Sunday, November 30, 2008

Innovative team building activities

The art of the toilet in Japan

Yeah, I've gone on enough about the wonderful clever toilets of Japan. That's not why I've linked to the article, it's this part:
Japanese people do not see cleaning as a demeaning or shameful job....

Recently, I visited a small technology company in Osaka. The president, Mr Sugimoto, is trying to inspire his staff to work harder as recession takes hold.

He is noted for his drive and enthusiasm and that came across in a punchy presentation which he showed me on his laptop.

It included photographs of his staff on their knees scrubbing the urinals.

His point was that in preparation for a new project, the whole team had mucked in to clean up the workplace and this was clearly a source of pride to be included in the company's publicity.

Sad to say that in Australia you would have the newly invigorated ACTU interfering with such innovative team building exercises.*

* Just trying to be silly: no one should take it as sarcasm indicating any particularly sympathetic attitude to unions in Australia.

Modern policing

How to calm binge drinkers: get them all blowing bubbles

In England, a novel idea in babysitting. (Sorry, make that policing):

Drinkers will be encouraged to play with children's bubble blowers instead of picking fights, in a scheme to start next month in Bolton. Police will hand out the free toys as young people pour out of pubs and clubs in typically boisterous mood.

But the initiative has been condemned as a 'nursery school gimmick' and a waste of taxpayers' money. The blue and orange bubble blowers, which double as pens, will be handed out by police community support officers and town centre ambassadors on Saturday nights. Elaine Sherrington, a Bolton councillor, said: 'They are a great idea to keep things light-hearted. Revellers will have something fun to focus on as they leave pubs and clubs.
I don't get it. Will these bubble blowers come with a little bottle of detergent too? If so, how many fights will be started by some drunk bumping another and causing detergent to get in the eyes?

Are the Japanese noticing?

Faroe islanders told to stop eating 'toxic' whales - New Scientist

The Faroe Islands got a mention here earlier this year, when Foreign Correspondent ran a story about them. (The direct link is here.)

Their whale eating habits will have to change, though:

Chief medical officers of the Faroe Islands have recommended that pilot whales no longer be considered fit for human consumption, because they are toxic - as revealed by research on the Faroes themselves.

The remote Atlantic islands, situated between Scotland and Iceland, have been one of the last strongholds of traditional whaling, with thousands of small pilot whales killed every year, and eaten by most Faroese....

But today in a statement to the islanders, chief medical officers Pál Weihe and Høgni Debes Joensen announced that pilot whale meat and blubber contains too much mercury, PCBs and DDT derivatives to be safe for human consumption.

"It is with great sadness that this recommendation is provided," they said. "The pilot whale has kept many Faroese alive through the centuries."

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The curse of Saturday night TV, and songs of previous decades

Saturday night from 10pm has been the dead zone of Australian television since about, I don't know, the invention of television.

Having children of a certain age means few outings at that time currently, and once again I am facing the problem that television assumes that its potential audience is either oldies who are already in bed by 9.30pm, or youngsters who are out on the town or already having sex. (I say "once again" because, while single in the 1990's, it was not all that uncommon to find me sponging a Saturday night dinner from married friends, which would end with us channel surfing and noting how there was absolutely nothing worth viewing - even with cable.)

About the only times I can remember Saturday night TV being something to look forward to was when the ABC ran (I think) D Generation in a fairly late night timeslot (or was it another show from the same Working Dog group?) It would appear that this was in 1986 and 1987. Mark those years down as possibly the only ones this nation will ever see for fresh comedy on a Saturday night. (Well, Mick Molloy made his disastrous forays with his own show on a Saturday too, I think, but the less said about them the better.)

Still, I must admit that I am now quite taken with Rockwiz on SBS. (It provides 40 minutes of entertainment til 10pm at least.) You probably have to be in your 40's to enjoy it, being mainly based on nostalgia for music from the 80's and 90's, but it is terribly good natured, and it's hard not to like Julia Zemiro's as host.

Speaking of songs of previous decades, I was surprised to see an article on Lisa Loeb in The Japan Times today. As far as I knew she was a one hit wonder, and while it appears that she's had nothing approaching the huge success of her first single ("Stay"), she has managed to make a career out of music after all. Oddly, she's had some success with songs for children, although it would appear from her Wikipedia entry (and this), that she may be an example of the modern young woman who dawdles in semi-committed relationships so long that they never get around to having children. (I could be wrong here, but it sounds as if she has no kids.)

Anyhow, like millions of others, I really liked "Stay," and how can any male resist her cute, vulnerable, librarian vibe in the video clip? (Well, maybe rugby league players can, with their more lurid sexual fantasies and realities than mine, but we can't all be into toilet trysts.)

Loeb looks like the Anti-Winehouse, or Anti-Madonna if you like. (By the way, I wouldn't even recognise a Winehouse song if I heard one on the radio; I only know of her due to the appalling tatts and druggie look.) It's been ages since I've seen Loeb's cheap but charming video, but here we go. Enjoy:

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At last...

IR reforms asking for trouble | The Australian

Finally, Paul Kelly finds something about which to actually criticise the Rudd government. (It's the new, union-enhancing IR laws.)

Maybe these laws signal the end of many in industry cuddling up to this Labor government. (My pet theory is that so many of them have become used to not dealing with unions that have forgotten how intrusive they can be.) The laws are also coming at exactly the wrong time in the economic cycle.

Let's see what happens.

Well, it made me laugh

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Friday, November 28, 2008

Of little interest soon

Can't we hold torturers accountable and still find out the truth? - By Dahlia Lithwick - Slate Magazine

By the sounds of this article, an Obama administration is not going to try to prosecute Bush administration figures over their involvement in counterterrorism policies. (Assuming that they even can if the expected presidential pardons are made.)

They will instead hold a 9/11 style commission.

This prospect annoys many liberals as being too soft on Bush and co, but surely they should see that if indeed Obama is "tested" by more terrorism against Americans (and the Indian attacks are giving us a taste of this), public interest in how many people might have faced a waterboard under a Bush administration is going to be very, very low. (There is also going to be the distraction of a very severe recession.)

In other terrorism related stuff, John Quiggin takes the opportunity to make a statement of the obvious about a phrase which I thought had long gone out of use by all but the most stupid anyway:
As the cycle of war and terror has gone on, it’s become increasingly clear that the kind of easy evasion involved in slogans like “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” is no more tenable than the bogus arguments for war put forward by Bush and his followers.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Spoiler warning: Australia

Being allergic as I am to all Australian movies, it seems a fair assumption that "Australia" would cause a breakout of hives even if I walk past the cinema door while it's playing.

There is no doubt at all that many Australian critics are giving it an extra star or so just for being a large scale film by Baz Luhrmann; a director who, although married, has always seemed to display a "gay sensibility" in his movies. (He works in "operatic style" is how they put it on At the Movies last night, where both critics spent a lot of time on the faults but still ended up giving it 3 1/2 stars each.)*

Anyhow, apart from every review, whether good or bad, agreeing that the film is riddled with cliche, there is no doubt that the way the film deals with aborigines is going to attract a lot of derision from some quarters. This will be well deserved if these comments by Roger Ebert (who liked the film overall, but his judgment is wildly erractic) are anything to go by:
Luhrmann is rightly contemptuous of Australia's "re-education" policies; he shows Nullah taking pride in his heritage and paints the white enforcers as the demented racists they were. But "Australia" also accepts aboriginal mystical powers lock, stock and barrel, and that I think may be condescending.

Well, what do you believe? Can the aboriginal people materialize wherever they desire? Become invisible? Are they telepaths? Can they receive direct guidance from the dead? Yes, certainly, in a spiritual or symbolic sense. But in a literal sense? Many of the plot points in "Australia" depend on the dead King George's ability to survey events from mountaintops and appear to Nullah to point the way. The Australians, having for decades treated their native people as subhuman, now politely endow them with godlike qualities. I am not sure that is a compliment. What they suffered, how they survived, how they prevailed and what they have accomplished, they have done as human beings, just as we all must.

