Sunday, December 31, 2006

On the death of Saddam

Long time readers would know that I agree with Roger Simon's point. Captain's Quarters' take on the execution is fair enough too.

I note that some of the critics of executing Saddam talk about how it will not help Iraqi "reconciliation". Well, it seems to me that the main example of successful national reconciliation is South Africa, but the history of that country, and the circumstances of the change in power there, are vastly different from what has happened in Iraq. (And who is the equivalent national hero to Mandela who would make a similar kind of reconciliation process in Iraq even vaguely possible?) It also seems rather improbable to me, although I stand to be corrected, that Iraqis don't already know enough of the genocidal actions of Saddam in relation to the Kurds.

Somewhat surprisingly, The Guardian's obituary is the one that seems to go into the most detail about Saddam's evil character.

As for those from the West who say "Bush and Blair should be next", they are the people who really worry me for the future of a sane world.

Saturday, December 30, 2006

Waiting for the apology

A few weeks ago the Fairfax press, and indeed the Murdoch press, both ran with a story that that John Howard and Alexander Downer had "distorted" advice to them when using the phrase "biological agent" to describe a white powder that had been sent to the Indonesian embassy. The alleged reason for this was because documents obtained under FOI from ACT Pathology and the Federal Police never used the phrase. Have a look at Tim Dunlop's Blogocracy post about this, where he ends with this:

You simply can’t take at face value a word that comes out of their mouths. It’s about time the media stopped reporting this tendency as ‘smart politics’ and started calling it what it is, dishonesty.

For those who love reading stupid Howard conspiracy theories, read some of the comments to that post too.

Today, the Sydney Morning Herald points this out:

ADVICE relied on by the Prime Minister to describe flour sent to the Indonesian embassy last year as a "biological agent" appears to have originated in the ACT Emergency Services Authority, according to documents just released.

Unsigned situation reports produced by the authority's Emergency Co-ordination Centre on June 1 last year, the day the powder was found at the embassy, say the material "has been positively identified as a biological agent", that further testing was under way and a result was likely to take 24 to 48 hours.

Yet, according to the original report in The Age:

Staff at ACT Health and ACT Emergency Services were stunned when the Government called the powder a biological agent.

Obviously, whoever The Age spoke to at ACT Emergency Services did not know what was in its own situation reports. Did the reporter really speak to anyone of significance there?

Any sign of an apology from the press over this? Of course not. From further down today's SMH story:

Earlier this month Mr Howard and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Alexander Downer, denied a Herald report that they had distorted test results on the material. Mr Howard said he and Mr Downer had quoted directly from advice provided by the Protective Security Co-ordination Centre saying it had tested positive as a biological agent and that further testing would need to be carried out to determine what the substance actually was.

The Government has not released the full protective security advice but the new documents show the centre was liaising with the Emergency Co-ordination Centre, suggesting their reports were probably used in the protective security advice to the Commonwealth Government.

There seems to be no suggestion that the Emergency Co-ordination Centre's situation reports picked up the phrase "biological agent" from John Howard himself. (The SMH report could easily have clarified this by telling us the time of the first "situation report" was issued. If it was prior to Howard's press conference, there is no wriggle room left for conspiracy theorising at all.)

But basically, it seems to me that the SMH story comes as close as they can bring themselves to saying they were wrong, and Howard and Downer's version was completely correct, without actually saying it.

Today's story tries to salvage some criticism of the government because:

The biological terrorism scare continued until June 2, when the Government announced the powder was not harmful.

This was despite an email from the federal police national manager of intelligence, Grant Wardlaw, sent to the office of the Justice Minister, Chris Ellison, at 6.35pm on June 1 making clear there was no confirmed evidence the powder was a harmful substance. Dr Wardlaw said the powder had tested positive to gram bacilli.

"Gram bacilli is a commonly occurring bacteria. If spores of this bacteria are found to be growing in the substance this raises the level of potential risk.

"Information to date is that no spores have been identified by pathology," he said.

So, it is still some sort of scandal that the "scare" (which presumably only affected anyone working at the Indonesian embassy in the first place) was in place for about 24 hours? Talk about trying to make a story out of nothing.

And by the way, don't bother looking for this story in The Age today. It doesn't even appear there at all. News Limited doesn't seem to have run it either.

This is why our press is so respected.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Speaking of the weather...

Maybe it is just that by mid-life, really hot weather starts to annoy everyone much more than it did when they were younger. Whatever the reason, it has seemed to me that most Christmas Days, and summers generally, in Brisbane over the last 6 years or so have been unbearably hot and uncomfortable. So I have been delighted that this summer has been so unseasonably cool. All those holiday makers on the Gold and Sunshine Coasts might be regretting paying $2,000 and more for a week by the beach, though.

Anyway, while browsing the web looking for more details about the Federation drought of 100 years ago (it's not so easy to find,) I stumbled onto this page from the Australian Bureau of Statistics about Australian deserts. They can be a lot hotter than I thought:

The most famous long hot spell in Australian history was that at Marble Bar in the summer of 1923-24, when there were 160 consecutive days above 37.8°C (100 degrees Fahrenheit). Even in those areas where the most extreme heat is rare, there are many hot days; for example, at Giles, where the all-time record high is a relatively modest 44.8°C, there are an average of 100 days per year of 35°C or above, including 69 in succession during the summer of 1964-65.

While I am not exactly a global warming sceptic, it is very important to realise how bad Australian weather has been in the past before you start to talk about how bad it is at the present.

What you may have missed in my absence

Here's a list of some interesting stories from the last week:

Let me do the panicking for you: If the Large Hadron Collider or an asteroid does not get humanity first, a series of supervolcanoes will make life miserable enough sooner or later again anyway. Here's a Christmas Day story that did not attract much attention:

Auckland University scientists have revealed that eruptions of supervolcanoes powerful enough to change the climate and cause mass-extinction can be worse than previously thought...

Such large eruptions of greater than 100 cubic kilometres of magma are generally rare and random events worldwide.

But geologist Darren Gravley of Auckland University and his colleagues have shown that one of the largest supervolcano eruptions on record, at Taupo 250,000 years ago, was twice as big as previously thought.

They have published in the Bulletin of the Geological Society of America evidence that the eruption in the Taupo Volcanic Zone was actually two supervolcanoes 30km apart which erupted within days or weeks of each other.

What's worse:

Last year, other research at Taupo - on the more recent Taupo supervolcano of only 26,500 years ago - changed accepted theories that it takes hundreds of thousands of years for the reservoir of molten rock, or magma, beneath a supervolcano to build up to an eruption.

They showed the period between super-eruptions can be much shorter, perhaps a few tens of thousands of years.

Dr Bruce Charlier, from Britain's Open University, showed the build-up at Taupo was no more than 40,000 years - a relatively short time period in geological terms.

A happy pre-Christmas report: having a drink before your head injury is a good idea. The trick is in making sure your drink does not cause you to have the injury in the first place.

Everyone's favourite cat borne disease gets noticed again: The Australian media noticed a toxoplasma story that talked about possible behavioural changes in people infected with it. (Funny, this was covered thoroughly in blogs, including mine, in August.)

But in fact, Science Daily notes recently that has been a cluster of new papers about toxoplasma. This part of their report was interesting:

Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Symptoms usually appear only in people with weakened immune systems, but on rare occasions, healthy people suffer serious eye and central nervous system problems from toxoplasmosis. Their babies can have birth defects. White said toxoplasmosis also may be linked to some cases of schizophrenia and bipolar disease. It can kill livestock and has devastated efforts to restore sea otters near Monterey, Calif. Because it's common, yet complex, toxoplasmosis is a potential weapon for bioterrorists.

Bioterrorism, when nearly half the world has it already? Sounds a little unlikely. But then again, it they gathered a ton of cat poo and put it in the local water supply, I guess it would put me off drinking water for some time.

