Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Made with the approval of aliens

I was vaguely aware of Australian based director Phillipe Mora, who seems to have made a remarkable number of barely noticed films in his day, but I hadn’t recalled that he directed the alien abduction movie “Communion”.  (Not that I ever saw that one either.)  In any event, for some reason, Mora is talking in the Sydney Morning Herald today about how it came to be made, giving us this amusing anecdote:

In 1986 I dined with Dr Andrija Puharich, famed para- psychologist, Tesla expert, UFO proponent and magic-mushroom maven was was reportedly funded by the CIA in the 1950s to undertake mind-control research. He introduced me and my wife to a little person, a woman he described as his "psychic bodyguard". Our hostess was a movie executive and we were to discuss my forthcoming film, Communion. Halfway through, Puharich excused himself, saying he had to telephone the aliens to get their OK on me. I said to the psychic bodyguard, "I didn't know the aliens had a phone number?" She replied, "Oh yes, they do." Puharich returned and declared, "Everything is fine; they approve you!" I was hoping he'd say they would also finance the movie or guarantee distribution.

Of course, this anecdote may not be entirely true, but I like it anyway.  It’s certainly less cringe-worthy than a certain other anecdote about Australian film maker circles.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

One of the secrets of life

Richard Glover writes today about the European travel disruptions:

One woman from Birmingham told the Herald midweek that she was staggered when informed she might have to wait a fortnight before she could travel home: “I passed out, just fainted, from the sheer shock,” she said.

Really? The news was so unexpected she was rendered unconscious? Is Sydney Airport now like the scene of a Jim Jones massacre — scores of people flat on their back mumbling, “the horror, the horror”?

Personally, I feel like fainting when told that flying is possible: me and 400 people inserted into a metal tube and then hurled into the sky in the expectation we will be served very small packets of peanuts and then land, some hours later, in a different country.

I like that last paragraph in particular.   I think I may have said this before here, but like Richard, I have never gotten over the technological wonder that is flying.   Yet I don’t think that I would like a job that involved flying so often that it did become routine and I no longer reflected on how improbable it is that I am having a drink while hurtling higher than Everest through thin, instantly asphyxiating air of Antarctic temperature from which I am separated by bits of not-so-thick perspex and aluminium skin, all while watching some crappy movie.   (Well, mostly crappy.  The only exception I’ve experienced to the normal rule that an inflight movie can never be absorbing  was Shakespeare in Love.  Yes, I felt a bit teary by the end, but then maybe that was partly the effects of jet lag too.  This was especially remarkable given that I was viewing it on one of those old blurry projector systems.)

I imagine that too much flying is probably like living beside a beautiful Australian beach, which I did for a couple of years some time ago.  At one level you can still appreciate the beauty, but there’s no doubt it does become less of a wonder over time.   I certainly remember that the longer I lived there, the inclination to go for a swim got more and more put off  until the most perfect of weather conditions.   No, it’s better to have the enjoyment of going there with just enough frequency that it never completely loses novelty.

So this is one of Opinion Dominion’s secrets of life:  know enough to be impressed by flight, but if you start doing it so much that you no longer get at least a bit excited by the prospect, start doing it less.

Top marks for Brisbane house

Dezeen » Blog Archive » Hill End Ecohouse by Riddel Architecture

Don't be put off by the fact that it's called an "eco house".  This is a very cool looking residence, built in a very innovative, or at least rarely attempted, way.  What's more, it's in my home town and it has made slick design/architecture website Dezeen.  I'm very impressed.

Friday, April 23, 2010

The dulcet tones return

For those who just can't enough of William Shatner's unique way of mauling a song in a completely unselfconscious fashion, here''s the latest example hot off Youtube:

Whales and iron

Whale poop is vital to ocean's carbon cycle - life - 22 April 2010 - New Scientist

Saving endangered baleen whales could boost the carbon storage capacity of the Southern Ocean, suggests a new study of whale faeces. Whale faeces once provided huge quantities of iron to a now anaemic Southern Ocean, boosting the growth of carbon-sequestering phytoplankton.

So says Stephen Nicol of the Australian Antarctic Division, based in Kingston, Tasmania, who has found "huge amounts of iron in whale poo". He believes that before commercial whaling, baleen whale faeces may have accounted for some 12 per cent of the iron on the surface of the Southern Ocean.

Handy to know.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Considering Heaven, again

Heaven: A fool's paradise - Faith, Opinion - The Independent

Johann Hari review the Lisa Miller book about the history of heaven, about which I have commented recently.

While he is an atheist, he at least gives us more detail of Miller's argument about the Jewish development of the concept. It's interesting, but I don't have time to comment more right now.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A bit out of the blue?

Japan proposes sharp cut in minke whale catch quota in Antarctic Sea › Japan Today
Japan has proposed catching up to 440 southern minke whales each year for what it calls research purposes in the Antarctic Ocean, down from 935 at present, sources familiar with the matter said Tuesday. Japan hopes to resume full-fledged whaling in its coastal waters in return for the proposed quota reduction in the Antarctic Sea, the sources said.
How many (and what type of) whales do they expect to catch in their coastal waters?

Way to attract young voters, Tony!

No more dole, Tony Abbott warns the under-30s | The Australian
Six of the attendees confirmed yesterday that Mr Abbott had raised
the idea of banning welfare payments for young people to encourage them
to fill the thousands of jobs emerging in states such as Western
Australia and Queensland.

"He said he was thinking more and more about it, with a view to formulating something on it," said one of the participants, who asked not to be named.

Another recalled: "He definitely said it was something he was considering as a policy."

Maybe Tony is getting kickbacks from the ALP's advertising agency. They come up with their fantasy quotes for the next campaign; Tony then makes them real.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Good question

Strange lack of knowledge

Seoul warns on nuclear talks if North linked to sinking - ABC News

South Korea says it now appears that an external explosion possibly
caused by a torpedo ripped the warship in two.

Seoul is warning that if North Korea is found to have been involved
it will take the issue to the United Nations Security Council for
possible sanctions.

I find it hard to believe that South Korea does not know the truth of how this happened yet.

