Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Some recommended posts

From around the blogosphere, here's some recent posts which are well worth checking, if you haven't seen them already"

* Zoe Brain has a lengthy post post about the amazing (and dangerous) Muslim/arab rumour mill of the Middle East. Is the Holocaust the only thing they won't believe?

* Andrew Norton points out the holes in Clive Hamilton's "dissent is being silenced in Australia" schtick in a great post here.

* Tigerhawk wonders whether dove-ish US Senators might inadvertently help convince Iran that they Bush must be getting ready to strike.

* Last weekend, a Daily Kos post got very worked up over the question of whether any Vietnam vet was ever actually spat upon in America. Called baby killers, yes, no one doubts that, but those who have claimed to be spat upon? Well, apparently a sociologist wrote an entire book about it claiming it was actually an urban myth. What a vital debate to have now. Funny thing is, I bet 90% of Kos readers who label it an urban myth still believe in the plastic turkey, despite actual media retractions.

Update: to be fair, it is not just Daily Kos, but also Slate (which seems to be down a lot today) which has now had a go at Newsweek for bringing up allegedly discredited the 'gobbing' on vets story. I see Jack Shafer wrote the Slate article, although I have not been able to read it yet. I note that he spends a lot of time at Slate arguing that crystal meth use is not the crisis (in the States) that the media likes to make out it is. I am sceptical of much of his analysis.


Europe gets busy thinking they are being green, while actually causing lots of CO2 emissions on the other side of the planet:

Just a few years ago, politicians and green groups in the Netherlands were thrilled by the country's early and rapid adoption of "sustainable energy," achieved in part by coaxing electricity plants to use some biofuel — in particular, palm oil from Southeast Asia....

Rising demand for palm oil in Europe brought about the razing of huge tracts of Southeast Asian rain forest and the overuse of chemical fertilizer there. Worse still, space for the expanding palm plantations was often created by draining and burning peat land, which sent huge amount of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

Factoring in these emissions, Indonesia had quickly become the world's third-leading producer of greenhouse gases that scientists believe are responsible for global warming, ranked after the United States and China, concluded a study released in December by researchers from Wetlands International and Delft Hydraulics, both in the Netherlands.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Maybe the fine print clears it up...

I don't often do more than smile at Japundit's examples of odd Japanese use of English on signs and clothes, but this is one which did make me laugh in surprise.

Against the wind (farm)

Quite a lot of anti-wind farm stuff in this New Scientist article. They tend not to be great for bogs if they are built on them (as many apparently are in Europe), which is a pity since bogs store a lot of CO2. (Australia needs more of them, obviously.)

But if you build them in deserts instead:

The ecological impact in these environments is largely unstudied. Somnath Baidya Roy from Princeton University and his team have done research suggesting that rotating turbine blades lead to desiccation of the surrounding area, which may be particularly damaging in deserts (Journal of Geophysical Research Atmospheres, DOI: 10.1029/2004JD004763). In addition, a recent study of Californian ground squirrels reveals that those living close to wind farms are more edgy and cautious than those that inhabit areas of desert where there are no turbines.

Well, maybe I wouldn't lose too much sleep about squirrels getting nervous. But the birds, well that is a different matter. The article goes on:

After re-analysing previous studies last year, researchers at the University of Birmingham, UK, concluded: "Available evidence suggests that wind farms reduce the abundance of many bird species at the wind farm site." But the most striking aspect of their report was how little evidence is available. The researchers found just 15 articles drawing on 19 datasets, of which only nine were complete. Lead author Gavin Stewart says that many studies are kept secret, sometimes for commercial reasons, with statistics on bird kills being kept from bird conservationists.

And there is more detail in the article about how many birds are killed in some locations.

It's always fun when later studies bolster a hunch.

Update: I see this was actually an article from July 2006 which the New Scientist website has only just made available for free. No matter. Still good reading.

So the French really are good at this?

The IHT reports on France's rise in its birth rate. According the article, it seems not to be due to immigrants having babies, although it is hard to tell from the way they keep records. The article notes:

Another possible birth incentive in France, which may not be copied elsewhere, is its 35-hour workweek. It has been suggested that the French have so much leisure now that they have found nothing more interesting to do with it than have babies, combining fun with demographic patriotism.

Nuns aren't what they used to be

A bit of a weird story about the apparent attitude of a modern nun:

A young disabled man who receives care for his life-limiting illness at a hospice run by a nun spoke yesterday of his decision to use a prostitute to experience sex before he dies.

Sister Frances Dominica gave her support to 22-year-old Nick Wallis, who was born with Duchenne muscular dystrophy. Sufferers usually die by their thirties.

Mr Wallis told staff at the Douglas House hospice in Oxford that he wanted to experience sexual intercourse. ...

The hospice staff, after taking advice from a solicitor, the clergy and health care professionals, decided to help him.

Hmmm. I wonder what the clergy person's advice was.

It seems unclear as to whether Mr Wallis is Christian himself, but if it was the job of Christians to help non-Christians have a morally dubious time, the work of charitable nuns is going to involve a lot more fun than it has for, oh, the last 2,000 years or so.

As for the nun herself:

Sister Frances described Mr Wallis as "delightful, intelligent and aware young man".

"I know that some people will say 'You are a Christian foundation. What are you thinking about?'. But we are here for all faiths and none," she said.

"It is not our job to make moral decisions for our guests. We came to the conclusion that it was our duty of care to support Nick emotionally and to help ensure his physical safety."

OK, so many people are going to have a lot of sympathy for the guy. (The actual experience didn't seem to be so great for him anyway, and if he was a sensitive soul the nun perhaps could have told him to expect that out of a one-off commercial relationship.)

Seems to me that liberal nuns aren't exactly helping the cause of the Church by being flexible to this extent.

Mean looks

Don't you think that this self confessed multiple murderer looks a lot like a certain new Labor politician with a musical past?

Monday, January 29, 2007

A question

A story in the IHT about how schools and places of learning have increasingly the target of violence in Baghdad:

In the past month, according to Interior Ministry officials, primary and secondary schools in and around Baghdad have been targets at least six times. In some cases, gunmen ambushed schools during classes and guards fought them off.

In other cases, mortar shells struck, killing 10 at Al Gharbiya, for example, a secondary school in central Baghdad.

Several principals and teachers have been kidnapped and killed, a pattern of terror that started with university professors and seems to have trickled down the educational chain.

Can the "withdraw now" crowd explain how coalition troops leaving Baghdad is going to assist the school kids?

Islam and public health

A prominent Islamic doctor in Britain warns Muslims not to use some vaccinations:

Dr Abdul Majid Katme, head of the Islamic Medical Association, is telling Muslims that almost all vaccines contain products derived from animal and human tissue, which make them “haram”, or unlawful for Muslims to take....

Katme’s appeal reflects a global movement by some hardline Islamic leaders who are telling followers torefuse vaccines from the West.

In Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and parts of India, Muslims have refused to be immunised against polio after being told that the vaccines contain products that the West has deliberately added to make the recipients infertile.

What wouldn't they believe when it comes to rumours about the evil West?

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Famous nudist Trekkie

Everyone has heard of the Richter Scale. But it seems that very few have known that its creator was a very odd man. From a review of a his biography (the first ever) in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Richter, it turns out, was also an avid nudist, a frustrated but prolific poet, a Trekkie, a devoted backpacker profiled in the pages of Field and Stream, and a philandering spouse who was quite possibly in love with his sister and whose globe-trotting wife may have been a lesbian. While that may not sound all that unusual to the modern-day San Franciscan, keep in mind that the guy was born in 1900. ...