Hitchens goes to Iraq

There's a short Slate piece by Hitchens about a recent trip to Iraq. Good reading, as always.

What I got for Christmas

They're boxer shorts, if you can't quite tell.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

That Letterman Christmas song

I don't know if I have missed the 2006 edition yet, but David Letterman has had Darlene Love singing this song every Christmas for a decade. It is good. Here's the 2005 version:

Friday, December 22, 2006

The Guardian greens your Christmas

It's hard to find the right word to describe this article in The Guardian about how to have a green Christmas. Seeing it's from England, maybe "eco-naff" is appropriate?

Here are some of its suggestions:

"Use slightly fewer fairy lights, and try not to leave them on all day." (Just how "slightly" will this affect the amount of CO2 put out by your local power plant, which in England might be nuclear anyway?)

green gifts " include everything from giving a goat to organic underwear to recycled glass objects"

"Wrap those ethically thoughtful presents in old newspaper and string. " (I hope the goat stays still long enough.)

"...if you're flying for Christmas it's usually because you haven't seen your family for a while, and the trip is less likely to be negotiable. You could deny yourself air travel for the rest of the year, or make the rest of your Christmas so green that you offset your evil ways." (I would like someone to do the figures on how many millennia of using newspaper to wrap gifts it would take to offset a trans-Atlantic flight.)

The incredible shrinking country

The story is from the Japan Times. The longer term projection is more surprising (the total population is forecast to fall to 44.59 million by 2105,) but just how accurate can such projections be?

Of course, part of Japan's problem is its distrust of immigrants, but surely that is going to have to change soon to keep the economy going.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Comparative religion

For a provocative take on the differences between the great religions, you can't get much better and more succinct than this paragraph from a Christmas article in American Spectator:

All religions are not alike. Christianity, as it happens, is religion built around forgiveness. "Turn the other cheek," "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" -- you don't have to look very far. All this may seems natural, routine, inevitable -- maybe even boring to educated people -- but it is not universal. Hinduism is a religion that established a caste system and revolves around helping people escape the great chain of being. Buddhism is a reform of Hinduism that rejected the caste system but still seeks escape from the suffering of being by attaining non-being. Islam is a religion built on forced conversion and conquest. It does not put a value on forgiveness. The Shi'ia have still not forgiven the Sunni for the death of Hussein at the Battle of Karbala in 680 A.D.

Well, I am betting that characterisation of Islam would have Karen Armstrong frothing at the mouth, and to be honest, I don't really know how fair it is. All of the article is interesting, though, and worth reading.

It does seem to me, as I may have said somewhere here before, that Christianity and Islam as religions must have had to approach violence from two opposite directions. In the former, being founded by a "peacenik" whose closest brush with violence was overturning some tables, the religion that follows him had to rationalise against pacificism as the apparent default position.

Islam, on the other hand, being created by a political warrior figure, has to come up with reasons why not to resort to violence as a legitimate way of promoting itself. (Of course there are parts of the Koran that emphasize the merits of peace, and Armstrong claims - with questionable accuracy, apparently - that at the end of his life Mohammed renounced violence, but my point is still valid I reckon.)

I am surely not the first person to make this point, but what the heck.

The Libyan HIV case

There is one thing the recent reporting about the Libyan conviction of Bulgarian nurses (and a Palestinian doctor) for infecting children with HIV does not cover much: what motive was alleged for the medics to do this?

Well, as the New York Times reported in 2005:

They were also charged with working for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service.

"Nurses from little towns in Bulgaria acting as agents of Mossad?" said Antoanetta Ouzounova, 28, one of Ms. Chervenyashka's two daughters. "It all sounds funny and absurd until you realize your mother could die for it." Although the motive of subversion has been dropped, the death sentence stands.

I see that Judith Miller did a long article on the case in September this year. I missed it at the time, but it is a fascinating report. She says that the conspiracy theory originated with Col. Gadhafi himself, yet one of his sons has helped the defence case. Miller writes:

Saif al-Islam has challenged his father's argument that the outbreak was a foreign plot. "There is no conspiracy," he told me. "There is no hand of Mossad or the CIA. This was a question of mismanagement, or negligence, or bad luck, or maybe all three." Conspiracy theories, rooted in Libyan and Arab culture, had created a terrible dynamic in this case, he said.

Well, maybe it is OK for me to continue to believe Arab cultures to be peculiarly prone to conspiracy nonsense, now that I have Col Gadhafi's son supporting me!

Bound for the "odd news" columns

From the LA Times:

A woman going through security at Los Angeles International Airport put her month-old grandson into a plastic bin intended for carry-on items and slid it into an X-ray machine....

A screener watching the machine's monitor immediately noticed the outline of a baby and pulled the bin backward on the conveyor belt.

The infant was taken to Centinela Hospital, where doctors determined that he had not received a dangerous dose of radiation.

But you can't say the Transportation Security Administration has done nothing to prevent this type of incident:

On its website, the TSA posts extensive tips for travelers, including a section titled "Traveling With Children." One item reads: "Never leave babies in an infant carrier while it goes through the X-ray machine."

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Hanukkah wars

A pretty funny column in the LA Times about the "war on Hanukkah". An extract:

These should be good times for Hanukkah and the Jews. After all, the Christmas story offers nothing besides a guy who erases all our sins, but the tale of Hanukkah centers on a magical, super-efficient oil that causes an eightfold decrease in carbon emissions. But instead of this being our year, we had the worst run-up to Hanukkah in 62 years: Iran hosted David Duke at its Holocaust denial conference; Mel Gibson got a Golden Globe nomination; Jimmy Carter equated Israeli policy with apartheid; Ehud Olmert — the least-smooth Jew since Jerry Lewis — accidentally admitted that Israel has the bomb; and the subtext of "Charlotte's Web" is that pork is irresistible.

I must admit to forgetting what Hanukkah is about. Wikipedia enlightens me:

Spiritually, Hanukkah commemorates the Miracle of the Oil. According to the Talmud, at the re-dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem following the victory of the Maccabees over the Seleucid Empire, there was only enough consecrated olive oil to fuel the eternal flame in the Temple for one day. Miraculously, the oil burned for eight days - which was the length of time it took to press, prepare and consecrate new oil.

Escape via niqab

A pretty remarkable story in The Times about how a British man wanted for murder was apparently able to leave the country by wearing the niqab:

One of those who was wanted for this murder — Mustaf Jama — is believed to have fled Britain in the days after the shooting, disguising himself as a veiled woman. His brother was one of five other men left to be tried and convicted of murder or manslaughter. Jama was able to sneak on to an international flight at Heathrow dressed in a niqab despite extensive publicity about this murder....

While it is compulsory for those wearing the niqab to be examined (by a female immigration officer if that is what is preferred) when they enter this country, arrangements appear to be far less stringent if a woman (or in this dire incident, as it transpires, a man) is leaving a British airport, even Heathrow. According to the Immigration Act 1971, the authorities “reserve the right” to look at those who wear the veil, but it is not a legal obligation. In theory, the airlines should authenticate any passport photograph both as a passenger checks in and at the boarding gate immediately before departure. In practice, though, most companies are reluctant to make what might be considered an insensitive demand of people who are their customers, particularly on routes where it is common for those travelling to be fully covered.

I wonder what the equivalent rules and practice are in Australia.

