Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Ride that laser

Found via Futurismic, here's a post about the potential use of solid state lasers for space propulsion. (It contains a link to this series of slides about a proposed modular laser launch system.)

All this talk is inspired by recent success in powering up solid state lasers.

What with heat beam weapons, laser battle guns, and a return to the Moon, the 21st century is starting to look as if it might live up to a futuristic image after all. Just waiting for those flying cars and personal rocket belts, though.

Inherently safer nuclear (and free advice to the the Howard government)

Technology Review has an interesting article on "gen III & IV" reactors, which are basically designed to be simpler and inherently safer than current reactor designs.

As you may expect, pebble bed reactors get a mention, but so does another reactor (the Economic Simplified Boiling Water Reactor) which would, like Pebble Beds, could automatically shut down without any outside intervention:

The ESBWR replaces previous reactors' complex systems for residual heat removal with a design that uses no pumps or emergency generators--in fact, it possesses no moving parts at all, except for the neutron-absorbing control rods that are pulled partway out from its core so that nuclear fission can proceed. That fission reaction boils the water in the ESBWR's core, which becomes steam that gets carried away to large tubes in which it rises, releases its energy to turbines, and then condenses so that gravity causes it to flow back down to the core as water again. In short, the ESBWR runs wholly on natural circulatory forces. Rao says, "It could not be simpler. The control rods get pulled out, water comes in, and steam goes out, carrying heat that gets turned into electricity."

But even other, more complicated designs, are still much better than older plants:

This simplicity of design also features in other gen-III reactor designs like the Westinghouse AP1000, which has 60 percent fewer valves, 75 percent less piping, 80 percent less control cabling, 35 percent fewer pumps, and 50 percent less seismic building volume than currently operational reactors. This trend becomes more pronounced in gen-IV designs like the pebble bed reactor. In conjunction with "the modern computer-aided manufacturing technologies currently used most extensively in the ship-building industry," Peterson says, what's now possible is a modular approach to nuclear-plant construction, whereby large segments of the plants will be prefabricated in factories.

It seems to me that if the Howard government wants to defuse some of the Labor Party's "tell us where in Australia would you locate a reactor" scare campaign, it should be talking loudly about these new reactor designs which are safer, cheaper, and probably just becoming available when we would want our first reactor anyway.

It may be premature to do so, but it could be even better to commit to only allowing reactors with strong passive safety, such as a pebble bed or that ESBRW described above. I mean, if the thing can't melt down, even if something goes wrong while everyone is at the Christmas picnic, that has to be a strong selling point in the public's mind.

This aspect of the future of nuclear power generation is not getting the publicity it deserves.

My other advice to John Howard: it's not too late to get rid of that goose of a Defence Minister Brendan Nelson.

The Economist on reasons to be skeptical about carbon offsets

This Economist blog entry seems to be a good and simple explanation of why any carbon offset scheme is a very dubious exercise. The crucial paragraph:

When you donate money to build a new windfarm, you don't take any of the old, polluting power offline; you increase the supply of power, reducing the price until others are encouraged to buy more carbon-emitting power. On the margin, it may make some difference, since demand for electricity is not perfectly elastic, but nowhere near the one-for-one equivalence that carbon offsets would seem to suggest. Especially since the worst offenders, big coal-fired plants, are not the ones that renewables will substitute for; solar and wind power are not good replacements for baseload power. Instead, renewables are likely to take relatively clean (and expensive) natural gas plants offline, since those are the ones that provide "extra" power to the system. Similarly, by giving villagers in Goa energy-saving CFL bulbs, you do not lessen the amount of electricity consumed; rather, you make it possible for other people to purchase the extra energy freed up by more efficient lightbulbs. This may be excellent poverty policy, but it does not lessen the carbon footprint of your international flight.

The post is inspired by Al Gore's defence of his very energy hungry house by his use of carbon offsets.

No one has commented on the post at The Economist yet. I have no doubt there will be carbon offset defenders coming out in Al's defence, but it will interesting to see if they can counter the basic argument.

By coincidence...

It must be dissection day here. I just stumbled across a review of a biography of an important figure in the history of surgery and dissection (not that I have heard of him before.) His name: Astley Cooper. From the New Statesman review:

In 1792, with a revolutionary glint in his eye, he made a pilgrimage to Paris, and was an appalled witness to the violence of the mob as they processed through the streets with bits of the bodies they had torn apart, like a grotesque parody of the enlightened surgical techniques he had gone there to learn....

Burch doesn't gloss over the unpleasant aspects of Cooper's personality: the vanity that sometimes confused the "theatre" of surgery with a love of self-display; the clumsy sense of humour that led him once to ask his hairdresser to reach into a tub of hair powder which he had replaced with monkey entrails; the willingness to use body-snatchers in his quest for new anatomical specimens; and especially the obsession with dissection that seemed to go well beyond the needs of medical science. If some of Cooper's experiments are hard to stomach, such as his decision to close the urethra of a rabbit merely to see what would happen (the rabbit died a slow and painful death), others are merely hard to fathom. One wonders what contribution to the knowledge of human anatomy was made by his public dissection of, among others, "elephants, cuttlefish, baboons, polar bears, walruses, lemurs, leopards, the lymphatics of a porpoise, kangeroos, tortoises, porcupines, panthers and seals and the stomach of a cormorant".

Quite the dissecting showman, wasn't he.

Gruesome WWII story

The Times has an article about an old Japanese guy who talks about his gruesome war time activities:

Over the course of four months before the defeat of the Japanese forces in March 1945, Mr Makino cut open the bodies of ten Filipino prisoners, including two teenage girls. He amputated their limbs, and cut up and removed their healthy livers, kidneys, wombs and still beating hearts for no better reason than to improve his knowledge of anatomy.

“It was educational,” he said. “Even today when I go to see doctors, they are impressed by my knowledge of the human body. But if I’m really honest, the reason we did it was to take revenge on these people who were spying for the Americans. Now, of course I feel terrible about the cruel thing that I did, and I think of it so often. But at the time what I felt for these people was closer to hatred than to pity.”...

The “operation” took about an hour; when it was over the body was sewn up and thrown into a hole in the earth. Eight more vivisections followed, Mr Makino said, up to three hours long. “Over the course of time, I got used to it,” he said. “We removed some of the organs, and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were women, young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it, but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew very little about women - it was sex education.

Rather like young boys who play cruelly with insects, isn't it?

And some Japanese wonder why people get upset over visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

A fundamental problem for Hawking Radiation?

PhysOrg brings to attention a paper on the black hole information paradox that seems to be important to the issue of whether Hawking Radiation really exists. (Well, I think that is one possible implication of the article, even though that is not stated in explicit plain English.)

The actual paper is here. (Actually, it seems to be a year old, so why is PhysOrg running it now?)

Its conclusion:

A robust statement of this result leads to a severe formulation of the black-hole information paradox: Either unitarity fails or Hawking’s semi-classical predictions must break down. The
no-hiding theorem rigorously rules out any “third possibility” that the information escapes from the black hole but is nevertheless inaccessible as it is hidden in correlations between semi-classical Hawking radiation and the black hole’s internal state. This provides a criterion to test any proposed resolution of the paradox: Any resolution that preserves unitarity must predict a breakdown in Hawking’s analysis [2] even for cosmologically-sized black holes.