Richter was a reputed publicity hound, on one hand, and hopelessly awkward in social situations, on the other. Hough speculates, also late in her book, that he may have suffered from Asperger's syndrome. Indeed, this theory does neatly reconcile some of his more contradictory traits: his inability to make small talk with his adeptness at one-sided conversations with the press, or his lack of focus on long-term research projects with the obsessive logs he kept of "Star Trek" episodes.

Suburban 'roo

All Australians have heard a story about a foreigner who believes that there are kangaroos everywhere on the streets of Australian cities. Dumb foreigners.

I live about 18 km from the centre of Brisbane, in a large slab of suburbia. (There is some undeveloped land a few kilometres away, and I have seen wallabies there, but they keep to themselves.)

This morning, when I was about to start mowing the front yard, I was surprised to see a pretty large kangaroo coming down the street. It went into the little park opposite my house, stayed a short time, then hopped its way back up the street in the direction from which it came.

This is not an every day occurrence. Here's a couple of pictures:

Saturday, January 27, 2007

Clever photons

This story appeared a couple of weeks ago, but I have overlooked mentioning it 'til now. Mainly because I don't entirely know what it means in terms of possible future technology. Still, the basic idea sounds impressive:

Researchers at the University of Rochester have made an optics breakthrough that allows them to encode an entire image's worth of data into a photon, slow the image down for storage, and then retrieve the image intact.

If by slim chance I have someone reading who knows what the future may hold for this, why not enlighten me in comments.

Hydrogen on Earth, Oxygen on Mars

Robert Zubrin, the engineer with an obsession about going to Mars, has been thinking about the establishment of a hydrogen economy, and is more than sceptical. Have a look at his article in The New Atlantis, which seems to be a pretty interesting site in its own right.

His objections about the economics of making, transporting and storing hydrogen all sound pretty convincing, but it would be good to see who disagrees with him.

His suggested practical solution to US dependence on oil sounds somewhat more credible: the government to mandate "flex-fueled" cars, which can run on any mix of alcohol or gas. Interesting, although it doesn't help that much on the greenhouse gas issue, does it?

Meanwhile, Zubrin's ideas about terraforming Mars are set out in Popular Science here. All it takes is a 1,000 years to have a habitable atmosphere. (Mind you, it also involves things like crashing 40 asteroids on the planet.) It is, perhaps, the plan you would use if you had unlimited money and foolproof technology.

At least you can't accuse him of thinking small.

UPDATE: the prospects for a legislative requirement for flex fuel cars are looking up. See this CSM article which goes into some detail.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Some Iraq posts

One of the brothers behind Iraq the Model argues that people should tone down "last chance" talk about the new security plan. He points out the practical points which it should address (disarming much of Baghdad, for example.)

Francis Fukuyama thinks that modern radical Islam can correctly be described as an outgrowth of modern "identity politics". His article about this is broad ranging and interesting, as it talks about the origins of identity politics in the first place, but I sure that there are grounds on which to disagree. If he is correct, he argues that it has this unfortunate consequence:

...the problem of jihadist terrorism will not be solved by bringing modernisation and democracy to the middle east. The Bush administration's view that terrorism is driven by a lack of democracy overlooks the fact that so many terrorists were radicalised in democratic European countries. Modernisation and democracy are good things in their own right, but in the Muslim world they are likely to increase, not dampen, the terror problem in the short run.

Note the last words there. Maybe in the longer run it still is likely to help end it?

Like I said, I am not entirely convinced by his argument, but it is interesting.

The Moon becomes more dangerous

Yet another risk identified for astronauts living on the Moon. Not only do high speed particles from solar flares and cosmic rays pose a threat, but the Sun spurts out x rays too, which are sometimes energetic enough to kill an unprotected person. New Scientist explains:

It had been thought that the X-rays were not copious enough to be a major hazard, but a new study suggests X-rays really do pose a threat to astronauts working outside of protective spacecraft or bases. The research was carried out by David Smith at the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory in Tucson, Arizona, US, and John Scalo of the University of Texas in Austin, US.

Using the observed rate of solar X-ray outbursts of different magnitudes, they worked out that a lunar astronaut has a 10% chance of receiving a dangerous dose of X-rays from a solar flare for every 100 hours of activity outside of shelters.

The level of radiation they consider harmful is 0.1 Gray or more, which can cause bleeding ulcers and other internal damage, and would certainly increase an astronaut's risk of cancer. The Sun has even produced flares that could kill an unprotected spacesuited human on the Moon, they say, although these are extremely rare.

Astronauts working far outside need to have an x-ray umbrella with them for protection from such outbursts.

It's sad that Robert Heinlein's stories of boy scouts camping on the Moon are not likely to ever come true. (Exploring deep lava tube caves might still be an alternative, though.)

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Left and Iraq

There's excellent reading here in a two part extract of a new book by Observer columnist Nick Cohen.

His story is similar to Christopher Hitchens: he comes with excellent Left credentials, completely understands why the Left criticised Western support of Saddam in the 1980's, but argues that it is the Left which changed its stripes and became hypocritical in its approach to the Iraq war and its aftermath.

This has puzzled me for some time. The anti-War Left feels vindicated over the issue of the justification for war. Fine, let's not quibble over the actual details, which they constantly misrepresent, and just assume for the sake of the argument that the decision to invade was a grave error, and even an immoral act. (This is just "for the sake of the argument" talk, remember.)

Second point: does any serious analyst anywhere in the world suggest that the withdrawal of coalition forces at any point up to and including now would have meant immediate greater stability in Iraq and the region? Not as far as I know.

The crux of the matter then is this: how does promoting a step that would now make the average Iraqi's position worse suddenly become defensible from the moral high ground that the Left supposedly occupies?

Cohen explains it this way:

There was too much emotional energy invested in opposing the war, too much justifiable horror at the chaos and too much justifiable anger that the talk of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be nonsense. The politically committed are like football fans. They support their side come what may and refuse to see any good in the opposing team. The liberal left bitterly opposed war, and their indifference afterwards was a natural consequence of the fury directed at Bush.

It is a fair argument, which I've heard many times, although I wince at the implied passivity. People don't just react to a crisis: they choose how they react. If a man walks down the street trying to pick a fight, you can judge those he confronts by how they respond. Do they hit back, run away or try to calm him down? The confrontation is not of their making, but they still have a choice, and what choice they make reveals their character and beliefs. If you insist on treating the reaction to the second Iraq war as a one-off that doesn't reveal a deeper sickness, I'll change the subject....

The anti-war movement disgraced itself not because it was against the war in Iraq, but because it could not oppose the counter-revolution once the war was over. A principled left that still had life in it and a liberalism that meant what it said might have remained ferociously critical of the American and British governments while offering support to Iraqis who wanted the freedoms they enjoyed.

Cohen argues that no such support was offered. (I note that those European countries which opposed the war might have grounds to argue that their troops' lives should not lost because of an error of the pro-War countries, but even so, have they tried to offer diplomatic or other assistance of any form between the regional powers?)

The likelihood of success of the current "surge" is hotly debated, which is fair enough. (Even Hitchens seems fairly pessimistic about it.) I freely admit to not knowing enough to really be able to judge its chances of success; Bush's critics on this issue all appear to be armchair experts on counter-insurgency tactics. (That some retired Generals oppose it is far from conclusive; some of those still around must have given it support, and in a situation as politicised and unique as this one, dissenting voices even within the military are to be expected.)

If the surge fails, and the political process within Iraq is unable to rise above sectarianism, there will be a point in the future where the US will have to exit as gracefully as possible. But the problem Cohen writes about is the anti-War Left's immediate isolationism after the fall of the regime and continuing today. It is not a position that should be held with pride.

