Friday, May 31, 2013

More detail on a well known problem

BBC News - Radiation poses manned Mars mission dilemma

I keep saying Mars is not that more attractive a place to be than the Moon (assuming there is at least some water on the Moon.)   In fact, even if there isn't water on the Moon at suitable locations, why not crash an icy asteroid onto it?  If you can find one, I suppose.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Hidden Shyamalan and the Glitter Cannon Baz

Well, this is amusing.   The LA Times has a story about how M. Night Shyamalan's involvement as director and co-writer of the new Will Smith science fiction movie After Earth has been completely ignored in all of the advertisements.    It has been fun over the years watching the increasingly dire reviews for Shyamalan's films, but it's almost getting sad when he can make a movie and the studio tries to hide his involvement.

And guess what:  the new movie is getting pretty bad reviews anyway.  Maybe not quite as dire as some of his past ones, but it still sounds like a movie that is not going to to do well.  

As for the new The Great Gatsby:  I love to hate Baz Luhrmann, even though I don't see his movies either.   Gatsby has had mixed reviews, but one very savage one which I imagine would reflect my sensibilities is to be found in Crikey.   Here's how it ends:
If you own a copy of The Great Gatsby, you don’t need to cough up hard-earned to see Luhrmann’s movie. The experience can be replicated quite easily at home.

Here’s what you do. Play hip hop loudly. Retrieve the book from your shelf and douse it with glitter. Get a (preferably gold painted) hammer and smash it repeatedly. Turn the music up louder. Throw on more glitter. Do it again. Do it harder. Do it faster. And don’t, whatever you do, pause to consider what the author of the book might think of the grisly, glittering mess around you.
Update:  Will Smith and his son are said to have given a very peculiar interview as part of the publicity for this movie.  (There also appears to be a Scientologist connection in the family, which I hadn't heard before.  Not that that worries me - I enjoy Tom Cruise movies nonetheless.) 

Infrastructure for what?

Is microeconomic reform on its way back? - The Drum - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Alan Kohler has been getting some inside gossip about what the Coalition is looking at doing in terms of microeconomic reform.  It gives a good summary of how we got to where we are, but as for future plans, this is the core:
The National Competition Council, which came out of the Hilmer reforms, still exists but it is no longer the barnstorming body it was under Graeme Samuel, when it critically examined 2,500 pieces of legislation in a few years and doled out money to state governments for privatisation and other reforms.

As I understand it, the Coalition will re-energise the NCC and offer to return company tax receipts from newly privatised state enterprises for 10 years.

This has been a particular issue for the Queensland Government in thinking about the privatisation of its electricity assets, adding to the difficult politics of it. The Labor Government in Canberra has so far refused to consider donating any tax receipts from those businesses back to the state once they are privatised. A Coalition Government will offer to do it for 10 years.

On infrastructure, I understand the Coalition is looking at several models, including some form of Government-guaranteed infrastructure bonds.
I have a few questions:

1.  privatising electricity seems to have been a fetish of right wing reform for some time, but what is the evidence that it has substantially helped those states which have already followed that path, and hindered those that haven't?  

2.  Infrastructure for what?   Martin Ferguson said mining represents 60% of export income, and it would seem everyone expects that to decrease.   Mining obviously needs specialised infrastructure, but if the growth in that is slowing, where are the big infrastructure projects that are identified as helping the economy?  (Apart from your generic things like improvements to roads and highways:  I guess that will always have some advantage to an economy, but not dramatically.)   I am particularly interested in infrastructure that will help export markets.   Are agricultural exports particularly hindered by anything at the moment? 

3.  If you want to talk dams, and in particular dams in the North, where are they going to go?   Why isn't the Ord River project taken as a definitive warning that it is not a case of "build it and they will come"?   And wasn't there some body that looked at Northern development years ago and concluded that the quality of soil and geographic restrictions on where you can dam in the north meant it wasn't really viable?  (Updatehere's one report from 2009 detailing the issues with northern agricultural development with irrigation.  I haven't read it carefully, but the conclusion does not sound very promising.)

