Saturday, June 30, 2007

Farms of the air

The Vertical Farm Project - Agriculture for the 21st Century and Beyond...

This idea (to start seriously developing farms in high rise buildings) sounds very futuristic, and that's why I like it. The fact that it may actually make practical sense too is just an added bonus.


So, there's a site that posts some of the US late night talk show jokes. Neat. Here's David Letterman on Paris getting out of jail:
Paris said she hated prison. There’s some insight.
She said she had to eat mystery meat. I think I’ve actually seen video of her doing that.

About time

Egypt bans female circumcision after death of 12-year-old girl | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited

The numbers for female circumcision in Egypt are much higher than I would have guessed:
In 2005, research by Unicef found that 96% of Egyptian women aged 15 to 49 who had ever been married reported they had been circumcised. The Egyptian government says a more recent study found 50.3% of girls aged 10 to 18 had been circumcised.
And this is after a quasi ban in 1997, although the article says it was still allowed "under exceptional circumstances". I wonder what exactly would be counted as good reason for that.

Chinese Catholics explained

How an American program bridged the gap between China's divided Catholics. - By Adam Minter - Slate Magazine

The situation with Chinese Catholics is more complicated that I realised. An interesting explanation is in the Slate article above.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Computers no match for Go

Why computers can’ t surpass Go and collect $1 million -Times Online

Well, that's something I hadn't heard before:
...there is one game in which the computer is still no match for Man, a game in which a competent teenager can beat the world’s most sophisticated computer program with ease: and that is the ancient Chinese board game Go, the oldest game in the world, and the only one at which man remains the undisputed champion.
So, my alternative ending for 2001: A Space Odyssey would involve Dave challenging HAL to a game of Go, on a bet that the winner gets back control of the mission.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Fisk-like in its accuracy

You've got to read this. Professional lefty panic merchant author Richard Flanagan has a "Comment is Free" article in The Guardian about the aboriginal situation here. Where ever he is writing from, it seems to be somewhere that is free of talk back radio, TV news and all Australian papers. Here's some extracts; you decide how accurate it sounds:

Howard's response - a five-year takeover of 60 indigenous communities, with soldiers and police overseeing alcohol and pornography bans, the part-quarantining of welfare payments to parents to ensure money is spent on food and other necessities, and the compulsory testing of Aboriginal children for sexual abuse - stunned Australia. Initial confusion soon gave way to condemnation of the plan as draconian, racist, unworkable, an ill-conceived shock-and-awe campaign, a cunning land grab and a black Tampa doomed to fail. Howard's past was rebounding.

It took many back to the horror of the infamous "stolen generation", thousands of Aboriginal children taken, often forcibly, from their families into institutions in a misguided attempt at assimilation through the 20th century. Despite Howard's reassurances, fear and panic were reported to have seized Aboriginal communities. Families were already fleeing to the bush, fearful of seeing soldiers take their children away.

Then condemnation transformed into what is now being described as "a widening revolt", joining together Labor state premiers, a former Liberal prime minister, indigenous leaders, religious leaders, police, and more than 60 community and indigenous groups.

So, the most he can say about the initial response is "initial confusion"?

And how's this for a short summary of the Cronulla riots last year:
He [Howard] has overseen a transition from a national commitment to multiculturalism to a strident advocacy of "national values" - an oily phrase that appears to be a stalking horse for a new intolerance. When riots broke out between white supremacists and Lebanese youths on Sydney beaches in 2005, he described it as an issue of law and order, rather than race.
Talk about a slanted description of the parties involved. "White supremacists" makes them sold like 30 year old neo-Nazis; "Lebanese youths" makes it sound like they were all younger than the young white men involved, as if a pack of 13 years old on the Lakemba Youth Group picnic were attacked.

For some context on Richard, there's this from the Kerry O'Brien interview linked to above:
There are a lot of disturbing tendencies in Australian public life. We have this language which I haven't heard used since the Stalinist era of elites, a word that was first used by Stalin when he wanted to attack Jewish intellectuals in 1948, the use of the idea that there are things that matter more than individual freedom. Again, that's a Stalinistic argument. We have the rise of hit men in the media who are there to do the Government's bidding and seem to have no conscience or scruple in attacking any individual who has a position different than that of the Government or is questioning government policy. We have an ever more conformist society. We have an ever more cowed media and we see daily anybody who rightly questions or simply interrogates the process of government or government policy being destroyed. Those sort of things, when people who are simply seeking the truth have to put their reputations on the line, when that starts happening, I become very frightened.
Richard seems to have avoided conformism and destruction so far; he must be living in a bunker somewhere avoiding the police with their packs of dogs trying to ferret him out. Prat.

Science fiction ideas

New Scientist Space Blog: Have researchers found the Tunguska crater?

As the article indicates, there are many reasons to be very sceptical of the claim that a small lake in Siberia may be an impact crater from the Tunguska event.

Still, it seems to me to be to the good start for a science fiction movie to have a submarine down there, discovering in the mud an alien artefact that was left over from Tunguska.

Speaking of movies, some years ago it occurred to me (while reading some fan boy ideas as to what would be good stories for future Indiana Jones episodes) that it could be a nice idea if Indiana Jones was involved in some intrigue surrounding the (alleged) Roswell UFO crash. (UFO followers will recall there was a claim that some of the "ufo" pieces had symbols on them, resembling some ancient or alien script. This would be a reason for the scientists to call in Jones.) There could also be a tie in with Raiders, because, you will recall, one of the bad guys thought the Ark of the Covenant was a radio transmitter to God. (Maybe it is a transmitter to the nearly God-like aliens instead.) The end result of it could be a message sent out to aliens, resulting at the end of the movie in the eventual arrival in the 1970's of the mother ship as depicted in Close Encounters. You could digitally insert Indiana Jones into the end of that movie, and have him leave into alien immortality.

Hey, I did say it was many years ago that I idly thought about such stuff. I was single for a long time before I got married, you know!

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

All about AI

Technology Review: Artificial Intelligence Is Lost in the Woods

This is a good article from an "anti-cognitivist", who thinks AI research is largely going down the wrong path. Very interesting reading.

Suicide watch

Suicide | Elusive, but not always unstoppable |

The Economist has a good piece about suicide, and the wildly varying factors that seem to be behind it in different parts of the world.

There were a couple of things in the article that were new to me:
China is one of the few countries in which more women kill themselves than men. Over half the world's female suicides are Chinese; among Chinese under 45, the female rate is twice the rate among males. Why should things be different in China? Part of the explanation clearly lies in the high rate among rural women, which in turn may be partially explained by the ready availability of poisons (weedkillers and pesticides), and the absence of any effective treatment.
And the law of unintended consequences can certainly apply to this area when the government tries to help:
Government action certainly makes a difference, though sometimes results are perverse. Some Indian states pay bereaved families compensation for the loss of a breadwinner who has killed himself; this seems to increase the suicide rate.

Coming attractions

Pixar's new film Ratatouille (which has not yet opened in the States) is receiving very positive early reviews. I saw the trailer for it before Pirates, and it did look promising, especially given that it is directed by Brad Bird, who did the very enjoyable The Incredibles. (He also did Iron Giant in old freehand animation style, and it is well worth watching on DVD. It got great reviews when released at the cinema, but for some reason was a box office flop.)

I think it is fair to say that Bird's storytelling always contains more "adult" themes than other animation, but he never bores young children either. After the instantly forgettable Cars, I have high hopes for being very impressed by another Pixar film.

Before that, I think it likely that my son will need to be taken to see Transformers, which is opening here tomorrow, actually ahead of the US release. There are only a couple of official reviews out, but the impression seems to be that, for a basically silly boy's concept, and one directed by noise-Meister Michael Bay, it's not bad.

Lastly, any Indiana Jones tragics who might read this probably already know that there's a photo released of Harrison Ford in costume. Seems to be holding his age better when in a fedora, I guess.

I personally do not hold high hopes for Indiana 4: George Lucas's involvement in this might mean the series continues to follow the same trajectory as Star Wars, where the second in both series were the best, followed by a plummet in story quality in the third. Interest was well and truly lost by the fourth. But at least George isn't directing.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Undercover in Scientology


Follow the link above for an article about a woman who spent 3 months as an undercover reporter who joined the Scientologists via their London "Celebrity Centre". It's very interesting.

