Friday, February 29, 2008

Cindy goes to Eygpt

Al Jazeera English - News - Interview: Cindy Sheehan

Cindy Sheehan is now in Egypt campaigning on behalf of - wait for it - the Muslim Brotherhood.

Well, at least for those who are on trial in military tribunals there.

From the interview:

But what does the US have to do with a military trial in Egypt?

Egypt is a major recipient of US foreign aid, and there is no relationship between American aid and human rights.

If we [America] really want to promote democracy in this region then we cannot silence the voices of the Muslim Brotherhood because they're the moderate voice here and they are the ones who are actually working for democracy.

On such a topic, Wikipedia information has to be treated very carefully, but its entry on the MB is interesting nonetheless. Seems to be a distinct possibility that they proclaim an interest in democracy in Egypt so that, on attaining power, they can remove it.

Renewable woes

As green power investments rise, a fear they are being misguided - International Herald Tribune

Be careful if you are planning to invest in renewable energy is the message of this article. This claim is of interest:

Other experts say pouring money into newfangled renewable technologies could prove less cost-effective than relatively straightforward improvements in energy efficiency. Efficiency measures could cut growth in energy demand in half by 2020 and earn investors double-digit rates of return, said Diana Farrell, the director of the McKinsey Global Institute.

"Too much of the energy debate has focused on simply boosting supplies that are destined to be wasted," she said.

Somewhere I read some American analyst claiming that government subsidies for solar cells is economically a big waste of effort. I can't find it now. Such skepticism does not seem to float to the top of the Google pool.

One thing of which I remain very skeptical is solar cell subsidies in England. Could there be a cloudier country less suitable to PV power than that one?


Opposition dumps nuclear power policy

It's going to be a tedious 12 to 18 months while those of us with conservative inclinations wait for Brendan "say anything" Nelson to be replaced, and for the Coalition to work out something that distinguishes it from Labor under Rudd.

One would have thought that Ross Garnaut's proposal for 90% emissions reduction by mid century would be the perfect opportunity to point to the wisdom of John Howard's statement 12 months ago:

Mr Howard said the [IPCC] report was the latest and strongest confirmation that greenhouse gas emissions were damaging the earth and Australia must continue moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

"We must be open-minded and courageous enough to look at all of the options, including nuclear power," Mr Howard told reporters at his Sydney residence, Kirribilli House.

"There is no point, in the face of such a comprehensive challenge, of ruling out consideration of something which may, over time, provide part of the solution to the problem."

But no, Nelson says "no nuclear" and Nick Minchin takes the opportunity to express climate change skepticism.

Enjoy Opposition, boys.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Hurry up and die

Surgeon Accused of Speeding a Death to Get Organs - New York Times

An interesting story about transplant donation protocols in the States.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Meanwhile, in Bangalore...

Six monitor lizards seized, two held

Both the strange content and the breathless writing style of the city reports in The Times of India continues to impress:
Three weeks after the CID forest cell busted the monitor lizard meat trade in dhabas in Chikkaballapur, two Hakki Pikki tribe members were arrested trying to sell the lizards in Bidadi on Tuesday evening.

Based on a tip-off, the sleuths of CID forest cell arrested Mettingal, (50) and Sagar (24), residents of Hakki Pikki colony in Bhadrapura near Bidadi, and recovered six live monitor lizards.

Unexpected ways to die

Man admits to beheading Hollywood screenwriter, killing doctor in 2004 - Los Angeles Times

A gruesome story of death in Hollywood, which would seem very unlikely if it was depicted in a Hollywood movie. (I mean, just how many people are confronted in their house by a drug crazed madman carrying their neighbour's head?):
Prosecutors alleged that Graff beheaded Lees, a co-writer of the 1948 comedy classic "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" who also worked on the TV show " Alfred Hitchcock Presents." Graff carried the head from Lees' home, in the 1600 block of Courtney Avenue, over a back fence to Engelson's home on Stanley Avenue, between Hollywood and Sunset boulevards, police said. The suspect then fatally stabbed the doctor, likely using kitchen knives from the victims' homes, police said. Engelson had been on the telephone making airline reservations for a business trip to San Jose. The agent reported hearing a commotion before the line went dead.
The story is also blog-worthy because of the words "comedy classic" and "Abbot and Costello" appearing in the same sentence.

The carnival is over

Michael Jackson faces forced sale of Neverland | Entertainment | Reuters

According to the story, the place has been "shuttered"since 2006 and all animals removed. And how's this for understatement:
Jackson... has since seen his fame as an entertainer eclipsed by the sometimes bizarre details of his personal life.

How to win an Oscar for your documentary

Aust lacks opportunities, Oscar winner Orner says - ABC News
You must have the requisite degree of loathing of the Bush administration, as Australian Oscar winner Eva Orner evidently does:

She says people need to be informed about the actions of the US Government in the war on terrorism since 9/11.

"The current administration are a bunch of war criminals and they need to be stopped and people need to know what's been going on."

Maybe Michael Moore's "Sicko" wasn't anti American enough to win?

High Fashion Farce

L.A. Now : Los Angeles Times : The face of a new runway trend?

Maybe it's covering an axe or something?

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Backwards causation and the LHC

Well, this is one of the strangest things I've seen on arXiv for some time. (And that's saying something: there was recently a paper talking about science and poltergeists!)

The article I refer to is called Test of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider.

This is a follow up to an article from the middle of 2007, which I missed, called Search for Effect of Influence from Future in Large Hadron Collider.

These guys take seriously the concept of backward causation, and suggest that (for reasons I can't really follow) the potential creation of large amounts of Higgs particles by the LHC might be a good way to test possible influence from the future. But the means of testing is very surprising:
The experiment proposed in the present article is to give “foresight”, a chance of avoiding forced closure of LHC due to lack of funding or other form of bad luck,as happened to SSC.
We imagine a big stack of cards on which are written various restrictions concerning the operation of LHC, for example “allow the production of only 10 Higgs particles”. On most of the cards there should just be written “use LHC freely” so that they cause no restrictions. However, on a very small fraction of cards, there should be restrictions on luminosity or beam energy or some combination of them. One card may even have “close (shut down) LHC”.

The crucial idea of this proposal is that if our model were true, then the most likely development sol with the P(sol) ≃ e−2SI (sol) factor included would be a development involving one of the cards which strongly restricts on the Higgs particle production at LHC.

It almost sounds like an April Fool article, but neither paper bears any relationship to that date, and these guys aren't nutters. (They thank the CERN Theory Group and Neils Bohr Institute in their papers.) This is how they conclude their earlier paper:
In the present article, we have proposed an experiment at LHC for determining
the effect of an influence from the future as proposed in our own model. The best description may be achieved by introducing an imaginary part SI of the action S.The experiment is very primitive in as far as it consists simply of a card-drawing game arranged so that some severe restriction on the running of LHC - essentially closure - is imposed with a probability p of the order of 5 × 10−6. If indeed a restriction card which has such a low probability as p ∼ 5×10−6 were to be drawn, it would essentially mean that our model must be true!

If, however, just a normal card
that gives no restriction is drawn, our theory would be falsified unless a seemingly accidental stopping of LHC occurs!It must be warned that if our model were true and no such game about strongly restricting LHC were played, or if the probability p in the game for restricting were too small, then a “normal” (seemingly accidental) closure should occur. This could be potentially more damaging than just the loss of LHC itself. Therefore not
performing (or not performing with sufficiently big p) our proposed card game could- if our model were correct - cause considerable danger.
Sounds crazy but it just might work. Alternatively, it may just be crazy.

Backwards causation is an interesting topic of paranormal research too.

I find the idea inherently appealing, but I have to think more about why that is.