4.  It does concern me that "niche market" ideas that Australia could develop and have started to develop in the last decade or so seem to be much more subject to rapid  fluctuations in demand and economic conditions than mining.   For example, we are supposed to be pretty good at higher education in the region, but if the economy tanks for a few years, those overseas students dry up very quickly.   Agriculture is at the whim of the weather and will boom in some periods, and then struggle badly in droughts; and in all likelihood, climate change is going to exacerbate the extremes.   Film production goes well for some years, but is very much at the whim of the strength of the Australian dollar and the level of government assistance (as well as the government assistance other countries give.)   Any industry which is essentially done using computers, the internet or telecommunications is very easily moved to any cheaper country where English is commonly used.   It is a worry that manufacturing is so much at the whim of the dollar.    I guess I just feel concerned about how you ensure that niche market ideas can avoid all these pitfalls.

Update:  Jessica Irvine talked about infrastructure a couple of days ago - but it still strikes me as kind of vague: 
We need something bigger, like a new boom in road, rail and public transport construction. ...

Australia needs an independent agency, on par with the Reserve Bank, with the power to decide infrastructure priorities.

Labor, to its credit, invented Infrastructure Australia. But it is hamstrung in important ways. It can only provide a cost-benefit analysis of projects submitted by governments. It can’t make recommendations on other projects, such as a second Sydney airport for example.

It consists of 12 board members, chaired by Sir Rod Eddington and including the Treasury Secretary, Martin Parkinson, but its support agency, the Office of the Infrastructure Co-ordinator, is run on a shoestring.

According to IA estimates, Australian governments have about $100 billion in assets that could be sold, like electricity, utilities, gas, to fund important infrastructure investments. Even a small portion of that would represent significant seed funding for a beefed-up national infrastructure agency.

Such an agency could, like any other business, have the ability to borrow to fund important work. Investors could purchase longer term (20-year or 30-year) bonds to fund its work.

Unfair competition

GM 'hybrid' fish pose threat to natural populations, scientists warn | Environment |

The offspring of genetically modified salmon and wild brown trout are even faster growing and more competitive than either of their parents, a new study has revealed, increasing fears that GM animals escaping into the wild could harm natural populations.

The aggressive hybrids suppressed the growth of GM salmon by 82% and wild salmon by 54% when all competed for food in a simulated stream.
 I am unconvinced there is a real need to be genetically modifying fish just to get them to grow faster. 

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Stay away from the window

I was struck by lightning yesterday—and boy am I sore | Ars Technica

A fascinating first hand account here of being struck by lightning inside a house, through a window.  (He was sitting pretty much beside the window, it would seem.  Have a watch of the video too.)

I always shut windows during electrical storms.   People think I am a bit obsessive about it.  It is, in fact, simply a reasonable precaution.   

All about emergency doors on planes

Airline emergency exit doors: Who unlocks exit doors in an emergency? - Slate Magazine


But includes most chronic set of right wing whingers

Australia Tops 'Better Life' List -

From the article:
A fading mining boom may be taking the gloss off Australia's resource-rich economy but the country has retained the title of happiest industrialized nation in the world.

That's according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's Better Life Index, which ranked the world's developed economies on criteria such as jobs, income, environment and health...

The OECD survey of 34 industrialized nations didn't award an overall top ranking. But if each of the 11 categories in the survey is given equal weight, Australia's cumulative rank rises to No. 1, according to the OECD website.
Obviously, the OECD survery does not include a category for "most chronic set of Right wing whingers who are convinced the country is in an economic and social disaster when it isn't", because that would have brought the overall rating down.  

Two things in the survey surprise me:
While the OECD survey found that Australians rank their life-satisfaction at 7.2 out of 10, higher than the average of 6.6, the reading is below levels recorded in Mexico, Norway and neighboring New Zealand.
What makes Mexicans so happy?  The image of the country we have now is one of economic stagnation and extreme danger from the drug trade criminals.   In fact, what makes New Zealander's happy?  A large number want to live here.

And the other thing, more on the upside:
While locals complain of living costs, Australian households on average spend 19% of their disposable income on keeping a roof over their heads, below the OECD's average of 21%. And 85% of Australian respondents said they were in good health, well above the survey average of 69%.
Our housing costs are not as expensive as everyone seems to think?  That's a surprise.   (And the health figures probably have something to do with universal health care, one suspects.   The Tea Party inspired nutters of Catallaxy like to call Medicare "socialism" and think it should be abolished.)