I must say that, while her experience confirms the flakiness of the Scientologists, it also indicates that the therapy courses (at least at this level) are not exactly sinister in nature.

I object to their crusades against all medication for psychiatric conditions, and the science fiction silliness of its core beliefs, but it does seem to me that the Europeans in particular have over-reacted to this trite form of therapy masquerading as religion.

Rain rain come again

Brisbane has now had about 24 hours of continual, light to moderate, rain. While my guess is that it is still not going to add all that much to the dam levels (currently right on 18%,) there should at least be a substantial halt to the death of trees, shrubs and lawns that has been very noticeable throughout the city. Also, all the new water tanks that have been installed in the last 6 months should finally be full. (Shareholders in companies that make water tanks must be very happy here. The demand for them has been huge.)

Paul Davies, the laws of physics, and God

Yes, the universe looks like a fix. But that doesn't mean that a god fixed it

Former Aussie resident Paul Davies has a neat summary of his recent thinking in the above article from "Comment is Free" in The Guardian.

His suggestion that the physical laws of the universe are changeable over time, and in some sense, have created themselves in such a way as to be hospitable to life, certainly feels counter-intuitive. I am also not sure what he means by this:
Thus, three centuries after Newton, symmetry is restored: the laws explain the universe even as the universe explains the laws. If there is an ultimate meaning to existence, as I believe is the case, the answer is to be found within nature, not beyond it. The universe might indeed be a fix, but if so, it has fixed itself.
Yet he has never claimed to believe in a personal God, or a creator God, and presumably does not believe in an afterlife, even of the Tipler Omega Point (eternal cyber-heaven at the end of the universe) variety.

So within that framework, how does he think you can say there is "ultimate meaning" to existence?

While I am mentioning God, I have been meaning for some time to post this passage from CS Lewis, which I have always thought makes a very valid point about "modern" thinking about God:

". . . When [people] try to get rid of man-like, or, as they are called, 'anthropomorphic,' images, they merely succeed in substituting images of some other kinds. 'I don't believe in a personal God,' says one, 'but I do believe in a great spiritual force.' What he has not noticed is that the word 'force' has let in all sorts of images about winds and tides and electricity and gravitation. 'I don't believe in a personal God,' says another, 'but I do believe we are all parts of one great Being which moves and works through us all' -not noticing that he has merely exchanged the image of a fatherly and royal-looking man for the image of some widely extended gas or fluid.

"A girl I knew was brought up by 'higher thinking' parents to regard God as perfect 'substance.' In later life she realized that this had actually led her to think of Him as something like a vast tapioca pudding. (To make matters worse, she disliked tapioca.) We may feel ourselves quite safe from this degree of absurdity but we are mistaken. If a man watches his own mind, I believe he will find that what profess to be specially advanced or philosophic conceptions of God, are, in his thinking, always accompanied by vague images which, if inspected, would turn out to be even more absurd than the manlike images aroused by Christian theology. For man, after all, is the highest of the things we meet in sensuous experience."

I think there is more benefit in that passage than in most full length books of theology.

A big problem

Town at the coalface in fear of overflow | Indigenous Welfare | The Australian

The mayor of the Northern Territory town of Katherine notes this:

Ms Shepherd points out that part of the problems of her town ironically stem from existing alcohol bans in the dry Aboriginal communities around Katherine, ranging from 50km to 600km away. With Katherine their regional hub, Aborigines come in for shopping and medical services, and many buy grog they can't get in dry communities.

Some don't make it back.

"At any time we can have 300 or more visitors from Aboriginal communities sleeping in doorways and drains, many severely affected by alcohol," Ms Shepherd said.

There is a town camp owned by the Territory Government and leased to an Aboriginal-run community organisation, but it's a dangerous hell-hole with tension between those who live there permanently and visitors from other clans.

"It has not been properly managed in the past, and although the current manager is doing his best, it needs to be safe for temporary residents," Ms Shepherd said, adding that she worried for the children there.

When Ms Shepherd visited a camp called Geyulkan yesterday, there was no one sober enough to string together more than a sentence.
It certainly is a big and complicated problem that Howard is taking on.

As to the issue of how much change needs to take place in consultation with the communities, isn't the fundamental problem that it's difficult to identify those residents who have the authority to bind the communities? As many people point out, aboriginal women have been asking for change for years, but what authority are they perceived to have by the rest of their community? Same with male tribal elders. If in a community a significant number of them have an alcohol problem, or a history of being a sexual abuser themselves, are they excluded from consultation?

So, while many are complaining that a more authoritarian approach is unlikely to succeed, my suspicion is that this fundamental practical difficulty of the consultative approach has been downplayed for years.

One of the more surprising sections in the Report was this:
The Inquiry found that at many community meetings, both men and women expressed a keen desire to be better informed about what constituted child s-xual abuse and the health, social and legal responses to it. However, people did not want to be talked at. They wanted to be able to enter into a dialogue in their own language through which they could develop this understanding, with information, assistance, support and time being given by the relevant agency to facilitate this process of learning.
Well, this is an area where I think most people should rightly react along the lines: "forget cultural sensitivities when it comes to knowing what is child (or even adult) sexual abuse. They just need to be told in English (or if they don't understand that, their own language) a few key points: incest is illegal at whatever age; sex between adults and children is illegal. Sex without consent is always illegal too, no matter what age. No one who has an STD should have sex with anyone until it's cured. "

The basic rules just aren't all that complicated, surely.

The main grey area may be about consensual sex between unrelated teenagers below the age of consent, as indeed it is within the white community too. But that's probably the least of our worries anyway when it comes to abuse in these communities.

Pick me

Libs are making it up | The Australian Your Say Blog

Let's see. Howard and Costello say they are sick of Keating claiming sole credit for economic reform, as the Liberals commissioned the Campbell Report which recommended the key changes. Keating says - but look, in 1977, I told Parliament that foreign banks should be let in, Hayden agreed with me, and so I had the reform idea first.

Soon, I reckon Keating will be pulling out notes of conversations he had with high school teachers to prove it all started with him.

I like Keating's claim that Howard and Costello were "stunned" by his recent Lateline performance.

I reckon the people more likely to be "stunned" are Rudd's team, who must grind their teeth every time electoral poison Paul makes another self-aggrandising media appearance.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Higher education in Japan

Japan's universities fighting to attract students

The competition amongst universities in Japan for new students means offering some luxuries previously unknown in Japanese uni dorms:
Perched immodestly on the edge of a steaming bath, a dozen judo teammates soaking happily next to him, the junior in economics said he picked this university when he saw the spa pictured in a brochure. The university's resort-like new dormitories also boast private karaoke rooms, an English garden with pink roses and a swimming pool.

"This was the only university to recruit us by offering a hot spring," Iwanaga, 21, said.

"They really wanted us to come here."
The most interesting thing in the article is the demographic information:
According to census statistics, the number of 18-year-old Japanese has fallen to 1.3 million this year from 2.05 million in 1992, when the second peak of Japan's baby-boomers' children were entering universities. Estimates show it dropping to 1.21 million in two more years. This year, as a result, nearly a third of the nation's 707 four-year universities were unable to fill all of their openings, according to the Education Ministry and university groups.
That seems a huge drop in the number of 18 year olds over 15 years, doesn't it?

Not coping with green energy

Energy crisis cannot be solved by renewables, oil chiefs say - Times Online

Some pessimism from the oil and energy industry:
Shell’s chief gives warning that supplies of conventional oil and gas will struggle to keep pace with rising energy demand and he calls for greater investment in energy efficiency.

Instead of a great conversion to wind power and solar power, Mr van der Veer predicts, the world will be forced into greater use of coal and much higher CO2 emissions, “possibly to levels we deem unacceptable”.

Alternative energy sources, such as renewables, will not fill the gap, says Mr van der Veer, who forecasts that even with major technological breakthroughs, renewables could account for only 30 per cent of energy supply by the middle of the century.

