Friday, May 22, 2015

Advanced toilet training

Amusing story (kinda) from America.

I've been thinking...

That story about developing yeast that could make opiates reminded me today of the recent story about geeks interested in developing yeast that could make milk proteins.  In that post, I speculated about such yeast proliferating in the wild and having the potential to ruin fermented products.   Well, rather than cheese tainted home brewed beer, opiate tainted ones could be even worse.

Yeast is easy to work with for such wannabe DNA tinkerers, but doesn't the fact that it lives happily in the wild, floating invisibly around us, make the potential for its accidental release more of a concern than the escape of other micro-organisms?

Well, my point is not completely unfounded.  In a Popular Mechanics article "Better Beer from Genetically Engineered Yeast":
The ecological concern is more nuanced, Verstrepen says. Here, his main concern is the prospect of introducing non-yeast genes into a yeast, with the worry that these new, human-picked genes could be bred or passed on across yeasts in the outside world. "And this is a serious concern. You need to understand what you're doing, and make sure you're not going to accidentally confer some ecological advantage to the outside population," he says.
Even if these new yeasts were to escape, he explains, the chances of them out-competing other, wild yeast species—given that beer yeast is tailored to perform in a very unnatural environment—is unlikely, but certainly worth watching for.
I see that anti GM advocates are ahead of me, and that genetically modified yeast has already been used for lots of purposes, including drug production.  This article speculates on the possible health effects on humans getting an accidental GM modified yeast in their gut.  ( I assume that they don't actually normally take up residence there, but I'd have to read more about it.)

Going back to a science journal, I see a link to a paper in 1994 about an experiment to see if a GM modified yeast did well in a "natural" environment.   I wonder if such tests are required on all GM modified yeasts before they are used?

Curious minds - well mine, anyway - would like to know....


Stay healthy, stay smart?

Infections can affect your IQ

A man who chooses to be gay against gentrification*

I've muttered before about the extraordinary amount of gay navel gazing that is hosted at Slate, and the most tedious writer they have, who is wont to take 1000 words to express what others could in 100 (OK, maybe 200), is J Bryan Lowder.

He recently wrote at length about gay as his adopted culture (as opposed to merely being homosexual), and while I am a part of that large section of the population that genuinely can't quite get its head around why a great many (but not all) men who like to sleep with men act gay, or camp, and share some odd and distinctive tastes in music and art,  I just couldn't be bothered staying with Lowder's boringly expressed attempt at explanation.   As someone in comments said:
....the title seemed to represent some interesting concepts. But I couldn't finish, in part because it became quickly evident that an essentially semantic argument had been overwrought and overthought. And in part because this article reads like a dissertation--one that lacked an outline.
This author clearly has writing talent, but loves his words more than he loves his story.
This week, Mr Lowder (a young man who writes as a young man) has an idealistic, no, actually naive, complaint:  that gay couples raising children in a now somewhat gentrified part of New York should not be complaining about gay sex shops and condom littered footpaths because they don't think these are good things for their kids to be walking past on the way to school:
I realize I’m being hard on these people, parents who I’m sure just want what’s best for their children. But they’ve got to realize that this campaign is a total betrayal of a history of sexually inclusive activism that has made it possible for them to even raise kids and build lives together in this now-fancy neighborhood in the first place. The desire on the part of many gays to assimilate into traditionally straight ways of living is not in itself a bad thing; the problem comes when that move is made as some kind of repudiation of other, gayer ways of living, particularly as manifested with regard to important gay spaces like bars and shops.
Lowder, deservedly, attracts quite a bit of ridicule in comments:

Take a pill, Lowder.   Preferably a horse tranquilizer. Jesus.
"I find condoms on the New York sidewalk a few times a week, and you know what I think, every single time? I’m glad someone decided to use this when they got laid."
No you don't.
And:
Stop prude-shaming gays and lesbians who do not wear their every sexual act and proclivity on their sleeves for their entire lives. The assimilation you criticize is likely the primary, if not only, reason for the sea change we have seen in heterosexuals' attitudes toward gays and lesbians this century. "Don't discriminate against me because of whom I love and build a life with" is a much easier sell than "Don't discriminate against me because all the people at my sex orgy are of the same gender."
And I like the sentiment, to a degree, although the reference to "perversion" makes one suspect the writer is perhaps just a little more intolerant than needed:
When it comes to raising children I would certainly HOPE parents are hypocrites! Boozers, should be hiding their boozing from their children, dopers should be hiding their dope from their children, abusers should be hiding their abuse from their children, perverts of any persuasion should be protecting their children from their perversions. America seems to have entirely forgotten the concept of 'discretion'.
Finally: 
It's not homophobic or prudish to shelter young children from constantly seeing things that they are developmentally unable to comprehend. And it begs the question, what should these parents do in the meantime until their kids are "old enough?" Change schools? Blindfold their kids when walking to school? There is a reason why most municipalities have zoning laws for shops that sell sex and adult-oriented products.
Ah, zoning laws!

That raises another topic on which certain commentators have an excessive obsession.  I've got a post coming about that too.

*  I felt bad about the earlier title, since I hate the sound of the anyone saying "oh, he's a gay" as if that was the crucial identifier for any personality.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

The Letterman departure

Just finished watching the last David Letterman, and agree with the writer at Slate who said it was perfect.  

Sure, I think the show ran out of creative steam maybe, I am guessing, five or so years ago, and I had stopped watching it when it started being shown at erratic times.  But seeing so many clips of how great it used to be over the decades before its decline made for a nostalgic and very satisfying end.   He was clearly emotional but with no mawkishness, and his simple thanks to his family brought a tear to the eye.

And now, let's see how Colbert goes. It's hard to imagine his transition....


Far be it for me to criticise other people's taste in entertainment...

............................................

OK, have you finished laughing yet...no?   OK

.........................................

Alrighty.

But I am curious about why people like Jonathan Greene can merely "wonder" about the way rape (and violence) is used as entertainment in Game of Thrones, and not actually conclude that the show is unworthy of his, or other people's, support.  

He writes well, if a bit too overly flowery for my liking, on the topic, but merely teeters on the edge of that conclusion.