Chew chew

Excerpt of Mary Roach’s Gulp: How many times should you chew a bite of food? - Slate Magazine

I missed this article from Slate last month, all about "the great chewing fad" of the early 20th century.  

I had heard something about this before, but did not appreciate the full extent of the theory:
Fletcherism held a good deal of intuitive appeal. Fletcher believed—decided, really—that by chewing each mouthful of food until it liquefies, the eater could absorb more or less double the amount of vitamins and other nutrients. “Half the food commonly consumed is sufficient for man,” he stated in a letter in 1901. Not only was this economical—Fletcher estimated that the United States could save half a million dollars a day by Fletcherizing—it was healthier, or so he maintained. By delivering heaps of poorly chewed food to the intestine, Fletcher wrote, we overtax the gut and pollute the cells with the by-products of “putrid bacterial decomposition.”
Uh-oh.  Did someone test the "nicer by-products" idea.  Yes indeed: 
Practitioners of Fletcher’s hyperefficient chewing regimen, he wrote, should produce one-tenth the bodily waste considered normal in the health and hygiene texts of his day. And the waste was of a superior quality—as demonstrated by an unnamed “literary test subject” who, in July 1903, while living in a hotel in Washington, D.C., subsisted on a glass of milk and four Fletcherized corn muffins a day. It was a maximally efficient scenario. At the end of eight days, he had produced 64,000 words and just one bowel movement.
OK, the next section is the, um, highlight of the article:
“Squatting upon the floor of the room, without any perceptible effort he passed into the hollow of his hand the contents of the rectum,” wrote the anonymous writer’s physician in a letter printed in one of Fletcher’s books. “The excreta were in the form of nearly round balls,” and left no stain on the hand. “There was no more odour to it than there is to a hot biscuit.” So impressive, so clean, was the man’s residue that his physician was inspired to set it aside as a model to aspire to. Fletcher adds in a footnote that “similar [dried] specimens have been kept for five years without change,” hopefully at a safe distance from the biscuits.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Just hand over the paper to the IPA

I find it hard to envisage how the Australian newspaper could possibly be more intensely unbalanced that it has been in the last couple of months.

Today, for example, the opinion pieces are by Judith Sloan (right wing economist and Catallaxy blogger whose contributions have become increasingly light weight and pejorative, and who distrusts any economist or public servant who believes in climate change); Arthur Sinnodinos (Coaltion Senator, even though a relatively moderate one); Cassandra Wilkinson (former Labor adviser who seems to have re-invented herself as a pro-small government, culture war critic of Labor); Nick Cater [Murdoch journalist who has just written a book promoted by the IPA that seeks to re-establish a whole "culture war" reinterpretation of the last decade or so of Australian politics (when I reckon the culture war had became pretty irrelevant during the term of the Howard government.)]

I mean, honestly:  why doesn't Murdoch just hand over the editorship to John Roskam of the IPA and be done with?

Some Republicans get it...

Bob Dole: Ronald Reagan wouldn't make it in today’s Republican Party.
Former Senate majority leader Bob Dole doesn’t think he could make it in today’s Republican Party. And he doesn’t think he would be the only party icon who would have that problem. Republicans have changed so much over the past decade that even former president Ronald Reagan would no longer be welcome at the party. “I doubt it,” said Dole when Fox News’ Chris Wallace asked him whether “your generation as Eisenhower Republicans, moderate Republicans” could “make it in today’s Republican Party.” In fact, said Dole, “Reagan couldn’t have made it. Certainly Nixon couldn’t have made it, because he had ideas. We might have made it, but I doubt it,” reports the Hill.

Dole called on Republicans need to sit down and think carefully about the direction the party is heading, saying GOP leaders need to think of a broader plan to recover from the 2012 electoral losses. “I think they ought to put a sign on the national committee doors that says ‘Closed for repairs’ until New Year’s Day next year. Spend that time going over ideas and positive agendas,” Dole said.  

Monday, May 27, 2013

Come back, Ken

Don't look now, the white elephants are multiplying

Gosh.  The normally reliably Labor supporting Kenneth Davidson has a column saying that the Coalition has better policies on the NBN and superannuation.

Actually, I suspect that many of the claims he makes regarding the NBN will be hotly disputed by tech people in the industry.   I doubt that this is a Davidson area of special knowledge, and this part of the column reads suspiciously like a list of questionable talking points prepared by some consultant who is against the NBN.