The film is filled with problems caused by its acceptance of mystical powers. If Nullah is all-seeing and prescient at times, then why does he turn into a scared little boy who needs rescuing?
Amongst the bad reviews that are out there (it scores a 51% on Rottentomatoes), I like the start to the one by Dana Stevens in Slate:
It's a mystery to me how Baz Luhrmann continues to be regarded as a director worth following. A long time has passed since I've regarded his lush, loud, defiantly unsubtle output with anything but dread.
As for the aboriginal content, she writes:
I guess I don't know enough about Australian racial politics to opine at length on this movie's vision of its aboriginal characters, but I will say that if my people were subjected to this simultaneously idealizing and condescending "magical Negro" treatment, I would seriously consider aiming a boomerang at Baz Luhrmann's head.
I certainly hope Anthony Lane writes the New Yorker review: I can imagine him being very witty about this.

* well it took a couple of attempts with different search terms, but it would appear that Luhrmann has not only admitted to a gay sensibility, but to active bisexuality.

UPDATE: Andrew Bolt points out Luhrmann's blatant dishonestly in one key plot point in the film. I wonder if this was co-writer Richard Flanagan's idea? Here he is, going on in great seriousness about the film.

The Indian attacks

Analysis: a new tactic by Islamist militants - Times Online

Some early analysis here, which also discusses more broadly the range of terrorist groups and issues within India.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Too much information: the Dutch method

Sex education: why the British should go Dutch - Times Online

Well, if all of this article is correct, the famous Dutch openness in sex education is enough to make every Australian parent I know squirm:
Next year, 12-year-old Sasha explains to me, they will learn how to put a condom on a broomstick (she says this without a trace of embarrassment, just a polite smile). Across the city, nine-year-old Marcus, who lives in a beautiful 18th-century house on a canal, has been watching a cartoon showing him how to masturbate. His sister, 11, has been writing an essay on reproduction and knows that it is legal for two consenting 12-year-olds to make love. Her favourite magazine, Girls, gives advice on techniques in bed, and her parents sometimes allow her to stay up to see a baby being born on the birthing channel.

Then there is Yuri, 16, who explains to me in perfect English that “anal sex hurts at the beginning but if you persevere it can be very pleasurable”. When I ask whether he is gay, he says “no” but he has watched a documentary on the subject with his parents.
Such mind-boggling openness is what is often credited for the remarkably low teen pregnancy and abortion rate in the country. And it's not that they are having "safe sex" early either: they actually start much later on average too.

The article becomes less salacious when it starts discussing the other social reasons why teen pregnancy is not so common there, and oddly enough, these are consistent with a more conservative ideology:
Another reason why the teenage pregnancy rate is so low may be that in the Netherlands there is still a stigma attached to having a child before the age of 20. In Britain, a baby who can offer unconditional love, a free home away from parents and a cheque every month is not considered a disaster for a teenage girl. The Dutch Government still penalises single mothers under 18, who are expected to live with their parents if they become pregnant. Until six years ago the Government gave them no financial support. ...

Braeker was shocked when she first came to Britain. “Young girls here seem to have babies to prove that they are adults. In the Netherlands it would just prove how uneducated and naive you are,” she says. “There you can have a boy as a friend, here it's almost always about sex.”
The other reason given is that families are closer because they are somewhat similar to the much derided ideal of a 1950's Australian nuclear family:
Dutch children are five times less likely to be living in a family headed by a lone parent, divorce rates are far lower and fewer mothers are in full-time employment.

“I think my eight-year-old son has probably learnt more about sex from David Attenborough than from school,” she says. “It is the family that makes the difference. Parents leave the office by 5pm in Holland and eat dinner with their children at 6pm. They then watch TV or play sport together, so they tend to be closer to their children and can guide them to do the right thing.”

Mind you, we then veer into the hard-to-believe openness again:
Trudie, a fashion stylist, has always talked about sex with her daughter. When, at 16, her daughter asked her what sperm looked like, Trudie asked her husband to provide a sample.
Bloody hell, whatever happened to having a couple of mice in a cage to teach the kids about reproduction?

Well, here's hoping that its possible to have the social change of kids believing that it's dumb to have sex too early, but without the addition of masturbation videos for 9 year olds.

Obama and FOCA

Obama's threat to Catholic hospitals and their very serious counterthreat. - Slate Magazine

Here's a good article on the issue of Obama, the highly contentious Freedom of Choice Act, and the Catholic Church's threat to close hospitals if it goes through.

I reckon Obama will secretly be hoping that there are enough Democrats in Congress with reservations to prevent it getting through, so that he doesn't have to sign it after all.

Janet & Ziggy today

Janet Albrechtsen has been to Israel (as a guest of the government and a Jewish group), and writes on a topic mentioned here many times before: the near impossibility of a long term solution if the Palestinians keep educating their kids to hate the Jews and not think seriously about accommodating Israel. She writes:
Look at the geography books for Palestinian children that encourage children to see no Israel, books that feature maps of Israel in the colours of the Palestinian flag, and described as Palestine. Learn about the May 2008 soccer championships for young boys in honour of terrorists such as Samir Quntar and Muhammad al-Mabhuh. Or the July 2008 summer camp held for young girls named in honour of female suicide bomber Dalal al-Mughrabi, who hijacked a holiday bus in 1978, murdering 12 children and 25 adults. Listen to Fatah-funded children’s television where children are taught to continue the way of the shahids (the suicide bombers) and quizzed about Mughrabi. She is presented as “the beloved bride, child of Jaffa, jasmine flower”. Or quizzes where children routinely identify Israeli landmarks, towns and ports such as Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat as Palestinian.
This was something I hadn't heard before:
According to the PMW, more than half of the Palestinian educators in the teachers’ union are affiliated with Hamas.
In other opinion in The Australian, Ziggy Switkoski continues his lonely promotion of nuclear power as a serious option for Australia. He never mentions pebble bed reactors, or other new technology, though.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The dark continent

It's amazing the extent of bad news that Africa is generating at the moment. The current "highlights" include:

1. Zimbabwe is on "the brink of collapse" (so they say; unfortunately, the government has hovering on the brink for an awfully long time). Cholera is the latest misery being added to the appalling government generated problems:
About 6,000 people have contracted cholera in recent weeks, according to the UN, and almost 300 have died. A chronic shortage of medicine has sent hundreds of people south to seek treatment in South Africa....

In the meantime, the economy has disintegrated and the health system is close to breakdown. Four big hospitals, including two in Harare, have effectively closed their doors to new patients owing to a shortage of basic supplies and running water
2. Ethiopia. Foreign Correspondent tonight had a story on famine in Ethiopia. (The video is not up on the website yet, but should be by the end of the week.)

It was odd to see that the countryside looked incredibly green and lush after recent rains, but apparently the failure of last year's crops still means there is not enough food now. The population was said to be about 80 million, which was much higher than I would have guessed.

The story was also noteworthy for showing up the questionable reliability of World Vision. The journalist visited a 14 year old girl that he had been sponsoring for years. It appeared that she had been barely aware that she was being sponsored until recently, when she was given a jacket and a pen. Certainly, the feedback that World Vision supplies as to what the sponsored child is doing (learning english, for example) does not appear reliable.

World Vision apparently said that the sponsorship money goes to community projects that benefit the children, but it was not clear in this story what they may have done for this child's community. It was not a good look, and World Vision will certainly be hoping that this does not get much coverage.

While watching undernourished people living in the lush green countryside, it was hard to avoid the thought that this was a country that really needed help with developing modern, efficient farming. According to Wikipedia, the problems range from the small farm size, to some of the farm practices:
Since the land holdings are so small, farmers cannot allow the land to lie fallow, which reduces soil fertility.[114] This land degradation reduces the production of fodder for livestock, which causes low amounts of milk production.[115] Since the community burns livestock manure as fuel, rather than plowing the nutrients back into the land, the crop production is reduced.[116] The low productivity of agriculture leads to inadequate incomes for farmers, hunger, malnutrition and disease. These unhealthy farmers have a hard time working the land and the productivity drops further.
These are problems that are in principle solvable, but it would seem none of the necessary reform is happening.

