Thursday, January 27, 2011

Things to do

It's hard lately to both concentrate on work and survey the web for stuff that interests me and is "blogworthy." Also, the tax department, oddly, does not seem to appreciate the need to be the most reasonable person to comment at a certain "centre right" blog as a reason for delaying payments.

So I have to abandon it all for a week at least, until I can spot where money is coming from again.

My faithful readers can tell me what I have missed in comments section. As I know from when I have been on holidays, it only takes a relatively short time to catch up on favourite blogs when one has been away for a couple of weeks in any event.

This time, I mean it. Away from the web for me.

Watching the war

SBS has, for a long time, been the place to go to watch documentaries about World War 2, particularly on Friday nights.

As it happens, I don't really care for the current series "Apocalypse - The Second World War" because it's one of those with a hysterical sounding narration*, and a gruesomely high body count that makes it unsuitable to watch with my son. (He really likes history, inspired by the Horrible History series of books, and probably already retains more knowledge about certain periods of British history than I can recall. He is usually happy to watch any documentary about war that's on.)

But the reason for mentioning this is to note that SBS2 has also been showing a lot of WWII documentaries. They are not new, and may well have been on SBS1 years ago, but I've been happy to catch up with them anyway.

This week, there was one that was just about the Japanese surrender at the end of the war, and featured as its most lengthy section footage of MacArthur and the other Allies signing the surrender instrument with the Japanese on the USS Missouri. It was a fascinating minor detail of history to learn about the mistake made by the Canadian representative (who signed on the wrong line, which meant those below him also did.) There was then a bit of a agitated discussion with the Japanese as to whether they would accept the document signed this way. It was amended by hand and initialled. The Wikipedia entry about the document is here.

Another recent SBS2 doco from a few years ago was about the Nazi's attempt to get heavy water to Germany to conduct research into an atomic bomb. It included an expedition to retrieve a barrel from the boat (which had been sunk by the allied operatives) to double check whether the Nazis had actually sent a decoy barrel. (Turns out they didn't.)

Anyhow, this is just a pointer to anyone in Australia looking for interesting stuff on TV. Don't overlook SBS2.

* yes, I know, hysteria may be an appropriate response to certain things that happened then, but it still puts me off in narration. But they do show many scenes of death which are disturbing to say the least. Last week, they dealt briefly with Jews being killed in Russia, and showed some film of this incident:
The most notorious one – perhaps one of the single most infamous events of World War II – was the execution of more than 33,000 Jews from Ukraine’s capital Kiev, at the ravine of Babi Yar on 29-30 November 1941.
Such stuff still has the capacity to make me feel sick.

Getting your fears in correct priority

According to this Scientific American blog, in an 8 year recent period in the United States, more spiders killed people than snakes. I wouldn’t have picked that.

But then, 9 people died of alligator or crocodile attack. Who knew cleaning New York stormwater drains could be so dangerous.*

But amongst deadly venomous animals, bees and wasps come out as far the most important: 71% of such deaths.

Which raises an interesting point: when I was a kid, we used to get clover (the type with the white flowers) growing in the yard or on the footpath, and it was very attractive to bees when it was in bloom. This meant that walking barefoot on it was a pretty easy way to get a bee sting, and I certainly had a few as a youngster. (Although I’m pretty sure one was from trying to catch a bee in a jar.)

These days, though, it seems kids are much, much less likely to get a bee sting as an ordinary part of growing up. (I just don't notice clover around much anymore, and even if it is in someone's yard, the kids are probably inside on the computer.) This, I am guessing, makes it much more of a worry that any allergy to bees may not be known until they are much older.

I suppose that, ideally, you never find out you have the allergy. But somehow it seems to me to be safer to know you have it when you’re younger, rather than having a sudden unexpected medical crisis as an adult.

* I may have invented that detail.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Climate stuff noted

First, the New York Times has a good, balanced article on the question of the cold European and American winters this year and last, and whether it can reliably said to be all part of global warming. (The answer is: a definite maybe, but we need to do more research.)

In case you haven't heard, as with last winter, the far north of Canada has been remarkably warm:
Yet while people in Atlanta learn to shovel snow, the weather 2,000 miles to the north has been freakishly warm the past two winters. Throughout northeastern Canada and Greenland, temperatures in December ran as much as 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit above normal. Bays and lakes have been slow to freeze; ice fishing, hunting and trade routes have been disrupted.

Iqaluit, the capital of the remote Canadian territory of Nunavut, had to cancel its New Year’s snowmobile parade. David Ell, the deputy mayor, said that people in the region had been looking with envy at snowbound American and European cities. “People are saying, ‘That’s where all our snow is going!’ ” he said.

It's interesting to see scientists openly acknowledging that they need to be cautious in what they say:

In interviews, several scientists recalled that in the decade ending in the mid-1990s, the polar vortex seemed to be strengthening, not weakening, producing mild winters in the eastern United States and western Europe.

At the time, some climate scientists wrote papers attributing that change to global warming. Newspapers, including this one, printed laments for winter lost. But soon after, the apparent trend went away, an experience that has made many researchers more cautious.

John M. Wallace, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Washington, wrote some of the earlier papers. This time around, he said, it will take a lot of evidence to convince him that a few harsh winters in London or Washington have anything to do with global warming.

This is fair enough, but given the way climate change skeptics will use any cold snap to bolster their case, it's important that articles at least talk about the possible mechanisms by which the winter weather may indeed be consistent with AGW.

Second: there are a few climate change blogs I've started reading more regularly lately, and I've added them to the blogroll. AGW Observer, being run by a Ari in Finland, seems a particularly useful collection of just published papers on climate change. I hope he keeps it going.

I've also been enjoying Michael Tobis, even though he seems to be getting pretty desperately pessimistic, and Tamino is always good to check on despite his not too frequent posts.

Funny, I can't find any climate change skeptic blog worth adding. Watts Up With That can be trusted to bring any new skeptic claim to light, anyway.

Third: early figures comparing Brisbane's last two floods show that 1974 Brisbane floods were indeed based on a lot of rain:

But weather experts suggested "peak rainfalls from the 1974 event were substantially heavier than those in 2011".

Brisbane's three-days and one-day totals were 600mm and 314mm in 1974, compared with 166mm and 110mm in 2011.