[In spooky voice heard inside his head]:  Join me, Jonathan.  Come over to the side of actually telling people a show can be a dangerous stain on the psyche of the public and should not be made or watched.  It is your destiny.....*  

(Not that I've ever watched it, of course.)

* And while we're at it, if you email me I'll tell you a few challenges I'd like you to put to Sinclair Davidson on air.

The big lego set in the computer

Minecraft Stars on YouTube Share Secrets to Their Celebrity - NYTimes.com

I have recently started fiddling with Minecraft, under instruction from my son.

Thus far, I have a cottage and a nearly completed house in "Steve is Great" world.   I think a temple to my magnificence is next called for.

As you were...

Squash the Tomato

Now at the risk of readers thinking I'm obsessing about Tomorrowland (which has now dropped down to 59% approval, making it a Rottentomato "miss") or George Clooney, I have been meaning to observe for a quite a while that the Rottentomatoes site has gone increasingly wonky over the last year or two.

First, the number of times the "key quote" seems quite contrary to whether the movie has been scored positive or negative seems to have increased, a lot.

Secondly, the number of well known movie reviewers who appear there has been heading down, down, down.  In their place are some folk who come from backwater sites most people have never heard of.

Thirdly, when you use the app version, you get a different bunch of reviews from the web version (I think.)  Or at least, last I looked, Australian reviewers got priority. 

I had forgotten about the Metacritic site, but it still seems to feature prominent critics only, and takes the immensely sensible approach of calling a mixed review "mixed" instead of trying to count it only as a "hit" or "miss".  Someone still gives reviews a number, and I guess if I read the site more carefully I might have a problem with some of those ratings, but still it seems a lot more sensible system than what Rottentomatoes has become.

And Metacritic still has Tomorrowland at 62.  So there...

Quantum weirdness under investigation - just down the road

Quantum physics: What is really real? 

I'm quite pleased to be reading an article about experiments to determine the true nature of quantum physics, particularly when it talks to physicists from two Brisbane universities.  

It's a little hard to credit that an incredibly important scientific finding that could change everything could come from Griffith University, or Brisbane generally, but who knows? 

You will all bow down and respect the intellectual greatness of the city when that happens, I'm sure...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

That's weird...then the explanation found

I was scanning the largely unfavourable review of Tomorrowland at Variety, and then had a look at the comment thread.   Dominated by complete wingnuts: 
Clooney is generally one of the most over-hyped faces out of the lala land that is Hollywood. Wouldn’t waste my money. Tomorrowland will be free on Comcast soon enough…

I’ll never know….Clooney does not get any of my hard earned money no matter how good the show is.

Anything that the Liberal Loon Clooney stars in, is not worth seeing – Total trash!!

I knew the movie was crap as soon as I saw the calving glacier. This is just another shrill eco-whackjob movie with “stupid” as a plot and “even dumber” for dialogue. Only someone who wants their kids indoctrinated into the whacko Leftist theology of environmentalism is going to pay to let their kids see this propagandized drivel.

 Purge is coming says:
More pop psy liberal propaganda. Poor baby boomers. The world no longer wants you smelly hippies in the command chair.
Now who knew that American Tea Party nutters with their hatred for George Clooney would be big readers of Variety?  

I had to get down the thread a fair way to find the explanation:  



As suspected, it's a case of sending out the flying monkeys.

I expect a comment by avid Drudge reader Steve Kates might turn up there soon...

Heh


Just spotted at the New Yorker.

Update:  how could anyone deny this is a case of "it's funny 'cos it's true" when you read articles like this.

It's complicated

Colorado Marijuana Legalization 2015: Fighting The Black Market And The Everyday Challenges Of Selling Legal Weed

Interesting, detailed article here on how the Colorado legal marijuana experience is not wiping out the black market, nor raising as much revenue as forecast.  (Presumably, those two results are closely related.)

Not paranoid at all

Steve Kates, the Nutty (Associate) Professor of Economics at RMIT who posts at Catallaxy has long made utterly ridiculous statements about the United States and Obama in particular.  (He claimed recently not to watch TV at all, which is odd because he reads like the most gullible Fox News watcher on the planet.) 

I don't bother reading his posts in detail, but I did notice this in one of his shorter posts today, wherein he seems to have crossed the line into full blown right wing paranoia:
I am now convinced that Drudge has been gotten to in the US since there was one report yesterday and then nothing today about what you would think is the most disturbing event since the War in the Middle East began. This is “Nazis take Stalingrad”. Is the news now so suppressed that it can truly be said that we are at war with Eastasia in alliance with Eurasia, as we have always been, and no one notices a thing?

Meanwhile, Sinclair Davidson's contribution to the Right Wing War on the ABC has expanded to the sophisticated level of "I don't like the way she looked at him.  That's a real problem."   


Yet Davidson himself was one of the talking heads who appeared last week on 7.30 talking about the budget in a pre-recorded bit.   And he was on Jonathan Greene's Sunday breakfast show.  Do they treat him poorly or with contempt?

The real problem with the ABC is that it gives all IPA types - including Davidson - too easy a pass and too much time to appear in short bursts as "reasonable", when if you actually look into what they write and say elsewhere they are anything but.


Paying the price for blind opposition to harm minimisation

Fighting HIV where no-one admits it's a problem - BBC News

Quite an amazing story here about the rapid rise of HIV - mainly amongst the straight population too, it seems - in Russia; largely due to conservative policies which completely oppose harm minimisation:
In an interview this month with Agence France-Presse he was even blunter, saying the Kremlin's policy of promoting traditional family values had failed to halt the spread of the virus. "The last five years of the conservative approach have led to the doubling of the number of
HIV-infected people," he said.
When Pokrovsky argued for the introduction of sex education in schools - a step resolutely opposed by presidential children's rights commissioner Pavel Astakhov - the head of Moscow City Council's health committee, Lyudmila Stebenkova, called him a "typical agent working against the national interests of Russia".
Pokrovsky's approach, she told the Russian newspaper Kommersant, would only increase children's interest in sex and lead to a surge of HIV and other diseases
And as for drugs - there'll be no needle exchange programs or methadone in that upright country.
in Russia methadone is banned. The World Health Organization may see the synthetic opiate as essential in combating heroin dependence, but in Russia anyone caught using it or distributing it can face up to 20 years in prison.
Health officials rely instead on narkologia, a traditional form of treatment that dates back to Peter the Great's attempts to fight alcoholism in the early 18th Century. In essence, this
approach consists of isolating the drug user during a month of detoxification, followed up with rehabilitation - including lectures, self-help groups, physiotherapy, diet advice and so on.

