Wednesday, June 24, 2009

End of financial year madness

I get busy this time of year. Back on about 30 June.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

First there was the Urban Sombrero, now..

Urban Camping by import.export

This would have to be the silliest design concept I have seen in a long time.

(And imagine being in the top ten during a thunderstorm. Lightning, please hit me.)

Another dint in the "aborigines lived in harmony with nature for 40,000 years" story

New evidence in giant roo extinction

Researchers have found more evidence that hunting by humans may have caused the extinction of the giant kangaroo.

The giant kangaroo measured two metres in height and was wiped out about 40,000 years ago.

It was previously thought that climate change and land burn-off led to the extinction of the mammal, but researchers at Flinders University say this is not so.

Comparisons noted

AIDS denial: A lethal delusion - health - 22 June 2009 - New Scientist

Here's an interesting article on the history of HIV/AIDS denialism.

The story does have some parallels to global warming skepticism: there are a few scientists out of thousands who believe they have identified the truth, and that everyone else is wrong and just won't admit it because of self interest. Their work is not usually directly in the field of HIV research, rather they critique the work of the "believers".

As I have also said in the past, skeptics should remember the number of engineers and other science types who are 9/11 conspiracists.

And I make this post with my usual reminder that my position is that, even if warming is not proceeding at a dangerous pace, ocean acidification alone is reason to reduce CO2.

Puffed up outrage, indeed

OK, so Malcolm Turnbull over-reached. But, after seeing Kevin Rudd and him on 7.30 Report last night, I still come away thinking that Rudd's counter over-reach does his image no great help either.

What is wrong with Rudd? Annabel Crabb called his performance "puffed up outrage", as indeed was, but it did seem to me that Rudd was also taking it excessively personally. (Maybe that is an artefact of repeated performances during the day: pretend something long enough and you can really start to believe it.) It had something of a "glass jaw" air about it to me: how dare Turnbull call for my resignation [left unsaid: just because a public servant felt he was under pressure from my office to help someone special to me.]

Turnbull, on the other hand, did not seem to me to be deathly worried about it killing his leadership. He even managed to smile once or twice. (I take it from Turnbull's demeanour that he is not worried about the prospect that his own former adviser created the email, which was the rumour reported yesterday.)

Turnbull clearly comes across as having a barrister's style, which can be off putting at times, but elements of a likeable character seem to come through occasionally. As for Rudd, I still don't think anyone outside of his family likes him. (I guess people could say that Howard did not have seem to have a big circle of friends either, but I would still put him down as having a much more genuine public persona than Rudd.)

I think it was clear that even Kerry O'Brien knew Rudd was over-reacting, and for once, Kerry seemed a tad sharp in his handling of him.

Michelle Grattan's commentary on this seems pretty reasonable. (Short version: Turnbull's attack was not without justification as of 3 days ago.)

Of course, Turnbull's future probably does depend on more revelations about the origin of the email, and whether there were any grounds on the face of it to indicate fraud.

UPDATE: I saw Skynews Agenda program on this last night, with its regular commentators Grahame Morris (old Howard chief of staff) and Bruce Hawker (don't know who he worked for, but he's the Labor guy.)

I am sure it is not just my conservative bias that leads me to say this, but I have always found that Bruce Hawker is a complete bore as a commentator as he only ever recites the current Labor spin. You know exactly what he will say, and he will never, ever, concede harm to Labor in anything they do.

Morris, on the other hand, does show independence of thought, and is always much more open to admitting harm to his side of politics. He comes across as much more than a mere mouthpiece for the party he used to work for.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Late night wars

Who will have the final say in the clash of America’s TV chat kings?

According to The Independent, Conan O'Brien has lost ratings badly on The Tonight Show.

I haven't seen much of it, but from what I did see, I thought he was making the transition pretty well. Certainly much better than Jimmy Fallon, who I think is hopeless in the O'Briens former, later night, role.

I thought this segment from a couple of weeks ago was pretty funny. (Part 2 is here.)