3. Somalia continues to be pirate capital. The Economist paints this grim picture:
With no proper government since 1991, it has been a bloody kaleidoscope of competing clans and fiefs. More than 1m, in a population once around 10m, have fled abroad; this year alone, the UN reckons, some 160,000 have been uprooted from Mogadishu, the capital, which has lost about two-thirds of its inhabitants over the years. The country is too dangerous for foreign charities, diplomats or journalists to function there permanently. Thousands of angry, rootless, young Somalis are proving vulnerable to the attractions of fundamentalist Islam in the guise of al-Qaeda and similar jihadist brands. The cash from piracy is probably fuelling the violence.
4. The Congo. I am currently reading "Congo Journey" by Redmond O'Hanlon, about his mid 1990's trip into the Congo. (Currently this is available as a $10 "Popular Penguin" edition in Australia.)

The corrupt, dangerous place that O'Hanlon writes about is in an even worse state now. In May this year, The Economist wrote about widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, and now the 17,000 strong UN peace keeping force needs re-enforcements that it is unlikely to get, and there is talk the place looks primed for a Rwandan style genocide.

What a depressing continent.

UPDATE: In an effort to be more upbeat, people could do worse, I suspect, than to donate to Catholic Relief Services, which appears to do a lot of work in Africa. It may just be my bias, of course, but I suspect that Catholic agencies would be pretty credible in the efficiency with which donations are used.

Out of curiosity, I just did a search for Islamic charities, and turned up Islamic Relief Worldwide, which currently features on its front page a graphic headed "donate now" that points out that "The practice of sacrificing an animal at Eid ul Adha acts as a reminder of the Prophet Ibrahim's obedience to Allah". Hmm.

UPDATE II: the BBC has this recent feature on the problem with foreign aid for Africa.

Your next weekly dose of bad ocean news

BBC NEWS | Science & Environment | Marine life faces 'acid threat'

Man-made pollution is raising ocean acidity at least 10 times faster than previously thought, a study says.

Researchers say carbon dioxide levels are having a marked effect on the health of shellfish such as mussels.

They sampled coastal waters off the north-west Pacific coast of the US every half-hour for eight years.

The results, published in the journal PNAS, suggest that earlier climate change models may have underestimated the rate of ocean acidification.
To be fair, some reported comments of one of the researchers involved are misleadingly expressed:
"Many sea creatures have shells or skeletons made of calcium carbonate, which the acid can dissolve," said Catherine Pfister, Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and a co-author of the study.
That could easily be taken to mean the ocean is actually turning into an acidic pH, but ocean acidification at its worst will still leave the ocean alkaline (just significantly less alkaline than it used to be.)

Anyhow, it's still bad news, by any interpretation.

The eternal critic

Robert Fisk: Once more fear stalks the streets of Kandahar

So, Robert Fisk is reporting from Afghanistan at the moment, noting the misery suffered by the population caught between the Taliban and Western forces. (Acid throwing on girls attending school has made a recent re-appearance.)

Fisk ends the above account by the spurious advice:
Barack Obama wants to send 7,000 more American troops to this disaster zone. Does he have the slightest idea what is going on in Afghanistan? For if he did, he would send 7,000 doctors.
A letter writer to the Independent responds appropriately: the absence of western forces, what is not explained is how medics and civilian contractors might operate in a region ruled by well-armed fanatics who don't want redevelopment, and who don't want schoolgirls they've maimed with acid to be treated. Even worse is the suggestion that we leave fellow members of the human race to such an appalling fate, when it is within our powers to try to help them.
But a comment made after the original article sums up Fisk perfectly, even if the spelling is lacking:
What you do Mr Fisk with your baby shaking naarratives that tunnell in on the details to obscure the big picture truth is preach a counsel of despair so the truly uncaring people of the world can continue to walk by on the other side of the road.

About Hillary

The last thing we need is a Clinton in charge of foreign policy. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Actually, given his intense dislike of all things Clinton, I think Hitchens sounds slightly restrained in this criticism of Hillary as Secretary of State.

Monday, November 24, 2008

A bunch of stuff to keep you going

Here's a quick post of links to this and that:

* Bryan Appleyard is back, and posting in amusing fashion about the rich and travel, the BBC and "risk taking", his ailments, and John Lennon's "Imagine" (he dislikes the song; so do I).

In fact, I seem to be in basic agreement with him about everything since his return. If only he didn't have that strange aberration of enjoying Olbermann!

* I have no idea whether the author of this article is a reliable pundit on China, but the picture he paints of the dramatic consequences of a serious economic slow down in China sounds plausible enough. (Basically, it's of social disruption on a pretty massive scale, as former factory workers return to the countryside to eke out a living in agriculture, or whatever.) I do get the impression that the West is overly optimistic on China being able to spend its way out of trouble.

* Victor Davis Hansen makes a list of ten politically incorrect complaints about America. Points 3 (about Hollywood being in a terrible creative slump at the moment) and 6 (about the American male accent not being what it used to be) are the most interesting. Here's a sample:
.....increasingly to meet a young American male about 25 is to hear a particular nasal stress, a much higher tone than one heard 40 years ago, and, to be frank, to listen to a precious voice often nearly indistinguishable from the female. How indeed could one make Westerns these days, when there simply is not anyone left who sounds like John Wayne, Richard Boone, Robert Duvall, or Gary Cooper much less a Struther Martin, Jack Palance, L.Q. Jones, or Ben Johnson? I watched the movie Twelve O’clock High the other day, and Gregory Peck and Dean Jagger sounded liked they were from another planet.
Certainly, having read this, I could not think of one convincing, male action hero who is currently in his prime and particularly "manly" in the way Hansen complains. Matt Damon? I don't think so.

* A lot of his commentors to this post by John Quiggin think that a carbon emissions trading scheme is too open to the abuses of a trading market, and argue a carbon tax avoids this problem. JQ does not answer them. (He may have elsewhere, but he - and nearly every other economist - just seem to be taking an ETS instead of a tax as a "given".)

* Finally: did you know that Japan has an all woman musical theatre troupe, owned by a train company (!) that has been doing large scale shows for nearly 100 years? The women play the male roles, and about 90% of the audience is women (causing much speculation as to what it is the audience is responding to.)

Anyhow, I had never heard of the Takarazuka Revue before, but there is a detailed Wikipedia entry. The shows they have put on have included such oddities (remember, it's women playing men) as adaptions of The Great Gatesby, Tom Jones, and (from "normal" theatre) The Sound of Music and West Side Story.

Very strange if you ask me.

Otherwise occupied...

For a day or two, is my guess.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Impressive storm video

Brisbane's been getting international attention for its storms this week. Fortunately, my side of town has missed the worst of it, although there is still tonight to worry about. If you want to see how bad it was in the worst hit part of town, have a look at this video. (Don't be misled by the first 90 seconds. Things really get going after that.)

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Friday, November 21, 2008

The robot director

As I type this, SBS is showing Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange."

Not having seen it before, I have watched about 45 minutes now. It is one seriously strange movie. That great movie critic Pauline Kael hated it. Even without seeing it all, I can tell that much of her assessment seems correct.

But the main comment that I wanted to make here is this: did Stanley Kubrick ever make a movie in which the actors seemed like real humans? (I haven't seen Barry Lyndon: maybe he made a breakthrough there.)

From his work that I have seen, their most distinctive characteristic is that he always seemed to be able to get the actors to make their character appear not quite human, rather as if they were robots acting as humans. In 2001, I thought that this was perhaps deliberate, since a certain blurring of the line between human and artificial intelligence played well into the subplot about HAL . Maybe Dr Strangelove, as a black satire, didn't need good acting either. As far as I can recall, Nicholson was pretty good at acting mad in The Shining , although I caught a little of it again the other night, and some of the supporting actors had the Kubrick "not quite there"-ness about them.