Crumbling asteroids

[1505.03800] Quantifying hazards: asteroid disruption in lunar distant retrograde orbits

NASA has been toying with the idea of towing a small asteroid to a close Earth orbit, but as this paper explains, there's a risk any such asteroid may break up if you try to do anything with it.   (I like the term "loosely bound rubble pile": reminds me of a website I mention a lot.)  Would that end up being a problem for satellites in Earth orbit?  Maybe, at least for geosynchronous ones.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Drama Queen

Wow.  Sure, I at least knew a little about Queen Victoria's over-the-top and decades long mourning for her husband, but until I watched tonight's show on SBS "Queen Victoria's Children" I didn't appreciate what a nutty, harsh, control freak of a (literal) drama Queen she was with her sons.  The show featured extracts from many of her letters, and to call her "candid" in her assessments of them and their lives would be a hilarious understatement.
This was the last of 3 episodes, but I missed the previous ones.   The second is still available on SBS on Demand for another week, so I must go watch it.

Tomorrow, tomorrow...

Oooh.  Early reviews for Brad Bird's Tomorrowland are good enough (some very positive) for me to be enthusiastic about seeing it.

Am waiting for reviews of the new Poltergeist to appear, soon...

Update:  Uh-oh.   And boy, do I mean uh-oh.  From the Time Out review (which is sort of positive) and in my bold:
 ‘Tomorrowland’ is singularly unafraid of weighty concepts, tackling climate change, our ongoing fascination with the apocalypse and the very Disney-ish idea of being ‘special’. It does get dry (some scenes feel suspiciously like TED talks) and the script’s fleeting efforts to unpick its dubious Ayn Rand-ish central ideology are completely undermined by a clunky, flat-as-a-pancake finale.

But when it puts down its copy of ‘Political Philosophy for Dummies’ and focuses on character and action, ‘Tomorrowland’ is a blast.
Update 2:  surely he's wrong.  The Guardian likes it:
It’s a brave family movie that invests in high-budget thrills without the safety-net of a franchise brand, mows down a small child with a pickup truck (it’s OK, she’s a robot), and subjects us to the sight of Hugh Laurie in black leather jodhpurs. But bolder still is Tomorrowland’s sincere attempt to jump-start humanity’s technological optimism, which it reckons stalled with the decline of the space race with potentially planet-threatening consequences. Whether or not that’s the answer to the planet’s current problems, director Brad Bird deserves praise for packing such big ideas into such an accessible, rip-roaring, retro-futurist adventure.

Carbon tax and the libertarians

Jason Soon linked to an article about this last week, but I see more writers are commenting about the promotion of a carbon tax by an American libertarian Jerry Taylor.  He's gone and set up his own think tank and his proposal is for a revenue neutral carbon tax that gradually rises.  In other words, it does not result in greater government retained revenue (hence is supposed to be libertarian friendly.)  And the political deal is that this is done in replacement of Obama's attempt to reduce carbon burning by regulating the power industry via the EPA.

I have a few immediate observations:

1.    James Hansen, the (I think) registered Republican (how he can live with himself on that matter I don't know) granddaddy scientist of climate change has been promoting the same idea since at least 2009, possibly earlier.   Are window licking Tea Party Republican types going to suddenly agree that he had a good idea all along?   I don't think so...

2.   I see that even Republican hero for stating the obvious and then taking it too far (Arthur Laffer) and Republican representative Bob Inglis have also been suggesting this since at least 2008.

3.   Jason may recall a thread from Catallaxy years ago in which he, Sinclair Davidson and I had some exchanges about this, and Sinclair acknowledged that if you had to do something about climate change, a revenue neutral carbon tax would be the preferable way to do it.   I'm pretty sure that I said that one practical problem I could see was how to match the level of tax to the desired target of reductions, likely meaning some  continual fiddling with the rate of the tax leading to investment uncertainties that business dislikes.   (On the other hand, it is less liable to the rorting involved in cap and trade scheme offsets which may prove to be off dubious value - planting a bunch of trees that go up in a forest fire in decade's time, for example, or paying for no forest clearing in a country where poor law enforcement means it happens anyway.)

4.   Sinclair Davidson then wrote in 2014 [2010 - the IPA confused me by having two publications both called "Climate Change - The Facts"] in the IPA's short collection of essays by climate change denialists/lukewarmers, based on the "climategate" emails:
...we can have no confidence in the observations that temperature has increased due to human activity because the mechanisms of science have been subverted.
 So his attitude:  problem?  what problem?; and I'll throw my weight behind trying to convince the public there's no problem.

5.   There is considerable uncertainty in terms of modelling about its effects.  I think there was a good exchange between Taylor and an economist on his website about this, but I haven't found it again, yet.  This article looks more broadly at the question from a "progressive" point of view, and I think makes some decent points.   Certainly, I would be skeptical of some incredibly optimist forecasts for its effects as cited in The Guardian, even if it would seem the British Columbian example has some positive reviews.

My initial conclusion is therefore:

a.  good on Taylor for actually believing science and not taking the libertarian "denial or lukewarmer" line.  Good on him for pointing out the obvious about the "free rider" aspect, that if large, rich economies do nothing to institute this, developing economies have no clear reason to either.

b. as the idea has been around for quite a while now, the problem is not that it theoretically appeals to libertarians, even the likes of Sinclair Davidson - the problem is the degree to which the great bulk of libertarians have adopted multipronged denialism/do-nothing-ism, and not moved an inch from the position that there is no problem worth addressing.  The proposal is going no where until that changes.

c.  the requirement of "revenue neutrality" is an unwarranted ideological add on that puts one aspect of a carbon tax less useful that it could otherwise be, in that internationally governments are scratching around looking at revenue sources and the problems of corporate tax minimisation.  I don't see why this should be a strict condition on the implementation of a carbon tax, even if the bulk of it is used to reduce other taxes.  

