Monday, July 31, 2006

Weather talk

Reuters AlertNet - US hurricane expert stirs global warming debate

Seems it's still not clear whether hurricanes are worse than before.

In Brisbane, it seems to have been a mild winter. Roses here can flower all year around (if you don't do a winter prune), although they obviously slow down in winter, and the buds take a long time to open. This last couple of weeks, a couple of the rose bushes in my yard have had a sudden flush of blooms. I also noticed a neighbours tree that looks something like a flowering plum or peach is starting to bloom. All signs, I think, that it has indeed been a milder winter. Summer could be a stinker, it seems.

The strange world of the placebo

Nothing can cure you - Health - Times Online

The link is to an interesting story on the placebo effect, and in particular how it is a large part of the complementary medicine story.

It does seem odd that an effect that is known to be quite powerful cannot really be used by doctors due to ethical/legal issues. (This didn't stop Dr House on the TV show "House" using it last week, though.)

One study is mentioned in the report which I think may have missed at the time:

Four years ago, a big study examined two popular treatments for depression: the herbal remedy St John’s Wort, the antidepressant tablet Zoloft, and a placebo. It revealed, amazingly, that the placebo was more effective than both of them.

Is there any way around the problems of how you could allow placebo to be legitimately used beyond the confines of medical studies? It would be tricky, I know, but it does seem a pity that only fictional doctors ever do it.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Friday, July 28, 2006

On the Shia/Sunni divide

The Tablet

The link is to a pretty good article in The Tablet talking about the Shia in the Middle East, and what the future may hold. As a summary of who is where, and who holds political power, this paragraph is useful:

Shia beliefs are held by perhaps one in 10 Muslims today - some 140 million people. Only Iran is overwhelmingly Shia, where they form 90 per cent of the population. Across the Persian Gulf, the littoral states with significant proportions of Shia include Kuwait, with 30 per cent of its population, Bahrain with 75 per cent, Saudi Arabia with 10 per cent, Qatar with 16 per cent and the United Arab Emirates with just 6 per cent. Approximately half of all Shia live in the arc beginning in Lebanon, with 45 per cent of its population being Shia, and ranging through Iraq with 60 per cent, Azerbaijan with 75 per cent, Afghanistan with 20 per cent to Pakistan, also with some 20 per cent.

In Syria, the ruling elite is Alawite, a Shia- affiliated group with just 15 per cent of the country's people. Alawite domination has bred deep resentment among many of Syria's Sunni Muslims who constitute 70 per cent of the population. Uprisings by Sunni Islamists in the early 1980s were partly fuelled by this sectarian divide.

The author suggests that (as I had said somewhere in comments before), the invasion of Iraq should logically be only a positive to Iran, due to the empowerment that it gave to Iraqi Shia:

Despite the history of Iraqi nationalism, Arab and Persian mutual suspicion and the legacy of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran is not displeased with the changes in the region and will not want to "rock the boat" irredeemably. Before recent changes, Iran considered itself surrounded by hostile Sunni states: Iraq and Saudi Arabia to the West and Afghanistan and Pakistan to the East. It would not want to see "anti-Iranian Arab nationalism" championed by Sunnis to emerge as a threat.

But if that is the case, why is it acting so belligerently about the having an un-monitored nuclear enrichment program?

The superconducting future

Science & Technology at Scientific A Power Grid for the Hydrogen Economy

This is a very futuristic sounding idea for a superconducting electricity grid that is cooled by hydrogen. Thus the grid distributes hydrogen as well as electricity. (It is also going to involve new, better designed, nuclear power stations.)

Sounds technically challenging, but still, the future has to start somewhere.

The Economist discusses "proportionality"

The ethics of war | Mind those proportions |

It's of some interest.

Have spacesuit will travel

New Scientist SPACE - Future spacesuits could heal themselves

The spacesuit would be self-healing because its innermost layer, which provides the spacesuit's airtight seal, is filled with a thick polymer gel. The rubber-like gel is sandwiched between two thin layers of polyurethane so that if a hole forms in these layers, the gel oozes from surrounding areas to plug it. In vacuum chamber tests, the gel healed punctures up to 2 millimetres wide.


One other problem for new lunar spacesuits: accounts of the Apollo missions made it clear that a significant problem was the amount of moon dirt that stuck to the suits and got dragged into the Lunar Module. From another article:

The moonwalkers of the 1960s struggled with the fine, powdery dust that covered their spacesuits. Back inside their tiny one-room cabin, it got everywhere-in the machinery, in their eyes, in their throats.

Scott said that moon dust even got in the connectors between the backpack and the spacesuits."You could almost hear them grind after three days," he said. He ranks dust as "the major problem for a long stay."

I assume that for a habitat on the Moon, they will have to devise some decent way of getting fine dirt off the suits so it is not dragged in through the airlock. (The Apollo lunar module did not have an airlock at all, which was a major problem. ) But even with an airlock, seems to me there will still be a problem unless you can use some fluid or cleaning device of some kind to use. Would a really efficient vacuum cleaner work?

UPDATE: by co-incidence, I just found this snippet about the Apollo spacesuits in a Tech Central Station article (it's a review of a book for kids about the Apollo program):

A central theme of Team Moon is that a large number of people -- the 400,000 of the subtitle -- pooled their talents to make the mission happen. These included, for instance, the seamstresses of the spacesuits worn by the astronauts. The suits consisted of 22 layers of materials such as Mylar and neoprene-coated nylon that were stitched and glued together by a team at the company ILC Dover. Team members had a great deal of confidence in the extensively tested suits, but still felt pangs of worry when, as recalled by seamstress Eleanor Foracker, "the guys on the moon started jumping up and down."

Insects displaying common sense

ScienceDaily: Male Praying Mantids Prefer Not To Be Victims Of Sexual Cannibalism

Gotta love a headline like that. From the article:

Lelito and Brown thus varied female hunger and physical orientation in order to assess how male mantids respond to variation in the risk of cannibalism. They found that males responded to greater risk by slowing their approach, increasing courtship behavior, and mounting from a greater – and possibly safer – distance.

"This shows that male mantids actively assess variation in risk and change their behavior to reduce the chance of being cannibalized," explains Brown. "Males are clearly not complicit, and the act of sexual cannibalism in praying mantids is an example of extreme conflict between the sexes."

Good to know.

My suggestion for the Iranian problem

With regards to Iran and its nuclear program, I wonder whether the use of an electro magnetic pulse via either a nuclear explosion or a conventional "electronic bomb" has been discussed in Washington. It doesn't seem clear how far advanced the US is with non nuclear e-bombs, but there is a lengthy Australian article about them here. A short New Scientist article is here.

Last year, the US Senate thought about the possible consequences of a nuclear EMP attack from Iran on the United States, and some right wing Christian websites made much of it for a time (possibly that was all a beat up).

But I can't find anywhere yet that has discussed an attack in the opposite direction. Using such weapons against Iran as a first attempt to dissuade from the nuclear research would have many advantages. A nuclear EMP attack seems too big; by the sounds of it, if done at high enough altitude (which basically means in space) the effects on the power grid could extend well into neighbouring countries. If done at night, the giant glowing cloud in the sky shoud have considerable psychological impact though.

OK, first attempt could be by non nuclear e-bombs, which (as far as I can tell) detonate high above the targets and are largely non lethal on the ground (unless you use a pace maker, perhaps). It would seem that non nuclear ones would have a much narrower affected area.

The hope would be to fry all of the electronic equipment in the labs, and the power supply to them, without ruining the entire country's power supply. If such bombs can be delivered by cruise missiles, so much the better. If Iran laughs that off, then how about a really small nuclear one not too high over a desert area?

I trust no one from Iran reads this blog.

UPDATE: just to clarify, when I talk of a small nuclear one over a desert area, I am talking at high-ish altitude for the purpose of demonstrating EMP. I am not suggesting a nuclear strike on the ground. The nuclear EMP that is talked about most often, the Starfish Prime test in 1962, was well out into space, and didn't do satellites much good either. The Wikipedia entry on this is really good. Another Wikipedia entry talks about other high altitude tests in the 1960's - I didn't realise that so much had gone on at the time. Another long entry on EMP from nuclear devices is here. Seems the lowest altitude mentioned is about 40km, well below earth orbit.

Anyway, obviously a nuclear explosion anywhere in the atmosphere is not going to go over well with the Greenies or the UN. Also, it seems that the effectiveness of any EMP attack (non nuclear or nuclear) is going to be very hard to judge for the attacking country. (Especially if you are attacking underground facilities.) I wonder if that is the biggest disadvantage they have?