Porn and technology

There's an interesting story on Fox News (odd source, hey) about the role the porn industry plays in shaping the take up of technology. It claims, for example, that the porn industry seized on the VHS format, and the rest was history for Betamax. The same thing might happen to Sony again with Blu-ray, apparently.

But apart from that, the article points out that the porn industry is worth a lot of money:

Although the vagaries of entertainment accounting have become legendary, it is universally acknowledged that the U.S. adult-film industry, at around $12 billion in annual sales, rentals, and cable charges in 2006, is an even grander and more efficient moneymaking machine than legitimate mainstream American cinema (the latter's annual gross came in at $9 billion for 2006).

Figures of around $10 billion a year always interest me, because that is getting pretty close to the budget of NASA. (Well, now it's up to close to $17 billion, but as recently as 1999 it was only $13 billion.)

This may be a handy figure to keep in mind when you next have to argue with someone who whines about the expense of the space program. People hear "billions" and without context it means nothing.

Also, with figures like this, is public direct sponsorship of a space program really out of the question? All we need is an entrepreneur who is out to raise money to set up an orbiting studio specifically to make zero-G porn. (All the earth bound variations of sex were surely filmed by about 1985 anyway. ) Richard Branson is probably already considering a sex hotel anyway, I reckon.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Hitchens steps up to praise Steyn

Wow. Christopher Hitchens is bound to face criticism from the Left over his generally supportive stance towards Mark Steyn's anti-Islamic arguments in "America Alone". Of course, Hitchens dislikes all religion with a passion, but at least he is not a relativist who holds back him from citing radical Islam as the particular threat that it is.

Super fit to super dead

Even with a generally low interest in sport of any kind, some have always seemed to me to be particularly stupid. Marathons and triathlons fall into that category. When amateurs get a thrill from completing these events in a particular time it makes me doubt their good sense and see them more as being self absorbed rather than passionate. (You could say this about many sports persons, I suppose, but at least other forms of sport keep the displays of self punishment within more reasonable time frames.)

I therefore take some mean spirited pleasure from reading this:

People who regularly take part in endurance sports could be putting their lives at risk from damage to the right side of the heart, research suggests.

Marathons and triathalons are fast-growing events, more than 10,000 people regularly running, cycling and swimming long distances. But the super-fit athletes who train hard for such races can develop a life-threatening condition called ventricular arrhythmia (VA), in which the heart beats at an irregular rate and rhythm, according to the Belgian study. The condition increases the chance of sudden arrhythmic death syndrome, which kills 500 healthy Britons a year.

So, it's essentially a pointless activity that can also induce heart problems. Ban the fun run, I say!

From the "only in Japan" files

In Osaka, there is a unique "restaurant" dining experience to be had (and, incredibly, it has been a success for four years.) The Japan Times explains:

Here, you can choose from a wide selection of delectable delights ranging from Spam to asparagus, and enjoy them in their purest form -- straight out of the can. No need to heat anything up (there's no oven on the premises), no need to have a waiter deliver the dish to your table and no need for fancy plates or silverware, as management thoughtfully provides plastic spoons and forks upon purchase. After you've ordered, pull your food and drink up to one of the steel barrels that serve as tables in the dining area, which is actually a bare lot, open to the air in summer and enclosed with plastic sheeting during the colder months....

Kanso is the brainchild of Osaka-based Clean Brothers, a company specializing in the design of restaurants and cafes...

You might well ask why anyone would pay to eat cold food out of a can?

"It's a combination of the friendly atmosphere and the novelty of the place," explained one customer. "A lot of people I know have started coming here."

I have an idea for Australia: this might be the simplest cafe franchise system, ever!

Maxine on board

The Tom Switzer article in The Australian today is a good summary of the issue of ABC bias.

As for Maxine McKew working for Kevin Rudd: well, being married to a Labor identity has long indicated where her sympathies lie, but from the way she has conducted interviews over the years I have always assumed she has quite moderate and reasonable views. It's no surprise that she is helping Rudd, and if she makes the party more centre or right wing, good on her.

And you thought the Pope was blunt

The BBC reports that there is a group of Greeks who want to revive the old Greek religion. Yes, worship Zeus and all the squabbling denizens of Mt Olympus. (Well, I guess many members of the Greens are halfway there anyway.)

The Orthodox Greek church is not impressed:

The move is bound to aggravate the highly conservative Greek Orthodox church, which strongly disapproves of what it regards as paganism.

"They are a handful of miserable resuscitators of a degenerate dead religion who wish to return to the monstrous dark delusions of the past," said Father Efstathios Kollas, the President of Greek Clergymen.

I wonder how many ecumenical conferences he's been to...

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Comet success

For the second time this week, I spotted Comet McNaught from near my home in Brisbane. It is getting higher and fainter, but if you have a clear low Western horizon, it's still easy to see. Tonight I had my camera with me, and took this photo first on an automatic exposure:

OK, you have to click on it to enlarge to see the comet at all, but it's there, top right.

While trying to get a better shot, I accidentally used manual exposure, and it ended up at 30 seconds, using the car roof to steady the camera. Lucky accident, as this was the result:

Much better!


If you don't find this short ad at least a little funny, crank up the anti-depressants:

Pilger Alert! Pilger Alert!

For another completely over the top Pilger rant, complete with either an inaccuracy or ridiculous overstatement in about every second sentence, have a look at this piece in The Guardian. As a single blogger fisking it would have to devote about a week to the task, I suggest assembling a crack team to be assigned 5 sentences each, and join up their efforts for one big mega-fisk. Go read it!

From the reader comments which follow the article , I like this one:

John Pilger has it completely correct. I returned to live in Australia in Oct 2005 after a number of years in Europe and was horrified at many of the changes. Muslim-bashing is rife, far worse than anything I saw during 1991 during the first Iraq war and is actively, personally vicious.

The author of that comment is "Bobthekelpie," whose nick I have seen before on an Australian blog, I suspect.

Another bad China story

The Economist explains in some detail the story of a terrible public health scandal in China. This is a country with a very serious problem when it comes to the orderly regulation of just about anything.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Running away from the fight

Tigerhawk has an interesting post about Al Gore's seeming reluctance to debate Bjorn Lomborg.

(Tigerhawk's position on global warming seems close to mine.)

Only a hundred years ago...

While looking around some ebook websites, I found the intriguingly titled The Four Epochs of Woman's Life: A Study in Hygiene by Anna Galbraith. The author was a doctor, and her book, published in 1915, appears noteworthy enough to the University of Virgina Library to be in their ebook collection. (Gathering e-dust mostly, I suppose. Boom boom.)

Having a browse through it, I get the impression that the Western world has changed a lot more between, say, 1915 to 1965 than it has in the last 50 years. Here are some extracts as examples (except for the section headings, all bold has been added by me):

Psychic Changes at Puberty. -- The angular, gawky feeling gradually disappears; the girl becomes self-conscious; new impulses arise, and she gives up many of the hoydenish ways of childhood. The girl's imagination is more lively, and just at this time mathematics form an excellent subject for mental occupation. The girl now begins to question the whys and wherefores, and demands reasons for the course that is laid out for her, and is full of ideas of her own; so that while as a child she had accepted almost unquestioningly the commands of her parents, she can be managed now only through the power of reason. And this is just as it should be, for the girl has reached the years of discretion, and now is the time when her reason and judgment are capable of rapid cultivation.

My comments: Well, why hasn't my range of books "Mathematical Amusements for Modern Young Women" volumes I to IX been running off the shelves, then?