More detail on the prospects for home brew heroin

Engineered yeast paves way for home-brew heroin : Nature News & Comment

There's considerably more detail here on the story about yeast being engineered for making opiates.

I see that they haven't actually done it yet, or made it efficient, and the researchers are calling for serious discussion on regulation to prevent any such future engineered yeast from getting into the hands of the public.

In short, finding it being used by your neighbourhood bikies is likely many years away yet.

Sorry, any "war on drugs is futile" meme layers out there, this doesn't support your case.  It shows what sensible people should do - regulate to do their best to prevent foreseeable future problems. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Worse than not watching the news

How Fox News Is (Still) Hurting the Republicans - The Atlantic

Some amusing findings in a recent report from a Republican aligned operative:
(a) that Fox’s core viewers are factually worse-informed than people who follow other sources, and even those who don’t follow news at all, and (b) that the mode of perpetual outrage that is Fox’s goal and effect has become a serious problem for the Republican party, in that it pushes its candidates to sound always-outraged themselves.

About designer babies

I see that Jason Soon is continuing his enthusiasm for the future enhancement of the human gene pool by direct genetic manipulation.   (I suspect all the clones under the masks in Star Wars look just like him.)

Skipping over, for a moment, the unforeseeable mistakes and unintended consequences that I would bet a testicle will be inherent in direct genetic manipulation, here's a thought pertaining to the supposed wisdom of people making such reproductive decisions:  given that there is one clear and obvious way in which the (illegal but enthusiastically used) market in baby selection has been already been given a good run in places like India, China and South Korea, namely gender selective abortion, why should anyone have grounds for optimism that the widespread selection for "good" qualities in future would be handled wisely and have any better result for society overall?

[The large disparity between male and female births in those countries is surely not a good thing, by anyone's reckoning.]


Rat empathy re-visited

Rats Forgo Treats to Rescue a Distressed Cage Mate - D-brief

Another great rat experiment here - showing that, most of the time, rats will save a drowning friend over having a tasty chocolate treat.

If the helper had been in the pool previously, they were more likely to save their buddy.

As it happens, over the weekend, my son and I had to sit through a Powerpoint presentation by my daughter as to why she should get a pet rat.  (All households work this way, don't they?)

This study, which I only read today, is helping her cause... 

Head down for 60 days

In Germany, there will be bed rest experiments to simulate the effect of weightlessness on health.  Sure, these have been done before, but the details make me feel queasy just thinking about it:

In the first major study to be carried out in Envihab, the challenge will be to lie in bed for 60 days in a row to study the effects of long duration spaceflight. The experiment starts this summer and the medical team is currently in the process of selecting 12 participants....

 “To cheat gravity, we tilt the subjects head-down by six degrees,” says Limper. “This is very important, so that the head is below the rest of the body.”

Stuck at this peculiar angle, the volunteers will also be expected to eat a nutritionally controlled diet and go to the toilet using bedpans and urine bottles. They will be monitored 24 hours a day on close-circuit TV and even be transferred to special water-proof tilted beds to take a shower.
Then, for more fun, they'll be put in a centrifuge:
Future studies will also employ a device located at the heart of Envihab: a human centrifuge. Contained within a large white (windowless) cylinder, it consists of four arms, around three metres long, arranged in a cross about a central axis. One of the arms is fitted with a bed, so doctors can spin volunteers to simulate varying accelerations.

It is deliberately smaller than most human centrifuges. “We think this is more or less the size we could implement on a space station,” says Limper.
I hope the participants are paid well...

Worst ban ever

I did tune in yesterday to watch Andrew Bolt try on his jihad against the ABC with Malcolm Turnbull, and noted that he claimed (again) that he has articles that are "banned" under the Racial Discrimination Act.

Since the article concerned (which appeared under two titles, as I understand it) is still hosted in full at his own blog, this must be the most ineffective "ban" ever made by a court [/sarc].

Update:  OK, so there were two articles, one is now at his blog and one on the Herald site;  I had forgotten.  For my Google challenged commenter I provide links here and here. 

The muted Right

Is it just me, or does it seem to anyone else that the criticism of last week's Budget from the ABC collective (the Australian, Bolt and Catallaxy) been rather muted? 

Sure, Sinclair Davidson has been on the media quite a bit saying that the Budget is not what the economy needs, but he seems to be saying it with a resigned shrug to the effect of "that's politics for you."  I see that Henry Ergas is taking a similar line, while saying he harshest words for Bill Shorten for being "shrill" and not compromising.  I'm pretty sure Judith Sloan also took a "heavy sigh" approach, but that was it.

I don't quite understand why - have they given up on being strongly influential on the Liberal Party?

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Yet more Lomborg

Rabbet Run features a post about Lomborg's dubious method that (apparently) helps ensure that climate change drops in priority when he's doing his "let's decide what problem should be dealt with first" exercises.   The argument dates back to 2009, though, and it's surprising that it isn't more widely known than it seems to be.

The post also features this nice graphic that's been a recent hit on the twittersphere, and it sure doesn't hurt to promulgate it further:


Meanwhile, at The Conversation, there's an interesting post up with the title Bjorn Lomborg’s consensus approach is blind to inequality. 