Hey, I didn't say it was easy! But I am assuming that a "breakdown in Hawking's analysis" means that possibly Hawking Radiation doesn't exist. (Which, for any new readers of this blog, is relevant to the issue of whether micro black holes that may be created at CERN soon will evaporate and be no danger to the Earth.)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Gender and India

For a detailed report on the terrible problem of gender imbalance in India (caused primarily by gender selecting abortion), this Washington Times report is worth reading. Some extracts:

Many families therefore elect to not have a girl at all. Medical clinics -- which Sister Mary calls "womb raiders" -- have advertised "better 500 rupees now [for an abortion] rather than 50,000 rupees later" [for a dowry]. The first amount is about $11; the second is $1,100.
Dowries are theoretically banned under the 1961 Dowry Prohibition Act, but enforcement is poor and other religious groups such as Muslims and Christians have been caught up in the custom...

Surprisingly, it seems it is the richer areas that have the biggest problem:

She cites the Indian state of Haryana, just north of New Delhi, which has the country's second highest per capita income. It also has India's second worst sex ratio, after Punjab state to the west. For every 1,000 boys born in Haryana, just 820 girls were born, according to the 2001 census. In 1991, it was 879 girls.
Punjab is similarly wealthy; thus, instead of the poor killing their children, it's the rich, says Ms. Chowdhry, a former senior fellow at the Nehru Memorial Institute and Library.
"Punjab and Haryana are the two highest per capita income states, but they have such regressive trends," she says. "How can they call themselves modern?"

As for the extent of the problem worldwide:

Early this year, the British medical journal Lancet estimated the male-female gap at 43 million. Worldwide, Lancet said, there are 100 million "missing girls" who should have been born but were not. Fifty million of them would have been Chinese and 43 million would have been Indian. The rest would have been born in Afghanistan, South Korea, Pakistan and Nepal.
China gave an even bleaker assessment last month, with the government saying that its men will outnumber women in the year 2020 by 300 million.

There's a serious need for cultural re-education here.

UPDATE: if you don't trust the Washington Times on anything because of its right wing politics, you can read pretty much the same story (better written too) at The Guardian. The article confirms that richer areas in fact have the bigger problem:

India's paradox is that prosperity has not meant progress. Development has not erased traditional values: in fact, selective abortion has been accelerated in a globalising India. On the one hand there has been new money and an awareness of family planning - so family sizes get smaller. But wealthier - and better- educated - Indians still want sons. A recent survey revealed that female foeticide was highest among women with university degrees.

Wow. How is this going to be dealt with when even better education of the women is not helping?

The upside of gloom

There's an interesting piece in the Guardian about the pessimism of the European liberal intelligentsia. I like the last two paragraphs:

...instead of optimism we have a kind of European baby-boomer guilt - the feeling that we are the last privileged generation. And it is definitely a European thing - you do not find the same gloom in rising parts of the world or in the US. And if Europeans in general tend towards pessimism as a reflection of their reduced weight in the world, perhaps European intellectuals are even more pessimistic as a reflection of their reduced weight in their own societies too.

But perhaps we should draw some optimism from the pessimism of the British and European thinking classes. After all, 100 years ago the main emotion in politics was hope - and then look what happened. The despairing tone of some of these responses may be a sign that we are on the threshold of a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Reasons not to visit Saudi Arabia

From the IHT:

Three Frenchmen who lived Saudi Arabia were killed by gunmen Monday in the desert on the side of a road leading to the holy city of Medina in an area restricted to Muslims only....

The men were resting on the side of a road about 17 kilometers (10.6 miles) north of Medina when gunmen fired at their car, instantly killing two of them, al-Turki said. The third man died later after he was taken to a hospital, and the fourth Frenchman was in serious condition at an area hospital, al-Turki said.

Women and children also were with the group but they were uninjured, the Interior Ministry spokesman said.

The area the group was traveling in is restricted for Muslims only. Non-Muslims are barred from the area around Medina and neighboring Mecca, the holiest cities in Islam. ...

Al-Turki said the group was probably making a Muslim pilgrimage. But it was possible they were traveling to another ancient site north of Medina where the Saudi government recently started allowing non-Muslims to visit.

Were they killed for not looking like Muslims? Nice country.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Oh no, Maxine

I liked Maxine McKew as a journalist and had no objection to her working for Kevin Rudd. But she's straining the (entirely one way) friendship by deciding to run for Parliament, and choosing the PM's electorate in which to do it.

Even before it was known whether she really wanted to run for Parliament, it seemed to me that her background as the journalist with whom politicians of both sides could enjoy a friendly lunch/interview (even though it may have been "on the record") made it a little unfair of her to now want to actually be a political player. Isn't it likely that as a politician she is in a position to abuse information gleaned in her former occupation, which probably traded to some extent on a perceived trustworthiness to keep certain comments and asides confidential?

You could probably argue this for almost all political journalists, and say that you can't have a rule that they should not run for Parliament.

But still, with McKew, it seems to me a question of the style of some of her journalism which makes it questionable. Of course, all Liberals interviewed by her knew she was married to a key Labor identity, and that may have made them more cautious anyway, but I don't know. Maybe she was still able to charm comments out of them which they would now regret having made.

The other argument may be that she could cause just as much harm by being a Rudd staffer anyway. That would be true, but all politicians need media advisors and they are often former journalists. I just feel that is part of the political territory, but I still don't like journalists running for Parliament, or at least ones that you can imagine politicians finding charming. (By this criteria, I would have no objection to Margo Kingston or Alan Ramsay running for Parliament!)

Speaking of mice...

The Times provides a link to a Memri video in which an Iranian lecturer explains the secret meaning behind Tom & Jerry cartoons. It's all to do with the Jews, of course!

Bryan Appleyard's blog brought this to my attention. (Has it been on LGF before? If not, I guess it will be soon.)

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Rat excitement in New York

Have a look at this story and video from the LA Times. It seems someone passing by a closed KFC in New York noticed a bunch of rats having the run the place. The news crews came and filmed it from outside. The audio is perhaps the best part, as you listen to a bunch of people getting grossed out by seeing this.

I find rats sort of cute, but there are limits as to where I would prefer to meet them.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Rocket explosion over Australia

The ABC seems to be the only news outlet in Australia reporting this at the moment. Maybe other media will pick it up over the weekend, because the photos are very cool.

Pebble bed in China

The science show Catalyst on ABC last night had a story about a Chinese prototype pebble bed reactor. A transcript is available here, but unfortunately no video. (Maybe later?)

It gives the impression that it is working fine already, but the detail was slim. It was good to see what the "pebbles" actually look like.

Profitable things to do on the Moon

There's a short article here about ideas for early profit from going to the Moon. Nothing too exciting yet.

I seem to recall that some years ago there was a proposal for privately funding a lunar rover to be operated remoting by paying customers on earth. Sounded cool to me.

Whoever does it, they really need to get some robotic exploration of interesting areas on the moon going. The lunar poles, and areas with possible lava tubes, are where I would be headed first.

Losing interest in cinema

Each year, my interest in the movies nominated for an Oscar seems to be reaching new lows never before seen. I mean, until perhaps 7 years ago, even if I haven't seen the films, it has been a matter of some regret that I have missed at least some of them. But in the last few years, my interest in nominated films has been virtually in free fall.