Bring me the bucket

1 in 10 revelers plan on consuming more than 40 units of alcohol in a single evening | e! Science News

It's all about heavy drinking when out on the town in the UK. The report contains this bit of information that would suggest letting people know their BAC is not a good way to get them to drink less:
Just over half (51%) of the people who reported feeling drunk at interview said they intended to drink more alcohol that night. The researchers also found that when individuals were informed about their blood alcohol level, it was more likely to encourage them to drink (nearly 1 in 4) than to reduce their alcohol consumption that night (less than 1 in 25). Bellis said, "Commercial use of breathalyzers to encourage individuals to drink more has already been attempted in some bars in the UK. As such technologies become more easily accessible there is a real danger it will further increase alcohol consumption."
Oh well. I can always thank a stomach that is more than ready to throw up after its allocated share of alcohol for ensuring I am in absolutely no danger of ever going out to attempt 40 units of alcohol in a night. On the assumption a bottle of wine is about 7 standard drinks, I'm not sure I've even reached 10 or 12 in an evening without vomiting. ( Just thought I would share that with you.)

Fire and ice

Iceland reminds us nature is boss. - By Christopher Hitchens - Slate Magazine

Some interesting background stuff about Iceland here from Hitchens, of all people.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Bad volcano

How an Icelandic volcano helped spark the French Revolution | World news | The Guardian

Interesting article last week in The Guardian giving a short history of the disastrous effects of the big Icelandic volcanic eruption of 1783 - 1784.

What next??

Dinner is the theater as food paparazzi converge -

The LA Times has an amusing and surprising report on the trend for people to photograph their food. It's starting to annoy some restaurants so much they have a "non flash only" policy.

But, here's the most ridiculous digital photo development I have heard:
Camera manufacturers are joining the trend. Nikon, Olympus and Sony sell cameras that offer "cuisine" or "food" settings, which adjust to enhance colors and textures on close-ups.
How come they haven't come up with a "shower/bedroom flesh tone" setting for men, then? Would be used more often, I bet.

And now to reveal my hypocrisy: I must admit I have taken a few food photos over the years, but - I think - only in Japan, where it has novelty value and presentation is extremely important. No, that's different from taking photos of food in your local restaurant - honest.

Another explanation of the "missing heat"issue

Tracking the energy from global warming

It's quite a discrepancy they've got going since 2005.  For what's it's worth, my hunch would be that it's a problem both with ocean heat content calculations (being a bit too low) and satellite measurements (being a bit too high.)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

All about that coffee

From Dung to Coffee Brew With No Aftertaste -

This article in the New York Times explains all you would ever need to know about the civet poo coffee business of South East Asia.

I think I'll pass, thanks.

Bad time to be in the vitamin business

Vitamins linked to breast cancer
A major study has revealed that women who take a daily multi-vitamin
pill are nearly 20 per cent more likely to develop breast cancer.

Given the bad publicity that many vitamin supplements have been accruing over the last 5 years or so, I wonder if sales have been significantly affected.

Won't always love you-ou-ou-ou-ah-won't-always etc

Whitney Houston, LG Arena, Birmingham - Reviews, Music - The Independent

It's pretty rare to find such a scathing review of a pop concert, but here it is.

Actually, the Guardian's reviewer from the same concert thinks that there is a bit of an unfair anti-Whitney bandwagon developing, as most reviews said she was OK on some songs. But, there is this:
They say Houston behaved oddly, chatting about nothing in particular for minutes on end, took a 15-minute break only half a dozen songs in, and had trouble reaching some of her high notes.
She does indeed appear to be regularly (see the comments below about the next concert) making a spectacular hash of the famous climax of "I will always love you", as you can see here. It's doubly excruciating because of the long, long break she takes before attempting it, and the whoops and encouragement given by her (not very British sounding) fans.

In fact, if you watch any Youtubes clips of the Birmingham concert, the enthusiasm of the audience is, somewhat puzzlingly in the circumstances, quite high.

The next concert she gave was at Nottingham, and the reviewer writes this:
However, Houston's rendition of the ultimate schmaltz anthem "I Will Always Love You" must have tested even her most loyal followers. It's a challenging ballad, not least if you've been doing extraordinarily damaging things to your upper body for several years. Her voice wheezes and grates through the high notes. There are attempts to plaster over the cracks with octave changes and smiles, but mid-song she stops, sighs and turns around to compose herself. She does finish the number, in a way, but it isn't spectacular and Houston, frozen, knows it. A momentary silence is pierced by the sound of a child crying in the stalls. Quite why left this song to the end is bewildering.
But the on-stage behaviour is perhaps worth seeing on its own:
The songs include moments of genuine bonkersness. During "Saving All My Love for You" she stoops to moisturise her ankles and on several occasions appears to be singing to her shoes.
All a bit sad, in its way.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Unusual holiday destination noted

Reunion Island

It's not often on Getaway that I notice a story on a holiday destination I have never really heard of before, but this week they did an item on Reunion Island, and I really couldn't recall ever seeing anything on TV about this place.

It certainly looks like a spectacular destination for volcano viewing and rugged, green scenery. And with a French heritage, it sounds like quite an exotic destination.

Where's my lotto entry for tonight...

That Catholic issue

There were two interesting articles by a Jesuit, James Martin, in Huffington Post recently about the Catholic sex abuse issue. The best one is about homosexuality not being the "cause" of it. It ends with a comment made by the Pope himself indicating that he doesn't believe that either. The arguments are basically the same as I indicated in my post earlier this week.

His other article, arguing that "it's not about celibacy" either, is less strong. He puts up a strong defence of why celibacy is valued by the Church, but it doesn't sit well with this crucial line in his homosexuality article:
Pedophilia, say experts, is more a question of a stunted (or arrested) sexuality, more a question of power, and more a question of proximity (among many other complicated psychological factors). Simply put, being gay does not make one a pedophile.
Um, doesn't celibacy for men who have (presumably, in many cases) entered into celibacy as virgins (or at least with little in the way of long lasting sexual relationships) just about guarantee a "stunted or arrested sexuality"?

The fact that Catholic priest's rate of abuse is not so bad when compared to society at large is still no reason for believing that removal of celibacy would make it less likely. (I suspect, on the other hand, that with married clergy other forms of sexual scandal would increase, such as affairs with the spouse's friends, and allegations of spouse abuse, etc. But such scandal is less harmful than child abuse.)