"However, in 1974 the heaviest rains were closer to the coast whereas in 2011 heavy rains spread further inland," the bureau said.

The bureau is still crunching the numbers, and it will be interesting to see if the widespread nature of the 2010/11 floods is unusual in Queensland history. Certainly, I don't recall flooding all the way from Brisbane to Rockhampton and far inland in such a short period before; but I don't exactly keep precipitation charts on my bedroom wall.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of minor blogworthiness

Nothing much around that makes me feel like posting at length today, although people might be curious enough to read these:

* the odd problem of "fake" love hotels in Japan. Funny, I thought town planning was a concept unknown to the Japanese, but they do actually stop love hotels from being less than 200 m from a school.

* Real Climate has a good post updating the comparisons of climate models with actual observations. Result: there is no great crisis in climate science according to these comparisons, although of course it remains a complicated field.

* I missed this from December: the Billfish Foundation (great name) and NOAA say that these big fish (including tuna) are having less ocean to stay in because of increasing hypoxic areas:

While these hypoxic zones occur naturally in many areas of the world’s tropical and equatorial oceans, scientists are concerned because these zones are expanding and occurring closer to the sea surface, and are expected to continue to grow as sea temperatures rise.

“The hypoxic zone off West Africa, which covers virtually all the equatorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, is roughly the size of the continental United States, and it’s growing,” said Dr. Eric D. Prince, NOAA’s Fisheries Service research fishery biologist. “With the current cycle of climate change and accelerated global warming, we expect the size of this zone to increase, further reducing the available habitat for these fish.”

* You probably already heard, but I'll note it here anyway: one paper last week says that climate modelling has underestimated the effect of loss of ice and snow on future temperature rises. Great...

* Did I mention this before? I don't think so, I think I intended to: it's a steam bath, but not as you know it.

There you go. Not all of that of what "minor blogworthiness" after all.

Now I should work today, as it's a holiday tomorrow.

Monday, January 24, 2011

All summer in a day*

Yesterday was a lovely summer's day in Brisbane; the first in 3 months it seems. So, being the last day of the school holidays, we went down to the Gold Coast and had a nice time at the beach. Water temperature was warm; no bluebottles; the sun was out but the air did not feel too hot. Lovely.

As for recent Queensland weather generally, I note that Andrew Bolt had quoted another blogger claiming that a report by Queensland's Office of Climate Change barely mentioned "floods". It turns out that this relates to merely one chapter of the report, and as Tim Lambert says, it's another case of climate change skeptic gullibility.

In terms of the climate change debate, I have never paid all that much attention to the particular regional rainfall changes for Australia forecast by CSIRO and the like. I just always assumed that regional forecasts under climate models were going to be more rubbery than the general effect of increased heat waves, which I consider a big enough worry. This explains why I wasn't really aware that there had been predictions of both extended droughts and intense rainfall under AGW. But as Tim Lambert notes, the report Bolt tries to slur as being warmenist propaganda that puts the emphasis all on drought, has this:
Climate change is also likely to affect extreme rainfall in south-east Queensland (Abbs et al. 2007). Projections indicate an increase in two-hour, 24-hour and 72-hour extreme rainfall events for large areas of south-east Queensland, especially in the McPherson and Great Dividing ranges, west of Brisbane and the Gold Coast. For example, Abbs et al. (2007) found that under the A2 emissions scenario, extreme rainfall intensity averaged over the Gold Coast sub-region is projected to increase by 48 per cent for a two-hour event, 16 per cent for a 24-hour event and 14 per cent for a 72-hour event by 2070. Therefore despite a projected decrease in rainfall across most of Queensland, the projected increase in rainfall intensity could result in more flooding events.
Very prescient, as it turns out. (Not to say that you can directly attribute any particular extreme weather event to AGW yet.)

Last week, I pointed out a different paper which indicated the same thing (modelling indicates longer droughts but broken by intense rain) at Catallaxy, a.k.a the "centre right" blog where climate science goes to die. This was followed by the glib "so, everything's consistent with AGW" response that shows that even though a weather event may (after all) be consistent with climate modelling of some years ago, they will insist on claiming that it either isn't, or that it doesn't matter.

I think that Tim Flannery's role as a populariser of AGW has something to do with this, in that he seemed to love making statements that gave the impression that Australian cities were facing pretty much continual drought since the last one started about a decade ago. But again, I simply haven't paid him much attention, and skeptics who harp on about him are in one sense fighting a straw man.

Meanwhile, a fight has broken out at Judith Curry's blog about attributing extreme weather to AGW, and the Queensland floods get a particular going over. (Read from here down). Curry did do one thing useful, and linked to this site, which has a lot of links to papers over the years looking at extreme rainfall over the decades in Australia.

Andrew Bolt's also been an enthusiastic promoter of the idea that poor management of the water flows out of the Wivenhoe dam was the real cause of this flood. He is following the lead of The Australian's Hedley Thomas, who has been running a story kicked off by an engineer with no experience in hydrology, although others (not directly involved in Wivenhoe) have come out offering some sort of support. Of course, now that an enquiry is underway, the proper thing to do is to give it a rest. I personally expect that there will ultimately be no blame put on the Wivenhoe dam managers at all, nor on any politician. One media report noted last week that the dam inflows that led to the floods were enough to fill it in a day (something I would not have thought possible.) I simply find it very hard to believe that in those circumstances it is at all likely that the outflow decisions could have done anything other than make a very minor difference to the flood height.

However, if I worked for SEQ Water, I would consider both Hedley Thomas journalistic campaign, and Bolt's anti climate change politicisation of it, to both be offensive smear campaigns. No, wait: I don't need to work for SEQ Water to be very annoyed with Bolt's line of argument. (Sure, you can say that I've already admitted that I didn't have knowledge of the drought and flood AGW papers either, but then I'm not the one running an anti climate science campaign in a national newspaper, and being completely careless of informing myself about facts.) Bolt is running not just with the line that the dam operators were at fault, but it was the insidious effects of "warmenism" that led them to not let out enough water in case we were left without enough drinking water. Oddly enough, while Bolt was saying this, John Quiggin quickly shot from the hip and suggested that maybe the dam should be operated at 75% capacity when a wet summer is forecast. While I expect Quiggin may well change his mind, it certainly shows there is at least one "warmenist" who takes a line contrary to what Bolt would suggest.