It is almost certainly something to do with my stage in life, and if I was younger I would take risks again in seeing movies which may or may not turn out to be better than expected. But at the moment, I am lucky to be seeing one adult movie a year at the cinema, plus maybe another 2 child-friendly ones. The one adult movie, chosen because by all accounts I should like it, has been a disappointment in the last few years.

I only saw the last Star Wars on DVD about 6 months ago. Disappointing. (I reckon Orson Scott Card did a good job criticising the vacuousness of its moral philosophy here.) It's gorgeous to look at, but even that is just a cover for inadequate emotional logic in the story telling. I liked Village Voice's take on the visual style:

In debt to lurid sci-fi-novel cover art, Revenge of the Sith achieves the ultimate in what could be called Baroque Nerdism, a frame-filling aesthetic of graphic overdesign that began with The Phantom Menace and has now been jacked up to an absurd degree. Half the film takes place at dawn or dusk, so that the Marin County team can geek out on artificial roseate glow—a sugary luminence used so frequently one wonders if they developed a Maxfield Parrish plug-in to get the job done. On metropolitan Coruscant, background windows buzz with distant air-cars of various models; on DVD zoom mode, they will likely reveal individual license plate numbers.

What about Babel, this year's serious movie Oscar contender? I am not encouraged by the David Denby review in the New Yorker:

My friend Herbert was rude to his mother last spring, and, some time later, Mt. St. Helens erupted. And three girls I met on the Central Park carrousel were kicked out of school for smoking, and the price of silver dropped by forty thousand rupiah in Indonesia. With these seemingly trivial events from my own life, I illustrate the dramatic principle by which the Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu makes his movies. Iñárritu, who made “Amores Perros” (2000), is one of the world’s most gifted filmmakers. But I had the same reaction to “Babel” that I had to his most recent movie, “21 Grams” (2003): he creates savagely beautiful and heartbreaking images; he gets fearless performances out of his actors; he edits with the sharpest razor in any computer in Hollywood; and he abuses his audience with a humorless fatalism and a piling up of calamities that borders on the ludicrous.

As I have commented before, I think cinema goes through joyless phases from time to time, but this current one is lasting an inordinately long time. It's like waiting for a drought to break.

UPDATE: good to see it's not just me. I wrote this post before I read this Slate story, claiming that some Oscar voters are deliberately leaving the "Best Movie" ballot blank!

Also, it's probably an appropriate time to note again that some of the loss of interest in cinema is partly to do with the lack of charm or reliable likeability in the current raft of mainstream Hollywood actors. Can't any studio sign up a bunch of new, young-ish stars and promote it a new start in something resembling the old studio talent system? (Sign them up to an updated morals clause too, so they can be dumped as soon as they start turning up at parties without underwear.)


I just read Danny Katz talking about Babel:

There was a huge selection of teary, jerky movies this year: there was the chirpy-weepy Little Miss Sunshine, and the baklava-syrupy The Pursuit Of Happyness - but the award goes to Babel, which was so magnificently miserable, for two and a half hours, all I could hear was the cast crying, the audience crying, and even the projectionist crying, from inside his sound-proofed, triple-glazed glass booth. I saw this film with my friend, Roger, and afterwards we were so shattered by the powerful themes of human fear and cultural isolation, we sat down in a cafe and discussed the movie's most profound question: how do you pronounce "Babel"? - I thought it was pronounced "Babble" but Roger said it was pronounced "Bay-bel" and I said "No, I'm pretty sure it's Babble" and he said "NO, IT'S DEFINITELY BAY-BEL" and this went on for about an hour and a half, yeah I really love those intense kind of post-cinema intellectual discussions.

Made me laugh.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Careers to avoid: clowning in Cucuta

The BBC reports:

Two circus clowns have been shot dead during a performance in the eastern Colombian city of Cucuta, police say....

Local reports say the audience of about 20 people, mostly children, thought the shooting was part of the show before realising both men had been killed.

Last year, a prominent circus clown, known as Pepe, was also shot dead by a unknown assailant in Cucuta.

This is story crying out for further explanation.

A new concept for the day

You know something is complicated and "out there" when someone who posts at Cosmic Variance finds it new and hard to fathom. Have a look at this post about "Boltzmann brains" and the decay of the universe. More detail about Boltzmann and entropy is at an earlier CV post here. It is not easy going.

I will soon be doing a post about cosmologist Frank Tipler too, and his upcoming book claiming to show the physics behind various miracles in the Bible (or the New Testament, at least.) His previous book "The Physics of Immortality" got rubbished by most of his scientist colleagues, but I expect that will be nothing compared to the shellacking the new book is likely to take.

Targetting for beginners

Former Spook, who has some experience in these matters, has a good post explaining why people should not think there is anything unusual going on when the media runs a "targets have been selected already" story.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Debating the multiverse

Here's an interesting account of the recent debate at a conference between top cosmologists who take opposing sides on the issue of the anthropic principle and whether a "multiverse" exists. (String theory gets a mention too.) It explains the issues in pretty straightforward fashion, and is well worth a read.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Good surgeons play with monkey

OK, something surprising to post about.

The LA Times notes:

New research today found that surgeons with the highest scores on "Super Monkey Ball 2," "Stars Wars Racer Revenge" and "Silent Scope" performed best on tests of suturing and laparoscopic surgery.....

"For as little as three hours a week, you could help your children become the cyber-surgeons of the 21st century," said Dr. James C. Rosser Jr. of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and lead author of the study in the Archives of Surgery.

The research looked at 33 surgeons attending a course on laparoscopic surgery and found that their game-playing skill was a better predictor of success on the surgical tests than years of medical practice or number of surgeries performed.

Expertise with "Super Monkey Ball 2," which involves steering a ball containing a monkey down a serpentine track while simultaneously targeting bananas, was most closely linked with high test scores.

No news today

My morning survey of the news is showing nothing I particularly care to post about. Instead, for diversion, have a look at this website for "weird and funny" photos. (Originally I found it via Red Ferret Journal, which linked to the post about cool aircraft-in-flight cockpit photos. However, the rest of the Static website is worth looking at too.)

Monday, February 19, 2007

The cause of ice ages

It would give everyone a greater degree of confidence in climate predictions if scientists had cracked once and for all the issue of what triggers ice ages. As this post at Real Climate makes clear, they are still several theories around, and no doubt more to come. (Cyclic orbit changes are a significant part of it, but the exact mechanism seems still very much up for grabs.)

The comments to the post include these one, which I add here just to give some background on the whole history of ice ages:

...the question "What triggers ice ages?" only applies to the late Pleistocene (since about 800,000 years ago). From the onset of northern-hemisphere glaciation (about 3 million years ago) to the "mid-Pleistocene transition" (about 800,000 years ago), glacial advance and retreat follows a strong 41,000-year cycle, which has led to its being called "the 41 ky world" (Raymo & Nisancioglu 2003, Paleoceanography, 18, 1011). This is surely due to the changes of earth's obliquity, since changes in the amplitude of the climate signal correspond to changes in the amplitude of the obliquity cycle (Lisiecki & Raymo 2007, Quaternary Science Reviews, 26, 56).

But since the mid-Pleistocene transition (not precisely since, this happens intermittently before that time) glacial changes are dominated by a 100,000-year cycle. The behavior during the "late Pleistocene" was originally attributed to changes in earth's eccentricity, but that idea has now fallen out of favor. Huybers & Wunsch (2005, Nature, 434, 491) and Huybers (Quaternary Science Reviews, 26, 37) have convincingly shown that even during the late Pleistocene, the timing of deglaciations is strongly correlated to the obliquity cycle. They find no such relationship for the precession cycle or the eccentricity cycle.