Not so good news for Europe

Get ready for decades of Icelandic fireworks - environment - 16 April 2010 - New Scientist
Volcanologists say the fireworks exploding from the Eyjafjallajökull volcano on Iceland, which is responsible for the ash cloud that is grounding all commercial flights across northern Europe, may become a familiar sight. Increased rumblings under Iceland over the past decade suggest that the area is entering a more active phase, with more eruptions and the potential for some very large bangs.

"Volcanic activity on Iceland appears to follow a periodicity of around 50 to 80 years. The increase in activity over the past 10 years suggests we might be entering a more active phase with more eruptions," says Thorvaldur Thordarson, an expert on Icelandic volcanoes at the University of Edinburgh, UK. By contrast, the latter half of the 20th century was unusually quiet.

As for the question of whether the current eruption could cause significant cooling: apparently, it's not thought big enough yet to do that.

Update: there's a lot more comparative detail on the size of the Iceland volcano (and why it is not close to be being a big climate influence) here.

Friday, April 16, 2010

By the light of a gecko


The Wisdom of the Lileks

I particularly liked this bit of Lileks this week:
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last ten years – aside from the fact that a man who can write a self-refuting line like “Only a Sith believes in absolutes” and be paid a billion dollars – it’s this: web communities create in-breeding. It’s less the planet-holding-hands-and-singing-the-Coke-song than Cities in Flight, domed off, heading on different trajectories. If you doubt this, subscribe to a few Twitter feeds from people who believe different things than you do, and you will find dross passed off as insight, biscuit-crumbs strewn as if they were pearls on silk, all because the writer believes he or she is speaking to an audience that need not be persuaded. The worst part of the internet is its ability to let the pre-persuaded accrete, and declare the sun moves around them.
Oh, and from the same column:
I suppose I could assume everyone who’s sensible and/or hip to the new “cyber” tools for interpersonal avoidance masquerading as immediate communication is already hooked up with the RSS and the Twitter and the Tumblr...

Nun power

BBC News - Kung fu empowers Nepal nuns

Maybe the dwindling number of Catholic nuns is all to do with the lack of martial arts training. Introduce it and we can get them back into schools again as scarier-than-ever disciplinarian teachers.

Some habit he's got going there

Broadcaster Larry King seeks 8th divorce | Reuters

King has been married to seven different women, but this is his eighth divorce, because he remarried one of his former spouses and then divorced her again.
I remember, years ago, that David Letterman had a funny video segment that was a "guide" to being a new wife for Larry King. I wonder if it is around on the net somewhere.

I can't find it, but I did turn up this Letterman Top 10 Complaints of Larry King's new wife.

Tracking heat

'Missing' heat may affect future climate change | e! Science News

This'll turn up on AGW skeptic sites before long, but it is an interesting detailed explanation of Kevin Trenberth's email comment on the "missing heat" problem in climate science which came to light in the "climategate" email leak.

It occurs to me too that the Icelandic volcano may have a cooling effect for a year or so, as may a spotless Sun. (Although it still seems no one really understands the Sun's cycle properly, and sunspots have been appearing again this year.)

Both of these will presumably affect Europe and the Northern Hemisphere, which may mean some cold winters there to come, despite the fact that as soon as those factors go, AGW could kick back in with a vengeance.

This is not what we need to convince politicians of a need for action.

A worrying comment

Is Japan hurtling toward a debt crisis? - The Globe and Mail

Japan's budget, announced last week o kick off the fiscal year, promises to spend a record trillion dollars, and the government must issue a record ¥44.3-trillion of new bonds this year.

The heavy spending and financing are raising worries in Japan about the country's long-term fiscal health, amid concern that Japanese government bonds are turning into an asset bubble fuelling a public debt that is the highest among advanced economies.

Japan's debt, mostly owed to creditors within the country, is more than 200 per cent of annual gross domestic product, compared with 113 per cent in Greece, 50 per cent in Spain, and 69 per cent in the United States, according to the New York-based ISI Group.

This is the part that really caught my eye:

I'm actually envious of the Greek situation,” said Masaaki Kanno, chief economist at J.P. Morgan in Tokyo, and a former senior official of the Bank of Japan. “They have market pressure forcing them to take action sooner than later. In Japan, even if the government tries to cut spending, social security costs will likely grow ¥1-trillion every year. The government deficit is likely to grow forever, in a sense.”

Near fiction

Accused murderer Des Campbell allegedly said he couldn't have sex with "filthy rich" and "pig ugly" Jenny Fisicaro | The Daily Telegraph

It's rare that you get a murder trial in which the claims are so much like a story you'd find unlikely on a cheap TV police show. (If the characters were richer, it could be a movie.)

It also appears to be an entirely circumstantial case, as (I assume) there are no witnesses to the fall off the cliff, and forensic evidence of a shove in the back is probably hard to come by.

Here's today's report on yesterday's evidence. Fascinating.

Dubious trips to no where

Obama aims to send astronauts to Mars

OK, so maybe getting rocket development more directly into private hands is not a bad idea. (Emphasis on maybe.) But I still can't believe that any sane person would think that the long, confined and radiation ridden rocket trip to Mars would be worth it simply to orbit the planet. Yet this what Obama is suggesting:

"So, we'll start by sending astronauts to an asteroid for the first time in history. By the mid-2030s, I believe we can send humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to earth, and a landing on Mars will follow."

A trip to an asteroid, provided the astronauts can actually get onto it, may be worthwhile. But orbiting Mars so as to send back holiday pics from orbit that any robot probe could do? I don't think so.

If you want to test on a long term basis whether your rocket's life support system works for 12 months at a time, just do it near the Earth.

South America gets all the good parasites

BBC News - New species of nose-dwelling leech discovered

It must be "New South American Parasite" week:
A new species of leech, discovered by an international team of scientists, has a preference for living up noses.

Researchers say the leech can enter the body orifices of people and animals to attach itself to mucous membranes.

They have called the new blood-sucking species Tyrannobdella rex which means tyrant leech king.

The creature was first discovered in 2007 in Peru when a specimen was plucked from the nose of a girl who had been bathing in a river.

The creature lives in the remote parts of the Upper Amazon and has a "particularly unpleasant habit of infesting humans", the scientists say.