I bet the reality turns out to be this: the dam has always been intended to run at 100% supply for drinking water if possible, and population increases since it started operating in 1985, and a recent drought which led to the dam getting dangerously low meant the policy continued to make a lot of sense. "Warmenism" will have nothing to do with the policy existing to this day.

We'll see if I am right or wrong.

* I knew the title was from a science fiction story, but I couldn't remember anything about it. Turns out it was particularly apt:
The story is about a class of school children on Venus, which in this tale is a jungle world of constant torrential rainstorms, where the sun is only visible for only two hours every seven years. Such an occurrence is imminent.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Meanwhile, in a cylinder in Russia…

How easy it is to forget about the international team of Claustrophobics Anonymous which has been living in a can near Moscow for 6 months already on a pretend mission to Mars.  But they are approaching “landing”:

 The six men are due to "land" on Mars on Feb. 12 and spend two days researching the planet. They then begin the months-long return flight to Earth, expected to be the most challenging part of the mission.

How do you explore Mars for two days?  I’m glad you asked:

In an effort to reproduce the conditions of space travel, with exception of weightlessness, the crew has living quarters the size of a bus connected with several other modules for experiments and exercise. A separate built-in imitator of the Red Planet's surface is attached for the mock landing.

Well, two days may well be enough after all.

Does this project have its own website?  Indeed it does, although for me it loads at about 1979 internet speeds, but hey, it is Russia.  It would also appear that wood veneer is very popular in Russian Mars spaceships, from the one photo I can see.   There is also a link to a blog that seems to only be in Russian.  But it does contain a photo of the simulated Mars surface.  Yes, I think they will cover all the sights well within 2 days.  I hope they are not disappointed.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Lessons for my daughter

Oh good. An article in the Japan Times that covers my interest in both Japanese toilets and theology: Paying respect to the Japanese toilet god.

Amongst other things, it notes that there was a popular folky song in Japan last year - "The Toilet God":
The lyrics were inspired by the singer's grandmother, who held that women should clean toilets in order to honor the beautiful female deity presiding there. My own grandmother used to say that daughters who cleaned the family toilet were destined to become beautiful, and would in turn bear beautiful daughters.
I must admit, my daughter already finds cleaning a toilet an entertaining past time. My son - not so much.

The article also notes Japanese toilet folklore:

Anyone who has been through the school system here has the old stand-by: toire no Hanako-san (トイレの花子さん, Hanako in the toilet stall), the ghost of a girl who died mysteriously — usually bullied by classmates and locked into a smelly toilet — who has come back to haunt her old grade school.

The older generation, who grew up in rural Japan, may come out with some pretty macabre stuff. One that's practically legend is the story of the village brute who crawled into the compost tank of the local girls' school and mired himself there for weeks, only to be discovered when an inquisitive student peered into the creepy darkness of the washiki benki (和式便器, Japanese crouch-style toilet bowl) and saw a pair of eyes looking up at her.

A bit more impressive than redbacks on the toilet seat.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

A whole bunch of physics (expanded from yesterday edition)

Just when I was thinking "gee, there hasn't been much speculative physics stories around for a while", I find a whole bunch of blogworthy material in one session:

* a couple of University of Queensland guys talk about how quantum entanglement can not just be across space, but across time as well. The crux of what this means is summed up here ( I hope accurately):
Olson and Ralph's teleportation provides a shortcut into the future. What they're saying is that it's possible to travel into the future without being present during the time in between.
Cool. Not dissimilar to a really good night's sleep, though.

* Physics World has a good article looking the LHC after a year, and what it has shown so far, and may yet show. It includes this bit about mini black holes:
CMS scientists have also found no evidence for micro black holes in their 12,500 tonne detector (arXiv:1012.3375). This result, reported just before Christmas, will not have come as a shock to anyone who thinks such black holes will destroy the planet. (For them, it's only a matter of time...) But it has not surprised many physicists either, given that miniature black holes could only appear at the LHC if space has more than three dimensions. So what does CMS's black-hole blank mean for such outlandish pictures of space–time? Can we now simply start ruling them out?

"The fascinating science of black-hole production and evaporation still stands," insists Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, who a decade ago co-proposed the possibility that the LHC might create black holes. "The CMS results begin to rule out the most extreme configurations of extra dimensions, although it is true that such configurations are believed unlikely by many. It's still a possibility that black holes will be made at the LHC, but it's not a prediction unless you know the configuration of the extra dimensions!"
The rest of the article, which mentions string theory and whether or not it can in any respect be bolstered by future findings, is worth reading.

* Physics World has another good article up: a review of a book of essays called Information and the Nature of Reality: From Physics to Metaphysics. Who can resist that?

As the title suggests, the essays get to theology eventually:
The problem, of course, is that once we leave the scientific domain, it becomes rather easy to make unfounded speculations about the connections between information and various other religious concepts. For instance, in the last chapter of this book we encounter suggestions that the Christian Gospel of John could be interpreted in information-theoretic terms. Similar parallels are drawn in the essay by Michael Welker, who discusses the information content in the resurrection of the Christ. Carelessly extrapolated, this sort of exposition might lead to arguments similar to Frank Tipler's nonsensical "proofs" of various Christian dogmas in his two books The Physics of Immortality and The Physics of Christianity. Amusing as such parallels might be, it is doubtful that they will ever lead to any greater enlightenment as to the nature of reality itself.
Speaking of information and the gospels, I remember a conversation I once had with a Catholic quasi-girlfriend (I'm not sure we ever quite agreed on her status) in which I complained that, if God wanted Jesus to be seen as convincingly divine 2000 years after he trod the Earth, it would have been handy to have some bits of science thrown in the Gospels, like this: "Consider the water. Little do you know that the air you breath has the essential parts that, when joined together, two parts to one, make the water that will quench your thirst." Of course, the possibility is that Jesus did make references to science all the time, but the Gospel writers found them so silly or incomprehensible that they refused to commit them to paper. Or it may be that something like advanced games theory means it's really quite important for humanity not to have the certainty of God or an afterlife staring them in the face all the time. The temptation to keep killing others for perceived wrongs and let God sort it out on the other side might be too much. There are no doubt other theories around.