(This comment seems to be by someone the scientists who run Real Climate trust.)

And this comment is make by one of the Real Climate authors, in response to the question of when would we be next due for an ice age were it not for global warming:

We've just come out of one of the big every-100KYr glaciations, and the normal course of events is to build up to another biggy through a series of small, short glaciations over the next 100KYr. In the normal course of events, the first try at an ice age would be due sometime in the next 20,000 years but I myself wouldn't try to pin it down more than that. One of the most interesting attempts so far to say what global warming might do to the glacial cycle is in the paper (pdf) by Archer and Ganopolski that appeared in the AGU journal GGG. I'll leave it to David to say whether that has been followed up by more detailed GCM work.

By the way, I don't post this to express scepticism about legitimate concern over CO2 levels, but it is interesting that something as significant as ice ages are not properly understood yet.

Japanese culture corner

The Japan Times has an article about the declining popularity of period drama in Japan. You know: samurai, ninja, some very strange haircuts and all. The casual visitor to Japan will still find quite a bit of it on TV, but apparently not as much as before.

I guess it's a similar phenomena to the decline of the Western as a genre. Anyone who was a child in the '60's can remember just how many cowboy and wild west shows were made in those days. I suspect the 1950's was probably the height of its popularity in the cinema, but I could be wrong. TV now is dominated by gritty crime shows, I suppose, and plain crap of all varieties. (Someday, a good sitcom about adults that doesn't always deal with sex will emerge again.)

Anyway, this got me thinking about the one childhood Japanese show that I can recall - The Samurai. The Wikipedia entry is relatively short, but points out that the show was very popular in Japan, Australia and the Phillipines, but was hardly shown anywhere else. How odd.

For those who can vaguely recall what the lead character Shintaro looked like, here he is:

(The picture is from a small fansite here.) Not exactly rugged good looks, but a sister-in-law of mine used to swoon over him, so she tells me.

I think most kids were most impressed by the evil ninja who jumped up backwards into trees, snuck around the houses with paper walls, and had an endless supply of throwing stars.

It would probably be seen as hopelessly violent for children today.

Pearson visits home

For a depressing first hand account about aboriginal life in his home town in Cape York, Noel Pearson's column from Saturday's Australian is worth reading.

Talk about your intractable social problems. It's also interesting to note yet again how communities as a whole faired so much better under the Christian mission system.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Easy global cooling?

I don't think I have seen this exact suggestion before:

Benford has a proposal that possesses the advantages of being both one of the simplest planet-cooling technologies so far suggested and being initially testable in a local context. He suggests suspension of tiny, harmless particles (sized at one-third of a micron) at about 80,000 feet up in the stratosphere. These particles could be composed of diatomaceous earth. "That's silicon dioxide, which is chemically inert, cheap as earth, and readily crushable to the size we want," Benford says. This could initially be tested, he says, over the Arctic, where warming is already considerable and where few human beings live. Arctic atmospheric circulation patterns would mostly confine the deployed particles around the North Pole. An initial experiment could occur north of 70 degrees latitude, over the Arctic Sea and outside national boundaries. "The fact that such an experiment is reversible is just as important as the fact that it's regional," says Benford.

"Benford" is Gregory Benford, the scientist/science fiction writer. A couple of years ago he was in Canberra talking up the prospects of a rotating space mirror as an engineering solution to global warming. He is evidently looking at more down to earth options now.

The quote is from Technology Review, which seems a pretty neat publication generally. What it doesn't explain is how to get the silicon dioxide up there, and how long it will stay. I thought you also were not supposed to breath the stuff (from what I recall of using diatomaceous earth in an old pool filter,) so I am not sure what is meant to happen when it comes back to earth.

Friday, February 16, 2007

The history of declining birthrates

An interesting short article here about some research looking at why women have fewer children:

Before the 1800s, children were educated at home or in church. Children became more expensive to care for and less helpful around the house once public schooling became available. At the same time, women were freed up from all-day children-rearing, allowing mothers to enter the paid labor force.

However, money isn't the only incentive for smaller families, experts say.

"We know for sure that you don't have to reach a high level of per capita income for fertility to decline, but we don't know exactly what sets it off," said historian George Atler at Indiana University. "Whether it's general change or attitudes about birth control is still a question debated among demographers today.

It's interesting, but still doesn't help answer why some Muslim countries have such high birth rates. I can't say I have ever seen much explanation of that.

Who knows...

..what is going on in Antarctica? A couple of reports around today show the uncertainty about that icy pole:

First one:

A new report on climate over the world’s southernmost continent shows that temperatures during the late 20th century did not climb as had been predicted by many global climate models....

“It’s hard to see a global warming signal from the mainland of Antarctica right now,” he said. “Part of the reason is that there is a lot of variability there. It’s very hard in these polar latitudes to demonstrate a global warming signal. This is in marked contrast to the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula that is one of the most rapidly warming parts of the Earth.”

Bromwich says that the problem rises from several complications. The continent is vast, as large as the United States and Mexico combined. Only a small amount of detailed data is available – there are perhaps only 100 weather stations on that continent compared to the thousands spread across the U.S. and Europe. And the records that we have only date back a half-century.

The second report is about vast amounts of water under the ice:

Scientists using NASA satellites have discovered an extensive network of waterways beneath a fast-moving Antarctic ice stream that provide clues as to how "leaks" in the system impact sea level and the world's largest ice sheet. Antarctica holds about 90 percent of the world's ice and 70 percent of the world's reservoir of fresh water.

It's a very interesting place.

Ranking the sharks

It turns out that Australia is not the top country for shark attacks at all, which comes as a bit of a disappointment in a way:

The number of attacks in the United States, the world’s leader, dipped slightly from 40 in 2005 to 38 in 2006; well below the 53 recorded in 2000, he said.

As in past years, Florida was the world’s shark capital, with 23 attacks, Burgess said. This was slightly higher than the 19 cases reported in 2005 but considerably lower than the annual average of 33 between 2000 and 2003, he said.

Elsewhere in the world, Burgess tracked seven attacks in Australia, four in South Africa, three in Brazil, two in the Bahamas and one each in Fiji, Guam, Mexico, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, La Reunion, Spain and Tonga.

Someone should do it on a per capita basis to get a better idea of how competitive our sharks are internationally.

The Catholics take over

The Times reports that Catholicism is becoming the most practised faith in England, due to European migration:

Average Sunday attendance of both churches stood even at nearly one million in 2005, according to the latest statistics available for England and Wales, but the attendance at Mass is expected to soar.

A Church of England spokesman said: “I don’t think you can talk in terms of decline in the Church of England. It is fairly clear that with small fluctuations the worshipping population of the Church of England is 1.7 million a month. That is actually a stable figure.”

But looking at the total numbers shows how very, very few Anglicans attend church:

Figures for 2005 show that there are 4.2 million Catholics in England and Wales, under one fifth the 25 million baptised Anglicans and double the number of Muslims.

If it's anything like here, the migrants are going to have to bring their own priests with them. It will also be interesting to see if it means a more conservative Church, and a more conservative influence on politics. I certainly get the impression that the Tories have virtually given up on espousing anything much resembling social conservatism.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

On a meta-blogging note...