Economist puts dent in optimism: bigger crash is coming - ABC News

I must admit, while I understand little about economics in detail, my common sense take on it all makes me share this guy's skepticism that the worst is over.

Interesting photo

U.S. Fortifies Hawaii to Meet Threat From Korea -

Have a look at the photo in the article of a Boeing floating radar. Looks very suitable as a Bond villain's lair, I think.

Swiss suicide service - open for all

Suicide clinic challenged over patients who could have lived 'for decades' | Society | The Guardian

Questionable fashion

In Venice, Peter Greenaway Takes Veronese’s Figures Out to Play -

Well what d'ya know, Peter Greenaway is still working, although now (thank heavens) it's only on an arty video installation, and not a movie. The article is perhaps most notable, however, for the photo of Greenaway wearing what appears to be a large pink towel as a scarf or something. Very odd.

While we're talking fashion (and, quite possibly, this is the first time this blog has ever done so,) the NYT also has an article on "innovative" men's fashion from Korea, yet it has no photos. (It does mention a blog called "Your boyhood", which seems a good name to look up at work if you want to be suspected as a pedophile.)

Well that's odd, I just looked at that blog for you, and it features more women than men. Well, I think they are women, anyway.

Finally, David Mitchell has some funny things to say about fashion (and controversy in England over wheelie bins - of all things) in his piece in The Guardian.

Cool space suit

Space Suits Past and Future | Space Exploration | Air & Space Magazine

If you want relief from politics, and you're a secret space geek, you could much worse than read the above interview with an 80 year old space suit designer who is still working. (Make sure you go to the video gallery link too and watch him put his 1960's design super flexible suit through its paces. Unfortunately, the suit never flew.)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

The ute, the car dealer, his pals and an email

Tim Blair has all the details covered, but here are some questions unanswered:

* what exactly are the Federal Police going to be investigating if there is no "hard copy" of an email to produce? That someone told News Limited and/or Turnbull that there was an email? Why would the journalist even co-operate in identifying his source? Seems to me to another clear case of a dead-end investigation before it even starts.

* If it is a fake email, what are the odds that it would be faked and then have its existence supported by Godwin? Very peculiar.

* will it come out that (when poor old Godwin Grech is questioned by the Auditor General or the AFP) that he may have mistaken a fax for an email?

* where's the outrage from those like the Larvatus Prodeo crowd over the clear obstructionism of Godwin's boss in the Senate hearing? (See Insiders for compilation of that when they get their video up.) If that had happened under Howard, we would be hearing about corruption of the public service for weeks.

Instead, most LP commenters are running completely with the Rudd line that it is Turnbull who must resign. No curiosity about Godwin's recollection lining up with a "fake" document at all.

* I still suspect that Rudd's overly intense denial in Parliament when this originally came up is due to him knowing that he office may have made unofficial queries regarding Grant, and his relief when they confirmed they had not done it in writing.

Good news for men

Prostate cancer victims cured with ipilimumab - Times Online

TWO men with advanced, inoperable prostate cancer have dramatically recovered after being treated with an experimental drug. Both are cancer-free and have returned to normal life.

The patients, Rodger Nelson and Fructuoso Solano-Revuelta, took part in US trials of a drug called ipilimumab. The researchers were so excited by the men’s recovery that they released details before completion of the tests, which involved 108 men in all.

Before treatment at the Mayo Clinic, Minnesota, both men had aggressive tumours and neither was expected to survive.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

How to make your guests sick

US couple to have world's first weightless wedding - New Scientist

I guess we'll be seeing footage of this on the news soon.

UPDATE: the wedding photo can be seen here.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Sorry, but JJ Abrams just cannot direct for a big screen

Three years ago, I complained about JJ Abram's claustrophobic direction style in Mission Impossible 3. I just got back from the Star Trek movie, and I reckon Abrams hasn't learnt a thing. Everything I said in 2006 still stands:
It seems he is inordinately fond of close to medium length shots, where it looks like the camera is no more than a few meters from the actors.

This is fine for some sequences, where it can help rack up the tension, especially in the opening scene. But after 30 minutes or so, I really found myself wondering why this movie was shot so tight for so long. Especially during the action sequences, I longed for wider shots to make better sense of what was going on around Cruise.

