Saturday, March 30, 2013

It's Easter, so a bit about crucifixion

History of Good Friday execution method: When did we stop crucifying people? - Slate Magazine

This short Slate Explainer article notes that it is said that Constantine  outlawed crucifixion after his conversion, although the matter is not without doubt.  In any event, it is interesting to be reminded about the nastiness of the punishment (and to be reminded that Saudi Arabia still does it - even in this last week):
Even if Constantine did, in fact, end the practice of crucifixion, it’s not clear that he did so out of respect for Christ’s execution. Aurelius Victor, the earliest historian to claim that Constantine banned crucifixion, explained that the emperor was motivated by a sense of humanity rather than piety. Crucifixion is a pretty gruesome way to go—significantly worse than the New Testament makes it seem. Although Christ reportedly expired in a matter of hours, many crucifixion victims clung to life for days. Even in Roman times, it was considered an exceptionally cruel punishment, reserved mainly for those who challenged state authority, such as insurgents and enemy soldiers. (Joel Marcus of Duke described crucifixion as “parodic exaltation,” because it gave rebels the fame they sought, albeit in a grotesque form.) By some accounts, Constantine replaced crucifixion with hanging, a less painful execution method. Constantine’s supposed ban on crucifixion came as part of a package of reforms, further suggesting that he was merely exercising human mercy. Branding prisoners’ faces, for example, was also prohibited around the same time—a reform that had nothing to do with Christ’s execution.

Whether or not Constantine put a stop to Roman crucifixions, he definitely kicked off the Christian fascination with crucifixion and the cross. Before Constantine’s reign, it appears that images of the crucifixion were mainly used by pagans to taunt Christians. The third century Alaxamenos graffito depicts a worshipper standing next to a donkey-headed man on a crucifix. The inscription reads, “Alexamenos worships god.” Not until the fifth century did Christians widely adopt the crucifixion as their own symbol, and the faithful then sought out pieces of Christ’s cross.

Friday, March 29, 2013

A technique not tried...

Hard-boiled eggs: Why you should never actually boil them.

As l usually find myself boiling eggs about once a month (for tuna salad), I feel I should give this a try.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Hearing voices

BBC News - The people who think they tune into dead voices

For some reason, the BBC News magazine has an article about the history of EVP - Electro Voice Projection - which all started with Konstantin Raudive in the 1960's.

I wouldn't have thought the whole business could be described like this:
Nowadays, EVP is a standard tool of ghost hunters worldwide. There are hundreds of internet EVP forums and many serious and well-educated people who see it as proof positive that the dead are trying to talk to us.

For example, Anabela Cardoso, a former Portuguese career diplomat who lives in Spain and publishes the Instrumental Transcommunication Journal. She has a well-equipped recording studio and claims to have replicated the Gerrards Cross findings. 

"My voices are not little voices," she says. "They are loud and clear and totally understandable." She offered to send me a CD.
Apparently the CD contained voices in Spanish and Portuguese which "are not really very clear", but they are voices.

Raudive's recordings are not very impressive, apparently, and he went into a loony direction:
 After Breakthrough was published, Raudive progressed from voices captured on tape to voices coming from animals, in particular a budgerigar named Putzi, who spoke in the voice of a dead 14-year-old girl.

The article does note some interesting psychology:
 As Joe Banks, a sound artist, points out, a dead person speaking in studio quality wouldn't be nearly so convincing as a voice you must strain to hear. 

Banks has an ongoing project called Rorschach Audio. He suggests that the voices are the aural equivalent of inkblot tests devised by Swiss psychologist Hermann Rorschach. He argues that while the EVP experimenters think they are doing parapsychology, they are actually unwittingly carrying out psychology experiments. 

For example, if you take recorded speech and replace every sixth of a second with white noise, the speech is still comprehensible. But if instead of white noise you use silence, it's much harder to understand. 

We are naturally well-adapted by evolution to imaginatively reconstruct speech against a noisy background - imagine trying to whisper in a windy forest to your hunting companions. 

EVP enthusiasts, Banks thinks, aren't idiots. They are just being fooled by audio illusions that take us all in.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

From the world of science fiction

Brain scans predict which criminals are more likely to reoffend 

In a twist that evokes the dystopian science fiction of writer Philip K. Dick, neuroscientists have found a way to predict whether convicted felons are likely to commit crimes again from looking at their brain scans. Convicts showing low activity in a brain region associated with decision-making and action are more likely to be arrested again, and sooner.

Kent Kiehl, a neuroscientist at the non-profit Mind Research Network in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his collaborators studied a group of 96 male prisoners just before their release. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the prisoners’ brains during computer tasks in which subjects had to make quick decisions and inhibit impulsive reactions.

The scans focused on activity in a section of the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), a small region in the front of the brain involved in motor control and executive functioning. The researchers then followed the ex-convicts for four years to see how they fared.

Among the subjects of the study, men who had lower ACC activity during the quick-decision tasks were more likely to be arrested again after getting out of prison, even after the researchers accounted for other risk factors such as age, drug and alcohol abuse and psychopathic traits. Men who were in the lower half of the ACC activity ranking had a 2.6-fold higher rate of rearrest for all crimes and a 4.3-fold higher rate for nonviolent crimes. The results are published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences1.
 Pretty amazing.  

Monday, March 25, 2013

White people's fears

The Roots of Anti-Government Gun Culture in America - The Daily Beast

David Frum has a look here at an interesting sounding book about how American attitudes to gun ownership have evolved.    The paranoid basis run by the NRA (Americans need to be allowed to be armed so as to defend themselves against their own tyrannical government) has its basis, the books argues, in the Black Panther movement in the late 60's.  The big change, of course, is that it is now the white and the (relatively) rich who say they fear their own government, not the poor blacks.

Quite a weird turnaround, isn't it?

Hello all you Gillard haters out there, part 2

The days of relying on natural resources are over

Ken Davidson summarises an important recent story:
Nathan Fabian is chief executive of the Investor Group on Climate Change, which advises 65 major institutional investors who are responsible for funds with a market valuation of about $1 trillion.

Fabian told a recent business Climate Alliance conference in Melbourne: ''A positive trend in the evidence of climate change impacts, from actual recent events, is becoming clearer. This is an important development … As you would expect with these developments in the science, the notable additional scrutiny is coming not so much from civil society, but from the elite economic institutions around the world and the investment community as well.''

The science now suggests that 2 degrees of warming is no longer safe. The International Energy Agency says that the world has a 50/50 chance of keeping warming to less than 2 degrees, if only one-third of the known reserves of fossil fuels are exploited. The International Panel on Climate Change says that to reduce the risk of breaking the 2 degree barrier to one-in-five would require leaving 80 per cent of the known reserves in the ground. (More risky than Russian roulette!)

Fabian quoted a recent report by Jun Mao, chief economist for Deutsche Bank, which shows that China will switch from being a net coal importer to net exporter by 2017; that the price of seaborne coal will fall to $70 a tonne; that even at $87 a tonne, 43 million tonnes of production from Australia would be forced off line; and that new developments planned in the Galilee Basin would not be profitable and couldn't attract finance.

The respected Carbon Tracker says that companies reliant on coal revenues are in an asset bubble. This might help explain why the market price of equities of mining companies such as BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto and Anglo American have continued to fall, despite the recent recovery in the share market generally.