The same artifice was in Eyes Wide Shut and Full Metal Jacket, when they certainly could have benefited with more naturalist acting. (The former was eccentrically memorable, if far from realistic. The latter I thought a complete failure.)

It's actually a bit puzzling as to how he achieved the robotisation of his actors. Was it because of his famous willingness to shoot the same scene tens of times over, trying to achieve some kind of perfection in detail that only he could see? One can imagine that this would drain the actors ability to appear human.

Or was it just a certain clumsiness in his scripts?

Of course, the issue of artificial intelligence was again dealt with in the Spielberg collaboration "AI". It's another peculiar movie in many respects, but A Clockwork Orange certainly removes any doubt that its strangeness sprang from Kubrick, not Spielberg. But you can see from AI that Spielberg is like the reverse Kubrick: he can get actors playing robots appear very human!

Spielberg has said in interviews that Kubrick told him the project needed his (Spielberg's) touch, and if his goal was to have the audience sympathetic to the plight of robot intelligences, this was certainly true.

Kubrick was an interesting film maker, and for all of his deficiencies, 2001 was a remarkable achievement. It's just a pity that in his other films, he showed so little sign of being able to replicate convincing human behaviour on screen.

But the Olympics looked good

ABC News: Mom in China Freed Without Forced Abortion
A six-month pregnant mother of two who faced a forced abortion by Chinese authorities has been freed and allowed to continue her pregnancy, according to Radio Free Asia. The case had attracted international attention and outrage.
The case was reported in The Age some days ago, but I had missed it.

Last year, NPR reported on a spate of forced abortions in at least one part of China, some very late term. The report notes a possible reason for such draconian action:
...the Baise government missed its family planning targets last year. The recorded birth rate was 13.61 percent, slightly higher than the goal of 13.5 percent. This is significant because the career prospects of local officials depend upon meeting these goals.
And people wonder why the Olympics left me cold.

Confusion and the Quran

A new translation of the Quran. - By Reza Aslan - Slate Magazine

I've noted before that the Quran is difficult to read as it is not a narrative, or laid out in any other logical or consistent style. This article in Slate goes into more detail about its confusing and highly uncertain nature.

I hadn't heard this before:
....Sura 4:34, which has long been interpreted as allowing husbands to beat their wives: "As for those women who might rebel against you, admonish them, abandon them in their beds, and strike them (adribuhunna)." The problem, as a number of female Quranic scholars have noted, is that adribuhunna can also mean "turn away from them." It can even mean "have sexual intercourse with them."
Well, to say the least, that's a rather wide range of possible interpretations. (Rather like the issue as to whether the martyrs are to expect virgins or grapes in Heaven.)

The article notes that an author of a new translation tries to paint this confusing and mystifying nature of the book in a positive light:
It is through the attempt to make sense of our confusions, to work through them with reason and with faith, that the Quran's dramatic monologue transforms into an eternal dialogue between humanity and God. Indeed, of all the sacred texts of the world, Khalidi argues that the Quran is perhaps the one that most self-consciously invites the reader to engage with it, to challenge it, to ponder and to debate it. After all, as the Quran itself states, only God knows what it truly means.
Well, if true, this would suggest that it's a religion primed for liberalising interpretations. But the situation in the real world is quite to the contrary.

It also seems a bit mean-spirited of God to deliver his word via a language which is (apparently) especially capable of misinterpretation.

Next action: suring for the right to leg space

Obese have right to two airline seats | Oddly Enough | Reuters

From the report:
The high court declined to hear an appeal by Canadian airlines of a decision by the Canadian Transportation Agency that people who are "functionally disabled by obesity" deserve to have two seats for one fare.
Anything in the decision preventing an airline charging a premium for the extra weight, though? Extra weight means extra fuel costs, and they already offer discounted fares for those who limit the weight of their luggage.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Indian journalism: a continuing series

Time for more examples of Indian journalism, with its amazing disregard for any sense of privacy, and delicious deadpan delivery:

1. A man diagnosed with HIV commits suicide by jumping out of a hospital window. Are you wondering why?:
Investigating officials said that they recorded his wife's statement in which she has mentioned that Jhatak had lost interest in everything and wanted to die. "It could have been the reason why he took the extreme step," said officials.
2. A nurse commits suicide in another city. Curious as to why?:
The exact reason for the suicide could not be ascertained, but her mother Mordi Devi alleged that Jagbir [the late woman's husband] was having an extramarital affair and that was why her daughter was depressed.
Jagbir says: "Thanks for sharing, mother-in-law."

3. OK, this one doesn't have anything to do with privacy, but take note. When in Delhi, watch out for the Blueline buses:
More than 70 people have been killed this year under the wheels of Blueline buses.

Last year, at least 120 people were run over by Blueline buses.
They should never have shown Death Race 2000 in India.

4. Finally, this story puts me very much in mind of Bonnie & Clyde, with the added element of pigs:
A 48-km chase for four hours and firing of 10 rounds by the police, breaking of barricades as well as running over police vehicles, and pigs being hurled at the police vehicles preceded the arrest of two suspects who allegedly stole pigs from a piggery at Sutardara.
The details are worth reading. I suspect the police actually found it kind of thrilling:
When sub-inspector Satish Shinde tried to stop the thieves by placing his jeep in the middle of the road, the tempo dashed the jeep and sped off. Near Warje octroi post also they ran over a police block and constable Amol Tanpure fired six rounds at the tempo.

"During the chase, the suspects threw stones and the stolen pigs at the police vehicle. Meanwhile, several police vehicles joined the chase.... The Dattawadi police had blocked the road near Rajaram bridge. But the tempo driver sped over the block and sub-inspector Ramakant Shinde of Dattawadi police station fired a round at the tempo," Deshmukh said....

Speaking to TOI, constable Amol Tanpure said, "We were chasing them from Sutardara. When their tempo reached the Warje octroi post, "I fired four rounds, but they managed to flee. I chased them and again fired two rounds at them."......

Sandip Mane, a relative of Jadhav, who was driving the car which was chasing the thieves, said: "At first the thieves pelted stones at my car, damaging its windscreen. Later, they hurled pigs towards us at Chandni Chowk, near Warje octroi post and on Sinhagad road. All the pigs died as they came under the wheels of the police vehicles. They even hit my car twice."

Defending Disney

Defend Disney from his Mickey Mouse critics | Daniel Finkelstein - Times Online

Finkelstein gives a spirited defence of Disney the man (and the corporation too, by the way.)

I haven't talked about Tokyo Disney yet. This weekend, maybe. Yes, I know you can't wait.

A new skin cancer fighting compound

Vitamin helps prevent skin cancer (ScienceAlert)

Ain't democracy grand?

Power Line - How Obama Got Elected

A funny/slightly disturbing article at Powerline about what Obama voters apparently knew about certain issues.

The only thing against worrying about this sort of stuff, I suppose, is that either side of politics can benefit by popularly held but mistaken beliefs. (Also, there is only so much that can be done to stop people being mistaken. I mean, do we expect the media or the Republicans to even realise that they have to keep reminding people that the Republicans already don't control Congress?)

Obama is the beneficiary of this time, but its probably all swings and roundabouts in the long run.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Avoid, avoid

Club Troppo - Another thirty minutes with Barrie Kosky

Many people who read me would also read the much more widely known Club Troppo, but in case you missed it, Nicholas Gruen's description of the 60 minutes he has accidentally seen of Barrie Kosky directed shows is pretty funny. Well, at least if you find descriptions of self indulgent modern theatre funny.

A bit of history

The Last to Die | Military Aviation | Air & Space Magazine

Air & Space Magazine has a sad but interesting story about the last American killed in air combat in World War II. It was above Tokyo, after Japan had surrendered.

(That magazine is of such high quality, and puts a lot of its content on line. Thanks, Smithsonian!)