There is also a quasi-handheld sort of style for all of the action sequences. It's not exactly jittery, but I did start longing for smoother camera movement in many sequences, and less choppy editing.
The point is, he simply seems to insist on composing shots like he's shooting TV (in fact, for TV of 20 years ago before it went all supersize and widescreen.) Longer shots are never held for very long before it's back to giant faces filling the screen. I swear, any actress with concerns about the size of her pores ought to avoid working him at all costs.

Why do so few critics seem to notice this? Why doesn't crap editing of action sequences (again in abundant evidence here) get up more noses? Full marks to Jim Schembri in The Age though for saying it clear:
... Star Trek sports some of the worst cinematography ever featured in a blockbuster as crash zooms, swish pans and epileptic-like editing reduce many of the action scenes to indistinct blurs.
Did I enjoy it despite this? Well, it was just OK. The actors did pretty well, but sadly I did not find the story particularly innovative or touching. (Bryan Appleyard found himself tearing up during it. I am sure medication could help.)

But the main lesson is: keep Abrams away from that widescreen format.


New Narnia film to be shot in Qld - ABC News

I can become the world's oldest Narnia groupie, hanging around outside the studios waiting to see Reepicheep arrive.

Actually, if the live action Peter Pan movie of a few years ago is any guide, the Queensland studios are definitely up to producing big budget, good looking films. (It really was very good in all respects, that version of Peter Pan.)

Carbon capture skepticism

CCS is in the same league as fusion power : The Energy Grid

Not exactly consistent with Marxism

McDonald's Europe seeks to raise farming standards | Green Business | Reuters
Restaurant chain McDonald's Europe launched a farming program on Thursday which could lead to cows getting weekly foot baths...
"Would Madam like a buff and polish too?"

Opportunity spotted

Editor quits after journal accepts bogus science article | Education |

The article raises the issue of the quality of "open access" yet (allegedly) peer reviewed on-line journals. It ends with this:
Alex Williamson, a former publishing director of the British Medical Journal – partly open access and partly run on subscriptions – said: "There is a whole range in the quality of journals. Some that are open access are extremely good. There are a lot of awful ones, and these are probably more likely to be open access journals. Any idiot can start a journal on the web."
I'm now open to suggestions for titles for my new on-line, pay-to-be-published, peer-reviewed-by-someone-who-emails-me-a-copy-of-their-diploma journal.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Possible proof of Intelligent Design

Observatory - A Plant That Thrives When Used as a Toilet

...Nepenthes lowii, a pitcher plant found in Borneo...gets its nutrition not from insects but from tree shrews, which use the plant as a toilet....
You have to see the photo in the article to get the full idea, but I like this comment too:
Tree shrews visit the plants to eat nectar that oozes from the bowl’s open lid, positioning themselves directly over the bowl. “Form follows function,” Dr. Moran said. N. lowii’s bowls “even look like toilets,” he added, “though we were too polite to say that in the paper.”

Fig leaf solar

Solar Credits – just bad policy! �

It's all rather hard to follow, but the point of this post seems to be that people are being entirely conned if they think going solar is, under the current Government system, doing anything at all to reduce greenhouse gases.

Animatronic newsreader leaves

Broom sweeps through Channel Nine as Bruce Paige quits | The Courier-Mail

I'll again abandon the usual wisdom of not saying anything if there's nothing nice to say, but I just wanted to comment that Channel 9 in Brisbane seems to have an exceptional ability to find incredibly dull, robot-like newsreaders, and then keep them on the payroll for incredibly long periods.

Remember Don Secombe anyone? I don't think there has been a blander, more somnolent looking newsreader on the face of the earth, yet he was just there at 6pm every night for decades.

Now, his close-to-equally-dopey-eyed successor is finally retiring.