All interesting stuff for armchair generals to think about in any case.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

A way to escape the end of the universe?

[hep-th/0607137] Some notes on the Big Trip

There's some unusual stuff to be found at arXiv.

Can't say that I had heard of the "Big Trip" before. From the paper itself:

Rather bizarre implications from dark energy models are now being considered that might ultimately make the
future of the universe sings a somehow weird melody. It has been in fact recently proposed [1] that if the current value of the equation-of-state parameter w would keep up being less than -1 in the future, then the throat radius of naturally existing wormholes could grow large enough to engulf the entire universe itself, before this reached the so called big rip singularity [2], at least for an asymptotic observer. This rather astonishing result - which has been dubbed the ”big trip” - has proved to be not free from a number of difficulties...

It will be seen that none of the problems (1), (3) and (4) indeed hold for the asymptotic observer, and that problem (2) is a debatable one and might require considering the big trip to take place within the context of a multiverse scenario.

The whole universe disappearing down a worm hole. That would be something to see.

Why Lance Armstrong got better?

BBC NEWS | Health | Heat may be key to cancer therapy

The theory is that cancer cells from testicular cancer are more susceptible to heat, given that their original home is a few degrees cooler than the rest of the body. Sounds plausible.

This reminds me, I am pretty sure there was an Arthur C Clarke novel in which brief mention was made of human males in the future no longer having external genitalia, including testes. The difference between men and women only became obvious on arousal. I think that this was the result of genetic manipulation to improve the design of males. (I hope this is a real memory and I am not relaying some stupid dream!) It seemed to me a very unlikely thing to bother genetically manipulating.

I think it was also Clarke who mentioned a character putting a cream on his face to inhibit beard growth (instead of shaving.) I think of that quite often as I shave in the morning, as it strikes me as a product that sounds a likely prediction, but turns out to be far off the mark.

It's funny how the mind can keep remembering some of the most minor details of novels.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Hope for young soldier

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Palestinian groups agree deal for return of Israeli

From the Guardian:

Palestinian factions, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have agreed to stop firing rockets at Israel and to free a captured Israeli soldier in a deal brokered by Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president.

The deal, agreed on Sunday, is to halt the rocket attacks in return for a cessation of Israeli attacks on the Gaza Strip, and to release Corporal Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured on June 25, in exchange for the freeing of Palestinian prisoners at some point in the future.

An adviser to Mr Abbas told the Guardian that all Palestinian politicians were united on the need to free the Israeli soldier and stop all violence in Gaza, but the obstacles were the Israeli government and the Hamas leadership in Damascus.

I don't understand

Independent Online Edition > Health Medical

Because I can't get free access to this report, or to the BMJ article, I can only see this introduction, and I don't see how his argument works:

A leading doctor has accused Western plastic surgeons who perform cosmetic surgery on the vagina of undermining the battle against female circumcision in other parts of the world.

Writing in the British Medical Journal, Ronan Conroy, senior lecturer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, says the growing acceptance in Britain and elsewhere of so-called "designer vaginas" was exposing Western double standards.

I mean, aren't "designer vaginas" intended to enhance function, and female circumcision doing the exact opposite?

Everything in moderation

ScienceDaily: Light To Moderate Drinking Reduces Risk Of Cardiac Events, Death

OK, maybe you knew that before, but a new study confirming it doesn't hurt.

This one points out that the idea that the cardiac benefits of alcohol may be due to its effect on inflammation doesn't seen right. It seems that no one yet knows clearly why it does work:

The findings indicate that the anti-inflammatory properties of alcohol alone do not explain the reduced risk of death or cardiovascular disease associated with light to moderate drinking, the authors write. Alcohol may have cellular or molecular effects that reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, or it may interact with genetic factors to produce a protective effect.

The health effects of alcohol may not be the same for everyone, the authors caution. "The net benefit of light to moderate alcohol consumption may vary as a function of sex, race and background cardiovascular risk," they conclude.

Mark Steyn on the Middle East

Mark Steyn: If only they had refused to indulge Arafat | News | The Australian

All of the article is good Steyn stuff. An extract:

For the first quarter-century of Israel's existence, the Arab states fought more or less conventional wars against the Zionists and kept losing. So then they figured it was easier to anoint a terrorist movement and in 1974 declared Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organisation to be the "sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people", which is quite a claim for an organisation then barely a decade old. Amazingly, the Arab League persuaded the UN, the EU, Bill Clinton and everyone else to go along with it and to treat the old monster as a head of state who lacked only a state to head.

It's true that many nationalist movements have found it convenient to adopt the guise of terrorists.

But, as the Palestinian movement descended from airline hijackings to the intifada to self-detonating in pizza parlours, it never occurred to its glamorous patrons to wonder if maybe this was, in fact, a terrorist movement conveniently adopting the guise of nationalism.

It must cause Phillip Adams chest pains

Many, er, happy returns, PM | Matt Price | The Australian

Matt Price makes this comment in his short piece on John Howard's birthday:

These days the Prime Minister is routinely mobbed during public appearances and Wood reckons more than 400 people from a mix of community groups will make it for a cuppa with the birthday boy.

"You normally get a high proportion of no-shows, but practically everyone we asked is turning up," said Wood.

Insert own joke about sheep being confused

Wig and robes not enough

From the story above:

A PROMINENT New Zealand lawyer - bald and moustachioed - turned up to court wearing a skirt and blouse and carrying a handbag to protest what he says is a male-dominated judiciary.
Rob Moodie, 67, fronted Wellington's High Court yesterday dressed in a navy blue skirt suit with added female extras, The Dominion Post newspaper reported.

"I will now, as a lawyer, be wearing women's clothing," Mr Moodie was quoted as saying .

"The deeper the cover-up, the prettier the frocks."

Any more than guesswork?

Minister ignored parrot advice - National -

While what went on behind Senator Ian Campbell's decision to not approve a new Victorian wind farm is no doubt interesting, this part of the report seems odd:

While refusing to comment on why the departmental briefing paper would not be released, a spokeswoman for said Senator Campbell had based his decision on a publicly available report by consultants Biosis Research, which warned that orange-bellied parrots face extinction within 50 years. There are only about 200 left.

Yet the same Biosis Research report also predicted that the risk of any parrots being killed at the Bald Hills site was extremely low.

According to the Biosis risk analysis, the worst-case scenario would result in one parrot being killed at Bald Hills every 667 years. In the best-case scenario, that would fall to one being killed every 1097 years.

How on earth would you forecast with any high degree of accuracy the rate of bird kill for a particular species in an area that has not had a wind farm in it before?

Sounds like rubbery figures to me.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Mum-in-law from hell

Mother-in-law made to pay (pounds) 35,000 for inflicting four wretched months - Britain - Times Online

An Indian arranged marriage goes wrong, and the daughter in law successfully sues the mother-in-law from hell under legislation designed to cover stalkers. I can't think of equivalent legislation in Australian jurisdictions that could work here.

From the article:

Ms Singh was 22 and a manager in her family’s clothing business when she married Hardeep Bhakar, then 25, from Ilford, East London, on November 1, 2002. Their families had been introduced by a matchmaker. She had expected to live with her husband’s family after the marriage.

But she soon began to have doubts about her new home, which she shared with Hardeep and his two brothers as well as Mrs Bhakar and her husband, Prithvipal Singh Bhakar. Ms Singh and Mrs Bhakar were often alone in the house together while the men were out.

Mrs Bhakar attempted to exhaust and humiliate her daughter-in-law, requiring her to clean toilets without a brush and clean the floor without a mop. Her hands became infected. Ms Singh’s visits home were restricted and she was not allowed to attend her uncle’s funeral or make regular visits to the Sikh temple. Her mobile phone was confiscated and she was allowed to make and receive only one closely monitored call a week to her family.

Sounds a lot like a pandora's box of litigation being opened, all the same.

Monday, July 24, 2006

The Tablet on the Middle East

The Tablet

The opinion piece above is entitled "Disporportionately deadly" and states the reasons why the writer believes Israel, which he supports generally, should be condemned for an excessive response to Lebanon/Hezbollah.

The article is reasonably well written, and covers a lot of ground about what all the players may want to achieve.

I would criticise the article on some important counts, however:

1. Most importantly, while emphasizing that the laws of war incorporate the concept of proportionality, the article fails to note that the same laws prohibit use of civilians as a shield. This is quite a glaring omission in the circumstances.