The argument is that the cost-benefit analysis that is Lomborg's shtick now does not have adequate   regard to intergenerational inequality. The explanation of discounting is dealt with pleasing clarity:
The picture is complicated even more when considering issues where the benefits are deferred – such as taking action on climate change.
Cost-benefit calculations typically deal with this by using “discount rates”. Typically, humans are not good at deferred gratification; we would much rather have $100 today than next year, so discount rates place a lower value on returns the further they are in the future.
This approach is contentious, particularly in environmental economics, where the benefits of our investments accrue to future generations rather than ourselves. Do we have the ethical right to discount the value of the lives and livelihoods of future generations against our own shorter-term financial benefit?
In climate economics, the time horizons are so long that even a relatively low discount rate can generate apparently absurd conclusions. More generally, any discount rate can be interpreted as a preference for intergenerational inequality: it systematically values the welfare of future generations at a lower level than our own.
 But someone in comments disputes the take on "utility" in the article, saying this:
Your explanation of utility is not quite right and quite unfair to poor old Jeremy Bentham. Given diminishing marginal utility of income, a concept devised by Bentham, an investment that generates a smaller financial return but accrues to a poor person rather than a rich person could easily be considered superior in terms of utility. It seems to me your criticism of Lomborg is precisely that he doesn't assess investments in term of utility.
Regardless of that, another comment in the thread perhaps make a more general point that sounds about right:
I started working in the cost-benefit area in the 70s, directly applying the Tom Peters, Deming, et al methodologies. In those days the benefits in particular specifically included non-financial outcomes but this aspect seems to have been lost in today's economic rationalist approach.

Even this article says that in a CBA "You work out the economic cost of a particular investment (or policy) and estimate its economic benefits".

Admittedly it then points out the omission of inequality but there are many other omissions in the same line that we cannot quantify (basic health, environmental health, future opportunities of particular strategies such as pure research and education in the arts, etc.)

This is also the most glaring omission in Lomborg's approach, as he trivialises the science and ignores the intangibles. Even his claim of economic projections beyond say a couple of years have to be regarded with a pinch of salt.

Economics is only one discipline. We need more than that for human progress.

No need to see

Over the weekend, I see that the Fury Road movie got couple of bad reviews - one in The Conversation, and the other by David Stratton, who usually bends over backwards to be positive about Australian films.

On the other hand, overseas critics, even ones I enjoy and more-or-less trust, such as Anthony Lane, think it's great.  But when I read the description of what it's about (a cross between Titus Andronicus  and Cannonball Run, Lane indicates) I am thoroughly satisfied I should not see it.

Friday, May 15, 2015

A nose for physics?

Hey, a year ago I linked to a paper on arXiv about the transmission of information without the exchange of energy.

Now my favourite physicist blogger has posted about it too, and she seems to think it's quite significant.

I can't remember how I first found the paper (I do sometimes just read the long list of papers at arXiv, but have been doing less of it lately) but I am encouraged that perhaps I have a good nose for interesting physics, even if I can't quite comprehend it. 

The soon to be transgendered Gerard

Inspired by Jonathan Green's tweet this afternoon "Gerard's continuing journey through the past", I've had a quick scan of Mr Henderson's Media Watch Dog of today, and realised something.

At the risk of being accused of sexism:  what male partner of a lengthy relationship with a female has not had the experience of said wife or partner reminding them of some slight or offence caused by him years or decades ago, about which he has either completely forgotten or barely remembered?  

It seems to me that Henderson is psychologically already akin to a never forgetting wife/girlfriend, but worse by an order of magnitude or three.   In fact, it would not surprise me if he was a woman in a former life, or is one of those odd cases of a man of advanced age who suddenly announces he was always a woman on the inside and starts the "transition".  

Something to look forward to, and you read the prediction here first.

PS:  for God's sake Jonathan, you're a lovely chap and a good broadcaster, but we've seen enough photos of your horse being pampered to last a lifetime.

Politics is a difficult game

I rarely mention Bill Shorten, but after last night's reply to the Budget, it's time that I did.

First, as a politician, I feel neutral about him.   He did come out strong when he was first making a name for himself, but it was later clear he was undergoing some terrible stress from being caught up in the Rudd/Gillard wars (as well as from a not insubstantial amount of turbulence in his personal life.)  

Some people find his delivery now too often "mannered", and I can see where they are coming from; but bloody hell, we had a three word sloganeering, unprincipled, windvane of an Opposition leader who got the top job, which I find more offensive than some flat "zingers".

As for his performance this year - he's caught in the perennial problem of how much firm policy an Opposition can announce ahead of an election without risking it being semi-adopted (or flaws exploited) by the government of the day.

I thought the speech last night was praiseworthy for having some actual content (unlike Abbott's speeches in reply), but man, it is such a dangerous game for Labor to be talking about any form of new spending without being 100% clear about its funding.

As for the aim of lowering small business tax rate to 25% - despite my ridiculing of Laffer, and the race to the bottom in tax rates that small government types refuse to acknowledge - I don't actually dispute that there may be room for corporate tax to reduce given the international comparisons.  It is a bit weird for Labor to be sounding like Laffer endorsers, although I see that Shorten wasn't talking about the overall tax rate for companies.  And listening to Bowen on the radio this morning, he did say Labor acknowledges that "it is not easy" to get to that rate, and hence the need for bipartisanship, and I guess that sounds like they are at least not being simplistic about all tax cuts paying for themselves. 

In a general sense, though, unlike the "say anything" and frankly anti-science approach of this government, I find it hard to credit that people don't think that Labor at least sounds like a party that genuinely thinks about the role government policy can take in moving the economy into new directions, with their emphasis on education and investment in technology.   The Abbott government thinks the future lies in roads and new dams in Northern Australia, and the future will look after itself.   (It's like the Ord River project never happened.)

On the other hand, one thing that concerns me about Labor is there reflexive objection to any increase to the GST.  If you ask me, a modest increase to 12.5% would not kill consumers but immediately raise substantial amounts:
Based on 2014-15 data, each 1 per cent extra on the GST would raise about $5.4 billion (increasing to $6.4 billion in 2017-18), meaning a hike in the GST rate from the current 10 per cent to, say, 15 per cent would add more than $25 billion per year to government revenue, escalating to more than $30 billion per annum within three years - if nothing else changed.
I really wish Labor would reconsider their position on this, but as I say, politics is a difficult game.

At least the major parties are both realists as far as being prepared to look at revenue measures (Hockey and his attempt at recovering more tax from transnationals, for example;  although his hit on the already exploited class of young international workers who live on gruel and $5 a day while picking fruit - I think I barely exaggerate - seems a very odd priority.)   Labor is on a sensible line in its desire to gain some revenue from the wealthy with millions of dollars in superannuation.   I suppose that's a vaguely optimistic note to end on.


Quite a bit of confidence in it this time around

El Nińo 2015: Largest ever?

