Sunday, January 31, 2010

Typical Democrats

Apart from the original race to the Moon being a Democrat initiative, it seems that since the 1970's, Democrat Presidents have only ever been about cut backs and bad news for the American space program. This tradition is, as I pretty much expected, continuing under Obama with this annoucement that the manned space program is going to yet again be stuck in low earth orbit indefinitely.

They (Democrats) seemingly have no vision about the future at all. I mean, does anyone feel that Obama actually has any daring in his approach to the energy future of the US or the world?


Saturday, January 30, 2010

Japanese economic woes

BBC News - Japan deflation hits a record pace to threaten recovery

On the up side, I guess this makes it more attractive for tourists.

(Jetstar continues to offer ridiculously cheap air fares to there from time to time. About $650 return from the Gold Coast.)

Friday, January 29, 2010

The silence of the planets

I didn't realise Frank Drake, who kicked off the idea of SETI, was still alive.

But he recently spoke at the Royal Society and explained that changes to broadcast technology is making the earth harder to hear from afar:

"The trouble is that we are making ourselves more and more difficult to be heard," said Dr Drake. "We are broadcasting in much more efficient ways today and are making our signals fainter and fainter."

In the past, TV and radio programmes were broadcast from huge ground stations that transmitted signals at thousands of watts. These could be picked up relatively easily across the depths of space, astronomers calculated.

Now, most TV and radio programmes are transmitted from satellites that typically use only 75 watts and have aerials pointing toward Earth, rather than into space.

"For good measure, in America we have switched from analogue to digital broadcasting and you are going to do the same in Britain very soon," Drake added. "When you do that, your transmissions will become four times fainter because digital uses less power."

"Very soon we will become undetectable," he said. In short, in space no one will hear us at all.

What is true for humans would probably also be true for aliens...
I have a vague recollection of Arthur C Clarke also saying that this would happen. Mind you, I am not entirely sure it is a good idea to make your presence known in the universe, so a bit of quiet from planet Earth might be a good thing.

It is complicated

Water vapour could be behind warming slowdown : Nature News

This article talks about a new suggestion that a drop in stratospheric water vapour might account for a (relative) levelling out of global temperatures in the last decade:

...a team led by researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Boulder, Colorado, report that a mysterious 10% drop in water vapour in the stratosphere — the atmospheric layer that sits 10–50 kilometres above Earth's surface — since 2000 could have offset the expected warming due to greenhouse gases by roughly 25%. Just as intriguingly, their model suggests that an increase in stratospheric water vapour might have boosted earlier warming by about 30% in the 1980s and 1990s. The team's work is published online by Science today1.

The effect on temperature is dominated by water vapour in the lower part of the stratosphere, which absorbs and radiates heat in much the same way as water molecules and other greenhouse gases do in the lower atmosphere. The drop in water vapour doesn't explain the entire decrease in the rate of warming, but it could contribute to it, says Susan Solomon, first author of the study
It all seems a very tentative idea though:

Other researchers see different factors at play in the recent temperature trends. A study published last year3 hones in on the solar cycle and the El NiƱo Southern Oscillation, an upwelling of warm surface waters in the tropical Pacific. Both have been in their negative phases for most of the decade so temperatures may rise as they move into their positive phases.

"I think it's exciting that this [transition] is happening, because we are going to learn a lot," says Judith Lean, a solar physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington DC, who co-authored last year's study3 with David Rind, a climate modeller at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York.

The article seems to indicate that no one knows what water vapour in the stratosphere will do in the future.

Other researchers think current models account for the occasional decade long stall in increasing temperatures and it's not a good idea to worry too much about the issue anyway.

You can bet, however, that skeptics will seize on this paper, with their attitude that if something is not completely understood, you don't do anything about it. Which is, by most scientists reckoning, a good way to gamble on potential long term disaster.

Australian bees visit

It's been a while since a photo appeared here, so let's put one up.

The kids noticed these bees in the garden in December. They have unusual behaviour, clinging to a particular stick on a bush overnight, and disappearing again during the day:

It appears that they are Australian blue banded bees. They are solitary (in that they don't build hives), but like to sleep together in small groups. Apparently they are common around Brisbane, but I've not noticed them before. Nice.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

All that took 60 seconds?

Well that was sort of humiliating.

I've been blogging for nearly 5 years now, but never got around to downloading a back up copy of it, just in case Google somehow forget who I was or lost all of this valuable(?) work.  (I'm not read enough to be hacked, I figure.)

Anyhow, doing an export of the blog to a hard drive from Blogger is now very easy, but it saves it in a .xml format which doesn't (I think) save photos and just leaves the bones of the blog to be recreated later if necessary.  (I think.)

So I decided I would also download a mirror copy of the site onto my hard drive, using the very handy WinHTTrack Website Copier.  (I haven't used it before, but it worked fine.)  That way it looks exactly the same on my hard drive as it does on the web.

I assumed that this program going back through Blogger and downloading every post and photo would take, I dunno, at least 10 minutes.   Five years of writing and effort should not be able to be downloaded too quickly.

Well, I swear it took less than 60 seconds to finish.  I'm feeling slightly depressed now.

A novel suggestion

The Moon may have formed in a nuclear explosion:
The hypothesis (credited to Charles Darwin’s son George in 1879) is that the Earth and Moon began as a mass of molten rock spinning rapidly enough that gravity was just barely greater than the centrifugal forces. Even a slight kick could dislodge part of the mass into orbit, where it would become the Moon. The hypothesis has been around for 130 years, but was rejected because no one could explain a source of the energy required to kick a moon-sized blob of into orbit.

Dutch scientists Rob de Meijer (University of the Western Cape) and Wim van Westrenen (Amsterdam’s VU University) think they know the answer. Their hypothesis is that the centrifugal forces would have concentrated heavy elements like thorium and uranium on the equatorial plane and at the Earth core-mantle boundary. If the concentrations of these radioactive elements were high enough, this could have led to a nuclear chain reaction that became supercritical, causing a .

Would have been good to watch.

A reasonable fear of lightning

People who know me well know that I am, to say the least, a touch on the sensitive side when it comes to storms and the danger of lightning. A brother says I am completely unreasonable about this; I argue that it is completely justified, and based on my broader than average reading of the strange ways lightning has killed or injured people.

For example, I know that is not a good idea to be near open windows during lightning storms. Yet people complain when I immediately start shutting windows as soon as I judge the storm is close enough. (Sometimes I can justify it because of the rain, but often I am shutting them before it starts.) The fact is that lightning has been known to come inside houses via open windows. For example, in New South Wales today, lightning through open windows struck not once but twice:

The Ambulance Service of NSW said a 37-year-old man was hit by lightning while doing the washing up near a window at a YMCA camp in Yarramundi at about 7.30pm (AEDT) on Thursday.

Paramedics were treating the man, who was suffering neck and shoulder pain, and planned to take him to hospital.

Emergency services were also called to a house on Macquarie Road, in Springwood, in the NSW Blue Mountains, after it was struck by lightning at about 5pm.

"It's come through the window, it hit the curtains and ignited them," a firefighter at the scene told media at the scene.

Two people, including a man suffering smoke inhalation, were taken to Blue Mountains Hospital.

Basically, I know from first hand experience, (there are two separate stories I can tell) that otherwise intelligent people are, as a rule, still pretty much completely ignorant of, or too silly to take reasonable precautions against, the danger of lightning, even when they are in situations where the danger is absolutely as high as it could possibly be. (Well, short of doing a Benjamin Franklin and flying a kite up into it.)

But as I say, those stories are for another day.

Money and influence

How Davos makes incredibly rich people seem smarter than they actually are. - Slate Magazine

Daniel Gross notes:
It struck me that the difference between banality and profundity is generally a few billion dollars: The real alchemy of finance is to endow those skilled at finance to wield authority in adjacent or even unrelated areas. That's the general theory of Davos, bankers sharing their theories about nonbanking subjects. Stick around and you'll hear a lot of conventional wisdom on globalization, climate change, poverty reduction, financial crisis, but it somehow sounds deeper and more weighty because it's delivered by an extraordinarily wealthy CEO, a private equity executive, or hedge fund manager rather than by a journalist.