The writing is on the wall for the lucky country. Unless we can manage risk - impossible without incorporating the environmental damage of burning fossil fuel in the price - the chance of dodging the bullet of catastrophic climate change is remote.

Hello to all you Gillard haters out there...

You probably don't even understand the policy you hate the most:

Study finds widespread ignorance about carbon tax

Nine months after its introduction 54 per cent of people believed the tax, which specifically excludes motor fuel, had pushed up prices at service stations. Most people surveyed also estimated that their cost of living had risen by $20 or more a week, while 5 per cent put the increase at more than $100 a week.  The government's modelling came up with $9.90 a week.

Asked about compensation, 49 per cent said they had received nothing at all, whereas the compensation package introduced with the tax applies to 90 per cent of the population.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

For all of you Julia Gillard fans out there.......(hello?)

Well, at least Harry Clarke likes her too...

Meanwhile, John Quiggin, who (despite otherwise sounding a sensible enough chap) has been a Rudd booster for a long time, has made no comment on Thursday's events.  He'll probably blame Julia for not resigning for the good of the Party. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

When Julia plays DayZ

OK, so it was a rush job...

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Universal mysteries

There's a new, more detailed, map of the cosmic microwave background out.   It does not resolve some oddities:
It has also uncovered a surprise. The simplest models of inflation predict that fluctuations in the CMB should look the same all over the sky. But Planck has found asymmetries in opposite hemispheres of the sky, as well as a ‘cold spot’ that covers a large area, which were also noticed by WMAP. “It defines a preferred direction in space, which is an extremely strange result,” says Efstathiou. This rules out some models of inflation, but does not undermine the idea itself, he adds. It does, however, raise tantalizing hints that there may yet be new physics to be discovered in Planck’s data.

Today in politics

Today's spectacularly peculiar episode in the ongoing Rudd Wars just goes to show what serious damage can happen in political parties when personality based civil wars get entrenched.

Although I can't remember much of the detail now,  this all reminded me of the interminable years of the Peacock/Howard rivalry in the 1980's:  the big difference being that it all went on while their party was in Opposition, and helped keep it there.   I have trouble remembering when a party that was in government has had such a protracted internal division.

I suppose it is hard to know how active Rudd has been in encouraging the undermining of Gillard in the last month or two; it is possible that the journalistic backgrounding has been mainly initiated by his supporters off their own bat.  However, what is surely clear is that he has never got on the phone to call them off, telling them, for example, that he really did not want the job and they were only hurting the government.

Here's a suggestion for Kevin:  you are (puzzlingly) popular in Queensland.  The Labor Party here desperately needs a high profile leader in State Parliament.   Resign from Federal Parliament, take a year or two off, get some sleep, work your way into State Parliament, and you'll soon have a good crack at being a long term Queensland Premier.

An unpleasant sounding way to go

Man dies after parasitic worms invade lungs

The man died in California, but was a Vietnamese immigrant:
The 65-year-old man was apparently infected by the worms in Vietnam, one of many countries in the world where they're known to infect humans. About 80 percent to 90 percent of people die if they are infected by the worm species and then suffer from so-called "hyperinfection" as the worms travel through their bodies, said report co-author Dr. Niaz Banaei, an assistant professor of infectious diseases at Stanford University School of Medicine.

The man's case emphasizes the importance of testing patients who might be infected with the parasite before giving them drugs to dampen the immune system, said Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, who's familiar with the report findings. "You have to think twice before starting big doses of steroids," Hotez said. "The problem is that most physicians are not taught about this disease. It often does not get recognized until it's too late."
I wonder if this has ever happened here?

She makes it sound so attractive

Can you imagine Blackpool without swimming in the sea? I couldn't bear it | UK news |

Someone writing in The Guardian remembers fondly her childhood at the beach at Blackpool, with scenes like this:
As a Blackpool girl born and bred, I revel in the nostalgia of childhood summers spent dipping toes in shallow water before slowly heading deeper into the unknown, stepping carefully for fear of disturbing an angry crab with his pincers at the ready....

For as long as I can remember, Blackpool beach has never been particularly clean. I remember as a child wistfully looking at postcards of exotic destinations such as Italy and Turkey, where glittering green oceans made the yachts that sailed upon them appear brilliant white.

I remember wondering why our sea was brown, not turquoise, and why the sand was dotted with empty cans of Special Brew and the odd plastic bag.

Guess the Dad

BBC News - Kenya condom advert pulled after religious complaints

This is an interesting story from the BBC about an ad promoting condom use in Kenya getting pulled off air because it dealt with a real situation - a married woman having another lover.

It would seem that extra marital relationships are surprisingly common in that country:
Dr Cherutich told the BBC the advert had been launched because up to 30% of married couples had other partners.

Around 1.6 million people out of Kenya's population of 41.6 million are living with HIV, according to the UN.
In the video, the reporter says that a 2009 study also indicated that most people in these relationships do not use condoms.  Although the article doesn't mention it, this surely means there must be a lot of kids with different fathers from the presumed one.

The report says it is church and Muslim leaders who are unhappy with the advertisement, saying the government should promote faithful marriages instead.   But it also notes that 80% of the country is Christian.

As with the contraceptive mandate in the US, where the US bishops do not want increased access to a product their own congregations use against Church teaching, it seems to me that some Christians have become pretty good at blaming governments for their own failings in convincing their congregation to live differently.

More bad timing for Labor

Huge export earnings rise tipped for resources sector | The Australian

Of course, if the Coalition gets in, it's goodbye any form of mineral tax to help run the country.

New baby

Our fertile possum visitor and her new, squashed, offspring:

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Hard to disagree

Poor planning has doomed Labor's media reform - The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

I find Bruce Hawker a dull analyst on TV, but I find it hard to disagree with his general take on how Labor seems to approach policy.

For the first time, I feel that Gillard will soon lose the leadership.  She presumably gave the go ahead to Conroy to run with the "it's all or nothing with these media reform proposals and we will not negotiate" tactic.  Conroy doesn't have a good head for politics - literally, with that haircut of his - but this is just the latest in a series of poorly judged approaches by him.

Whoever gets the leadership needs, I think, to make it clear that Labor needs to look at how it deals with processes.  No more announcing policies that have yet to be finalised (Gillard and using Timor for asylum seekers, for example).  

If Rudd does rise from the grave (groan) he at least needs not to be triumphalist.  In fact, he probably can't afford that due to the lack of people who would then work for him in the ministry.  But he should acknowledge that the haphazard approach to policy began with him, and say that he will work hard to make sure that the party's policy formulation appears, and in fact is, a result of careful and considered process, and not the results of running around at the last minute to get a policy seemingly just for the sake of having a policy.  He could also promise to slow down personally and let his staff get some sleep.  

It seems to me that Rudd is so puzzlingly popular with the public that the Coalition could not actually run for long with all of the deep personal criticism that Labor politicians came out with last year, because people would soon think the Coalition was being unfair. 

I find Crean harmless and reasonable but he doesn't have much charisma with the public.

As much as I think Rudd is not a man to be admired or liked, if it is between him and Crean I think it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the party would do better under Rudd. 

If Gillard retains leadership, I would still wish her well, and maintain my belief that she is the most unreasonably despised politician this country has ever seen.