* Don Page, a Christian physicist who I have mentioned before, has a new article out arguing against the universe we find ourselves in being fine tuned for life. As Bee Hossenfelder notes, Don uses this argument as support for his fondness for a multiverse, ending his paper this way:
"It could be taken as negative evidence for theists who expect God to fine tune the constants of physics optimally for life. However, for other theists, such as myself, it may simply support the hypothesis that God might prefer a multiverse as the most elegant way to create life and the other purposes He has for His Creation."
By the way, physicist Bee's own universe has expanded lately by the birth of twins. Congratulations are in order.

We think we've found the problem

In Australia, a news story about the how often the population is having sex will more than likely be based on some women's or men's magazine unreliable reader survey.

In Japan, however, the government appears interested enough in its citizens to conduct the research itself. (Presumably, because of its soon to be rapidly declining population.)

So, what does the latest survey reveal?:
One-third of Japanese men aged 16 to 19 were uninterested in or even averse to sex as of last year, double the number from 2008, a government survey showed Wednesday.
Well, one suspects that this is misleading, unless the survey specified that "sex" means "with another person."

Anyhow, the interpretation of this is given as follows:

‘‘The survey result confirmed that young men have become ‘herbivorous’,’’ said Kunio Kitamura, head of the Clinic of the Japan Family Planning Association who took part in the survey, using the term used increasingly in Japan to describe young males who are shy and passive in relationships with women.

According to the ministry, 35.1% of men aged 16 to 19 said they are uninterested in or averse to sex, surging from 17.5% in the previous poll in 2008.

The percentage climbed to 21.5% among men aged 20 to 24 from 11.8% two years earlier, and among women of any age group, the survey showed.

Those married men and women who said they had no sex in the past month totaled 40.8%, up from 36.5% in the previous survey and 31.9% in a 2004 study.

As for the broader relevance of this: I read recently that Japan, Korea and Taiwan were amongst the lowest birthrate countries in the world. I'm pretty sure they all have very fast and pretty cheap internet access. Has anyone done the research into fast internet access and birthrates across the world??*

Any proper evaluation into Australia's National Broadband Network clearly should consider its population effects in 25 years time.

* I guess fast internet is unlikely to be the explanation for Russia's birthrate, but fast vodka may well have something to do with it.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Victorian murder

As noted in Arts & Letters Daily, there's an amusing review in the Spectator of a book about Victorian England's cultural enthusiasm for murder as a virtual entertainment. It puts our current TV obsession with all things criminal and forensic into perspective. I liked this bit about journalism of that period:

Anyone who thinks the 21st-century tabloid represents some sort of journalistic nadir, for instance, will find this book a bracing corrective. On the contrary, we live, it turns out, in a hitherto unexampled golden age of truthfulness and integrity.

Even proper 19th-century newspapers seethed with class bigotry, and routinely printed rumour as fact without thought to prejudicing a trial. What are now called ‘backgrounders’ would report that the accused robbed corpses in battle, spent his childhood torturing dogs, or had ‘been known to twist a whipcord round a horse’s tongue, and tear it out by the root’.

If facts weren’t available, they’d be invented. The Morning Chronicle, Jackson’s Oxford Journal, John Bull and the Bristol Mercury all reported solemnly that Mary Ann Milner had ‘conducted herself with much composure’ at her execution. This stretched plausibility, considering she’d committed suicide in her cell the night before. Even the illustrations were, more often than not, stock images appended at random: the purported likeness of one murderer, it was pointed out, was actually a portrait of William IV.

In terms of modern journalism, I would say that the Times of India has not entirely shaken off the Victorian template. Detailed background of a death or crime (such as the family dispute that led to it) are frequently reported in a way that is not common in Australia now. Let's see if I can find a current example. Here we go: look at the amount of detail that goes into this (alleged) rape report. The accused getting a fair trial after such publicity seemingly is of no concern in the country.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A good thing to avoid

Just file this under "things I didn't know" (or perhaps more likely, "something I had once read but forgotten"):
Women who have had chlamydia are at greater risk of an ectopic pregnancy because of a lasting effect of the infection. A new study provides evidence for the first time of how chlamydia can increase the risk of an ectopic pregnancy .
And just how "popular" is this disease? According to a report just a few days ago, quite:

Sexual health experts are demanding the Federal Government urgently fund a national screening program for chlamydia after figures showing infection rates have more than tripled in 10 years.
More than 61,000 people were diagnosed last year, up from about 17,000 in 2000. About 14,500 were diagnosed in NSW alone, the second highest rate in Australia.
More than half those infected were aged 20 to 29 and a quarter were aged under 19.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Not a flood post

A few things that have come to my attention:

* Richard Ayoade (Moss in the IT Crowd) seems to genuinely be a self-effacing, likeable person in real life. With a funny voice.

* Falling pregnant in zero gravity may well be difficult, and not good for the embryo if achieved, reports New Scientist:
What does seem clear is that space travel affects reproduction. Joseph Tash, a reproductive biologist at the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, examined 16 female mice that travelled aboard NASA's STS-131 mission last year. He found that the mice had shrunken ovaries, dying ovarian follicles and down-regulated oestrogen genes. Their reproductive systems "had shut down", he says.
This is dangerous news: I can see that space based teenage boys will use this as an excuse with their space based girlfriends not to use condoms.

* In other vital space news, it turns out that radishes, and even lettuce, do very well even after being exposed to near vacuum for 30 minutes:
After the team returned the pressure to normal, all the plants continued to grow until being harvested a week later. The plants appeared to be just as healthy as another set of plants never exposed to low pressure, with no significant difference in weight
If only Dave had a radish that could turn off HAL, 2001 could have ended very differently.

* I've started watching American sitcom The Middle. It's quite likeable, I think, even if not necessarily a laugh a minute.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Around the flood

This is how the week developed since my last post on Wednesday morning. (Feels longer ago than that, but experiencing novel events has that effect.)

There were plenty of warnings on Tuesday evening that the Brisbane flood could be very big – equal to, or even slightly higher, than the 1974 flood. However, since I had been told by long term residents that the group of shops in which my office is located had only taken water up to the car park (which rises about 1 – 2 meters above the street level) in 1974, I wasn’t too anxious. Indeed, the Council flood maps on the internet that evening indicated that the local knowledge was right.