Interesting how the current idea is that there is a 90% probability that you won't be able to reason with your young teenage daughter. People talk about children "growing up too quickly" now, but the issue is perhaps more to do with how young adults get independence without associated expectation of substantial domestic or social responsibility. Anyway, back to the good doctor:

Shall Husband and Wife Occupy the Same Bed? -- Among civilized nations custom differs in this regard; in Germany, for instance, the husband and wife occupy separate beds in the same room; formerly in this country it was almost the universal custom for husband and wife to occupy the same bed. The current of opinion has changed in this respect, and it is now considered in the highest interests of both that they shall occupy not only separate beds, but separate rooms; these rooms communicating through a door which connects their respective dressing-rooms. This is unquestionably the best arrangement from the hygienic as well as from the ethical point of view....

She's very precise with her recommendations, isn't she?

The Marital Relation. -- It is most important for the interest of both parties that there should be chastity in the marriage relation as well as out of it. Many young couples have had their lives ruined by excessive sexual indulgence. The effect is usually most severe upon the husband, yet the wife becomes weak, nervous, and excitable. Sexual excess is also the grave of domestic affection. The general rule given is that coitus should never take place oftener than every seven or ten days. When coitus is succeeded by langour, depression, or malaise, it has been indulged in too frequently...

When the conjugal act is repeated too often, the man will become gradually conscious of diminished strength, diminished nerve force, and diminished mental powers. Excess weakens a man's energies, and enervates and effeminates him. Moreover, it renders him liable to an infinity of diseases and a readier victim to death. Not only is the strength of the constitution lowered by the excessive expenditure of force and matter requisite for the perpetuation of the species, but this lowered standard of vitality is transmitted to children. There can be but little doubt that this is one of the reasons why so many healthy parents beget sickly children, who die early. They have exhausted themselves of the material from which a new life is created, and so it is not properly started at the beginning and never reaches its highest development...

Nothing like laying on the guilt to the parents of a lost baby by telling them "it's because you had too much sex"!

I also like the suggestion that too much sex saps the man's energy, while it makes the wife "nervous and excitable".

About the bowel:

Regularity in this, as in all other habits of life, is most essential, and the individual should go to the toilet at the same hour every day, even if there is no inclination to have a bowel movement, and thus the habit will be established; the most convenient time is directly after breakfast.....

But should the patient have gone so long without a bowel movement that all these means fail, it will be necessary to precede the water enema with one of oil; or still more effective is the following combination: take one teaspoonful of the spirits of turpentine, the yolk of one egg, and two tablespoonfuls of olive oil, and beat well together, and add to these one pint of water at a temperature of 110 degrees F.

Hmm, I wonder if using enemas which include "spirits of turpentine" helps cut down on toilet cleaning too?

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

A David Byrne fan

This seems as good as time as any to admit that I have been a fan of ex-Talking Head David Byrne for a long time. I saw him for the first time in Brisbane last year, and it was a great concert. Contrary to expectation that he wouldn't interact much with the audience, he was relaxed, chatty and in very good humour.

The NYT has an article about his many and varied artist endeavours of recent years. He also has a long running blog of sorts at his website, which I have been meaning to recommend for ages. Sure, he's as left wing as you would expect any New York avant garde artist to be, but his journal is well written, philosophical, covers his broad ranging and somewhat esoteric interests, and is generally more or less optimistic and cheery in outlook. He's still very cool after all these years.

The genre that refuses to die

Jack Marx's post about the changing styles of pop music raises a very valid point: why does Hip Hop refuse to die? (And for that matter, why is it popular outside of America?)

Babies on ice

Just some interesting background from Slate on how embryos are frozen and de-frosted.

Loose lips sink her ship

In an interview which is bound to cause a frenzy of comments over at the Julia Gillard fan club known as Larvatus Prodeo, Julia indicates that she has deliberately chosen career over children. Women can't have it all, after all, it seems. She's also in a relationship that appears to have no immediate prospect of moving into co-habitation, making it sound like she has "commitment issues" (either that or she unwisely hangs around with men who do,) and to cap it all makes it clear that she is one of those irritating children of the 60's who still haven't gotten over the "marriage is just a piece of paper" rebellion of the 70's.

Tim Dunlop, who is going to need years of therapy if Labor loses the next Federal election, therefore has to spin this as perhaps not really influencing how people vote. Let's face it Tim, it's not exactly a vote winner though, is it?

It's also odd timing that the Julia interview comes after Nancy Pelosi is held up by the media in the States as a groundbreaking example of a woman succeeding despite having a whole houseful of children. Mark Steyn's commentary on this was the most interesting.

The thing is, I reckon there are ways Julia could explain her life and attitudes which would, even if not all that genuinely felt by her, not be able to be nitpicked by either side. She just hasn't learnt how to do that yet.

She can send me money if she wants my advice, though.

Update: just to fend off some possible criticism of this post: I am not saying that all conservative attack on her will be fair, but at the same time I think there is a sizeable slab of the breeding population (not all of whom vote Liberal) who share my social conservative instinct to prefer as politicians men and women with children, or at least those who seem to like children enough to have wanted some if circumstances allowed. On the other hand, there will be Labor supporting feminists who are not going to be comfortable about the spin that can be put on her seeming "can't have it all" attitude.

My main point therefore is that she is too good at setting herself up for attack from both sides with this sort of talk. She should either decline to talk about it at all, or find the ways that do pre-empt attack.

Update II: Hmm, it's at least 12 hours and still no post at LP about this. I am surprised. Should I be worried if I can't predict what will or won't get them posting? Nah, not really. Maybe they are too busy reviewing old posts for entry into some new competition for best opinion writing from a soft left perspective.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Hearing voices

This link is to a long and interesting Washington Post Magazine article about people who hear voices in their head. Many such folk now network via the internet and encourage each other in the (very common) belief that they are the victims of secret government mind control technology. This belief is also encouraged by some credible reports of government research into beaming auditory words into heads via microwaves. However, there seems little reason to believe that the success was much more than the equivalent of a party trick.

It's a bit too sad to get too much fun from some of the delusions mentioned, but it is worth noting that there is a company that sells undergarments designed to protect the wearer from electro magnetic radiation, and their range includes aluminium lined boxer shorts.

Auditory hallucinations are a pretty fascinating part of mental illness. Why, for example, are the voices usually harassing and nasty? Helpful voices are not completely unknown, as in the case of science fiction author Philip K Dick, but they seem the exception. (I seem to remember reading that the specific advice PKD got from the helpful voice included such mundane things as changing the margin settings on his typewriter.)

The other thing that interests me is why some people are able to reach a point where they do realise that the voices are delusions, and have enough insight to know they need additional medicine if they are heard again. Other people, like those detailed in the article, spend their entire life in obsessional rationalisation of the reality of the voices. As the article notes, some people for whom anti-psychotic medication works still rationalise this by thinking that the medicine simply protects their brain from the secret technology.

Anyway, go read the article if the topic is of interest to you.


The most detailed explanation I have found of what happened in the botched Iraqi hanging is by John Burns in the NYT. Curiously, he explains how journalists found on the internet an old US army manual on how to conduct a hanging. It would seem the latest version deals only with lethal injection, which is somewhat of an improvement if you allow for capital punishment at all.

Readers can Google up the manuals themselves, if so inclined. I am not entirely sure that it is a good idea for anyone to be publicising drop tables, though.

Too much of a good thing

The Times reports on a new suggestion about what's good for a healthy prostate:

Eating tomatoes and broccoli in the same meal could help men to fight prostate cancer.

A study suggests that when they are both present in a regular diet, the two foods — known for their cancer-fighting qualities — help to reduce tumours more effectively than when they are eaten separately.

Fine, I happen to like both. But how often should it be eaten?:

They suggest that men should regularly consume servings of up to three quarters of a head of raw broccoli and two to three tomatoes to help fight the disease.

John Erdman, Professor of Food Science and Human Nutrition at the university, said that men should consider consuming three to five such servings a week.