“Contrary to public perceptions, renewable energy is not the silver bullet that will soon solve all our problems,” he writes.
And the chief executive of Exxon agrees:
Mr Tillerson said that world energy demand would rise by 45 per cent by 2030, and fossil fuels – oil, natural gas and coal – were the only energy sources of sufficient size, adaptability and affordability to meet the world’s needs.
Might be time to start taking geo-engineering more seriously, I think.

Antony goes to Iran

The peripatetic Antony Lowenstein has turned up talking in the Guardian about a recent visit in Iran.

To paraphrase that line from Grapes of Wrath:"where ever there are peoples who hate Jews, he'll be there."

Actually, I have to begrudgingly say that most of the column is an interesting read, concentrating as it does on the difference between private views and the "official" views expressed in Iran, and the fierce form of censorship that exists there. (I found it particularly interesting that he claims that "many people" told him that they don't want America to leave Iraq yet, because of the chaos it would cause.)

However, Antony can't help himself and goes mad in the very last two sentences. They go like this:
Iranians may be the most hospitable people in the world, and yet any American or Israeli attack against the country's nuclear facilities would be met with even-greater repression at home and rallying around the conservative leadership.
Um, fair enough point. I am thinking "Antony, you have written a piece in which I can't find much to object to at all." But then, out of the blue, comes this last sentence:
For many westerners, the concept of Islam at the heart of a prosperous nation is too much to bear. It's a sad indictment of many post 9/11 mindsets.
What?? The rest of the column has said nothing about the "prosperity" of Iran. In fact, this last sentence seems to have absolutely nothing to do with what has preceded it. It's like he just can't control his fingers from typing out commentary without fitting in some criticism, no matter how off the wall, of westerners for being "anti-Islamic".

You only have to go a few posts down in the comments section to see someone who challenges his "prosperous nation" comment, which is pretty good considering this is the Guardian after all.

Congratulations Antony, your goose-dom is saved by your last sentence!

Saturday, June 23, 2007

A Saturday Miscellany

* A fascinating story on what it is like to visit North Korea was on Foreign Correspondent this week. If you missed it, there's repeat at 1pm on ABC TV today, and the story should be available on broadband at the link above sometime soon.

* The SMH reprints a David Brooks piece from the NYTimes on his understanding of human nature and why it means school based sex education doesn't work. While his assessment seems plausible, it also seems to me to have fairly pessimistic implications for how you change an individual's perceptions and behaviour. It's an interesting read anyway.

* Michael Duffy has an interesting column in the SMH too, talking about why experts can be bad at forecasting. Two thoughts:

1. If correct, it's a good sign for the future of blogs, as we are all qualified to guess abut the future;

2. Does this also explain why Michael Duffy wrote a book that was half about the political future of the self -detonating Mark Latham?

* They use about 8 tonnes a year of human antibiotics on farmed Tasmanian Salmon? Does not sound like a good idea.

* Matt Price confirms that the puzzlement political journalists have always expressed about Kevin Rudd's public popularity is due to their knowing him better than you and I:
And let me let you in on an insider's secret. Most of us know, or feel we know, Rudd too well. He's a decent and intelligent fellow who has nonetheless grovelled and scraped and dissembled to get to the top, earning the wrath of colleagues and the suspicion of journalists. While the rest of Australia falls under the spell of Kevinism, his stratospheric personal ratings seem faintly surreal to those acquainted with the baby-faced Messiah, and that includes many Labor MPs.
* If you have missed it from Boing Boing, you really should spend the 5 seconds it takes to watch the dramatic chipmunk (even though it's a prairie dog):

Friday, June 22, 2007

On aboriginal issues

Well, the media and blogs in Australia are running hot today on John Howard's sudden announcement of drastic measures to help stop child abuse in the Northern Territory remote communities.

This seems as good a time as any, then, to express some thoughts on some of the problems with aboriginal housing and culture generally.

1. Second hand experience. I have close relatives who have lived in one of the big Cape York communities, and still live in the area and recently went back to do more work on the community. Although the tavern there has been greatly restricted in its operation (shut completely on welfare payday, I think,) I am told that the atmosphere at the community has still become worse in the last year or so. My relative, for example, recently had to get police help to remove a stone throwing group who were attacking the Council offices because they were upset that their dog had been put down by the vet. (Mangy, decrepit and uncared for dogs are a problem in the community, and they paid for a vet to come and put down the worst ones.)

Alcohol entry into the community is tightly policed.

It seems that alcohol restrictions do not always mean a immediate improvement in general atmosphere of a community. Presumably, there is some improvement in terms of assaults and property destruction, but it's not a magic bullet for making residents feel happier in themselves.

This particular community has recently started a tourist venture (but a very expensive one for anyone to experience.) I am told that it is getting bookings, but having seen it on television, I doubt that it has long term prospects. The local area is simply not particularly attractive.

2. Housing. I think it is well known that for some (or most, or all?) remote aboriginal communities, the problem with housing is exacerbated by their spiritual/religious belief that a house in which a person has died has to be left vacant for some months before it can be re-occupied again, and then only after a ceremony to make sure the spirit is really gone, or happy.

When it is already hard enough to get a barely adequate number of houses built in remote localities, I would like to know how much of a problem this really is. Given high aboriginal mortality, does it mean that, say, you ideally would have an extra pool of (I am guessing) 20% vacant houses if you want death affected families to have a temporary house once every few years?

It sounds as if it could be a really significant reason why housing is always crowded.

Some years ago when discussing this with a (left leaning) brother, I half seriously suggested that perhaps the real solution is to have moveable housing; a sophisticated tent, perhaps. He was horrified that I would suggest condemning aboriginals to such accommodation.

But really, I still think I have a valid case for this. As to the cultural appropriateness of housing, people see Mongolians living in yurts, or Bedouins in tents, and find it sort of romantic. Aborigines living rough in the Northern Territory will live in a humpy, making a modern canvas and wood construction a palace by comparison. Yet there is still the perception that suggesting anything less than a house of bricks is insulting.

You wouldn't make every building in a community like this: they have to be able to get shelter from cyclones and such. But I like to imagine that for (at a guess) maybe $30,000 you could come up with a "super tent" and platform floor combination that is just moored on a bit of land and moved as necessary.

There has been a lot of talk over the years of making appropriately designed, very solid, low maintenance houses for these communities. My suggestion is to go in the other direction: make it virtually disposable, making maintenance as irrelevant as possible.

They can have a new one every couple of years, maybe a new one if they believe they still need to vacate it if a death occurs, and still be ahead of the permanent brick and mortar style housing costs.

Just thinking outside the box, folks.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Electric jet engine of the future?

For Low-Emission Planes, Try Superconductivity: Scientific American

A very cool idea. (There's a pun in there, if you know anything about superconductivity.)

China takes the lead

China tops CO2 emissions - Developing nation overtakes America, and is set to rise.

The news@nature links never work for long, but here is the crucial part:
But how fast are Chinese emissions rising?

Fast, because the standard of living is rising too. The country is building about 2 power stations a week. Its emissions from fossil fuels went up 8% from 2005 to 2006, contributing heavily to the overall global rise of 2.6%.

Can anything be done about that?

China unveiled its first national plan on climate change earlier this month. The scheme outlines the country's aim to reduce 'energy intensity' — the amount of energy needed per unit of GDP — by 20% by 2010. But the Chinese economy is, today, growing at 10% a year. If it were to keep that up, then in 2020 its economy would be 3.5 times larger than it is today. That would mean far greater carbon dioxide emissions even if the energy intensity goals were met.

China also aims to increase renewable energy sources and re-forest the countryside. But what it really needs to keep emissions in check are clean coal technologies. "It can't do much about cement except use less in its construction," says Olivier.

Egypt and Gaza

Analysis: Calling Egypt's bluff on Gaza | Jerusalem Post

I noted a few posts ago the suggestion that getting Egypt into Gaza to sought out the mess would be an ideal solution, as far as the West is concerned. But I speculated that such involvement would probably risk the stability of the Egyptian government.

This seems to have been a good guess. From the Jerusalem Post, the article above discusses why Egypt does not do enough to stop the flow of smuggled arms into Gaza:
The Mubarak administration has its own delicate balancing act to maintain between the calls for democracy and the ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood to overthrow the secular government. The last thing it needs is to get sucked into the fighting between Israel and the Palestinians and between Fatah and Hamas.