However, on Wednesday morning, Lord Mayor Campbell Newman said on TV that they had revised the maps overnight, and people should check again if their homes or businesses could be affected. And yes, when I checked, the flood line had been moved just enough to indicate that my office/shop area were in danger.

I was not much encouraged when, getting to the office at about 8.15 am, the artificial lake within about 30 metres of my shops (and which had not been there in 1974) had already flooded across the road as far as the eye could see, and this was still 12 – 18 hours before the predicted peak. One house on the far side of the lake already looked to have a couple of meters of water over its ground floor.

It seemed prudent to remove the computers and take them home. This didn’t take too long, but then nearby residents mentioned that the road between me and my home, which I already knew was cut in one direction I could take, was now getting inundated (via the backflowing stormwater drains) in the other direction. If I waited too long I might not be able to get home at all.

I therefore left in a hurry with a lot of things left on the office floor. In any event I had to go pick up my mother from her retirement village, which I had been told was going to be evacuated as a precaution as well.

As I drove away from the office, there was quite a lot of activity in some lakeside houses to get furniture onto vehicles. Further along, I could see water over the road at the top of a side street which I knew led down closer to the lake. Many expensive houses down there would clearly already be inundated, and it was only about 9 am.

The main road just a little further along did indeed have a foot or so of water over it, but only for a short distance. I went and collected my mother, noticing the water was already down the far end of her street.

I got her home, which was already hosting another family (friends of ours with children) who had left their home in another flood prone suburb across the river and stayed with us on Tuesday night.

At about 11.30am, I drove back to see if I could get to the office, but the road was now covered with about 2 – 3 feet of water and the police were there, really only wanting to let residents through. It was not worth the risk.

So by midday I was back home, watching TV and wondering why coverage seemed very centred on inner city suburbs (such as Milton and Rosalie) and then leapt over to Ipswich and Goodna. I did feel slightly indignant that my already well flooded suburban area was not rating much of a mention.

Around 2 pm the power went off and stayed off for about 24 hours. I had telephone calls from friends near the office who said water had started coming up out of the stormwater drains in front of the carpark.

As Australian readers would know, the flood peak overnight on Wednesday was about 1 to 1.5 m less than they had predicated. In fact, I think by Wednesday afternoon, they knew that the river at Ipswich had peaked well under the forecast, so I did relax a little. Still, I was very glad to be able to get to the office on Thursday morning to see that, as in 1974, the flood water stopped in the car park driveway. If the peak had been as forecast, it would have been a very close call as to whether water would have entered the building.

The number of houses around my area which were flooded has surprised me, particularly around the lake, and in another area around a golf course. I’m not sure when they started selling lakeside land, and it may well have been before the Council restricted building homes on levels below the 1974 flood. But certainly, this would have been the first time since then that they faced a major flood, and I expect that many were surprised that the lake was capable of such a rise. There are certain other streets in the suburbs near mine which I am sure would only contain houses built since 1980, yet have dozens of houses flooded. I am sure there will be some questioning of the Council flood level advisory maps after this.

On Thursday afternoon, when the water had already dropped by a meter or so, I was able to get around a bit and take some photos. The quality may not be great, but clicking might make them a bit bigger:

Street 1 resized

One of the main local roads; houses down the street on both sides had plenty of water through them.

Street 2 resized

The road along my Mum’s retirement village. I was told houses down the far end had at least a meter of water through them. (You can also see the "high water"mud mark nearly half way up on the row of bushes on the left.) The retirement village was spared, again with water just reaching the car park entrance.

View towards boat ramp resized

On the left, well under the water, is the entrance to a boat ramp, playground and picnic area, none of which (including the roof of the toilet block, on the higher part of picnic area) could be seen. I think that’s the rear wheels of a car floating upside down near one of the light poles.

Next, my inner anti-sporting grump was not too shocked to see the Little Athletics club house and grounds, which I have been a reluctant attendee with my daughter on Friday nights last term, has had a make over:


Now for the best big flood scenes near me:

Shopping centre & highway sharpen

Highway in foreground, with shops in the distance. Closer detail to be seen in the next photo (remember, the water had already dropped by this stage):

Shops flood

And for last, the difference a day makes in a flood. Here’s a photo from roughly the same position late this afternoon:

Shops 14 Jan resized

I know the flood effects for me was nothing compared to all those who did have homes and businesses under water, and who may remain without power for days yet. Still, one brush with a flood this size is enough to satisfy any curiosity about what it’s like to be near a natural disaster.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


Brisbane's floods will not directly affect my house, but certainly I live and work in suburbs which will have houses inundated. (There would seem to be a chance my office may be cut off, although it did not quite go under in 1974.)

This has been a strange disaster. For those who have seen the footage of the Toowoomba flash flood: this is not a town, sitting as it does on top of a range, that is known for such flooding.

As for the Lockyer Valley disaster - yes, people know it has creek and river flooding, but again, nothing like what has been seen on TV yesterday. It is amazing to think that the death toll may climb into the dozens.

The rain has stopped since yesterday afternoon, which is one thing at least. But it does feel odd, knowing that a large volume of water is still headed to the city. At least people will probably start to feel easier that the Wivenhoe dam will not be breached. At 190% capacity (for a dam built to go to 225%), some people were definitely wondering about that yesterday.

There will be many people who cannot work today. I may be distracted for a little while.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

I may be a man, but I’m not taking any chances

WOMEN who habitually take strenuous exercise might be at risk of damaging their cognitive function later in life.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Steve's stupid but brilliant idea of the day

Brisbane and much of Queensland has been incredibly wet this summer, with thousands of homes flooded, and hundreds of thousands of parents with school children depressed that the kids have inside continuously for the last 4 weeks.

Now we get news that:
The Australian Building Codes Board is preparing the first technical standards for construction in areas liable to flooding.
Excellent. My plans for all flood prone houses to be Queenslander style built on pontoons may get a run yet.

Child-like drawings to come, as well as a photo of the really weird slug found on a tree yesterday at Mt Glorious during a break in the torrential rain. Yes, my wife was that desperate to get out of the house.