Your weekly dose of bad ocean news

Marine dead zones set to expand rapidly : Nature News
Rising levels of carbon dioxide could increase the volume of oxygen-depleted 'dead zones' in tropical oceans by as much as 50% before the end of the century — with dire consequences for the health of ecosystems in some of the world's most productive fishing grounds....

A team led by Andreas Oschlies of the Leibniz Institute of Marine Sciences in Kiel, Germany, has now used a global model of climate, ocean circulation and biogeochemical cycling to extrapolate existing experimental results of the effects of altered carbon and nutrient chemistry on dissolved oxygen to the global ocean1. They found that a CO2-rich world will only have a small impact on waters at middle and high latitudes. But in all tropical oceans the volume of 'oxygen-minimum' zones will substantially increase as ocean bacteria feed on the algae that will flourish as a result of the elevated CO2 levels.

"Carbon dioxide fertilizes biological production," says Oschlies. "It's really like junk food for plants. When the carbon-fattened excess biomass sinks it gets decomposed by bacteria which first consume the oxygen, and then the nutrients."
In one of my earlier posts on ocean acidification, I had questioned whether algal blooms caused by more CO2 might be a bad thing for this very reason. (Some sceptics argue that more algae operating as a carbon sink will be a good thing. But obviously, it has a massive down side.)

Again, as far as I can see, this is an ocean danger story that is getting little press attention. Bah.

A danger sign hard to foresee

It takes courage to say the f-word: failure - Alan Ramsey

Hey, Alan Ramsey did us a favour last weekend by printing something I had missed earlier. Ken Henry (head of Treasury) had this to say at his Press Club lunch during the week:

"The array of financial instruments deployed within the global financial system has become so complex that it defies understanding. It's not just that nobody, no one person, understands the whole system. That would be hardly surprising. What is worrying is the very large number of senior finance sector executives who don't appear to understand the consequences of even their own decisions, of their own actions.

"The second dimension is closely related.

"It has to do with risk, it has to do with uncertainty. Complex financial instruments have been traded globally in ways that were thought to provide a more comfortable sharing of risk across the world. Instead, what they've shared is fear. People now not only don't know who they can trust, they don't even know who they need to be able to trust.

"And the third dimension I want to identify is the role played by regulation and, more broadly, the role played by governance systems. For decades to come, policy makers around the world are going to be asking why those with sufficient authority didn't, at some point, stand above the buzz of the financial markets and declare, in simple language, that all of this simply doesn't make sense."

It's the first bit about the complexity reaching a level that no one can understand that is the most interesting.

I mean, how do you judge exactly when that has happened? Which world famous economist is going to be the first to admit that he can't understand it all?

The future foreseen

One day, when the giant flying saucer arrives, it will beam an announcement to all TVs and radios, informing us that they are from the Pan Galactic Eugenics Society, and the world's smartest human must be delivered for intelligence testing via the most devious, intricate and maddening puzzle that has ever been devised. The fate of the earth will rest in that person's hands.

Inside the saucer, the chosen brainiac with mad scientist hair waits anxiously. "Here" booms the alien voice, "is the test." A curtain starts sliding open silently. "Assemble this!"

Behind the curtain is a digital flat screen TV the size of a house with 50 speaker surround sound system, disc player, three different types of media recorder and cable connection.

This is how the Earth will end.

Monday, November 17, 2008

A short, jumbled note

For a variety of reasons, not the least being the state government's refusal to do anything about daylight saving in Brisbane, so that at this time of year the sun is actually making it all bright and cheery (ha!) by rising at 4.45am, I am not getting enough sleep lately.

Maybe this is why I was having a peculiar dream last night in which I was busy investigating a rice throwing poltergeist which seemed to be connected with some bodies buried under a building, except that when I dug them up they weren't real bodies at all but dummies, which then led me to suspect that some engineers I knew were behind it all, and so on.

Usually, I can work out pretty quickly what it was that I had recently watched or read that caused me to have a jumbled dream, but I can't remember reading anything about poltergeists for quite a while. I suppose I idly think about the personality deficiencies of engineers I have known from time to time, though.

Anyhow, to continue the jumbled theme of this post, I note that time devoted to the internet is actually interfering way too much with my vague attempts to make money lately. I'm going to attempt to insist on limiting posts to the evenings for a while. Maybe this software will help in my task.

Meanwhile, please admire the giant playground robot in the last post, and tell me if you have seen anything better.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Unusual photos of Japan

Here's some of the more unusual photos from my recent Japan trip:

First, the impressive giant playground robot:

I am not sure how many of these may exist in Japan; it looked a little old but not in bad condition. The only semi-equivalent thing I can remember from Australia was a cage like three level rocket ship which used to grace the kids playground at Toombul Shopping Town in the late 60's. This giant robot was in a rather out of the way location in Japan, which I am willing to divulge for the right amount of money to any eccentric reader who wants to use it when videotaping their own fan version of The Wicker Man.

Secondly, breaking my rule that it's too cheap to make fun of foreigners and their English spelling mistakes:

Next, a sign encouraging people to dispose of their cigarette butts carefully, because if you don't, it'll upset the sewer rats (as always,click to enlarge):

Another sign, this one hard to read in full, but it encourages good behaviour on the trains, with some fairly obvious suggestions (which may be paraphrased as "smoke spreads" and "don't sit with your legs too far apart"):

(I have a feeling that I have seen this series of posters blogged about somewhere else some time ago, but haven't gone looking yet.)

Finally, the hungry, hungry fish:

OK, not the funniest photo to finish with, but it's late, alright?

Friday, November 14, 2008

Charles on cars

RealClearPolitics - Articles - A Lemon of a Bailout

Charles Krauthammer looks at the issue of saving the American car industry. All rather relevant to Rudd's plans too.

Unintended consequences

Neb. Parents Rush to Abandon Children -

Silly legislators.

Urgent therapy needed

Jules Crittenden Why Palin Matters

I don't normally read Andrew Sullivan, but it's hard to avoid dropping in every day or two now to see whether his absolute obsession with crushing any political future for Sarah Palin is continuing.

Indeed it is! (If I am counting correctly, there are 10 separate posts dated 13 Nov referring to Palin in one way or another. Even after his readers have told him he is being obsessive - hence his posts seeking to justify why he is still writing about her.)

Jules Crittenden post about this (see above) it is amusing and to the point.

But it doesn't go far enough. If it's good enough for gays to always be claiming there's a hidden psycho-sexual reason behind things like opposition to gay marriage (you know, it's the repressed homosexuality that leads to homophobia that leads to...etc,) Andrew Sullivan seems to be a much more convincing case for hidden motives for hostility.

Jim Treacher has already gone partly this way in his comment to Crittenden's post: "Sullivan hates her because she’s obviously better at making a man happy than he is."

Possibly, but I think Sullivan has been having recurring dreams in which he's aroused by finding Sarah in his bed, beckoning him. The shame, the shame.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The talented neighbours from hell

Review: The House of Wittgenstein by Alexander Waugh

Terry Eagleton reviews a new book on the Wittgenstein family. They were brilliant, rich, and absolutely brimming with mental disorders and argument.

In Australian we generally expect renting neighbours to be more noisy and troublesome that owner-occupiers. This clearly did not apply in Austria, at least when it came to this family.

Is it OK to find this section blackly funny (especially the part about Hans' first word)?:
The sons of the household had a distressing habit of doing away with them selves. Handsome, intelligent, homosexual Rudolf strolled into a Berlin bar, dissolved potassium cyanide into his glass of milk and died in agony on the spot. Two years earlier, Hans Karl had disappeared without trace and is thought to have killed himself at sea. He was a shy, ungainly, possibly autistic child with a prodigious gift for maths and music, whose first spoken word was "Oedipus". He, too, was thought to be gay. Kurt seems to have shot himself "without visible reason" while serving as a soldier in the first world war. The philosopher Ludwig claims to have begun thinking about suicide when he was 10 or 11.
Paul, a classmate of Adolf Hitler, became an outstanding concert pianist. Unusually for male members of the family, he was robustly heterosexual. The Wittgenstein ménage was more like a conservatoire than a family home: Brahms, Mahler and Richard Strauss dropped in regularly, while Ravel wrote his "Concerto for the Left Hand" specially for Paul, who had lost an arm in the first world war. Paul thought his brother Ludwig's philosophy was "trash", while Ludwig took a dim view of Paul's musical abilities. The Winter Palace resounded with constant yelling and vicious squabbling.