Egypt faces an Islamist terrorist threat, with bombings usually targeted at the tourism industry on the southern Red Sea coast of Sinai. So far, North Sinai, which is also close to Cairo and the Nile Delta, has been quiet and that is something they want to maintain at all costs. Allowing Hamas to smuggle arms in to Gaza through their territory is a reasonable price as long as none of it remains behind in Egypt and the Palestinians go about it with discretion...

The policy remains not to risk even one Egyptian for the Palestinians' sake. If the US and Israel are to realize their hopes of a greater Egyptian involvement in dealing with the Hamas mini-state that has sprung up overnight in Gaza, it will only be achieved by a considerable package of incentives, or a serious threat to other interests of the Mubarak regime.

One for the "enjoyable bad reviews" folder

Lord of the Rings doomed to epic defeat | Uk News | News | Telegraph

Charles Spencer did not like the West End musical version of LoR:
I took my 14-year-old son along, who enjoyed Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings films and is, I would guess, exactly the age and sex this show needs to attract in order to survive.

Unfortunately he hated it even more than I did, sitting with his head in his hands in those moments when he wasn't tittering at the ponderous inanities of the script and the triteness of the lyrics....

Warchus's claim that the show is a cross between Shakespeare and Cirque du Soleil is risible. The language is flat, portentous or twee, and there is barely a moment that makes you gasp.

Indeed most of the special effects seem highly derivative, from old-hat bungee jumping to the Louise Bourgeois inspired giant spider. Nor does this story of epic battles run to a single decent sword-fight, a truly astonishing omission....

Repeatedly during this show you feel its creators have more money than either sense or imagination.

Kid's problems

Comment is free: Searching for the antidote

This commentary from The Guardian makes some sensible points about concern for modern children:
Is there a danger that the glow of a mythical golden yesteryear is making this the most scrutinised younger generation ever, while leading only to a partial and highly selective understanding of what's really happening? Cause and effect; nurture and nature are notoriously difficult to disentangle. ....
.....adults have wrongly taught (some) children that what they feel is much more important than what they achieve. "Self-control or the ability to persevere and keep going is a much better predictor of life outcomes than self-esteem. Research tells us that children high in self-control make better grades and finish more years of education ... Self-control predicts all of those things researchers had hoped self-esteem would [deliver] but hasn't."

In Scandinavia, concern is also growing about a parenting style known as "curling", after the sport that became a surprise Olympic hit. Professional middle-class parents, both working long hours, insist on sweeping away all difficulties for their child: interfering with teachers and friends; spoiling them rotten and expecting nothing - neither good manners, nor chores, nor endeavour - in return. Again, on contact with adversity, the child instead of learning from failure and a modicum of stress, mentally collapses.

The analysis of why some children are so highly distressed needs to include both ends of the spectrum - those who have too little and those who appear to have too much. While somewhere in this whole process, against the grain of consumption and celebrity and success as defined by the workplace, we could somehow try to restore the value of ordinariness and the pleasures it can bring.


Taipei Times - archives

Of course it would be an engineer who wants to do this:

A robot will be master of ceremonies for a South Korean wedding this weekend in what its creators yesterday claimed as a world first.

Hanool Robotics said Tiro the robot will assist at the civil wedding ceremony of Seok Gyeong-jae, one of the engineers who designed it, and his bride tomorrow in Daejeon, 130km south of Seoul.

As the bride and groom leave the ceremony, the guests will throw little nuts and bolts at them, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Don't forget the paella pans

Australia to buy Spanish warships - National -

Now, if you shut your eyes and count to 20, when you open them, there will be new commentary somewhere on the 'net criticising this decision. I could be exaggerating, but not by much.

You see, it is a rule of Australian defence acquisitions decisions, no matter how long they are pondered over, sent to another inter-departmental committee, analysed via 56 different matrices, etc, etc, will always be the subject of criticism by armchair experts, real experts, retired admirals, generals & air vice marshals, and assorted others.

For all the criticism it generates, I really wonder why Defence just doesn't save money and time by narrowing the choices down to three vaguely credible ones, and then throwing darts at a board to pick the winner.

Living in a can for science

Wanted: Space pioneers (or agoraphobes) for 520-day Mars experiment

From the article:
The European Space Agency (ESA) on Tuesday called for applications for one of the most demanding human experiments in space history: a simulated trip to Mars in which six "astronauts" will spend 17 months in an isolation tank on Earth.

Their spaceship will comprise a series of interlocked modules in an research institute in Moscow, and once the doors are closed tight, the volunteers will be cut off from all contact with the outside world except by a delayed radio link.

They will face simulated emergencies, daily work routines and experiments, as well as boredom and, no doubt, personal friction from confinement in just 550 cubic metres (19,250 cubic feet), the equivalent of nine truck containers.

Communications with the simulated mission control and loved-ones will take up to 40 minutes, the time that a radio signal takes to cross the void between Earth and a spaceship on Mars. Food will comprise mainly the packaged stuff of the kind eaten aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The goal is to gain experience about the psychological challenges that a crew will face on a trip to Mars. ...

Viktor Baranov of Russia's Institute of Biomedical Problems, where the experiment will take place, said his organisation had received about 150 applications, only 19 of which came from women.

"The problem is that it is very difficult to find healthy people for this kind of experiment," he said.
Well, that's understandable! Apart from the interest in the physical environmental of such sealed tank experiments, especially if recycling systems are involved, I remain a little skeptical that there is much more to be learned from them from a psychological perspective.

I mean, the fundamental difference is that the participants in the can know it is only an experiment. They don't have the consolation of a forthcoming walk on a new world to help them endure the isolation. Wouldn't that make all the difference in the real life trip to Mars?

The first trip to Mars is going to have take a vat full of antidepressants and other medication with them to deal with the distinct possibility of one of the astronauts breaking down. But surely that has happened on a nuclear submarine before. Can't they just extrapolate from that?

Gaza mess, continued

Comment is free: Nothing in moderation

A very bleak assessment of the future for the Palestinian movement and Israel in this column in the Guardian.

Meanwhile, I note that Antony Lowenstein's blog appears to be a particularly inactive place for comments at the moment, when one would have thought it might have been the place for some "interesting" contributions about the Gaza crisis. Looks like he's a bit of a dud as a blogger.

Trivia time

Guinness: Miyazaki man is oldest male | The Japan Times Online

He's 111. Born in 1895, and looks pretty good for his age if the photo is anything to go by.

Japan also has the oldest woman in the world - at 114!


BBC NEWS | Health | Coffee 'could prevent eye tremor'

While reading this story my left eyelid twitched a couple of times. Really.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Talking to the cultural luvvies

End the culture wars and make way for a renaissance - Opinion -

Julia Gillard gave an address to someone last night (the SMH doesn't say who,) but the edited version of it reported above certainly indicates it was a vacuous effort at reminding the cultural luvvies (as if they needed it) that Labor is the one who really loves and supports them. Some extracts:

We need to get a real conversation going between our cultural producers and the public. This isn't just about elites; it involves all of us. It's time to end the culture wars.
Within TV what examples does she give? Not exactly hard to guess:
Another good start would be for our TV networks to take seriously their commitment to providing quality Australian content. Recent dramas such as Curtin and Bastard Boys show what can be achieved...
Presumably, it's the Whitlam career, the Hawke ascendency and a TV version of Keating: The Musical that she is hanging out for. (Personally, I would prefer to see a musical interpretation of the Latham Diaries, but I am not sure even Julia wants to see that.)

More pap follows:
This great Australian cultural renaissance could be one of the most important national investments we could make, because Australian culture is ideally suited to the challenges of today.
Kissy kissy arts/cultural community. We will give you more money; remember Keating?

Now to cover the aboriginal cultural lobby:

We should never forget Australia's indigenous culture is one of the longest-surviving cultures in the world and we should never forget to be proud of that fact. We can also learn from it. Climate change is giving us an urgent interest in doing so.