I find it odd that those posts which I consider most worthwhile are often the ones that attract the least comment, and do not get linked to anywhere else. It would be good if there was a simple way for readers to just mark how interesting they find a post, rather than having to comment.

Anyway, a blog like one is just as much use to myself in terms of keeping track of articles and thoughts as it is a popularity exercise. But it would be nice to have a better idea about what sort of posts I make that have the most interest to most people.

I must go over to Catallaxy and read the recent reader's analysis post. I haven't got around to that yet...

Hitchens and Hillary

If you missed Christopher Hitchens' recent Slate article about Hillary Clinton and her credibility problems over Iraq, you should have a read.

Great moments in Council politics

If you thought soccer players could ham it up, you ain't seen nothing yet:

Some interesting energy stories

1. The anti-wind crusade of this blog continues with an article from American Spectator. (Mind you, one article there also positively welcomes global warming.) Apart from the important stuff about the difficulties of actually using the electricity they generate, here's a bit of information that surprised me:

The standard 1.5 MW structure is now 40 stories, taller than the statue of liberty. The 3 MW towers waiting in the wings are as tall as New York's Citicorp Center, the third tallest building in Manhattan.

That is big.

2. This story was in Newsweek in January, but I missed it 'til now:

The Kremlin has set about recasting Russia's once top-secret nuclear industry as the world's leading mass marketer of cheap, reliable reactors. As energy prices soar, nuclear power has been gaining in popularity, and Russia is the market leader in cut-price reactors....

"Our power stations are not a bit worse than anyone else's," says Sergei Shmatko, the president of Atomstroyexport, Russia's atomic-power-station construction company. "My dream," he adds, "is to make the export and construction of our nuclear stations as simple and as fast as putting IKEA furniture together."

3. My favourite underdog in the clean energy stakes, the Pebble Bed Reactor, continues to attract very little attention here, but in South Africa it is definitely going ahead after appeals against development approval were rejected. First demonstration plant due by 2010, and commercial modules may be available by 2013.

The cut that might sent you mad!

A very interesting article here suggesting that there may be a connection between vasectomies and certain types of dementia.

I wonder whether such a connection might only be noticed now due to (what I presume was) the relative infrequency of the operation until about the 1970's. Is the first big wave of men who had the operation only now reaching advanced ages?

(There is also the issue of how the operation is done. From what I read, sealing both ends was popular, but appears to be associated with increased risk of long term pain as a side effect. The new trend is therefore to leave the tap open, so to speak. This was the subject of my previous post here.)

More research needed, but personally I have never liked the idea of letting one's "boys" get out into the blood stream where they don't belong.

A new type of black hole to ask CERN about, as well as "bubbles of nothing"

New Scientist notes that a new type of black hole appears theoretically possible - a "black saturn":

Just like the central black hole, the ring would be defined by its event horizon, a boundary beyond which nothing can escape the object's gravity. The ring could be thin like a rubber band or fat like a doughnut, and the rotation would flatten it – "like a doughnut that you have squashed," says Elvang. The spinning ring would also drag space-time around with it, making the central black hole spin as well.

The black Saturn can only exist in a space with four dimensions, rather than the three we inhabit. In 3D, a black ring is impossible, so there are no big black Saturns out there for astronomers to spot – but at a microscopic level, they might really exist....

If extra dimensions exist, black Saturns might be produced in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator in Geneva, due to open at the end of 2007. Because there are so many ways to make a black Saturn, with different sizes of ring and different spins, they might even be produced in greater numbers than 'ordinary' black holes.

Actually, I had noticed the arxiv paper on this recently, but as it was not clear whether the authors thought they may be made by a particle accelerator, I did not post about it.

New Scientist notes that, as with any micro black hole, the physicists expect it will evaporate instantaneously into Hawking Radiation, but as long time readers are aware, a few credible scientists wonder whether HR really exists.

So, if a stable (non evaporating) "black saturn" is created, would its ability to absorb particles be greater that your "normal" micro black hole? How would a string of them created close together interact? Let a bunch of slow moving ones sink into the centre of the earth and what happens?

Of course, CERN's other big argument against there being any danger from micro black holes is that the moon and earth have been bombarded by cosmic rays with much higher energies for billions of years, so if they are still here any micro black holes that can be created are not planet eaters. However, as long time readers would know, there are arguments that question this analysis. (Basically, ones created at CERN may be slow moving and readily fall into the earth. Ones made by cosmic rays move fast and may zip right through most astronomical bodies)

(One day I will get around to tagging my old posts on micro black holes, but my first long article is here. For the others, a use the blog search on this page and they will all appear.)

My argument remains that CERN appears to have done a poor job at taking risk analysis seriously. They have very high expectation that HR is really the answer, even though this radiation has not been observed anywhere. (Yet it is possible that the decay debris could be observed in the Earth's atmosphere if evaporating micro black holes are being created there by cosmic ray collisions. It is just, I think, that not enough experimental work has been done yet to clearly answer the question of whether it is there.)

There is plenty of theoretical work coming out all the time that raises questions about the very nature of black holes and their decay process that should be taken into account in proper risk assessment. If CERN is actually looking at each case and coming up with good reasons why they are not a risk, even if HR does not exist, it would nice of them to tell us. Instead, it seems to just all be on a "trust us we know what we are doing" basis.

Here's one other thing I have been reading about lately: the idea of "bubbles of nothing" being created as part of black hole decay. Some of these, if I understand it correctly, could expand and be a danger. As noted in a recent arxiv paper:

Horowitz [20] has recently argued that a class of charged bubbles of nothing are a possible
decay product of black holes/strings/branes in quantum gravity. If true this would be a new,
unsuspected and disastrous endpoint of quantum black hole dynamics.

They don't explain exactly what they mean by "disastrous endpoint", but I would like to know more. (It may be that the authors of the paper think there is no danger anyway, but they do not write in anything resembling plain enough English for the layperson to understand their points.)

Has CERN looked at this work? Are there reasons to also question the "cosmic ray" analogy that I expect may also be used to argue against danger?

All question worth asking, I think, but getting answers is not easy.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Why 6 megapixels is all you'll need

While you are at the New York Times, have a look at this article explaining some tests done to see how much difference megapixels above 6 make to digital photo enlargement. Answer: most people can't tell the difference.

If a 6 megapixel camera is all that any amateur photographer really needs, and this is virtually the entry level size now, what features are the manufacturers going to come up with to entice us to keep upgrading?

Why England won't disappear under ice any time soon

An article in the New York Times explains why the Atlantic gulf stream current is not as significant as most people think. It is not solely responsible for keeping England warm, and so even if it weakens the glaciers would be some time coming. (I had read this elsewhere, but think I may have forgotten to post about it.)

Good to see such reporting in the NYT.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Obama reviewed

The Weekly Standard has a fairly detailed, and relatively sympathetic, review of Barack Obama's books, particularly his earlier autobiographical one.

The overall feeling you get, though, is that his life experiences so far mean that he is not exactly ready for the Presidency.

A Steyn recommendation

It's been a while since I recommended a Mark Steyn column, but this new one (from Macleans 12 Feb) is pretty good. (It's about D'Souza's controversial views on how much you can blame the Left for "causing" 9-11.)

Michael Ware - journalist?

I know that Tim Blair claims him as a friend, but the reporting style of Australian journalist Michael Ware has long irritated me.