Today's history lesson

BBC News - The African chief converted to Christianity by Dr Livingstone

Here's a short account of the missionary work in Africa by the famous Dr Livingstone.  Just one convert, but an important one.  The story has many interesting parts, including this:
This was how things stood when Sechele first met Livingstone - he ruled a half-tribe. Livingstone persuaded him to make peace with his other uncle by sending him a gift of gunpowder for his rifle.

The uncle was suspicious that the gunpowder was bewitched, tried to neutralise it with fire, and in the resulting explosion was killed. Sechele thus ruled over a reunited Bakwena.
And here's bit of bad luck:
As Sechele grew increasingly interested in Christianity, he found two huge barriers in his way. One was rain.
Tswana tribes had rainmakers, whose job was to use magic to make the rain come. Livingstone, like all missionaries, vehemently opposed rainmaking, on both religious and scientific grounds. 

Sechele happened to be his tribe's rainmaker as well as kgosi, and Livingstone's stay coincided with the worst drought ever known, so Sechele's decision to stop making rain was predictably unpopular.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Experiments best not done

CultureLab: The radioactive legacy of the search for plutopia

New Scientist talks about a new book (from Oxford University Press, so I assume it is credible) about some surprising Cold War experiments about radiation:
MAKING plutonium for nuclear bombs takes balls, but not in the way you might think. In 1965, scientists at the Hanford nuclear weapons complex in Washington state wanted to investigate the impact of radiation on fertility - and they weren't hidebound by ethics.

In a specially fortified room in the basement of Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla, volunteer prisoners were asked to lie face down on a trapezoid-shaped bed. They put their legs into stirrups, and let their testicles drop into a plastic box of water where they were zapped by X-rays.

The experiments, which lasted for a decade and involved 131 prisoners, came up with some unsurprising results. Even at the lowest dose - 0.1 gray - sperm was damaged, and at twice that dose the prisoners became sterile. They were paid $5 a month for their trouble, plus $25 per biopsy and $100 for a compulsory vasectomy at the end so they didn't father children with mutations.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Another idea re black holes and the LHC

It seems there is now a suggestion that the LHC could make stable quantum black hole remnants without their ever first having been black holes which radiate down to a remnant.

At least I think that's what this paper is saying.   It talks about how they may be detected.

Bugs in sinks

'Nightmare' superbug alarm

I didn't know that "superbugs"actually lived in sinks happily; even hospital ones, where they are presumably getting a rinse regularly with antibacterial soap off users' hands.  I suppose seeing mould growing up the insides of the drain of the bathroom sink where I shave daily (until I hit it with bleach every few weeks) should have given me a clue.   Anyway, I was still surprised:
An infectious disease physician at the hospital, Rhonda Stuart, said doctors had been concerned about a string of cases in the intensive care unit between 2009 and last year, but only acquired the technology last August to test surfaces for the bacteria known as CRE. Associate Professor Stuart said the tests revealed the bacteria were in the sinks where healthcare workers washed their hands. While it could not be proved, she said, this might have spread the infection to patients because the sinks' poor design caused water to splash back off the drain.

Despite this being discovered seven months ago, Associate Professor Stuart said the hospital was only now preparing to replace the sinks. When asked if cost had delayed this, she said ''there were always difficulties with trying to do things in budget-restrained times''. However, she said doctors were satisfied the intensive care unit was safe.
The sinks were being cleaned regularly with 170-degree pressurised steam, which removes the bacteria for about three days before they grow back. Staff were also being careful with infection control procedures to prevent further patient infections, she said.

''No patients have tested positive for the bacteria since we've undertaken this process, so we're happy things have been controlled with the new steam technology … There is no risk to anybody,'' said Associate Professor Stuart, who is also medical director of infection control for Monash Health. CRE (Carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae) is a new class of multi-resistant bacteria alarming doctors worldwide because of their ability to spread drug resistance to other bacteria.
Reason to use the bleach at home more often, I guess...

Douthat on a change needed

What the Church Needs Now -

Ross Douthat is pretty conservative on a all things Catholic, but he at least does not take the approach that I have seen often taken by Right wing Catholics in one prominent Australian blog:  denying the harm caused by the sex abuse scandals of the last few decades.  He writes:

But in a sense all of these challenges have one solution, or at least one place where any solution has to start. Francis’s reign will be a success if it begins to restore the moral credibility of the church’s hierarchy and clergy, and it will be a failure if it does not. 

Catholics believe that their church is designed to survive the lapses of its leaders. The Mass is the Mass even if the priest is a sinner. Bishops do not need to be holy to preserve the teachings of the faith. The litany of the saints includes countless figures — from Joan of Arc to the newly canonized Mary MacKillop, an Australian nun involved in the reporting of child abuse by a priest — who suffered injustices from church authorities in their lifetimes. 

But it’s one thing for Catholics in a Catholic culture, possessed of shared premises and shared moral ideals, to accept a certain amount of “do as I say, not as I do” from their pastors and preachers.
It’s quite another to ask a culture that doesn’t accept Catholic moral ideals to respect an institution whose leaders can’t seem to live out the virtues that they urge on others. 

In that culture — our culture — priestly sex abuse and corruption in the Vatican aren’t just seen as evidence that all men are sinners. They’re seen as evidence that the church has no authority to judge what is and isn’t sin, that the renunciation Catholicism preaches mostly warps and rarely fulfills, and that the world’s approach to sex (and money, and ambition) is the only sane approach there is.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Not a good advertisement for the Witnesses

Slamming the door on Jehovah

This article paints a bleak picture of what it is like to be a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses.  It is a religion with a bad enough retention problem already:
The religion's proper name is the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society. It was founded by American draper Charles Russell in 1872. They believe in the end of the world and also the paradise beyond and have predicted five times that Christ would come again to signal it. The last time this happened was 1975. More than 1 million devotees abandoned them in the following six years. In America the Jehovah's Witness have the lowest retention rate of all religions.

They also believe Satan has ruled the earth since 1914. The only way to make things better is by creating a heavenly kingdom on earth of a small number of believers. The Jehovah's Witness' trait of being aloof and "separate" comes from this idea that Satan runs things, so the best way to survive is to avoid society.

Membership has flatlined against population growth in most developed countries. The reach of the internet has had a big impact as whistleblower groups, ex-Witness forums, websites, "leaks" sites and negative publicity abounds.
It's hard to see the appeal of the religion for a newbie:
Kingdom Halls are plainly decorated, like school classrooms, with no iconography or adornment. Congregations meet twice a week to listen to Biblical passages. The structure for disciples to live by is uniform and rigid. Moral conservatism (anti-gay, anti-abortion, no sex before marriage) is strictly enforced.

The British sociologist Andrew Holden says the church has a "quasi-totalitarian" approach in which converts "defer unquestioningly to the authority of those who are appointed to enforce its doctrine". The individual, he says, "becomes the property of the whole community"....

 Aron says new recruits are often unaware they will go without birthdays and Christmas. "It's a religion without a soul."
Even as far as cults go, it sounds like a particularly joyless one.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Drink up

Green tea, coffee may help lower stroke risk

A study from Japan has some cheering results for those of us who have just a cup or two of coffee per day:
*  People who drank at least one cup of coffee daily had about a 20 percent lower risk of stroke compared to those who rarely drank it. 