That said, I have always felt that the NBN is the riskiest of Labor's policies.  It's just that I have tended to be persuaded that enough people in the IT industry had come on side that it was probably was a worthwhile thing. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

How Misérable?

I never saw Les Misérables on stage - I have to be very, very sure that I will like something in a theatre before spending the same amount of money to get in which would let me see 12 or more movies - so I was curious to watch the DVD of last year's movie version tonight.

Man, those 19th century novelists loved their melodrama, didn't they?  It kept on reminding me of (not that I am overly familiar with his books) Charles Dickens.  Did they ever meet?  Yes, as it happens.  A wide reading blogger notes:
 In 1846, the thirty-four-year-old Dickens, having just written the chapter of Dombey and Son that ended poor Paul Dombey's life, wandered Paris with his best friend, John Forster, and called on Victor Hugo. Tomalin's account, which draws on Forster's biography of Dickens, shows Dickens to have been simultaneously impressed and amused:
Hugo made a profound impression on both of them with his eloquence, and Forster observed that he addressed "very charming flattery, in the best taste" to Dickens. Dickens thought he "looked like the Genius he was," while his wife looked as if she might poison his breakfast any morning; and the daughter who appeared "with hardly any drapery above the waist . . . I should suspect of carrying a sharp poignard in her stays, but for her not appearing to wear any."
Les Misérables was not published until 1862, but from the same blog I just linked to, there is an extract from the Goncourt Journals (written by two brothers - more about them below) which indicates that Hugo went through a lot of melodrama in his family:
 I started thinking about that family, about that father, that genius, that monster--about that first daughter who had been drowned, and that second daughter who had been carried off by an American and brought back to France raving mad--about those two sons, one dead and the other dying--about Mme Hugo, committing adultery with her son-in-law--about Vacquerie, marrying one daughter, sleeping with the mother, and practically raping his sister-in-law--and finally about that Juliette, that Pompadour of the poet's, still pursuing, with her kisses, at his late date, the dying son. A Tragic Family, such is the title the dying man gave a novel he once wrote--and such is the title of the Hugo family.
Gosh.  His Wikipedia article does not give much detail about his home troubles, but they do provide a photo from 1853:

Not your classically handsome French man, but he does remind me a bit of Gerard Depardieu.

Reading further in his entry, I see that he became a pretty fierce critic of Catholic clericalism, which makes the sympathetic treatment of the Church in the movie (and its general theme of redemption and - I think - grace) rather surprising.   Here's what Wiki says about his views:

Hugo's religious views changed radically over the course of his life. In his youth, he identified himself as a Catholic and professed respect for Church hierarchy and authority. From there he became a non-practicing Catholic, and increasingly expressed anti-Catholic and anti-clerical views. He frequented Spiritism during his exile (where he participated also in many séances conducted by Madame Delphine de Girardin),[6][7] and in later years settled into a Rationalist Deism similar to that espoused by Voltaire. A census-taker asked Hugo in 1872 if he was a Catholic, and he replied, "No. A Freethinker"

 I'll have to dig further some other time as to why the book (I assume) treats its Catholic figures well. [See update 2 below.]

 Did I like the movie?   Yes, with some reservations.  On the up side, all of the actors did well, and even though Hugh Jackman routinely appears in material that simply does not interest me (and he always just seems to be too nice in interviews),  he really is very good in this.  (Strangely enough, I have just realised that my objectively hard to justify dislike of Jackman as a personality - which is seemingly shared by no one - is similar to the view a huge number of people are supposed to take towards his co-star Anne Hathaway.  I can't see what's wrong with her at all.)    It is also interesting to note that Helena Bonham Carter's approach of only taking roles that allows her to have insane hair continues. 

I see that the singing was filmed "live", which is a pretty remarkable way to make a movie musical.  As to the score itself, it sometimes drags a bit, but it grew on me as the movie progresses.

On the downside:  it's one of those movies which displays poverty via the personal grubbiness of characters to such an extent that it looks rather over the top and a caricature.   I am sure poor slums were squalid and that prostitutes did sometimes look pretty horrifically made up, but it is still hard to believe that the poor didn't wipe the grime off their faces or bodies every now and again, as they never seem to do in much of this movie.     