Some observations about Monckton down under

I have seen bits of Monckton on Sunrise, heard him on Alan Jones, read about his having lunch with Miranda Devine, and heard a bit of him on Radio National breakfast this morning. There are several points I want to make:

1. He is being given far too easy a ride even by those journalists who do not trust him. On Sunrise, where there was a young scientist in opposition, he was allowed to get away with the broad statement that there are many (hundreds?) of peer reviewed papers showing that climate sensitivity is low. (That is, increasing CO2 will not lead to much of an increase in temperatures.) He has continually repeated his discredited maths in his letter to Kevin Rudd. There was no real response to this alone the simple lines "the climate scientists who hold this view are in a very, very minority. There is no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of climate scientists believe in levels of climate sensitivity which are of great concern to them and which should be acted upon now." How hard is it to say that?

People like John Quiggin argue that engaging with skeptics on science in a debate forum is often counterproductive, and I understand the point. But what is happening now is just as bad.

Sure, people who read widely on the topic know the answers to Monckton's claims already; but the average audience member who is neutral or disinterested in the topic are being done a disservice by what seems to be a non-response to Monckton's direct claims.

If scientists want the science out there, they have to get more aggressive in answering the likes of Monckton.

I haven't had time yet to watch the embedded video interview by Ben Cubby that heads the Miranda Devine article: I hope it's better, but we need more than journalists challenging him.

2. As for those who do already sympathise with him; well what do you expect. I would be interested to know, however, on what basis (according to Devine) Monckton is said to be a mathematician.

Yes I know, he came up with a puzzle that presumably shows he has an interest in mathematics. But why doesn't anyone point out that the last time he took this gamble on his expertise, he lost. (His puzzle was solved within a year, not his estimate of three.)

3. Why does anyone keep calling him "Lord", or even "Viscount" Monckton?. As David Koch noted, Monckton had invited him to call him Christopher, yet people keep insisting on referring to his completely irrelevant title. Did Jeffrey Archer keep getting this from Australian and American interviewers? Not to the same degree, as far as I can recall. I can understand why grovellers to his views like Alan Jones will use the title over and over, but those who don't believe his message, just drop it.

In short, this is no time to be taking a back step in the PR wars over AGW. Scientists need to step up to the plate in defending their work, clearly point out the errors in Monckton's claims, and the reasons he should not be believed.

UPDATE: I've now watched the Ben Cubby interview of Monckton, and it wasn't too bad. Cubby manages to get Monckton annoyed by pressing him on the meaning of "peer reviewed", and Monckton waffles on and on in his pathetically self serving way. It's like that old Keating crack about Bronwyn Bishop: he's a mile wide but an inch deep.

Oh yes, this makes me feel good about the modern world

World's Second Pregnant Man Ready to Give Birth -

Have a look at the photo.

Something new for the home based mad scientist

The Radiation Boom - As Technology Surges, Radiation Safeguards Lag - Series -

A somewhat worrying report about cases of mistakes when hospitals use new cancer treating radiation machines in the States.

According to the article, they are sold with little in the way of regulation:

In this largely unregulated marketplace, manufacturers compete by offering the latest in technology, with only a cursory review by the government, and hospitals buy the equipment to lure patients and treat them more quickly. Radiation-generating machines are so ubiquitous that used ones are even sold on eBay.

“Vendors are selling to anyone,” said Eric E. Klein, a medical physicist and professor of radiation oncology at Washington University in St. Louis. “New technologies were coming into the clinics without people thinking through from Step 1 to Step 112 to make sure everything is going to be done right.”


That's the second biggest book etc..

Largest book in the world goes on show for the first time

It would take quite a while to read on a Kindle.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Podding in the garden

OfficePOD. Changing the way people work. Welcome to the next generation of workplace

Hmm. Don't be put off by the fact that it looks like it would be hotter than hell sitting inside one of these in your garden in Brisbane if there was any part of it in the sun.

Instead, just think of the pleasure you could get from saying to your wife: "I'll be in my pod, dear."

Yes, I'll take one thanks. (Found by the always witty Red Ferret Journal.)

The pants police

Hundreds dressed down by sharia officers during raid on clothing | The Jakarta Post

I mentioned recently that the Sharia police in Aceh in Indonesia seemed to be quite unpopular (since the little matter of an alleged rape by 3 of them). Yet they are still keen on not taking a backwards step:
Hundreds of residents considered to be wearing unacceptable clothing according to sharia regulations, were temporarily detained during an operation at the busy Mesra Darussalam traffic crossing in Banda Aceh, Aceh Nanggroe Darussalam, on Tuesday afternoon.

The residents, including around 100 women wearing pants and tight shirts and a number of men wearing shorts, were pulled aside, lectured and then released by sharia (Wilayatul Hisbah) officers, who had been standing by in the area, which is a main thoroughfare for university students.

The women targeted by the officers were allegedly wearing un-Islamic clothing and several of them did not wear headscarves, now compulsory in Aceh.

The operation, aimed at upholding sharia law, was led by Banda Aceh Law and Order Agency and Wilayatul Hisbah chairman Iskandar, with support from the Military Police and members of the local Indonesian Muslim Student Action Union.

And here you thought the Australian university Student Unions were annoying.

Ocean acidification and iron: bad for phytoplankton

Acidifying Ocean May Stifle Phytoplankton - Science News

Some people argue that increased CO2 will result in more phytoplankton blooms, which will help sink more CO2 to the bottom of the sea.

One study that appeared a couple of weeks ago in Science suggests that this may not happen due to the lower water pH that the increased CO2 is definitely already causing:
Research by oceanographer Dalin Shi and his colleagues at Princeton University hints that rising CO2, instead of providing extra nutrients for phytoplankton, may actually curb the growth of these organisms, which form the base of the ocean’s food chain. The team reports these findings online January 14 and in an upcoming Science.

In their tests, the researchers studied how acidification, a decline in ocean pH, affects the ability of phytoplankton to take up dissolved iron, another nutrient required for growth. The scientists measured growth rates of four species of the marine microorganisms — including two that Shi described as “the lab rats of phytoplankton” — in ocean water with pH values that ranged from 8.8 to 7.7. On average, the pH of ocean surface waters today is about 8.08, says Shi.

Across large swaths of the ocean, phytoplankton are already starved for iron, Shi says. And the team’s research suggests that acidification will make things worse: If ocean pH drops by about 0.3 units over the next century — the acidification expected if CO2 emission trends continue — iron uptake by phytoplankton could drop by between 10 and 20 percent, the data suggest. Ironically, even though more-acidic waters are able to hold increased amounts of dissolved iron, a larger percentage of that nutrient would be chemically bound to organic matter dissolved in the water and therefore unavailable to nourish phytoplankton, Shi says.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Earth defence underfunded

Detecting and countering near-Earth objects that could threaten Earth underfunded, according to report

We need a nice, smallish asteroid hit somewhere relatively harmless and leave a gigantic smoldering hole in the ground to focus the minds of government into properly funding this useful activity.

Sensible one day, idiot the next

Wanted: Tony Blair for war crimes. Arrest him and claim your reward | George Monbiot

George Monbiot provides a spectacular example of how you never trust a pundit on absolutely everything.

He's been reasonably impressive on climate change, and came across on the Lateline "debate" last year with Ian Plimer as rational and calm.  Yet when it comes to the Iraq War, he's idiotic enough to do this:

So today I am launching a website – – whose purpose is to raise money as a reward for people attempting a peaceful citizen's arrest of the former prime minister. I have put up the first £100, and I encourage you to match it. Anyone meeting the rules I've laid down will be entitled to one quarter of the total pot: the bounties will remain available until Blair faces a court of law. The higher the ­reward, the greater the number of ­people who are likely to try.

At this stage the arrests will be largely symbolic, though they are likely to have great political resonance. But I hope that as pressure builds up and the crime of aggression is adopted by the courts, these attempts will help to press ­governments to prosecute. There must be no hiding place for those who have committed crimes against peace. No ­civilised country can allow mass ­murderers to move on.

Increasing global temperatures must be affecting his judgement.

Garnaut on "where to now"?

Better an imperfect scheme than delay

In a very long speech, Ross Garnaut talks about the options available for an ETS or carbon tax.

If you skip the irrelevant cricket analogy, it's quite interesting.