To hear why, you should listen to his report on the state of Iraq on Radio National this morning. (You have to listen to it to get the full Steve Irwin-esque style of his delivery.)

He brings no sense of objectivity to his reporting, and in this he reminds me a lot of Robert Fisk.

Possibly encouraging news on glaciers

Two of Greenland's largest glaciers shrank dramatically and dumped twice as much ice into the sea during a period of less than a year between 2004 and 2005. And then, less than two years later, they returned to near their previous rates of discharge.

The variability over such a short time, reported online Feb. 9 on Science magazine's Science Express, underlines the problem in assuming that glacial melting and sea level rise will necessarily occur at a steady upward trajectory, according to lead author Ian Howat, a post-doctoral researcher with the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory and the University of Colorado's National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The article is here.

I also see it appeared in the New York Times on 8 February. A Google news search indicates it has not been picked up in any Australian media. Typical.

Fat doctor

I saw a little of "Dr" Gillian McKeith on her TV show "You are what you eat" last year, I think.

When she insisted on checking some unfortunate woman's poo, and then gave it a very bad visual assessment, any vague credibility she had went out the window for me. After all, anyone can have a bad poo day, can't they? (Sorry, I won't go any further in explanation.)

There is a very long and detailed article attacking Gillian McKeith in The Guardian. She does indeed appear to have very dubious qualifications, but she aggressively attacks people who question her pearls of wisdom. Worth reading if you have ever seen her show.

About Obama

A column in The Times ridicules the prospect of Obama actually becoming President:

...Mr Obama is spectacularly underqualified to be President. He has been in the Senate for 25 months. There are probably craftsman repairing things in that building who have been there longer. The notion that being no more than an enthusiastic tourist in the American capital is the same thing as serving an apprenticeship to become the most powerful person on the planet is profoundly disturbing.

The United States once had a race problem in that black people were effectively excluded from the political process. Forty years on it has the reverse dilemma — those who would dismiss a white figure because he was unprepared for the most prominent national position will not do the same for a black one.

The whole thing is worth reading.

Howard & Obama

As usual, I agree with Gerard Henderson's analysis of this incident that is causing undue excitement on the anti-Howard side .

One point I want to make is about the use of parliamentary censure. It is, I reckon, one of the most overused tactics, as it seems to me to rarely make a difference to public perception of a matter. It is, instead, all about the atmosphere in Parliament itself, and about the confidence of both sides. Canberra journalists love it, because the theatre of Parliament is their bread and butter. But really, the question of who wins this type of debate, where the outcome of the vote is clear from the start and it will make no difference to public voting intentions, makes politicians appear far too absorbed in the game of politics, rather the serious issue of making and implementing good policy.

Just my opinion.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

YouTube time

A search for David Byrne videos turned up this one today: his terrific version of "Don't Fence Me In".

Remember to sign that mortgage first

American Express charge cards are supposed to have no set limit on them, so I am told, but I don't ever expect to test it by using it for a Saturday night dinner like this one:

BANGKOK: A $29,000-a-head gourmet dinner in Bangkok is making some Thais feel a bit sick.

Fifteen international high-rollers from the world of real estate, casinos and shipping have already booked seats for the black-tie dinner Saturday, which comes with a price tag of 1 million baht, or $29,240, plus 17 percent service and tax...

The Mezzaluna manager, Deepak Ohri, defended the all-European menu and said it was impossible to start making price comparisons.

"We are not selling a meal — we are selling the whole experience," he said. "You cannot put a value on the experience."

Preparing for doom

The Norwegians really are preparing to build a "doomsday vault" to keep seed in? Very nice of them, but why would Norway in particular do this?

The decline of Christian Europe

Interesting article in The Times about the number of Christian churches closing, and mosques opening, in England:

Just one tenth of the nation’s Christians attends church, and churches are now closing faster than mosques are opening. Practising Muslims will, in a few decades, outnumber practising Christians if current trends continue.

Very "Mark Steyn" territory.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Big Mac economics

The Economist publishes its Big Mac index again.

I note that Iceland, Norway, Denmark and Switzerland all have greatly over-priced Big Macs. Indonesia and Thailand are some of the cheapest around. Why does cold weather make
hamburgers more expensive?

In Japan, even the underworld is polite

I am not sure that you would see this degree of co-operation in, say, the Mafia:

The nation's two largest underworld syndicates reached a truce Thursday following recent shootings that sparked fears of a full-scale turf war and prompted police to raid one of the groups believed involved in the violence.

Kobe-based Yamaguchi-gumi and Tokyo-based Sumiyoshi-kai separately reported to the Metropolitan Police Department on Thursday afternoon that they made peace in the wake of Monday's gunning down of a senior Sumiyoshi-kai member, MPD officials said.

Investigators hope the recent violence -- believed part of a turf war between the two crime syndicates -- will halt with Thursday's truce, but said they will continue to monitor the mob's activities.

Nice of them to keep everyone informed.

From another part of the Japan Times, there is an article about the number of Yakuza the police know about:

Full-time yakuza numbered 41,500, while part-timers or semiregular members -- those not directly affiliated with the mob -- increased slightly to 43,200. In 1991, there were an estimated 63,800 full-time mobsters, and some 27,200 part-timers.

In reality, yakuza are appearing to detach themselves from full-time mob activity by engaging in business, political or social activities in a bid to camouflage their underworld affiliation, the NPA said.

This yakuza system is difficult to understand from the Western point of view. It seems extremely well tracked by the police, which makes it sound semi-tolerated. I should go looking around the internet for some background information...

Edwards doomed

Huffington Post is linking to a story that says John Edwards has not sacked Marcotte & McEwen.

If they survive, Edwards is dead in the water, as far as Presidential aspirations go.

By the way, few seem to have noticed this column in Huffington Post that came out shortly after Michelle Malkin had the hide to point out how offensive Marcotte & McEwen had been in their blogs. Here's an extract from the HP column:

The basic story is that uber-moronic Right-tards such as Michelle Malkin, whose IQ has been in an internment camp for the better part of her life, thinks it's really bad that Amanda said words like "fuck" on her blog.

(As if Malkin's criticism was about the use of one word.)

How much sense does it make to answer criticism of immature, intemperate and offensive expression of political views by making your own immature, offensive and intemperate attack?

Now for a discouraging Iraq story

From The Times, a Sunni doctor tells about why he left the country.

But then again, the deputy Health Minister is arrested for supporting murder.

There seems a chance of improvement, at least.

Some slight optimism

There's an interesting IHT report about how things have improved in Sadr City in Baghdad. What's most important, perhaps, is the indication that the Mahdi Army seems more co-operative than before:

Sadr officials — seemingly determined to bleach clean the Mahdi image — said that the militia's members would disarm temporarily during the Baghdad security plan. Even if Sunnis attacked, even if American and Iraqi troops arrested Mahdi commanders, they said, the militia would not fight.

"Whatever the provocation, with the surge against us or anything else, we will not kidnap anyone or take revenge by ourselves," said Daraji, the Sadr City mayor, who has been negotiating with American and Iraqi government officials over the role of the militia. "We will leave everything to the government."

Of course, if things go back to shooting Americans after the security crackdown, little will have been achieved. And, as the article points out, Sunni areas are being left without services, which presumably encourages Sunni insurgency.