And, as I say, the plot is melodrama to the max, with continual co-incidences and ill fortune heaped upon ill fortune,  love at first sight, and characters racked by internal conflicts about which 20th century folk would have forgiven themselves within 24 hours, let alone 24 years.   Anthony Lane just found the thing too over the top, and includes some fantastically witty lines in his review: 
Valjean (Hugh Jackman) serves nineteen years for stealing a loaf of bread: a punishment that he regards as unjust, though in fact it reflects well on the status of French baking. Had he taken a croissant, it would have meant the guillotine....

I was unprepared, having missed “Les Misérables” onstage, for the remarkable battle that flames between music and lyrics, each vying to be more uninspired than the other. The lyrics put up a good fight, but you have to hand it to the score: a cauldron of harmonic mush, with barely a hint of spice or a note of surprise. Some of Hooper’s cast acquit themselves with grace, notably Redmayne, and it’s a relief to see Sacha Baron Cohen, in the role of a seamy innkeeper, bid goodbye to Cosette with the wistful words “Farewell, Courgette.” One burst of farce, however, is not enough to redress the basic, inflationary bombast that defines “Les Misérables.”
 I can see where he's coming from, but I did find it affecting in parts, so I can't endorse his view.

Would I ever try to read the book?   Well, after reading the Wikipedia entry about it - definitely not.  I've commented here or at other places around the web how my late 20th century brain has trouble coping with the length of sentences in 19th century novels.   Sure, I can read them and understand them, but I just keep getting the mental equivalent of feeling I have run out of breath by the end.   If this explanation by Hugo in his preface is any guide, I have every reason to be fearful that the book is against me:
So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.
Wikipedia also explains the layout of the book in great detail, noting that it is by no means a straight narrative.  In fact it sounds as if it makes the lecturing content of much of Moby Dick (or so I am told) minor in comparison:
More than a quarter of the novel—by one count 955 of 2,783 pages—is devoted to essays that argue a moral point or display Hugo's encyclopedic knowledge, but do not advance the plot, nor even a subplot...
I think I'll give it a miss.

And finally, what about the journal of the Goncourt brothers, about whom I have not heard.   They sound pretty interesting, and as if to again confirm the remarkably widespread effects of syphilis I was recently contemplating in another post, it got to one of them:
Born nearly ten years apart into a French aristocratic family, the two brothers formed an extraordinarily productive and enduring literary partnership, collaborating on novels, criticism, and plays that pioneered the new aesthetic of naturalism. But the brothers’ talents found their most memorable outlet in their journal, which is at once a chronicle of an era, an intimate glimpse into their lives, and the purest expression of a nascent modern sensibility preoccupied with sex and art, celebrity and self-exposure. The Goncourts visit slums, brothels, balls, department stores, and imperial receptions; they argue over art and politics and trade merciless gossip with and about Hugo, Baudelaire, Degas, Flaubert, Zola, Rodin, and many others. And in 1871, Edmond maintains a vigil as his brother dies a slow and agonizing death from syphilis, recording every detail in the journal that he would continue to maintain alone for another two decades.
 Oh well.   Put their journal on the list of things I might enjoy, but will never get around to.

Update:   I could have added that Charles Dickens had a life full of melodrama as well.  I was vaguely aware that he had a mistress, and was not exactly a good family man, but this short summary of his dark side as detailed by a recent biographer indicates it was much worse than I imagined.  (And no, I don't get all of my biography information from The Sun...).

This part struck me as interesting:
 The writer had always shown a genuine interest in helping prostitutes. He even set up a home to look after them. But Dickens also had a less than wholesome reason for seeking out their company. Claire said: “He almost certainly used prostitutes. Many men did in the 19th Century. They thought they needed regular sex to maintain ‘sexual hygiene’.
I can't say I was aware of that motivation in that century, and given the risk of fatal venereal disease, it's remarkable that the idea caught on.  I wonder - was it part and parcel of the idea that masturbation was a incredibly unhealthy activity?  [See update 3 below.] 

As for Victor Hugo and mistresses, here's a handy summary of his sexual exploits.   Talk about talking in code in those days:
Although both Hugo and Briard were married they began to see eachother. Their encounters did not remain private for very long however because On July fourth Hugo and Biard were found "in criminal conversation and in uncrumpled attire meaning that they were comitting adultery and were wearing no clothes. While his lover went to jail Hugo left the station a free man because he was pair de France and was thus immune to prosecution"
The site that this is from is entirely devoted to entries about the state of France at the time of Les Miséables.  It seems to contain quite a few interesting perspectives.