He still supports an ETS, but it would seem he has warmed more towards a carbon tax.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The first Australians: bad environmentalists

Early humans wiped out Australia's giants : Nature News

Heh heh heh. According to Nature, the evidence that the first humans here killed off Australian mega fauna (either by huntingg, or by changing the environment by burning, or both) has been getting stronger over the last decade:

Richard Roberts, a geochronologist at the University of Wollongong, Australia, and biologist Barry Brook, of the University of Adelaide, Australia, say in a commentary4 in Science that "human impact was likely the decisive factor", possibly through hunting of young megafauna. Increased aridity during the last Ice Age might have reinforced this effect, but Australian megafauna were well adapted to dry conditions because they had survived repeated droughts in the past, they say.

Chris Johnson, an ecologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, says the direct dates from Cuddie Springs mean the site now "falls in line with a mass of other evidence" for the rapid extinction of the Australian megafauna between 50,000 and 40,000 years ago.

I also note that Nature also uses this term:
Some have proposed that the ancestors of Australian Aborigines, who reached the continent between 60,000 and 45,000 years ago, rapidly hunted the animals to extinction.
Will modern day aborigines use this to distinguish themselves from those who did the killing 40,000 years ago? It would be interesting if they did, given that they like to claim a culture going back that far, when it suits them.

Ocean acidification continues

USF Study Shows First Direct Evidence of Ocean Acidification

Actually, that headline is misleading, in that studies off Hawaii and Iceland have already shown acidification at the rate predicted. The new point about this study is that it covered a wide area of ocean instead of looking at just one spot.

The abstract of the paper is not too long, and I may as well repeat it here:
Global ocean acidification is a prominent, inexorable change associated with rising levels of atmospheric CO2. Here we present the first basin-wide direct observations of recently declining pH, along with estimates of anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic contributions to that signal. Along 152°W in the North Pacific Ocean (22–56°N), pH changes between 1991 and 2006 were essentially zero below about 800 m depth. However, in the upper 500 m, significant pH changes, as large as −0.06, were observed. Anthropogenic and non-anthropogenic contributions over the upper 800 m are estimated to be of similar magnitude. In the surface mixed layer (depths to ∼100 m), the extent of pH change is consistent with that expected under conditions of seawater/atmosphere equilibration, with an average rate of change of −0.0017/yr. Future mixed layer changes can be expected to closely mirror changes in atmospheric CO2, with surface seawater pH continuing to fall as atmospheric CO2 rises.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Yay for hand-drawn

Leap of faith: The Princess and the Frog - Features, Films - The Independent

Yesterday the family saw The Princess and the Frog, and it's great.

As the above article notes, it's clear that the animators, being given this opportunity to revive the art, really went out of their way to make an absolutely georgeous looking film. I can't remember any of the big hits of the Disney 1980's period being so impressive simply as art.

The story is just pitch perfect too. It updates old Disney themes in a way that is not too pandering to modern culture, and although it is again a female protagonist (it nearly always is in Disney musicals) it's not really as "girly" a film in its romantic themes as I recall, say, Beauty and the Beast or The Little Mermaid.

The songs are by Randy Newman, and some reviews complain they are, at best, only serviceable, but I found it something of a relief not to have the old style gush suddenly surfacing (again, think of some of the songs from the two movies I just mentioned.) They all seemed pleasant songs to me.

Go see it. (It's an excellent date movie even if you don't have kids.)

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Widely ignored advice

Dealing with ear wax - Health & Wellbeing

I have always found it hard to credit doctors' advice (repeated in the story linked above) that using cotton buds to clean out ear wax is not a good idea. The rate at which people's ears make the stuff seems to vary widely, and I suppose if your ears don't get itchy and feeling sticky at the entrance within a few of days of the last cleaning, you may not have a problem.

But for me, it is pretty much unimaginable that I wouldn't get in there with a cotton bud at least every few days. In summer, they seem to need it more often. And surely that purpose is behind about 90% of cotton bud sales, so I am sure I am not on my own.

Maybe the doctors' advice is based on them all investing in companies that make wax softening products, as well as the "money for nothing" consultation fees for syringing out the ears of those patients who do take their advice.

There should be an enquiry into this scandal.

Serves them right

Mercury levels of whale-eating town's residents 10 times average

Japan Times has run stories about the high level of mercury in Japanese whale meat for years, but it's never been especially clear to me as to how much attention it has received in the Japanese press.  But this is surely important news that should get their attention:
Levels of mercury in hair samples of residents of Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture, which is known for customarily eating small whales caught by coastal whaling, are about 10 times the average in Japan, possibly due to consumption of whale meat with high concentration of mercury, one of researchers who conducted the survey said Thursday.... 
The survey showed the average total mercury levels in the men’s and women’s hair samples were 21.6 parts per million and 11.9 ppm, respectively, while the levels of average Japanese men and women are 2.55 ppm and 1.43 ppm, he said...

Endo expressed alarm that contamination levels among some of the residents appeared to be high enough to develop health problems according to oversea standards.
‘‘It’s necessary to conduct more detailed research on their health conditions and the current status of contamination,’’ he said. ‘‘We should also make efforts to curb consumption of whale meat which is highly contaminated with mercury.’‘

But women priests will keep it so relevant

Church of England attendance falls for fifth year in row | World news |

As reported above:
The average weekly attendance in 2008 fell to 1.145 million from 1.16 million in 2007, while the average Sunday attendance fell from 978,000 in 2007 to 960,000 in 2008.
This is despite attempts to be relevant such as:
...allowing children to be baptised at the same time as their parents' marriage.
It would be a fair bet that the parents who lived together, had kids and then decided to get the all-in-one special of marriage and baptism will next only next be a church for a funeral.

Friday, January 22, 2010


Overweight? Then you’ll have to buy two seats - News & Advice, Travel - The Independent

Have a look at the photo that accompanies this article. It is claimed to be genuine, and it if is, it surely highlights the fact that the morbidly obese on aircraft is a safety issue if they are not able to take up two seats.

Interestingly, Australian airlines claim it is not necessary to have a policy on it:

A spokeswoman for Virgin Blue said most overweight people who did not fit into one seat were aware of the problem, and many bought two seats for their own comfort.

''There is no formal policy'', the spokeswoman said.

''However, if a guest does not fit into a seat on a full flight they will be moved to the next available flight, and we have no plans to follow the example of Air France-KLM,'' she said.

A spokeswoman for Qantas said the airline did everything it could to meet the needs of customers.

''Should a customer require extra space on a flight, we seat them next to an empty seat where possible,'' she said.

''However, the only way for a customer to guarantee extra space is to either purchase two economy seats or fly business or first class.

Those who think they don't have a problem fitting into a seat must cause some problems from time to time, though.

Uncertainties detailed

The real holes in climate science : Nature News

It would appear that "climategate" (and perhaps now the Himalaya glacier mistake in the IPCC report) has led to some prominent climate scientists sounding humbler. Gavin Schmidt at Real Climate has been sounding more modest lately, and he features prominently in the above article, which I hope Nature keeps available for some time.

It's a very good explanation of those areas of climate science which are still poorly understand and/or subject to very uncertain predictions. In short, they are:

1. regional climate predictions,
2. the effect on precipitation,
3. the role of aerosols, and
4. use of proxies for past climate reconstructions.

The short story is: the atmosphere is really, really complicated, and building accurate models of its behaviour on the scale needed for good regional predictions is very, very hard.

I think this probably goes against the modern intuition, at least of younger people who use computers all the time. I suspect that even the use of sophisticated games software, which deal with thousand of options and combinations and seem to create incredibly detailed "worlds" inside a mere household computer, gives the false impression that modelling a column of air (and extending it globally) could not be so hard.

So it is good now and again to be reminded that big uncertainties remain.

But: the big danger of articles like this is that, as we all know, AGW deniers will use absolutely any mistake (no matter how minor) or admission of lack of knowledge to claim that it is totally rubbish and unreliable.

The Nature article does have short "box" on enduring climate change myths, but it just deals with them briefly.

Of course, what deniers also miss is that there is (as far as I know) no particular reason to assume that the areas in which knowledge are still lacking are all matters which will eventually be resolved in a way relatively harmless for humanity. They could all be matters which end up worse than current predictions.