Studies also revealed that it had "a preference for living up noses". The research published their findings in the online scientific journal PLoS One
Yuck, again.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Germans just don't get cupcakes

Colbert's long-ish segment on fast food last night had many funny bits, but the German trying the cupcake really had me laughing:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Thought for Food - Mentally Ill Advertisers & German Cupcakes
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorFox News

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

New parasitic news

BBC News - Parasite 'a growing stroke risk'

Just what we need: news of a parasite that I haven't heard of before that is gaining global popularity:

Some 18m people worldwide have Chagas disease, caused by an infection with the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi.

Recently, researchers discovered having this disease puts the individual at increased risk of stroke due to heart complications and blood clots.

Chagas disease is endemic in Latin America. But emigration of millions of people to Europe, North America, Japan and Australia over the past 20 years has also made Chagas disease an emerging health problem in these countries with the potential to cause a substantial disease burden, say the investigators.
They don't actually explain what bugs can give you the disease, apart from having a photo of some unnamed blood sucker. Wikipedia explains that it is usually via a bug with particularly unpleasant habits:
In Chagas-endemic areas, the main mode of transmission is through an insect vector called a triatomine bug.[1] A triatomine becomes infected with T. cruzi by feeding on the blood of an infected person or animal. During the day, triatomines hide in crevices in the walls and roofs. The bugs emerge at night, when the inhabitants are sleeping. Because they tend to feed on people’s faces, triatomine bugs are also known as “kissing bugs.” After they bite and ingest blood, they defecate on the person. Triatomines pass T. cruzi parasites (called trypomastigotes) in feces left near the site of the bite wound. Scratching the site of the bite causes the trypomastigotes to enter the host through the wound, or through intact mucous membranes, such as the conjunctiva.

"Hot" tourist spot

Wonder lust: Chernobyl - environment - 13 April 2010 - New Scientist

There's a short item here about what you can do as a tourist in the Chernobyl area. It's still not high on my wish list, no matter how many birds, bears and other assorted wildlife may have moved into the town. (For all we know, some of them may have gained mutant super powers. That would be my concern.)

Fixing NASA

Findings - NASA, We’ve Got a Problem. But It Can Be Fixed. -

There's some interesting comment in this article about how NASA and space exploration has not followed the usual economies of new transport systems:

The main problem with NASA is not lack of money. Its current budget is about the same size, when adjusted for inflation, as the average during the 1960s and early 1970s. But space exploration has become so costly that this level of financing won’t even pay for a return to the Moon anytime soon, which is what prompted the White House to cancel the Bush administration’s lunar mission.

Normally, once a pioneer makes the first trip somewhere, the cost goes down as others follow and technology improves. That’s why so many colonists could follow Columbus to the New World, and why the masses today can afford to fly in Lindbergh’s path back to Europe. The real costs of shipping freight by rail and air have declined by an order of magnitude since locomotives and airplanes were invented.

In space transportation, though, many costs have actually risen since the days of Apollo.
Since Obama announced his changes to NASA, which include abandoning the current return to the moon rocket development, some have argued that this may work out better in the long run. I don't really know enough to know, but I can certainly see the argument that NASA needed shaking up in some major way.

Local drama

A fairy tale gone wrong -

This South East Asian version of an international celebrity marriage gone wrong should have attracted some Australian media interest, I would have thought. Instead, it appears in the LA Times. Odd.

Death for mingling

Cleric's support for men and women mingling in public sparks furor in Saudi Arabia

The Christian Science Monitor notes in the above report:
....Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi recently declared that nothing in Islam bans men and women from mixing in public places like schools and offices.

Supporters of the status quo responded harshly. Anyone who permits men and women to work or study together is an apostate and should be put to death unless he repents, said Sheikh Abdulrahman al-Barrak.

The article goes on to give some examples of Saudi segregation which shows how extreme it is:
Men and women enter government offices and banks through different doors. Male professors teach female university students from separate rooms using closed-circuit television. Companies must create all-female rooms or floors if they hire women. And the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce just announced different work hours for male and female employees so the two don't mix on arrival and departure.
I wonder what outdoor events women attend there. 'Cos I am thinking, if ever there is a brave man in Saudi Arabia, it would be the first male streaker at a women's only sporting fixture.

A specialised conference

34th Annual Larval Fish Conference

Who knew that larval fish scientists had their own conference. I assume the venue does not need to be especially big!

Anyhow, the story at the link is about research indicating that lower ocean water pH may not affect the growth of some reef fish, but it does appear to affect larval fish behaviour, quite possibly in a way that let more of them perish.

Ocean acidification - it's just one big gamble.

And by the way, Andrew Bolt deserves special criticism for posting a Youtube video from pro CO2 site CO2 Science showing how much better a cowpea plant does with CO2 at 1270 ppm compared to one at 470 ppm.

First, we aren't yet at 470 ppm, and it would take many, many decades to ever reach 1270 ppm.

But more importantly, when we start deciding that the planet should be ideally adjusted to suit plants rather than humans, then he may have a point.

Tough sentencing

Man convicted of stealing 2.5 yen worth of electricity › Japan Today
An unemployed man in Osaka City was sentenced to one year in prison suspended for three years on Tuesday for stealing electricity worth 2.5 yen from a shared electric outlet at his apartment building.

Not so anti-religion?

Are Top Scientists Really So Atheistic? Look at the Data | The Intersection | Discover Magazine

Maybe scientists are not as anti-religion, and as uniformly politically left wing, as blogs such as those grouped under Science Blogs indicate. (Really, sometimes it seems that the majority of posts on blogs linked there are more about the science/religion culture wars than actual science findings.)

Expect much criticism of the book at Science Blogs in the near future.

Talking celibacy

The Future of Catholic Celibacy May Be in Doubt -

This article on the cultural unpopularity of clerical celibacy in Africa was of interest.

There have also been some recent articles (including one at Newsweek) arguing that if you look at child abuse overall, you can't really say that celibacy is at the heart of the Catholic Church's problem. The suggestion that, as a lot of abuse cases involve teenage boys, it is really a "homosexual problem" has also been raised. I can't find his source, but CL at Catallaxy claims:
Speaking clinically, 75+ percent of abuse cases are not paedophilia but crimes of a homosexual nature involving clerics and boys in upper adolescence.
[UPDATE: I see a Cardinal is copping a lot of criticism for making the homosexual link too.]