To be more accurate in targeting Hezbollah assets on the ground, given that they are apparently hidden within civilian buildings, an invasion far into Lebanon would be necessary, which (in this particular case) carries the added risk of involvement of Syrian and Lebanese (as opposed to Hezbollah)
troops, as well as street to street ambushes and fighting. While not flattening as many residential buildings as bombing from the air, this style of fighting is not exactly going to leave the neighbourhood pretty. (And, I wonder, while it might result in a lower level of destruction in any particular street, would it be over a wider area?)

2. The article says of the response of Bush, Blair and (Canadian PM) Harper:

It is conceivable that one or more of them believes, along with tens of millions of evangelical Christians, that another war between Israel and its neighbours is a necessary precursor to the second coming of Christ.

Raising this seems rather unnecessary if you are unable to find any statement by any of the 3 that they believe this.

I note that has been much speculation by Bush opponents over the years that he probably believes this, especially with his ties to some evangelical Christians who do take the "end times" stuff very seriously. (Let me be clear: it is absurd and offensive for those nutters who believe this is the start of the "end times" to cheer on conflict in the Middle East.)

However, I have not been able to find any quote from Bush's mouth that confirms that he personally believes this. (A generic statement that he believes it is "God's will" that there be peace in the Middle East is not going to cut it. Correct me if I am wrong about this; it seems to me he must have been asked the question directly sometime in his political career, but I haven't found it on the internet yet.)

To worry unduly about Bush's personal belief about this has always struck me as a case of "guilt by association", and an example of many on the Left's general dislike of conservative Christianity getting carried away.

Besides, the number of people involved in executive power in the US system surely makes it extremely unlikely that any President with a belief in his personal apocalyptic role is going to get far with launching the missiles.

Whether you can have the same expectation from an out and out theocracy is another question.

3. The article also says:

President Bush and his advisers have several reasons for wanting a conflict with Iran. They have a score to settle concerning the 52 Americans who were held hostage for 444 days after the Islamic revolution of 1979. They are concerned about Iranian influence in Iraq and - at a time when China and Russia are emerging as serious competitors - have an eye on Iran's immense oil reserves also. A confrontation with Iran could also boost the Republican Party's prospects in the mid-term congressional elections in just three months.

Hmm. It could also be that they have a legitimate concern about another nuclear power in the Middle East with a recurring dream of removing Israel.

4. His final paragraph:

If we accept Israel's response and then tolerate it, we would be devaluing the lives of Lebanese citizens. We would also undermine the laws of war, which exist to prevent unnecessary human suffering without regard to national, religious or ethnic differences. Israel has a right to defend itself, but always within recognised and reasonable limits. Those limits have been breached. Friends of the Jewish state should not pretend otherwise.

Again, it would be good to see a statement that fighters who hide assets and themselves within civilian buildings (and then provoke a conflict) are also "devaluing the lives of Lebanese citizens."

For the record: Israeli targeting of some infrastructure appears to me to be of no military or even "political" use in the conflict, and should be criticised. (Power stations seems the most likely example - as no one seems to suggest that Hezbollah has a manufacturing base in Lebanon, and I don't know how having the power on would help them launch missiles.) Some infrastructure attacks may have a military point: preventing Hezbollah movement and resupply being the obvious one. There are some claims of escaping civilians being deliberately targeted. If it can be shown to have been deliberate, that is a war crime no doubt. It's just that I find it hard to believe this is a matter of Israeli policy, and in most cases would suspect mistake more often than war crime.

The whole problem is, without more detail, I have a hard time judging what attacks are justified or not. Judging from media reports alone is also tricky; a devastated Beirut suburb looks bad; it is bad. But it was always on the cards that this would happen if Israel wanted to stop the attacks. That's the evil of this asymmetric war stuff. It's dirty and nasty.

Hopefully, both sides will stop soon, and that is probably in Israel's interest too.

Why does Koizumi bother? - Polls: Japanese oppose shrine trip - Jul 23, 2006

With the recent revelation that the late Japanese Emperor Hirohito gave up visiting Yasukuni Shrine due to it adding war criminals to the list of the honored, and this article indicating that only 33% of Japanese actually clearly approve of the visits, you have to wonder why Prime Minisiter Koizumi bothers to insist that he still visit.

I suppose it could simply be all about saving face now. A sudden stop would seem an implied admission that he was wrong in the past.

Like whale hunting, which seems to also have no significant support in the Japanese public, this a bit of Japanese political behaviour which is strange to Western eyes.

At least the polls give some vague hope that the next PM will stop the visits.

Always time for more micro black hole talk

Seed: What if Black Holes Didn't Exist?

The article above gives a short explanation of an idea of a couple of physicists that black holes may not exist at all. There would still be things called "dark energy stars," which might act like astronomical black holes. One important difference would be (according to the Wikipedia entry on this theory) that they would not evaporate via Hawking Radiation.

I suspect this may be relevant to the issue of safety of micro "black holes" that might be created at the CERN particle accelerator, but whether it is good news or bad news in that regard is beyond me.

Something positive for a change

Irshad Manji: Faithful consider liberal reforms | Opinion | The Australian

Interesting story about an important move to liberalise some parts of Islam in Pakistan (and elsewhere.)

Unfortunately, some movement in the other direction goes on in regional government in Indonesia. SBS's Dateline did a story on this recently. As George Negus was away at the time, I could bear watching it.

Sounds unreasonable

Iran: Israel doomed to 'destruction' | Jerusalem Post:

Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, declared Sunday that Israel had "pushed the button of its own destruction" by launching its military campaign against the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia in Lebanon.

Ahmadinejad didn't elaborate, but suggested Islamic nations and others could somehow isolate Israel and its main backers led by the United States. On Saturday, the chairman of Iran's armed forced joint chiefs, Maj.-Gen. Sayyed Hassan Firuzabadi, said Iran would never join the current Middle East fighting....

In Teheran, the government has sanctioned billboards showing Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah and a message that it is the duty of Muslims to "wipe out" Israel.

Sounds reasonable

NewsDaily: TopNews -- Israel may accept a political Hezbollah

"To the extent that it remains a political group, it will be acceptable to Israel," Israeli Ambassador Daniel Ayalon said. "A political group means a party that is engaged in the political system in Lebanon, but without terrorism capabilities and fighting capabilities. That will be acceptable to Israel."

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Fisk alert

A farewell to Beirut - In Depth -

The Age runs a Robert Fisk story from The Independent.

Certainly, Beirut sounds like it's been an unlucky city for centuries.

Just don't expect any subtle analysis of the current crisis, though. As a piece of current journalism/commentary, it suffers from Fisk-ness to a high degree.

Just in case you need more background

Proxy war | Features | The Australian

There's certainly no lack of commentary and articles giving background on the Middle East crisis, but the one above in today's Australia seemed a particularly good one to me, and filled in a few gaps in my previous knowledge.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

No Sense Left

Early reviews for M Night Shayamalan's latest film, "Lady in the Water" are very bad. Sure, the Sixth Sense was creepy, but as all critics have noted, his films have been on a rapid decline in quality ever since, and this one looks like it has sent his reputation into freefall.

(This reminds me, on cable here some months ago there was what seemed intended to be a "mockumentary" about him. It was awful. )

Anyway, one of the reviews has this very funny paragraph:

If the film weren’t already feeble enough, Shyamalan insists on upgrading his signature cameo performances in his own films to that of featured supporting player. Shyamalan plays a novelist who lives with his "sister" in Cleveland’s apartment complex. Forget that M. Night Shyamalan’s acting skills couldn’t get him cast in a high school production of "Our Town." Watching a skilled acting craftsman like Paul Giamatti delivering lines to Shyamalan is like watching Robert Duvall talk to his cat about politics. It’s the one thing in the movie that sent shivers down my spine.

Sheridan's odd plan for peace

Israel has right motive but the wrong target | Greg Sheridan | The Australian

Greg Sheridan, somewhat to my surprise, clearly criticises Israel for blowing up bits of Lebanon, not just the Hezbollah units.

However, he ends on this note:

An Israeli strike against Syria's armed forces would have shown Assad he had to pay a price for Hezbollah's activities. Striking Lebanon, which is weak and cannot fight back, causes Assad, and the rulers in Tehran, no pain at all.

Not that I know how strong Syria is militarily, but wouldn't an attack on it have been something like throwing petrol on a flame to put it out?

Temporary marriage in (parts of) Islam

Misyar offers marriage-lite in strict Saudi society - Yahoo! News


A useful short history of Hezbollah

Hezbollah Evolution Opposition Proves Constant | The Jewish Exponent

It's from a Jewish source, but the tone it uses would suggest it's basically accurate.