* People who drank two to three cups of green tea daily had a 14 percent lower risk of stroke and those who had at least four cups had a 20 percent lower risk, compared to those who rarely drank it. 

* People who drank at least one cup of coffee or two cups of green tea daily had a 32 percent lower risk of intracerebral hemorrhage, compared to those who rarely drank either beverage. (Intracerebral hemorrhage happens when a blood vessel bursts and bleeds inside the brain. About 13 percent of strokes are hemorrhagic.) 

Participants in the study were 45 to 74 years old, almost evenly divided in gender, and were free from cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Update on black holes from LHC

Researchers find it would require 2.4 times less energy to create a black hole than thought

It's been quite a while since I've gone looking for this topic, but here's an article that says it may be easier to make one (based on your standard old physics) than previously thought, but it's still hard:
Researchers know that it is theoretically possible to create black holes because of Einstein's Theory of Relativity—particularly the part describing the relationship between energy and mass—increasing the speed of a particle causes its mass to increase as well. The computer model in this effort, which is based on Einstein's theories, provides a virtual window for viewing what happens when two particles collide—they focus their energies on each other and together create a combined mass that pushes gravity to its limit and as a result spawns a very tiny black hole. That result was expected—what was surprising was that the team found that their model showed that such a collision and result would require 2.4 times less energy than has been previously calculated to produce such a tiny black hole.

The team also notes that despite fears of researchers building a collider to replicate in real life what their model depicts—and in the process creating a black hole that would swallow the Earth—the science just isn't there yet. It would take billions of times more energy than even the LHC is able to generate and use. Also, even if they could create such a black hole, it would disappear just as quickly as it appeared, due to Hawking radiation.
The concern about black holes, though, used to be about the relatively low energies they could be created at if there were "extra dimensions" such as string theory predicts.  I don't think this present article is about that at all...

Thursday, March 14, 2013

A Jesuit for Pope? Takes the name "Francis"?

Well, well.  These two factors alone make the new Pope potentially interesting.

There is little commentary on this at the moment, but I see Stephen Hough has picked up on it:
S.J. Those two letters indicating that their holder is a member of the Society of Jesus might, in earlier times, have been the cause for fear or dismay at this time. But since the 2nd Vatican Council the Jesuits have been at the forefront of reform in the Catholic Church. They have forged new theological paths; they have explored new ways of mission as cooperation and friendship rather than coercion; they have embraced a clear option for the poor. In fact, they have recovered something of the charism of their founder Ignatius Loyola whilst leaving behind the baggage of many Jesuit generations in between.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has chosen a brand new name, Francis I. Francis Xavier certainly would have been in his mind, but also the Poverello of Assisi whose plan to rebuild the Church consisted of giving everything away. I have a feeling it's a name which that other Jesuit, Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, might have chosen had he lived, had he been elected. It's a complete break with the Papal past at the same time as being a link of charity with all that has made Christianity of value over the centuries. Pope means 'father'. Let's hope that Francis I will be one in the fullest, warmest sense of the word, to Christians and those of every and no faith.
 Time wrote about the Jesuits in 2008 (when they elected a new Superior General):
 Though more recently established, more traditionalist movements and religious orders such as Opus Dei and the Legionaries of Christ have gotten more attention of late, the Jesuits are still far and away the largest clerical order in the Church. They too, however, have suffered from declining ordinations, down to fewer than 20,000 members from a peak of 36,000 in the 1960s.....

Indeed, the order was founded with a special mission to directly serve the Pontiff, and has been dubbed the "Pope's cavalry," engendering suspicion in the past of conspiracies and secret powers. Even Popes, including John Paul II, have criticized them for their apparent autonomy. "Yes, we are in the vanguard of the Church," says Jose de Vera, head spokesman for the order. "It is not our job to just repeat the catechism, but to do research. Sometimes looking for real truth, you can step over the line." Just last year, the Vatican's doctrinal office issued a "Notification" to Spanish Jesuit scholar Jon Sobrino, a proponent of Marxist-inspired liberation theology, for what they called "erroneous ... and even dangerous" writings. 

Most Jesuits steer clear of offending the Vatican hierarchy, focusing on frontline missionary work amongst the poor and oppressed. Noted in particular for their vast network of schools and universities, the Jesuits are widely considered the day-to-day educational and intellectual motor for Roman Catholicism. Pecklers, who teaches liturgy at the Gregorian University in Rome, has lately been working on an education project in the hinterlands of Mongolia. "Whereas a Benedictine is centered around his monastery, the Jesuit's life is the road. The way we've achieved our credibility is getting our hands dirty, getting involved in issues of countries." Still, the order is facing many of the same challenges that face the entire Church, including declining numbers of clergy, especially in Western Europe and North America, and the tricky balancing act between faith and politics.

Since the Second Vatican Council, many Jesuits have favored progressive reform in the Church, seeking to adapt Catholic traditions to modern life. Kolvenbach's request to Benedict to step down as he approached the age of 80, Vatican sources say, could have implications for the "white" papacy as well if a Pope were to consider retiring because of old age or ill health.
I also bet some nutty conspiracy sites will go into overdrive about this.  Just give them a day or two to get their deranged thoughts in order.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013


The Guardian has come up with the Pontifficator - a handy table of every Cardinal which lets me bring you my picks for the most unlikely outcomes:

Pope most likely to convert Jamaicans:

(Yes, OK, so he's Indian, but still it would be a bit like Samuel L Jackson making the cut.)

Pope most wanted by the International Association of Dentists:

(He's Cardinal Wako, from Khartoum.  Which makes me realise that I don't know enough geography. Someone also tried to kill him a couple of years ago, which makes my picking on his teeth very unfair.   Good luck, Cardinal Wako.)

Pope most likely to have had early career on a cruise ship:

 OK, so is stereotyping Filipinos a sin?

But seriously, Cardinal Tagle is apparently really in the running, and he's the smiliest, most photogenic candidate by far.  Who could stay mad at him while being condemned to Hell for going on the Pill after 6 kids and a serious case of prolapse when he has such a nice smile?

However, let's face it, his hair is only partially grey and he probably has 20 years of good health ahead of him yet.  That almost certainly puts him out of the running.

Instead, we'll probably end up with Pope who Looks Most Likely to Use the Mafia to Clean up the Curia:

(Actually, he's Spanish, but Martin Scorsese sprang to mind when I saw him.)

Anyway, soon we'll know...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Smart dogs

The genius of dogs: Brian Hare on friendliness, intelligence, and inference in dogs. - Slate Magazine

A good interview talking about the way in which dogs are smart. For example:

 Dogs are the only species that have been identified to date that learn words in the same way as human children—by using inferences. Show a child a red block and a green block, for example. If you then ask for "the chromium block, not the red block," most children will give you the green block, despite not knowing that "chromium" can refer to a shade of green. The child infers the name of the object. Dogs have been found to learn in the same way.
The second thing is that they make use of human gestures at a similar level of flexibility to young infants. Obviously older infants quickly outstrip what dogs can do, but the fact that there is any overlap at all is remarkable.
And this:
There are lots of flavors of intelligence. Researchers have looked at different animals and the contexts in which they are able to make inferences. Corvids, the family of birds that includes crows and ravens, make incredibly complicated inferences when it comes to using tools or outcompeting group members in hiding food, for example. What's special about dogs is that they have the ability to figure out what we want, to use humans as a tool in a way that other animals cannot.