Yet surely the issue of who the victims are is heavily influenced by availability and (I guess) an older male having an expectation that teenage boys are more likely to enjoy a sexual experience of any kind than a teenage girl (and hence be more likely to keep it a secret). To suggest it's all about gay clergy seems somewhat akin to arguing that opportunistic sex in prisons is a homosexual problem.

[UPDATE: on the other hand, it would seem logical that the priesthood could have attracted young men who were embarrassed about homosexual attraction and hoped to avoid it by promising celibacy. So it would not be surprising if the priesthood had proportionally more than your average number of homosexually inclined men in it, and no doubt some of them have been caught up in sex abuse cases. On the third hand, given that a gay priest who had personally reconciled himself to only ever wanting occasional flings is almost certainly going to find it easier to find a sexual outlet anonymously than a heterosexual priest, maybe such gay priests are less likely to resort to abuse of power for sexual release! But overall, maybe it's all swings and roundabouts (sorry but that probably counts as an unintended poor taste pun) and the rate of approaches to male teens may be the same between self identifying gay and straight priests.]

There is some value, however, in keeping in mind the actual rates of sexual abuse compared to society in general. On the other hand, it is also undeniably the case that it is very scandalous when purported moral leaders fail in this way.

I still consider as a matter of common sense that an adult male with his one and only wife (bearing in mind that a very high proportion of sexual abuse cases are within families by stepfathers) is more likely to have a normalised attitude towards sex which would make sexual abuse much less likely.

As I have argued before, the Eastern Churches position as to celibacy would seem to be a very sensible reform of the Catholic Church. Your average local priest can have his family and give up career progress, so to speak. Those priests for whom celibacy works can keep it and gain the advantage of career progression too.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Fundamental problem solved (or not, as the case may be)

This transcript of a talk on arXiv by physics and astronomy professor Paul Howard Frampton combines plausible sounding solutions to dark matter, dark energy and the nature of the universe with some rather peculiar personal observations. It's worth reading for its eccentric observations alone.

But the physics first. Frampton argues that primordial black holes created by a double dose of early inflation of the universe could account for all dark matter. Doesn't sound wildly improbable.

Secondly, he argues that if you assume the universe is "approximated" or "is close to" to being a black hole, the maths show that there should be a cosmic acceleration of about the right speed for what is observed. Why this should be is not entirely clear to me; it's one of those cases where I really need a science populariser to decipher some formulae. It is also not entirely clear as to what he means when he says the result falls out of the universe being "close to" a black hole. Does this mean he isn't saying the universe isn't really the inside of a giant black hole? I'm not sure.

It's not the first time anyone has suggested the universe might be inside a black hole, but it might be the first time the suggestion has been made that it should give an acceleration of the kind observed.

The consequence of this theory being right would be very important for fundamental unification of physics:

The aforementioned solution, of the dark energy problem, not only solves a cosmological problem, it casts a completely new light, on the nature of the gravitational force. Since the expansion of the universe, including the acceleration thereof, can only be a gravitational phenomenon, I arrive at the viewpoint, that gravity is a classical result, of the second law of thermodynamics. This means that gravity cannot be regarded as, on a footing with, the electroweak and strong interactions. Although this can be the most radical change, in gravity theory, for over three centuries, it is worth emphasizing, that general relativity remains unscathed.
My result calls into question, almost all of the work done on quantum gravity, since the discovery of quantum mechanics. For gravity, there is no longer necessity for a graviton. In the case of string theory, the principal motivation17,18 for the profound, and historical, suggestion, by Scherk and Schwarz, that string theory be reinterpreted, not as a theory of the strong interaction, but instead as a theory of the gravitational interaction, came from the natural appearance, of a massless graviton, in the closed string sector. I am not saying that string theory is dead. What I am saying is, that string theory cannot be a theory of the fundamental gravitational interaction, since there is no fundamental gravitational interaction.

Now for the eccentric passages. There are quite a few, but this is perhaps the highlight, explaining his feeling when he had his insight (only earlier this year):
There was an indescribable feeling of personal fulfillment, that the 66 years and 98 days, so far, of my life, had a significance. This was/is a totally individual experience which, unlike money or fame, involves no other person, and is therefore different. Because the visible universe is much bigger than the Solar System b, I had vindicated my claim, as a four-year-old, to be cleverer than Newton. Because, in my opinion, time travel into the past will forever be impossible, I cannot return to Isaac Newton in 1686 and forewarn him that a cleverer person will be born on October 31, 1943; nor can I return to 1948 and tell the four-year-old on a tricycle that he is right to say he is cleverer than Newton. The first reaction is to want to achieve the personal fulfillment again, and again.
Hmm. Paul Frampton looks quite normal, and appears to have had a long career in physics. He sure doesn't seem to write about himself a very "normal" way, though.

Limp musical

Porn the Musical | Theatre review | Stage | The Guardian

Get the feeling that the people who write musicals are having trouble finding inspiration these days? (Andrew Lloyd Webber hit that wall about 25 years ago, I guess.) Don't lyricists and composers read newspapers or books anymore?

Interesting for some

Under the volcano, Iwate's capital keeps its rich history alive | The Japan Times Online

Having visited Morioka quite a few times, this travel piece about the town and its history is of interest to me. Maybe not so much for my readers, but hey it's my blog.

Germ watch

Two items of interest regarding germs in hospital:

* Keep that lotion away from me. In Barcelona in 2008, there was a case of an intensive care unit making its patients sick through its use of a body lotion. Apparently, skin care products in the European Union do not need to be sterile, and tests confirmed that the bug in the hospital was coming from the sealed lotion.

* And while you're at it, get off my bed. A letter recently published in the BMJ notes this:
A comprehensive drive to get staff to decontaminate hands before and after touching patients or contaminated surfaces is useless if they then sit on consecutive beds on a ward.
You can't be too careful.

* Cats driving us mad, continued: I hadn't read anything about toxoplasma gondii (carried by your cat) causing schziophrenia for a while, and in fact I thought some recent studies indicated it may not account for many cases. But it's grouped with 2 other forms of infections looked at in a recent paper that argues:
“While replication in independent samples is warranted, the data from our sample suggest that up to approximately 30 percent of schizophrenia cases could be prevented in the offspring of the pregnant population [in the review appearing in AJP in Advance] if we were to completely eliminate three of the infections we studied—influenza, elevated Toxoplasma antibody, and peri-conceptional genital-reproductive infections,” Brown told Psychiatric News.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Heaven & Hell noted

Paul Johnson gives us a short but informative review of a book "After Lives: A Guide to Heaven, Hell and Purgatory". Lonely Planet mustn't have gotten around to those regions yet.