Ah well, I still take some slight encouragement from the story.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

First reaction: not enough toilets

Airbus took 200 journalists on a spin in the new super-gigantic A380.

From the IHT report:

The novelty began at the gate, which offered upper- and lower-deck access to the plane. Emirates, the largest customer for the A380, plans to put premium and economy-class seats on separate decks — as on an ocean liner — allowing people to board from their VIP lounges.

I can see a new version of Titanic in this. Except I guess I would generally feel safer on the lower deck this time (unless they had to evacuate the aircraft.)

But the crucial thing about long distance flight is the number of toilets:

Packed full of seats, the A380 can seat up 840 people. Airbus used this plane for evacuation drills last year, and it said all 840 were able to pile out in 78 seconds. It is not clear what would happen if they needed to use the toilet simultaneously.

Speaking of toilets, there were 15 on this A380, including one in the first-class cabin that has a window above the commode. Except for the view, its cramped confines did not invite loitering.

Let's see, that is about one toilet for 56 people. Maybe even worse on the "economy" level. Can that be enough for a 840 person configuration?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Judging inequality

Tim Worstall has an interesting article on judging the morality of income inequality, especially when it comes to globalisation. His conclusion:

Leaving all other matters aside, we expect globalization to produce a rise in income inequality in the United States (and the other industrialized societies). We also expect it to raise incomes in the poor countries and thus reduce global income inequality. That does indeed seem to be what is actually happening.

Whether this is a good or a bad thing to be happening is another matter entirely, that depends upon our own moral senses.... this particular instance I find that my own answer is quite simple. Those poor who are getting richer in other countries are not moving from one level of luxury to a slightly higher one. They are moving from destitution, from not knowing where the next meal is coming from, to something close to a middle class income. They are doing this in their hundreds of millions, across the globe, and that has to be a good thing.

Note that he hasn't mentioned the issue of income mobility in the United States too, which is relevant to the morality argument too.

For all your camel milking needs...

go to Israel! Yes, even when it comes to camel milking systems (who knew there was a market for it?) Israel seems to lead the way in the Middle East. (The article notes that a company in Dubai bought a 48 camel milking system "largely manufactured" in Israel from an Israeli company. Israel and Dubai do not have diplomatic relations.)

Meanwhile, in Saudi Arabia, the ban on Israeli goods continues:

RIYADH, 4 January 2007 — Director General of Saudi Customs Saleh Al-Barak reiterated that the Saudi regulations do not permit the import of goods manufactured in Israel.

“The official regulation followed by every customs house at the Kingdom’s border crosspoints is a total ban on any goods of Israeli origin,” Al-Watan Arabic newspaper quoted Saleh Al-Barak as saying yesterday.

Anyone found breaking the regulation would be treated as a smuggler of contraband goods to the Kingdom and fined accordingly and the seized goods destroyed, the director general said.

Says something about the Middle East, doesn't it?

What happens when it rains?

Also in the Guardian, Katherine Hamnett gets very, very excited about concentrated solar power as a source of clean energy. (Just like the trial power station the Australian Federal government is helping to fund.)

Problem is, as far as I can see, the article says nothing about what happens if a protracted cloudy period covers the power stations. Still, if environmentalists don't go nuts about tens of square kilometres of desert being covered by mirrors, I guess it could help, provided you don't lose much of the benefit in the process of getting the electricity the hundreds of miles to where it is needed.

At least if you use solar power to do the direct electrolysis of water into hydrogen, you have something you can store to generate power later. Someone's looked at that, I assume?

Monbiot right

George Monbiot does have his weird obsessions (aircraft and CO2 for one), but he is sensible enough to get upset about loopy 9/11 conspiracies. Of course, for full enjoyment you should then read the comments of people who think George will "regret the day" he rubbished the idea.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On military commissions

There's a really good article at Frontpage providing background and history on the reasons for using military commissions for terrorist trials in the USA.

Sperm for the taking

Slate summaries a recent bizarre case of making babies from a dead man:

With court approval, Israeli parents are using their dead son's sperm to inseminate a woman he never knew. It appears to be the first explicit legal authorization to make a baby using a corpse and a stranger. Argument from the dead man's mother: "He would always talk about how he wanted to get married and have children." After he died, "His eyes he told me that it wasn't too late, and that there was still something to take from him. … Then I realized it was his sperm."

That last line is both funny and creepy.

Actually, the Chicago Tribune version of the story (linked to by Slate) gives some even weirder detail. After her son's death:

A year went by, and the bereaved mother saw her son in a dream. "He said, `What about my children? Why aren't you doing anything about it?'" Cohen said. "I woke up shaking and told my husband that we have to do something."

This has a quasi-biblical feel about it. A new form of virgin birth for a child heralded in a dream.

Completely indefensible action by the parents and court, in my opinion.

Bad astronaut?

A female astronaut seems to have gone nuts over a relationship issue:

A NASA astronaut is charged with attacking her rival for another astronaut's attention early Monday at Orlando International Airport, the Orlando Sentinel has learned.

Lisa Marie Nowak drove from Texas to meet the 1 a.m. flight of a younger woman who had also been seeing the male astronaut Nowak pined for, according to Orlando police.

It's all trenchcoats, stalking and other fun stuff. Lucky this is sorted out on the ground and not the shuttle!

Walking bags of microbes

If you have any latent phobic about what is on your skin, perhaps it is better you don't know this:

In research published on Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Blaser and his colleagues took swabs from the forearms of six healthy people to study the bacterial populations in human skin -- our largest organ.

"We identify about 182 species," Blaser said in an interview. "And based on those numbers, we estimate there are probably at least 250 species in the skin."...

The researchers noted that microbes in the body actually outnumber human cells 10-to-1.

"Our microbes are actually, in essence, a part of our body," Blaser said.

Super-intelligent emotionless artificial intelligences of the future should not know this information: they may consider killing humans as nothing more than microbe pest control.

Monday, February 05, 2007

A late weekend video

Last weekend I missed posting a Youtube. Turns out there's plenty of David Byrne stuff there. This song comes from his early solo period, with its heavy South American influence. I had never seen a clip for it before. (Actually, it's not visually all that interesting, but the music makes me very feel very happy.)


This promises to be a busy month for me at work. I'm seriously thinking about a blogging hiatus, unless of course an insanely generous reader relieves the financial reasons I really need to concentrate on work. (Ha!)

Anyway, we'll see how we go. Blogging at night might still be OK, but even so it is far too easy for me to be distracted by looking at the web all day for interesting articles to post about.

For example, here's a few things of interest that I see right now:

* Newsweek says China might want to go to the Moon to mine it for Helium 3. Seems to me it would be a good idea if you knew fusion reactors using it would actually work. (Maybe there is a bit of chicken or egg problem here, though.) Also, this line in the article caught my eye:

If significant deposits are found, China's engineers still need to design the world's first lunar mining machines and send them up—while the rest of us shrink in horror at the thought of strip mines on the moon.

Hey don't mark me up as one of the horrified. What exactly is the problem here? It's a sterile, pre-cratered landscape with no obvious inhabitants to upset by having the view from their condo ruined. Does lunar dirt have an inherent right to lie unmoved except by the next meteor?

* Legal battles over movie deals get a lot of coverage in the LA Times, being the industry town that it is. The latest is about "Sahara", which did look expensive on the screen, and was (I thought) very well directed for an action film. Unfortunately, it also starred Matthew McConaughey, a male lead who for some reason I have always found irritating.