The other issue that people always forget is ocean acidification, about which I have not posted for a while, but there is plenty of new material out there. I remain strongly of the view that it alone is reason to stop CO2 as soon as possible, as it is extremely difficult to tell where the ecological changes that will bring will take us.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Super cool power

No more power lines? / The Christian Science Monitor -

Interesting article here on superconducting power cables, which sound to be more advanced that I would have guessed:

A tour of American Superconductor’s factory found the company creating flat metal tape out of “high-temperature superconducting” (HTS) oxide materials and costly silver, then slicing it into thin flat strips. The strips wrap around a pipe carrying liquid nitrogen, which cools the cable to minus 346 degrees Fahrenheit....

Cost, however, has long been a major issue. However, the price gap is closing, American Superconductor says. A 1,000-mile length of superconducting cable capable of carrying 5,000 megawatts would cost about $8 million to $13 million per mile, a recent company white paper says. That’s about on par with the 
$7 million to $10 million cost per mile for an equivalent conventional 765 kilovolt line.
I wonder what happens if the nitrogen supply leaks. The article says that being below ground, the cables are more terrorist proof, but I wouldn't be so sure.

Credibility gap

Rape case puts sharia police in difficult position | The Jakarta Post

A group of sharia police personnel unusually just sit in the back of a pick-up patrol vehicle while making the rounds in downtown Banda Aceh, Aceh province, on Monday.

No raid is conducted that day at beauty salons or other public places considered prone to sharia (Islamic law) violations. No stern actions are taken or arrests made that day.

“We are decreasing the intensity of raids these days,” Aminah, the spokeswoman for the Banda Aceh female sharia police force, said.

The credibility of sharia police in the province has been completely, and rightly, destroyed following the rape of a university student by three sharia police officers last week.

“Because of this case we don’t dare warn or advise people in violation of sharia law. They will fight back and insult us if we do so. It’s better to keep a low profile at the moment,” Aminah said.

The article goes on to note that there is quite a popular movement to get sharia police banned in Aceh.

Whipped up in an hour?

Dezeen - Lad Musician Nagoya by General Design

I love it when architects come up with a concrete windowless box as a design concept, and then get praise for it. I always suspect the project must get knocked over in an afternoon on the computer.

Bill Gates on reducing CO2

Bill Gates: Why We Need Innovation, Not Insulation

Nothing too complicated here: he simply makes the point that no where near enough is being done in R&D for the necessary long term goals of reducing CO2.

A post viewing recommendation

Flying the Secret Sky: The Story of the RAF Ferry Command

I very much enjoyed this documentary on the ABC a couple of nights ago. It's still available for viewing on ABC iView.

It's always good to learn about aspects of the Second World War which are new to me and make for fascinating stories.

The good oil

Fish oil slows burn of genetic fuse in ageing | Science | The Guardian

Taking fish oil supplements is said to protect against heart disease, improve survival rates after a heart attack, reduce mental decline in old age and help to prevent age-related changes in the eye that can lead to blindness. Research has also shown that rodents live one-third longer when given a diet enriched with fish-derived omega-3.

Although omega-3 fatty acids have powerful anti-inflammatory properties and lower levels of some blood fats, the mechanisms behind these effects are poorly understood. The new research suggests that omega-3 has a direct effect on biological ageing by slowing down the rate at which protective caps on the ends of chromosomes shorten.

The caps, called telomeres, are made from copied strands of DNA and have a similar function to bookends or the plastic ends of shoelaces. They prevent the ends of chromosomes – the "packages" of DNA in the cell nucleus – becoming damaged and keep the DNA organised and contained.

Congratulations - your genitals have rights

'Naked scanners' may breach human rights |
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has written to the Government expressing concerns about the proposed installation of the scanners, saying they may violate the right to privacy outlined in the Human Rights Act.
Yes, who would have guessed that my penis has the right not to be viewed on a sketchy black and white headless body image (I understand the systems are planned to obscure the face) by a bored security guard in a remote room who probably has to watch about 3000 images a day.

I hope someone in Britain goes to the Commission over the scandalous human rights issue of public urinals without privacy screens.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Glaciers are confusing!

Well, there's been a lot of media coverage over the IPCC mistake of referring to Himalayas glaciers "disappearing by 2035."

Perhaps the best analysis of how the error evolved is in a comment by Dan following Tim Lambert's post about the controversy. It would appear that the source of the error was in a 1999 India Environmental Port article, which changed a 1996 Russian's rough estimate of how long it would take all glaciers to melt from 2350 to 2035.

New Scientist helped perpetrate the error in a 1999 article, and now claims (wrongly, it appears) that its story was the original source of the error. NS journalist Fred Pearce also says that Indian glaciologist Hasnain had used 2035 in an interview with him. (In New Scientist he says it was an email interview; yet in The Times he is reported as saying it was a telephone interview. If he has the email, I would certainly like to see it. Pearce says Hasnain now admits it was just a rough estimate.)

Pearce's 1999 story claims that the 2035 figure appears in Hasnain's ICSI report, but it's apparently not there at all.

I would like to see directly what Hasnain says about this now. Was he responsible for the error in the Indian Environmental Portal article too? Or is it possible he's "confessing" to something he said in a interview 11 years ago of which he does not have a transcript? (He complains today that he never used 2035 in his research papers, and was never consulted by the IPCC before it used that figure. He's not denying he quoted the figure to Pearce, but I still wonder.)

Anyhow - there is no doubt at all that this is a very, very bad look for the IPCC, especially given IPCC head Pachauri's decision to come out swinging on a clearly wrong figure.

But - that was not really the point of this post. I wanted to note how confusing the whole topic of glaciers (and in particular the effects of their loss) appears to be. In particular, : just how important to Indian rivers is water from glacier melt?

This 2005 Nature report of Barnett & Ors about the dangers to water supply from melting glaciers (and less snow) is an important one. In it, we find in a section talking about the Himalaya-Hindu Kush area:
The hydrological cycle of the region is complicated by the Asian monsoon, but there is little doubt that melting glaciers provide a key source of water for the region in the summer months: as much as 70% of the summer flow in the Ganges and 50–60% of the flow in other major rivers[40,41,42]. In China, 23% of the population lives in the western regions, where glacial melt provides the principal dry season water source[43].
This figure in bold sounds very high, but is repeated in many other places, although I won't link to them now. The references supporting the claim are not available for free online, and the abstracts at least don't seem to repeat it.

On the other hand, Science has quoted a note by an American hydrologist Donald Alford, the purpose of which is:
... to present the results of a preliminary analysis of the hydrologic contribution of the 5000 -7000+ m altitudinal belt of the Nepal Himalaya to the annual streamflow volume of the major rivers of Nepal, and to assess the hydrologic role of the glaciers within this belt.
His conclusion (although it appears to be a very tentative one, pretty much a "back of the envelope" calculation I reckon) is that glacier melt only accounts for 4% of total annual streamflow of the rivers of Nepal. (I think all Nepalese rivers end up in the Ganges.)

Big difference, it seems. Is the issue that:
The Indus and Ganges Rivers currently have little outflow to the sea during the dry season
as stated in an interesting recent study that found one Himalayan glacier seems to have put on no "weight" since the 1950's, since there was no radioactive layer from the atom bomb tests at that time. (So, if the Ganges has little outflow at all in the dry season, might it be that a very small feed from glacier melt might still account for 70% of it?)

The point of this "nuclear glacier" paper is that loss of glacier volume may be occurring by "high elevation thinning", and this has not been taken into account when working out rates of glacier loss. But, then, at the same time I have to admit that the paper repeats the mistake that:
The surface area of glaciers across the TP is projected to decrease from 500,000 km2 measured in 1995 to 100,000 km2 in 2030
when it should have been (see Dan's comment above) 2350.

Furthermore, someone in comments at Real Climate has linked to some background notes used at the recent AGU conference for a press presentation which has lots of relevant information. (Be warned, it is a very big .pdf file.)

This is actually well worth reading carefully. They point out that Himalayan glaciers are behaving differently in different zones, but overall they are losing mass. Their estimate of the average rate of Himalayan glacier loss (measured by area, not volume, I think) is anywhere from .05% to .01% per annum (see page 14). If the higher rate is true (although they seem to think it unlikely) that would be 20% loss in 40 years. (Total loss in about 200 or so years, then, I guess; which isn't so far off the 350 years that we earlier mentioned.)