The way that I would love for people to think about intelligence is to think of a tool box. If somebody asks you what's the smartest species or who's the smartest person, it's the equivalent of asking, what's the best tool, a hammer or a screwdriver? Well, what's the problem you're trying to solve? What is it that dogs need to solve to survive? They need to figure out how to use humans effectively.

Clive on climate

Nature v technology: climate 'belief' is politics, not science

I quite like this piece by Clive Hamilton, drawing similarities between how Einstein's theory of relativity was initially rejected by many on political ground, in the same way that much of the Right does with respect to climate change.

Yay, science fiction comedy

Douglas Adams is still the king of comic science fiction | Books |

The Guardian notes that Google is today celebrating the 61st birthday of the late Douglas Adams.

I am very keen on the genre of science fiction comedy, and have been enjoying watching a re-run of the entire set of Red Dwarf series on ABC2.  It's now nearing the end, though, I think.

If we are very lucky, I wonder if the ABC could follow this up with  a repeat of Hitchhiker's Guide?   It's been decades since I have seen it, and the movie did nothing for me.

Monday, March 11, 2013

11,000 years ago and now

Scientists Find an Abrupt Warm Jog After a Very Long Cooling -

The Andy Revkin post on last week's science study seems to me to have given too much prevalence to the assessment of Robert Rhode, who suggested that the paper did not have fine enough time scale resolution to rule out past rapid temperature rises of similar magnitude to that of the 20th century that may have come and gone within the space of a few centuries.

Co-author Shukan gets to make a rebuttal in the comments thread that there is pretty good reason to not believe such changes happened, and he also makes the point in the video that, with the known effects of increased CO2, there is no reason to think the present rise is going to go down.  However, these responses are something you have to dig up in the thread, and (as others have claimed) Revkin's desire for balance sometimes ends up giving a false impression.

The Science article in question was pretty well summarised here.  The thing that surprised me was that warming periods over the past 11,000 years did match pretty well with orbital changes that would have increased sun in the north:
Marcott said that one of the natural factors affecting global temperatures over the past 11,300 years is gradual change in the distribution of solar insolation associated with Earth's position relative to the sun.

"During the warmest period of the Holocene, the Earth was positioned such that Northern Hemisphere summers warmed more," Marcott said. "As the Earth's orientation changed, Northern Hemisphere summers became cooler, and we should now be near the bottom of this long-term cooling trend -- but obviously, we are not."
 That's the biggest significance of the paper, it seems to me.

But I should note that Revkin's post on the matter does redeem itself by including this response by Richard Alley, which makes some very important points which climate change fake skeptics do not usually appreciate:
I think it is worth remembering a few things for how this fits into the bigger picture. Whether the past was naturally warmer or cooler than recently, and whether the changes were faster or slower than recently, are of great interest to climate scientists in learning how the climate system works, including the strength of feedbacks. But existence of a warmer climate in the past doesn’t mean that the current warming is natural, any more than the existence of natural fires rules out arson in some recent warehouse blaze. And, existence of a warmer climate in the past also doesn’t mean that we’ll like a warmer climate in the future. Nature has made places and times colder, and warmer, than most people like. Our high assessed confidence that the recent warming is mostly human-driven, and that the costs will become large if the warming becomes large, do not primarily rest on how much warmer or colder today is than some particular time in the past, or even on how fast the recent changes are relative to those in the past.

Furthermore, because the feedbacks in the climate system often respond similarly to warming with different causes (warmer air will tend to melt more snow and ice, and to pick up more greenhouse-gas water vapor from the vast ocean, whether the warmth came from rising CO2 or increasing solar output or alien ray guns or a giant hair dryer), data showing larger climate changes in the past in response to some estimated forcing actually increase the concerns about future warming. If, for example, scientists had somehow underestimated the climate change between Medieval times and the Little Ice Age, or other natural climate changes, without corresponding errors in the estimated size of the causes of the changes, that would suggest stronger amplifying feedbacks and larger future warming from rising greenhouse gases than originally estimated. Any increase in our estimate of the natural climate responses to past forcings points to a more variable future path with larger average changes.
A similar point was made about the Schmitter paper last year - the paper suggested a lower range for climate sensitivity, but another result was that it meant that relatively small temperature changes can have huge impact on large parts of the Earth.

Wetter and drier

Increase in the range between wet and dry season precipitation : Nature Geoscience 

The abstract I'll reproduce in full, because this topic is something that climate change "skeptics" just continually can't seem to get their head around :
Global temperatures have risen over the past few decades. The water vapour content of the atmosphere has increased as a result, strengthening the global hydrological cycle1, 2, 3, 4. This, in turn, has led to wet regions getting wetter, and dry regions drier1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Climate model simulations suggest that a similar intensification of existing patterns may also apply to the seasonal cycle of rainfall7. Here, we analyse regional and global trends in seasonal precipitation extremes over the past three decades, using a number of global and land-alone observational data sets. We show that globally the annual range of precipitation has increased, largely because wet seasons have become wetter. Although the magnitude of the shift is uncertain, largely owing to limitations inherent in the data sets used, the sign of the tendency is robust. On a regional scale, the tendency for wet seasons to get wetter occurs over climatologically rainier regions. Similarly, the tendency for dry season to get drier is seen in drier regions. Even if the total amount of annual rainfall does not change significantly, the enhancement in the seasonal precipitation cycle could have marked consequences for the frequency of droughts and floods.
A journalist explanation of the study adds some more detail:
...the gap between wet and dry seasons was widening at a rate of 1.47 millimeters per day per century. All three trends, they report, “are significant at the 99 percent confidence level.”

In the real world most of us experience, it’s hard to be sure that rainy spells are rainier, and dry seasons are drier: that is because, as the authors concede, global rainfall patterns are “spatially complex.”

But there is general agreement that such changes are taking place, with good physical reasons for doing so: a warmer world means more evaporation, and more precipitation. Furthermore, the authors say, simulations predict such a pattern and observations confirm it.

Tony Abbott and the friends of Dorothy*

So, Tony did a 60 Minutes bit last night which seems to have been a lot about his attitude towards gays and lesbians.    And his sister, who now lives with a woman after a lengthy heterosexual marriage, was there to lend support.

But doesn't she contradict Tony's attempted explanation of why he said 3 years ago that he felt "a bit threatened" by homosexuality?:
Supported by his lesbian sister, her partner, his wife Margie and his daughters, Mr Abbott said that when he claimed three years ago during a television interview that he felt ''a bit threatened'' by homosexuals, he had been trying to guard a family secret.

He had only just been told by his sister she was a lesbian.
''Now I couldn't talk about that then because it was deeply personal and deeply private,'' he said. ''But certainly they were very tough times for our family, hence my comment, because the cohesion of our family was threatened at that time. But I'm pleased to say we're all in a better space now than we were then.''

Interviewed at a family barbecue at his Sydney home, Mr Abbott's sister, Christine Forster, said he was ''completely unfazed'' when she told him she was in a lesbian relationship after 19 years of being married to a man. Her partner, Virginia Edwards, said Mr Abbott and his family had been ''fantastic''.
I think Tony is just clumsily trying to be all things to all people again. 