They make you wish for a Ted Baxter.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

An unusually explicit and long post

What're the chances I would like an art-house film by a gay director featuring graphic, there's-no-faking-that depictions of various forms of sexual activity, a significant proportion of it being gay or bisexual and much of it in group scenes? If you guessed "next to nil", you would be right, but last week I tested the waters of modern film critical zeitgiest by watching Shortbus when it turned up on cable TV.

The movie got a significant number of good reviews from credible critics, including our very own David Stratton. A lot of those reviews commented favourably on the liberal attitude to sex. (Stratton and Pomeranz commented on the "exuberance" and lack of inhibition, and called it "lovely". Would they give an X rated DVD high marks for the same qualities?)

But of course, from the Cynics of Greece to Catherine Deveny, there are always people who think that everyone else is just, you know, too hung up about sex. At least the 21st century can be thankful that Deveny hasn't taken to living on the street in a barrel and engaging in self pleasuring when the feeling arises. Not yet, anyway.

Of course, those who are the most forthright advocates against sexual jealousy and continence are usually the ones who leave behind them a bitter trail of unhappy and used former partners. (Bertrand Russell, Sartre and a whole swathe of poets come to mind.) Or if they are like the late politician/old age hippy Jim Cairns, their alleged belief in "honesty" in sexual relationships does not extend to being above lying about their sex life in court to make a profit.

Anyhow, I slightly digress. I didn't see every minute of the film; I missed the first few but still saw the one extremely graphic and icky sex act that didn't really seem to make any sense in terms of later plot at all. Here are some other thoughts about it the movie:

1. It's appallingly bad. Just had to get that out of the way first.

2. What is wrong with critics these days? As far as I can see, none of them question any more whether real sex should appear in mainstream cinema. It's true, quiet a few said that the sex in this one did not make it into a good movie; but few seem to question the wisdom or practical consequence of having actors having sex on screen when the product is not intended to be pornographic.

Because, let's face it, when the average audience sees the sex is real, it inevitably jars them out of the normal experience of watching a story.

It's a bit contradictory that this happens, I suppose: if you want an audience to really believe in a fictional sexual relationship, it's best to fake it on screen. But for nearly everyone, there's a natural tendancy towards modesty about the act - and breaching that for the mere sake of storytelling just seems an inadequate excuse. (People forgive porn stars more readily - at least that purpose can only be served by the immodesty.)

The cinematic real-sex taboo was broken a long time ago, most famously by In the Realm of the Senses in the mid 70's. (The plot of that film screams art-house with a capital "A".) But I see there is a Wikipedia entry listing every "mainstream" movie which has featured the real thing. That's handy, because it helps me make the point that there is not, it would seem, any significant audience for explicit real sex in mainstream film. So why do it?

Should I allow for the fact that some viewers say that they have been strongly emotionally affected by a fictional movie involving real sex? (I recall that Margaret Pomeranz went all incoherent once when trying to explain how strong her reaction was In the Realm of the Senses.) Well, if cinema involving acted sex had never been emotionally affecting, they might have a point, but that's clearly not the case.

No, I say: get over it, art-house lovers; you don't need to see real sex. Public sex is hardly dignified, otherwise I assume you'd be doing it yourself. Fake sex is at least a bit more dignified than real. Just because the ground's been broken doesn't mean it has to be done again. In fact, most movies featuring it have been far from critical or commercial successes.

3. Let's ignore the real sex issue for a while and look at the logic of the story itself. The main plot-line is probably the one about a gay couple having a relationship crisis. One of the guys has been depressed for a long time. Unknown to both of them, a gay man in the adjoining building has been longingly watching them have sex through the window for months too. (Despite New York gay couples usually having a high disposable income, it would seem they cannot afford curtains.)

The couple together try having sex with another young guy they meet at this orgy saloon known as Shortbus. (I actually missed the reason that the couple were attendees at this place. But then again, it never really made sense why any of them were there. I can't help but imagine that a venue with lots of public sex taking place while others sit around clothed, chatting or listening to music would be anything other than a smelly, unpleasant place to be with more than its fair share of somewhat scary clientele.)

Anyway, threesome sex with the young guy doesn't cure the sad one's depression. At some point, we learn he (the depressed one) used to be a young male prostitute.