But as to the effect on water supply of Indian generally, the conclusion (see page 42) is:
As we have calculated, melting glaciers (specifically, negative mass balance components of the melt) contribute an estimated 1.2% (perhaps factor of 2 uncertain) of total runoff of three of the most important drainages, the Indus, Ganges, and Brahmaputra combined. The seasonal flow regulation influences and the negative mass balance is more important in local drainages close to the glacier sources, where glaciers can dominate the hydrology in arid regions, but on the scale of the subcontinent, glaciers are secondary players in looming hydrologic problems, which stem more from population growth and inefficiency of water resource distribution and application.
So, there are some mighty confusing figures being flung around as to how important or unimportant glacier melt is to Indian water supply.

Is it possible that the very high figure of 70% of the summer flow of the Ganges (as mentioned in the Barnett Nature paper) is actually including basin snow melt and not just glacier melt? That could explain a lot. If climate change reduces snow in those areas, it may well be much more important issue than glacier melt, at least further downstream. And the title of the Barnett article is, after all: Potential impacts of a warming climate on water availability in snow-dominated regions.

Besides which, even without worrying about snow and glaciers, at least one study (and I am sure there are more) suggests climate change:
could influence monsoon dynamics and cause less summer precipitation, a delay in the start of monsoon season and longer breaks between the rainy periods.
The reliance of India on the monsoon is pretty remarkable:
The summer monsoons are responsible for approximately 75% of the total annual rainfall in major parts of the region and produce almost 90% of India's water supply, he said.
Anyhow, despite all this reading, I still remain quite confused on the issue. Glaciologists and hydrologists seem to have done a pretty bad job at dealing with the issue without confusing themselves, as well as the public.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

As expected

BBC News - Venezuela's economy in further slide

A good summary of the Chavez led crumbling economy (and infra-structure) of Venezuela.

What you suspected about gridiron was right

I Was Watching a Commercial and a Football Game Broke Out

This post quotes from the WSJ:
According to a Wall Street Journal study of four recent broadcasts, and similar estimates by researchers, the average amount of time the ball is in play on the field during an NFL game is about 11 minutes.

In other words, if you tally up everything that happens between the time the ball is snapped and the play is whistled dead by the officials, there’s barely enough time to prepare a hard-boiled egg. In fact, the average telecast devotes 56% more time to showing replays.

So what do the networks do with the other 174 minutes in a typical broadcast? Not surprisingly, commercials take up about an hour. As many as 75 minutes, or about 60% of the total air time, excluding commercials, is spent on shots of players huddling, standing at the line of scrimmage or just generally milling about between snaps.
I've never tried to watch a game on TV, but certainly you get the impression watching movies about it that nothing much happens on the field, and it turns out that impression is true. It seems to be more about large groups of people gathering together to amuse themselves with anything but what is going on in the field of play - as Australians do during tedious games of cricket. (At least gridiron has the good grace to be finished in one afternoon.)


Islamic Solidarity Games cancelled over Gulf dispute

The Islamic Solidarity Games, due to be held in Iran in April, have been called off because of a dispute with Arab countries over what to call the Gulf.

The games federation in Saudi Arabia said the Iranian organisers had failed to address its concerns, particularly about the planned logo and medals.

These bear the words "Persian Gulf", but Arab countries, who call it the Arabian Gulf, reject the term.

Monday, January 18, 2010

That's handy

Iran has put up its very own pro-nuclear website, which (as Nature says) sets about "extolling the virtues of its nuclear program."

Included is a map of "Iranian nuclear facilities". Handy for the Israeli Air Force, although who would be surprised if there weren't some slight misinformation in that.

Typical (and Opinion Dominion's simple guide to happy marriages)

Susan Sarandon: sexy, single and 63 | The Observer

This is a long and sympathetic interview with Susan Sarandon, and I find it remarkable for the number of boxes it ticks for what you would expect of a typical Lefty Hollywood star of the modern era:

* at least (I think) 3 long term partners (married or otherwise) mentioned, as well as an affair. It is rumoured that, now 63 and having split with younger partner Tim Robbins, she may be now dating her 32 year old "business partner", but it seems yet to be confirmed;

* happy to do "herbal" drugs - including mushrooms, which I always thought were very much on the hit or miss side of danger - and a very liberal attitude to experimenting with them generally;

* now on a health regime of dubious merit ("dehydrated fruits and vegetables")

It's not mentioned, but I wonder what the chances are of her being sympathetic to Buddhism?

Actually, one position on which she is mildly surprising is on gay marriage: she won't campaign for it because she is against marriage generally.

More generally, why is it that Hollywood seems to make long term relationships next to impossible? I suspect it may in significant part be due to the long absences from each other when movies need to be made on location. (Careers such as the military suffer the same problem.)

No doubt, being successful in almost any field is a powerful attractant generally to the opposite sex, and places an inordinate amount of temptation in the path of the famous and even moderately powerful. How else can you explain the puzzling sexual escapades of many, many physically unappealing politicians.

Yes, for long lasting marriages no one should be too successful in their work (that is, too rich or too famous), or travel separately too often. They should not do illicit drugs. But they should have children, although that's just my hunch; I can't say for sure whether statistics back that up. (I bet someone has done the research). And they should not sleep with other people.

All pretty simple, really.

An unusual life story

Calm reflections on a turbulent life | The Japan Times Online

I would say his memoirs would be well worth reading.

Wanted for my backyard

Deep Discount on Space Shuttles -

Only $28.8 million will get you a used space shuttle (plus shipping to Australia, I suppose.)

No one wanted them at an original asking price of $42 million. What is wrong with people these days? And has anyone suggested to NASA to try using E-bay?

You can also get a used shuttle engine for free, if you pay for shipping and handling. Maybe at least that will fit in my backyard.

A good weekend in Brisbane

In January, a good weekend in Brisbane can consist of the following:

* viewing Fantastic Mr Fox at the South Bank cinemas: this is a very enjoyable film, which I see to my surprise, seems to have made little money in the US. (This is becoming a disturbing theme in my assessment of animated films: I was very keen on The Tale of Despereaux and Astroboy, and both were box office duds.)

The Fox is quirky, and a lot of reviewers suspect adults will enjoy it more than children, but I can tell you my kids both found it laugh out loud funny, and "got" the quirk. It's interesting that it continues George Clooney's fondness for playing characters that aren't as smart as they think they are.

Go see it, with or without children.

* going to the Lifeline Bookfest at the Convention Centre. This has become a bit of an institution in Brisbane, now running for 8 days with well over a million second hand books for sale. You can spend a long, long time there, but even with visits limited by the lower attention span of children, I always manage to find something. (This year, I got the Graham Greene novels I recently said I wanted to read.)

One other observation: the Brisbane Convention Centre seems to me to be a particularly nice place, as far as convention centres go. Good location, lots of parking, lots of toilets, lots of headroom. I enjoy just about anything there.

* On Sunday, down to the Gold Coast for a swim followed by chicken and champagne* lunch.

Ocean water at the Gold Coast at the moment is at a very typical and comfortable summer temperature of 24 degrees. It was the subject of much discussion yesterday, with my Gold Coast residing relatives, how you only have to go about 40 km further south and the ocean water always seems distinctly colder, and much harder to enjoy getting into.

I am told it is all about the point at which a northern and southern ocean current meet, and a nephew suggested that it might also have something to do with Cape Byron being further east and trapping the north moving current nearer the shore. Certainly, the water at Ballina a few weeks ago felt very cold indeed.

For years I have been meaning to do some internet snooping to confirm this often observed sudden drop in temperatures off the Australian East coast, and one day I'll get around to it.

Meanwhile, I'll just take it as some sort of proof that God just especially loves Southern Queensland. (Except for those bits of Toowoomba, where He hasn't let it rain much for about 10 years.)

* Well, by "champagne", I mean $7 a bottle Jacob's Creek sparkling. My wife and I still think that it is the best of the sub $10 Australian champagne styles, and at that price in summer we tend to drink it a couple of times a week.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The odd allure of whiter skin

Creams Offering Lighter Skin May Also Bring Health Risks -

It was only in the last couple of years, I think, that I read somewhere about the popularity of skin lightening creams in India.