Update 2:   On the issue of sympathy to Catholicism in the film, this review by a Catholic indicates the musical takes quite a different tack to the novel:
Today, Les Misérables is the center of one of the most successful pop-culture phenomena of recent decades—and all because the material has been reworked in ways that Hugo himself would likely reject. His story of Jean Valjean—a man who spent 19 years in a French prison for stealing a loaf of bread—was not meant to be a Christian spiritual odyssey, but a individualist, humanistic one. Valjean's nemesis, the singleminded Inspector Javert, is an atheist in Hugo's novel; in the stage and film production of Les Misérables, he becomes a Christian believer who, unlike Valjean, never rises above the concept of duty nor embraces the Christian teaching on mercy toward others—or even, in the end, toward himself.
 Certainly, the cranky Catholic Church of the 19th (and 20th!) century had no time for the book:
As with anything pleading for social change, the novel acquired many conservative enemies who feared the social impact of the novel. Common reasons for banning it included displaying prostitution, murder, “portraying the Church as unimportant”, and glorifying the French Revolution.
All of Victor Hugo’s works- past, present, and future- were banned in 1850 by Tsar Nicholas I because of Hugo’s less-than-flattering depiction of royalty; his works were also listed on the infamous Index Librorum Prohibitorum- the Catholic Church’s list of books forbidden among members of the faith. Les Misérables was added to the Index in 1864, where it remained until 1959 because it was considered to be critical of the clergy and the papacy.
Update 3:  I haven't found much yet about the claim that 19th century men thought  "they needed regular sex to maintain ‘sexual hygiene’", and a page on the topic of sex and sexuality at the Victorian & Albert Museum website does not make it all that clear as to how ideas evolved through the century.  It does note briefly, however, the apparent influence of evolutionary ideas (and Darwin's famous book was published in 1859): 
By the 1870s and 1880s, evolutionary ideas of male sexuality as a biological imperative, which added fuel to many male writings on gender, were countered by those who argued that 'civilisation' enabled humans to transcend animal instincts. This view acquired a public voice through the Social Purity campaign against the sexual 'double standard', and for male as well as female continence outside marriage. Though female Purity campaigners were often ridiculed as 'new puritans' who had failed to attract a spouse, the movement did succeed in raising public concern over brothels, indecent theatrical displays and images of naked women in art - the reason why Victorian female nudes are idealised and air-brushed.

Private sexual behaviour is hard to assess, though there are many hints that 'considerate' husbands, who did not insist on intercourse, were admired, not least because of the high maternal mortality rate.
The site also says (without explaining why):  
Certainly, the 1860s were briefly as 'permissive' as the same decade in the 20th century, while the 1890s saw an explosion of differing and conflicting positions.
Yet it also says that "moral panic" about prostitution peaked in the 1850's and early 60's.  Confusing.

In any event, this page explains in readily digestible form an explanation of many of the different factor influencing prostitution in Victorian England.  One thing I didn't know - being a seamstress was one of the worst ways to try to make a living then:
Harriet Martineau (who supported herself as a seamstress during her literary apprenticeship) observed that “prostitution is fed by constant accession from starved or overwearied dressmakers.” (Logan)

Saturday, May 25, 2013

This is what happens when young men can't drink or take a date to see a movie at the cinema

Saudi Arabians in 'sidewalk skiing' craze – video | Sport |

The Civil War briefly discussed

David's Bookclub: Battle Cry of Freedom - The Daily Beast

In this brief look back at a Civil War history book, David Frum notes as follows:
From time to time, we hear denials of the centrality of slavery to the Civil War. That's apologetics, not history. Slavery was always, always there: the war's fundamental cause, the war's shaping reality.

James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom is now, incredibly, 25 years old. The anniversary moved me to download the book in audio format and re-ingest it after the long lapse of time. What struck me most, on this rediscovery, is how brilliantly apt is McPherson's title. Both sides of the terrible conflict insisted that the war was a war for freedom. But what did "freedom" mean?