Update: here's the slug. (Easily 6 - 8 cm long):

As for the floods generally: amazing and pretty horrifying scenes of flash flooding in Toowoomba was on the news tonight. Two people were killed in a car swept away (I assume, not one of the cars in this video). Here's an amateur video from the town:

I see that Lord Mayor Campbell Newman is saying that it is only the Wivenhoe Dam, which is full and letting go of a lot of water, that is preventing Brisbane from having the equivalent of a 1974 flood. There is actually some talk now of it being the biggest floods Queensland has ever seen, but exactly how you compare these things I'm not sure.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Make friends and influence people the Anglican way

There was a short story in the Courier Mail this morning about how the Anglican Church in Brisbane is looking for more, younger recruits to the priesthood. Apparently there is a shortage. I thought, last I heard, that they actually had quite a lot of women priests to spread around their increasingly dwindling congregation, but maybe not.

Anyway, the main point of the post is to note that this comment:

Executive director of Brisbane's ministry education commission, Reverend Steven Ogden, said the priesthood was desperately in need of educated men and women.

"We need university students with sharp minds, not the stereotypical, eccentric weirdos," he said.

I can only assume Rev Steve must have missed the sensitivity training day at theological college (or whatever it is Anglican clergy in training attend.)

UPDATE: I should have noted that the other possible explanation (in fact, probably the most likely one) would be an out of context quote by the Courier Mail. See comment below.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Graph noted

This graph appeared recently on a Scienceblog and has evidently been around for a long time. (Original source is Global Warming Art.) It is good, though, don’tcha think?:

Thursday, January 06, 2011

New York Times finally gets ESP

The NYT website, at least, is featuring prominently the story of soon to be published ESP experiments of Daryl Bem.

You read about them at this very blog back in October. It takes a while for international journalism to catch up with me.

One small aspect of the experiments is a little amusing:

A software program randomly posted a picture behind one curtain or the other — but only after the participant made a choice. Still, the participants beat chance, by 53 percent to 50 percent, at least when the photos being posted were erotic ones. They did not do better than chance on negative or neutral photos.

“What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos,” Dr. Bem said, “but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

Every politician should have one

Romania is planning on taxing its witches, according to The Guardian. But they are fighting back:
Queen witch Bratara Buzea said she will lead a chorus of witches in casting a spell using a concoction of cat excrement and a dead dog.
Interestingly, the report goes on to note:
Such spiritualism has long been tolerated by the Orthodox Church in Romania. The late Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife, Elena, had their own personal witch.
Well, at last I understand the best role for this woman in the Australian parliament.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

From the "only in Saudi Arabia" files

In the Gulf News:

Riyadh: A squad from the Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has raided the house of a Saudi man following a tip off that he is practising sorcery.

It was reported that the suspect has bewitched a girl and married her without the knowledge of her family.

Following investigation, the suspect was put in jail, awaiting trial. Saudi Arabia applies capital punishment for sorcery.

The incident, which took place in Riyadh, came to light when a security guard, working for a private company, accused a fellow citizen of bewitching his daughter and his other family members and used magic to marry the girl without a marriage contract.

And the report ends:
The Department for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice [gosh, that's an appealing name for a a government department, isn't it?] said it is conducting awareness programmes against the practice of withcraft.
Now there's a lecture that would be interesting to see.

The other funny thing is that, in the same edition of Gulf News, we can also read:
Saudi Arabia confirmed on Tuesday it plans to buy more F-15 fighter jets as part of a massive arms deal which the US State Department said in September could be worth up to $60 billion.
This is a tad odd, isn't it? If the government believes in sorcery enough to be giving public education programs and killing people for it, why do they need 20th century jet fighter technology to protect themselves? Can't they train up a crack elite squad of good sorcerers who will, I don't know, stand at the border and make the enemy forget that Saudi Arabia is there?

Now, although it's no fun to be fair when poking fun at Saudi Arabia, I suppose I should acknowledge that England was prosecuting Helen Duncan under the Witchcraft Act in 1944. However, as Wikipedia explains, this for the offence of fraudulently claiming to be procuring spirits. Still, it would appear that you could say England officially believed in witches until that act was repealed in 1951.

So, maybe I'm being unfair about Saudi paranoia. Let's see: what else is there in Gulf News today?:
Saudi nationals have seized a vulture wearing a Tel Aviv University tag and a transmitter, prompting speculations that it was used by Mossad, the Israeli spying agency, to gather intelligence on the area....

The vulture was handed over to the Saudi security.

According to Israeli media, the tags indicated that the six-year-old bird was part of a long-term research project into migration patterns.
No, clearly this is just a country that has been left out in the hot sun for too long.

The bugs, they’re all over me!

Those who are inclined towards itchy self consciousness after reading about the amazing variety of life to be found living on and in our bodies should probably not read The top 10 life-forms living on Lady Gaga (and you).

I thought I had heard of most kinds of bugs that live in and on us before, but the article still contained a few surprises (or things I had forgotten about.) For example:

Inside your lungs is a kind of fungi called Pneumocystis. It cannot live outside of human lungs. No one has been able to grow it anywhere else.

And (emphasis mine):

I will wager that Lady Gaga’s head is crawling with mites. They live in her pores and come out to have sex under the shade of her wig while she is on stage. Well, not just then. They do it other times too. She could have more than one kind of mite. Forehead mites (Demodex spp.) have not been well studied and they are so small that differences among species might be impossible to detect simply by studying how they and their parts look under the microscope (which is all that has been done). Where these mites have been studied, they have mostly just been counted. They are more common on older people than on younger people. The exception to this pattern is among the Tokelau islanders where the pattern is the reverse (more mites on younger people) for reasons unknown. On average--the Tokelau Islanders in the audience notwithstanding--more than half of us have forehead mites and quite a few of us host two species. Some of us may even host as of yet unnamed species. Every so often these mites are badly behaved (they are linked to rosacea, although innocent until more convincingly proven guilty), but mostly they seem to have no effect on our lives. Maybe they are even good for us? Who knows? What is clear is that they bury themselves in our pores and eat.

Update: you can read more about face mites here.