A brief Oscar comment

Am I the only person to find it surprising that Jon Stewart's opening monologue seemed to target only Hollywood liberals and pretty much leave conservatives alone?

I saw the first 45 minutes only, and had to go out when the movies I didn't care about started dominating. But, I actually didn't mind the pared back feeling of what I did see.

A few updates

Here are some articles relevant to a couple of recent posts:

* An anthropologist supports my point that, even if a tribal culture has some practice of adult/child sexual contact as a part of initiation, how can a white man who grew up in Sydney claim this as mitigation for his having sex with a boy in his care? (In any event, the anthropologist suggests that that there is no evidence of such practices in Torres Strait.)

* On the issue of whether or not Muslim incursions into Europe were that bad a thing (David Levering Lewis has argued they more or less did Europe a favour,) here's a piece summarising the worst aspects of Muslim expansionism.

* Theodore Dalrymple has a go at Archbishop Rowan William's opaque use of language in his recent talk about Sharia law. Very true. I wonder what his theological writing is like: one suspects he seeks to overcome controversy in the ranks of believers simply by force of mystifying language.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Volcanoes don't help

BBC NEWS | Science/Nature | Antarctic glaciers surge to ocean

It seems some Antarctic glaciers have sped up, but no one seems certain why. It's not due to higher air temperature, and there is suspicion that a buried volcano may be to blame:
Much higher up the course of the glacier there is evidence of a volcano that erupted through the ice about 2,000 years ago and the whole region could be volcanically active, releasing geothermal heat to melt the base of the ice and help its slide towards the sea.
The consequence of a sudden increase in such activity could be pretty big, but it would take a while:

If the glacier does continue to surge and discharge most of it ice into the sea, say the researchers, the Pine Island Glacier alone could raise global sea level by 25cm.

That might take decades or a century, but neighbouring glaciers are accelerating too and if the entire region were to lose its ice, the sea would rise by 1.5m worldwide.

The story also talks about the difficulties of working there:
It is a very remote and inhospitable region. It was visited briefly in 1961 by American scientists but no one had returned until this season when Julian Scott and Rob Bingham and colleagues from the British Antarctic survey spent 97 days camping on the flat, white ice.

At times, the temperature got down to minus 30C and strong winds made work impossible.

At one point, the scientists were confined to their tent continuously for eight days.

"The wind really makes the way you feel incredibly colder, so just motivating yourself to go out in the wind is a really big deal," Rob Bingham told BBC News.

Just as people love to ask astronauts about toilets in space, I wonder how they deal with this in a freezing tent in Antarctica.

American politics

Found via Slate:

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The club scene

Men who take Viagra 'put their fertility at risk' | Science | The Observer

The article notes concern that Viagra may affect men's sperm in such a way that it makes it harder for them to fertilise an egg. Of course, I would have thought most men who need it are of an age where they don't want kids, and those men who use it recreationally are probably not having sex for procreative purposes anyway.

Speaking of it recreational use, this I find surprising:
...Viagra has become a widely used recreational drug. It is mixed with cocaine, for example, and is sold in clubs.
I see from a quick Google that this has been going on for years, at least in Britain and Scotland. (I assume the same holds for Australia.)

This is debauchery of a very special kind: not just simply giving in to an appetite for pleasure, but deliberately seeking to increase the appetite itself. Screwtape would be delighted with modern pharmacology.

Fall of Singapore stories

Angels under fire - Telegraph

Go to the link to read a long article on some of the stories of incredible cruelty and survival from nurses who were unlucky enough to endure the fall of Singapore.

I recall some controversy some years ago about the Australian air force deliberately strafing Japanese lifeboats (from warships) in the later part of WWII. As this article shows, and people should recall, the Japanese had started the process of indiscriminate targeting of lifeboats and the killing of civilians right from the start.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Psi in history

Earlier this week I mentioned the vexed issue of paranormal powers, and today I want to talk about Uri Geller.

There's a lot of stuff on Youtube about him, mostly of a debunking nature. One thing I haven't found (yet) is video of what I seem to recall as a spoon bending appearance on British TV in the early 70's. From my memory, the way in which he bent the spoons seemed more authentic than his later demonstrations (or those by James Randi too.) However, it may well be my memory is faulty, and it may look unimpressive to me now. Famously, Geller was a complete flop on the Johnny Carson show, when the producers took particular care to make sure he couldn't cheat.

However, people may recall that part of Geller's fame was due to his convincing a couple of scientists at Stanford Research Institute (Targ and Puthoff) hat he did indeed have some sort of psi power. James Randi claimed they simply didn't have enough controls to ensure no cheating; but then I have also read some debunking of Randi's debunking. The Wikipedia article above lists some of the criticisms of the SRI team's procedures, but as I say there have also been some counterclaims. I am no fan of Randi; he exaggerates when it suits him to.

Anyway, Youtube has got a 4 part film from 1972 made by the SRI fellows about their tests with Geller. (The first part is an introduction that is hardly worth watching, except for it being pretty hokey.) The parts 2 to 4, however, are very interesting stuff. It shows they were not particularly impressed by the spoon bending or magnet moving (a low level stage trick Geller continues to this day), but they did think he had some sort of telepathy and perhaps a degree of telekinesis.

Geller performed very strongly on the sealed envelope image tests, and the suspicion is that he was able to see the targets before the test. Also, as I have seen TV magicians do equally impressive tricks, I don't put much faith in that, even though I have no idea how the trick is done.

It is also hard to see how he did the "guess which container has something in it" trick. The films show two of these. One does not impress me so much: the metal container had water in it, and it seems possible that condensation on the outside of the tin might have been a possible give away there. The other objects he found were metal, and I have read that Randi has claimed he probably located them by bumping the table and hearing or seeing which container moved differently. It would seem from the film, however, that he didn't do that, although his hands come suspiciously close to the containers at times. Also, if his cheating on the sealed envelope tests was based on his being able to see or find out what was going on in the other room, that may also explain how he was able to know which container had the object.

But the test that puzzles me most is his dice number guessing. The film does not make it perfectly clear how often he was tested on this, but to my mind, this was by far the hardest thing for Geller to have faked. (A tin with a die which SRI supplied is shaken, Geller has to guess the number on the top before anyone in the room sees it.)

These films have been on Youtube for a while, but I only just found them. As with many issues to do with the paranormal, I remain somewhat conflicted about what to make of it all. The "sensible" approach is to say that if he cheated most times, he has almost certainly cheated in every case. But I honestly don't know that Randi or his magician mates have ever reproduced exactly the same tricks as Geller as shown here.

UPDATE: I see from Wikipedia that Puthoff is a scientologist. Credibility warning!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Bad Jumper

Beamed Down: The Current Cinema: The New Yorker

There have been many bad reviews for "Jumper", and I have been waiting for Anthony Lane's acerbic wit to get around to it. He doesn't disappoint, with this description of Hayden Christensen:
“Star Wars” fans will remember Hayden Christensen as the young Anakin Skywalker, or, to be accurate, as a kind of handsome void where Anakin was supposed to be.... One day, I feel sure, the rich mantle of charisma will descend upon him, but “Jumper” is not that occasion.
Manohla Dargis in the New York Times also was pretty funny:
Snow white and close cropped, Mr. Jackson’s hair in this film dominates its every scene (it’s louder than the predictably voluble actor), rising out of the visual and narrative clutter like a beacon. It glows. It shouts. It entertains. (It earns its keep.)

Not so speedy post 3

1. Faith Restored: All this talk of Castro this week reminded me that I had read somewhere ages ago on the 'net conservative criticism of Steven Spielberg for saying that his meeting with Fidel in 2002 had been "the most important eight hours of my life." Indeed, The Telegraph and The Guardian both repeat the story this year.