The polonium lesson: don't trust the BBC and ABC

This time last year, Radio National's Science Show (run by the rather Left leaning Robyn Williams) had a show in which the risks of a radioactive "dirty bomb" were portrayed as being just a scaremongering invention of the media. He took extracts from a BBC documentary as follows (Adam Curtis is the BBC producer):

And the media took the bait. They portrayed the dirty bomb as an extraordinary weapon that would kill thousands of people, and in the process they made the hidden enemy even more terrifying. But in reality the threat of a dirty bomb is yet another illusion. Its aim is to spread radioactive material through a conventional explosion. But almost all studies of such a possible weapon have concluded that the radiation spread in this way would not kill anybody because the radioactive material would be so dispersed, and providing the area was cleaned promptly the long-term effects would be negligible. In the past both the American army and the Iraqi military tested such devices and both concluded that they were completely ineffectual weapons for this very reason.

Adam CurtisHow dangerous would a dirty bomb be?

Interviewee: The deaths would be few if any, and the answer is probably none.

Adam CurtisReally?

Interviewee: Yes. And that’s been said over and over again, but then people immediately say after that, but you know people won’t believe that and they’ll panic. I don’t think it would kill anybody and I think you’ll have trouble finding a serious report that would claim otherwise. The Department of Energy actually set up such a test and they actually measured what happened. The measurements were extremely low. They calculated that the most exposed individual would get a fairly high dose, not life threatening but fairly high, and I checked into how the calculation was done and they assume that after the attack no one moves for one year. One year. Now that’s ridiculous.

I always felt sceptical about this story. Even assuming only a few people die relatively quickly from a dirty bomb, people are not going to feel comfortable about having a possible increased risk of cancer for the rest of their lives. To call the threat "an illusion" when it would also require the evacuation and cleaning of a large area, and probably involve the public not coming back into that area again for a long time, seems to be downplaying the significance of the economic threat too. I mean, if a dirty bomb was let off in Times Square, just how soon do you think the public would be comfortable living and working in any building within, say, a kilometer radius?

Anyway, a very disturbing article in the International Herald Tribune now says the polonium death in London has made analysts realise that a dirty bomb using such alpha emitting radioactive could make a very deadly weapon, capable of killing tens or hundreds of people if set off in a crowded area. The relative ease with which enough polonium could currently be purchased is also discussed, which seems a dubious thing to be explaining to terrorists who read the paper.

Back to the drawing boards, BBC and ABC, to find another way to portray a dirty bomb as a right wing fear invention?

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

A Loewenstein low

Glamour anti-Zionist boy Antony Loewenstein got a short segment on Radio National breakfast this morning, and a transcript of what he said is here.

The end paragraph indicates that he is joining Iranian President Ahmadinejad in hoping for Israel to disappear:

Israel's long-term future remains in serious jeopardy
- due primarily to its inability to make friends in
the Arab world, expanding the occupation and refusing
to recognise Palestinian demands - and the Australian
Jewish News wants to focus on "media bias."

Tick tock, Zionists.

An inability to "make friends" in the Arab world? Give me a break.

Funnily enough, host Paul Barry said that he could hear "the phones ringing out the back already" (not exact quote maybe, but close enough) when this segment finished.

Back to a favourite theme - toilets in Japan

This article in the Japan Times deals with that fascinating issue: why men's toilets in Japan are "open door" in a way Westerns ones typically are not.

Also, this bit of history:

Japan has a long history of privies in public places, according to Eiki Morita, a high school teacher in Chiba Prefecture who has written several books on toilets in Japan, including one that catalogs 1,114 different ways to say "toilet" in Japanese. Morita told me it was common practice in the Edo Period (1603-1867), and probably much earlier, for farmers to put out shallow wooden tubs to collect waste from passersby, which they then used as fertilizer. Later, the government took over; the first privies paid for with public funds were built in Yokohama in 1872, largely as a public-health measure in response to new information from the West about waste-borne diseases.

Reminds me of that old story about how the innuit have thousands of words for "snow".

Bryan Appleyard interviews Michael Crichton

There's a good interview of Crichton by Bryan Appleyard in the Sunday Times.

I also recommend again Bryan Appleyard's blog.

Hitchens' latest on Iraq

From Slate, Hitchens' latest column sounds a sensible analysis. His short columns manage to add much more usefully to the debate than the endless words Tim Dunlop manages to find every week to complain about Howard's and Bush's role in this.

A Christmas related post

I thought this article from The Times was interesting and relevant to the season. It's about buying real estate in Finnish Lapland, inside of the Arctic Circle. Talk about your "Northern Exposure":

It is close to midnight on a Saturday night, 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Finnish Lapland, and the karaoke machine in the wood- panelled Yllashumina restaurant and bar is humming. Most of the performers opt for Finnish tango, a melodious if somewhat improbable mix of Nordic and Latino culture that is highly popular with the locals. But then a British voice mangling an old Gloria Gaynor number sounds out through the clink of glasses....

The rental market is a varied one. In December, when the sun never even makes it above the horizon, it is dominated by Britons on Santa tours. Finns, French and Germans tend to come up to ski from February to May, when the days get longer, or visit in September to appreciate the brilliant autumn colours. June and July when the sun barely sets at all, is much quieter — not least because of the mosquitoes that emerge from the swampy ground.

The cost of real estate there seems not too bad, I guess:

The majority of Above the Arctic’s properties for sale are in Akaslompolo. Flats start at £57,175 for a 33sq m studio up to £90,750 for a 55sq m two-bedder. Most British buyers prefer wooden cabins, which also rent more easily, especially outside high season. A 56sq m one-bedder made out of kelo logs — a very hard kind of pine several hundred years old — will cost £91,600, while £114,150 will buy a 76sq m two-bedder.

Rental return is also comparable:

Like many of the Britons buying, the Birds plan to use their cabin, which should be completed in February 2008, for only a week or so a year. The rest of the time they hope to rent it out. Local rental agents put the season realistically at 20-25 weeks, which should ensure a rental yield of 6%-8%.

Of course, getting an Australian bank to lend on a Lapland cabin might be a challenge.

Anyway, have a look at Above the Arctic website to see what real estate in Lapland looks like.

While I am on the theme, I saw the Christmas Edition of "New Scandinavian Cooking" on the Food Channel last night. Even at Christmas, nearly everything involves fish, which is not a bad thing until they start talking about the fermented variety. But the main reason to watch the show is to see the host Tina Nordstrom. Have a look at the website.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Dilbert worries

I like Scott Adams list of "top ten things that worry me". I have been thinking of doing my own, which will include a review of ending the earth by running the LHC next year. Adam's concerns are more lightweight.

Get out your stopwatch

The New York Times reports on a study that shows that, even amongst experienced physicians, the rate of "success" from a colonoscopy can vary enormously:

The study, of 12 highly experienced board-certified gastroenterologists in private practice, found some were 10 times better than others at finding adenomas, the polyps that can turn into cancer.

One factor distinguishing the physicians who found many adenomas from those who found few was the amount of time spent examining the colon, according to the study, in which the gastroenterologists kept track of the time for each exam and how many polyps they found.

They discovered that those who slowed down and took their time found more polyps.

How much can the time taken vary?:

Dr. Barclay added, “if our group is representative of an average group, you will see people who take 2 or 3 minutes and people who take 20 minutes” to examine a colon. Insurers pay doctors the same no matter how much time they spend. Gastroenterologists say colonoscopies can help prevent colon cancer, but warn that there is a pressing need for better quality control.

Still, the experts say, the onus remains on patients to ask for data on how proficient their doctors are.

Oh come on. Shouldn't there be just a wee bit of emphasis on telling gastroenterologists that it is clear that doing the job in 3 minutes means they are not doing it properly?

Having had this procedure myself, I was given a videotape of it afterwards. (Watching the bit of smoke as a polyp is burnt off is kind of fun.) I wonder if the 3 minute wonders in American give out videos too? If so, get out your stopwatch and check.

Controlling retired judges

According to the Sydney Morning Herald, retired High Court Judge Michael McHugh thinks some parts of the Federal anti terrorism laws could be constitutionally invalid:

He said restrictive control orders imposed on people who had not been convicted of anything appeared to be invalid because they breached the separation of powers between government and the judiciary.