Who on earth likes broccoli that much? I guess it does say "up to", so maybe it is not as much as it sounds.

A bungy too far

I don't like fast rides, so just watching this video actually made me feel queasy. I can't believe someone would do this for fun. The other things that come to mind are the phrases "detached retina" and "law suit".

A brief history of autism

Interesting article in Slate about the history of autism as a diagnosis (suggesting there is not a current "epidemic".)

Is this correct?

Phillip Adams in his column today writes of President Bush, in the context of last week's "surge" speech,:

Then there was the President's one and only tear, snail-trailing down his left cheek. Haven't seen such a sad, solitary tear since Malcolm Fraser's famous sniffle on the night of his defeat to Bob Hawke in 1983. Two famous tears, equally expressive of self-pity.

As it happens, I only saw very brief excerpts from the speech. However, if there was a Presidential tear on the cheek, I would not have expected to read about it first in a Phillip Adams column days later.

Did this really happen?

Monday, January 15, 2007

The kidnapping

Neo Neocon has an interesting post on that bizarre kidnapping case from the USA, showing the similarities with a previous famous case.

The recent story must have been noted by the parents of missing boy Daniel Morecombe too, and perhaps given them some vague hope of finding him alive again. The uncertainty of not knowing the fate of your child must be awful.


An interesting short article in The Economist about the Hamas attitude to recognition of Israel:

Many members of Hamas say that they will not recognise Israel's right to exist and may not do so even if Israel were to withdraw right back to the pre-1967 “green line”. The official ideology of Hamas is clear enough. It refuses in principle the idea of a Jewish state in any part of Palestine at all. Israel's position, on the other hand, is that it accepts the right of the Palestinians to a state in the West Bank and Gaza, but says that the final border should be set by negotiation. (Although Israel also says it wants to keep some of the West Bank’s land for existing settlements and security purposes.) There may be another reason for Hamas's intransigence that has nothing to do with Israel's stance: recognising Israel could lose it the support of its biggest foreign ally, Iran

In practice, if Hamas really were ready to strike a deal, and if the two sides ever were to sit down to talk about peace, they could probably work out a land-swap formula that compensates the Palestinians for the bits that Israel wants to keep. But to guarantee this, the Palestinians want the 1967 lines recognised in principle as a way to guarantee a fair swap.

The whole of the article is worth reading.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Natural death and mayhem in Australia

From today's news:

* A teenager bitten by one of the world's most venomous snakes in Sydney has died in hospital with his family at his bedside.

* More than 700 people have been stung by bluebottle jellyfish on Gold Coast beaches, including eight children rushed to hospital, lifesavers say.

* The bodies of two men missing for up to two weeks have been found in a remote desert area in Western Australia.

It's a wonder tourists come here at all.

On the subject of bluebottle stings, I was at a beach close to Brisbane yesterday and saw a distraught girl, aged about 10, who had been stung. When we arrived, there were lots of kids in the water, but I had noticed bluebottles every 1 to 2 meters at the water's edge, and moved my kids to a part of the beach protected from the on shore winds (and where there were no bluebottles to be seen on the sand.) We saw the stung girl as we were leaving.

I have only had one sting in my life, as a young adult, but that's enough to know how extremely painful they can be. It always puzzles me why people still go in the water, and let their kids go in, when it doesn't take too much to notice if they are about.

I also am curious as to whether these nasty creatures are as common a problem in other countries' beaches as they are here.

Update: from this morning's paper, a story about a type of tropical ulcer that, strangely enough, can be caught from the distinctly un-tropical waters off southern New South Wales and Victoria. The story explains:

THE flesh-eating Daintree Ulcer has struck again, this time in NSW where a sea kayaker developed a gaping wound on his ankle.

Also known as the Bairnsdale or Buruli Ulcer, the ulcer destroys skin, fat, blood vessels and sometimes bone.

In this case, the 42-year-old man's ankle became infected while sea kayaking off the town of Eden in southern NSW.

A scab on his ankle developed into a large, open wound that continued to grow over five months before the ulcer was excised by Melbourne surgeons early last year.

Common in Africa, the ulcer is caused by the Mycobacterium ulcerans infection, first identified in coastal Victoria in 1948.

Infection rates have doubled in Victoria in the past three years with 61 people diagnosed last year.

61 people a year get tropical ulcers in Victoria?

Well, at least they understand its cause? Not really:

The reasons for outbreaks and transmission remain a mystery.

But Professor Johnson said direct exposure to mosquitoes was a factor.

"Wearing protective clothing and insect repellent appears protective," he said.

It's a dangerous world, hey.

More worrying demography

A litany of bad news about the demographic future in China is in an article re-printed in The Age this weekend:

Despite almost three decades of the one-child policy, the total population will reach 1.5 billion by 2033, well in advance of previous estimates of 2050...

Between now and 2016, the growth in the number of people of working age will increase by 10 million a year, meaning that much of China's remarkable economic growth will be taken up simply with finding them jobs rather than making them richer.

And then, in an extraordinary reversal as the effects of the one-child policy play through the generations, the population will age rapidly, so that by the 2040s the country will have 430 million people over the age of 60, compared with just 143 million now, relying on ever fewer workers to provide them with their livelihood....

...despite a ban on selective abortions, the discrepancy is getting worse. The national statistics show that 118 boys were registered for every 100 girls in 2005, up from 110 in 2000. In two southern provinces, Guangdong and Hainan, the figure had reached 130.

It's a little hard to be optimistic about how this is all going to work out for China. Maybe an excess of cheap labour continues to be good for a while for the West, until civil unrest kicks in.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Who's calling who amoral?

Emily Maguire complains in the SMH today:

In his much quoted and discussed essay in last October's The Monthly, Kevin Rudd wrote that "a Christian perspective should not be rejected contemptuously", and this is fair enough. We live in a pluralistic society and should respectfully listen to and debate all ideas regardless of their religious or philosophical origins.

Often, however, Christians like Rudd demonstrate a double standard by treating non-religious viewpoints with disrespect, if not outright contempt. Even as they call for tolerance when it comes to their own beliefs, they accuse the rest of us of being amoral.

Oh yes, and I see no contempt and oodles of respect all the time from secular politicians for the religiously informed morality of others.

I would have thought that the correct picture is that, in certain fields, both sides think they have the superior view, and the other side can see the claim of supremcy as "contempt" for their own view. It's just silly to suggest that the flow of "contempt" is all one way.

Comet reminder

Comet McNaught promises to be a great sight if you can see the western evening sky over the next few days. There are some gorgeous photos of it here and here.

Unfortunately, the cloudy Brisbane sky this morning looks very unpromising.

Also, a quick search of blogs has not turned up any blogger in Australia who has seen it yet.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Thanks, Dad

From the Times:

A duck that was feared to be extinct has been found alive and well in the wild after zoologists spent 18 years looking for it in the wrong sort of habitat. ...

Glyn Young, of the Durrell trust, has been searching for the duck, Aythya innotata, since 1989. He said: “The finding is extremely exciting. It was incredible. Some of the chicks could only just have hatched.”

Dr Young, who named his eldest daughter, Aythya, after the duck, added:...

It could've been worse; her father might have been a fan of the harlequin duck, otherwise known as histrionicus histrionicus. (Father to crying child: "Calm down, Histrionicus, calm down.")

(For all your common and taxonomic duck name needs, go here, type in "duck" and search for "common names")

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Boy troubles

Found via Bryan Appleyard's blog is this fascinating article from Financial Times, explaining one theory about why socieities become violent:

In Mr Heinsohn's view, when 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population, violence tends to happen; when large percentages are under 15, violence is often imminent. The "causes" in the name of which that violence is committed can be immaterial. There are 67 countries in the world with such "youth bulges" now and 60 of them are undergoing some kind of civil war or mass killing.