Spielberg is a well known liberal, but that really did sound over the top and offensive. Well, it turns out Googling skills are not that strong in English journalism, as it is clear that Spielberg has long denied that he ever said it, and the original quote apparently came from the Cuban press.

The Guardian did post a retraction, as have other journals.

No, good people of earth, like me, you can still have faith in the Spielberg.

2. Adult themes. I like this week's Danny Katz column in The Age.

3. A disturbing night. Last night I dreamt that I was having lunch with Kevin Rudd after his election, but he was wearing a Muslim woman's style half face veil that covered his mouth, except that he would remove it when he was talking. I told a friend afterwards that I still didn't trust him.

Am I suffering Post Traumatic Stress Disorder as a result of the election? I hope my trauma insurance covers it.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Never trust a chaise lounge

There are, of course, many esoteric and essentially useless things studied in the Humanities. While I have a soft spot for philosophy, one of the biggest wastes of time seems to be the academic over-analysis of eroticism in literature.

This review of a new two volume "Encyclopedia of Erotic Literature" illustrates the point. The reviewer writes:
The thematic subjects have been intelligently chosen. They include articles on syphilis as a literary muse, the rhetoric of seduction, confession and guilt, fairy tales, science fiction, slash fiction, grisettes, somatopia and furniture. The (very interesting) article on furniture concludes as follows: “In the fin-de-siècle, eros crosses over into sickness, and the furniture is caught up in the epidemic: the chaise lounge [sic] itself is sick with desire and pleasure. As the dominant notions of pleasure changed over time, so did the furniture”.

Although the reviewer indicates there are many quality entries, he remains somewhat cynical of the overall effect:
I also finished my reading of these two volumes with the feeling that sex was a lot less fun than I had hitherto supposed. Even thinking about sex has become difficult and it is being made more difficult year by year. For example, the American writer Pat Califia’s work “promotes lust in all its forms and her work contributes to the growing theoretical complexity about sexuality, both in relation to queer studies and the pornography debates”. The Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar’s “works narrate a desire for an impossible plenitude beyond the binary oppositions and hollow conventions which structure mundane bourgeois reality”.
Social conservatives like me think people should take sex seriously, in the sense that it shouldn't be viewed merely as a recreational activity. But isn't there also something wrong with taking it too seriously, as do writers who portray it as an irresistible obsessive force, and the academics who then follow in their wake with arcane analysis?

Big numbers

Cosmic coincidence spotted : Nature News

The secret of the Universe is not 42, according to a new theory, but the unimaginably larger number 10122. Scott Funkhouser of the Military College of South Carolina (called The Citadel) in Charleston has shown how this number — which is bigger than the number of particles in the Universe — keeps popping up when several of the physical constants and parameters of the Universe are combined1. This ‘coincidence’, he says, is surely significant, hinting at some common principle at work behind the scenes.
Seems odd that someone from a military college is making a name for himself in pointing out some big number co-incidences. Still, it's a good read.

Speed post 2

No time, no time.

1. a Howard adviser paints a quick picture of what it was like for his boss in the lead up to the election. He notes:
Try managing the equivocation of nervous colleagues who believe you should cut and run, when not so long ago they were begging you to stay. Try keeping your focus (and temper) while you and your family suffer cheap attacks fuelled by those ever-brave unnamed sources. Try maintaining your dignity while feral union activists wait outside hospitals and hotels to call you and your wife "Liberal c-ts" and tell you they wish you would die a "slow and painful death". All while your opponent coasts along, forgiven frequent errors of judgment, congratulated for the genius of his political flummery, by a largely uncritical media. Howard kept going where others would have faltered.
2. Contrast John Quiggan, a lefty who does indeed run an exceptionally polite blog, who said this recently:

Throughout the last few years of the Howard government, anyone who criticised the government, or suggested that Howard was not the best person to be Prime Minister of Australia, could be sure of being labelled a “Howard hater”....

This was always silly. Perhaps there were people motivated to oppose the government because of a personal animus against Howard rather than his actions and policies, but if so I never met any.
Yes, it would seem John needs to get out more.

3. Apparently, Peter Garrett was a bit hot under the collar in parliament yesterday, but I didn't see it on the TV news.

4. I didn't know that psychiatrists often had a very personal interest in mental illness:

Study after study has shown that psychiatrists have higher rates of mental illness than the general population.

Research published in 2001 revealed that 56% of female psychiatrists have a family history of mental illness, and just over 40% have experienced one themselves - almost twice the rate of other doctors. Undoubtedly as a consequence, psychiatrists have double the rate of suicide of the general population.

5. While on mental health, the Washington Post looks at Paranoia magazine. At last, I can publish my expose on the secret world of horses.

6. Now for the paranormal. Physicist Sean Carroll at Cosmic Variance wants the American Association for the Advancement of Science to kick out the Parapsychological Association from its current affiliation membership.

Disheartened that some people would come to the defence of legitimate psi research, Sean follows up with a long post "proving" how (at the very least) telekinesis is not scientifically possible. More well argued rebuttal follows.

If ever a person deserved a mystifying experience that is not readily explicable in his scientific mindframe, it's him. It would seem, however, that if you refuse to believe that it is even possible, nothing strange ever happens to you. Of course, you could also be like me, an open-minded person, who nonetheless seems to be about as psychically inclined as a piece of wood.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

To the vast international readership

Busy, busy. Blogging will be a bit more erratic this week.

Here's some almost random thoughts:

1. Try putting Cointreau in cream as you whip it. Delicious.

2. I am not sure how much I would pay to stay in a hotel which comprises of pre-fab shacks sitting on a frozen lake in the Arctic Circle, but if someone wants to pay me to visit it for a review, I'd go. (However, if I didn't get to see the Northern Lights, I would be very disappointed.) Go look at the photos as well as the article; they're really good.

3. Still seems a big puzzle as to what caused that 777 to crash. Sounds like the computers were not the problem, which was my hunch. Thus ends my alternative career as intuitive air crash investigator.

4. It's hardly worth getting excited about a 70% preferred PM rating when the alternative PM is Brendan Nelson.

5. It sounds like we will see someone being accidentally bitten by a deadly taipan on Foreign Correspondent tonight. Last week's story on Russian "democracy" was very interesting.

6. When toads ruled the earth.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Testing time?

Early Warning: PSA Testing Can Predict Advanced Prostate Cancer, Study Shows

My second prostate related post for the week. (It's my age that lends an interest in the topic.)

It seems from this story that a single PSA test, which (as I recall) is often of limited use in working out what to do about prostate cancer that is already there, may be very useful as a predictor for advanced cancer:
A single prostate specific antigen (PSA) test taken before the age of 50 can be used to predict advanced prostate cancer in men up to 25 years in advance of a diagnosis, according to a new study published by researchers at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and Lund University in Sweden. The findings should help physicians be able to identify men who would benefit from intensive prostate cancer screenings over their lifetime...

The results showed that the total PSA level was an accurate predictor of advanced cancer diagnosis in men later in life. The majority, 66 percent, of advanced cancers were seen in men whose PSA levels were in the top 20 percent (total PSA > 0.9 ng/ml). The average length of time from blood test to cancer diagnosis was 17 years.
Yet this article, which seems in need of editing, says next:
While this data does not have any immediate implications for general prostate cancer screening guidelines...
Why not? Sounds like a pretty useful thing to me.

Now that's porous

Technology Review: A Better Way to Capture Carbon

Very early days, but a new material shows promise for catching CO2 economically out of exhaust gases.