What surprised me was the amount of funding from Iran for civilian services: $60 million a year. A radical organisation can sure curry a lot of favour with the locals with funding like that. This presumably led to its electoral success:

Running in June 2005 elections, Hezbollah won 23 seats in Lebanon's 128-member Parliament, and holds the Energy Ministry. Some hoped that political power would moderate the group and compel it to act more responsibly, but there has been little indication of a change in Hezbollah's outlook or behavior.

This involvement with government certainly complicates the moral issues over what are legitimate targets and what aren't.

Another Slate article worth reading

What is Hezbollah up to? By Fred Kaplan

One thing I wonder about - where do they hide all of those rockets in Southern Lebanon?

Defending Bush's role in the Middle East

Don't blame Bush for the war in Lebanon. By Jacob Weisberg

This Slate article makes sense.

Good news for someone like me

ScienceDaily: Couch Potatoes Who Start Exercising After 40 Can Still Stave Off Heart Disease

Danny Katz on the Middle East

Caught in the crossfire of blame - Danny Katz - Opinion -

Maybe some will think he shouldn't be trying to be a bit funny about the Middle East conflict, but it works OK for me.

So much for the "Pretty Woman" image

Angst of city's sex workers - National -

Well, it's been a long time coming, but I can finally feel some vindication for my dislike of the movie "Pretty Woman". Apart from being incredibly "slight" but puzzlingly popular (and the unfortunate truth that when I see Julia Roberts on the screen my eyes and mind are always drawn to the fact that she has an enormous mouth,) my main objection was that it implausibly made street prostitution look like a decent enough profession. (She was working the street, wasn't she? Maybe I am wrong there.) Sure, prostitutes with a heart of gold must exist, but I tend to rally against anything that portrays the profession (street or in-house) in such a way that may make it look even slightly more attractive to some down and out girl as way to make money.

Anyway, this SMH story paints an even gloomier picture of the background of a Sydney street prostitute than I would have guessed:

In face-to-face interviews, three-quarters of the women revealed they had been sexually abused as children and 80 per cent had been raped and/or physically assaulted as adults. Almost 70 per cent had been threatened with a weapon or held captive. More than 80 per cent of the women were heroin addicts. Cocaine and cannabis use were also common.

Many of the women used drugs because it numbed their feelings and they "did not have to think". A similar proportion did sex work to pay for drugs.

That two-thirds did not suffer post-traumatic stress was testimony to their resilience, Ms Roxburgh said, particularly since most of them had left home before the age of 16. NSW is the only state that permits sex workers to solicit on the streets.

Poor Phil

Still no easy - legal - way to go - Opinion -

Philip Nitschke, the doctor who really, really, respects the right of anyone to kill themselves, even if it is just because they don't like being old, complains that he just can't get anywhere with re-introducing euthanasia legislation in Australia. Whose fault is this? A secret coalition of fundamentalists, of course:

In "Voting for Jesus", a recent article in Quarterly Essay, Amanda Lohrey identifies a fundamentalist, all-denomination Christian lobby that would have been unimaginable half a century ago.

As an activist of 40 years on a range of issues, I have never been confronted with such an anonymous opponent.

When the former prime minister Gough Whitlam warned me several years ago that no politician could afford to be railed at from the pulpit at preselection time I didn't appreciate the full meaning of his advice. I do now.

Maybe the most outspoken critics of euthanasia identify as religious, but I find it hard to believe that there aren't a fair number of the secular, agnostic, or only nominally religious who have doubts about euthanasia, and in particular find Nitschke's broad brush attitude to suicide off putting.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Mysterious weapons, or stupid rumour Muslim Affairs - Asia - Politics & Economy

Sorry, no time for positive posts yet...

The above story starts with this:

As I write this, doctors in the Gaza Strip are telling me they are puzzled by the condition of the Palestinian dead. X-rays of the bodies of those strafed by the F-16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters show no indication of shrapnel shards. Instead, limbs have been severed and corpses burned to a crisp.

I am told that there is no technology available to determine what has caused this. Even the wounded are making the desperately under-equipped medical staff scratch their heads. Their injuries are not responding to conventional treatment.

And there the mystery is left, as the article goes on in more conventional (pro Palestinian) fashion.

The Palestinian News Network says this:

Dr. Al Sakka told Voice of Palestine Radio that the Israeli army is using new types of non-conventional weapons against the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip during the recent attacks. He said, “They are targeting the Palestinian body with unconventional weapons and with that comes a phenomena we have not seen before in any Israeli bombardment we have lived through for many years.”

He continued, “The hospital is central and sees almost all cases of injuries and deaths as a result of Israeli against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip. These Israeli bombings are entering the body and fragmenting, causing internal combustion leading to up to fourth degree internal burns, exposing the bone, and affecting the tissue and skin.”

The doctor added, “These tissues die, they do not survive, which obliges us to perform arm or leg amputations, and there are fragments which penetrate the body and do not show up on X-rays. When entering the body they spark like a combustion firearm, but not chemically. They seem radioactive.”

He confirmed that there were dozens of wounded legs and arms. Many of them had been burned from the inside, and distorted to the point that they cannot return to life again.

I remain very sceptical. At the (I think slight) risk of being proved wrong, this just seems to be an example of the conspiratorial anti-semitic rumour mill of Palestine.

UPDATE: Little Green Footballs has a post with a translation of a statement by a loopy French MP. This part is relevant to my post:

According to the same testimonials, the Israeli army would be using fragmentation bombs, and “vacuum packed” bombs that result in destruction by implosion. The bodies then look like totally dislocated puppets, like rag dolls.

Just wait til they let loose the Ark of the Covenant. (Note: am satirising stupid rumours, not death of children.)

UPDATE: comment from Kieran is correct: I was unfamiliar with the term "vacuum bomb" , but Wikipedia confirms it is a nick name for a thermobaric weapon (which I think is far more commonly known as a fuel-air explosive weapon.) That'll teach me not to Google or Wiki search a term before I post.

Modern Muslims [18129] Can divorce happen over a text? and what are the consequences when a husband says to his wife go F*** your dad.

It would seem that the "jury" is still out on whether a Muslim can divorce his wife by SMS.

Good to see modern technology being used for innovative purposes.

(Perhaps I had better find something good to say about Islam soon. The weight of my posts could be described as just a little unbalanced at the moment!)

Black holes at CERN - the bad news and the good news

0607165.pdf (application/pdf Object)

The link is to yet another arXiv paper, this one only a few days old, about creating mini black holes at the LHC at CERN.

The bad news: the paper uses the cautious sounding words:

Once produced, the black holes may undergo an evaporation process (my emphasis).

Maybe that wasn't intentional; it seems that there are extremely few physicists who are prepared to even consider doubts that a few have expressed as to whether Hawking Radiation (HR) exists at all.

For the good news: as I have noted before, some believe that the HR process may leave a "black hole remnant". I haven't noticed anyone talking much about them, and my concern remains whether there is any concieveable risk from them. However, this paper suggests a surprising possible use if such things exist:

If stable BHRs really exist one could not only study them with various experimental setups but also use them as catalyzers to capture and convert, in accordance with E = mc2, high intensity beams of low energy baryons (p,n, nuclei), of mass ∼ 1AGeV, into photonic, leptonic and light mesonic Hawking radiation, thus serving as a source of energy with 90% efficiency (as only neutrinos and gravitons would escape
the detector/reactor). If BHRs (Stable Remnants) are made available by the LHC or the NLC and can be used to convert mass in energy, then the total 2050 yearly world energy consumption of roughly 10 (to the power of) 21 Joules can be covered by just ∼ 10 tons of arbitrary material, converted to radiation by the Hawking process via m = E/c2 = 1021J/(3·108m/s)2 = 104.

By the way, that figure for the total energy requirements for earth is 10 to the power of 21; I have trouble showing such scripts here.

So, if I read this right, they are saying that use of black hole remnants means conversion of about 10 tonnes of dirt could power the entire world. Neat.

Remember, you read it here first.

If your friends don't support you, blow up your women

Palestinians demand Arab involvement | Jerusalem Post

From the story above:

Enraged by the failure of the Arab countries to help Hizbullah and Hamas in their confrontation with Israel, one of the major Palestinian militias announced on Tuesday that it had recruited dozens of women to join the fight against Israel.

Dressed in military fatigue and armed with rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikov rifles, the women were sent to march in the streets of Gaza City, chanting slogans in support of Hizbullah and Hamas and calling on all Arabs and Muslims to launch a war against Israel....