I don't really see much wrong with a man indicating that he's not always sure how to react to gay men or women, particularly when you're talking about certain versions of how homosexuality is expressed these days.     I mean, I suspect no one thinks having dinner with Stephen Fry would be awkward in any way, but lunch with this woman might be somewhat different.   I think this is all Abbott meant when he, clumsily,  referred to "being threatened".  He had, after all, long been friends with Christopher Pearson when he made that statement.

*  Well, it seems an appropriate title in light of my previous post

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Oz-ing about

Let's start with a photo.  Do you know who this is?:

If you're like me, you would not have recognized him as Sam Raimi, a director with a bit of a cultish following for his (very successful) work, but who seems to keep his personal profile so low I had no idea what he looked like.

And here's another photo:

It's L Frank Baum.  I can't remember seeing him before, either.  The Wikipedia entry about him is pretty interesting.  As a young man, he got into breeding fancy poultry, which apparently was "a national craze at the time."  (TV not having been invented yet, I suppose.)  He wrote a book about it:  The Book of the Hamburgs: A Brief Treatise upon the Mating, Rearing, and Management of the Different Varieties of Hamburgs.  Hamburg chickens, that is. Here's a photo, because I haven't seen one of them before either:

Sort of the dalmatian of the chicken world.  But I digress.

All of this is by way of background to talking about yesterday's viewing of Oz The Great and Powerful.  But there's more backgrounding to be done yet.

I was pretty young when I was given an abridged picture book version of The Wizard of Oz, and I thought it a peculiar story, but I liked the imagery of a glowing emerald city.  I don't think I saw the movie until my  older teenage years, and remember being pleasantly surprised at the humour and charm of the portrayal of the Lion, Tin Man and Scarecrow.

It also struck me that the story could easily be read as being very humanistic, and anti-religion, if not anti-theism.  The feared Wizard, who can be taken as a stand in for the fearful God of the Old Testament in particular, turns out to be a "humbug", and each of  the characters already has the worthy attribute which he seeks; they just need to be given the confidence that it is indeed within them.  

This aspect of the book and movie still, it seems to me, gets little attention.  Sure, Googling the topic now brings up some (usually fundamentalist Christian) sites which attack the story on these grounds; but not many, really.  (OK, if you really want to, you can see here a rather rotund American evangelical preacher ripping into it as a "God hating" movie.)

In any event, what were the religious views of Frank Baum?   Wikipedia says that he and his wife (who was prominent in the women's suffrage movement) were into Theosophy, 8 years before the book was published.  It summarises his views:
The Baums believed in God, but felt that religious decisions should be made by mature minds and not religious authorities. As a result, they sent their older sons to "Ethical Culture Sunday School" in Chicago, which taught morality, not religion.
Well, it would seem that he would be against the old school Christianity that emphasises fear of God, in that case. I suppose you could say it is a fairy tale that Pelagius would have enjoyed, much more so than St Augustine.

And so, we can finally come to the question - did I like the new movie? 

But before we get there - is it based on anything Baum wrote?  No, it's not.  I was aware from Martin Gardener, who was an Oz fan, that Baum had written many sequels to the original Wizard book, and I was guessing that maybe one of those books were a prequel. But no, this does not appear to be the case at all.

Nor is the movie story in any way related to the successful stage musical Wicked.  I knew nothing of that show until my kids' school choir last year did a version of "For Good", which I thought was very pleasing.  But then I found the song as it appears in the stage show, and it seems rather awful in its orginal form.  Compare, if you want to, an American high school version:


with the cheesy sounding stage version:

I think that's a valuable lesson in how many voices arranged well can improve a song a lot.

Anyway, the story is an elaboration on the Wizard's explanation as to how he arrived in Oz in Chapter 15 of the original book, but there was very little information there to go on.   I think that making it about a selfish loser who redeems himself in another world was basically a good idea that fits thematically with the original story.

But - and I think I'm really ready now - did I like the movie overall?

Yes I did.

The biggest surprise is the unusual decision to make the adult theme of romantic/sexual jealousy a key part of the story.   Well, as I have said, the original Oz story is a bit more serious than is normally credited, too.   But I just did not expect that the deeply flawed man who is destined to become the Wizard would be shown to be bad by way of being a chronic womaniser, even though it appears he once had a true love to whom he has been incapable of being faithful.

I am not at all sure how kids will take this, but it seems to me that it really pitches the movie more towards a teen and adult audience.  (My 10 year daughter said "he liked one woman, then another, and another.  I just don't get it."  She enjoyed the movie anyway.)   It is similar, I suppose, to the way the Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland started with a bit of a mini Pride and Prejudice theme. (I saw that movie on TV recently, and thought it was pretty bad.)

The movie is visually impressive; unlike many reviewers, I don't criticise James Franco for being annoyingly self absorbed when he is playing a character who is meant to be self absorbed; it made me realise again what a funny character voice Zach Braff has; and it has a pleasing sort of, I don't know, depth? to it.  It is my guess that its best features are a result of Raimi's sensibilities.  Even though I am no fan of the superhero genre, generally speaking, he did do a very good job with the Spiderman franchise.  It's funny how a man who started with zombies handles romantic themes well, isn't it?  

It's not perfect, and don't get me wrong, I still consider the whole world of Oz to be rather peculiar; but I was pleased to have seen it.

More Spielberg praise

Have I noted here before that Steven Spielberg seems to have no enemies in Hollywood?  I'm sure I have.

This article helps to explain why:  he is (apparently) very generous in terms of offering advice to other directors if they ask for it.  It also means his influence is much more pervasive than you might think:
Spielberg, 66, is considered the most influential director of our time. And then there are the more than 175 films that he, in one form or another, has been ultimately responsible for, mostly through his production company, Amblin, and his studio, DreamWorks.

But less recognised is the feedback that Spielberg has provided as a sounding board for other filmmakers. Being the recipient of such creative input is as close to receiving a benediction as one can hope for in Hollywood.

''His love of movies and desire to collaborate extends far beyond those projects that he is required to work on,'' says Abrams, who has been hailed as a Spielberg protege. ''But he is so frequently cornered by people and asked to give notes. I feel guilty about being one of them.''
Unfortunately, his advice to Abrams does not extend to "For God's sake, stop filling the screen with giant faces as if you are still directing for television", which still stands as my permanent criticism of Abrams.   (I just don't see that he is all that talented.)  

Still, any endorsement of Spielberg by anyone is good enough for me.

In other human/mouse cell mix news...

BBC News - Researchers grow teeth from gum cells

In the latest study they took human epithelial cells from the gums of human patients, grew more of them in the lab and mixed them with mesenchyme cells from mice.

The mesenchyme cells were cultured to be "inducing" - they instruct the epithelial cells to start growing into a tooth.

Transplanting the cell combination into mice, researchers were able to grow hybrid human/mouse teeth that had viable roots, they reported in the Journal of Dental Research.
Not that it seems anyone will be at risk of getting a mouse tooth by accident:
Study leader Prof Paul Sharpe said mesenchyme cells could be found in the pulp of wisdom teeth, among other sources, but the difficulty had been in getting hold of enough of them.

"This advance here is we have identified a cell population you could envisage using in the clinic. We are now working to try and identify a simple way of getting mesenchyme."