Here's a good article summarising the confidence forecasters now have that 2015 will have a strong El Nino.  And the consequences include possible heavy rain for Southern California, which would be good for dried up reservoirs, but may not end longer term drought:

 For those hoping for an end to the drought, multi-year rainfall deficits in California are now so huge that even a very wet year likely wouldn’t erase them. What’s more, heavy El Niño rainstorms frequently come to California via tropical atmospheric river events,
also known as the Pineapple Express. While those rains can help fill dwindling reservoirs, they’re often too warm to produce significant snowpack in the mountains—which is crucial for agricultural needs during the following summer.
So remember that for later in the year when Andrew Bolt claims that climatologists were wrong about the California drought.

I wonder if the heavy rain that it usually brings to parts of South America can reach over to the other side of the continent too, to help drought ravaged Sao Paulo?  (Speaking of which,  I see that an area close to that city has a terrible crime problem.  I kind of assumed it was a safer place than that.  And this article is an interesting take on the drought:
São Paulo water crisis shows the failure of public-private partnerships.

For the "tax land" fans out there

The land tax: What happened to towns like Fairhope, Alabama, that tried Georgism.

A somewhat interesting look at what happened in a few places in America that tried a radically different idea for raising tax.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The future for Andrew Bolt


Yay for Daley

A 'dull and routine' budget that relies on group denial

That John Daley really has a knack for clear writing and explanation on the economy.  (OK, there's another Grattan Institute co-author on this as well.  Sorry Danielle.)

This article confirms what virtually everyone - except this chronically dissembling "say anything" government - knows:  this budget forecasts a return to surplus on a timetable that would be a fluke if it's achieved.

It also shows a government that has incredible inconsistency.  What a great summary Daley and Wood give here:
As well as asking people to accept these rosy assumptions, the budget
also requires impressive mental gymnastics to reconcile this year’s
budget with last year’s rhetoric.
Last year the government said everyone should contribute to the task
of budget repair through a range of unpopular budget measures. One year
later and many of those measures have either been abandoned (GP
co-payments, pension indexation and six-month waiting periods for
Newstart allowance) or are unlikely to pass the Senate (changes to
Family Tax Benefits and higher education reforms). Some groups –
particularly small business – are simply winners.

Last year Tony Abbott was the “infrastructure Prime Minister”. In
this year’s budget, Commonwealth spending on transport infrastructure
falls from 0.5% of GDP in 2015-16 to 0.3% in 2018-19. The largest
addition to infrastructure spending is for the Northern Australia
Infrastructure Facility, which will only cost .02% of GDP per year, and
even that relies on the government finding commercial partners yet to be
identified.

Last year, a “gold standard” paid parental scheme was a “signature
policy”. This year, parental leave payments are in effect being cut for
those who already receive them from their employer.

Last year, we were told that government was too large and spending
was too high. This budget proposes four years in which Commonwealth
spending will be a greater proportion of GDP than all but the two years
of financial crisis under the Rudd-Gillard governments.

Last year we were told this government would fix the budget through
spending reductions, not higher taxes. This year, budget repair is
supposed to result primarily from the tax take increasing by 1.7% of GDP
in four years.

But the greatest cognitive dissonance comes from the government’s fundamental approach to budget repair. While doing nothing was not an option in the face of the “debt and deficit disaster” a year ago, the government has done precisely that. This budget recognises that 2014-15 will be much worse than forecast in last year’s budget. It is probably sensible to slow the pace of budgetary repair in the face of a weakening economy. However, if the recovery forecast for 2016-2018 is as strong as the budget forecasts, then there needs to be substantially more budget repair in these later years. Australia cannot afford otherwise.

  

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Just for the record...

...I find it hard to understand the appeal of the Mad Max films.   Post apocalyptic grubby, ugly, violent worlds leave me completely cold, and wishing that all concerned would just have a good bath.  (It's not just desert based films that have this problem - I was recently watching part of Waterworld and wondering how many people didn't like it because of the Costner's unwashed looks - even though he had plenty of ocean to swim in.)

It looks like the revival of the Max series is getting very strong reviews, and I have read that it has much more stunt work that is obviously real than found in many CGI infested films these days.   I suppose that's a good thing, given my complaints along those lines over the years, but I still have no interest in the peculiar genre it inhabits.   And if it is a good movie, it sure isn't reflected in the trailers, which looked completely un-engaging.  

The "say anything" government

This budget has all the features typical of Tony Abbott - opportunistic, unprincipled, a genuine unreliable windvane prepared to say whatever he thinks will go down well with the audience in front of him at the time.

As I understand it, the serious cuts to health from last budget are unaddressed, and I haven't heard anything about the fate of university funding.  The government is hoping that other stupid ideas that sprang from nowhere last budget are quickly forgotten (making young unemployed starve for 6 months being one of the most prominent ones.)

As many people are saying (even those on opposite sides of economics commentary - such as Judith Sloan and Ian Verrender), the budget is in many respects like a Swan one - forecasting return to surplus on assumptions that everyone thinks are brave, very brave.  In Hockey's case, they are not just the guesstimates on increasing national growth and international stability, but also that he can get measures through the Senate.  And bracket creep is to do so much of the lifting, while the retired rich on superannuation are being promised they won't lose their tax free income.  Yeah, that's fair...

As with any government, it's virtually impossible for them to not come up with some decent measure, so the tightening of pension assets tests is hard to criticise.   

But the overriding thing is the way this government changes rhetoric and policies with wild inconsistency.   (And then has the gall to pretend it hasn't really changed much.)  


Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Contrarian for a living

I've been looking around at some Lomborg stuff, given the continued complaints by the Australian that the University of WA decided it didn't really want to host a contrarian after all.

Media Watch noted that Lomborg very recently came out complaining about international subsidies for fossil fuels - a very Green Party position it would seem.  Yet his views about the poorest of the poor needing to burn coal to lift them out of poverty have been on high rotation for the last couple of years too.  [Oddly, a short video shows him talking about the - very real - problem of bad health caused by indoor fires for cooking:  yet his segue from that is not the simplest one (make sure they have cheap ovens that use chimneys - I saw something about this on TV or the net  recently) but the big one about them needing fossil fuels.]