The article above talks about the popularity of the creams amongst Hispanic and black folk in America, and how they are often causing serious skin problems:
... it is not as if dark-skinned women are imagining a bias, said Dr. Glenn, who is president of the American Sociological Association. “Sociological studies have shown among African-Americans and also Latinos, there’s a clear connection between skin color and socioeconomic status. It’s not some fantasy. There is prejudice against dark-skinned people, especially women in the so-called marriage market.”..

Users are not necessarily immigrants, said Dr. Eliot F. Battle Jr., who has a dermatology practice in Washington, where he treats side effects from lightening creams “not only containing corticosteroids, but mercury,” a poison that can damage the nervous system.
I guess that, in a somewhat bizarre twist, Obama's election might give encouragement to black Americans to aim high, but do nothing to help decrease prejudice against the darker skinned amongst them.

Some insight into Kubrick

Stanley Kubrick - A dream movie revisited

Last year, I saw the doco "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes" which gave a good account of the directors obsessively detailed movie preparations.

Now, you can buy an extremely expensive book that sets out all of the incredibly detailed preparation Stanley Kubrick made for his never funded film about Napoleon. In the article about it, the author makes some comments which I think are pretty interesting:
"At a deeper level, his never-ending interest in observing human folly was the wellspring for nearly all his films," writes Harlan in the book. "Napoleon was the ideal study subject. One of Stanley's often repeated notions was that, since we are all driven by our emotions, our belief that we might be governed by rational thought is a vain illusion." Kubrick's widow, Christiane, believes he struggled to understand how such a capable man as Napoleon could be so manipulated by the philandering Josephine, or have so hopelessly miscalculated the Russian campaign that defeated him. "When Stanley was young, he played chess for money for a while in New York," she says at the book's launch party later that evening. "[He believed] Napoleon might have learned to control himself better had he played chess. Stanley thought if you are too emotional, you lose."
I presume it was this distrust of emotion which led to Kubrick's pretty consistent inability to convincingly have emotion shown in his movies.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Proof of an afterlife

Johnny Cash releasing another posthumous album

The second biggest pair of undies I've ever seen

Governments’ Go-To Vendors Get it Done

Go to the link to see the photo.

Tell him he's dreaming

Abbott makes play for Greens preferences

I've made the point elsewhere, but I'll repeat it here: Abbott is not showing a firm grip on reality if he thinks he can credibly convince Green supporters to preference the Coalition when he:

a. showed all the policy conviction of a windsock on the issue of climate change over the last 6 months;
b. called climate change "crap" only a couple of months ago;
c. gave arch skeptic Minchin Resources and Energy, and put Joyce on the front bench.

It doesn't matter how big his Green Army will be, if you aren't convincing on climate change, you aren't going to get a Green vote within coo-ee of you.

Yet another possible early test

Seeing a diagnosis: How an eye test could aid Alzheimer's detection

It's about how spotting the death of cells on the retina may be able to used as an early Alzheimer's test. This quote at the end is of particular interest:
"Few people realise that the retina is a direct, albeit thin, extension of the brain. It is entirely possible that in the future a visit to a high-street optician to check on your eyesight will also be a check on the state of your brain."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Innovative uses for radioactivity in the 19th century

What Were They Drinking? Researchers Investigate Radioactive Crock Pots

The article is about a particular water jar, but the introduction is generally of interest:
Radioactive toothpaste, suppositories, makeup: Would-be inventors seeking to capitalize on the discovery of radioactivity in the late 19th century produced a plethora of questionable medical devices and treatments. Among the most famous of these was the Revigator, an earthenware vessel that, according to an advertisement, would infuse drinking water with "the lost element of original freshness -- radioactivity."
Radioactive suppositories? For that inner glow of health, I suppose. Here's more detail from an article at MSNBC:
And a truly amazing advertisement sells Vita Radium Suppositories (High Strength): radioactive suppositories intended for daily use that “are absorbed by the walls of the colon” so that “every tissue, every organ of the body is bombarded by its health-giving electric atoms.”
Ah, I knew it would be on the net somewhere. Here's a link to an original advertisement for them. I see that they are recommended for "sexually weak men" and are "also splendid for piles and rectal sores".

So concerns about sexual performance led to men using radioactive suppositories. Maybe someone accidentally cured their prostate cancer that way.

Handy to know

Blood pressure drugs can halve risk of dementia, say researchers | Society | The Guardian

Apart from the good news at the start of this article, I hadn't heard this before:
...the loss of ability to smell could be an early warning sign of Alzheimer's and prompt earlier diagnosis, separate research suggests. It is known that Alzheimer's can lead to the loss of a sense of smell, although why that happens is unclear. A study in the Journal of Neuroscience, by American scientists working on mice, links the failing ability to smell to the buildup of amyloid, a toxic protein that is an indicator of the disease. Experts said the findings suggested loss of smell could be used as an early indicator of the condition and thus ultimately improve medical care.

Longer lived mini black holes

Production of tidal-charged black holes at the Large Hadron Collider

I see from the above paper that physicists are still looking at certain theorised types of black holes that the LHC might produce, and which might "live" long enough to leave the detector. (I presume instead of instantaneously turning into a spray of decay particles.)

This guy reckons that they are unlikely to be produced in the lifetime of the LHC. (I see that he mentions Plaga's paper - predicting one possible form of black hole disaster - in his footnotes too, even though he makes no comment on it.)

I should be encouraged by the result, but I am still struck by how little they know about what may really happen there.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Reading ramble

The news and my favourite websites are strangely un-engaging at the moment, so I'll talk about what I've read over the last 6 months or so. It's not much, and few are probably interested, but what the hey.

* Graham Greene: I have mentioned here before that I was starting to get into Graham Greene. Since then, I have finished "A Burnt Out Case" (a fairly late novel in his career) and liked it quite a lot. It's sort of dark, well and truly within what I understand to be "Greeneland," but with a tragic redemption at the end, which I think reflects Greene's own complicated views on life and religion. I can recommend it, especially for people with a Catholic background.

But then, I read his early popular novel, "Brighton Rock". It has a great opening, but later I thought some of it was really tortured and outright bad writing. For me, it doesn't really ring psychologically true at all, and I am very puzzled as to why it apparently made his name as a novelist. He clearly developed his prose into a cleaner, more direct and psychologically subtle style later in his career, and I would strongly advise anyone interested in him not to start with this book.

I think I will go on to read some of his most famous novels, such as The End of the Affair, and The Heart of the Matter. But there is no doubt he is a bit of a depressing read overall, and it's not like I want to spend all that much time getting to know his world.

* Young adult time. Australian writer John Marsden is famous for his "Tomorrow" novels, featuring Australian teenage protagonists responding to a (very improbable) Asian invasion of the country. I therefore tried the first one in the series (Tomorrow, When the War Began) when I found it in a second hand book shop. (I saw from the name written inside that it probably was a prescribed read for a grade 9 student.)

I don't have any problem with reading "young adult" books; my natural inclination to be bothered/uninterested in lots of swearing and sex in fiction actually makes it something I should incline towards. (And I'll take Heinlein's "juveniles" over Stranger in a Strange Land any day.) But I doubt that much of it now is written as outright entertainment.

Anyway, as for this book: it's not bad, but I did find it peculiar that Marsden should chose to write from the perspective of a teenage girl, even if she is a pragmatic and strong character. There were some sections involving relationship talk which, while I imagine were probably realistic for a modern teen, I could still imagine teenage boys being completely bored with. This relationship stuff seemed to me to be too clearly didactic, in that they seemed an attempt to get teenage boys to understand things from the female perspective.

I was not impressed enough to be bothered continuing with the series, but it wasn't a complete loss.

* Will I ever find an active science fiction writer I like? I gave modern science fiction another go with John Scalzi's "Old Man's War". The reviews (and the man in the bookshop who recommended it to me) noted that it is similar in style to Robert Heinlein; and it's true, especially in the first third or so where there is a lot of wise-cracking, lively character exchanges, and I was initially impressed.

It has an excellent sequence in which our main character gets his mind swapped into a new, cloned, tweaked and improved version of his body.