On making a suicide attempt, the voyeuristic neighbour rescues the depressed guy who soon ends up in his rescuer's apartment. The depressive says he can't feel the love of his partner. It "stops at his skin." (So far so logical: it is not surprising that an ex-prostitute should have self esteem issues which makes it hard for him to "feel" loved.)

Yet, how do you think our hero will find his apparent cure? If you said "by having (for the first time) receptive anal sex with the kindly voyeur neighbour that he has talked to for 10 minutes" you would win some kind of award for being able to guess stupid gay libertine plot resolution devices. (Thankfully, though, this is one point where the sex is not explicit.)

As a plot device, it reminded me a little of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, where the young guy is temporarily cured of his stuttering by losing his virginity. I still find that a pretty risible, corny idea. But that's got nothing on a gay man who's had umpteen orgasms with heaps of lovers just having to have the right type of sex with a virtual stranger to be able to love his partner.

It is, I suppose, a uber-gay idea if ever there was one.

Anyway, our "hero" is better now, goes back to his boyfriend, where they make yet another trip to the local orgy salon for some groping in public again, relationship cured. (And then the movie ends with a ridiculous finale that involves a song with the line "we all get it in the end" and a band marching in amongst the writhing bodies. It was sort of like a Benny Hill version of Queen's "I want to break free" video clip.)

I don't care what your sexual orientation is: if that's not trite, implausible psycho-sexual storytelling, I don't know what is. I was so glad all the sex on screen had a worthwhile moral. (Sarcasm, that last line.)

Catholics get criticised all the time for worrying too much about sex. At least they don't (or shouldn't!) put it on the silly quasi-Freudian pedestal that this storyline indicates gay liberals believe in. (We also like to remember that it has something to do with reproduction.)

4. The other main storyline is about a female sex therapist who cannot achieve orgasm with her husband, despite his best efforts. Guess what. (No prizes for this one.) By the end of the film she's on her way to sexual happiness by leaving her husband and entering into the new world of bisexual casual fun at the orgy venue.

This woman's character never struck me as particularly sympathetic or pleasant. In the middle of the movie she is involved in an extended bit of ostensible comedy (I won't bother describing it) that was simply stupid and puerile.

5. Another subplot involves a somewhat sympathetically played dominatrix who doesn't like her work anymore. Yet, if I am not mistaken, she's the one left hanging at the end with no obvious resolution of her unhappy situation.

If you ask me, the entire movie is based on a liberal wish fulfilment fantasy in which innovative sex with nice strangers will cure most psychological/emotional ills.

I reckon sensible people of all persuasions, particularly if they have known someone who has actively pursued a highly libertine lifestyle, know this is just about 99% crap, but the idea of sex as therapy is one that keeps getting revived over the years, probably because sex is physically enjoyable and people like to imagine justifications to have lots of it.

That a gay director and bunch of exhibitionist actors may believe this is one thing: that a majority of movie critics don't call him out on it is another.

The only redeeming feature of such a film is that not many people will have seen it. I think I actually get more upset by Sex in the City by virtue of its capacity to do harm to the population's attitude towards sex en masse.

Yet, when you visit IMDB, you'll see lots of comments praising the film to death (although a fair smattering of loathing turns up too.) This is another useful function such a picture serves: it's sort of a barometer for being able to tell which people have exactly a 180 degree opposite world view from yourself. That's assuming, of course, that you're prepared to say over a beer to the bloke you've just met at a party "geez, what did you think of that gay movie Shortbus, what a crock, hey?" Mmm, might not work so well after all.

Mini-golf made useful

Golfing Through the Stratosphere -

Go have a look at the coolest looking, physics-teaching mini-golf course in the world.

Large Hadron Collider delays

Experimental HEP News - Not Even Wrong

Hmm. Sounds to me like there is a distinct possibility that the LHC is not going to have its teething issues sorted by the end of this year after all.

My pet theory that this was sabotaged from the future still stands.