Between 1988 and 2002, 900m sons were born to mothers in the developing world and a careful demographer could almost predict the trouble spots. In the decade leading up to 1993, on the eve of the Taliban takeover, the population of Afghanistan grew from 14m to 22m. By the end of this generation, Afghanistan will have as many people under 20 as France and Germany combined. Iraq had 5m people in 1950 but has 25m now, in spite of a quarter-century of wars. Since 1967, the population of the West Bank and Gaza has grown from 450,000 to 3.3m, 47 per cent of which is under 15. If Mr Heinsohn is right, then Palestinian violence of recent months and years is not explained by Israeli occupation (which, after all, existed 30 years ago) or poverty (the most violent parts of the Muslim world are not the poorest) or humiliation. It is just violence.

More explanation as to why this should be:

The that in a youth-bulge society there are not enough positions to provide all these young men with prestige and standing. Envy against older, inheriting brothers is unleashed. So is ambition. Military heroism presents itself as a time-honoured way for a second or third son to wrest a position of respectability from an otherwise indifferent society. Societies with a glut of young men become temperamentally different from "singleton societies" such as Europe's, where the prospect of sending an only child to war is almost unthinkable. Europe's pacifism since 1945, in Mr Heinsohn's view, reflects an inability to wage war, not a disinclination.

Go read it all. As Appleyard indicates, as a general rule it's wise to be sceptical about simple explanations about human behaviour, but this one smells right.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Having too many nightmares?

Depression and sleep problems I have heard about, but a connection between having many nightmares and suicide attempts is new:

After factoring in other variables that may influence degree of suicidality, including other mental diagnoses, the investigators found that patients with frequent nightmares were almost four times as likely to be highly suicidal compared with patients who didn't report having nightmares.

Growth and prosperity

An interesting article from Spiked discusses the "paradox of prosperity", and argues it is not really something to worry about:

Contemporary critics of consumerism and popular prosperity are obsessed with what they see as a paradox. A central theme of their arguments is that economic growth does not make people happier. In their view, the pursuit of mass affluence is at best futile and is probably responsible for making humanity miserable. Often the growth sceptics argue that the pursuit of material goods is akin to a disease: they say the developed world is suffering from ‘affluenza’ or ‘luxury fever. Typically they conclude we should not attempt to become richer and often they argue for the pursuit of alternative social goals such as mental well-being.

Ben-Ami argues that:

The rise of mass affluence is an incredibly positive development. It has bolstered the quality of people’s lives enormously. But there never was any guarantee that such progress would bring happiness. One of the most positive qualities of human beings is that they often want more than they have got. They typically want the lives of their children and grandchildren to be better than their own. The growth sceptics would have us stay where we are or even retreat to living a life of lower living standards.

This is the section strikes me as particularly true:

What the growth sceptics identify as a lack of happiness can, at least in part, be more accurately described as social pessimism. There is no longer a sense that the future can be better than the present. On the contrary, potentially positive developments, such as technological or scientific advance, are routinely viewed with foreboding. Under such circumstances, it is no wonder that survey data sometimes appears to indicate that people feel miserable. The happiness pundits themselves have taken on the idea that, at least in material terms, the future cannot be better than the present.

Good reading.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blame 9/11, I guess

Pamela Bone in The Australian today writes about the current wave of anti-religious publishing, and notes that there new titles are headed our way:

Atheist Manifesto by French philosopher Michel Onfray; Against Religion by Melbourne philosopher Tamas Pataki; Have a Nice Doomsday by American writer Nick Guyatt. The one I am most looking forward to is Christopher Hitchens's God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.

Oh great.

Being an atheist or agnostic herself, her article welcomes the new wave, and she makes some valid points (that the faithful are often their own worst advertisement for their religion being the main one.)

This paragraph deserves some comment:

Non-religious people are fed up with all the talk about the emptiness, the barrenness and lack of meaning in "secular society". It may surprise religious people to learn that our lives are not empty. Some people might need to believe in an afterlife in order to find meaning in this one; others don't. Some might need to believe in a creator in order to be awed by the majesty of nature; others don't. Some might believe in something higher than themselves and call it God; others believe in something higher than themselves and call it humanity or nature. It makes no difference to how morally they behave. Everything good in religion can be had without religion.

As I noted when talking about Dawkins before, I reckon that there is bit of hidden elitism in this, in that a good education and opportunity to indulge an interest in science or philosophy makes it easy to think you are being deep and meaningful, but such opportunity is not available or inherent in much of the world.

The problem is not that the irreligious have no "meaning" in their lives, as you could argue that anyone who more or less happily gets on with living would be able to say something gives their life meaning. The issue is more with whether what they say gives meaning is really just a diversionary interest from facing the real existential questions of life.

Such diversionary interests become more widely available the richer a society becomes, which is a counter-influence to the other idea that increased riches gives more free time to be "deep". The way that better health has made death less of an obvious reality helps hide the existential issues too, of course.

Of course I don't want people to suffer so as force them to think philosophically; I'll leave that position to the quasi-religion of the Greens.

[In my first version of this post I mentioned "low brow" diversions, which made me sound too much like David Williamson. I should have been more even handed and noted that the rich have their empty diversions too. As do the ostensibly religious. I think that the romantic versions of environmentalism, which has a strong foothold across all classes in the West, mostly avoids the issue of the deeper meaning of humanity too, by concentrating on the rest of nature.]

Anyway, as it happens I agree with Bone that it would be ideal if moral values and ethics could always be agreed upon by arguments which do not rely on revelation. (This is why I like Kant, and John Rawls also made a decent effort. But then again, Kant thought masturbation was worse than suicide.)

But these philosophical exercises are all arguments made by creatures with no complete knowledge of their own true nature (there is, for example, presently a rash of articles arguing again about whether free will even exists) or that of the universe overall. Largely for this reason, purely rational philosophical exercises are never going to reach positions on morals that are self-evident and compulsively universal, as it were. Pure rationality is always going to have a problem with ultimate motivation for being 'good' too.

I therefore think it is better to stick with the not always easy task of trying to piece together faith in revelation and reason, and that the world would be a safer place if this attitude was widespread.

[I think what I have just done is more or less a summary of the Pope's recent controversial address that mentioned Islam. I wasn't really thinking about it when I started, though.]

That UFO...

Everyone who has the vaguest interest in UFO's would have heard about the O'Hare airport case by now. For some links about it that readers may not have seen yet: the NPR audio report with the journalist involved gives a little bit more background about the story, and notes that an FOI request for radar and the control tower recordings hasn't been answered yet. (It is an odd feature that an FOI request was needed to get confirmation of the event.)

Paul Kimball is being very appropriately cautious about the case, and links to a few good sites with many rather unusual "hole in the clouds" photos.

My take: it sounds too good to be true. Still, it's great to have a bit of aerial mystery around.

Monday, January 08, 2007

About China

Early last year I linked to an article sceptical of long term prospects for China's economy, at least without political reform.

Here's another article along the same lines which is an interesting read.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


A couple of years ago, I unsuccessfully tried to track down an article from a science magazine I had read about how you could easily build huge solar cell farms with a system of self replicating (but quite dumb) robots. I could not remember which magazine I had found it in.

[I have kept most of my old popular science magazines (starting with Omni in the late 70's and 80's, New Scientists and Discover magazine, and the occasional Scientific American.) My wife does not appreciate the hoarding of magazines that, admittedly, I rarely have cause to look at again, but there is a spare room at my office that can hold the boxes.]

Anyway, by pure chance, tonight I found someone in comments at Futurepundit has linked to the story, from 1995. (It was in Discover and is still on line.)