We need to develop a new respect for the reality of our harsh physical environment and adapt to its changes. Aborigines were never passive occupiers of the land. As we have, they moulded the land as it moulded them. But we're leaving far too big an ecological footprint and have much to learn from indigenous land management and ecological knowledge.

We should be proud, Kimosabe? Seems a bit of unwarranted cultural appropriation going on here.

As for what we can learn from Aboriginal land management, the lesson I take is: yes go ahead and mold the land, it's there to be turned from forest into grassland by regular CO2 producing burning, but if that is what you need to survive comfortably, then go ahead.

It's a feature of her side of politics that soft-headed thinking attempts to give moral credit to a pre-industrial society for only modifying the landscape to the extent that they could without bulldozers and dynamite. Oh, and for making it "sustainable" for 40,000 years. I trust that the extinct megafauna probably don't see it the same way as Julia.

Of course, some local Aboriginal knowledge may be ecologically useful, just like the knowledge of any non aboriginal who has had a family living in an area for, say, 100 years. It's just the suggestion that indigenous land management is "special" or more moral than what modern society does that irritates.

Julian ends by talking about the movie Happy Feet:
You might think I'm pulling a long bow in drawing conclusions from an animated film about a dancing penguin named Mumble. But Mumble is a man - or should I say, a penguin - for our times. He won't conform. Instead of singing like everyone else, he dances. And along the way he uncovers some important truths about the need to change our ways.

Australians are a bit like Mumble. In terms of world culture, we're unique: young, unusual, at times exotic and usually undermining authority. We can choose our path. We shouldn't feel we have to sing along in harmony with the rest of the world to have a positive effect on it. But we can dance like no one else. The last thing we need is culture warriors trying to force us to conform.

How exactly have the "cultural warriors" been trying to force conformity?? By suggesting the arts community should be more self sustaining and able to produce products that the public wants to see and read ? By pointing out that the bureaucratic systems for funding arts have in fact been producing material that conforms to a soft left view of the world ever since the cultural revival of the 1970's? By noting that historians who are directly relevant to things like High Court cases have made (at best) careless claims in some of their arguments?

Julia doesn't really dislike cultural conformity; she just wants it to conform to her view of the world.

Silly Julia.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Paint your way to a cooler planet

White Is the New Green - Science - RedOrbit

I think I may have seen this mentioned somewhere else; I am not sure. In any event, this article claims that, due to the cost of solar panels, you can do substantially more for global warming in the short term by painting your roof white. Here's the key paragraphs:

If, instead of a black solar panel absorbing light and producing electricity, you simply painted that square meter white, it would reflect back into outer space perhaps 50 of the 300 watts incident from the sun. So it would take about 25 days for the solar panel to catch up with the more efficient reflection of sunlight that the white-painted panel would provide in a single day.

This seems counterintuitive, of course, as solar panels are net-positive in reducing global warming. And, in many cases, you could install the black solar panel on an existing black building roof, so you wouldn't be "adding" yet another black, heat-absorbing surface [another "albedo-decreaser"] to the earth.

Except for the small issue of money. A 20%-efficient, 1-square-meter solar panel costs about $1,000. For $1,000, you can buy 40 cans of good quality white paint. Each can covers 2,000 square meters with a nice bright reflecting film. So for the same $1,000 investment you could buy one square meter of photovoltaic cells, or cover 2,000 square meters with white paint. It would take more than 2,000 times 25 days, or about a century, for the CO mitigation from $1,000 of solar panels to catch up with the albedo increase of a large painted roof!

So what's a conscientious environmentalist to do? Unquestionably, we need solar panels for electricity. You can't run a washing machine on white paint. But, for every dollar spent on solar panels, we should spend at least a dime on white paint for every roof, parking lot, and road in the country.

There is a mistake in the sentence between the highlighted ones. (The total area that can be covered with $1000 worth of paint is surely 2,000 m2, not 2,000 m2 per can.)

However, it is an interesting argument, to say the least.

There is almost certainly a Satanist amongst them too

The Corner on National Review Online

A very bizarre and amusing story via Mark Steyn at the link above. (Short version: an Episcopalian priest - female by the way - claims she is now a Muslim and a Christian. It appears not to be satire.)

This reminds me of a Not the Nine O'Clock News sketch which had its young, groovy, very non-judgemental vicar talking about how the church shouldn't have a "get behind me" attitude to Satanists, but more of a "come in old mate, let's sit down for a cup of tea and chat" approach. (I wonder how well I am remembering this after 25 years. Sadly, I can't find it on Youtube or elsewhere on the net.)

Kevin Rudd in death spiral

Heh heh heh. Just wanted to see someone write that headline, even if it's only a John Howard tragic like me.

But seriously folks, I have always thought Newspoll had the greatest credibility. I also seem to recall it has been said over the years that a major party has to be looking at getting over 40% of primary vote to have any chance of winning an election.

On this basis, Newspoll's results from earlier this year showing the Coalition at 35% primary vote were bad, as even allowing for a margin of error meant they would still be well below the magical 40%.

As today's results are back to 39%, and the effects of the budget are still kicking in, there is reason for guarded optimism about the coalition's prospects. Headed in the right direction again, at least.

I am also finding it a little amusing to hear Labor complaining when Howard adopts the essence of some of their policies. It's happening today with the broadband issue.

This is one of the neat things about democracy; everyone is allowed to take policy ideas and run with them. The public will let you know if it is good idea of not. No use complaining that the government is only adopting a policy for electoral benefit, or some such. That's what all parties do, and let's face it, it's better than a government refusing to adopt a good idea just because someone else thought of it.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Cereal humour

An amusing post from Bryan Appleyard about breakfast cereal.

For those readers with an intense interest in the details of my private life (hello, anyone there?) I have been perfectly happy with Uncle Toby's Sports Plus for a number of years now. Strangely enough, the Uncle Toby's website seems to be just one page with an email address, probably related to the business being taken over by Nestle last year. (That explains the change in packaging, I guess.)

I am sure you all feel better for knowing this.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

This is funny

Wastes of ink

This weekend's Australian press seems to have reached some craptacular heights in wastes of space in 3 columns:

* Phillip Adams in the Australian tries satire of Howard yet again. (You can really, really tell some weeks that he dictates columns while driving between the Hunter Valley and Sydney. At least I think that's his excuse.) Does anyone at all find this funny, or even vaguely witty?

* Alan Ramsey in the SMH does a cut and paste that must rival in word count some of his previous personal bests at how to write a weekly column with an absolute minimum of your own words or thoughts. Has he no shame as to how much effort one must put in to get paid?

* And over at The Age, Tracee Hutchison tries being clever, or satiric, or something, about how the Left isn't loved anymore, and fails spectacularly at whatever her aim was.

It's goal, goal, goal for self inflicted injury to reputation for all three. Congratulations!

Friday, June 15, 2007

When 42 inches just isn't enough

Samsung launches 70 inch LCD TV

In the Al Gore mould - literally

I am probably not the first person to say this, but isn't it somewhat ironic that Michael Moore, in taking the US health system to task, is himself setting an extremely poor example of how to make a bad system even worse (namely, by not taking his obesity seriously.) Maybe it is the unshaved face, but to me he is looking more blimp-like than ever.

Of course, he can afford to pay for his quadruple by-pass, and his diabetes medication, but the fact remains if the American public as a whole took their own weight problems seriously, they would greatly lighten the load (now there's a pun) on the existing medical services.

Al Gore has also packed the pounds on in the last few years too. I would like to know if he is a big beef eater, 'cos some of his greenie supporters might have an issue with that.

Pandas don't like it

Carbon trading is 'emission impossible', says WWF - earth - 14 June 2007 - New Scientist Environment

This very brief snippet indicated that even the WWF is sceptical of carbon trading as currently done by Europe.

But, but, those Europeans are so green, aren't they? (Actually, they just like exporting their problems elsewhere.)

The Gaza mess

Comment is free: The sorrow and the pity

This article from the Guardian is worth reading. She points out that the proposed British academic's boycott of Israel has no objective, and given the mess in Gaza, no possible point to the exercise exists.