He added: "The next major challenge is to identify a way to culture adult human mesenchymal cells to be tooth-inducing, as at the moment we can only make embryonic mesenchymal cells do this."
 And here's another question:  how will lab grown teeth know what sort of tooth to turn into?  It would be a bit embarrassing having a molar grow where an incisor should be.

Friday, March 08, 2013

Pinky and the Brain on the way

Using human brain cells to make mice smarter

This article starts:
Glial cells – a family of cells found in the human central nervous system and, until recently, considered mere "housekeepers" – now appear to be essential to the unique complexity of the human brain. Scientists reached this conclusion after demonstrating that when transplanted into mice, these human cells could influence communication within the brain, allowing the animals to learn more rapidly.
Dear Scientists:  we are not entirely convinced that making mice smarter via human brain cells is a good idea.

Yours kindly,

The Public.

Not convinced

The mining tax court challenge explained

I am no constitutional lawyer, but I have to say - these arguments being run by the mining companies sound really weak to me.

I would bet money on them failing, but there will be some much richer Senior Counsel running around.  The most delicious outcome would be if the companies lost the right to deduct the State royalties but still have to pay the Commonwealth the tax.

Faster than light or instantaneous?

Chinese Physicists Measure Speed of "Spooky Action At a Distance" | MIT Technology Review

I always thought that quantum entanglement was supposed to work instantaneously.  But the fact that they were trying to measure it suggests it must be thought possible that it isn't.  Anyway, the latest result:
They say the results are clear but do not measure the speed of spooky action directly. Instead, the results place a lower bound on how fast it must be. The answer is that it is at least four orders of  magnitude faster than light, and may still turn out to be instantaneous, as quantum mechanics predicts.
And in other light speed news, I see that this paper suggest the speed limit is a result of the quantum vacuum itself:
 We show that the vacuum permeability and permittivity may originate from the magnetization and the polarization of continuously appearing and disappearing fermion pairs. We then show that if we simply model the propagation of the photon in vacuum as a series of transient captures within these ephemeral pairs, we can derive a finite photon velocity. Requiring that this velocity is equal to the speed of light constrains our model of vacuum. Within this approach, the propagation of a photon is a statistical process at scales much larger than the Planck scale. Therefore we expect its time of flight to fluctuate. We propose an experimental test of this prediction.
I have no idea if this (if shown to be true) has any implications for faster than light travel or transfer of information, but it sounds like the sort of idea that might...

Resign first - then call your boss a hopeless liar

Officer breaks ranks to condemn ADF's 'neglect' of abuse victims - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The Fairfax and News Ltd press doesn't seem to be paying much attention to this story, but it was remarkable last night to watch a serving Lieutenant Colonel (who is gay) complaining bitterly about the Army: 
Lt Col Morgan says there are no positives in the way the ADF handles abuse cases.

"They say one thing in public and do another thing in private," he said.

"What I have experienced in my personal case is complete inaction, and not just inaction but attempts to shut me down and keep me quiet.

"I don't have anything positive to say about Defence's handling of abuse and its mental health consequences."
"I'm not really sure why not, but I suspect that our senior leadership just doesn't care.
"My personal experience tells me that the Army's abuse management strategies that I've seen - delay, deter and deceive - are still in force now."
This was followed by the Chief of Defence General David Hurley saying (to paraphrase) "no, of course he won't lose his job - we've been very understanding of his issues and personal problems etc etc".

But one of the ironies is that the Lieutenant Colonel is a psychologist himself - "the man responsible for the mental health of Australia's deployed soldiers," apparently. Is the General suggesting the Lt Col may not have the clearest assessment of his own case?  

I don't get this.  How does someone who goes on national TV to, basically, call his boss a hopeless and incompetent liar, and who encourages all other abuse victims in Defence to contact him if they are also unhappy, think that he can go back to work and have a normal working relationship?

If this was the private sector, surely to God you would be talking to the employee and saying "look, there is no way we can normalise things - mutual trust is gone.  Take some money and criticise us from outside the organisation if you want, but don't think we can work with you again."

I know from experience that Defence, and the Army in particular, can make made some very weird management decisions; it is amazing how people who are good at certain specialised things can be hopeless at exercising common sense in how to handle staff.   And it may well be that the Army didn't do the right thing by the Lt Col (or do it fast enough.)

But I think both sides are acting weird if they think everyone can now just continue as if last night didn't happen.

Wednesday, March 06, 2013

Peak demand has peaked

Some analysis here of electricity consumption in Australia during the pretty hot summer we just finished shows that "peak demand" was less than in previous years.  The suggestion is that it's the large amount of rooftop solar that is making a difference, although it may also be increased insulation in houses, or other matters.  Installed solar is bigger in total than I would have guessed:
Since the last hot summer in 2010, our electricity system has seen a lot of changes. For one thing, almost 2 gigawatts of distributed generation has been added in the form of domestic solar PV. To put that in context, 2 gigawatts represents a touch under 10% of average summer demand, though of course solar PV only produces at near maximum levels for a few hours in the middle of a sunny summer day. However, when solar PV is producing it takes away from the demand for electricity that otherwise would be dispatched across the poles and wires via our National Electricity Market – or NEM.
So, its encouraging that, despite the widespread installation of air conditioners which are typically turned on in the later part of the afternoon, peak demand is coming down a bit.  

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

No nano thanks

Fresh concern over nano-particles hidden in sunscreen - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

I haven't followed closely the issue of nano particles in sunscreen, but this article has a few surprises.  Such as this:

In 2008 it was revealed that nano-particles of anatase titanium dioxide, found in some sunscreens, were leading to serious problems with Bluescope steel Colorbond roofing.

Anatase titanium dioxide was found to be one of the main factors which caused the premature weathering of the coating on the pre-painted steel roof sheets after they had been handled by workers with sunscreen on their hands.

It has also been shown to cause deterioration of other surface coatings and paints on cars and other consumer products.
But it's safe to put on skin?:
Dermatologist Dr Robert Salmon also queried its safety as a sunscreen ingredient.
"I was quite concerned when I heard these reports," he said.

"Because when it was explained to me what the mechanisms were that were blowing away this paint coating that had a 10-year guarantee, but that was being partially destroyed within 10 weeks, I noted that they were exactly the same mechanisms by which these nano-particles could also cause mutations in DNA if they got somewhere down near live cells."
 But they do test it some way, do they?:
Chris Winder, a professor of toxicology at the Australian Catholic University, says further studies are critical.

"This is a major policy problem - we can't just say, 'well, the big-sized particles are OK, so the small ones are as well'," he said.

"This needs work. From a regulatory perspective, we shouldn't accept both normal-sized particles and nano-particles as having the same health clearances.

"I think the nano-particles may have some toxicity that we're yet to find, so I think we should be prudent and at least warn people that cosmetic products contain nano-particles."
 This does not sound too encouraging...

Gaming in Arabia

No tents, no camels

Here's an interesting article (by Mary Beard's son, as it happens) regarding the sort of computer games that are being made by Arabs for Arabs.   Some of them sound rather depressing:
 For his first Afkar game, Kasmiya did not shy away from controversy. Under Ash (2001) tells the story of the first Palestinian intifada. It is considered the first distinctively Arab computer game. Others quickly followed—Hezbollah even tried its hand at creating an anti-Israeli videogame called Special Force in 2003. Kasmiya followed Under Ash with Under Siege (2005), which is based on events of the Second intifada. Players must sometimes attempt to get out of protests alive or, in other levels, fight Israeli soldiers—but never civilians, Kasmiya stresses.