Well, if that is an accurate account of his objection (newspaper reports of legal argument can be very inaccurate,) then I await the Judge's outcry over the tens of thousands of domestic violence protection orders that have been issued over the past decade. (The linked paper indicates that they were 13,000 issued annually in Queensland alone some years ago.) These frequently do not involve any prosecution or conviction of the respondent for any offence; all that is required is that the applicant have reasonable grounds to fear for his or her safety.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Middle East Mess

Three significant stories on the Middle East:

1. Palestinians continue to have trouble getting their act together, so to speak:

Gunmen loyal to the two main Palestinian factions openly fought each other in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank today after an alleged attempt on the life of the Palestinian Prime Minister last night.

Hamas officials accused members of the rival Fatah movement of trying to kill Prime Minister Ismail Haniya during a chaotic gunfight at the Rafah border crossing....

Many of the Hamas followers were on their way to a rally of an estimated 70,000 people in Gaza City, where Khalil al-Hayya, a senior Hamas figure shouted to the crowd: "What a war Mahmoud Abbas you are launching, first against God, and then against Hamas." His call was answered by a chant of "God is Greatest" and bullets fired into the air. Mr al-Hayya also called for revenge against Fatah.

Closely guarded by bodyguards, Mr Haniya then addressed the crowd. In an aggressive speech, punctuated by bursts of celebratory gunfire, he said: "We tell all those who believe in the logic of assassination that this does not scare even little children in Hamas."

"We joined this movement to become martyrs, not ministers."

How encouraging...

(Incidentally, I would be curious to know just how many Palestinians die each year from "celebratory gunfire". I would have thought that if even the government of little Puerto Rico can recognize it as a stupid practice, the Palestinians might have cottoned on by now too.)

2. Former Dutch Parliamentarian Ayaan Hirsi Ali writes a very telling piece in the International Herald Tribunal in which she explains that growing up in Saudi Arabia meant she didn't even know of the Holocaust until she got to Holland at age 24! She writes:

Western leaders today who say they are shocked by the conference of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran denying the Holocaust need to wake up to that reality. For the majority of Muslims in the world the Holocaust is not a major historical event they deny; they simply do not know because they were never informed. Worse, most of us are groomed to wish for a Holocaust of Jews.

She claims that when she showed her 21 year old half sister her history book about the Holocaust, the reaction was this:

With great conviction my half-sister cried: "It's a lie! Jews have a way of blinding people. They were not killed, gassed nor massacred. But I pray to Allah that one day all the Jews in the world will be destroyed."

3. In a typical wrong-headed reaction, a bunch of artists write to The Guardian to announce that they will respond to the Palestinian call for an "academic and cultural boycott " of Israel. I note that Brian Eno is a signatory. That'll hurt.

When I see a list of artists calling for the "radical" cultural change in the Muslim Middle East of teaching their children and young men and women:
a. about the Holocaust;
b. that Jews are not intrinsically evil, and
c. that good deeds on earth are more important than entry into Paradise by "matyrdom"
then I'll give the "cultural boycott" call against Israel some credibility.

Friday, December 15, 2006


For anyone who has never seen this 20 year (!) old video of They Might be Giants first hit song, Don't Let's Start, here it is:

For me, this is close to the perfect modern pop song, being extremely catchy and having a lyric that almost, but not entirely, makes sense. The video's silliness still gives me a high degree of pleasure that is hard to explain. My 2 kids love it too, and run around the house copying the synchronised moves from this and TMBG's other early clips, most of which are also on YouTube. (They are also on the documentary DVD "Gigantic".) My wife thinks it's a form of brainwashing, but I think she secretly likes the songs too.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Odd medical photo of the day

If you want to see an inside view of 15 cm spoon in the stomach of a woman who accidentally swallowed it while laughing (!), click here. (Stomachs seem to have a lot more folds inside them than I imagined.)

While you're at the Medical Journal of Australia, you might want to read their sort of silly Christmas offering "The hazards of watching football - Are Australians at risk?"

Steyn on France

Mark Steyn has a column that puzzles over France's foreign policy, particularly in relation to the Middle East. It has some snippets from history that I did not know about:’s sobering to be reminded that the French were doing the Israelis-are-the-new-Nazis shtick within ten minutes of the end of the Second World War. Jews, wrote the consul-general Rene Neuville, in a lengthy cable from Jerusalem in 1947, are “racist through and through… quite as much as their German persecutors”. The dispatches of Pierre Landy, French consul in Haifa, rely heavily on “the Israeli Gestapo” and similar formulations. In public the political class was usually more circumspect, though not always. President de Gaulle famously raged at a press conference that the Jews were “an elite people, self-assured and domineering” with “a burning ambition for conquest”. In the ensuing controversy, M le President assured the Chief Rabbi that he’d meant it as a compliment.

A different Advent countdown

From BBC radio, this Advent countdown gives short cranky, but amusing, audio reviews of the year's movies. The one about The Da Vinci Code is good, but his most despised movie is "Little Man", which I have to say did look appalling when I saw shorts for it.

Why electric cars makes sense

This article in Scientific American addresses the point that occasionally crosses my mind: if electric cars became popular, how much of a greenhouse gas benefit would be achieved when you take into account the extra electric power generation needed? Here's some good news for a change:

...a new analysis from the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) offers more good news: existing electric power plants could fuel 84 percent of "light duty" vehicles if all 220 million cars and trucks converted to electric power overnight....

The analysis noted that the capacity of the U.S. power infrastructure is underutilized. Every evening--and during days of low demand--there is a large amount of spare capacity that could easily be tapped. By charging cars and trucks with electricity at night, American drivers could reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil while potentially cutting power prices as well. "Since gasoline consumption accounts for 73 percent of imported oil, it is intriguing to think of the trade and national security benefits if our vehicles switched from oil to electrons," notes PNNL energy researcher Rob Pratt. "Plus, since the utilities would be selling more electricity without having to build more plants or power lines, electricity prices could go down for everyone."

The researchers specifically excluded power resources such as nuclear, hydroelectric, wind and solar as each of these already produce electricity at maximum capacity. Yet, plugging in our cars could reduce U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 18 percent.

A commuting horror story

Talk about unexpected ways to die:

A 21-year-old woman was beheaded in front of horrified onlookers at a bus terminal in in the capital of the Caribbean island of St Vincent.

Must find something more pleasant for next post.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

It's the season for Virgin Birth discussion

The Times has a lightweight piece about the importance of baths, which mentions a legal case that I had never heard about before:

For much of the 20th century it was popularly believed that a woman should never get into the bath after a male member (no pun intended) of the household. The fear was that if he had been abluting himself a little too vigorously she might be in danger of impregnation. The famous paternity case involving Lord Ampthill gave this myth widespread credence. He filed for divorce after his wife produced a son, even though the marriage had not been consummated. It was suggested that she had conceived after using a sponge in a bath they had shared.

A Google search turns up this Time Magazine article from 1976 ("Was Mother a Virgin?") about the case (which happened in the 1920's). The sponge theory doesn't get mentioned, but I assume it must have come up in court as one of the theoretical ways that a "virgin birth" can happen.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Moon doubters

Skepticism about the value of manned space exploration is never far away, and just when NASA starts to firm up a little on a lunar colony, the nay-saying doubters get into print. See this article in Slate, and here at the New York Times. Both sound like re-runs from the early 70's, when the thrill of Apollo 11 was over with pretty quickly.

In the Slate article, when it comes to the question why build a moon base:

NASA itself can't really offer an answer, though it does offer a free, downloadable "Why the Moon?" poster. According to the poster, a moon base would "enable eventual settlement" of Earth's satellite—which might happen someday, but represents an absurd waste of tax money in the current generation. (No one has any interest in settling Antarctica, which is much more amenable to life than the moon and can be reached at far less than 1 percent of the cost.)