Of course, this is a red flag to the bulls who read the Guardian. One writes:
the boycutt of Israel only lacks clear objectives in your mind. The objective is ENOUGH! enough, enough, enough.
Israel has spent the past 40 years screwing up the population it occupies. Now, Palestinian armed factions have finally turned against each other. It's a wonder it didn't happen before considering the mess they live in. ENOUGH! Israeli apartheid. Enough funding one group against another. Enough starving the population of Gaza. Enough bombing. Enough enough enough.
is that clear enough for you?
Err, no not at all.

Meanwhile, over at Tigerhawk he had this interesting discussion of why Arab countries, to put it mildly, don't seem all that good at governing themselves. One comment makes this point:
I would most enjoy seeing the Eypptian military roll into Gaza, decimate the Hamas fanatics and re-assume control of the territory. This would be politically acceptable around the globe and could lead to the most satisfying solution. It would also give the US something for its investment in Egyptian aid -- finally. Nothing would silence the antiZionist euro-brigade more than a Gaza under Egyptian control.

The solution to many of the problems we read about are very near at hand. Egypt to Gaza will quiet a lot of noise. The West Bank will be eminently more manageable.
Initially this sounds like a semi-plausible idea. But, I assume this would not go over well with the radicals in Egypt, and then that country may fall into chaos.

So, no clear end in sight.

UPDATE: a good article in Slate about this, which lists the following problems with all possible solutions:
It's no wonder that everyone involved in this issue is now madly seeking "new ideas." A state in the West Bank only, leaving Gaza to its fate? (Would that state be viable, and who would take care of Gaza?) A three-state solution? (Why give Hamas a base from which it could cause trouble?) A return to the Jordanian-Egyptian solution? (Let them deal with the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. There's one problem: They aren't interested.) An international force? (Hamas promised to treat such a force as an "occupying power." Any volunteers?) Start talking to Hamas? (This won't solve the internal Palestinian problems.) Keep fighting for Gaza? (Fatah seems to be losing its appetite for conflict, and, even with the support it has received from the West, doesn't have enough muscle to stay in the fight.)

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Inner city living worth that much?

Yesterday I was walking around the city along a route which took me past a few relatively new high rise apartment blocks. Some of these have "for sale" signs near the entrance, and thus I found myself considering the price of inner city living.

For example, in a year-old block, there was a two bedroom, one bathroom apartment (on the 13th floor, I think) for sale for $460,000. It had two car parking bays too. 87m2 size, I think. Other two bedroom units with ensuites (which are much more common) and on higher floors were for sale for about $600,000.

I know also that "off the plan" contracts for Vision, a very tall high rise planned to be finished in 2011, are selling one bedroom apartments of 67m2 for around $430,000.

I live about 18 km from the city in a pleasant suburb, and am certain that a price in the same range as these units would get you a four bedroom house with a main bathroom, ensuite, and second toilet or bathroom downstairs, probably on around 600 - 700 m2 of land. Sure, it might be 15 -20 years old, but houses of that age are often still of pleasing appearance. During the middle of the day, it takes me about 25 minutes to get to the heart of the city. A house owner also does not pay $2,500 - $3,000 in body corporate levies per year.

It seems to me that inner city living is overvalued, even in Brisbane.

What will Labor say about this?

Taxation take is helping Howard battlers | News | The Australian

Presents quite a conundrum for Labor in deciding how to question this.

Why Kevin Rudd should not be Prime Minister

A snippet from Matt Price's column:
Although it’s no secret the Labor leader is something of an expert at yin and yang, he’s not bad at ping and pong either. Bloody competitive, though: “Not that I was counting but we won 21-16,” he bragged.
Hmmm. Such a minor thing, but still noted in my little black book of likely character defects of the man who would be PM.

Update: yes, as my commenter indicates, my post did not make it clear he was playing aged pensioners. And keeping careful track. Couldn't he have let them win?

Hitchens on Paris (so to speak)

The creepy populism surrounding Paris Hilton and Scooter Libby. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Christopher Hitchens opens this column as follows:
There is a huge trapdoor waiting to open under anyone who is critical of so-called "popular culture" or (to redefine this subject) anyone who is uneasy about the systematic, massified cretinization of the major media. If you denounce the excess coverage, you are yourself adding to the excess. If you show even a slight knowledge of the topic, you betray an interest in something that you wish to denounce as unimportant or irrelevant.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mr 22%

Sperm - Sleek, Fast and Focused: The Cells That Make Dad Dad - New York Times

This light-hearted look at sperm cells explains why men have to make so many of them:
...the majority of sperm couldn’t fertilize an ovum if it were plunked down in front of them. “Only a perfectly normal sperm can penetrate an egg,” said Dr. Harry Fisch, a urologist at Columbia University Medical Center, “and the majority of sperm are abnormally shaped.” Some may have pinheads, others have two heads, some lack tails, a third don’t move at all. As a rule, Dr. Fisch said, a man is lucky if 15 percent of his sperm are serviceable. “One guy I saw had 22 percent,” he said, “but that’s rare.”
I didn't realise the figure was so low, even for fertile guys. Still, even with, say, 10% being effective, the article points out that the average ejaculation presents 150 million in total. So that's 15,000,000 good quality, potentially egg breaking, sperm each time.

Still sounds like very inefficient design.

The truth about the 1960's

The hippies were wrong: money can buy you love-TimesOnline

David Finklestein's column is an interesting take on the 1960's and the most important thing about it (namely, it was the start of the post war era of abundance.)

I see that he doesn't mention specifically the start of the change in sexual mores, and the role that better contraception played in that. But it's a good read in any case.

The presumptuous Gittins

Back-scratching at a national level - Opinion -

I don't read Ross Gittins regularly, but in the SMH today he makes some very snide and questionable claims about Howard and immigration:
There's a saying among journalists that news is anything someone doesn't want you to know. So let me tell you all about John Howard's immigration program. It's a key part of the Government's economic policy, but one it rarely talks about.

Why? Because Howard wants his Battlers to think he shares their dislike and distrust of foreigners, especially boat people. And it wouldn't help his image for people to know he's running the biggest immigration program we've ever had.
Well, Howard has certainly made a repeated point about the size of the "official" refugee program. And after the Hanson fizzle, I just don't see that the Australian public has much interest in the level of Asian immigration, unless it has a strong Muslim flavour. (An understandable consequence of 9/11 and the West's increased interest in what that religion is about.) If anything, I suspect the concern about Muslim immigration has probably made most people see other Asian immigrants as benign.

In fact, Gittins provides another reason why "battlers" might not have the same concerns that they used to about immigration generally. He points out that:
The emphasis on skill means that permanent immigrants are a lot younger than the population they're joining. More than half are aged 15 to 34, compared with 28 per cent of our population. Only 2 per cent of permanent immigrants are 65 or older, compared with 13 per cent of our population.
Younger people from non-English speaking backgrounds are naturally going to assimilate faster than older, non-skilled migrants. Pauline Hanson used to complain about street signage in some areas being in foreign language only; skilled migrants who come here to work don't need that.

Gittins also claims this:
The Battlers' eternal objection to immigrants - which I believe was a big part of the strong public support for our shameful treatment of people on the Tampa - is that "these people will take our jobs".
I reckon the jobs issue had next to nothing to do with public attitudes about the Tampa. It was about the method by which a bunch of claimed refugees sought to get into Australia when they were in no danger at their last "staging post", and they were displacing other refugees who went through a long process of formal assessment.

Anyway, today, at current unemployment levels, even the "battlers" are unlikely to be concerned about that.

The fact is that the immigration issues have moved on from the 1980's and 1990's concerns, yet Gittins seems to think that the "battlers", having decided that they don't like immigrants of any kind, are still stuck on that position. I think this is treating people as unthinking dills.

As to whether Howard uses immigration cynically: I suppose it is easy to claim this if you don't live areas of Sydney where the question of Muslim attitude to women is not a matter of frequent real life concern. I don't agree with everything the government suggests about how to go about making sure all immigrants accept the social standards of their new country, but I don't feel that Howard's motives in wanting to deal with this should be seem as being purely cynical either.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

England follows Australia

Marriage works. Accept no substitutes-Comment-Columnists-Libby Purves-TimesOnline

It's surprising to realise that Britain is only now contemplating de facto couple property rights of the kind which are now standard in (I think) every Australian State. That is, if a couple lives together for a certain period, or if they have children, their rights to "matrimonial" property may be divided by the courts using very similar principles to those that would be used by the Family Court in a real marriage.