The decision to establish the new force comes one week after the armed wing of Fatah announced the formation of a female suicide bomber unit to launch attacks against Israel. Um al-Abed, a spokeswoman for the group, said last week that over 100 women from the West Bank and Gaza Strip had signed up to carry out suicide attacks.

"Today we have established an army of women to defend the Arabs and Muslims," said Shayma al-Koka, one of the leaders of the force whose members marched in Gaza City on Tuesday. "If Arab men can't defend the honor of the Arabs and Muslims, then the women will fulfill their duty.

Yes, OK, that's pretty hot

Tomorrow may be Britain's hottest day ever - Britain - Times Online

I recently joked about how Britain considers anything above 30 degrees as a heatwave. Well, it appears that tomorrow may reach 38, which counts as "hot" anywhere. The Times says:

Roads have begun to melt and fans and air conditioning are placing massive demands on electricity suppliers as forecasters predict an all-time record high temperature for Britain tomorrow, when the mercury could nudge 38C.

OK, it's hot, but roads shouldn't be melting. What do they use there, toffee for bitumen?

More credible advice from India

Could you be bisexual?- The Times of India

Is it too early to be making fun of India? Oh well, I'm not finding much to laugh about, so I have to go back to this fairly recent article from the Times of Indian with its typically odd Indian slant:

Religious ideas linked to procreation and the need to find an issue to perform the last rites also lead many men into tying the knot, when they would rather be with other men.

Forty-year-old Lisa, who discovered her husband with another man five years into her marriage, was told by her counsellor that 99% of men are homosexual and they only marry to have children. "I don't necessarily subscribe to that theory," she says sighing. "But it helps me stay in my marriage."

Novel theory, that. The first rule of counselling in India must be "keep the customer happy."

Have a look at the very last couple of paragraphs on page 3 of the article if you want some further amusement.

Protecting astronauts

New Scientist SPACE - Breaking News - Plasma bubble could protect astronauts on Mars trip

Sounds like a difficult engineering job to me.

Continuing the anti-semitism theme...

FrontPage :: Apocalyptic Muslim Jew Hatred by Andrew G. Bostom

See the long article that puts Islamic theology and eschatology at the core of the intense anti-semitism behind Hizbollah and Hamas.

I wonder what Karen Armstrong says about this. Frontpage is always aggressively pro-Israel, but I don't assume that its articles of this nature are inaccurate for that reason.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Some background on anti-semitism

Paul Johnson: The Anti-Semitic Disease

While looking around for material on the Internet by Paul Johnson about Israel, I found the above long essay from 2005 about anti-semitism.

He's a great writer, and as a conservative, entirely trustworthy. (Actually, I'm sure that I once heard Labor brainiac Barry Jones complimenting one of his books, so he can't be too bad.)

Johnson blames much of the current anti-semitism on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, recognised by everyone in the West(except complete neo Nazi nutters) as pure fantasy - a fact first clearly identified nearly 90 years ago, but still given currency in the Arab world. Johnson says that the book influenced not only Hitler, but also Muhammad Amin al-Husseini, who went on to become the Mufti of Jerusalem. Johnson writes that he was:

....head of the biggest landowning family in Palestine. Al-Husseini was already tinged with hatred of Jews, but the Protocols gave him a purpose in life: to expel all Jews from Palestine forever. He had innocent blue eves and a quiet, almost cringing manner, but was a dedicated killer who devoted his entire life to race-murder. In 1920 he was sentenced bv the British to ten years' hard labor for provoking bloody anti-Jewish-riots.

But in the following year, in a reversal of policy for which I have never found a satisfactory explanation, the British appointed a supreme Muslim religious council in Palestine and in effect made al-Husseini its director.

The mufti, as he was called, thereafter created Arab anti-Semitism in its modern form. He appointed a terrorist leader, Emile Ghori, to kill Jewish settlers whenever possible, and also any Arabs who worked with Jews. The latter made up by far the greater number of the mufti's victims. This pattern of murdering Arab moderates has continued ever since, and not just among Palestinians; we see it in Iraq today.

When Hitler came to power in 1933, the mufti rapidly established links with the Nazi regime and later toured occupied Europe under its auspices. He naturally gravitated to Heinrich Himmler, the official in charge of the Nazi genocide, who shared his extreme and violent anti-Semitism; a photo shows the two men smiling sweetly at each other. From the Nazis the mufti learned much about mass murder and terrorism. But he also drew from the history of Islamic extremism: it was he who first recruited Wahhabi fanatics from Saudi Arabia and transformed them into killers of Jews,— another tradition that continues to this day.

For a more detailed history of the Mufti, see his Wikipedia entry here.

Johnson's conclusions about the effect of anti-semitism on the Arabs are tough but hard to disagree with: allowing their diseased obsession to dominate all their aspirations, the Arabs have wasted trillions in oil royalties on weapons of war and propaganda and, at the margin, on ostentatious luxuries for a tiny minority. In their flight from reason, they have failed to modernize or civilize their societies, to introduce democracy, or to consolidate the rule of law. Despite all their advantages, they are now being overtaken decisively by the Indians and the Chinese, who have few natural resources but are inspired by reason, not hatred.

Go read it all, as they say.

Funny time for Pirates

The New Yorker: The Critics: The Current Cinema

Watching the Middle East conflict hasn't left much time for fun this last week.

However, Anthony Lane's review of the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie encourages me to give it a go:

At two and a half hours, “Dead Man’s Chest” is far too long, but thanks to Depp—and to Bill Nighy, properly mean beneath his suckers and blubber—it swerves away from the errors committed by the other big movies this summer. If it swallowed a hundred and thirty-five million dollars in its first weekend, that is because of what it doesn’t do. It doesn’t bother to philosophize; it has nothing to report on perturbations within the human or superhuman condition; nor does it labor the nostrum, beloved of every sage from Gandalf to Xavier in “X-Men,” that with power comes responsibility. Instead, Verbinski’s movie trumpets the joy of irresponsibility, and, as for power, it never gets invited to the party.

Yes, I wish Spielberg could find it in him to do a purely fun, silly movie again, such as the undervalued "Temple of Doom", or the even less appreciated "1941". (The latter is somewhat of a guilty pleasure, but Pauline Kael defended it.)

You read it here first

The purr-fect parasite - Health And Fitness -

The SMH above runs an article about cats and toxoplasma, based on the same article I reported on a couple of weeks ago. (The SMH does not talk about the most interesting thing though - the fact that it seems that toxoplasma infections can cause madness.)

As a general question, I am curious about how many journalists or newspaper writers now get their inspiration for articles from following blogs of interest. (Not that I am suggesting I had anything to do with the SMH article.) I notice that I seem to have a fairly regular visitor from News Limited, who I would like to think is someone important, but of course it may be the janitor.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Bartlett, Armstrong, and me, on the Middle East

The Bartlett Diaries - Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Us - updates

Senator Andrew Bartlett seems a nice enough guy, in a semi-depressed, lefty high school teacher-ish sort of way. His post (above) about the Middle East crisis seems to mark out nicely the sort of wishy washy paralysis that his line of thinking lends itself to:

The way the so-called "‘war on terror"’ is portrayed and prosecuted includes a very strong inference that it is a battle between militant Islam and the West – in crude but none the less reasonably valid terms, "‘them"’ and "‘us’". I don'’t accept the view that this is a struggle between Islam and the West, but unfortunately, the more it is portrayed this way by western leaders and commentators, the more this perception can become a reality...

He goes on to cite (with approval) the recent Karen Armstrong article in The Guardian. I have just read the article, which was referred to in the essay I recommended in Saturday's post.

The more I read of Armstrong's take on Islam, the more suspicious I become of the validity of her views. Of course, I should actually read her books and some detailed criticism of her work, but I am just reporting a strong suspicion here. [I have started reading some internet criticism of her; it seems there is plenty of it about, but the search for what some authoritative historians say about it continues.]

As for what Armstrong thinks of the current crisis, she says:

Doubtless with this anniversary in mind [the London bombings], the prime minister has complained that British Muslims are not doing enough to deal with the extremists. The "moderate" Muslims, he said testily, must confront the Islamists; they cannot condemn their methods while tacitly condoning their anger. The extremists' anti-western views are wrong, and mainstream Muslims must tell them that violent jihad "is not the religion of Islam".

This regrettable step will put yet more pressure on a community already under strain. It ignores the fact that the chief problem for most Muslims is not "the west" per se, but the suffering of Muslims in Guant¡namo, Abu Ghraib, Iraq and Palestine. Many Britons share this dismay, but the strong emphasis placed by Islam upon justice and community solidarity makes this a religious issue for Muslims. When they see their brothers and sisters systematically oppressed and humiliated, some feel as wounded as a Christian who sees the Bible spat upon or the eucharistic host violated.