The New York Times writes:

Mars has water, apparently, and an atmosphere that greater minds than mine contend could be transformed and thickened enough to breathe, and maybe even past or future life forms. Someday, a few dreamers say, our descendants could walk to a pool of water in the red sand, like the settlers in Ray Bradbury’s “Martian Chronicles,” look at their reflections and see Martians.

I haven't read about terraforming information for some time, but I am sure that even the most optimistic time scales for creating a breathable Martian atmosphere is in the order of hundreds or thousands of years. Even by the standards of someone (like me) who wants humanity to expand beyond earth, it's a very long term proposition.

Basically, for a long time, living on Mars is going to be like living on the Moon, with the added benefit of more water. (Assuming the moon has some somewhere.) The disadvantage is that help is a year or two away, compared to a few days for the Moon.

But my main point is that these articles do not address the obvious potential function that a Moon colony can provide, and that's a lifeboat for planet Earth. It's close, it's old, seems relatively stable, and provides a smallish target for passing asteroids. The decentralisation of information by virtue of its digital format perhaps makes its off-planet storage less important than previously, but still it is hard to say what the human and political effects of a truly global catastrophe would be. (For example, an asteroid strike large enough to darken the skies for a few years, leading to starvation and massive loss of life.) Recently, the idea of using the Moon as "gene bank" was mooted too, and maybe this is a more important reason, if you assume that digital information is unlikely to be lost completely.

I don't understand why science writers can't see that this "big picture" idea, which is familiar to all science fiction readers, is something worth taking seriously if it is within technical reach.

Modern robotics not quite there yet

You must watch this video over at Japundit if you find robot mistakes funny.

(Actually, it is sort of sad too, but the way the screen comes out as if it is a horse about to be put down is what really makes me laugh.)

About Pauline Hanson

An excellent post by Andrew Norton about the silly argument that Howard has implemented all of the Hanson agenda. Read and memorise for the next time that argument comes up at a dinner party.

Silly names

This article in the Times about how the British chose the names for their kids is pretty funny, and quite accurate for Australia too, I think:

By and large, of course, it’s wise to try to avoid making decisions that will last the rest of your life when you’re 14. One of the primary arguments against teenage pregnancy — but one that the Government has, as yet, been too scared to address — is that 13-year-old girls tend to bestow awful names. Names which commit to an implacable destiny. Indeed, Destiny is one of them. Destineee is even more one of them. It’s hard to imagine a Governor of the Bank of England called Chantelle. Not least because the headline the next day would be “Oh my God!”, and the Bank of England would have to be renamed the Bank of Blingland. ....

The main difference between chav names and ponce ones is that the working classes deploy names that reflect success in the present — Ashanti, Britney, Justin. This is because, for the working classes, there is no rose-spectacled nostalgia for the past. The further you go back in time, the more incrementally awful it was to be poor. For the working classes, there’s no time like the present — or, indeed, the future.

The middle classes, on the other hand, have no fear of the past — when, as far as they’re concerned, all food was organic and free-range, and children played in streams all day while wearing lovely smocks. To reflect this longing for a simple, earthy, “real” childhood, they give their children the names that the working classes in their grandparents’ era would have favoured: Ruby, Charlie, Mabel, Fred.

Bad car news

From the Japan Times:

A top Nissan Motor Co. executive in North America said the hybrid market remains an unprofitable proposition in the auto industry despite the interest in alternative vehicles.

"Hybrids today are not a very viable economic proposition. It's still a loss-making proposition," said Dominique Thormann, Nissan North America's senior vice president for administration and finance, on Thursday...

Hybrids currently comprise more than 1 percent of the auto market. Federal legislation approved last year provides up to $ 3,600 in tax credits to U.S. consumers who buy hybrids, but automakers are subject to a production limit of 60,000 vehicles eligible for the entire credit.

As for the US automotive industry generally, this does not sound good:

"Fifty percent of cars sold in America are sold by companies that lose money selling cars, and that's not sustainable," Thormann said.

What are they doing there?

A surprise from the Aljazeera report on the Iranian Holocaust conference. Here's a photo of some of the attendees:

The article indicates that they are anti-Zionist Orthodox Jews, who don't deny the Holocaust. What strange bedfellows they make.

Iranian Jews are not very impressed with the whole conference idea:

The conference has upset Iran's 25,000-strong Jewish community, said Moris Motamed, the sole Jewish representative in Iran's parliament.

"Denying it [the Holocaust] is a huge insult," he said. "By holding this conference, they [the government] are continuing to insult the Jewish community."

Many ordinary Iranians admitted to embarrassment about the event, which follows Iran's decision to hold a competition for cartoons about the Holocaust in October.

Seems to me the whole idea is backfiring anyway.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Penguin film cops a blast

The Independent's Jonathan Romney really, really, took a dislike to Happy Feet (which has generally received good press). The highlights of his review:

But the nadir of digital animation - absolutely the most joyless, imaginatively bankrupt spectacle it has produced - is the penguin extravaganza Happy Feet. I'd rather have spent seven days and nights on an ice floe than have watched this. This tender-hearted eco-minded musical by George Miller (yes, Mad Max George Miller) scores an own goal: you go in favourably disposed to penguins, and you come out wishing you could personally nuke every last one of the wretched creatures out of the Antarctic. Happy Feet is as hideous as its title suggests.....

Happy Feet is so mendaciously dewy-eyed about the wildlife it feigns to respect that it makes Bambi look like a Werner Herzog documentary....

But in terms of humour, or humanity, or real imagination, the film is crass, ugly, wasteful and an impasse for an art form that has, in a mere decade, transformed the way we see screen images. Is this what digital animation has come to - a multi-million-dollar screensaver?

For those who share my love of the art of aggressively negative movie reviews, this one is pretty damn good.

Sucking up to Huffington

The Observer Magazine had a story on the weekend about Arianna Huffington that went into hyperbole mode when it comes to describing the Huffington Post:

The Post is now the fifth most popular site in the world. It shapes the debate of American politics and gives Arianna real power and prestige. This year she made Time magazine's list of the 100 most important people in the world, and next year she looks likely to climb the list...

The Post has already broken major news stories, changed perceptions and challenged the old way of doing things. Arianna is a media magnate for a new age and uses her position to hammer away for liberal causes: the Iraq war, environmentalism, corporate greed.

How nauseating.

Huffington Post has always struck me as having the most lightweight and bile-filled analysis of any "serious" commentary blog, as if it were run by a whole school yard full of Maureen Dowds. I think it annoys me more than Daily Kos, for example, because the Kos crowd are kids, and can be half forgiven for some of their posing and misplaced idealism.

As for HP, if you value the opinion of has-been Hollywood stars, screenwriters and general hangers-on who want their invitations to Arianna's next cocktail party but backing up Arianna's scathing assessments of everything Bush, visit it by all means.

But don't go there if you want to see any evidence of independence of thought.

(At least for readers who are not from the USA, the Observer article fills in some details of Arianna's background, and is worth a look for that.)

Drunk pilot humour

In the news this weekend:

A DRUNKEN Australian pilot who tried to fly a packed plane to Dubai when he was seven times over the alcohol limit has been jailed in London.

John Cronly-Dillon, 51, was sentenced to four months' jail last Friday by a judge who told him he had brought an unblemished 25-year career to a stupid and ignominious end.

He was arrested after stumbling around during a routine search at Heathrow, making incoherent jokes about "not blowing up my plane" with his breath smelling strongly of drink.

Maybe video of the incident looked like this:

Random trivial thoughts for pre-Christmas rush

This is a busy time of year for me, so posting rate may be a little more intermittent than usual.