I share much of Libby Purves' views about these laws. As she says:
Divorce is now so accessible that anybody who wants the protections of marriage can get them – unless their cohabiting partner doesn’t agree, in which case, caveat emptor. You need not affront your Dawkins principles by going to church, or betray your anarchist instincts by entering a register office. You can now marry in a bingo hall or a Sea Life Centre. A licence costs only £63.50.

Some couples – I know and love many – jointly decide not to marry. Good luck to them. They don’t whimper for new laws; if they are wise they make legal arrangements about property ownership (like becoming tenants-in-common with appropriate shares) and ensure joint responsibility for children. If they are not wise, then by definition they are fools. You cannot frame every law to suit fools, even fools for love.

Women – who traditionally get the short end of the stick – should be aware that marriage is a safer basis for scaling down work to raise a family, and that if they eschew it or are denied it, then they had better make arrangements. Men, these days, should do the same. If you hippyishly reject marriage because “it’s just a piece of paper”, don’t expect the nanny state to provide you with an equally safe piece. There are limits to how far government should protect adults from one another’s rapacity or flakiness. You make your bed, you lie in it.

Well said.

Blue sect with sex on its mind

In God's name

It's rare that I would recommend anything from 60 Minutes, and now that I do they have no transcript or video on their site. Grrr.

Anyway, the story that caught my attention on last Sunday was about the Cooperite Christian sect of New Zealand, which was a new one for me. The link above will at least show you the form of dress that the women wear.

This is one creepy sect. The aging founder, Neville Cooper, is from Queensland, and has had umpteen kids from 3 wives. (He is currently on wife number 3, apparently, and the show did not make clear what happened to the first 2.)

According to WikiChristian, which also has very little information about them, there are now 400 members, many of them children because Neville believes all women should pump out as many children as possible. (OK, maybe Catholics of barely 50 years ago could be accused of having a similar teaching, but the young women Cooperites on the show indicated that they actively desired heaps of children - 10 or 12 seemed the bare minimum they wanted. Catholic women were not in the same league, and their desire to limit the number of children became clear in practice when the pill became available.)

The weird side of the cult is that it is both very conservative and adopts a puritan-like and uniform standard of dress (mostly blue, for some reason), but its leader seems to encourage a ridiculous amount of openness in sex within marriage. (His son claims that he frequently saw his parents having sex, who saw it as an educational thing to do for the children. He also says he was molested by his father at age 17. It sounded like it was some "hands on" teaching scenario, although the son did not elaborate.)

The son has since left the cult, but his wife went back, and she and their children will have nothing to do with him ever again.

It seems rare to have such a strange mix of a conservative, isolationist, Christian sect, combined with an emphasis on educating children on sex, and encouraging them to start as young as possible. (They marry as teenagers, and the report showed a newly married teenage couple snogging for the camera while being carried to the honeymoon room in a silly carriage with heart shaped windows, with children throwing flowers on the path in front of them. It was a very strange scene.)

I can't imagine that it will survive the death of Neville Cooper for long, as surely internal power struggles will ensue.

I would like to know more about their attitude to modern medicine and things like that, but there seems no way of finding out more.

Sorry if you missed it.

Fatwa frenzy

A fatwa free-for-all in the Islamic world - International Herald Tribune

The above article explains the problem with Fatwas.

It notes:

Technically, the fatwa is nonbinding and recipients are free to shop around for a better ruling. In a faith with no central doctrinal authority, there has been an explosion of places offering fatwas, from Web sites that respond to written queries, to satellite television shows that take phone calls, to radical and terrorist organizations that set up their own fatwa committees.

"There is chaos now," Megawer said. "The problem created is confusion in thought, confusion about what is right and what is wrong religiously."

In Egypt, there are two official institutions responsible for religious interpretation. The House of Fatwa, or Dar al-Ifta, which technically falls under the Ministry of Justice, and Al Azhar. All court sentences of death must be approved by Dar al-Ifta, for example.

I like the name "House of Fatwa". Is it anything like the House of Blues, I wonder?

Danger watch on CERN continues

I haven't posted anything new for a while that appears particularly relevant to the issue of whether the Large Hadron Collider will cause the premature end of the Earth, or indeed the universe.

However, I seem to have missed this odd one which first appeared a couple of years ago on arxiv, but has recently been revised.

Now, this appears to be one of the more "off the wall" papers on arxiv, as it is written by a Hungarian with some physics background who works in oncology at a hospital. (He may also have an interest in UFO's, if his email address is anything to go by.)

As far as I can make out, he thinks quark colour changes are relevant to the big bang, and he has a concern that the LHC could instigate the same thing. I think this means "end of the universe".

Despite the amateurish look of the paper, and although I do not know whether all the terms used are genuine or not, my guess is that it is just cogent enough to indicate he is not mad. In any event, I have never understood how arxiv papers are chosen.

The CERN answer to such theories of catastrophe from the LHC is to say that cosmic rays have been causing more energetic collisions in celestial bodies for billions of years, and the universe has not disappeared, so we can't do any worse on earth. I think this paper makes some reference to cosmic ray measurements being mistaken, and so might contain an answer to that.

Anyway, someone who can follow esoteric physics better than me should read it and tell me if he is mad, or not.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Murder he wrote

OpinionJournal - Five Best

This list of Theodore Dalrymple's "favorite books on the criminal mind" brought to my attention some mass murderers of whom I had not previously heard.

This one is very Alfred Hitchcock material (except it may be hard to fit in a blond female protagonist in a film about a homosexual killer):
The serial killer was a man called Dennis Nilsen, who used to pick up stray homosexuals in London, take them home, strangle them and then watch television with their corpses beside him on the sofa. As we doctors put it in our special, technical language, he was a bit odd.
But the story which interested me most was the one about the mad French Dr Petiot:
The Occupation during World War II gave him his opportunity to become one of the most prolific serial killers in French history. He offered Jews an escape to Argentina for 25,000 francs, but when they came to his house to deliver the money he killed them and incinerated them.
His story must have a following of sorts, because he has quite a lengthy Wikipedia article. It explains the murder method, and body disposal, as follows:
Petiot claimed that he could arrange a safe passage to Argentina or elsewhere in South America through Portugal. He also claimed that Argentinean officials demanded inoculations and injected his victims with cyanide. Then he took all their valuables and disposed of the bodies. People who trusted him to deliver them to safety were never seen alive again.

At first Petiot dumped the bodies in the Seine, but he later destroyed the bodies by submerging them in quicklime or by incinerating them. In 1941, Petiot bought a house at 21 rue le Sueur.

What Petiot failed to do was to keep a low profile. The Gestapo eventually found out about him and, by April 1943, they had heard all about his "route." Gestapo agent Robert Jodkum forced prisoner Yvan Dreyfus to approach the supposed network, but he simply vanished.
When he was found with many bodies and body parts in his house, the doctor claimed it was because he was a member of the French Resistance, and the victims were "enemies of France".

He was finally convicted in 1946 and:
On May 25, Petiot was beheaded, after a stay of a few days due to a problem in the release mechanism of the guillotine.
It would appear from the Wiki article that no one has every made a film of this story, which is pretty surprising. Given the jewish connection, I see it as Spielberg material.

Tipler again

He thinks physics proves Christianity | Inquirer | 06/10/2007

How pleasing. Bryan Appleyard has a review of Frank Tipler's "The Physics of Christianity" at the link above.

Not sure if I am back to regular blogging yet. There still seems to be just less around that I want to comment on lately.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Short-ish break needed

This June is shaping up as a very busy work month, and blogging is proving to be just too distracting. (In fact, it's the whole WWW that is the problem, but blogging compounds it by causing me to spend too much time just looking for something I think is worth bringing to readers' attention.)

Today I got to bag Phillip Adams and Paul Keating, mentioned Frank Tipler, particle physics, and my intense dislike of Big Brother. (Not for the first time I wonder whether this blog is just too eclectic for a large readership. Still, I like it that way.)

In any case, it's a pretty good spot to call a short break of uncertain duration to allow me to concentrate on work.