Jefferson Davis' message to [the Confederate] Congress on January 12, 1863, proclaimed the Emancipation Proclamation 'the most execrable measure in the history of guilty man.' Davis promised to turn over captured Union officers to state governments for punishment as 'criminals engaged in inciting servile insurrection.' The punishment for this crime, of course, was death.
(p. 566.)
Davis never carried out this threat. But captured black Union troops were often massacred - and sometimes sold as property. Confederates regarded the placing of weapons in black hands as itself a war crime, and a terrible one, justifying the most terrible retribution.
It's a wonder that it isn't repeated every 5 years or so, but I don't recall ever seeing Ken Burn's masterful Civil War series since it was first shown in - good grief - 1990.  I can't quite recall now what the historians on that show had to say about the centrality or otherwise of slavery to the war.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Ghosts of Tokyo?

Tokyo denies ghost fears keeping PM out of official residence - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation):

The Japanese cabinet has formally denied months-long rumours that prime minister Shinzo Abe has not moved into his official residence over fears the mansion is haunted.

The conservative leader took office in December but has yet to move into the 11-room brick home in central Tokyo.

According to local media, it is the longest holdout among any of his predecessors.

Several former prime ministers have reported experiencing unusual phenomena at the mansion, which was centre-stage for two failed but bloody coups in the 1930s....

In May 1932, a revolt by naval officers ended in the murder of then-prime minister Tsuyoshi Inukai and the plotters' surrender to military police.

Several years later in 1936, about 1,400 rebel troops killed several political leaders and seized the heart of Tokyo's government district including the official residence for four days.

Not your average childhood

Tyrannical pet chimpanzee ruins childhood

The stepdaughter of a dead (and very nutty) French singer of whom I have never heard has told a very bizarre story of how her father tried to raise a chimp as part of the family.  Zut alors, things did not go well:
"Pepee had her own bedroom, her toys, she dined with us, took siestas, drove the car on Leo's lap. In the evening, before slipping on her pyjamas, she would politely drink her infusion before hugging us tenderly and very tight," she writes in an extract published by Liberation newspaper.
Soon, however, Pepee became an uncontrollable tyrant who would strip guests - including once a government prefect and wife - of their clothes and valuables, bite others who failed to accede to her whims and once stole a baby, taking the infant to the roof despite Ferre waving a toy pistol at it and shouting: "Daddy's not happy. Daddy's going to shoot."
I am assuming that the number of house guests soon dried up.

I am also reminded of Michael Jackson.  Eccentric singers and chimpanzees seem to go hand in hand, so to speak.

Maths can be hard work

Yitang Zhang, twin primes conjecture: A huge discovery about prime numbers—and what it means for the future of math. - Slate Magazine

It seems something really important has been discovered in pure maths.

It's all to do with prime numbers and randomness.

I can't tell if this is interesting or not...

A good point

Critics query Coalition climate costs

Yes indeed:  while Tony Abbott is out saying that "direct action" is the best way to deal with reducing CO2 (which may include things such as additional tree plantings), the Coalition in Queensland has just made it easier for farmer to knock their trees down.

There really, really need to be more economists out there putting out criticism of the direct action plan, because I have never heard any economist say that it actually can achieve what it claims it will in  a better way than carbon pricing.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Learning to love the middle aged spread

A feature report at Nature on the vexed issue of how much weight gain is actually bad for you:
But many researchers accept Flegal's results and see them as just the latest report illustrating what is known as the obesity paradox. Being overweight increases a person's risk of diabetes, heart disease, cancer and many other chronic illnesses. But these studies suggest that for some people — particularly those who are middle-aged or older, or already sick — a bit of extra weight is not particularly harmful, and may even be helpful. (Being so overweight as to be classed obese, however, is almost always associated with poor health outcomes.)

The paradox has prompted much discussion in the public-health community — including a string of letters in JAMA last month2 — in part because the epidemiology involved is complex, and eliminating confounding factors is difficult. But the most contentious part of the debate is not about the science per se, but how to talk about it. Public-health experts, including Willett, have spent decades emphasizing the risks of carrying excess weight. Studies such as Flegal's are dangerous, Willett says, because they could confuse the public and doctors, and undermine public policies to curb rising obesity rates. “There is going to be some percentage of physicians who will not counsel an overweight patient because of this,” he says. Worse, he says, these findings can be hijacked by powerful special-interest groups, such as the soft-drink and food lobbies, to influence policy-makers.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Austerity Wars

Why Is Europe So Messed Up? An Illuminating History : The New Yorker

In this summary of why Europe is struggling economically (blame austerity is the gist), I was particularly interested in these paragraphs:

 With so much hinging on Germany, the discussion of postwar German ordoliberalism, which underpins Berlin’s hostility to expansionary policies, is particularly valuable.