I love the WWW.

Get out your telescopes

This article indicates that, surprisingly, things are not as bad in one or two villages in the Sunni triangle as one might think:

For the past three years though, there has been little sign of the al Nasseris or other residents of Owja and Tikrit honoring Saddam's tribal largesse by resisting the American presence. Many, indeed, are said to work in U.S. Army bases, something that would earn them a death sentence in other Sunni towns.

"We have good working relations with Saddam's tribe," a local U.S. military spokesman confirmed. "We work on many infrastructure projects together and they support the governor."
U.S. commanders attribute the pacification of Saddam's tribal homelands to the close attention they paid to the area after the invasion. Fearing that it could become an insurgent haven, they established a large military base in Tikrit and made strenuous efforts to hunt down senior regime figures who lived there.

But the real reason for this post is this part of the article:

"Why have there been no big attacks in Owja?" one Sunni from Baghdad asked last week. "They have sold their ground to the occupation for the money, and now they are protecting them. They should feel ashamed because the Americans arrested their relative and their leader."

Such charges are denied by Owja residents, who say they grieve for Saddam as hysterically as the pilgrims flocking to his grave. One day last week, for example, the village was buzzing with claims that Saddam had appeared as the Man in the Moon the night before.

Uh oh

From The Sunday Times:

ISRAEL has drawn up secret plans to destroy Iran’s uranium enrichment facilities with tactical nuclear weapons.

Two Israeli air force squadrons are training to blow up an Iranian facility using low-yield nuclear “bunker-busters”, according to several Israeli military sources.

The attack would be the first with nuclear weapons since 1945, when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Israeli weapons would each have a force equivalent to one-fifteenth of the Hiroshima bomb.

One good thing about such a plan, from the US point of view, is that if the nuclear "bunker busters" are actually made by Israel, this may deflect some of the blame for the attack from America.

Still, any use of nuclear weapon pre-emptively is a big step for a nation.

Those clever Japanese

From an interesting article in the IHT about how good Japan is at conserving energy:

Japan's population and economy are each about 40 percent as large as that of the United States, yet in 2004 it consumed less than a quarter as much energy as America did, according to the International Energy Agency, which is based in Paris.

On a per-capita basis, that means Japan consumed the energy equivalent of 2.8 million tons of oil per person in 2004, in contrast to 5.4 million tons per American. Germany, another energy- conscious country, used 3.2 million tons per person.

I guess the fact that the Japanese would have to have some of the smallest house/apartment sizes in the world, and live mostly in very high density urban areas, has something to do with this. Even so, it is quite cold in many parts in winter, unlike much of Australia, for example.

The other thing I did not know was that fuel cells can be purchased there (at heavy government subsidy) to generate electricity for the home:

One way has been a subsidy of about $51,000 per home fuel cell. This allowed Kimura to buy his cell last year for about $9,000, far below production cost. His cell, which generates 1 kilowatt per hour, provides just under half of his household's electricity, and has cut his electricity bill by the same amount, he said.

The device converts natural gas into hydrogen, which the fuel cell then uses to generate electricity. Heat released by the process is used to warm water.

The first two fuel cells were installed in the prime minister's residence in April 2005. Since then, 1,300 have been sold, according to the Trade and Industry Ministry. The ministry forecasts that as sales pick up, production cost will fall to about $5,000 by decade's end.

That's pretty impressive.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Can we stop talking about it yet?

It's good to see that the media is finding giving the fallout from the hanging a bit of a rest, although today many are running with the Egyptian's president's comments about Saddam becoming a "martyr".

Let's face it, he would been have treated as such by a large number of Arabs regardless of the exact circumstances of the last few minutes of his life. Denying him an (alleged) martyrdom completely, by letting him stay in a comfy European jail during the incredibly slow trial process of the international tribunal, ran the big risk that the Iraqi and Arab media would never have tired of showing him grandstanding in court and encouraging insurgency in his country. It was not a risk worth taking.

It is also interesting that the media does not make much fuss about the actual reaction in Iraq and elsewhere, in terms of violence, being rather muted in the last week. I would have predicted a surge, then a tapering off, and I guess that may still happen. But I still expect that the problems caused by his execution will not be as dire as the critics have predicted.

Shades of "A Clockwork Orange"

I missed reading this article by Richard Dawkins earlier this week. Saddam should not have been hanged, argues Dawkins, he should have been kept alive for scientific study.

Dawkins takes the anti-capital punishment line that would you expect (not that there is anything wrong with that, generally.) He generously allows this:

If President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair are eventually put on trial for war crimes, I shall not be among those pressing for them to be hanged.

Dawkins goes on to write:

...the most important research in which a living Saddam Hussein could have helped is psychological. Most people can't even come close to understanding how any man could be so cruel as Hitler or Hussein, or how such transparently evil monsters could secure sufficient support to take over an entire country.

What were the formative influences on these men? Was it something in their childhood that turned them bad? In their genes? In their testosterone levels? Could the danger have been nipped in the bud by an alert psychiatrist? How would Hitler or Hussein have responded to a different style of education? We don't have a clear answer to these questions. We need to do the research.

Is Dawkins really serious here, or just seeking publicity? The objections are so obvious, but I will list them anyway:

* Most psychological research surely requires the co-operation of the subject, and who says Saddam would ever have agreed to it? If he did not agree, would it have been OK to force him to undergo brain scans, blood tests, etc. Should he just have been filmed 24 hours a day and had conversations secretly recorded? If he is true to his liberal principles, Dawkins would have to admit that if Saddam didn't co-operate, nothing useful could be done.

* Even if he did co-operate, who could believe his own version of his life and influences anyway? There is every reason to suspect that Saddam was not particularly good at reliable self assessment or insight, as are sociopaths everywhere. We don't need to study another one to tell us that.

* Dawkins' idea that everything in evil behaviour is reducible to scientific explanation leads to the idea that criminals should be "cured" rather than punished for wrongdoing. Such a view, with its de-emphasis on free will, is actually dehumanising, despite its (apparent) good intentions.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Silly uses for your robot suit

The Japan Times has an article about the creator of the HAL suit, which had some publicity a year or so ago and looks like this:

The suit, which may be commercially available sometime, is meant to give additional strength to those who need it. But its creator has another idea for its use:

....our robots can be used in the field of entertainment. For instance, by having HAL wearers also wear head-mounted displays, they can watch somebody walking through deep snow and, by having HAL put pressure on their legs, they can feel the sensation themselves. Or we can create a situation where you might be watching a movie at home with a head-mounted display and a HAL suit on, then feel your right leg suddenly being harshly pulled just as Sadako (a creepy character in the horror movie "Ring") is grabbing someone's right leg in the film!

So, for those of you who don't already jump enough at surprises in scary movies, here's a possible answer. It sure is some trivial use for expensive technology.

Of course, what all boys long to see is cyborg soldiers in battle. That would be cool.

The black hole in Ireland

New Scientist's Christmas issue ran an interesting story about a physicist who thinks that a historical report of a "ball lightning" type phenomena seen by one man in Ireland in 1868 may have actually been caused by a tiny black hole. Full access to the article is not (yet) available on line, but sometimes New Scientist drops the restriction after a couple of weeks. I had to buy the paper issue.

The report in question is intriguing, because it involved the ball lightning apparently carving a trench in the soil/peat it passed over. I have read about ball lightning before, but had never heard of this effect. The article claims that the damage alleged caused is still visible at the site.

The idea that a small primordial black hole (left over from the big bang) was at the heart of the glowing ball assumes that Hawking radiation does not exist; a point which very, very few scientists seem willing to seriously consider as a possibility. (I don't have time to provide the links right now, but go search this blog for "black holes" and you'll see what I mean.)