This sounds hard to be believe:
The new materials absorb carbon dioxide in part because they're extremely porous, which gives them a high surface area that can come into contact with carbon dioxide molecules. The most porous of the materials that Yaghi reports in Science contain nearly 2,000 square meters of surface area packed into one gram of material. One liter of one of Yaghi's materials can store all of the molecules of carbon dioxide that, at zero °C and at ambient pressure, would take up a volume of 82.6 liters.

Associated Press catches Fairfax disease

Danish youths set fires, attack police in 5th night of violence

The Associated Press points out that car torching in Copenhagen has been "mostly in immigrant neighbourhoods" and notes that "some observers" suggested that the reprinting of the Muhammad cartoons might have had something to do with it. Other than that, no mention of a certain religion.

To borrow a joke: probably Presbyterians, but who would know?

Even men in suits...

Susan Jacoby explains the point at which she decided to write her book "The Age of American Unreason":
....she first got the idea for this book back in 2001, on 9/11.

Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment, she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day's horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

"This is just like Pearl Harbor," one of the men said.

The other asked, "What is Pearl Harbor?"

"That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War," the first man replied.

At that moment, Jacoby said, "I decided to write this book."

Extending the intervention

Break the cycle of dysfunction | The Australian

The Australia puts a bit of a dampener on the "love in" week of reconciliation by running a lengthy article by a Cape York doctor who seemingly supports exactly the type of intervention that Howard started in the Northern Territory.

The doctor points out that aboriginal families in dysfunctional communities, as a start, simply need to be told what is right and wrong in their households (things like: feeding your kids once a day is bad, letting them watch and imitate porn is wrong.)

I still say that this is a harder thing for Labor governments, with their greater hand-wringing about cultural respect and equal rights, to effectively undertake than it is for conservatives.

Doctor, she's talking to ships

Running out of time to save our great bay - Opinion -

While reading Tracee's column this morning (which is just so easy to ridicule, I wonder if Tracee is offering it as a gift to Tim Blair during his recuperation), I kept being reminded of Spike Milligan in The Goon Show singing "I talk to the trees, that's why they put me away..."

(Oh, and it's a fine Blair column in the Telegraph today.)

UPDATE: "Doctor, he's talking to flowers."

Wow, two columnists from The Age are inviting psychiatric assessment today. Leunig is an apologising mood:
One day we must surely get down on our knees to every lizard and frog and orchid — and weep an apology.
Actually, I shouldn't be too harsh, he actually agrees with me on one point:
...I felt the wording of the apology, like the national anthem, was just a bit feeble. The spirit was there, but dulled by the cliched language of born-again motivational speeches. Mungo MacCallum lamented it was written by a platoon of public servants and not a poet...

Friday, February 15, 2008

New comedy

It seems to have taken a long time for the ABC to start showing the English sketch comedy show That Mitchell and Webb Look. (The series that has just started was shown in 2006 in the UK.)

I missed much of the first episode, but what I did see seemed pretty promising. There are heaps of sketches from it on Youtube, and this one seems a good example of their style:

They have a second series soon in England, hence an interview with both of them in The Times.

An unpleasant case

Gang-rape judge in new child sex furore | The Australian

When I quickly read parts of this story on the Web this morning, I had vague thoughts that the teacher's claim that he was engaging in sex with a boy as part of islander "men's business" sounded very, very unlikely; but then again Torres Strait is close to New Guinea where there is that tribe that has (or used to have?) male initiation rites of a kind that this teacher presumably claims to be emulating.

You see, I kind of assumed that the teacher in question must have been a Torres Strait Islander himself; or at least have some islander blood in him.

But I just saw the news print version of The Australian, and the accused has his photo plastered all over the page. He looks completely white!

Furthermore, I see that the child concerned came from the Island of Saibai, about 4 kilometres from PNG. The famous semen initiation tribe of New Guinea is the Sambian, who come from the Eastern Highlands.

The prosecution has already said it has elders from Saibai who will confirm there is no such ritual on that island.

Apparently, the teacher claims to have had a part aboriginal father. The prosecutor told the court (see the Australian's story above):
.... he was not raised in a traditional manner and that he should receive a custodial sentence to send a clear message to the community.

"It is stated in the defence material that he was born in Sydney where he was educated to grade 12. He then went on to receive a scholarship and teach in Wollongong and undertake postgraduate studies," she said.

"He has gone on to have an illustrious and distinguished career. He is an educated man, using what he claims to be part of Papua New Guinea and Torres Strait Islander culture, that is, men's business, to explain away his offending behaviour. I have been instructed that this is not part of the culture."
I would have thought the point is that, even if the boy was from a tribe that still had this initiation, there is surely no conceivable way that the judge should be able find that this could be used in mitigation by an essentially white teacher from Sydney who has had absolutely no tribal background .

But, now that I think of it, it may not be a waste of time to allow this guy months to try to find an anthropologist to give evidence supporting his claims. Because if he comes up completely empty handed, the judge can presumably take a very dim view of his using this excuse with the boy at the time of the offences.

Yet if does find an anthropologist to support him (sounds very unlikely), the judge should say exactly what I suggested above.

If she doesn't, the public outcry will surely be enormous.

It seems to me that there should be no "up side" to this for Mr Last, except for the fact that he is buying time before heading off to jail.

Geeky movie news


The first trailer for the new Indiana Jones is up.

And yes, Roswell has something to do with it. Cool.

France on side for once

France Presses Nuclear Agency on Iran - New York Times

President Nicolas Sarkozy and other senior French officials met here on Thursday with Mohamed ElBaradei, the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, in an effort to smooth over differences between France and the agency over Iran’s nuclear program.

France has taken a hard line against Iran, leading the way with the United States and Britain in pressing for new, tougher international sanctions against the country for flouting United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding that it stop making nuclear fuel......

In a speech Wednesday night to France’s Jewish community, for example, Mr. Sarkozy called on Iran to “renounce military nuclear power” and “live up to its word.” He added that Iran’s uranium enrichment program “has no civilian use.”

Dr. ElBaradei, by contrast, has said repeatedly that there is no clear evidence to support the claim that Iran intends to make nuclear weapons.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Caring for your prostate

What's good for the heart may be good for the prostate
Men who eat a diet low in fat and red meat but high in vegetables and lean protein and who drink alcohol in moderation may not just be doing their hearts a favor. A new study shows that such a heart-healthy diet may also be good for the prostate.

Specifically, such a diet significantly decreases the risk of symptomatic benign prostatic hyperplasia, or BPH. The bothersome condition is associated with frequent and painful urination that affects about half of all men by the time they reach 50 and nearly all men by age 70.
About 1/2 of all men get prostate issues by the time they are 50? That's a much higher figure than I expected. The medical recommendation is pretty encouraging, though:
Doctors often recommend routine sexual activity to men with prostatitis because ejaculations help flush the prostate clean.
Logically, then, if I eat a meaty, high fat diet and drink to excess, I am more likely to have a doctor prescribe more sex. Hmmm....

The ultimate peak oil solution

Mine Titan!:

Titan's surface organics surpass oil reserves on Earth:
Saturn’s orange moon Titan has hundreds of times more liquid hydrocarbons than all the known oil and natural gas reserves on Earth, according to new Cassini data. The hydrocarbons rain from the sky, collecting in vast deposits that form lakes and dunes.


Appeal upheld for youths 'intoxicated by terror' - Telegraph

From the report:
The country's top judge has dealt a significant blow to a key plank of the Government's anti-terrorism legislation after he overturned the convictions of five Muslim men jailed last year for downloading and sharing extremist terror-related material.

The Lord Chief Justice ruled that unless there was clear evidence of "terrorist intent" it was not illegal to read or study such literature....