Actually, I did recall reading before about a particular mite that lives in the base of eyelashes, and it turns out they are the same thing. I was just a bit confused by them being called "forehead mites". Wikipedia notes:
It is quite easy to look for one's own Demodex mites, by carefully removing an eyelash or eyebrow hair and placing it under a microscope.
Umm, not sure I want to know, when they look like this:

As for their possible role in rosacea, it's interesting to note this (from a couple of links back):
Over the years, considerable evidence has accumulated that Demodex folliculorum may at least play a role in certain skin conditions, particularly papulopustular rosacea. Patients with immunity problems, such as AIDS patients, appear to be particularly susceptible. Symptomatic infestation with demodex mites is called demodicidosis or demodex folliculitis.

While the role of demodex in disease is still unclear, treatment for skin problems in cases where there are many mites present now often includes a topical antiparasitic cream. Treatment successes where the mites were targeted provide further indirect evidence that face mites cause skin problems, at least in some instances.
Excuse me while I go practice how long I can hold my breath while keeping my head in a bucket of rubbing alcohol.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Assange compared

There's a very good article in the Australian today contrasting Assange and "Wikileaks" to the leak of the Pentagon Papers, showing that those who think that Julian can justify his actions by comparing it to the former leak are badly mistaken.

Even so, it notes that the biggest effect of Wikileaks so far has been to actually make America look better than many thought:

...ironically, the leaks show that the US government is not an "authoritarian conspiracy" at all. They show, notably in the case of relations with the Arab states of the Middle East, an American government served by generally candid diplomats, trying to keep its balance and think its ways through a devilishly challenging set of problems, chief among them how to dissuade the theocratic and dangerously anti-Semitic regime in Iran from developing nuclear weapons. They show nuance and scruple, not authoritarian conspiracy. They show honest assessments of world leaders such as the corrupt and domineering former KGB thug Vladimir Putin, or the corrupt and irresponsible Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi. Moreover, as Robert Gates, heir to McNamara, has pointed out, the leaks were possible precisely because the US government had been trying to circulate more information to more of its civil servants in order to facilitate learning. That was Ellsberg's agenda. Assange wants to prevent just such learning.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Climate change this and that

Michael Tobis (and Gareth Renowden) have really been ripping into some recent bogus claims by climate “skeptics”lately. First, it was the non story of the New Zealand temperature record adjustments, somehow claimed by the skeptic group that forced a reassessment as some sort of triumph over the e-vil lying NIWA scientists. Yet, gullible skeptics lap this sort of stuff up.

Secondly, it was a takedown of a Watts Up With That post by Don Easterbrook, in which a puzzling graph was claimed to show something it patently did not. Again, about 95% of the comments following the story at Anthony Watts place brought this hook, line and sinker.

There really is a new definition for gullible, and it’s Climate Change Skeptic.

As someone commented at Tobis’ blog, it seemed clear that Watts Up With That has in the last couple of weeks been running with a pre-emptive campaign to argue why the possible hottest year on record title for 2010 (it will be a close call with 1998) is not really so important anyway. I reckon this sort of pre-emptive action was obvious in 2010 too, with respect to Arctic ice loss when it wasn’t clear just how wrong Steven Goddard’s prediction would be.

At other blogs:

* Barry Brook has an important post on the meaning of the “no statistically significant warming since 1995” line. In fact, he puts up a persuasive argument as to why it was (in effect) the wrong question that was being asked in the first place.

* Tamino looks at the GISS temperature record to once again emphasise via graph that there is no last decade decline in the warming trend, which is the key thing (not the annual ups and downs.)

* Stoat had a pretty good take before Christmas on the issue of explanations for the current (and previous year’s) cold European winter, which can be summed up as:

So before explaining such-and-such an event, the first thing you need to do is to show that there is something in need of an explanation. A cold December in Europe doesn't fall into that category.

He doesn't deny that the ideas being run as to why these winters have been so cold might be correct (see the Real Climate post on this), but he considers it safer to not try to over-explain weather and its relationship to climate change. Given the way skeptics smack their lips over decade old statements that snow was well and truly on the way out in Britain, he has a pretty good point.

* It’s easy to forget, in light of the well publicised extreme heat of Russia in 2010, that Japan also suffered a record hot, long summer last year. As I noted in my first post of 2011 earlier today, it seems that the record number of deaths for the elderly has been blamed on this. The Japan Meteorological Agency seems right on board with AGW, and it is fascinating how so many agencies from so many countries have been “fooled” according to the skeptics. It’s funny how the gullible think they can recognize the gullible, but it doesn’t work that way.

Update: I see that the China Meteorological Agency also put out a 2010 year end summary noting the extreme weather, and putting it down to global warming. For example:

Extreme rainstorms followed the hot weather. Ninety-seven weather stations around China reported record-breaking daily rainfall, and 133 stations broke their annual records. Only seven record-breaking daily rainfall figures were reported from 2000 to 2009.

Something wrong with the universe?

This intriguing article “The Truth Wears Off”appeared in the New Yorker before Christmas, but I’ve only just read it.

It’s all about the “decline effect”, whereby effects that initially appear strong in experimental studies seem to start declining in effectiveness as more and more scientists try to replicate the original findings.

Some (or all) of this is understandable in terms of better experimental set ups, and publication bias, which means that it’s much easier to get an apparently new effect published than a study that has a negative result.

But the article is of most interest when discussing cases where the scientists who first made a positive finding discover that they can’t replicate it themselves. A good example is given from parapsychology, where pioneer JB Rhine initially seemed to have a star subject, but he subsequently seemed to lose all of his ESP powers. Sure, the simple explanation may be that, even though Rhine may have thought the replication set up was identical with the previous one, it really wasn’t, and a trick the subject was previously using subsequently failed him. But it does seem a little odd to me that Rhine wouldn’t find the trick in a case like this: one feels sure that this would be more satisfying in its own way than admitting that he can’t explain why a subject lost his power.

There are other examples of this given in the article, and from less contentious fields than parapsychology. It’s well worth a read.

Talk of all this couldn’t help but remind me of Rupert Sheldrake and his odd morphic resonance idea. In short, he believes that you can scientifically show that it becomes easier to acquire knowledge as more and more subjects learn it, be they birds, dogs or humans. (And, of course, in his theory, it’s not via simple imitation of the first creature who learnt the talent.) A genuine decline effect would seem to be the opposite of that.