It seems clear that a lack of a quantum gravity theory means there is a good degree of uncertainty about the finer points of how HR would work, particularly at the end of the evaporation process. That an evaporating micro black hole may leave a remnant, the exact nature of which I have not really seen explained clearly, seems a possibility still very much up in the air.

The black hole - ball lightning theory also has to come up with some fancy footwork to explain why the ball lightning bounced along the ground, and didn't eat up the earth by now. (In fact, the article does not mention at all what the physicist thinks was the eventual fate of the black hole in question.)

Still, it is interesting and potentially relevant to the issue of possible danger from the LHC.

Gore gored

If you happen to think that Gore Vidal is a self-important bore, you will find plenty of support for your view in an article in Salon (of all places.)

Never trust a President without creases

Tigerhawk points out one of the more ridiculous recent posts in Huffington Post. It really puzzles me as to why that site has any credibility at all.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Left, right, etc

Janet Albrechtsen ends a column with this:

So I'll leave you with a larger but somewhat cheeky hypothesis. Left-wing politics is essentially an emotional, instinctive utopian kind of world peopled by romantics and dreamers. Conservatism is, on the other hand, more rational, analytical and pragmatic. That is why creative types tend to come from the Left. Right-wingers, by contrast, have real jobs.

Of course, calling it "somewhat cheeky" indicates that she's hardly likely to consider it entirely defensible. But still it attracts a lot of criticism from the left-y side.

What do I think? Well, that the modern "creative type" is much more commonly left leaning is surely true, isn't it? (Why that is so is not entirely clear to me, nor is why it seems especially true of the last 40 years or so.) I would have also thought that Marxism was clearly utopian in nature, and a matter of faith masked as science. There is surely still an element of utopianism that runs through the Left.

But the issue of the rational/emotional divide is more complicated than Janet's take. Modern social conservatives of a religious bent (like me) understand the emotional appeal of the old faith, and regret that it has less influence on society. On the other side, there is often the unreflective atheistic utilitarianism of modern ethics, which prides itself as more rational than anything that is partly based on faith and mystery.

Of course, it is not as if mainstream Christian religious ethics doesn't employ rational argument too. (Pope Benedict reminded the world of this recently.) One of the most frustrating things about arguing with the irreligous Left can be their attitude that their conclusions are self-evidently more rational than that of those who have a religious influence. In fact, the different conclusions may arise more from the varience in fundamental assumptions about human nature and reality, and these are really matters of faith (or at least unproveable) for either side.

Someone else has probably explained this better than I can...

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Who reads who

Over at Andrew Norton's blog a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned how bloggers' audiences are mainly people who already agree with them. I made this comment:

Andrew, yes the “echo chamber” function of blogs is clear, but I have a theory that it is worse on the Left than the Right. This is because many on the modern Left (particularly the idealistic youth) consider opinions different from their own as both irrational and morally defective, and therefore spending much time reading such opinions in blogs is like dabbling in evil (if they believed in evil). It often just gets them so annoyed they cannot continue reading.

As evidence in support, have a look at this post at Blogocracy. Turns out Tim Dunlop and his regular band of not so merry men (he does seem to attract few female commenters) find the moderate Right opinions of Gerard Henderson so annoying they can't bear to even read him anymore. As one commenter also notes, it's quite a hoot that Dunlop calls Henderson "predictable".

Henderson's other great benefit over Dunlop is brevity.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Musical instruments with a difference

Never having been to Nepal, I had not heard before about this surprising aspect of its version of Buddhism (from a recent travel article in The Times):

Rosa had been asked to take this particular damaru back to England for some Buddhist friends, and was understandably nervous about it. The hand drum was just as she had described. It was made out of human skulls — children’s skulls, to be precise. Over the highly polished craniums was stretched a thin membrane of human skin.

“One skull is female, the other is male,” she explained. “It symbolises the union of wisdom and compassion. It’s very powerful. If you get one made out of babies’ skulls, that’s even better — something to do with the energy flowing through the opening in the fontanelles.”...

The shops around Boudhanath are full of similar objects. In one, I was shown a selection of skull offering bowls; in another, half a dozen trumpets made from women’s thigh bones. Dusting one off, the shopkeeper put the hip joint to his lips and blew, making a noise like a hunting horn.

Rather disturbing to a Western mind, especially those instruments made out of kids or babies skulls.

Henderson on the hanging

Gerard Henderson's SMH column on the reaction to the hanging of Saddam is good. The best paragraph answers those who claim it is hypocrisy for the Australian government to only sometimes diplomatically complain about death penalties:

The Prime Minister's stance ignited criticism from the civil liberties lobby. Lex Lasry, QC, said this position "compromises our international standards" since "we cannot pick and choose on the death penalty".

But there is nothing inconsistent in attempting to obtain a reprieve for an Australian convicted of a serious drug offence in, say, Singapore and declining to put pressure on a democratic government intent on executing a mass murderer whose supporters form part of an extant murderous insurgency and who had been convicted in a public trial.

Death by Mochi - 2007 edition

The annual Japanese New Year mochi toll is in:

TOKYO — Four men choked to death on Monday and Tuesday in Tokyo, Niigata and Ibaraki prefectures, and seven others in the capital became critically ill after choking on mochi rice cakes, a traditional New Year's food in Japan, police and firefighters said.

A 68-year-old man in Tokyo's Fuchu and a 76-year-old man in the capital's Sumida Ward died Tuesday after choking on the rice cakes, while a 74-year-old man in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, and an 80-year-old man in Chikusei, Ibaraki Prefecture, died likewise on Monday, they said. In Tokyo, a total of 16 people ranging in age from 65 to 91 were hospitalized due to choking on rice cakes on Monday and Tuesday, and two of them died and seven lost consciousness and were in a serious condition, the Tokyo Fire Department said.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A New Year's Day Miscellany

Happy New Year everyone.

There's not much obvious to post about today. The Sydney Morning Herald gets off to a bad start by running an article by Bob Ellis which, even by his standards, appears to be written after an exceptionally long night on the claret. (It's about the death of Saddam, who he seems to think went to the gallows in a noble fashion, unlike how he imagines George W would behave.) It is truly a puerile read.

As for the future, reviewing psychic predictions for the year just gone is always a laugh. Have a look at this list of reader predictions from A more comprehensive list of inaccurate prophecy may be very hard to find. I like this one:

A book will be published in 2006 that completely explains existence. By doing so it will prove the world wrong on a Copernicus (flat-world) scale. The presentation will be that which will put traditional values on the defensive using simple logic that cannot be refuted.

How about this cryptic one in the "entertainment" section:

Harry Potter strikes again and again.

And under the "surprise predictions" category:

The Elizabethan collar will come back in style along with the poofy sleeves.

On another topic, I will be looking out for the figures on this New Year's Japanese mochi chocking deaths with interest. (It's a more interesting hobby than following the media obsession with holiday road accidents in Australia.)

Finally, the British Medical Journal has a more or less serious (I think) article that contains everything you ever wanted to know about sword swallowing. (And yes, it is often medically dangerous.) This extract about you learn how to do it is particularly interesting:

Some respondents swallowed a sword easily, but mastery for most required daily practice over months or years. The gag reflex is desensitised, sometimes by repeatedly putting fingers down the throat, but other objects are used including spoons, paint brushes, knitting needles, and plastic tubes before the swallower commonly progresses to a bent wire coat hanger. The
performer must then learn to align a sword with the upper oesophageal sphincter with the neck hyperextended. The next step requires relaxation of the pharynx and oesophagus and particularly the horizontal fibres of cricopharyngeus, which are not usually under voluntary control.

The more mysterious question of why anyone still bothers to learn this is not addressed.