Meanwhile, in Bahrain

Gulfnews: Bahraini woman jailed for kissing in public

A Bahrain woman was jailed for 20 days after she kissed a Bahraini man in public and got into an argument with the police.

The couple was caught by a police patrol as they were getting intimate inside a car, according to the court papers. However, when the police wanted to arrest them for "indecent behaviour in public", the woman shouted at one of the officers, saying that what she and the man were doing was "none of their business".

She was eventually arrested and the Lower Criminal Court convicted her of public indecency and insulting a policeman carrying out his duties. The Bahraini man is being tried separately.
I hope they report his sentence.

Do not just read Bolt on climate

Oh dear. Andrew Bolt has recently taken to citing (alleged) cooling oceans as a reason for not believing in AGW.

If you are inclined to convinced by this, you should at the very least read this recent post at Skeptical Science which addresses the issue in detail and gives the "big picture" that skeptics like to leave out.

Skeptical Science is (fortunately) active again, and is an excellent resource for checking up on the claims of Bolt, Marohasy and their mates.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Personal parasite update

Are urban tapeworms on the rise?: Scientific American Blog

This story combines two of my interests: parasites and Japan!:
Once the bane of rural Japanese villagers, a paper in the June issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases reports on the spread of the the salmon tapeworm Diphyllobothrium nihonkaiense. The parasite, which can reach lengths of 39 feet (12 meters), has been steadily increasing its global distribution and prevalence – mostly among yuppies with a hankering for sashimi and ceviche.

One hospital in Japan reported 14 cases last year, up from 3 cases in 2000. And starting in 2006, the tapeworm has been popping up for the first time in North America and Europe. Meanwhile, farm-raised salmon from South America have been plagued by a closely related tapeworm that normally infects perch and other freshwater fish.
An easy solution: cook your fish.

Speaking of parasites, my daughter came out of the toilet at McDonalds last week and announced loudly "There was a worm in my poo!" When I expressed doubt, she told me its head was moving and it was really true. She was not particularly bothered by the discovery; she was pretty excited in fact.

I am not sure what to do about this. I think it more likely to be a case of mistaken identity. The most common kid's intestinal worm in Australia is the threadworm, but I believe they are not so obvious, and she has none of the classic signs.

We are awaiting another sighting, this time at home.

Readers will be informed if positive identification is made. (I bet you're glad you read this blog....)

Hitchens on Iran

Don't call what happened in Iran last week an election. - Slate Magazine

A good column by Hitchens here, with this interesting anecdote:
Mention of the Lebanese elections impels me to pass on what I saw with my own eyes at a recent Hezbollah rally in south Beirut, Lebanon. In a large hall that featured the official attendance of a delegation from the Iranian Embassy, the most luridly displayed poster of the pro-Iranian party was a nuclear mushroom cloud! Underneath this telling symbol was a caption warning the "Zionists" of what lay in store.

Update: There was a very funny election analysis on The Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Irandecision 2009 - Election Results
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

A must read review on Plimer

Heaven + Earth - review by David Karoly - Science Show

I reckon this is the most convincing anti-Plimer review that has come out thus far. Andrew Bolt and his followers should read it. (By the way, when I say "anti-Plimer," I mean against his arguments. The review is free of ad hominem attack.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

The fine Japanese tradition of .... sausage art

Ninja Sausage |

Found via Japundit. The sausage flowers are particularly unfortunate.

Viewing recommendation

Engineering Connections, currently showing on SBS at 7.30 on Saturday evenings, is proving to be very enjoyable. Last week's episode covered everything you never thought to ask before about how they build the most gigantic North Sea gas rig. Have a look at a very short version here.

Oh. I see there is only episode left. Pity, for those of you who have missed it.

Best ever excuse for an embarrassing death

Carradine: Killed By "Kung Fu" Illuminatus?

The Return (details pending)

I am currently contemplating possible topics for a return post. It will either be about sex, engineering, Japan, the Illuminati, Kevin Rudd, ocean acidification, religion or the weather; or a combination of two or more of those themes*. Back soon.

* Tim. Exercise your creative skills and come up with a poem touching on all of those topics. Chop chop.