Apart from telling us about the hellfire sermons of the Redemptorists (an order which specialised in that service), Johnson reminds us that:
Belief in hell began to decline in the eighteenth century. Boswell relates that when Dr Johnson dined with Dr Adams, head of Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1784, Johnson said, 'looking dismally', that he was afraid he would be damned. Dr Adams: 'What do you mean by damned?' Johnson, 'passionately and loudly': 'Sent to Hell, Sir, and punished everlastingly.' Dr Adams: 'I don't believe that doctrine.' A discussion followed, in which Johnson appeared to be in a minority of one, until he said, 'in gloomy agitation', 'I'll have no more on't.' The decline of hell was the reason why the Redemptorists were founded, and in Britain, why Parliament replaced fear of damnation by a huge increase in capital punishment.
Interesting. But was Dr Adam's problem with Hell the idea that it is permanent? The idea that purgatory is just Hell that any soul can leave (at least until the Final Judgement) is one that has more appeal to the modern mind, and if the idea of a permanent, immediate judgement leading to Hell leads people to disbelieve in it entirely, I would rather the Catholic church did go back to talking about other possible understandings of Hell, rather than just ignoring it.

Certainly, Hell is given very light weight in Catholic sermons these days compared to my youth, despite its prominent mentions in the New Testament. I don't care much for the idea of constant fear as being an incentive for moral behaviour; but on the other hand, never talking about it tends to downplay the reality of the supernatural and importance of personal responsibility, which are aspects of Catholic teaching which are now somewhat lacking.

Apart from Hell, the concept of Heaven, and the issue of what a resurrected body is meant to be like, gets covered in a book extract appearing recently in Newsweek.

Lisa Miller, the author of "Heaven", seems to suggest that the more commonly believed existence of a mere soul in an afterlife doesn't actually give us the idea of a solid Heavenly experience:
...a disembodied soul attaching itself to God in heaven offers no more comfort or inspiration than an escaped balloon. Consolation was not the goal of Plato's afterlife. Without sight or hearing, taste or touch, a soul in heaven can no more enjoy the "green, green pastures" of the Muslim paradise, or the God light of Dante's cantos, than it can play a Bach cello suite or hit a home run. Rationalistic visions of heaven fail to satisfy.
The post at First Things about Millar's book agrees.

I'm not sure that it really is a problem, especially with the advent of cyberspace as a concept that soon every adult who spent a childhood playing computer games will understand. And you also get scientists seriously speculating on the entire universe being a simulation. It's easier than ever to believe that a disembodied mind could be made to feel embodied, surely. I think this was the point made by Margaret Wertheim's book "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace", and it sounds as if Millar may not have read it.

But if one expects that Heaven is just a simulated version of life with better ground rules, I guess you could also argue that a bodily resurrection of Jesus would not have been necessary to prove that type of reality. Yet it seems clear from the New Testament that the writers wanted to be sure that people understood the post resurrection experiences as something different from a ghostly presence. Who knows; maybe a bodily resurrection of Jesus was really necessary to prove his special status. A mere claimed appearance of a ghost a couple of times might be considered unremarkable.

Anyhow, this is all just speculation. The fact that Christianity is a kind of unexpected religion, with mystery at its heart, is one of the reasons it makes a fascinating life long study and interest, even if you don't fully have faith.

Finally, I have also been meaning to mention Daniel Dennett's small scale study of clergy who no longer believe in God, but still don't give up their positions. I think I have noted here before that this is not a new concern, as CS Lewis in one of his essays from (I think) the 1940's to a group of Anglican priests said that congregations often had a firmer belief in some fundamental Christian doctrines than the priests leading them. Still, the problem may be even worse now, for all I know.

Short notes

* Hot, hot, hot: Locally, Brisbane has been very unusually hot and humid the last week or so. (I heard somewhere that the maximum the other day was four degrees above average, and last night seemed particularly sticky.)

And in fact, although you wouldn't know it from the mainstream media, average global satellite temperatures for March were very hot; very nearly at the 1998 peak caused by that year's super El Nino. Normally, Andrew Bolt at least copies into his blog the chart for the UAH global average readings, but he didn't do it for March. (I'll be generous and assume it's because he's getting ready to start a radio career, not because the temperatures don't suit his warming scepticism.) Anyway, here it is, from Roy Spencer's blog:

If you ask me, there's been a distinct air of diversionary tactics about Roy Spencer's posts lately. He seems very keen to justify his scepticism against the evidence being produced by his very own satellite work.

Yet where is the mainstream media on all this? Yes, winter was cold in the populated parts of the northern hemisphere, but can't journalists read the internet and report that it was in fact a local phenomena, with parts of the far north very unusually hot, and now 2010 is on track to be the hottest year on record? Instead, they would rather report on parliamentary enquiries as to why scientists got irked about too many FOI requests over the last decade or so ago. Pretty pathetic, really.

* Scientists want you to have faith: I recently made a comment about how scientific materialists sometimes suggest that, although free will is an illusion, it's important to pretend it isn't. Well, there's a whole column about that attitude in Scientific American now. Interesting reading.

* Isn't there a law against it? Britain seems to have a nanny State law against every possible form of annoying behaviour, except for being a stupid media arrest tart. First it was Monbiot wanting a citizens arrest of Tony Blair; now its Dawkins, Hitchens and Geoffrey Robertson who are going to rugby tackle the Pope as soon as he lands in Britain. Twits. They are good candidates to remedy the problem in my next story:

* Help your local lesbian or lonely heart:
A leading IVF specialist is calling for men to start donating sperm because of growing demand from single women and lesbian couples.
I am slightly pleased if this shows a slightly conservative view towards the importance of fathers actually being present for their kids. But in fact, it's probably just men worried that somehow they'll be made financially liable in future.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Monday, April 05, 2010

What I've been saying

Phillip Coorey's article from a few days ago about Tony Abbott basically says what I have been arguing at other blogs for the last few weeks: Tony Abbott strikes me as a policy flake.