Here's some random information discovered this weekend:

1. Lego Bionicles have some of the worst assembly instructions I have ever seen. Being able to assemble one within 2 minutes should qualify the assembler for entry into Mensa.

2. To my surprise, the English dictionary that comes with Firefox 2 recognises the word "Bionicles" but only when preceded by "Lego".

3. Lego appears to have re-introduced more general, non-themed sets of blocks, which is a good thing for children's imaginations.

4. I met someone who works for Coca Cola and was told that "Coke Zero" was meant to get away from the feminine image that "Diet Coke" has by virtue of the word "diet". (It is also meant to compete with the success of Pepsi Max in terms of having a stronger flavour.)

However, I reckon if you want a name that will appeal to men as much as women, "Zero" is hardly the way to go. If you put a bunch of men in a focus group and asked them what they associate with the word "Zero", isn't it more than likely going be negative ? "Zero chance" is the first thing I reckon would come to mind for many.

Just how much money on creative types did Coke spend to come up with a dud name like that?

Pepsi Max still tastes better anyway.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Target Mars

An interesting post over at Bad Astronomy notes that it looks like Mars is still getting a regular pounding from small meteors:

The MGS team also mentioned that if you lived on Mars for about 20 years, on average you’d be close enough to one impact to actually hear it. Given that NASA plans on sending humans to Mars, this is a matter of real concern! It’s a tough problem– these are rocks that are maybe a few meters across, and so there is almost way to detect them. I have no idea how you could reliably find a large enough number of these potential impactors to do anything about them, and you really don’t want one touching down near a settlement.

I think that radiation on the surface is likely to be a problem too, given the thin atmosphere and (I think) not much of a magnetic field. It all sounds like living half underground is probably the only choice for long term settlements there. (At least until they or smash in a few comets and get a real atmosphere going.)

As I have said before, if there is some water ice on the Moon, the only big benefit of living on Mars is going to be a higher gravity, which (for permanent settlement) is probably mainly an issue for any babies conceived and raised there. We need to know the biological effect of animal gestation on the Moon before really worrying about whether Mars is worth the effort.

Julia doesn't love Kevin?

Labor insider Michael Costello says this about Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard:

I'm not sure, however, that things will quieten down this time. Gillard has disliked Rudd for years. Crean hates him. Crean's ambition, like hers, was first to do in Beazley and a close second was to get Gillard up as leader.

Crean hasn't given up on this second ambition and neither has Gillard. Those seeking support for Beazley found that a common reaction from known Gillard supporters and Rudd haters was that their support for Rudd was to get rid of Beazley, but that would not be the end of the matter. When Rudd stumbles, as all leaders do at some point, he will need to watch his back very carefully.

Given what we know of Mark Latham's personality now, it seems hard to believe that Julia ever genuinely liked him much either. (In fact, it is hard to imagine why any woman liked him.) I take it that her ambition can overcome such reservations, though.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Back to Adams

Maybe I am referring to The Dilbert Blog too often lately, but here's a link to another post that struck me as particularly funny. (By rights, I shouldn't like him, but he proves the point that liberal atheists who have a pretty low opinion of most of humanity can still be very funny as humorists. Not that many of them are, however.)

Speaking of humour and the Left, in the last few months the Comedy Channel here has started showing The Daily Show with Jon Stewart every weeknight. Previously, I had only seen the once a week "Global Edition", and thought the show looked pretty good, despite its politics. On seeing it regularly, though, I have been disappointed. Generally, I reckon they could cut it down to about a one hour weekly show, and every segment might be good. There are an awful lot of misses over the 2 1/2 hours of a full week. A consistent weakness I notice is when he interviews someone that he knows very well. They just spend a lot of time congratulating each other and giggling.

The madness of cats

It is now believed that old cats can get pretty much the exact equivalent of Alzheimer's Disease. Not being a cat person, I am curious to know how anyone could tell that a mostly inanimate object (we are talking old cats, after all) had dementia.

The article notes that's what's good for cats is good for humans (or perhaps it's the other way around):

Experts suggest that good diet, mental stimulation and companionship can reduce the risk of dementia in both humans and cats. Dr Gunn Moore explained: "If humans and their cats live in a poor environment with little company and stimulation, they are both at higher risk of dementia. However, if the owner plays with the cat, it is good for both human and cat. A good diet enriched with antioxidants is also helpful in warding off dementia, so a cat owner sharing healthy meals like chicken and fish with their pet will benefit them both."

Sounds just a little too close to his cat, for my liking.

The killer is in the detail

This is a list of the "diplomacy" recommendations of the Iraq Study Group:

The United States should:

  1. Begin a new diplomatic offensive to build an international consensus for stability in Iraq and the region. The effort should include every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq, including all of Iraq’s neighbors.
  2. Try to engage Iran and Syria constructively, using incentives and disincentives.
  3. Renew commitment to a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace process, including President Bush’s commitment to a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine.

Iran should:

  1. Stem the flow of arms and training to Iraq.
  2. Respect Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
  3. Use its influence over Iraqi Shiite groups to encourage national reconciliation.

Syria should:

  1. Control its border with Iraq to stem the flow of funding, insurgents and terrorists in and out of Iraq.

International efforts:

  1. The issue of Iran’s nuclear arms should be dealt with by the five members of the U.N. Security Council and Germany.
  2. A possible regional conference on Iraq or broader Middle East peace issues.

The most interesting part is what "incentives and disincentives" could be used with Iran and Syria? I am assuming the Study Group would not consider Bush threatening military strikes a good idea, even though you get the feeling that such threats are the only kind that might make Iran and Syria act more cautiously.

Many, many commentators will make a similar point, I am sure. See this article in Slate for one.

Then this other article in Slate (which I only read after starting this post) does give more detail:

On Page 51, the authors acknowledge that the United States should offer Iran and Syria incentives, "much as it did successfully with Libya." But the Libyans had nothing to lose, and everything to gain, when they agreed to give up their nascent (and still very primitive) nuclear program. The Iranians, by contrast, have great wealth and enormous leverage, not only in the Middle East but with European and Asian countries that depend on their oil.

The authors do take a bold step here. They list a few "possible incentives" that Bush might offer Iran, among them "the prospect of a U.S. policy that emphasizes political and economic reforms instead of … regime change."

Well, I suspect that Iran feels pretty secure that a policy that wants regime chance can be resisted indefinitely. I mean, look at Iraq!

Meanwhile, I have said for some time that common sense indicates there is no hope of governing a country split along religious sectarian lines when the government allows either or both sides to maintain their own militia. I would have thought that little progress is going to be made until the government decides to disarm everyone, and in particular the "Mahdi army", either by negotiation or force.

In the (Cheney) family way

Wow. VP Cheney's gay daughter is pregnant. Although not explained, one assumes it is through some donor's sperm. (I wonder if the donor is gay.)

Talk about doing whatever she can to alienate the religious conservatives who support the Republican Party! (Although I guess Cheney is more or less out of politics with the next election anyway.)

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

A new form of terror

It would have to be the best flatuence story for a long time:

Flatulence brought 99 passengers on an American Airlines flight to an unscheduled visit to Nashville early Monday morning.

American Flight 1053, from Washington Reagan National Airport and bound for Dallas/Fort Worth, made an emergency landing here after passengers reported smelling struck matches, said Lynne Lowrance, a spokeswoman for the Nashville International Airport Authority....

The passengers and five crew members were brought off the plane, together with all the luggage, to go through security checks again. Bomb-sniffing dogs found spent matches.

The FBI questioned a passenger who admitted she struck the matches in an attempt to conceal body odor, Lowrance said. The woman lives near Dallas and has a medical condition.

Found via Boing Boing.

Better title needed

New Roads Act as a Highway for Diarrhea

It's from Scientific American and not all that interesting. Just a funny sort of title, I thought.

