlet in the inner sanctum. Some experts have suggested that the Emperor lies on the bed and transforms himself into a god or in some fashion communes, perhaps in a symbolically sexual way, with the spirit of the sun goddess.

In response to these theories, the ritualists of the Imperial Household Agency have said that the bed is used as a resting place for the sun goddess but that the Emperor never touches it.
Expect some similar coverage next year, then...

Increasing evidence the US did elect a 12 year old

Seriously, I keep saying that the way Trump speaks reminds me of a primary school kid, but it's also the content.  What adult goes into a diversion about how nice the cake was?  And as for the way this Fox News interviewer acts - she sounds like a high school journalist asking her bestie how that really important first date went.

The Quartz article headline has it right:
All the giggly, giddy weirdness of Trump and Fox Business News in one clip

As for what Xi Jinping really thinks of Trump - he's a tad concerned about Trump conducting foreign policy by Twitter, apparently.  As we all should be...

Update:  Furthermore, how do you square Trump's tweet about going it alone on North Korea if China doesn't help with what he said to the WSJ?:
Apparently, Trump came into his first meeting with the Chinese leader, in early April, convinced that China could simply eliminate the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear program. Xi then patiently explained Chinese-Korean history to Trump — who then promptly changed his mind.

“After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy,” the president told the Journal. “I felt pretty strongly that they had a tremendous power [over] North Korea. ... But it’s not what you would think.”
It's like his incredible statement about  how "nobody knew health care could be so complicated."

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

A use for dragon blood

The BBC reports:
Komodo dragon blood contains an important compound which scientists think could offer a new treatment for infected wounds.

The reptile's saliva harbours many different types of bacteria, which somehow do not affect the dragon.

Scientists at George Mason University in the US created a synthetic compound based on a molecule in dragon blood that had antimicrobial activity.

They found it promoted the healing of infected wounds in mice.

Serial killers I had missed

I don't go out of my way to read of gruesome crimes, but I am a bit surprised that until yesterday, I don't recall reading about the "Bloody Benders", who bear the title "America's First Serial Killers".

A straight forward telling of their story, from 1870's Kansas, may be found here.  Wikipedia has a fairly detailed entry, too.  

What is particularly interesting, I think, is the link with Spiritualism, as well as the very "Sweeney Todd" aspect of victims being dumped into a cellar via a trap door in the floor.

As a medium, family member Kate was apparently giving out some rather unusual advice from the Spirit world.  From the book Psychological Consequences of the Civil War:

I have to say, if your medium is giving out advice like that, I don't think it's wise to accept an invitation to dinner at home.

Anyway, it seems to me that this would be great source material for a film - especially given that it is not clear as to what happened to the family.  Lots of room for speculation to be built into a screenplay "based on real events".

Is this why the American white working class is dying more?

From the New Yorker:
Case and Deaton published a second paper last month, in which they emphasized that the epidemic they had described was concentrated among white people without any college education. But they also searched for a source for what they had called despair. They wondered if a decline in income might explain the phenomenon, but that idea turned out not to fit the data so well. They noticed that another long-running pattern fit more precisely—a decline in what economists call returns to experience.

The return to experience is a way to describe what you get in return for aging. It describes the increase in wages that workers normally see throughout their careers. The return to experience tends to be higher for more skilled jobs: a doctor might expect the line between what she earns in her first year and what she earns in her fifties to rise in a satisfyingly steady upward trajectory; a coal miner might find it depressingly flat. But even workers with less education and skills grow more efficient the longer they hold a job, and so paying them more makes sense. Unions, in arguing for pay that rises with seniority, invoke a belief in the return to experience. It comes close to measuring what we might otherwise call wisdom.

“This decline in the return to experience closely matches the decline in attachment to the labor force,” Case and Deaton wrote. “Our data are consistent with a model in which the decline in real wages led to a reduction in labor force participation, with cascading effects on marriage, health, and mortality from deaths of despair.”

Runaway slaves

I think the Washington Post must have thought that this goes a bit with the Trump zeitgiest for hunting down illegal immigrants - but it is an interesting look at the advertisements that slave owners of America (including future presidents) would run in the papers offering rewards for returning runaway slaves.

[I think a satirist here could do a good one for Centrist Left looking for the recovery of Mark Latham.]

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

How boring

I meant to post last week about the incredibly bland and boring sounding menu at Trump's meeting with Xi Jinping:

Caesar Salad with homemade focaccia croutons, parmigiano-reggiano

Dinner options:

Pan-seared Dover Sole with champagne sauce
Herb-roasted new potatoes
Haricots verts, Thumbelina Carrots


Dry Aged Prime New York Strip Steak
Whipped Potatoes
Roasted Root Vegetables

Dessert options:

Chocolate cake with vanilla sauce and dark chocolate sorbet


Trio of Sorbet (Lemon, Mango, and Raspberry)

Wine options:

2014 Chalk Hill Chardonnay from the Sonoma Coast
2014 Girard Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley

Now look, I presume that the menu was given the "tick" by the Chinese embassy, as I'm sure even Trump wants to avoid something like anaphylactic shock causing an international crisis;  but even so, if this is meant to an example of what fine American dining can achieve (or a Trump high class joint), it's failed miserably.   Put a bit of effort in, can you, Donald?  (Mind you, some Trumpkin idiot has probably justified this as an example of Trump playing 4D chess  with Xi's mind.)

John Clarke

Yes, it was sad to read of John Clarke's sudden death yesterday.   I suppose I didn't really care for the comic persona of his younger days,  but it was impossible not to admire the cleverness and wit of his work with Bryan Dawe, as well as the sardonic acting in The Games.  In fact, I had only watched his last Dawe interview last week, and wondered why they were no longer highlighted as much by the ABC.  They were still pretty great together.

I heard an interview with him not so long ago on Radio National, and he sounded genuinely intelligent and thoughtful -  a fact which many people who knew him have confirmed.  I also think it fair to say that there was almost a type of gentleness to his humour, even though it was satire - which is no doubt why there will be virtually no ill will directed towards him.  (Although I see some Right wing commenters at Tim Blair's have leapt in to make it clear he was not funny because he was a "Leftist".  God help them if ever they try watching post Trump election Colbert.) 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Another, completely unskeptical, take on wannabe transgender children in the US press

I can't be the only person who would read this article and think that it shows zero skepticism regarding the complete swing in attitude towards this issue.   It is obviously a difficult issue for parents to deal with, but it is also obviously prone to great swings in medical fashion, too, as are all cases of how to respond to very unusual thoughts that can lodge in some people's heads. 

Update:  the latest post at 4th Wave Now notes the unintended consequence of puberty blocking for boys who want to be girls is that they don't grow enough, um, genital material in order for surgeons to later do the desired reconstruction of it into ersatz female genitalia.

True, even if satire

From the New Yorker:

Nation Desperately Hopes Real Reason for Bannon’s Exit Will Not Involve Sex Tape

The thing about Bannon is that, although people on the Left and libertarian-ish Right (hello, Jason) may agree that his anti-Globalist position is correct as far as short term military interventions are concerned (he was against the Syrian bombing last week, apparently), the way he is enamoured with a nutty book that seems to describe both global and national crisis in this present period actually indicates that his motivation for non intervention is founded in nonsense.   And that's not a good thing.   You do want appropriate US interventions, sometimes, rather than a view that some sort of global destruction is inevitable and will lead to the rise of a reinvigorated US.   See this article in the New York Times which is the basis for this comment.

And besides, his anti-Globalist views on economics and trade have extremely little support from economists or experts of any variety.

It would therefore be a mistake to regret his departure, just because he might have made an appropriate call for caution on the one issue.