I think a week or two should do it. Don't forget me. I will still check this blog in the evenings to see if there any pleas from the multitude begging me to resume posting.

Money for nothing?

Why the rumored discovery of the Higgs boson is bad news for particle physics.

So, maybe the Higgs boson has been discovered already before the Europeans even get to turn on the Large Hadron Collider. That would be funny; sort of.

Reality TV run its course?

Bryan Appleyard hates reality TV about as much as I do. He makes this excellent point about those who think criticising Big Brother and its ilk is elitist criticism of popular taste:
...the pop-elitist defence is always the same – we’re giving the people what they want. This is, of course, ridiculous. It implies that, before Big Brother, viewers were sitting around thinking, “Hmmm, now what I’d really like is a show about a bunch of dysfunctional freaks stuck in a house for three months.”

The truth is that the show and its popularity are an invention of its makers. They choose to make it, they are not compliant servants of popular taste. They don’t like to hear this because it jerks them out of their cool, postmodern amoral-ity by dropping the moral buck right back on their desks. But let’s get real: you did it, you’re responsible.

From what little I notice of its coverage, the current Australian series of Big Brother is being seen as terribly dull. I would guess that it may have one last season to go before even its fans tire of the format completely.

The God will let it rain on South East Queensland again. (That is just my private theory.)

Tipler and his scientific Christianity

I mentioned in March that mathematical physicist Frank Tipler had a new book coming out called "The Physics of Christianity".

It's now published, and, as predicted, it comes in for some severe rubbishing from other scientist types. You can read about it on a post at Cosmic Variance here.

Some commenters still have some sympathy for Tipler, which is nice to see.

The love-in continues

Phillip Adams writes another love letter to Paul Keating today. A new addition to Keating: The Musical (which, according to Adams, ".. is a phenomenon, packing every venue it has played") should be it ending by Adams in drag playing the fat lady singing to Keating waving from a balcony, Evita style.

Does Keating actually ask for this? I heard Adams say on his radio show last week that Keating had rung him that day, not happy with the comparisons being made between him in 1996 and Howard today.

Barely a week later, and Adams has a column complaining on Keating's behalf how the great Paul is still adored by the public, yet not given the respect he deserves.

If Howard does win another election, I would hardly be surprised if Keating were found dead alone in his study, by the use of some antique French pistol, with his scrapbook of his achievements open in front of him on the last page. Not that I wish him ill; he just seems unhealthily obsessed with his place in history.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Yes, but how much will they cost?

40% efficient solar cells to be used for solar electricity

Sounds good, but as Wikipedia notes:
Solar cell efficiencies vary from 6% for amorphous silicon-based solar cells to 40.7% with multiple-junction research lab cells.[2] Solar cell energy conversion efficiencies for commercially available mc-Si solar cells are around 14-16%. The highest efficiency cells have not always been the most economical — for example a 30% efficient multijunction cell based on exotic materials such as gallium arsenide or indium selenide and produced in low volume might well cost one hundred times as much as an 8% efficient amorphous silicon cell in mass production, while only delivering about four times the electrical power.
The reporting on new developments should therefore concentrate on the cost of new types of solar cells, not just energy conversion efficiencies.

Bad news in Iraq

14 U.S. Troops Killed in Iraq Over Weekend - New York Times

The range of the type of killings described in this report is what interests me:

In Mosul, a Christian priest was gunned down as he left his church after finishing Sunday services. In Baghdad, a director of the Iraqi Central Bank and his brother were shot to death in the dangerous neighborhood of Amel. Thirty-one corpses were found scattered about the capital, where sectarian murders have once again been on the rise.

Insurgents struck repeatedly in Diyala, the militant-dominated province that borders Baghdad, Iran and Kurdistan. A suicide car bomber parked at a crowded marketplace killed nine people in Balad Ruz. Insurgents set up a fake checkpoint near Baquba, the provincial capital, and raked a bus with gunfire, killing three. And south of Baquba, nine corpses were found handcuffed and shot.

It is hard to see why such sectarian killings would not escalate spectacularly in the event of rapid departure. But it is also easy to understand how US patience with the with the country cannot last for ever.

There's more pessimism in another NYT article by Edward Wong, and it is worth reading too. Interestingly, he notes that some Shia see the problem as follows:
The belief of the Shiites that they must consolidate power through force of arms is tethered to ever-present suspicions of an impending betrayal by the Americans. Though the Americans have helped institute the representative system of government that the Shiites now dominate, they have failed to eliminate memories of how the first President Bush allowed Saddam Hussein to slaughter rebelling Shiites in 1991. Shiite leaders are all too aware, as well, of America’s hostility toward Iran, the seat of Shiite power, and of its close alliances with Sunni Arab nations, especially Saudi Arabia.

Clooney and Grant considered

Is George Clooney the new Cary Grant? - Film - Entertainment -

While on the topic of Hollywood, this Age article (reprinted from The Guardian) is an interesting comparison between Clooney and Cary Grant. (And it looks cynically at what passes for Hollywood stardom these days.)

I can't say I have spent much time considering Grant's appeal before, but this seems true:

You see, North By Northwest is the kind of vehicle that enabled stars to exist. By the standards that function today - by the standards of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck - it is a great film, an entertainment that turns into a moral tale.

Time and again, the apparently "easy-going" Grant found himself in stories in which his character had to make up or to change his mind. That was hardly accidental. It was the self-awareness of a man who was himself a constant worrier - and who had "lost" his mother in a quite remarkable way. One day she was there in Bristol; the next she was gone. It was more than 20 years before he learned the awful truth.

The article doesn't tell us what happened. Wikipedia to the rescue again:
An only child, he had a confused and unhappy childhood. His mother Elsie (who had apparently never overcome her depression after the death of a previous child in infancy), was placed by his father in a mental institution when Archie was ten. His father (who had a son with another woman) told him that she had gone away on a "long holiday", and it was only in his thirties that he found out she was still alive, and institutionalized.
Sad, hey. The whole Wikipedia entry about Grant is interesting. He had issues of all sorts, it seems.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Pirates III

I recently wrote about watching the second Pirates of the Caribbean movie at home, and being reasonably impressed. This inspired me to see "At World's End" last night at the cinema.

Unfortunately, while not a complete waste of time, it is the weakest of the three movies.

As many reviewers have complained, its main problem is with clumsy plot exposition. Books about screen writing invariably mention at some point how cinema is primarily a visual medium which should show the plot, not have the characters standing around explaining it. It's as if the screen writers for Pirates have just completely forgotten this by the third film. I find it puzzling that they could not see the deficiencies of the screenplay in this respect.

The whole Davy Jones/Calypso background seems a complete waste of time, and I would have thought that the use of flashback would have been much better. (And surely it is not hard to fit in flashback by use of some magical device in this type of movie.)

It's also ironic how in my post about the second movie, I noted the impressive naturalism of the special effects. I specifically mentioned my dislike of scenes where is clear that the number of things in a shot (ships, people, whatever) have just been multiplied by effects.

Well, "At World's End" does this several times, and also has what I complained about in the last Star Wars films: backgrounds which are clearly all one special effect.

Now, some of the effects are still often very impressive for their type. It struck me that it took some chutzpah for all involved (the screenwriters, the movie producers, director and special effects team) to even decide at the start that they could make the climatic battle work. (The sequence involves two ships fighting each other while both swirling around the mouth of a gigantic maelstrom, and it really is a triumph for a realistic rendering of such a fantasy ocean sequence.)

Like I said, it's not a complete waste of time, but it continues the tradition of the last few years of my wife and I going to see only about one movie a year at the cinema, and being a bit disappointed with it.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention three other things about the movie:

1. the way they get out of Davy Jones locker (which is sort of like purgatory, I suppose) seemed quite appropriate, and it was an impressive sequence.

2. The talk of the green flash interested me, because I am not sure that many people would have heard of it as a real phenomena. (It appears in astronomy and other books, but I doubt it gets a mention in anyone's school education.) It is the type of thing that I imagine would seem mystical to sailors of old, so I thought that was an intelligent bit of writing.

3. Keith Richard's face looks easily 50 years older than the rest of his body.