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, "a person commits an offence if he possesses an article in circumstances which give rise to a reasonable suspicion that his possession is for a purpose connected with the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism."
How do you obtain evidence for the 'reasonable suspicion', I wonder? In this case:
The students were arrested after Mr Raja, then a schoolboy in Ilford, ran away to meet the other four in Bradford. The teenager left a note for his parents saying he was going to fight abroad after getting to know the others via internet chatrooms.
But it would appear that the problem may simply be the way the jury was directed:
Directions given to the jury did not tell them "that they had to be satisfied that each appellant intended to use the relevant articles to incite his fellow planners to fight in Afghanistan".

That seems to be overstating what the jurors should have been told about the offence.

The interesting point may be whether possession of a large amount of terrorist material of itself can lead to a reasonable suspicion that it is being looked at for "commission preparation or instigation" of a terrorist act. The appeal court seems to be saying "no". Maybe that is technically correct, but when you take into account who is looking at it, I would have thought that the reasonable suspicion may be pretty readily made out.

But this is pretty funny from the defence lawyer:

Imran Khan, solicitor for Mr Zafar, said: "My client is over the moon. He says it is surreal and he cannot see why he has spent the last two years in prison for looking at material which he had no intention of using for terrorism.

"Young people should not be frightened of exploring their world. There will always be people out there with wrong intentions, but we must not criminalise people for simply looking at material, whether it is good or bad."

And I suppose a young Muslim's world is naturally all about terrorism? Actually, I think it is a pretty good idea to make them frightened of spending all of their time obsessed with that.

What was that about airplanes?

True scale of C0₂emissions from shipping revealed

From the Guardian:

The true scale of climate change emissions from shipping is almost three times higher than previously believed, according to a leaked UN study seen by the Guardian.

It calculates that annual emissions from the world's merchant fleet have already reached 1.12bn tonnes of CO₂, or nearly 4.5% of all global emissions of the main greenhouse gas.

The report suggests that shipping emissions - which are not taken into account by European targets for cutting global warming - will become one of the largest single sources of manmade CO₂after cars, housing, agriculture and industry. By comparison, the aviation industry, which has been under heavy pressure to clean up, is responsible for about 650m tonnes of CO₂emissions a year, just over half that from shipping.

Sheesh. I am not supposed to fly for holidays anymore, and now even a pleasure cruise is bad. But come to think of it, it would be kind of cool to see giant sailing ships being used for passengers and cargo again.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Indiana Jones can be viewed with clear conscience

Spielberg boycotts Beijing Olympics over Darfur - Beijing2008 - Sport

Commentators saw this coming, but Spielberg has dropped out of his artist adviser role with the Chinese Olympics.

Fair enough. They can always do those slightly creepy North Korean style mass displays instead.

Kevin should apologise...

...for not having a better speech writer. My lack of enthusiasm has not exactly been changed by soaring oratory.

The worst line:
A future where we embrace the possibility of new solutions to enduring problems where old approaches have failed.
Embracing possibilities of new solutions? How bland. I would have thought "prospects" would be the better word.

On the other hand, "mutual responsibility" gets a tick.

But on the third hand, a blanket statement of apology for separating children from parents, their community and "country" sits uncomfortably with the current situation in Cape York, where safeguarding children still often leaves no choice other than trying foster care hundreds of kilometres from the community.

One other point: I reckon the media coverage (and Labor politicians) have vastly overestimated public excitement and interest in this. Richard Flanagan wrote in The Guardian:
The national excitement around the event is palpable, with thousands heading to Canberra for it, and public screens being erected in most major cities for the live, national broadcast of the event.
All depends what circles you move in, I suppose, but I would say there is a much more palpable degree of cynicism about the hyping of the apology in any suburb that is not inner city.

UPDATE: when I referred to needing a better speech writer, I was actually only referring to the apology, not Rudd's supporting speech. Now that I've read it, I would grade it as "mostly harmless."

However, I expect he has set himself up for failure with his musings about what should be achieved next. In particular, this line had a definite touch of Hawke's "no child will live in poverty":
Let us resolve over the next five years to have every Indigenous four-year-old in a remote Aboriginal community enrolled in and attending a proper early childhood education centre or opportunity and engaged in proper preliteracy and prenumeracy programs.
I predict it will take some very heavy handed, paternalistic tactics, exactly of the kind Labor is less inclined to take than the Liberals, to get anywhere near achieving that goal.

Also, isn't it peculiar that the first "joint policy commission" is to look at aboriginal housing? Hasn't this been looked at many times already?

Anyone who has worked on aboriginal communities complains that the issue is not simply a question of providing the houses; it involves the more difficult issue of how to get the residents to look after them. Surely drug and alcohol abuse is a large part of that problem. It's all rather a chicken and egg dilemma, isn't it?

(For anyone interested, see my previous musings about a possible, somewhat counter-intuitive, housing approach.)

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Ferris fad

World's largest ferris wheel debuts in Singapore | Lifestyle | Living | Reuters

Why are luxury ferris wheels such a fad all over the world at the moment? Can't some city come up with a more novel way to get a view, other than via observation decks or wheels?

(Give me time to think about it, but a giant corkscrew thing with glass pods slowly going up and down hasn't been done yet, has it?)

Pearson on "sorry"

When words aren't enough | The Australian

If someone like Noel Pearson can be distinctly ambivalent about the apology, then it's fair enough for any white person (like me) to be less than enthusiastic as well.

My feelings exactly

Normalcy will return - one day - Opinion -

Evidently, I was not the only one during the holidays having a conceptual difficulty with Kevin Rudd as PM. Annabel Crabb writes wittily today:

THE past few months could so easily have been a dream.

Who among us hasn't sat bolt upright in the middle of the night and been convinced, in the gin-clear moments for which dreams survive intact in the consciousness, that Kevin Rudd grew bushy sideburns and became prime minister and invited Dick Smith, Kerry O'Brien and the girls from Sass & Bide to Parliament House for a strategy session?...

It will be a while before, on seeing Kevin Rudd stride into the prime ministerial suite of offices, one's natural instinct stops being to call security.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Seymour's thoughts

Al Jazeera English - News - Interview: Seymour Hersh

You get a good idea of Seymour Hersh's liberal credentials in this interview in Al Jazeera.

He wrote a recent New Yorker article about the Israeli attack on a Syrian mystery facility last year. Here's the key paragraph as to what he thinks was attacked:

A senior Syrian official confirmed that a group of North Koreans had been at work at the site, but he denied that the structure was related to chemical warfare. Syria had concluded, he said, that chemical warfare had little deterrent value against Israel, given its nuclear capability. The facility that was attacked, the official said, was to be one of a string of missile-manufacturing plants scattered throughout Syria—“all low tech. Not strategic.” (North Korea has been a major exporter of missile technology and expertise to Syria for decades.) He added, “We’ve gone asymmetrical, and have been improving our capability to build low-tech missiles that will enable us to inflict as much damage as possible without confronting the Israeli Army. We now can hit all of Israel, and not just the north.”

Whatever was under construction, with North Korean help, it apparently had little to do with agriculture—or with nuclear reactors—but much to do with Syria’s defense posture, and its military relationship with North Korea. And that, perhaps, was enough to silence the Syrian government after the September 6th bombing.

In the Al Jazeera interview he explains:

I was told two different things by various people inside Syria.

One said it was perhaps a chemical facility for chemical warfare, another one said more persuasively to me that "no, it was for missiles - short range missiles to be used in case we're attacked by Israel, we'd respond asymmetrically with missiles."