A possible example of the decline effect that came to my mind was the original cold fusion experiments, and perhaps some of the subsequent ones too. These are not mentioned in the article, however.

If it were true (the decline effect) I guess it could be explicable (warning: wild speculation about to embarked upon) by either:

a. the universe really being a computer simulation game run by a mega intelligence that changes the rules for some obscure purpose while the program runs; or

b. God, his opposite number, or aliens (take your pick) finding it important that certain things not be discovered by humans until the time is right. I personally like the idea of undercover teams of angels, demons, aliens or Men in Black interfering with important experiments in very subtle ways to confound humans at particular points in time. Of course, this may make “sense” for something fundamentally groundbreaking like the discovery of ESP, or perhaps cold fusion, but why it should apply to the effects of antipsychotic drugs would be rather harder to explain.

I guess there is probably some science fiction (or supernatural fiction) that has been written along the lines of b, but I can’t bring any to mind. The nearest may be the idea in the Day the Earth Stood Still that aliens would give us a warning to mend our ways by one spectacular demonstration of their power. But that was far from an discrete way of interfering. And I do recall David Brin wrote “The Practice Effect”, in which inanimate objects get better with “practice”, but again that is more akin to Sheldrake’s idea than a decline effect.

A decline effect has better fiction possibilities than morphic resonance, and maybe that is its most endearing feature.

Mochi deaths 2011 (this year with video, and other “Japan is shrinking” news)

Happy New Year, everyone, and once again, condolences are due to those in Japan who just lost someone due to the annual New Year’s mochi eating habit.

Yes, as my Google search ranking for “mochi deaths” remains very high (number one in fact, something I acknowledge as a dubious distinction), I know that I have visitors waiting for this annual post.

But as with last year, it seems that the English Japanese news media have lost interest in providing the numbers of (usually elderly) Japanese residents who choke on their New Years mochi.

So again I have had to resort to searching in Japanese, this time with the ever helpful Google translate. It seems the numbers in the Tokyo area (see 3rd story at the linked page to Yomiuri Shimbun), at least, are pretty much as high as ever:

Between one or two days in Tokyo, Kanagawa, Saitama, Chiba, and Wakayama prefectures of five, died choke on rice cakes from a total of 10 elderly people.

Tokyo Fire Department is "good hair cut is a small cake, for the elderly and children, accompanied by family members want," and has called for.

According to the agency, in Tokyo, the 24 people taken to the hospital by 8:00 pm two days, killing six of them. The 70 year-old woman died and five 95-year-old man 82. Five of them were at home eating rice cake.

In the other 4 provinces, 61 hours a day to choke on rice cakes 89-year-old male and female four people died.

So, the take home message from that seems to be: 10 dead, at least 24 taken to hospital. You can watch video of this deadly New Year's treat here at the link to Fuji TV. Fortunately, none of the participants keel over and die for the crew filming it.

There is another TV news story (see link to Japan TV NNN) about it, sadly showing an elderly person in a nursing home, by the looks, not being fed mochi. It is, I suppose, a hard story to illustrate well, but still I wish they had come up with something better than this.

Anyhow, my searching around hasn’t found any obvious links to the national mochi death toll this year, but if there were 10 dead around Tokyo, the total for the entire country must be considerably higher.

It’s no wonder that articles like this, warning of the danger, appear just before New Years. Incidentally, maybe this gives an indication of how many people die nationally from mochi, if I can trust Google Translate:

According to the Tokyo Fire Department, four years until 2009, the number of cases in food spending by 4719 the risk of suffocation. Of these, 444 of rice accounts for about 10 percent, are concentrated in the month of January to about 40% of the 171. The ratio becomes more severe 53%, and 70 years or older in most cases by a lot of food.

The Cabinet Office Food Safety Commission in June this year, the probability of risk of suffocation on food, and summarizes the results of the cake at highest risk. And is calculated by assuming 100 million people took a bite, the cake is to be up to 7.6 at the frequency of accidents….

According to the Ministry of Health, Vital Statistics, the number of deaths due to suffocation incidents of food in 2009 4679 people. Account for nearly 90 percent of those over 65.

So, if Tokyo Fire Department has about 4,719 deaths over four years from all choking, and the total national figure is about the same per year, maybe we can assume the national New Year's mochi death toll is about 3 to 4 times the Tokyo average? Well, someone with actual Japanese ability can correct me, but it seems a fair guess.

Onto more death in Japan news, the Japan Times notes the following:

A total of 4,863 people died from traffic accidents in 2010, down 51 from the previous year, according to preliminary data from the NPA.

So, roughly the same amount of Japanese die annually in car accidents as from choking? How does that compare to other countries? Well, it appears well above the American choking rate:

According to the National Safety Council, choking remained the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death in the United States as of 2004. In 2006, a total of 4,100 deaths (1.4 deaths per 100,000 population) from unintentional ingestion or inhalation of food or other objects resulting in airway obstruction was reported.

But the real point I was linking to the Japan Times article was due to the coverage on the shrinking Japanese population generally:

Death record reset KYODO An estimated 1,194,000 Japanese died last year, the most since record-keeping began in 1947, according to the latest health ministry data.

The data also said an estimated 1,071,000 babies were born 2010, up slightly from 2009.

The difference between births and deaths — 123,000 — also set a record high, blowing by the previous record of 71,830 set in 2009.

"The number of deaths is on the rise due to aging and the number of births will not grow because of a decline in the population of women who give birth," a Health, Labor and Welfare ministry official said.

The difference "will continue to be greater in the future," the official said.

In 2009, total deaths fell by 542 from 2008 to stand at 1,141,865. In 2010, however, total deaths surged by around 52,000 as elderly people succumbed to the hottest summer on record, the official said.

Japan's population decline has certainly taken a surge for the worse, by the sounds. (It's also interesting to note how many deaths they blame on the hot summer, even in a country where small houses and apartments make air conditioning easier and more economical than in countries like Australia.)

The Japan Times also recently ran an interesting opinion piece noting that Japan's fertility decline was by no means unique, being shared by other East Asian countries (Korea and Taiwan both, oddly enough) as well as strong welfare state countries such as in Scandinavia. This is true enough, but it still doesn't address the major issue of Japan being reluctant to take substantial immigration. It's not like they're going to be short of houses anytime soon.