She states that radical Islamists hate moderate Islamists just as much, if not more, than the West.

I find it rather extraordinary that a call for moderate Islamists to do more to reject the extremists in their midst can be called "regrettable". My take on her examples:

Guantanamo: while some innocents caught up in this, most had (presumably) at least had some connection to the actual militant combatants. If these people despise moderate Muslims, as Armstrong complains, why is their detention such a problem for the moderates?
Abu Graib: very bad behaviour dealt with when revealed. The rule of law and taking responsibility for what your own military does seems to be the lesson that moderates should be told to take from this.
Iraq: surely everyone now sees this as mainly between the branches of Islam. That a framework for a modern and fairer style of government has been set up by the West, and apparently endorsed by the high voter turnout, seems beyond dispute. Does Armstrong think there is any point at which the West can stop being blamed for the inability of conflicting sects to make a government work?
Palestine: an ongoing sore that the militants recently chose to inflame.

Surely the main problem with Armstrong's comments are that they indicate complete sympathy towards the unfortunate tendency of many Muslims to prefer the mantle of victimhood, and to avoid responsibility for ongoing conflict by its radical elements, or to take opportunities as they present themselves and make them work. That is what will hurt much more than a call for moderates to be involved in attempts to de-radicalise their militants. (Who, after all, are clearly in the midst of many Western muslim communities, not isolated from them.)

Back to Bartlett's post:

The trouble with governments trying to insist that we are at war with so-called Islamist terrorists is that the paradigm of war virtually forces people onto one side or another, as the middle ground tends to get blasted away by both extremes.

In what respect are they "so called" terrorists, Andrew?

Perhaps I am being a little mean here; I actually did have some earlier reservations about the use of the phrase "war on terrorism" when Bush first invoked it. I have a preference for keeping the term "war" for the traditional sense of armed conflict between nation states. Using it loosely does encourage ideas such as the application of the Geneva Conventions in circumstances where the "combatants" use techniques which invalidate the right to protection under those treaties. The Supreme Court's recent majority ruling may in fact appear more reasonable to people than it should because of the use of the phrase.

However, the state of the world since 9/11 has caused my initial doubt about the use of the term to evaporate.

The advantage of the term is that it reflects the seriousness of the issue and it is, after all, consistent with the terminology that mad Islamists use themselves.

That the Left can still find an issue with it indicates a lack of willingness to call a spade a spade, and revives the spectre of political correctness with its rparalysisparaylsis on certain issues from the 1980's and 1990's. It does not help them politically regain power.

Having said that, there naturally may come a point at which the conduct of the campaign by the Israelis may become indisputably morally wrong and/or counterproductive to their long term interests. It is just that simple tallies of how many civilians are killed by Israel compared to their own loses is not going to be the test, and in my books Israel seems far from reaching the point of legitimate criticism yet. (I don't have significant problem with the infradtructure targetting either, as I can several legitimate reasons to attack them in this particular case.)

The ever helpful Iranian leadership

Iran Focus-Iran’s Supreme Leader says Israel is “satanic and cancerous” - Special Wire - News

Well, it not just the loopy puppet-ish President who likes to throw petrol on the fire. The religious leadership has this to say:

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei described Israel on Sunday as “satanic and cancerous” and praised the Lebanese group Hezbollah for its “jihad” against the Jewish state.

“This regime is an infectious tumour for the entire Islamic world”, Khamenei said in a speech that was aired on state television.

He rejected the demand by U.S. President George W. Bush that Hezbollah disarm, vowing, “This will never happen”.

Kind of late to be worrying about it now

Jonathan Chait: Is Bush Still Too Dumb to Be President? - Los Angeles Times

This LA Times columnist decides to bring up the issue of Bush's intelligence again. Why bother when he is on the last leg of his fixed term anyway? Maybe he thinks it be added to the grounds for impeachment.

Out of proportion?

neo-neocon: The danger of "proportionality" in war

The always readable Neo-neocon has a good post on the issue of proportionality in war. A key paragraph:

It's in the interests of those with less power, and fewer arms, to advance the doctrine of "proportionality." This evens the playing field, something like a handicap in golf, and makes the game better sport for those with fewer skills. The concept of proportionality comes, no doubt, at least partly from fear of a truly disproportionate response; from some sort of concern for the weak. But it also comes from a disproportionate concern that weaker, third-world countries shouldn't be disadvantaged in any way because of their weakness, that they should be allowed to attack a stronger nation with relative impunity because, after all, they're weaker; and, after all, they're "brown;" and, after all, the West is imperialist and guilty; and, after all...and on and on.

But go read it all, and watch some of the fireworks in the comments too.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

A good essay on the trouble with Islam

To the death

I just found this recent essay from The Guardian on the question of Islam and terrorism, and it's very good.

The last paragraphs:

As I argued in a piece on Ken Loach's film The Wind that Shakes the Barley on Cif two weeks ago, ideology - uncompromising, appealing to purity of thought and action, murderous - is required to give real or imagined wrongs a framework, a cause and both a battle cry and a battle order. You must fight for something as well as against something. And one of the most powerful of such ideologies has been, in very different forms, an appeal to oneness: oneness of nation and ethnos (Nazism); one-ness of class and party (communism) and oneness of faith, state and thought (Islamism).

The ability to dehumanise large tracts of fellow human beings, because they are non-Aryan, or bourgeois, or non-Muslim, lends great strength to the cause: strength enough to cause adherents to gladly murder, and willingly die, for it.

Israel and it enemies

Aljazeera.Net - Lebanon divided over Hezbollah raid

Aljazeera explains the conflict within Lebanon on the role of Hezbollah in that country:

Dalia Salaam, a Lebanese Middle East analyst, says, "Hezbollah is currently the only political party in Lebanon fighting to save the country."

"The US and Europe should ask Israel to restrain itself. After all, no one, not even President George Bush or the Israeli government, can afford to escalate the situation."

But Ramzi Salha, a travel agent, says: "Whatever the agenda of Hezbollah is, it is not necessarily the agenda of the Lebanese people.

"They have not been designated by the Lebanese people to decide what is best for the country."

With the 22-year Israeli occupation over, many Lebanese say it is time for Hezbollah to lay down its weapons as demanded by UN Security Council resolution 1559.

Few are suggesting a return to war is coming, but Hezbollah's rivals are increasingly complaining that the only Lebanese group that was allowed to keep its weapons after the civil war has become more powerful than the state.

As you may expect, I also like Charles Krauthammer's article on the current situation. He highlights a point that has bothered me a lot over the years: the media's seeming amnesia about the fact that Israel only ended up with the occupied territories because it won the wars that attempted to eradicate it as a nation:

For four decades we have been told that the cause of the anger, violence and terror against Israel is its occupation of the territories seized in that war. End the occupation and the "cycle of violence'' ceases.

The problem with this claim was that before Israel came into possession of the West Bank and Gaza in the Six Day War, every Arab state had rejected Israel's right to exist and declared Israel's pre-1967 borders -- now deemed sacred -- to be nothing more than the armistice lines suspending, and not ending, the 1948-49 war to exterminate Israel.

Finally, this Lebanese issue of having a heavily armed militia force that is separate from the government armed forces seems to be the same problem facing Iraq, Gaza, and probably other countries, for all I know. How do the people of these countries think that they can ever be properly governed when private armies are allowed to retain arms? Until this fundamental problem is rectified, unrest in the region will surely continue indefinitely.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Time for a Conservative government | Health | IVF hurdle for single women and lesbians to be overthrown

From the above story:

Fertility clinics and NHS trusts will no longer be able to stop single mothers and lesbian couples having IVF treatment following a shake-up of embryology regulation expected later this year.

The public health minister, Caroline Flint, yesterday gave the clearest indication yet that a child's "need for a father" will be removed as a requirement before a woman undergoes fertility treatment.

A change of name from "fertility treatment" is deserved then, because a failure of "fertility" is not what they are "curing". How about, "Government insemination service" instead, at least for the NHS ones?

That's all it what ever about??

Novak-Rove exchange lasted 20 seconds - Yahoo! News

Good Lord, it was even more trivial than what anyone seemed to imagine:

Regarding Wilson's CIA-sponsored trip, Novak said he told Rove, "I understand that his wife works at the CIA and she initiated the mission." The columnist said Rove replied, "Oh, you know that, too."