So Seymour seems to agree with the common sense proposition that there is strong reason to doubt that Syria is telling the whole truth. Yet who does he appear to direct most of his criticism to? Israel:

....if this article I did generates a decision by Israel to go public with its overwhelming dossier that will answer any questions well that's great ... but they have not and [I find awful] the hubris, the arrogance of thinking that you could go commit an act of war by any definition and then say nothing about it.

Syria of course compounded the problem by being hapless and feckless in response.

So, Syria's avoidance of the issue is mere "fecklessness"; Israel not disclosing its evidence is "hubris and arrogance".

And Seymour likes to get his anti-Bush credentials out there too:
Q: What do you think of Bush's legacy to the world?

He's done more to terrify the world than anybody I know. The world is so much more dangerous.

Worthy of Daily Kos commentary, that is.

He even brings this up:
[On Israel] it's very hard, you know in America there's just no questioning. The American Jewish influence is enormous. There's a lot of money.
Does "Jewish money" affect what you write in the New Yorker, Seymour?

He also has a very rosy, and pretty amazing view, of the potential for goodwill towards Israel in the Middle East:
I'm Jewish and I'm not anti-Semitic and I'm not anti-Israel - [Israelis] understand that, just as by the way a lot of Americans don't understand that many of the leadership of Hamas and others.

Not everyone spends their life there wanting to kill Jews, they're more willing than people would like to believe to co-exist, they just don't like the system the way it works now.

How very encouraging (sarcasm).

Breaking news from India

Mosquito-proof coolers developed-The Times of India

I'm a bit puzzled by this:
NEW DELHI: A cooler with almost 100% efficiency at preventing mosquitoes from entering it and laying eggs will now spearhead India’s fight against vector-borne diseases like dengue and chikungunya.
Sounds like we are talking about evaporative coolers for domestic use. They aren't very common in Australia any more, especially in a place like Brisbane, where to feel better in summer you want to reduce humidity, not attempt to increase it. I assume they still have some benefit in Melbourne or Adelaide, though, where desert winds mean high summer temperatures are nearly always desiccating.

So, just how long did it take them to work out that it is possible to keep mosquitoes out of a cooler's water tank?:
After over six months of research, scientists at Delhi’s National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) have developed a "Mosquito Proof Cooler" (MPC).
And what startling innovation was involved?:
"A metallic barrier has been put above the tank to prevent mosquitoes from entering. Side shutters have been done away with...."
So metal barriers stop mosquitoes, hey? I wouldn't be holding my breath for the Nobel prize.

(By the way, this has nothing to do with cricket. I just thought it was one of the least news worthy innovations I have ever read about.)

Sick in space

The Associated Press: Medical Issue Delays Space Lab Work

Isn't it a little odd that NASA won't give even a hint as to what the illness is that caused the cancellation of a spacewalk. (Well, apart from saying it was not life threatening.)

Sounds to me like it could be a psychological issue. A panic attack perhaps? Yet the astronaut concerned has been in space twice before.

Come on, just let us know.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

See what happens when you apologise...

You get stupid theatrics in courts, not just in Parliament.

Keith Windshuttle makes many interesting points today about exaggeration by "stolen generation" historians. And Andrew Bolt is being driven nuts by the whole apology thing, but as with Windshuttle, he does present some information that you wouldn't hear elsewhere.

I heard Phillip Adams on Late Night Live this week express surprise that Canada had not issued a full apology for its treatment of its indigenous population, although they are having a Truth and Reconciliation Commission into the system of residential schools for Native Americans. (Actually, I did not hear all of this show, and I note that Canada did make some sort of apology in 1998.)

In fact, that last linked article has a list (how exhaustive it is, I don't know) of the handful of historically significant apologies. There don't seem to be many around.

Of course, the churches that had a lot to do with telling aborigines what was best for them in the past are now all for an apology. It seems to be something that it's too impolite to say that the departure of the church from their missions does not often seem to have resulted in healthier, more vibrant communities.

It certainly seems true that the value of the symbolism is often being exaggerated by people who are not always forthright about both personal and social history. These exaggerations (with, according to Gerard Henderson, Ronald Wilson himself coming up with the term "genocide" for the stolen generation report, against even Mick Dodson's doubts) actually made it harder for a national consensus to be reached that an official national apology was appropriate.

It all comes down to semantics between a statement of regret, and the use of the word "apology". Half the people of the country have probably forgotten that in 1999 Howard did respond to the Stolen Generation report by having Parliament resolve that it :
acknowledges that the mistreatment of many indigenous Australians over a
significant period represents the most blemished chapter in our national
(f) expresses its deep and sincere regret that indigenous Australians suffered
injustices under the practices of past generations, and for the hurt and
trauma that many indigenous people continue to feel as a consequence of
those practices; and
(g) believes that we, having achieved so much as a nation, can now move
forward together for the benefit of all Australians.
Beazley tried to have it changed to incorporate a direct apology. If that had been done, there was nothing else to object to the in the resolution.

It seems to me that the new Labor government could simply have dealt with this by revisiting the resolution and amending it with the additional words Beazley wanted. It could be done without a great song and dance, and without all the dubious puffing up of the importance of the symbolism.

But that is often Labor's way: valuing symbolism or theory at the expense of results, and encouraging others to do likewise.

Nice to have someone to chat to...

Corpse 'lay on sofa for up to eight years' | The Guardian |

The surprising thing about this (apart from the obvious point that the dead person's flatmate lived with this slight inconvenience) is that it would appear that a several year old corpse can still smell. I would have assumed it would be a relatively smell-less mummy-like thing by then, if not a bunch of bones.

Friday, February 08, 2008

Retro review and ramble

Watch this extract from Artists and Models, the 1955 Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis vehicle, and then some questions for discussion:

1. Would Rick (Dean Martin) risk court action if he was this "fresh" with a young woman today? (Probably; or at least risk a knee in the groin).

2. In dramatic terms, is his pursuit of the girl made acceptable by Shirley MacLaine's arguably even more forthright harassment of Jerry Lewis? (Probably.)

3. Did any women in the audience really think Dean Martin had sex appeal? (Seems a wildly unlikely proposition to me.)

4. Did the 1950's idea of beauty actually give women a longer shelf life as actresses, compared to women actors today? I mean, the shapely, far from skinny or taunt bodies tended to make younger actresses look a bit older, but then they could hold that look for longer than a waif-like starlet of today. (Shirley was just 21 at the time this film was made.)

5. Why are strong female characters from '50's films so appealing? (I saw a bit of Rear Window again, and was reminded how the Grace Kelly character was charming yet assertive in her own way.)

Maybe (I'm just thinking out loud here) it's that the feminist gains of today's Western women tempt one into one into assuming, almost subconsciously, that poor pre-feminist women must have had less character and willfulness as a consequence of their more restricted, pre-liberated state. Of course, this is not true, but maybe this playing against unconscious expectation that appeals. Of course, it could also just be that I really only want all women to only be liberated to a 1950's level!

6. The movie satirizes a 1950's moral panic about comic books, and indeed Wikipedia confirms that this did happen. According to this article, a popular book behind the panic saw implied homosexual love between Batman and Robin. (And here I thought finding repressed homosexuality everywhere was something that people only started doing in the 1970's or 80's!)

7. Why am I talking about a Martin & Lewis movie at all? Well, I liked them as a kid (the icky Dean Martin songs and kissy bits notwithstanding) and the wonders of DVD mean I can show them to my children in an attempt to brainwash them into being mini-me's. So far, it seems to be working.

(The range of Martin & Lewis movies are at Big W for about $9 each at the moment. You can do much worse than to re-visit these. Even better, if you are under 30 you probably have never seen them, and should do so on a rainy day or three.)

Sharia law for England

Ruth Gledhill - Times Online - WBLG: Has the Archbishop gone bonkers?