Only in Japan

Aso's fish slip gives game away | The Japan Times Online

Read the story for an amusing, and particularly Japanese, controversy about their Prime Minister.

Gunfight at the Catallaxy Corral

Obama the rorschach president at catallaxyfiles

Watch the bullets fly in the comments section between CL and Jason.

And further down, JC makes this comment, which sounds about right. It's hard to see why anyone would want to be president this time around, but I guess they didn't realise that 'til they were too far in.

The sad numbers game

Fears over shortage of sperm donors

The article is from The Independent, and is about the shortage of sperm donors in the UK, following changes to the law that gives adult children the right to trace their father.

The figures are surprisingly high:

The doctors said around 4,000 UK patients needed donor sperm each year.

Therefore, a minimum of 500 new donors were needed each year to meet demand, they argued.

Compared to how many abortions per year?: around 194,000.

One donor in Britain is allowed to father 10 children. Sounds high to me, but the doctors say this level is "very, very safe".

Even more surprising, however, is that the Dutch allow up to 25 children from one donor father (and that is in a population of only 16,000,000.) France, by comparison, allows only five, and it would appear that in one State of Australia it is 10.

Meanwhile, one "freelance" idiot in Australia is believed to have fathered 30 children (to lesbian mothers), and mostly in the one city.

I can't quickly find how many sperm donor births there would be overall in Australia, but the total number of "assisted conception" babies is now around 10,000 a year.

And in comparison, the number of babies put up for adoption in Australia last year: about 60. (Remarkably, you will see from page vii of that link that there were only 568 adoptions in total in Australia in 2006-07. Of these, 70% were from overseas.)

No one knows accurately how many abortions there are in Australia each year, but the guesstimate appears to be anywhere from 80,000 to 100,000.

Seems to me that it's about time some effort was put back in to suggesting adoption might be a preferred solution to the wild mismatch of reproductive desires that these figures indicate.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A useful clarification

Uncertain Principles: Many-World vs. Multiverse:

The Many-Worlds Interpretation talks (in its popular formulation) about "alternate worlds" in which particular measurements had different outcomes. It's not quite right to talk about these as separate universes in their own right (really, they're just different parts of the same universal wavefunction), but that's the basic idea-- there is a branch of the wavefunction corresponding to each of the possible outcomes of any particular measurement, and those branches are inaccessible to one another.

Multiverse Cosmology, on the other hand, posits the existence of other "universes" in which the constants of nature have slightly different values. Depending on which flavor of it you're dealing with, these may be completely separate parallel worlds (other Big Bangs leading to other universes) or "bubbles" within a single cosmos, stemming from the same Big Bang.

The comments that follow that post are also of interest.

Probably not a kimchi factory after all

Row over claims of Syrian nuclear find | World news | The Guardian

Unnamed diplomats said on Monday that samples taken by UN inspectors from Kibar in northern Syria contained traces of uranium combined with other elements. The uranium was processed, suggesting some kind of nuclear link.

"It isn't enough to conclude or prove what the Syrians were doing, but the IAEA has concluded this requires further investigation," said a diplomat with links to the Vienna-based watchdog.

For some reason, the Guardian story does not remind us of the North Korean connection. (Hence the title of this post.)

So that's why the British go there

Dubai hotel issues etiquette guide after sex on the beach scandal -Times Online

Dubai has been attracting a lot of attention for all the wrong reasons lately, and given that the weather is hellishly hot for most the year, and it appears to have no significant natural beauty (sand desert holds no interest for me at least), I am curious as to why people go there.

The above article may explain one reason:

Brunches take place across Dubai every Friday, the first day of the Dubai weekend, and are heavily promoted in Dubai's Time Out and enjoyed to the full by expatriates.

The lavish affairs last from late morning into the early evening when diners can enjoy unlimited food and alcohol for a fixed entry fee.

In the case of the Madinat Jumeirah the charge is £88, which includes bottomless champagne, cocktails and wine between 12:30pm and 4:30pm.

I like one of the comments that follow the story:

Oh dear, - I've been, I've seen and I won't be going back. A nauseating mix of Las Vegas and the 12th Century...

A day late

Truth and the casualties of war - Gerard Henderson - Opinion -

I meant to post this yesterday, but Gerard Henderson's column about the swings in the perception of Australia's role in WW1 seemed pretty good.

He referred to the Four Corners program on Monday evening, most of which I saw. One simple thing I noticed about it was that the historical black and white film looked unusually clear and sharp to my eye: perhaps it had been cleaned up recently with some software?

There was one historian who made comments that I did not agree with, but most of the comments in the show seemed fair enough.

There is so much complexity, ambiguity and revision about World War 1 that it is a topic I have always been reluctant to delve into too deeply. At least things got much, much clearer by the time of World War 2, and having parents involved in that makes it much more directly of interest.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Wind and the grid

If You Love Wind (and Solar)… - Dot Earth Blog -

Here's another post about the problems that the current highly variable output from renewable energy can cause the electricity grid.

The parasite of love

Dopamine is key to a parasite’s ability to unite rat and cat, researcher says

Regular readers may well recall that it's been know for some time that rats infected with toxoplasma gondii lose their fear of the smell of cat urine.

What appears new to the story, however, is that the smell of cats not only doesn't worry them, it:
...also makes them mentally and sexually aroused each time their tiny pink noses detect cat smells. ...

"What this damn parasite knows how to do is make cat urine smell sexy to male rats," Sapolsky said. After being exposed in laboratory tests to different cat scents, infected male rats showed a spike in testosterone levels and their testes became engorged.
Not only that, but female rats find infected male rats pretty sexy too:
....female rats also responded to the change in hormone levels by showing preference toward infected males approximately 95 percent of the time, Sapolsky said, which came as another interesting find.

"One of the rules of evolutionary biology is if you're an animal, you don't want to mate with anyone full of parasites," Sapolsky said. "Somehow that doesn't happen with T. gondii infection."

Well then, maybe we are lucky that toxoplasma gondii didn't work out how to make the evolutionary proto-human males of Africa sexually aroused by lions.

(I can see the basis for some good science fiction in this story too.)

The Doctor Fizzles

I was away when the last episode of the last series of Dr Who screened here, and I finally saw it on tape last night.

I know from LP that it attracted criticism for the perceived anti-feminist way it treated Donna, but really, that was the least of its problems.

The last two episodes were pretty much a complete mess. Russell T Davies had really hit some sort of creative block, I reckon, in trying to wrap it all up. Here are my complaints:

1. it took the usual deus ex machina feature of the show to pretty ridiculous heights. Having a fake regeneration as a link between the last two episodes was a paticularly cynical trick, in my books.

2. the special effects (the 27 planets, the thousands of Daleks) all looked unusually cheesy. (Computer generated effects which mulitply anything too much - be it soldiers, ships, spaceships - just automatically look too fake to my eye.)

3. Rose still had the distracting bizarre thing where she couldn't seem to remember exactly how she used to speak. Her upper and lower teeth at times just seemed weirdly misaligned (or something) in her mouth. I find this all very odd.

4. All of the initial crying and carry on by the Doctor's pals when they saw it was the Daleks who had moved the earth seemed out of character defeatism.

5. The blaring music, which I have noted before is often what sells the excitement in the show, was really so continuous this time that it was annoying.

6. Bringing all the Davies created characters together was a nice idea, but it still did not allow enough time for each of them to impress. The sudden appearance of K9 seemed especially stuck on in a "tick the box" kind of manner.