And I don't think he has ever changed his position that climate change needs a lot of research money put into clean energy.  (Although I think he is now leaning to promoting carbon capture after burning fossil fuel  - which has been proving to be as impractical as skeptics always thought it would.)   Somehow, I can't quite see how this is a natural match to his "the poor need coal" line - or at least, does he mean they need more expensive and innovative coal power stations in Africa than even the American's can get to be cost effective?

As Desmog blog notes, Lomborg has been personally doing OK out of his "consensus" pet projects, and there is no doubt he is favoured by the rich, libertarian leaning Right regardless of things he sometimes says that are Green tinged.

Which leads me back to a comment made by someone in Media Watch, which I think likely summarises him accurately:
Bjorn Borg's talent is game theory. He will play the two sides of the narrative to create confusion. Once you understand his end game, you are trapped neither by your own narrative of climate change being a left right issue, nor by Lomborg's manipulation of the narrative. He is a double dog whistler that sets both sides barking at each other
This is what is important:

1. He is selling to Abbott and co. the promise of confusion around climate policy through the emphasis on other areas.

2. He is selling the opposite to the media so that he can present a misinterpretation of his stance and extend the attention he receives.
3. Everything he has contributed and continues to contribute is of a lower quality than the research and academic standards that are on offer. The government can find better people to ask better questions and get better answers with less money. But it chooses confusion.

Once you understand Game theory, his trickery becomes transparent, and even slightly hamfisted application of it to create the simple goal of confusion and inaction.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Keep directors away from fiddling

I am pretty sure that I only ever saw Blade Runner at the cinema on its original release and never got around to watching it again on VHS or DVD - until last night.

I was aware that the Director's Cut was controversial - friends told me years ago they didn't like it as much as the original, but it seems it is all you can get easily get now.  (That or the "Final Cut", which I gather keeps all the deficiencies of the Directors Cut, but at slightly greater length.)

And boy, are the Director's Cut skeptics right, or what?

The film is not that easily followed without the voice over that Scott complained was forced on him.  And while it's hard to recognise exactly which scenes are new, it drags in a way I certainly do not recall the cinema version did.  I started nodding off, and my son complained he didn't really get the plot.  (I think he could sort of follow the overriding plot - but the film seems not to adequately explain itself at the smaller scale - from one scene to the next.) 

More broadly, it's hard to remember a film which a Director's Cut has improved, isn't it?  Even Spielberg can't be trusted when it comes to this - I prefer the cinema version of Close Encounters to the Special Edition. 

The lesson is that studio enforced changes are sometimes right - and directors need to leave close enough alone.  Especially Ridley Scott...

Oh dear, they didn't get their fair haired boy

Gee, did Rupert send out a message or something that every columnist who has ever written for him has to complain how anti-intellectual it is for an Australian University not to go with providing an outlet for the lukewarmist's favourite fair haired boy, Bjorn Lomborg?

We've got Ergas and Wilson having a whinge today.  Funny thing about Wilson, but his spectacularly self congratulating on line bio has long stated that he's:
Currently completing a Graduate Diploma of Energy and the Environment (Climate Science and Global Warming) at Perth’s Murdoch University.
which I always thought was kind of odd coming from someone willing to get paid by Australia's pre-eminent "think tank" devoted to convincing people that climate change either isn't real, isn't caused by humans if it is real, might be real but won't harm us - in fact it's probably a good thing, and if it is real and is dangerous, well it's too late to do anything about it, or if it isn't too late the only way to deal with it is to go for growth so you have plenty of money to aircondition every house on the planet (oh, and growth means reducing taxes.)   At the IPA, every single road leads to lowering taxes and reducing regulation.      

Looking at some opinion pieces that Wilson wrote while there, I think it's a fair guess that he follows closely the Lomborg lukerwarmer line - he doesn't talk much directly about the science, but devotes a hell of lot of effort to rubbishing any attempt to deal with climate as a political issue.

And that's why, of course, the government is happy to sponsor Lomborg.   They know their climate policy setting is not going to work in the long run; they need to build up a supply of excuses which the likes of Lomborg and Wilson have made their speciality to churn out.

Anyhow, on Lomborg generally, Graham Readfearn wrote a good article a couple of weeks ago, and I'll link to that now.

John Quiggin's take on the whole Copenhagen Consensus project back in 2005 was worth reading too.

Update:   Noticed on twitter:

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Confounding humans

Richard Thalers piece in the New York Times talking about the rise of behavioural economics (he has a book out on the topic that gets an interesting review in the same paper) was a pretty good read.  But I also liked this comment at the side:

Clarification: (1) Economists have never believed that their assumptions about "rationalism" and "money-seeking" described real people--only that their models derived from such assumptions could predict behavior (at least in many specified situations) with a helpful (utilitarian) degree of accuracy. By focusing on the "unreality" of the model assumptions, critics miss the salient point of emphases: how well do economic models predict? When and under what circumstances? Or perhaps, more significantly, should people think of economists as forecasters (foremost, i.e., as portrayed in the media)?
(2) Behavioral economics does not represent a relatively new field of study--it's only new to the math modelers. Cato the Elder wrote on the subject 2500 years ago. The book from the 1960s, "Bears, Bulls, and Dr. Freud still sits on my book shelve. And, McClellan (1958) "The Achieving Society", explained economic growth and prosperity of nations far better than the economic growth models (then or since) created by Nobel-awarded, growth theorist economists whose work was published during that era. David McClelland was a Harvard social psychologist.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Comic book endings

The Atlantic has an article up talking about Age of Ultron and the "sagas" that the superhero comics have tactically developed to try to keep interest.  (This aspect of the Avengers movies is clearly now wearing thin with critics.)