"I took that as a confirmation that she worked with the CIA and initiated" her husband's mission to Africa, Novak said. "I really distinctly remember him saying, 'You know that, too.'"

"We talked about Joe Wilson's wife for about maybe 20 seconds," Novak said.

According to Rove's legal team, the White House political adviser recalls the conversation regarding Wilson's wife differently, saying that he replied to Novak that "I've heard that, too" rather than "You know that, too."

Leunig renews attempt to court the Palestinian readership

Cartoons - Cartoon - Opinion -

I'm surprised that Tim Blair doesn't seem to have a post yet about Leunig's latest cartoon.

Having a go at the suffering of children in war and conflict is a legitimate subject for a cartoonist. But Leunig's take suggests that the Israelis are targetting children deliberately.

Also, just how hard is it to be even handed when drawing a cartoon? Here's a suggestion: fold the paper in two, and one side draw some Hamas terrorists shooting a completely indiscriminate rocket into an Israeli city, and hitting a school. On the other side, draw a half dozen palestinian kids being killed as "collateral" in a reprisal attack (being careful to also show the dead adult terrorists who were actually the target.)

There, pithy point about children being unwitting target of terrorism and war is made; dishonest blaming of one side only for killing kids avoided. Is that so hard to do?

While we're at it, show children on one side being given guns to brandish on the streets, watching a neverending media glorification of matyrdom, and being taught that everyone in the neighbouring country (which has no right to exist) is a legitimate target until the neighbour State ceases to exist. On the other side show...oh, well maybe a bit of a problem finding the balance there.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Timothy Leary back from the grave

Independent Online Edition > Health Medical

A very odd story this:

Forty years after Timothy Leary, the apostle of drug-induced mysticism, urged his hippie followers to "tune in, turn on, and drop out", researchers at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore, Maryland, have for the first time demonstrated that mystical experiences can be produced safely in the laboratory.... For the US study, 30 middle-aged volunteers who had religious or spiritual interests attended two eight-hour drug sessions, two months apart, receiving psilocybin in one session and a non-hallucinogenic stimulant, Ritalin, in the other. They were not told which drug was which.
Note in bold the first thing to question about this study.

One third described the experience with psilocybin as the single most spiritually significant of their lifetimes and two thirds rated it among their five most meaningful experiences. In more than 60 per cent of cases the experience qualified as a "full mystical experience" based on established psychological scales, the researchers say. Some likened it to the importance of the birth of their first child or the death of a parent. The effects persisted for at least two months. Eighty per cent of the volunteers reported moderately or greatly increased well-being or life satisfaction. Relatives, friends and colleagues confirmed the changes.

Ooh, sounds all so inspiring. But then:

A third of the volunteers became frightened during the drug sessions with some reporting feelings of paranoia. The researchers say psilocybin is not toxic or addictive, unlike alcohol and cocaine, but that volunteers must be accompanied throughout the experience by people who can help them through it.

I just find it incredibly hard to believe that they could ever overcome the unreliability of such "therapy". Wasn't there enough work done on using hallucinogenic and other mind altering drugs (such as ecstacy) in the 1940's to 1960's to see that this is not a worthwhile way to go?

Japanese lesson of the day

The Japan Times Online - Porn 'anime' boasts big U.S. beachhead

From the above article:

The popularity of Japanese animation overseas was again highlighted in Anime Expo 2006 in California earlier this month, but a growing boom in the genre's pornographic segment is raising eyebrows among the world's fans of Pokemon and other less-graphic content.

"The best-selling product overseas now is a pornographic makeover of 'Gundam Seed,' " said Masuzo Furukawa of Mandarake Inc., referring to a popular Japanese animation....

The general intolerance toward pornographic animation and comic books in the West is another factor for overseas fans to seek out Japanese products, Furukawa said.

"Fans in America seek something special in this anime, and reading them is cathartic," he said.

The pornographic anime boom has even made the word "hentai" (perverted) recognizable among anime fans worldwide. Hentai is now used overseas to describe anime with strong sexual content.

Love the use of "cathartic" with respect to what is basically porn.

Einstein at home

Letters reveal Einstein's personal life - Yahoo! News

If, like me, you have never read an Einstein biography, this short article gives some brief insight into his private life:

Einstein is known to have had a dozen lovers, two of whom he married, Wolff said.

Most striking about the more than 1,300 newly released letters was the way Einstein discussed his extramarital affairs with his second wife, Elsa, and his stepdaughter, Margot, the archivists said.

Michanowski is mentioned in three of the newly unsealed letters.

In a letter to Margot Einstein in 1931, Einstein complained that "Mrs. M." — Michanowski — "followed me (to England), and her chasing me is getting out of control."

What was the attraction? One assumes it had more to do with fame and power than physicality. (Funny how the same in a woman makes most men nervous.) More:

Einstein's dalliances and abrupt, even cruel treatment of his first wife, Mileva, have been documented in biographies. He has also been portrayed as an indifferent father unwilling to take on the obligations of parenthood.

Gutfreund said the latest collection shows Einstein to have been more involved with and warmer to his first family than previously thought. Letter from the boys showed "they understood he loved them," he said.

What happened to the Einstein boys, I wonder. What a liability to have in science class in high school!

And Einstein himself got a bit sick of his own theory:

The father of the theory of relativity apparently did not want to be bound up with it eternally. In a 1921 letter to Elsa, Einstein confided, "Soon I'll be fed up with the relativity. Even such a thing fades away when one is too involved with it."

Second childhood indeed

BBC NEWS | Health | Dolls 'help Alzheimer's patients'

A couple of months ago I had to make a short visit to a retirement village/nursing home type of place. When I was leaving, I noticed an elderly woman in the sitting area nursing a teddy bear wrapped in a blanket.

I later mentioned this to my mother who said that she knew that soft toys were often used by nursing homes residents (or at least the ones with dementia).

The study above shows how important that such toys can have with dementia patients. "Second childhood" is a more accurate phrase than I had previously realised.

The always irritating Phillip Adams

Ethics the issue, not proclivities | Phillip Adams | The Australian

My very first post in this blog was about Phillip Adams "outing" Graham Kennedy on his radio show, while Kennedy was still alive. Adam's studio guest, Kennedy's long time close friend Noelene Brown, was invited by Adams to talk about this, and (to her credit) she flatly refused, saying it was a very private matter for Graham and she was not comfortable talking about it.

Mind you, Adams made it clear that he thought highly of Kennedy. He just seems to have a complete blind spot about respecting the right to privacy over the matter of sexuality. (Which is ironic considering that I recall one interview with Adams in which he explained how furious he was with media talk about his private life when he went through a divorce.)

Fast forward to today's Adams column (above.) Talk about disingenuous. While denying that Alan Jones' sexuality is important, and noting that that other media commentators (David Marr and Mike Carlton) had "distorted" the debate about Jone's biography by "outing" Jones, Adams then goes on to talk in detail about the aftermath of the "London incident" which was what originally brought Jone's sexuality into public discussion!

Adams even paints himself as something of a supporting hero, although it is hard to believe the teenage boy mentality that would lead Adams to send a message to Jones of the type he admits to:

Thus when an entire station was aghast at allegations of an incident in London I sent him a cheery message of support. Told him to keep his chin up. Said something Edna Everage-ish about British spunk.

(Adams says that Jones subsequently visited Adams home to explain the incident, so maybe Jones didn't take offence. I still wonder what others think of Adam's level of maturity, and would indeed like to see a biography of him.)

Again, Adams is completing ignoring any concept of a right to privacy, and in the process takes the opportunity of praising himself as the hero for being the one who wants society to better accept homosexuality. What a jerk.

Political Theatre

Take a note: it won't help Costello at all - Opinion -

Nothing much to say about Howard/Costello. All part of the political theatre, and not very edifying. If politicians did not spend so much time on internal party maneuvering they could devote a lot more time to policy and things that matter to their constituents.

As Gerard Henderson notes in his column above:

The fact is that there are few genuine friendships in politics - for the obvious reason that politicians are involved in a continuing contest for the top job.

Maybe true but kind of sad.

Now for something completely different: yowies, UFOs and bad smells


See the link for a Fortean Times article on yowie sightings in Australia. (For the foreign reader, a yowie is Australia's version of bigfoot.)

I have never had much interest in yowie stories, but one thing that interests me about them is the association of the beast with a foul smell. This is because when I was about 19, an acquaintance with whom I had sometimes been camping (in a group) in bush locations around South East Queensland told me that he had gone camping (with one or two other mates, I forget) and had been frightened by loud crunching sounds in the undergrowth in the middle of the night. What disturbed him most was the intense foul smell that he said accompanied the sounds. It was the smell in particular that make him frightened, and convinced him it was not just some sleepless kangaroo or other mundane explanation.