Strange matter indeed

My interest in whether the Large Hadron Collider at Cern will accidentally cause the end of the earth continues, but there hasn't been much new at arxiv for a while that seems relevant to my previous focus (the creation of mini black holes).

However, I have recently found some stuff regarding "strangelets," which might also be created in the LHC and are another possible way disaster could happen. (Its risk has been dismissed because cosmic rays in the atmosphere should already have caused it to happen, and seeing the earth is still here, they can't be dangerous. Maybe, but it has been some time since that paper was written, and the problem is you don't get much of a sense that they review new theoretical scenarios on a risk basis all that often.)

I know little about strangelets, and had not previously realised that some scientists think that they may already occasionally pass through the earth, and be detectable as causing earthquakes! The Wired story from 2003 about this is here. As it says:

It's remarkable that some strange guest should sweep through Earth like a hot wire through wax, and that no one would notice as it did so. But though the visitor was very fast and fairly heavy, it was also extremely small: a mass of as much as

10 tons squeezed into something about the size of a red blood cell. If a 10-ton asteroid fell to Earth at 400 kilometers per second, people would notice; something the size of a small car hitting the unyielding Earth at that speed would give up its kinetic energy in an explosion to rival that of a 200-kiloton nuclear weapon. But condensed to the size of a small amoeba, the same mass wouldn't cause anywhere near as much fuss. The fearsome momentum of the microscopic visitor would shatter the bonds between molecules directly in its path and push the bystanders aside. It would do this vigorously enough to melt a small tunnel as it passed, slicing through the rocky earth almost as easily as it passed through air and water....

So, what would it mean for Earth if the dark matter that astronomers believe envelops our galaxy was made of strange matter? Strange nuggets up to a billion or so times the mass of a normal atom would fall to Earth and just sit there, chemically inert and hard to find. Larger nuggets would penetrate the planet's interior before stopping. And nuggets weighing more than a tenth of a gram would pass right through. A large nugget, elbowing its way through Earth at high speed, might be detectable by seismologists.

Most scientists don't think this really was the explanation, but I think that is to do with the timing of the earthquakes, not due to any loopiness about the general idea.

For a more general paper, see this paper from May 2006 (with the intriguing title "Strangelets: Who is Looking and How".) It turns out that there are lots of ways scientists can look for it, in the atmosphere, as well as in lunar and earth soil.

The issue with creating them in the LHC is that maybe it is possible to have strangelets that just don't sit there inert, but can change other normal matter to strange matter too. (I think this is scenario, I haven't re-read it for a while.) "Normal" stable strange matter being created in the LHC would not be much of a problem, as it would have very small mass. But I must look around on the internet for any recent stuff on the dangerous strange matter scenario.

It's an odd thought that, if you are really, really unlucky, you might be killed by a high speed super- massive thing from space the size of a red blood cell.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Bad signs

1. Iran introduces more Internet censorship (from The Guardian, via Tigerhawk):

Iran yesterday shut down access to some of the world's most popular websites. Users were unable to open popular sites including and YouTube following instructions to service providers to filter them.

Similar edicts have been issued against Wikipedia, the internet encyclopaedia,, an online film database, and the New York Times site. Attempts to open the sites are met with a page reading: "The requested page is forbidden."...Some news sites, such as the BBC's Farsi service, are also blocked.

2. John Bolton resigns as US ambassador. Tough straight talk no longer to be heard at the UN.

3. The Jerusalem Post reports that a new security assessment by (I think) its own defence force is that the US will not take any pre-emptive strike against Iran:

Predicting Iran will obtain nuclear weapons by the end of the decade, the defense establishment's new and updated assessment for 2007 does not foresee the United States undertaking a preemptive strike on Iran's nuclear installations, The Jerusalem Post has learned.

The chances of an American strike are deemed "low," according to assessments by the security establishment. Israel also believes that international diplomatic efforts to stop Iran will fail, security sources said.

The article goes on to explain that there is little hope of very effective sanctions due to Russia's role.

I guess we all knew this before, but the bad aspect is that such reports confirm to Iran that they appear to be in the clear, except perhaps if Israel decides to take matters into its own hands. But I think there is still considerable doubt about how Israel could conduct such an attack without America's direct involvement.

A lengthy article in the Jerusalem Post notes all the problems with the various possible approaches, and comes up with this variation on a diplomatic solution:

Nuclear Defusing might help the parties back off from the brink by changing their expectations so as to dispose them to take measures that would be otherwise inconceivable. It includes making Israel - Iran's avowed nuclear target - a member of NATO and the quid pro quo agreement of Israel to move rapidly to a permanent two-state solution, more or less along the Clinton Plan, and to a peace treaty with Syria in return for the Golan Heights.

Placing Israel under NATO's nuclear umbrella would go a long way toward deterring Iran from threatening or attacking Israel with nuclear weapons. But will NATO, in particular its European members, accept Israel?...

With an increasing Muslim population, sounds kind of unlikely, doesn't it? I reckon if France indicated it was taking this proposal seriously, it would be romantic walks by car fire in Paris for a few months at least.

The end game is meant to be this:

Once Israel is embedded in NATO, and Israelis and Palestinians have embarked on a long-term truce and adopted peaceful coexistence, the international community will promote regional arms control involving NATO, Iran, and other Middle East countries.

In one or two generations the Middle East could become a nuclear weapons free zone.

I'm not going to hold my breath hoping for this approach to get off the ground.

(Readers who have not been here before are also referred to my previous musings about attack by Electronic bomb. That's assuming they exist and work..)

Monday, December 04, 2006

HMAS Labor sails off into unchartered waters

Why do I make the nautical metaphor? New Labor leader Kevin Rudd did it first in an interview with Geraldine Doogue:

Geraldine Doogue:
Some might say Kevin Rudd’s using religion himself for his own advantage, to advance himself up the greasy poll of politics.

Kevin Rudd:
If you know anything about HMAS Labor Party let me tell you that doesn’t really work that way. Doing this interview with you Geraldine has got more hazards for me internally than anything that you may calculate may be advantageous for me beyond the party. I just think I’ve got a responsibility to start talking about these things.

Kevin's really got to try to find a way of sounding less pretentious.

I am sure many conservatives like me must have mixed feelings about Rudd. He has experience outside of politics and unionism, which is a big plus. His life achievements do make for a good story, and he could have done well even if he had never entered politics. (Unlike someone like Latham, who also had brains, but only ever tried to make a living via politics, and even then relied to a significant degree on patronage.)

On the downside, this background does make him an outsider within his own party, and he doesn't come across as being sufficiently ruthless as to be able to deal with internal dissent. While having someone who is a sincere Christian in politics always appeals to me, by Rudd's own admission it doesn't exactly endear him to many Labor supporters.

As a political performer, to my mind he also shares quite a lot of the insincerity of Beazley. Kim, who also strikes me as a likeable enough person, often seemed to be only affecting outrage over various government policies. The decision to have all Labor politicians only ever use the phrase "extreme Industrial Relations legislation" as some sort of Trade Mark phrase has not exactly helped in the sincerity stakes. (Also, for how long will all those billboards across the nation showing Beazley tearing up the legislation be a reminder of instability within the ALP?)

At least at the State level we know that brainiac swotty types with no obvious appeal to the general public can lead Labor to considerable success (Bob Carr, and to a lesser extent, Wayne Goss.) Federal leadership in the last 50 years doesn't bring to mind any obvious comparison. I am not sure how to account for this; perhaps it is because the leader's political performance in State Parliament does not have the same type of high media exposure that it does at the Federal level.

I also predict that Julia Gillard will be net loser of votes. As she and Rudd played up the "dream team" image to the extent they almost looked like courting lovers, I reckon he'll live to regret it.