Yet, by half way through, the improbability of the setup was starting to bother me, as was the idea that in two hundred years time, military training would still use exactly the same psychological approach that has been in the 20th century.

Then back to a good point: the inter-stellar drive was clever in concept.

Then back to the bad: it sort of peters out a bit, and ultimately left me uninterested in reading the sequel.

The extremely patchy appeal of the novel reminded me of my reaction to Peter Hamilton's "The Reality Dysfunction". I really liked some of its passages, found some other parts a bit slow and irrelevant, and in the last substantial section it seemed to change tone completely to a visceral fight which was very unappealing. Basically, he badly needs more severe editing.

Why do I find it impossible to find a current science fiction writer whose novel I like from start to end??

* More Truman Capote: I'm currently reading "In Cold Blood", after earlier enjoying "Breakfast at Tiffanys." I really like his writing style, and am quite enjoying it, despite knowing that it may not be the most accurate account of the event possible. (I haven't seen the popular "Capote" movie about the process of his writing it yet, and I'll save that until I have finished the book.)

Capote himself certainly did not lead the happiest of lives. I like to use the fact that I have had a relatively happy and stable life as the reason why I will probably always be incapable of creating great art!

Make your own bad pun for this one

Astronauts' urine clogs space station water recycler - Telegraph

Late nights

Conan O'Brien, Jay Leno Bash NBC In Monologues

For an Australian, the most amazing thing about the late night TV scene in America is that it exists at all. 10 to 11 pm (Jay Leno's short lived slot) is considered prime time, and the reason he is being moved is because of the poor lead in ratings he is giving to the local news.

The late show slots start at 11.35, yet you get all this drama around who will do them when the incumbent is due to go.

Is Australia the only country in the world in which it seems no one expects there to be a significant TV audience after about 10.30? It's virtually impossible to imagine Australians being greatly concerned about what starts at 11.30 pm, especially on a weeknight.

The only reason I see these shows now is because cable TV here shows them from around 8.30 to 10.30.

And, incidentally, I remain puzzled as to why O'Brien has rated so poorly in his new slot. I thought he had toned down his sometimes irritating act to just the right degree, and Andy Richter and him are a likeable pairing, as far as these things go. He does remain a seriously strange looking guy though, if you ask me.

I've sort of given up on Letterman over the last couple of years, when it seemed clear to me that he was getting too serious about politics.

I know that the American TV schedule has been like that for decades (it was one of the things that really surprised me about it when I first visited), but I remain puzzled as to how the importance of such late night viewing evolved there.

Near miss

Asteroid or Space Junk? Object Makes Close Pass by Earth Wednesday | Universe Today

It's only 10 - 15 meters across, but it would at least make for a very big flash in the sky.

More details on the mixed up temperatures

Where did global warming go? Here's where...

Yet another excellent post at Skeptical Science showing with illustrations how the Northern Hemisphere cold snap is distributed, and the unusually warm areas that are accompanying it.

In which I get amusement at other people's embarrassment

Publicly Sleeping Salarymen | loneleeplanet

If you read Japanese blogs, you'll know from time to time people publish photos of drunk Japanese men who fall asleep on the train (or elsewhere) in embarrassing positions. I don't usually link to them, as it does feel somewhat unfair to the poor guy who obviously was in no position to consent to the photo, let alone its publication on the internet.

But, with this collection of the "10 of the best" examples of this genre, I'll give up my scrupples for today, especially as some of them are really very funny. (I think the entry on "The Backbender" may be best.)

Persistent and pantless

Cover up or face life in jail, naked rambler is warned - Crime, UK - The Independent

Naked rambler Stephen Gough has been warned he faces spending the rest of his life in prison if he continues to refuse to wear clothes in public.

The former Royal Marine, a veteran of two “boots-only” hikes from Land’s End to John O’Groats, has spent most of the last four years in solitary confinement in Scottish jails after stripping off on a flight to Edinburgh. Since then he has declined to wear prison uniform or to appear clothed in court resulting in further custodial sentences for contempt.

This week he was found guilty of causing a breach of the peace following his arrest as he left Perth prison in December where he had just finished serving a 12-month sentence for the same offence. On that and a previous occasion police have been waiting to re-arrest him at the prison gates.

This all started from his attempts to walk nude across England:
Mr Gough completed his first naked ramble across Britain in 2003 during which he was arrested 15 times and spent 140 nights in jail, mainly in Scotland where the authorities hold a dimmer view of public nudity than in England and Wales. He finished his second hike with his then girlfriend Melanie Roberts three years later.
I don't know. If his problem is just that he wants to walk nude in the countryside, and his actions are all a protest about that, is it worth the effort to imprison him? If, however, he also was dropping into the corner shop nude to buy a bottle of milk, well I can see how that's a problem people shouldn't have to live with.

Sounds reasonable

From Rio to Copenhagen the model was wrong | The Australian

Geoff Carmody summaries the whole problem with the UN approach to climate change and the principles that should be adopted to start from scratch. (They point towards a carbon tax, basically.)

All sounds very reasonable to me.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Jerks and safety on public transport

Club Troppo - Vigilance against violence

Club Troppo has an interesting post about an incident of racial harassment and assault (in terms of someone fearing for their safety) on a Melbourne train.

Amongst all the discussion, I see that no one mentions the obvious point: people felt much safer from such incidents in the days when there used to be a railway "guard" on the train (who could be contacted if there was a real problem on board) and there was also the knowledge that every station would be manned and the behaviour could be immediately reported to that person.

Saving costs by removing people as far as possible from the transport system has undoubtedly made it feel less safe, yet it seems that re-populating railway stations for this reason is just never considered seriously because of the cost. But even a moderate step towards this would, I am betting, be greatly welcome by the public.

It is a feature of modern Australian cities which has gone backwards over the last 30 years.

Get that woman out of there!

Dezeen - Axial Symphony by Design Systems

I think I quite like this apartment refurbishment by a Hong Kong company, although I am curious about how hard it will be to maintain the mini mountain range on the terrace. You can't exactly run of mower over it, although I suppose a whipper snipper may do. (Kids would love it as an area to play with toy cars, soldiers or whatever.)

But what's this? There's a woman in shot in one of the interior photos. And she's slouching on the sofa! This is not allowed in architectural photography. All interiors must look unsullied by any evidence of actual humanity (including magazines, old newspapers, the mail, food, crumbs, the dog, and of course, people.) Big mistake.

Real estate bubble or not?

In China, fear of a real estate bubble -

There seems to be a fair amount of different opinion expressed in the article as to whether China has a real estate bubble that is about to burst, or whether it will hold for many years yet.

Of course, they already know about yurts, so it may be a bit redundant for me to mention again my favourite solution to all housing problems.

Lindzen criticism mounts

Lindzen & Choi's "feedback is nothing to worry about" paper from last year is facing more criticism.

Given that even Roy Spencer thinks Lindzen got this wrong, it would seem a fair bet that he did.

More money from dead bodies

Now you can be mummified just like the Egyptians - Science, News - The Independent

We haven't heard much about the plasticised skinned body exhibits lately, so it must be time to come up with some other ghoulish use of dead bodies for public entertainment. Cue England, that new bastion of inappropriate and degrading entertainment on TV:
We've had the first televised real autopsy and the first on-screen assisted suicide. The latest wheeze to challenge the British public’s attitudes to dying comes from Channel 4, which is appealing to the terminally ill to find someone to donate their body to be mummified for a reality television show – then displayed in a museum for two years.

Way to run a country

Chavez's snap devaluation sparks panic in the aisles - Americas, World - The Independent

The Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez promised to send soldiers into shops to seize businesses from owners who raise prices in the wake of the country's steep currency devaluation.

People had crowded into shops over the weekend to snap up imported televisions and electrical appliances, fearing that the devaluation of the bolivar was about to send inflation soaring.

"Right now, there is absolutely no reason for anybody to be raising prices of absolutely anything," Mr Chavez said on his weekly TV show. "I want the National Guard on the streets with the people to fight against speculation. Publicly denounce the speculator and we will intervene in any business of any size." To audience applause, the president added that the government would take over shops and give them to their workers if price rises were discovered.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Options, none of them good

Israel and Iran: The gathering storm | The Economist

Here's a very good article on the current situation and the limited options available in dealing with Iran's nuclear program.