He was an odd character, but one that I would describe as pragmatic and not given to fantasy. I guess the belief that yowies smell bad might have been around generally then; I seem to recall that it was the first time that I had heard of it, and it was only later that I read of other people's accounts that did indeed mention the smell.

If scary crunchy sounds are caused by other animals (and I guess something as mundane as a cow or deer would make heaps of sound,) I am not sure what large (or small) animal in Australia is routinely accompanied by a bad smell. It is this relatively minor aspect of the story that makes it more convincing.

Interestingly, bad sulphurous type smells have been associated with paranormal phenomena of all kinds, even UFO's. (There are some who think yowies, bigfoot and other strange creatures are visitors from another dimension, hence the connection with the paranormal.)

I remember, again when I was about 19, glancing through a book on the interesting Kaikoura UFO sightings of 1978 by a journalist who was on the airplane. I seem to recall that he mentioned that after the incident, for several weeks at least, he would unexpectedly notice sulfurous smells around him. (I think he said it seemed the smell was on his skin, but it is a long time ago that I was furtively looking at the book in a shop.) At the time, I remember thinking that he was a bit of a nutter for drawing this connection. Perhaps I was a little unfair. (I also know that many people think it was squid boats lights that the planes were misidentifying. I don't know; I haven't read much about it to have a firm opinion.)

It does seem odd to me, though, for any modern story of UFOs (which most people have thought are just advanced technology) to be linked with a smell that a few centuries ago would have been taken to be evidence of demonic association.

All part of life's interesting oddities.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Kids today

man of lettuce: Kidults

A worrying story over at Man of Lettuce about some teen girls from families with more money than sense.

Imre on the gullible

Fellow travellers' tales | Features | The Australian

Interesting story by Imre Salusinszky on a conference looking at the phenomena of the Australian academic "fellow travellers" who went to the Soviet Union and loved what they saw.

I like this line best:

As for McAuley, Tasmanian critic Cassandra Pybus found his anti-communism such a puzzle in her 1999 book, The Devil and James McAuley that she was forced to put it all down to suppressed homosexual impulses.


Sunday, July 09, 2006

An interesting test for hidden dimensions

New Scientist SPACE - Breaking News - Mini solar system could reveal hidden dimensions

I wonder, do readers like the way I can jump from talking crap (see last post) to theoretical physics?

Anyhow, the story above proposes an slightly odd sounding experiment to test for hidden dimensions. (Build a tiny version of a solar system and run it in space.) Neat.

Toilet humour to start the week

Foreign Correspondent - 04/07/2006: India - Untouchables

For those who missed last week's Foreign Correspondent, the link above is to a transcript of the story on toilets in India. (Or more particularly, about the lack of toilets there.)

Some extracts:

BORMANN: It’s staggering that in a country of one billion people 80 percent don’t have a toilet and most in cities and towns aren’t connected to a sewage system anyway. That’s eight hundred million people going in the open in rivers, under bridges, anywhere they might hope to get some privacy.

The footage showed that indeed there is little privacy there. Not much sign of toilet paper for the poor masses either.

The story showed the undertouchable woman whose job it was to clean out the "toilets" in some houses. These were accessed from an external hatch, with the poor woman covering the poop with some dust, putting it in a bucket, then going a short distance and putting in an open running gutter/drain in the street!

Oddly enough, said a woman from a charity that specifically is all about building toilets:

It’s not that this is a poor man’s problem, in many places people have the money to build houses but they do not think it necessary to create a toilet or to construct a toilet.

I don't mean to sound too impolite, but compared to the rest of the world, it's kinda taking a long time for this idea to catch on , isn't it?

The story also featured an odd man in a toilet museum. His funniest line was:

The day you give a clean toilet to a lady she will never go on the road to do this thing.

I'm pretty sure any man will go for the toilet over using the river, too.

India in many respects sounds a very interesting place to visit. I assume that smell is not one of them, though.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Colour and movement

Islamophobia and The Guardian

Guardian Unlimited | Special reports | Out of a cycle of ignorance

The link is to a Guardian column by American John Esposito, in which he complains about Western Islamophobia.

I don't have time to double check his take on the recent polling of Muslim nations, but I do recommend the reader's comments following the article for some very strong counterarguments. I like "Ryans" post in particular, which is a bit too long to copy here.

Rats supporting conservatives, again

news @ taking cannabis get taste for heroin-Study suggests cannabis-users may be vulnerable to harder drugs.

Here we go again. Nothing terribly conclusive about the above work, but yet again a case of drug research seemingly coming round to validate old fuddy-duddy conservative's long held suspicions about marijuana:

Neuroscientists have found that rats are more likely to get hooked on heroin if they have previously been given cannabis. The studies suggest a biological mechanism — at least in rats — for the much-publicized effect of cannabis as a 'gateway' to harder drugs.

The discovery hints that the brain system that produces pleasurable sensations when exposed to heroin may be 'primed' by earlier exposure to cannabis, say researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, who carried out the study.

I note that one site criticises the report, but on some fairly spurious grounds:

But the article did not note that the problem with the “gateway theory” is that the vast majority of cannabis users never try harder drugs. While most illegal drug users start with the most widely available illegal drug — marijuana — most marijuana users start and stop with cannabis. Some 50 percent of high school students try marijuana before graduation, but just eight percent try cocaine, six percent try methamphetamine and less than one percent try heroin. This is why the Institute of Medicine, in a 1999 report on the use of marijuana as medicine, gave no credence to the gateway idea.

In fact, the news@nature report does talk about the role of social issues when you talk of "gateway drug". The point of the study was clearly stated as this:

There has long been a debate about whether exposure to drugs such as nicotine or marijuana might lead to harder habits. Many argue that the most important factors in the equation are social ones: people who get one drug from a dealer are probably more inclined to try another. But researchers are still interested to know whether there is any physiological effect that might additionally predispose users of so-called soft drugs to harder-drug addiction.

Fair enough. Seems to me to not be too much point in being nitpicky about what exactly the "gateway theory" means, if studies do confirm use of cannibis means greater addiction to harder drugs if you try them. (Even if it is only social reasons as to why you have the opportunity to try them.)

UPDATE: Futurepundit's post on this story points out that it should be no surprise. Early alcohol use is a clearly related to increased alcoholism in future too:

In results that echo earlier studies, of those individuals who began drinking before age 14, 47 percent experienced dependence at some point, vs. 9 percent of those who began drinking at age 21 or older. In general, each additional year earlier than 21 that a respondent began to drink, the greater the odds that he or she would develop alcohol dependence at some point in life. While one quarter of all drinkers in the survey started drinking by age 16, nearly half (46 percent) of drinkers who developed alcohol dependence began drinking at age 16 or younger.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Hitchens time again

Cause and Effect - It's time to stop blaming the good guys for problems in Iraq. By Christopher Hitchens

It's been a little while since Hitchen's last Slate column on Iraq. The new one is pretty good though. (It even has a bit of Bush bashing to keep everyone happy.)

The final paragraph though is good:

Whatever its disagreements over the initial confrontation may have been, the international community has a moral and legal obligation, expressed in a major U.N. resolution, to assist in the reconstruction of Iraq and to support its elected government. This cannot happen while serious powers like Russia use even their own victims to make the wrong point. And it cannot happen while so much of the intellectual and media life of this country is infected with Putinism: a nasty combination of the cynical with the unrealistic.

What a laugh

Beazley against history revival | News | The Australian

Beazley and the State education ministers do nothing to help their credibility by their poo-pooing (or should that be "pooh-poohing"? - my education has gaps) reaction to the Federal proposal to get history back to some fundamentals. Teachers being so highly unionised, what else can the Labor side say?:

KIM Beazley has dismissed the push by federal Education Minister Julie Bishop to reinstate the teaching of traditional Australian history in schools as an "elite preoccupation"...

South Australian Education Minister Jane Lomax-Smith said: "We believe the necessary facts in a child's education should be determined by teachers and experts in the field, not politicians."...

Tasmanian Education Minister David Bartlett said he was "horrified" by the proposal and added: "If this is a stalking horse for John Howard's personal Australian history being taught inschools then I am not interested."

What a hoot! Problem is, I strongly suspect that most of the public would be well on side with the Federal government on this one, and don't like teachers setting the agenda (or coming up with unintelligible methods of reporting progress). It's just that the educational academics (and many teachers) don't realise it. Or think they know what is best anyway.