7. Both Donna and Rose were just getting a bit too soppy about their relationship with the Doctor, if you ask me. For characters that are nearly killed in every episode, can't they take a bit more comfort in a return home and the occasional visit from the Doctor for a cup of tea?

There are probably more points, but that's all I can recall for now.

Uh huh

Steven Weber: Now We Must

Huffington Post is, of course, chock-a-block with excitement over the dawning of New Era of the Obama Messiah-dom. Seemingly, this is a new step in the evolution of humankind, or something:
...Obama will automatically be a good president not because he's the first black man to be elected or because he's a Democrat but because he is an actual, evolved, progressive, intelligent American.
As opposed to that monkey George W, I suppose.

As for Obama's talents:
Along with showcasing his brilliance as a student of history and law, his ability to manage and delegate, his mass appeal and preternatural communicative abilities, his election means that---finally---a national dialogue will begin in earnest. The conversation will be national therapy, with all of the demons bubbling to the surface. And along with racial stereotypes being torn down like dilapidated crack houses, Liberals and Conservatives are being redefined, maps redrawn, hopes fulfilled.
"The Messiah-doctor will see you now, America."

At least one Huffington reader thinks this might be going a little over the top:
I find the messianic undertones or your article a little disturbing.

Huge waste of effort

Canberra calls net filter trial | Australian IT

Monday, November 10, 2008

From the Journal of Pointless Experiments

The challenges of eating right on a limited budget - International Herald Tribune:
The World Bank says nearly a billion people around the world live on a dollar a day, or even less; in the United States, the daily food-stamp allowance is typically just a few dollars per person, while the average American eats $7 worth of food per day...

This fall a couple in Encinitas, California, conducted their own experiment to find out what it was like to live for a month on just a dollar a day for food. Overnight, their diets changed significantly.

You don't say. What type of person would think such an experiment makes sense?:
...the couple - Christopher Greenslate, 28, and Kerri Leonard, 29, both high school social studies teachers - bought raw beans, rice, cornmeal and oatmeal in bulk, and made their own bread and tortillas. Fresh fruits and vegetables weren't an option.
Um, no doubt a dollar a day is not a lot of money for anyone in the world. But do a couple of social studies teachers really need to be told that $1 might buy you more in, say, Africa than it will in California? (Or, for that matter, that many of the poor do grow at least some of their own food.)

Who's Obama going to talk to?

Al Jazeera English - Middle East - Where now for Palestinian unity?:
The emnity between rival Palestinian factions Hamas and Fatah seems yet further entrenched, after Cairo-brokered reconciliation talks between the two groups broke down before they had even officially begun.

The Palestinian national dialogue, due to be held on Monday in the Egyptian capital, was to have been attended by all the major Palestinian political factions....

Hassan Essa, an Egyptian political analyst, academic and former director of the Israeli department within the ministry of foreign affairs, says the chances of ever brokering a settlement between the two sides are slim.

"The amount of mistrust between Hamas and Fatah is enormous. Hamas has ties with Iran, this is no secret, which makes Hamas not free to take the Palestinian decisions - because Iran is playing with the Palestinian cause."
Over to you Obama: good luck, you'll be needing it.

Good news

Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

Madagascar 2 appears to have satisfied most critics, with some giving it the rare compliment (for a sequel) of saying it is better than the first.

The clips look quite good, and I would see it with or without children.

The fight over birthdays

Don't let them eat cake, Saudi cleric says - Los Angeles Times
Saudi Arabia's most senior Muslim cleric recently denounced birthday parties as an unwanted foreign influence, but another prominent cleric declared they were OK.
I assume, then, that gay marriage might not be coming to Islam any time soon.

Yeah, this'll help

Schwarzenegger tells backers of gay marriage: Don't give up
Today, Schwarzenegger urged backers of gay marriage to follow the lesson he learned as a bodybuilder trying to lift weights that were too heavy for him at first. "I learned that you should never ever give up. . . . They should never give up. They should be on it and on it until they get it done."

The governor's comments came as protesters took to the streets for a fifth day in a row, sometimes marching to Catholic and Mormon churches that supported passage of the ballot measure with public pronouncements and campaign donations.
Bully tactics seem hardly likely to encourage the conservative acceptance of gay marriage that these activists want to see.

The argument which they want to promote in their legal challenge is that "votes can't take away rights." But surely any argument along those lines only encourages the "slippery slope" counterargument that polygamists will argue they have a right to marry too. If anything, the polygamists have a much, much stronger historical and anthropological grounds to argue that polygamy is a "right" deserving of legal recognition in all nations, not just some. If you are a gay person who argues that polygamists do not have a right to a marriage licence, what is it about the idea of gay couples that gives them a "better" right?

The truth is, of course, that it is not a matter of "rights" at all.

As for the argument that preventing gays from marrying is the same as legislating against inter-racial marriage, the best answer to that I have seen was in the First Things blog:

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries state legislatures and courts in the South were prepared to deconstruct and redefine marriage in order to achieve racist goals. For them, race was everything. Similarly, the Supreme Courts of Hawaii and Alaska were also prepared to deconstruct and redefine marriage to advance their vision of social transformation. In Hawaii, the Supreme Court explicitly declared that the State “created” the institution of marriage and thus could redefine it to include persons of the same sex. For them, the only two players in civil society are autonomous, freely-contracting individuals and the state.

Just as the racists tried to redefine marriage for their purposes, thereby distorting its genuine meaning, the Alaskan and Hawaiian courts tried to do the same thing. In both cases the state attempted to redefine marriage to achieve its ideal of an improved society. Both were unjustly tampering with the most crucial pre-political society of all–the unique community of marriage, based upon the union of the two sexes.

Good point, I reckon. I still remain amazed at how quickly the idea of gay marriage has caught on in the liberal West.

Boys and bad PR

Adoptive parents believe boys are 'too much trouble' - The Independent

In England:
Boys wait twice as long for families in some parts of the country, as agencies struggle to challenge negative attitudes among parents, according to research by the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF).
Black boys in particular take time to be adopted. One agency complains, though, that social workers are too conservative in trying to stick to middle class, married couples:
"...we have to work harder to get some social workers to see what a single person or a same-sex couple can offer a child."
It would be an odd consequence of the attitudes of white married couples if it meant more black kids end up in gay households.

Catholics went for Obama

Religious voters helped Obama to victory - Los Angeles Times

The Catholic vote went 54% to Obama.

Maybe some of that was due to the Hispanic vote going heavily for him, on the grounds of a friendlier immigration policy?

But looking closer at the figures, it is perhaps not as rebellious as it seems:
While Obama won the Catholic vote overall 54% - 45%, among Catholics who attend mass every week, McCain won 55% - 43%. Clearly the main reason Obama succeeded overall was the fact that Catholic voters echoed the concerns of the rest of the electorate in citing the economy as their top issue..

A bit of history missed

Memorial service held for widow of 'Japan's Schindler'

I don't recall hearing about "Japan's Schindler", Chiune Sugihara, before:
Spielberg has praised Chiune as ‘‘Japan’s Schindler,’’ comparing his deeds to those of Oskar Schindler, the German factory owner in Poland who provided Jews with safe haven during World War II and was depicted in Spielberg’s film, ‘‘Schindler’s List.’’ Chiune, who was the consul general in the then Lithuanian capital of Kaunas from 1938 to 1940, is known for rescuing 6,000 Jews from the Holocaust.

Chiune repeatedly sought permission from the Japanese Foreign Ministry to issue visas for the fleeing Jews. But his request was turned down. He then issued them with transit visas on his own initiative. Records show that the recipients traveled via Siberia and Japan to eventual safety in the United States and other destinations.
There is a lengthy Wikipedia post about him. Interesting story. (Although Sugihara acted against his instructions from Japan, I didn't realise the Japanese government generally resisted the urging from Germany to take action against any Jews under its control.)