The top hat controversy

Times Archive Blog: Why inventors weren't always hailed as heroes

The Times website has a link today to a Times Archive Blog story about inventions that caused a social stir in their day. Most strange is an account of the first top hat being worn on the street causing quite a disruption.

It is not so clear whether the story is true, but there is a link to the Times 1926 article which discusses it.

In fact, the whole Times Archive Blog looks like a very entertaining resource, and I am sad to have not discovered it before.

Doctors in trouble

Doctors gone bad stories are always interesting (or, I suppose, horrifying if you happened to have been their patient) and there are a couple of pretty spectacular cases of note lately:

* She was just trying to be helpful:

A DOCTOR has been struck off the medical register for giving a woman 22 prescriptions for mood-altering drugs, knowing she was secretly spiking her husband's coffee with the tablets for four years.

Yuk-Fun Christina Port, a GP in Deniliquin for more than 20 years, wrote prescriptions for about 3000 antidepressant and anti-psychotic tablets, including the highly toxic drug lithium carbonate used to treat bipolar disorder, without examining, diagnosing or monitoring the man.

Dr Port also changed the type of medication prescribed and increased his dose at the wife's request even though she had not seen the man for about six years, the NSW Medical Tribunal found.

Dr Port said she felt pressured to prescribe Sinequan, Aropax and Zoloft because the man's wife said he was becoming violent at home and she feared for the safety of her children.

* a former neurosurgeon seems to be finding it particularly hard to kick a habit:

A LEADING neurosurgeon charged with supplying drugs to a woman found dead in his apartment has been arrested for breaching his strict bail conditions.

Suresh Surendranath Nair, 41, was arrested shortly after midnight yesterday when Kings Cross detectives raided his apartment in Bondi.

His arrest came after surveillance police alleged the Malaysian-born surgeon separately hired three female escorts over 2½ hours, taking them back to his first-floor unit in Hall Street.

As part of his bail conditions, Dr Nair is barred from hiring any sex workers or taking illicit drugs.

The raid on the unit came a week after Dr Nair discharged himself from a private hospital where he had been undergoing treatment since being charged in relation to the death of Suellen Domingues Zaupa, 22, at his Elizabeth Bay unit on November 21 last year.

Three escorts over 2 1/2 hours? Seems kind of excessive, doesn't it?

And you thought House getting hooked on prescription painkillers was a scandal.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

An innovative use for DNA science

Are the Taliban descended from ancient Israelites?

The Jerusalem Post reports:
Are the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan descendants of an Israelite tribe that migrated across Asia after it was exiled over 2,700 years ago?

This intriguing question has been asked by a variety of scholars, theologians, anthropologists and pundits over the years, but has remained somewhere between the realms of amateur speculation and serious academic research.

But now, for the first time, the government has shown official interest, with the Foreign Ministry providing a scholarship to an Indian scientist to come to the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa and determine whether or not the tribe that provides the hard core of today's Taliban has a blood link to any of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, and specifically to the tribe of Efraim.

Shahnaz Ali, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Immunohaematology, Mumbai, has joined the Technion to study the blood samples that she collected from Afridi Pathans in Malihabad, in the Lucknow district, Uttar Pradesh state, India, to check their putative Israelite origin.
She's be doing genetic testing on the samples. If the theory pans out, I somehow can't imagine the Taliban being impressed. In fact, I thought the Israeli Government might be funding it just to annoy them.

But, it's possible that a historical link might be capable of good, and indeed at the end of the article, one researcher thinks this is the point:

Navras welcomed Shahnaz's research grant. "It's a great news that now my research would be analyzed scientifically," he said on his blog.

"I don't know what would be the outcome of the DNA analysis, but it would provide us a direction to resolve the complex issue. I also hope that such effort will have positive ramifications and will bring the Muslims and Jews close and enable them to forget historical animosity," Navras wrote

So it may be a case of government funded DNA research for peace. Neat.

Confirming what we knew

Boys will be boys when it comes to toys - life - 08 January 2010 - New Scientist

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Seedy Sydney

I don't often find myself in agreement with Miranda Devine lately, but I reckon she's pretty right about the always slightly seedy atmosphere around the southern end of George Street.

Other big cities like New York apparently manage to push out the sex shops and general depressing sleaze from their entertainment areas, but somehow Sydney seems never to have quite managed that. (Mind you, it's been some years since I visited, but later this year I'll be there for a few days.)

Friday, January 08, 2010

Movies that jump the technological shark

I just saw the second half of the 2005 Jodie Foster movie "Flightplan". I knew the set up, and was curious to see the explanation for where the missing kid had disappeared on the plane.

I hadn't realised that the script would solve that problem by pretending that a plane somewhat resembling the new Airbus A 380 would have absolutely cavernous amounts of open space both above and below the passenger decks. It was so ridiculous, this internal design of the aircraft, that the movie just plummeted into a black hole of implausibility so overwhelming that I found it impossible to believe that any viewer could have found it engaging. Do people really think the hidden nooks and crannies on a passenger plane look something like a standing inside a Zeppelin?

Looking at the summaries of reviews at Rottentomatoes, it would seem that critic Mark Ramsey similarly found this the defining feature of the film:
It's an obscenely big plane. "Where is my daughter?!" asks Jodie. "Did you search the plane's tennis courts? The plane's new ballpark? Get me this plane's governor! NOW!
It's not often that technological ludicrousness ruins a movie for me. I mean, I'm not one of those people who likes to be overly analytical and worry about the fact that in Star Wars we can hear an explosion in space, or some such. Sometimes things are a bit silly and laughable but are sort of dramatically right, and you don't come away thinking that movie was ruined. But other times, that just doesn't work, and I can think of 2 movies in which technological silliness smacked me in the face so hard I could no longer enjoy it:

GoldenEye: no it wasn't the laser in a watch. Yes, ridiculous I know, but impossibly powerful gadgets had been in many of the Bond films for many years and I can overlook them. What I couldn't forgive was the absolutely 100% gold-plated absurd idea that a satellite weapon would have to be controlled by an antenna the size of the Arecibo Observatory, (of course, it was the Arecibo Observatory used in the film,) which also had to be hidden in a fake lake! I mean, even in 1995, satellite telephones were already in use with small laptop sized antennas, and even smaller handsets were in the pipeline. The satellite in question was not orbiting Pluto, for crying out loud; to use EMP it had to be in low earth orbit, not even geosynchronous orbit. What an inexcusably weak excuse for getting an interesting location into a movie. Didn't anyone point out this made no technological sense at all?

For some reason, it seems that every few months my mind goes back to GoldenEye and how annoyed I was at this incredibly stupid plot point. Maybe therapy is called for. Send me money someone, I will put it to good use.

Armageddon: to the best of my knowledge, this is by far the biggest collection of stupid, wrong, or improbable space science stuff ever assembled into one loud movie. Too many things wrong to possibly list. As Phil Plait wrote:
Here's the short version: "Armageddon" got some astronomy right. For example, there is an asteroid in the movie, and asteroids do indeed exist. And then there was... um... well, you know... um. Okay, so that was about all they got right.
Any reader with a different favourite example of a silly bit of technology that ruined a movie, you are welcome to share.

Planetary disaster averted

No, a nearby supernova won’t wipe us out | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine

The Daily Telegraph and The Sun both reported this was a relatively immanent danger to the Earth. As it wasn't picked up by more reliable sources, I suspected there might be less to the story than first appeared. Seems I was right, even if it wasn't the papers' fault

Prat blog

For those of you who just can't get enough of the only TV show host ever to urinate on his shirt and wrap it around his head, (he was feeling a touch hot at the time, and an application of warm urine apparently helps,) I've just discovered that "Bear" Grylls has his own, not frequently updated, blog.

He's significantly more annoying than Steve Irwin, who at least kept his unnecessary wildlife interventions to simply annoying them; not eating them. (That's assuming you can believe anything at all on "Man vs Wild". For all I know, every animal he eats raw may have followed him into the wilderness in an icebox.)

Worse still, it seems from his blog that he was appointed "Chief Scout" in England last year. That would put me off encouraging a child to the organisation.

Every time I see the show and the mention of him being ex-SAS, I just imagine a bunch of groans from the soldiers who used to serve with him. "That prat again...!"