"Flake"in this context: n. An unreliable person; someone who agrees to do something, but never follows through.

Tonight's appearance by Abbott on Q&A seemed terribly dull: I fell asleep for much of it, would come to briefly, then doze off again. Rudd's appearance a couple of months ago signalled he was in some trouble. In the sense that it seemed he was not openly ridiculed (much), Abbott's appearance might not hurt him, but may not advance his cause either.

Easter religion posts continue...

Hey, Easter is almost over, and so is the run of religious articles on death and resurrection.

Slate has re-run a 2008 short article on resurrection which is of interest. Chances are that I did read it back then but have forgotten. It seems to contradict the book I noted a couple of posts back which argues that Jesus would not have understood resurrection in a corporeal sense.

(By the way, I now see that the Vermes book came out in 2008. The Biblical Archaeology Review must be an Easter reprint.)

In other Christian themed articles, I see that Philip Pullman's novel on Jesus has this plot:
As he tells the Gospel story, Mary did not have one son but twins—a gifted but pious and humble one called Jesus and his more calculating and sophisticated brother, Christ. Observing his modest sibling, Christ concludes that the story needs to evolve in certain ways if the wandering faith-healer’s work is to become the basis of a world religion. In the end Christ colludes with his brother’s death and helps, directly and indirectly, to construct a new narrative about his resurrection. When the disciples meet their risen master, it is really Christ they are encountering, not his twin, Jesus.
There was an extract of Pullman's book in The Guardian recently, and the writing style certainly has no appeal to me. It is, as the reviews tell us, to be read as fable; not a realistic telling of what might have happened.

Unsurprisingly, Rowan Williams (an old admirer of Pullman) offers his review in The Guardian, and it is more or less positive. Of course, Williams seems to be a philosopher who ended up a Church's world leader by accident. He's a nice enough sounding man, but one suspects he has helped more people out of his Church than into it.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

An unlikely proposition

Regular readers will know that I don’t like the hyperfast-edited action sequences that have taken hold of the movies over the last decade or two.  Director Paul Greengrass is a famous exponent of the style.

So, it is kind of funny to read that he is supposed to be making a 3 D version of Fantastic Voyage.  This has led to some funny comments following the article:

"Grainy Pallets"? That's an understatement! The "Green Zone" looked liked it was shot in PixelVision or 8mm. Hands down had to be one of the most grainy films in recent years. Can't wait for awful grain in 3D! I bet it will look awesome!

And this:

The PRINCIPAL RULE OF 3D EDITING: the main thing one needs to consider while editing in 3D is that no single shot can be shorter than 2 seconds (and Paul Greengrass hasn't seen a 2-second shot he ever liked).

Actually, the guy who wrote the second comment goes on to explain how Avatar understood this rule, and the new Clash of the Titans does not, making it hard to watch.  He says of the new 3 D process:

There is a real, honest to god reason people like Michael Bay are resistant to 3D – because it changes the way you are allowed to make movies. You have to frame them differently; color them differently; edit them differently.

Sounds about right.  I’ll be happy for this fad-ish phenomena to go away.

Remembering Mockingbird

The Age has a very lovely article today in which former child actress Mary Badham, who played Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, reminisces about the experience of filming it and the life long effects it has had on her.

She sounds like a thoroughly decent person, just as you would hope a real life “Scout” would turn out.

More Easter talk

Jason Koutsoukis in the Sydney Morning Herald points out that being in the River Jordan these days is not quite the purest of experiences:

For the fabled tributary that flows from the Sea of Galilee to the Dead Sea … is now little more than an unholy brew of raw sewage, chemical run-off and brackish agricultural leftovers.

No matter, say the hordes of Christian pilgrims who have been flocking this week to Qasr al-Yahud, purported to be the exact site of Jesus' baptism.

Before stripping down to his underpants, John Ferraro, 30, a Romanian engineer, told the Herald of his firm belief that this was the cleanest water in the world. ''This is the water that Jesus was washed in,'' he said. ''This water belongs to God. Why would God want to make anyone sick with this holy water?''

Watching a euphoric Mr Ferraro splash around the River Jordan as if it was his bathtub, few could doubt his sincerity. But when he started gargling the muddy concoction, some might reasonably have questioned his mental health.

Further down we read:

After the diversion of 90 per cent of the 1.3 billion cubic metres of water that would normally flow down the river each year by the governments of Syria, Jordan and Israel, Ms Edelstein said all that is left is basically 100 million cubic metres of untreated sewage.

Oh dear. And here I thought Hindu Indians who jumped into the Ganges were unwise.

Friday, April 02, 2010

An Easter post

There are some interesting articles at Biblical Archaeology Review relevant to Easter. 

Let’s start with the Last Supper.  There’s a long article here by scholar Jonathan Klawans looking at all of the arguments for and against the meal being the actual Passover ritual meal (or Seder) as the synoptic Gospels seem to indicate. He concludes that it was probably wasn’t, arguing that in fact we don’t know how Jews in Jesus’ day would have actually celebrated Passover.  (That seems a pretty surprising suggestion.)   He thinks that the Gospel writers presented the Last Supper as a Passover meal for a few different possible reasons.

I don’t know.  I’m pretty suspicious of  exegesis that appears to end up being “too clever by half.”   Lots of comments follow the article too, giving other explanations as to why he might be wrong. 

Does this matter much theologically?  Maybe not; the connection between Jesus and the Paschal lamb is clear enough whether or not the meal itself was exactly a Seder. 

Moving on to the crucifixion, in a book review we find this comment:

Jesus, the Final Days begins with two chapters by Craig Evans that offer a thorough review of ancient sources describing Roman execution practice and Jewish burial practices. Taken together, these discussions suggest that the gospel accounts of Jesus’ trial, execution and burial represent remarkably authentic descriptions. A seeming omission from Professor Evans’s otherwise comprehensive catalogue is Dio Cassius’s account of the flogging and crucifixion of Antigonus, the last Maccabean king, who had attempted to overthrow Roman rule and reestablish an independent Jewish state two generations before Jesus.1

Then, in the same article, they review  “The Resurrection” by an Oxford professor of Jewish Studies (so he ought to know his topic).  Here we get this potted history of Jewish thought regarding an afterlife:

He finds that, on the whole, Jews considered death to be a final state (cf. Job 14:10–12; Ecclesiastes 4:2–3). Nevertheless, perhaps in response to extreme adversity in life, some Jews began to imagine a reward beyond life, initially in a metaphorical sense (cf. Ezekiel 37:5–6) and subsequently, during the Maccabean era, in a more literal sense (cf. 2 Maccabees 7:1–41, esp. verses 7–11).