If you want to read some very strong rebuttal of the Archbishop of Canterbury's musings about Sharia law perhaps having some role in Britain, go to the above link.

Towards the end of the post, Ruth Gledhill repeats a claim she has heard from an informant who did not want to be identified. If true, it is a disturbing story:
A few weeks ago, I was chatting to a woman who works in an advocacy role for Muslim women in an area that, quite independently of the Bishop of Rochester, she described as a 'no-go area' for non-Muslims. Her clients were women in the process of being sectioned into mental health units in the NHS. This woman, who for obvious reasons begged not to be identified, told me: 'The men get tired of their wives. Or bored. Or maybe the wife objects to her daughter being forced into a marriage she doesn't want. Or maybe she starts wearing western clothes.There can be many reasons. The women are sent for asssessment to a hospital. The GP referring them is Muslim. The psychiatrist assessing them is Muslim and male. I have sat in these assessments where the psychiatrist will not look the woman patient in the eye because she is a woman. Can you imagine! A psychiatrist refusing to look his patient in the eye? The woman speaks little or no English. She is sectioned. She is divorced. There are lots of these women in there, locked up in these hospitals. Why don't you people write about this?'

My interlocuter went very red and almost started to cry. Instead, she began shouting at me. I was a member of the press. 'You must write about this,' she begged.

'I can't,' I said. 'Not unless you become a whistle-blower. Or give me some evidence. Or something.'

She shook her head. 'I can't be identified,' she said. 'I would be killed. And so would the women.'

UPDATE: The Archbishop should really know he is in trouble when most of the Guardian's reader's comments are against him too.

UPDATE 2: I like some of the comments made about this over at Bryan Appleyard's blog, especially this one:
Pure intelligence, which I'm sure the ABoC has in abundance, is a pretty useless commodity unless it can be harnessed to awareness and character. We all know people who are so intelligent they can't tie their own shoelaces.

Now if he had any practical intelligence it might have given him the foresight to realise, no matter how well meaning, how this sounds. Instead he somehow though talking on Radio 4 was the same as having a chat at High Table in Balliol.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

He's ba-ack

Pollies are financially self-interested schemers: Latham - National -

It's amusing while ever most of his venom is directed towards Labor.

UPDATE: Andrew Landeryou really rips into Latham about this (and also does us a service by posting a scan of the article.)

A bid for hits

Wonderful Wednesday: How to Insult Americans

Bryan Appleyard has discovered the secret to successful blogging: insult Americans. Maybe some of his success will rub off on me through this link to his post. (Don't worry, we both really love you.)

Make sure you read the comments too; they're very funny.

Depends from where you are looking

BBC NEWS | Business | Globalisation splits rich and poor

A funny result from this survey:

Half of all people polled across 34 countries say that the pace of globalisation is too fast, while 35% say globalisation is going too slowly.

But concern about globalisation is strongest among the world's richest countries, where it is closely correlated with a belief that the fruits of economic growth have been unfairly shared.

In many of the world's poorest countries, however, where large majorities say that the benefits and burdens of economic development have not been shared fairly, people are more likely to say that globalisation is proceeding too slowly.

Re-thinking global warming responses

Global-Warming Jujitsu - TierneyLab - Science - New York Times Blog

The Cato Institute has issued a report that disputes the Kyoto approach of cutting emissions as the most appropriate thing to do in response to global warming, even if you assume that the worst estimates of the amount of warming.

This will be, to put it mildly, somewhat controversial.

Still a worry

Iran's nuclear programme | As the enrichment machines spin on |

In case you missed it, The Economist last week had a long, detailed article criticising the way the US intelligence agencies have stuffed up diplomatic efforts to deal with what is still a genuine problem. As the article says:
Unchanged is the suspicion hanging over Iran's nuclear intentions. Mr Ahmadinejad has never been able to explain convincingly why Iran is the first country to have built a uranium-enrichment plant without having a single civilian nuclear-power reactor that could burn its output (the ones Russia has all but completed at Bushehr will operate only on Russian-made fuel).
Reuters today has a fairly long article about it too.

Trouble coming, I fear.

UPDATE: Even Russia doesn't like Iran's recent long range rocket test.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The big, big picture

Don Page is a physicist who has worked with Stephen Hawking on issues in quantum cosmology. He is also a Christian, and some recent talks he has given on issue of God and the multiverse have popped up on Arxiv.

If you like thinking about the Big Picture, this article by Page is well worth reading. As The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy said:
"Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly hugely mindboggingly big it is. I mean you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space."
Well, just start taking the idea of the multiverse seriously, and even "space" starts to look puny. As the abstract of Page's talk puts it:
Scientists have measured that what we can see of space is about a billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion billion (1081) times the volume of an average human. Inflationary theory suggests that the entirety of space is vastly larger. Quantum theory suggests that there are very many different copies of space of the same basic kind as ours (same laws of physics). String theory further suggests that there may be many different kinds of space. This whole collection of googolplexes of galaxies within each of googolplexes of different spaces within each of googols of kinds of space makes up an enormously vast universe or multiverse. Human beings seem to be an incredibly small part of this universe in terms of physical size.
Page gives a potted history of the increasingly successful efforts of humans to measure the universe. Here is one blackly humorous episode:
Many countries cooperated in sending expeditions to distant parts of the earth to take these measurements of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus. Wars and bad weather hampered many attempts, such as the one made by the unfortunate Guillaume Le Gentil of France [3]. In 1761 he could not land at Pondicherry, a French colony in India, because the British had seized it, and he could not make his measurements from his ship that was tossing about at sea. He stayed eight years to make measurements of the 1769 transit (the last transit before 1874) and this time was able to set up his equipment on Pondicherry, which was restored to France by then. But after a month of clear weather, the sky turned cloudy on the morning of the transit, and he again saw nothing. He nearly went insane but gained enough strength to return to France, which took another two years. After being away for nearly twelve years in his fruitless mission to help measure the size of the solar system, Le Gentil finally got back home to find that his “widowed” wife had remarried and his possessions had gone to his heirs.
Of course, there are still a lot of scientists around who think all talk of multiverses and the string theory Landscape barely counts as science, but this hasn't stopped the religiously inclined from starting to see if it can be incorporated into their world view. Peter Woit at Not Even Wrong notes that even the Mormons are talking about this. (But then again this is perhaps to be expected, as their idiosyncratic idea of gods who have children who create worlds to further populate may make it easier for them to incorporate the multiverse into their theology.)

Don Page has a similar go at the topic, in his talk entitled "Does God so Love the Multiverse". (As you may guess, he expects the answer is "yes".) This paper is heavier going that the one about the scale of the universe, but I will again make the redundant statement that, if you like this sort of thing, you will like it.

Go away

'Jihad Sheilas' speak out - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

I watched Jihad Sheilas last night.

If ever there was a show that could make you feel like reaching through the TV screen and slapping the interviewees, this was it.

I found the younger one the most irritating. Eight children to 5 husbands, and now many of them left in Australia while she lives in Africa with her latest husband and their 2 kids. (It was never explained who they live with, and she is only in her 30's.)

If Muslim husbands are generally as erratic as her life would indicate, it is hardly a good advertisement for the faith. It would have been good to hear specific questions about who she blamed for the failure of so many marriages.

The older one (Rabiah Hutchison) came across as capable of great evil, and I expect most viewers would have mixed feelings about the government refusing to give her a passport. (She would happily leave the country permanently if she could.) Still, I suppose it is best to keep watch on her here rather than let her try to hook up with her former Taliban mates.