Anyway, a reclusive multi-billionaire lost $110 million on the film and isn't happy. The story is of moderate interest.

* Paul Sheehan must be running the risk of getting death threats himself (or maybe he already has?) with articles about Islam in Europe like this one.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Half a story

Popular press reporting of global warming issues continues to irritate. The big news this morning: recent sea level rises are higher than the 2001 prediction. From the SMH:

SEA levels are rising faster than the International Panel on Climate Change predicted, showing computer models have tended to underestimate the problem.

Since 1993 sea levels have climbed at a rate of 3.3 millimetres a year, compared with the panel's best estimate for this period of less than 2 millimetres a year.

The only hint of uncertainty in the report is on the pessimistic side. (A CSIRO scientist is quoted as saying that the contribution of melting ice sheets is still not properly quantified.)

However, in their report on the same story in Nature is this:

Rahmstorf and his colleagues calculate that sea-level rise over the past 20 years has been 25% faster than for any other 20-year period for more than a century. But they accept that this could be due simply to natural variations over decadal timescales. "Sea-level rise has been tracking along the uppermost limit for 16 years now, but it could still be decadal variability, so we don't predict that this will continue," Rahmstorf says.

Another study published last month2 suggests that sea-level rises during the twentieth century were indeed very variable. According to calculations by Simon Holgate of the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory in Liverpool, UK, sea levels rose by an average of more than 2 millimetres per year in the first half of the century, but by less than 1.5 millimetres per year on average in the latter half.

The uncertainty could cut both ways, then.

In any event, those who worry about Tuvalu have to remember that the ocean was still rising at 2mm per year in the first half of the 20th century. (In fact, note how the rate dropped in the second half.) Now it is rising at 3 mm per annum. Tuvalu was never a long term proposition even without global warming.

One other point: the SMH article says this:

In a separate study in the same journal, Helen McGregor, of the University of Wollongong, has found global warming has already changed ocean currents in a way that could have a serious impact on fisheries.

Her team's research off the north-west coast of Africa shows it has led to an increase in a phenomenon called ocean upwelling, in which deep, cold water, usually rich in nutrients, moves upwards to replace warmer surface water.

"Our research suggests that upwelling will continue to intensify with future greenhouse warming, potentially impacting the sensitive ecosystems and fisheries in these regions," Dr McGregor said.

Again, note the emphasis on pessimism. Yet only a few days before, we had this story:

The world's oceans are already in a warming trend that could alter fish stocks, perhaps damaging coral reefs that are vital nurseries for tropical species while boosting northern stocks of cod or herring...

In a sign of how higher temperatures might help some fish stocks, a period of warmer waters in the 1920s allowed cod to spawn off Greenland and let a new stock break away from Icelandic waters. In the cooler 1960s, cod were unable to reproduce off Greenland and the stock collapsed.

[I would also have thought that cold water upwellings rich in nutrients would be good for plankton growth, which is a major CO2 sink. It has long been suggested that Ocean Thermal Power Generation would have this as a side benefit.]

So lets get it right people: oceans have been warming and cooling even before current global warming. It had already had major effects on fish populations a century ago. It will continue to affect fish, with some winners and some losers. (Everyone used to bemoan the loss of cod fisheries. Now that global warming may help them, the tragedy will be fewer tropical fish. )

What bugs me most about this is that it is teaching pessimism to our children. Apart from what children read for themselves in the press, there will be lot of school teachers who pass this on, as they often don't show much inclination towards independent thought. (Sorry, they do a hard job, but you know that is true.)

Wait for the wave of pessimism when the entire IPCC report comes out.

UPDATE: just to be clear, I do take CO2 levels seriously, as explained in a few posts last year. It is just that I don't see any benefit in promoting pessimism as the response to the issue. The attitude I want is optimism that effective action can be taken, and an acknowledgement that things were never static and perfect in the global environment anyway. (Just ask the dinosaurs and the Australian megafauna, the latter increasingly looking like an example of very early technology causing havoc. As for aborigines "living in harmony with the land for 50,000 years": well yeah, after they changed the landscape entirely by fire and hunting.)

Thursday, February 01, 2007

When natural is not good

Quite a surprising story in New Scientist should have parents who are into essential oils looking carefully at the products they use on their kids:

Three young boys grew breast tissue after exposure to lotions and shampoos containing lavender or tea tree oil, researchers say.

It is not uncommon for boys to develop breast tissue during puberty or just after, but the boys affected by the plant oils were aged four, seven and 10.

The natural oils may be “gender-bending” chemicals mimicking effects of the female hormone, oestrogen, the findings suggest. The boys were otherwise normal, and lost the breast tissue within months of discontinuing use of the products.

Bone digs Cohen

Pamela Bone gives her support to the views of Nick Cohen, which I have previously recommended reading.

One point I may have missed making in my previous post is this one taken up by Bone in her final paragraphs:

The Left used to be about the future and improving the lot of mankind. The problem for it today, as Cohen points out, is that it has got most of what it wanted. Although there is still a way to go, the Left of a century ago would see the prosperity of today's workers, the equal opportunity laws, the intellectual freedoms, as a paradise. It is harder today to see yourself as a victim of a pernicious system.

So the Left now is about resistance to material progress, to globalisation, and most of all to American power. There is plenty to criticise about Western lifestyles. Still, it should be obvious to all but the most blinkered that the system the US wants to impose on the Middle East is far better than the system the Islamists want to impose on us. Democracy is at least self-correcting. I hope the wearers of the "George Bush, World's No.1 terrorist" T-shirts, never have to find that out.

Affluenza attacked

Tim Blair and many others have looked at Oliver James and his book on "affluenza", but here's another good criticism of it by David Finkelstein at The Times. An extract:

The central contention of Affluenza is, oddly, contained in an appendix. Here it is posited that there is “a strong and statistically significant linear Pearson correlation between the prevalence of any emotional distress and income inequality”. In other words, in countries where there is high inequality, there appear to be high levels of emotional distress. James uses this statistical relationship to go further than other “happiness” theorists. Where they argue that greater prosperity has not produced greater levels of happiness, he argues that what he calls “selfish capitalism” has produced inequality and, through it, mental illness.

The whole book rests on this.

Finkelstein mentions two possible alternative explanations:

Let me provide an alternative, much less comfortable, explanation of increased rates of mental illness in developed countries — social mobility. In his compelling book The Scent of Dried Roses, Tim Lott tries to make sense of his own encounters with mental illness, including his suicidal depression. He concludes that the disappearance of the English lower middle class from which he came and his own rise (he is now a justly successful novelist, then already well on his way) made him feel disorientated. He lost a sense of who he was, a sense of his story.

I find this very convincing. But its implications are disturbing. It suggests that the best way for James to reduce Affluenza would be for everyone to know their place. With fewer aspirations and ambitions people might be more content. I don’t think he, or the other happiness theorists for that matter, are far away from this view. James is already pretty scathing about the consequences of the drive towards female equality. And if he is right that China and Nigeria are happier (or at least have less emotional distress), presumably they would be better off staying as they are.

And here’s another explanation — not selfish capitalism but secular liberalism. Aren’t the decline of the nuclear family, the questioning of bourgeois values and doubts about the existence of God more likely causes of emotional discomfort than James’s ridiculous choice of policies on the regulation of the electricity industry?