By the time of Jesus, the aristocratic Sadducees continued to maintain the finality of death and this, Vermes argues, was the mainstream Jewish belief. However, certain sectarians, notably the Pharisees, advanced the notion of bodily resurrection at the end of time. On this point, Vermes’s discussion becomes somewhat blurred, because none of the sources provide a satisfactory definition of resurrection. Also, his failure to consider the beliefs of John the Baptist is a puzzling omission. Clearly John the Baptist and probably Jesus himself were among those Jews who foresaw a new era in which the pure would be rewarded with eternal happiness and the sinful condemned to eternal suffering.a But the key point that Vermes makes is that, for Jesus, resurrection meant spiritual survival, while corporeal resurrection “played no significant part” in his thinking.

Thus, the perceived fact of Jesus’ bodily resurrection came as a huge surprise to his disciples and became, indeed, a transforming event in which his previously cowardly followers became bold and eloquent witnesses.

I am curious as to how Vermes makes the claim that Jesus understood resurrection to be spiritual survival only.  Would that mean the his Father gave him a big surprise?

And finally, for  less scholarly reflections, you can always read the somewhat rambling Easter thoughts of lapsed Catholic ABC journalist Chris Uhlmann.  He seems a very likeable fellow, even if his attitude towards global warming indicates that science is not his strong point.

From the garden today


Top marks if you know what the yellow flowers are.  (My wife is responsible for the arrangement.)

Thursday, April 01, 2010

The mysterious death of British culture

I've touched on these issues before in many posts, but tonight, after watching some British TV, I have a strong urge to rant about the state of British culture.

Of course, it could just be me reaching a premature "things were so much better when I were a lad" stage of my life. But no, it's not me: it's you, formerly great Britain, I am sure. For example:

* Britain's "celebrity culture" is shallow, as it is in all countries, but for some reason the bar seems set especially low in England. I've seen a couple of episodes of "Hestons Feasts" recently. It's a mildly diverting, if over-produced, show in which you learn something interesting about the history of exotic feasts. But it also involves the chef serving his strange, tricky food to a room full of six alleged celebrities. Usually I know one of them who became famous in the 1960's: the rest just seem so, well, incredibly uninteresting. Mind you, their job is just to go "ooh, ahh, what's this I am supposed to eat?" But still...

And as a service to the community, I warn you: if ever a television near you is showing "I'm a celebrity...Get me out of here" run a mile, and don't look back. It's the most excruciating TV ever to blight the medium.

It's like a new definition for horror: "B Grade British celebrity".

* British sitcoms and British movies, with very rare exceptions, have both been in a death spiral for the last 20 years. (Mind you, Australia has never made a completely convincing sitcom, but that's a different story.)

* British TV isn't always like this. But strangely, it usually has to have someone who was popular in the 1970's or 80's for it to be worthwhile. I've thoroughly enjoyed Griff Rhys Jones paddling about the pretty (and sometimes not so pretty) Rivers of England, which finished this week on ABC. And who in their right mind hasn't liked Michael Palin's travel shows? Parkinson was still a decent enough interviewer 'til the end, but the level of interest one could muster in his guests did suffer a severe downturn in his last couple of series.

Can you imagine in 20 years time wanting to watch "Jonathan Ross goes Up the Khyber", or whatever twaddle he would think witty? Graham Norton making witty but interesting cultural comment about some far flung country? I don't think so.

* British public art seems to have become a huge, vacuous joke:

Only last year, exhibitionism was elevated to "art" when people got to do their "thing" on a plinth in Trafalgar Square.

The Turner Prize (which I see only started in 1984) sets international benchmarks for the trivial, stupid, and/or grotesque in the genre, and at the same time seems to suck any sense of fun from the enterprise.

Further evidence this week of the nation's aesthetic judgment having mysteriously evaporated: the gigantic Olympic rollercoaster-after-the-apocalypse tower was not an April Fool's Day after all. It was also the winner of a competition. The winner had previously won the Turner Prize. Maybe the Turner Prize is the black hole through which British artistic taste has been sucked and eviscerated. It's as good a theory as any...

* Is there any current widely recognized British playwright whose works are anticipated by the populace? Not as far as I am aware. All the great playwrights are dead or at the end of their careers, leaving in their wake those who are only interested in social commentary from the perspective of left wing world view.

And, of course, Britain also seems to be the home of the pop song medley masquerading as theatre, which has promptly been exported internationally.

That's a pretty convincing line up of evidence, don't you think?

Just in time for Easter

Eating chocolate 'can cut heart attack and stroke risk'

Eating just one square of chocolate a day can cut the risk of heart attack and stroke by 39%, researchers said today.

Eating 7.5g of chocolate daily also leads to lower blood pressure, a study found.

Researchers in Germany followed 19,357 people aged between 35 and 65 for at least a decade.

Those who ate the most amount of chocolate - an average of 7.5g a day - had lower chances of heart attacks and stroke than those who ate the least amount (1.7g a day on average).

The difference between the two groups amounted to 6g of chocolate - less than one square of a 100g bar.

The study, published in the European Heart Journal, concluded that if those people who ate the least chocolate increased their intake by 6g a day there would be fewer heart attacks and strokes.

That's a tiny amount of chocolate for an effect. Further down it notes:
Frank Ruschitzka, from the European Society of Cardiology (ESC), said: "Basic science has demonstrated quite convincingly that dark chocolate particularly, with a cocoa content of at least 70%, reduces oxidative stress and improves vascular and platelet function.
70% cocoa chocolate is not that nice, in my experience, so I'll eat twice as much 40% chocolate instead.

No Kindle for me

Elizabeth Farrelly has a somewhat eccentric column in the Sydney Morning Herald today, with its main point being problems with getting books through an Australian Kindle.

I definitely think it is worth waiting for the new generation of e readers to start being available.