It would be premature to write Rudd off immediately, but my impression is that the omens are not good.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The local "arc of instability"

It's remarkable how the regions close to Australia seem to have all decided to have an outbreak of political and social instability in the last year or two. East Timor, West Papua, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and now Fiji. I am half expecting a popular Maori uprising to storm New Zealand's Parliament House just to round things out.

This article from Quadrant (by Michael O'Connor) last month talks about many of these countries' problems, and makes some interesting points:

As is the case with virtually every serious conflict in Melanesia, the root cause lies in the attempts to rationalise the demand for land and the traditional land rights of the people. It is not enough to assert, as some have, that traditional rights are out of date in a modern society, if only because Melanesia is not a collection of modern societies. Collapse is rooted in the clash between traditional land rights and the pressures on land imposed by a rapidly growing population, the failure—or inability—to modernise traditional agricultural practices, and a failure by the political, administrative and legal systems to resolve disputes. Land troubles cannot be legislated out of existence or ignored; they are real and, in the minds of the traditional owners, of fundamental importance.

And elsewhere:

As with all the other failed or failing states in the region, media reporting focused on the restoration of internal security by the military and police, but the administrative assistance will be much more important. The success of the overall mission will depend more upon this element than on any other. It is not, however, a task for a handful of more or less senior experts with their own bureaucratic culture, but for a corps of administrative and technical personnel at all levels working with their indigenous colleagues, because the challenge is to show that government is for the benefit of the whole community and not just the population of the capital. If the job is to be done properly, Australia is unmistakably launching a new form of colonialism, the nature of which is not yet fully understood or developed but which is none the less real.

If we are to understand this reality—and support the commitment as it deserves—it may be first necessary to abandon the shibboleth that colonialism is irredeemably bad. Likewise, we need to abandon the populist blame game pursued, among others, by the same cheer squads that would consign the former metropolitan power to perdition for failing to provide the new nations with the necessary resources and skills to go it alone. It’s a fun game—blame the colonial master for getting out too early, too late; for failing to provide enough aid, for providing too much aid; for attaching too many strings to the aid, or not enough strings—but it’s not very helpful.


Other Australians of my age can remember, I am sure, how New Guinea used to feature as a tourist destination on Australian TV quite often in the late 1960's and early 70's. Now, I suspect most people would put it close to the bottom of preferred international destinations, despite its proximity. (It did feature on "Getaway" recently, but on a tour conducted by luxury mid-sized cruise ship that was the base for brief excursions into remote coastal villages.)

Lessons of a new husband

Scott Adams (of Dilbert Blog, which I have only recently started following) got married in July this year to a woman namely Shelly. It would appear from Wikipedia that this might be his first marriage. I suppose that it is possible that he has lived with a de facto partner before, but then again this story from his blog makes that seem a little unlikely. (It also made me laugh out loud):

Last night we were having some quality time alone at home and I made the mistake of writing myself a note while Shelly was still talking. She asked me what the note was about. I proudly told her it was about Vladimir Putin and how two of his critics were recently poisoned. It would make a great blog topic. I was quite pleased with myself, until Shelly asked, “Is that what you were thinking about while I was talking?”

Now let me explain something to the single men out there. If you think there’s an easy way to explain to your wife why you were thinking of Vladimir Putin while she is telling you about her feelings, you would be totally wrong. And I hadn’t practiced that conversation so I was caught unprepared. I think I said something along the lines of “I only think of Russian politics during the gaps between your words.” But apparently I’m supposed to be using that time just waiting around.

On a more philosophical note, Adams insists that he does not believe in free will, and in a recent post gave an example to try and help bolster his argument. This attracted 845 comments in response, which just goes to show the odd places where serious discussion of such an issue can take place.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Linked at last

Well, that only took 18 months! Tim Blair evidently moves in mysterious ways, taking my not so subtle hint of a few posts back that a link on his blog roll was long overdue. Thanks TB.

Just to be perverse I should now announce my retirement from blogging.

My history of being linked is fairly tragic. Currency Lad was an early one, but he's has wandered off into semi-retirement without, as far as I know, any explanation. Evil Pundit gave me a kind recommendation but now has disappeared completely (after talking about serious health issues). Does anyone know if he is OK? Catallaxy had a link earlier, then had a massive crash and I haven't re-appeared. Maybe my appearance on Blair's site means he'll soon have a tragic accident ironically connected to global warming and also have to retire. (Cruise ship to Hawaii hits iceberg, leaving Tim stranded on tiny 1 m high island in the South Pacific slowly being inundated by rising sea levels?)

Speaking of which, I think I may have found the perfect Tim Blair Christmas gift:

It's the Global Warming Mug:

Each mug is covered with a map of the world. When you pour in a hot beverage, the mug shows what happens when the world heats up and the oceans begin to rise... Land mass disappears before your very eyes!

Quite handy for choosing where one's long term real estate investments ought to be.

Let me be the first to say...

1. Alan Ramsay is probably in hospital today with severe finger cramps after typing every single word of his SMH column today (as opposed to usual cut and pasting of 70% of it.)

2. I really hope Kevin Rudd is the new leader so that I can see him looking extremely uncomfortable in one of those required "having a beer in his local pub" photos that are deemed essential in every election campaign.

3. What was going on with Julia Gillard's hair yesterday? Did she pick a bad week to get a new style, or did the leadership challenge come on so fast that she had to do the press conference straight out of the shower? (I know that I should either be female or gay for that joke, but what the heck.)

4. Just how long is some of the Left commentary going to be about how this is all a Murdoch plot? It's funny, but I didn't know that Murdoch had much control over Phillip Adams (who came out strongly for Rudd a couple of weeks ago), or the Fairfax press or the ABC. What is Tim Dunlop going to say about this?

5. The best line from Matt Price's piece today:

Logic dictates Coalition disunity should be monopolising the headlines, except logic and federal Labor caucus go together like foie gras and tomato sauce.

Friday, December 01, 2006

A surprise for Michael Crichton

The quality of Michael Crichton's books has always been pretty uneven. Without going back and checking, it seems he follows some sort of 6 year cycle between pretty good and pretty ridiculous.

As a fiction stylist he usually leaves a lot to be desired. But even then, some of his books read much better than others.

I therefore don't read everything he publishes, but of his recent books I liked "Prey" (about nanotechnology) and quite enjoyed the plotting of "Timeline", even though the reason for corporate time travel was very disappointing. I did not bother reading "State of Fear" because the basic idea (evil environmentalists creating weather manipulating machines) sounded like something no writer could make me believe. (Besides, some climate scientists he consulted expressed dismay that he either misunderstood or deliberately ignored them.)

Anyway, it is a little surprising to read that his latest book ("Next", about biotechnology) has received good reviews in the States. Maybe a Christmas gift for me?

Personal flying concepts

Found via New Scientist technology blog, a great article reviewing personal flying concepts developed for a time by the US armed forces. Many of these I have seen before, but had half forgotten. But I don't recall the first one with the pilot standing above chopper blades. Looks very disconcerting.

Murder by magnet

Here's an article that the script writers for CSI or House could use inspiration for a story next season:

Researchers found that while common magnets for home and office use with low magnetic strength posed little risk, stronger magnets made from neodymium-iron-boron (NdFeB) may cause interference with cardiac devices and pose potential hazards to patients. NdFeB magnets are increasingly being used in homes and office products, toys, jewelry and even clothing....

Two spherical magnets of eight and 10 millimeters in diameter and one necklace made of 45 spherical magnets were tested on 70 patients, 41 with pacemakers and 29 with ICDs. Magnetic interference was observed in all patients. The cardiac devices resumed normal function after the magnets were removed.

I like to think that it must be a very fun job being a researcher for (say) House, as I assume they spend most of their time reading weird case studies in the medical journals that can be varied a little to form the basis of the difficult diagnosis of each episode. Of course, being a doctor might help too.