Thanks for your great sense of timing, guys

Recycle sewage 'as a last resort' | The Australian

I don't get this. I don't know exactly when the Queensland government started working on its sewage recycling plan for Brisbane water, but it certainly got a lot of attention when the water levels in the dams got well below 20% (Wivenhoe got to 15%,) and people were losing well established plants and trees in their yards from the dry. No one could say with certainty at what level the remaining dam water might be too hard to treat. There was some speculation that maybe at around 5%, the dams would be effectively empty anyway.

With that situation, I think most people accepted the government reassurances that it was a safe process, and took the use of such water in Singapore as an example of its safety.

Now the dams are up to 40%, and if we have a relatively "normal" summer, that level could well increase over the next few months. But the government still wants to kick start the system and start pumping treated water into Wivenhoe dam in February.

As this was always the plan, (unless dams had got to 100%, I suppose), why is it only now that various scientist types are starting to say that it may not be a good idea after all? And we are hearing that the Singapore experience is not really similar: most of its recycled water goes into industrial use, apparently.

The only obvious reason to start pumping the water into Wivenhoe in February is likely to be so the government can avoid an accusation that it has wasted money on a facility that was not needed. But can't the treated water now be scaled down and somehow diverted into industrial use until we really do need it to ensure a drinking supply?

This is going to be a hot issue for sometime yet, one suspects.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Saturday night cooking

Here at Opinion Dominion's dominion, it's often your writer's duty to do the Saturday night cooking. I used to usually succeed at this, but for some or other, efforts this year have not been as successful as in the past. The attempt at chicken gumbo was particularly unfortunate, but I blame the recipe book.

Anyhow, last night's effort was a new recipe that turned out pretty successful, although next time we will try a bit less chorizo, and more scallops and basil. The recipe itself is from this week's Brisbane News: (not sure if that link will last more than a week, though):

Olive oil
2 red onions, diced
1 red capsicum, diced
2 chorizo sausages, sliced into 1cm rounds
½tsp sweet paprika
4 garlic cloves, crushed
30ml red wine vinegar
1tbs brown sugar
Salt & pepper
4 basil leaves, shredded
8 scallops, roe off

Heat a splash of olive oil in a medium-sized pan. Saute onion and capsicum over a gentle heat until soft but not browned. add chorizo, paprika and garlic. Saute until chorizo is just cooked. add vinegar and sugar. Reduce heat and simmer until the sauce starts to caramelise. Season with salt and pepper and then toss through the basil. Set aside. Grill or pan-fry scallops for 2 mins on each side. Fold through capsicum sauce and serve. Serves 2.

Brisbane News has always been a very high quality free weekly, particularly in its food sections. Its website has a lot of great recipes from past editions on line.

By the way, last night's wine: Deakin Estate 2008 Sauvignon Blanc: an excellent example of why there is not often a need to spent more than $10 for a bottle of wine in Australia.

Smell the money

Dubai's beaches face a stinking problem :

For several weeks some of the emirate's fabled beaches have been covered with the stinking contents of septic tanks as Dubai suffers the consequences of its frantic and poorly controlled development.

The foul effluent, which threatens to damage Dubai's image, highlights one of the paradoxes of the emirates -- it can build the world's tallest tower and six-star hotels but has not constructed the sewage works it needs....

...the city still has no main drainage system, hence the need for tankers to collect the contents of septic tanks and transport the waste to the emirate's only sewage treatment works at Al-Awir, out in open desert.

The problem is that the tanker drivers have to wait for hours in the heat to get into the sewage works, hence the temptation to dump it into the sea, or just in the middle of the desert.

Oddly, Dubai is not the only rich Arab city that lags in investing in decent waste disposal:
The Jeddah Municipality has signed three contracts worth SR95 million on Saturday with specialized companies to clean up the “Musk Lake,” an open, seeping body of raw sewage east of Jeddah, according to Ibraheem Kutubkhana, deputy mayor for constructions and projects....

More than 800 tanker trucks dump raw sewage into the lake daily. Most of Jeddah’s sewage is handled by on-site septic systems that require fleets of trucks to periodically empty.

The city also dumps untreated sewage directly into the Red Sea because the infrastructure is inadequate to handle the amount of waste produced by residents.

"Musk Lake" might be an open cesspit, but it looks like a fairly pretty one. The reason for some urgency in cleaning up it might have something to do with this:
...a breach in the sand dam, which is blocking the lake, that could lead to massive flooding in the eastern parts of the city.
The Bride of the Red Sea wants to avoid getting her feet wet.

Friday, November 07, 2008

China slowdown

Chinese economy shows signs of fizzling - International Herald Tribune

According to the article:

Economists expect the economy to expand at an annualized rate of as little as 5.8 percent in the fourth quarter this year, down from nearly 11.2 percent in 2007.

Analysts worry that a sharp downturn could undermine the already weakening investment climate and impair some of China's biggest banks, which have bankrolled much of the boom. The Chinese government is said to worry that if economic growth slows to 8 percent or less, not enough jobs will be created in a country that is rapidly urbanizing, and that could lead to social unrest.

Not auguring well

The five most infamous Rahm Emanuel moments | FP Passport

Foreign Policy provides a list of notorious Rahm Emanuel stories, none of them terribly encouraging for people who thought that Obama was planning on doing politics differently.

Even worse, though, is the suggestion that John Kerry may end up as Secretary of State (!)

UPDATE: Slate has a handy guide as to who Obama should not select for his cabinet, and they agree with me about Kerry:
The 2004 election demonstrated that nobody likes him. That isn't disqualifying for a senator, but it is for a diplomat.

UPDATE 2: I see that Fred Barnes on Fox said on the weekend that he initially thought Emanuel's appointment was bad, but he has since changed his mind. Obviously, as I take most of my political cues from Fox, I may have to change my mind too!

More pre-election news that we should have known about


Can I get a job with that newspaper?

Just a little weird: no, actually very strange

Barack Obama asked gay bishop Gene Robinson what it was like to be 'first' -Times Online:

Barack Obama sought out controversial gay bishop Gene Robinson not just once but three times during his campaign to become President of the United States, The Times can reveal....
Bishop Robinson... said that Mr Obama’s campaign team had sought him last year and he had the “honour” of three private conversations with the future president of the United States last May and June.

“The first words out of his mouth were: ‘Well you’re certainly causing a lot of trouble’, My response to him was: ‘Well that makes two of us'.”

He said that Mr Obama had indicated his support for equal civil rights for gay and lesbian people and described the election as a “religious experience”.
This is very strange, isn't it, to be seeking out this particular "leader"? I assume abortion wasn't high on the list of topics to discuss.

But the other significant bit is the talk of the election being a "religious experience". I'll get the DVD recorder ready and waiting to see how the likes of Jon Stewart and Bill Maher now riff on how scary it is to have a President elect who seems to see religious significance in his role.

And pigs might be spotted flying over Hollywood too.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Unimportant news

The 'Desperate Housewife' look comes to Washington - Americas, World - The Independent

Don't care what she wears: she still looks kinda intimidating to me.

Let the tears flow, Ellen

U-turn as Californians vote to ban gay marriage - World -

I'll be very disappointed if she doesn't cry.

UPDATE: an interesting side note to the Proposition 8 issue is that many, many Hollywood celebrities donated money to fight against it (including, sad to say, my directorial hero Mr Spielberg. It's funny how much of a gay rights supporter he is, yet off the top of my head I can't recall any of his movies featuring as much as one gay character.) But one prominent figure who did not donate was Rosie O'Donnell. This has caused some people to be less than charitable towards her (from the previous link):
i've lost completel respect for rosie, not that i've really had any for her to begin with. not opening her fat hyprocritcal mouth probably helped the no on 8 cause... lol.
The LA Times gives a good summary of the whole Proposition 8 story, which basically is one of gay activists never accepting the majority opinion of the electorate.


Bestselling author Michael Crichton dies

How sad. I reckon about every second book was an entertaining (and educational) read, but with an output like his, that was still a high success rate.

I certainly always looked forward to seeing what topic he was going to deal with in his next book.