That said, the show was done in a more tabloid style than your usual ABC fare. There were many points at which answers by the interviewees were cut off before they had finished, and indeed the reason as to why they found Islam attractive in the first place was skated over completely. (The women complain that they thought that was to be the focus of the show, but it must have become clear during the interview that it was about their lives generally.)

It was good television nonetheless, but I would have preferred more of a "Four Corners" style rather than "A Current Affair".

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Hitchens' mistake

Christopher Hitchens and the racist Jewish court | Jerusalem Post

It's interesting to read criticism of Christopher Hitchens for promoting an urban myth of sorts: that Orthodox Jews would refuse to help a non Jewish person in need of medical treatment on the Sabbath. (Hitchens also claimed rabbinical court rulings had upheld this.)

It appears that this is completely untrue.

Libertarian against euthanasia

Forget a new euthanasia law | Mick Hume - Times Online

What a strange week. First, I find myself agreeing more with Mark Bahnisch than News Ltd; now I find a column by "Britain's only self-confessed libertarian Marxist newspaper columnist" against euthanasia law reform.

Let it be noted that it is not only conservative-ish Catholics who are leery of euthanasia.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Forearm lust

Female Muslim medics 'disobey hygiene rules' - Telegraph

Interesting story about concern in several English hospitals that female Muslim staff are refusing to expose their forearms for the purposes of a good handwashing. Which is a bit of a problem because medical authorities there have decided that, in the interest of reducing drug resistant bugs being spread by staff, hospital doctors and nurses are now to go "bare below the elbow". (The topic was the subject of a recent post here.)

From the article:

Dr Mark Enright, professor of microbiology at Imperial College London, said: "To wash your hands properly, and reduce the risks of MRSA and C.difficile, you have to be able to wash the whole area around the wrist.

"I don't think it would be right to make an exemption for people on any grounds. The policy of bare below the elbows has to be applied universally."

The Muslim medical association has different ideas:

"No practising Muslim woman - doctor, medical student, nurse or patient - should be forced to bare her arms below the elbow," it said.

Dr Majid Katme, the association spokesman, said: "Exposed arms can pick up germs and there is a lot of evidence to suggest skin is safer to the patient if covered. One idea might be to produce long, sterile, disposable gloves which go up to the elbows."

Oh come on. Surely with the fractious nature of teaching authority in Islam, they can round up at least a few religious leaders who will issue a fatwa to the effect that bare forearms, in the context of being in a hospital and not wanting to kill your patients, is a Good Thing. If your patients are sick enough, they are hardly going to get hot and bothered by the sight of a forearm, are they? (I can vaguely understand why a shapely calf was once considered sexy enough to hide; but just how much sex appeal can a forearm manage?)

As a conservative politician says:
"Perhaps these women should not be choosing medicine as a career if they feel unable to abide by the guidelines that everyone else has to follow."

Cheaper way to make hydrogen

Technology Review: Cheap Hydrogen

This report is about promising new technology to make hydrogen from water via the sun. (The only current method of using solar power to generate electricity to electrolyse water is inefficient, the article says.)

This new method works directly on the water, and holds the promise of making hydrogen at the same cost as stripping it out of natural gas, which I think is the currently the cheapest option.

As the article notes, the big advantage of this technology could also be as a energy storage method for solar power stations. I assume this would be by using part of the plant to make electricity directly, and another part to make hydrogen to store for later burning if the sun goes behind clouds for days at a time.

Gittins on the surplus

Labor brings a fresh eye to the economy — and pre-election baggage

The link is to Ross Gittins' column on the Labor government's plan to build up a bigger surplus as a way of helping curb inflation. (Yes, just as you need more money to pay for your mortgage, you may be about to have less of it if you are employed by the Commonwealth, or rely on some of its benefits.)

I think I can take quite a lot of support for my skepticism of the value of this exercise from Gittins piece. His message is that it really could be politically damaging to Rudd, as he is taking on more direct responsibility for inflation, yet the budget cuts that are politically palatable are hardly likely to make any significant difference anyway. In other words, those who suffer from the budget cuts won't really be able to see the point of them in either the short or long term. Here's the crucial paragraphs from Gittins' column:

The most recent estimates say we'll end the present financial year with an underlying cash surplus of 1.3% of GDP. So for Mr Swan to say he's raised the target surplus for next financial year from 1% to 1.5% is to promise a change in the stance of fiscal policy of negligible proportions.

My guess is that, to produce a change capable of being taken seriously by the Reserve, Mr Swan will need to budget for a surplus of at least 2.3%. That is, one expected to be at least $10 billion higher than last year's.

The spending cuts needed to jump that hurdle would require much hard work, toughness and bravery on the Government's part.

But even if it can rise to the challenge, the political reward is uncertain. For one thing, a contribution from fiscal policy of this size is unlikely to substitute for more than one 0.25 percentage point rise in the official interest rate, and there are likely to be a few more this year beyond the one expected tomorrow.

If I read that right, Gittins is saying that even a budget surplus of 2.3% would save the equivalent of one .25% interest rise? Well, I'm sure those who are directly hurt by the budget cuts will appreciate the vast difference their loss will make. Ha.

Why bother with the exercise at all?


Nelson welcomes 2020 Summit - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

This morning I heard both Brendan Nelson and Tony Abbot say that the Rudd 1,000 person weekend gabfest was a good idea. They obviously are nervous about not appearing overly cynical, as they haven't had time yet to gauge pubic reaction.

Prime Minister Rudd (argg, I'm still not used to that as a concept, and I was able to pretend over the Christmas break that it was all perhaps a dream) was on Sunrise this morning gabbling on about it, with David Koch indicating only the mildest criticism (that it is likely to be too short.) Michelle Grattan on Radio National thought it a good idea too.

Come on people! If John Howard had come up with this idea in the last 12 months, Rudd would have (rightly) said that it indicates a bankruptcy of ideas; a worn out government that needed replacing.

This is nothing like the Accord process that Hawke successfully used. I can't see anything other than things we already knew come out of this process. Someone start calling a spade a spade, please.

For what it's worth, here's my top ten ideas that I hope come out of it:

1. Kevin Rudd should never grow sideburns again;

2. Julia Gillard to settle on one hairstyle for the next 12 months, so as to cool down the over-heated haircutting industry;

3. Horses have become too politicised, and a Royal Commission into their faking illness should be held immediately;

4. Paul Keating's ex Prime Ministerial benefits should be made conditional on his undertaking anger management therapy;

5. The government should pay for a lifetime supply of baggy swimming trunks to Bob Hawke;

6. Tracee Hutchison to be tied to a marine buoy in the middle of Port Phillip Bay for 3 months if this is the only way she can stop dredging;

7. Melbourne to adopt the tourist slogan "Flake capital of the World";

8. Malcolm Fraser's pants to receive apology for being stolen too;

9. All imported Chinese food products to be licked by Chinese Consular Official in Canberra as a safety check before being sold on Australian market;

10. To cement our place in the new Chinese dominated world, Kevin Rudd to use an unlicked Chinese dumpling to kill wife, then marry a young girl from a well connected Chinese political family. Their first born son to sign unification treaty in 2060.

UPDATE: did you know it is hard to find the notorious pic of Hawke in his speedos via Google image search? I haven't succeeded yet. Did he buy the copyright of that photo and have it destroyed?

UPDATE 2: Gosh. I find that the harshest criticism of the gabfest so far has come from Larvatus Prodeo, and what's more I find myself in complete agreement with Mark Bahnisch! (TimT also makes the valid comparison with a weekend long episode of Insight.) Ooh, I feel old certainties crumbling under my feet, as I start preferring Bahnisch commentary over The Australian's. The End Days may be fast approaching. Kevin Rudd as the Antichrist has some plausibility, after all.