Anyhow, following the article came this comment, which seems to summarise the problem well:
Meh, this is why I ultimately gave up on comic books. I was a huge comics fan in the late 80's/early 90's - mostly Marvel, but also DC and other imprints. I remember the huge crossover Mutant Massacre storyline in 1986 and the fallout thereof, creating new storylines for the X-Men and New Mutants, creating new teams like Excalibur. But I remember several storylines being drawn on an on, and eventually dropped. I still want to know what happened to the Morlocks! I believe this is a structural problem that comics have - the ability for storylines to get bogged down and reboot is also the frustration of never resolving any long running plots. Aristotle stated that every story needs a beginning, middle, and end. Comics are rife with beginnings (origin stories) and middles, but very poor on ends. This is their entire business model, and it's what ultimately pushed me away from comics.   

A bit of gruesome history for the weekend

Execution by Cannon - Beachcombing's Bizarre History Blog

Can't say I had heard of the practice before...

In the schoolyard

James Mollison photographs playgrounds around the world in his book, Playground.

The photos are actually of schoolyards during recess around the world, and it makes for some startling images.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Well may you mock Maurice Newman...

....but this isn't the first conspiracy he's been exposed to:


(OK, maybe his face blends in too well for this to work.)

Thursday, May 07, 2015

This is what a libertarian fantasy looks like

Alternative 2015-16 budget - On Line Opinion - 6/5/2015

David Leyonhjelm's "alternative budget" first appeared in AFR,  but it's since appeared at Catallaxy (to near universal acclaim, last I looked - a clear warning sign it's a crock, if ever there was one) and now it's got a run on Online Opinion.   (Only two comments too - I'm not sure whether that's from the unpopularity of the author or the site.)

I was going to post about it earlier, but really, as no one takes it seriously, I didn't get around to it.

Suffice to say the extensive list of matters on which he thinks its a good idea to cut immediately - foreign aid, research, all capital spending except for defence - shows he's a shallow, nutty ideologue who should stick to brushing cats and patting guns.  


Pigs in history

Good food: Nose-to-tail eating | The Economist

From this review of a book about pigs in history:
The curly-tailed animals have proven extraordinarily useful to human development and have been present from the earliest permanent dwellings to modern metropolises. The porcine ability to turn waste of almost any description into protein—thanks to “a simple gut and multipurpose
teeth”, which means it can eat almost anything—ensured that in the ancient Near East, Anglo-Saxon England and the Americas it was theperfect beast to sustain rapidly growing and colonising populations.

Yet the pig’s indiscriminate appetite has also been its worst enemy. Not for nothing is there a Chinese character, qing, that designates both “pigsty” and “outhouse”, and the idea of consuming a beast fed on communal waste has appalled societies from the ancient Egyptians to the Jews and 19th-century New Yorkers. Pigs have also been beset by snobbery, given that pork has regularly provided calories to the poorest members of society. After the Black Death carried off a third of Europe, demand for meat plummeted and so did prices. Peasants
started eating pork; uppity nobles chewed on birds and beef instead.

Mr Essig’s main point is that the better people treat pigs, the more they like them. Romans lavished love and attention on their pigs, allowing them to wander in the woods, eating nuts and grains. In return, they enjoyed delicious meat. Post-war America industrialised pig production, inventing indoor cages and “a litany of horrors” for their sows, and found the meat was mushy and tasteless. As a consequence, pork consumption has been static for 30 years.

Amateur philosophy and the superhuman

The moral imperative to research editing embryos: The need to modify Nature and Science | Practical Ethics

I see via Jason Soon that there is a bit of a push back against the backlash in Nature and Science about the Chinese who conducted gene editing experiments on (non viable) human embryos.  The article above is one of them.

Now I understand, to a degree, their complaint that the Chinese research was not on viable embryos, so there was no risk of harm in that particular experiment.  And if anything, its results serve as a warning that such editing is not reliable enough to try on viable human embyros, so in that sense it could be welcomed as showing that the dangers from trying to do such work are real.

However, it is pretty clear that the defenders go further - they actually want to see human genome edited for improvement, seeing it as our science fiction-y, transhumanist destiny.   The rest of us are sticks in the mud (probably Christians) standing in the way of progress.   All very Nietzschean. 

But you really have to wonder about the dubious way the guys who wrote the article linked above deal with the question of responsibility in this paragraph:
Imagine that I am a scientist. I have a promising candidate treatment
that could save the lives of 30 million people per year. I decide not to
continue the research. I am responsible for the deaths of those 30
million people if my research would have led to a cure.
This is just a silly attempted extension of the concept of  "responsibility" if you ask me, and reeks of amateur, late night bar room philosophy.   How could they have left that line in and not expect it to detract from their credibility?

The desire to improve humans developmentally is not per se wrong - ensuring adequate nutrition and vitamins for mothers to prevent avoidable problems is a good thing.  But the obvious solution to eliminating the worst genetic disorders is by either not having babies at all once it is discovered you are carrying a dangerous gene, or at least screening embryos for the defect.  Neither carries the risk of inadvertent harm caused by what is likely to be the inevitable imprecision of seeking to repair individual genes, and it's not as if humanity doesn't have enough healthy gene lines to keep the species going.

As for the desire to improve the germ line - you're a philosophical amateur if you can't acknowledge the ethical question it raises as to which human qualities deserve enhancement or removal.  

All was revealed

I woke up this morning from an odd but not unpleasant dream, which initially featured zombie like re-animated dead people (they could talk but not move much) who basically appeared puzzled as to why they were alive again.  To one of them talking about death, I made a comment along the lines that matter may eventually disappear, but information is never lost.  He scoffed at the suggestion, saying that he couldn't see how that made sense, as you needed matter to encode information.

Dream-me then had some exciting insight into information leaking into another universe, and the idea that other universe information watchers became the people who decided what was moral or not in this universe.  I ran off somewhere in a dream Brisbane to write it all down, but someone rudely suggested it might just be a good plot for Dr Who.

I have the feeling seafood somehow got involved too.

Anyway, I woke up to think for a while if there is any theory floating around that does involve information never being lost.  (I keep remembering a line from Spielberg's AI when I think about this.)

I then watched David Leyonhjelm (or his missus) brushing a cat.

More American right wing paranoia

Paranoia Strikes Derp - NYTimes.com

Paul Krugman brings to my attention some current Right wing nuttiness in America, that the dim Ted Cruz is prepared to entertain, at least to the extent of asking the Pentagon about it.  (I bet they're impressed with the idea of him as a possible boss.)