“Some people call them propaganda games, some call them docu-games, depending on their perspective,” says Kasmiya. It is clear which camp he falls into: he tells me the series was based on UN records of events and so reflects reality. Victory is impossible—whichever male or female character you choose, you always die in the end. “You may not get the glory but you do get the knowledge,” he concludes. “I hope my games will make people think rather than just press the action key on the computer.”

More on arctic ice loss being felt down south...

Arctic ice loss amplified Superstorm Sandy violence

Cornell and Rutgers researchers report in the March issue of Oceanography that the severe loss of summertime Arctic sea ice—attributed to greenhouse warming—appears to enhance Northern Hemisphere jet stream meandering, intensify Arctic air mass invasions toward middle latitudes, and increase the frequency of atmospheric blocking events like the one that steered Hurricane Sandy west into the densely populated New York City area. 

 The article, "Superstorm Sandy: A Series of Unfortunate Events?" was authored by Charles H. Greene, Cornell professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and director of Cornell's Ocean Resources and Ecosystems program; Jennifer A. Francis of Rutgers University's Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences; and Bruce C. Monger, Cornell senior research associate, earth and atmospheric sciences. 

The researchers assert that the record-breaking sea ice loss from summer 2012, combined with the unusual atmospheric phenomena observed in late October, appear to be linked to global warming.

A strong atmospheric, high-pressure blocking pattern over Greenland and the northwest Atlantic prevented Hurricane Sandy from steering northeast and out to sea like most October hurricanes and tropical storms from the Caribbean. In fact, Sandy traveled up the Atlantic coast and turned left "toward the most populated area along the eastern seaboard" and converged with an extratropical cyclone; this, in turn, fed the weakening Hurricane Sandy and transformed it into a monster tempest.

An interesting mystery

Mysterious light blamed for circle of fire - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Here's the report in full:
Tasmanian police and firefighters are unable to explain the source of a beam of light which reportedly fell from the sky and formed a circle of fire in a Hobart suburb.

Early Saturday morning police and fire crews received calls from concerned residents in Carnegie Street at Claremont, who reported seeing a bright light igniting a fire in a nearby paddock.

Tasmania Fire Service officer Scott Vinen says the blaze was quickly put out, leaving an obvious burnt patch.

He says the bizarre incident has everyone baffled.

"Once we put the fire out, we kind of walked through the fire and tried to find something," he said.
"We thought a flare or something may have landed there, but we couldn't find any cause."

The Fire Service says it will not investigate further.
 I can't see it mentioned in the Hobart Mercury.  What a pity:  I would like to directly hear interviews with witnesses.

Colebatch is back

Past was a blast so now it's back to the future

My favourite economics journalist of late is back, making reassuring sounds about the economy.

Hope he's right...

Monday, March 04, 2013

Lighter than air - then and now

Hindenburg mystery solved after 76 years - Science - News - The Independent

Speaking of lighter than air things, I noticed somewhere last week that the management of the US helium supply is still a vexed issue.

But how much is there left in the world?  According to the Chairman of the Balloon Council (what a job!) in a piece he wrote for CNN, there's enough for 300 years at current rates of use.  Of course, I suppose there is a question about how much you can trust the front man from the party balloon industry. 

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Celibacy reconsidered, any decade now...

I thought that the article by Frank Bruni reprinted in Fairfax today put the case against celibacy in the Catholic priesthood very well.

And looking at the Guardian, I read for the first time the background of the allegations made by a few priests (and an ex priest) against the Scottish Cardinal O'Brien.  It is pretty sordid, but most remarkably, it appears the timing is a complete co-incidence with the Pope's resignation, which is not I had assumed:
The four complainants made their statements to the papal nuncio, Archbishop Mennini, around 8 or 9 February. On 11 February the pope resigned. The first response the complainants received from the nuncio said O'Brien should continue to go to Rome because "that will make it easier to arrange his retirement to be one of prayer and seclusion like the pope". The complainants recognised church subtext. In a message to me one wrote: "This is saying, 'leave it to us to sweep it under the carpet and you can forget about it. It will fade away as if we have dealt with it.' Not acceptable."

On 22 February, the cardinal gave an interview to the BBC about going to the conclave. He also said that church rules on celibacy should be reviewed. Informally, the men heard that the church was unhappy about that interview. Action would be taken. The cardinal would not go to Rome.

So did the church act because it was shocked by the claims against the cardinal or were they were angry he had broken ranks on celibacy? Two days later, the Observer published the story.
The other regrettable thing, of course, is how unfortunate it is that a Cardinal caught in scandal about his own sexual behaviour should be one who breaches solidarity on celibacy.  This gives the perfect out for the old boys network to dismiss his call on character grounds and claim him as part of the homosexual element that has caused the problem of child abuse.  (It would appear one of the major blind spots of Benedict that he was right on board with this theory, despite lots of evidence against it.)  But in reality, one could say that (assuming the allegations are true) it is quite legitimate of someone who has failed at celibacy to be the one to make the point that it is a road too hard (and unnecessary) for priests to follow.

One thing for sure:  the simplest thing the new Pope could do to indicate to the world that the Church is open to realistic reform and change would be for the celibacy rules to be relaxed.

It is, probably, too soon for the whole Humanae Vitae question to be revisited, but I would guess that would be a job for the next Pope.  Catholics will just have to continue ignoring that teaching until it is overturned.

Saturday, March 02, 2013

Looking forward to this

(The first movie was very funny.  You ought to see it, with kids or not.)

I predict it won't happen

Mars mission poses greater risk to human life than Nasa would allow | Science |

The Guardian lists all of the technical and other problems that this proposed slingshot missions would face. 

Yet still, it seems not to have made the key point (and I can't say any other report I have noticed has either):   there is no point in sending people on a dangerous mission with untested life support equipment in a tiny can just to spin around a planet, take some photos, and come back.   

This article says the capsule would have a about 7 cubic meters space.  But some articles say the inflatable living quarters part would have a volume of 17 m3.  The pressurised volume of the International Space Station is 837m3.  Skylab, with a crew of 3, had a volume of 368m3.

Spending more than 500 days in a volume of 17 m3 is, in itself, nuts.

Is there a reliable medication available for the sudden development of claustrophobia?

Especially if the inflatable module develops a leak and has to be evacuated?

I read somewhere that the mission won't take pressure suits.  No EVA then to get away from each other for a while.

This is not going to happen...

Friday, March 01, 2013

Putting baby outside

For some reason, the BBC Magazine had a look recently  at the peculiarly Nordic habit of putting babies outside during the day for a nap - including in the middle of winter.  They value fresh air highly, apparently, regardless of the bitter cold, and manage to bundle the kids up enough that they don't freeze to death.  

If you have a look at this follow up, you can also see a Dutch "baby house", looking all the world like a rabbit hutch in the back yard, being used in the 1970s.  Really, you ought to watch the video:  it looks very, very strange to Australian eyes.  

Maybe its our residual fear of dingos, or something; but doing either of these in Australia would cause uproar if it appeared on Today Tonight, or some other tabloid TV show.