As Blyth points out, German politicians influenced by ordoliberalism, such as Chancellor Angela Merkel and Wolfgang Schäuble, the finance minister, aren’t hostile to government activism in the same way conservatives in the United States and Britain are. To the contrary, they believe in a social market economy, where the state sets the rules, including the generous provision of entitlement benefits, and vigorously enforces them. But encouraged by Germany’s success in creating an export-led industrial juggernaut, they believe that everybody else, even much less efficient economies, such as Greece and Portugal, should copy them rather than rely on the crutch of easy money and deficit-financed stimulus programs.

That’s all very well if you are an official at the Bundesbank, or one of the parsimonious Swabian housewives beloved of Merkel, but it ignores a couple of things. First, it’s the very presence of weaker economies in the euro zone that keeps the value of the currency at competitive levels, greatly helping German industry. If Greece and Portugal and other periphery countries dropped out, the euro would spike up, making Volkswagens and BMWs a lot more expensive. Second, it isn’t arithmetically possible for every country to turn into Germany and run a big trade surplus. On this, Blyth quotes Martin Wolff, of the Financial Times: “Is everybody supposed to run a current account surplus? And if so, with whom—Martians? And if everybody does indeed try to run a savings surplus, what else can be the outcome but a permanent global depression?”
 I particularly like the Martin Wolff quote.

Anyway, now all I need to know is:  what's "ordoliberalism"?

UPDATE:   the IMF warns Britain about heavy cuts at this time:
Hit the austerity pause button. Invest more in social housing, schools and road repairs. Growth is more important in the short term than deficit reduction. Couched in suitably polite language, that was the uncomfortable message from the International Monetary Fund to George Osborne .

The chancellor could take some comfort from the fact that the fund was rather more diplomatic about his economic strategy than it was in Washington a month ago, but not all that much. For the past couple of weeks, the government has done its utmost to persuade the IMF that Britain should stick to its current budgetary course. Osborne has tried. The chief secretary Danny Alexander has tried. Sir Mervyn King has tried. They have all failed.

After three years in which it first strongly supported Osborne's austerity programme, then had second thoughts when the economy sank into a double-dip recession, the IMF has finally had enough. It wants further fiscal tightening postponed until the economy is strong enough to take it.
Potentially useful for Labor in Australia if it wants to warn on the effects of a needless hurry to reduce a deficit by harsh spending cuts poorly targetted.

An old argument, continued

Cold viruses thrive in frosty conditions 

Ah, it was decades ago now that I was arguing with friends (well, more friends of friend, really) that it was not unreasonable to believe that getting a "chill" in winter made you more susceptible to catching a cold.   "Rubbish" I was told; it's an old wive's tale believed before people understood that colds were caused by a rhinovirus,  and (of course) if you don't have the rhinovirus you don't catch a cold no matter how chilled you get.   But, I said, I would guess that nearly everyone has some exposure to rhinovirus during "cold and flu season", and letting your body temperature dip may lower your immune system enough to become more susceptible to getting ill from the exposure.   "No", I was told, they've done studies about that and you are still wrong.

Well, in fact, the matter has been the subject of some contradictory studies, as I noted when I last addressed this in a post in 2005.  (I have been blogging for a long time...)

And now, further vindication (of a sort) I can claim from another study:
In an attempt to solve the cold conundrum, Foxman and her colleagues studied mice susceptible to a mouse-specific rhinovirus. They discovered that at warmer temperatures, animals infected with the rhinovirus produced a burst of antiviral immune signals, which activated natural defenses that fought off the virus. But at cooler temperatures, the mice produced fewer antiviral signals and the infection could persist.

The researchers then grew human airway cells in the lab under both cold and warm conditions and infected them with a different rhinovirus that thrives in people. They found that warm infected cells were more likely than cold ones to undergo programmed cell death — cell suicide brought on by immune responses aimed at limiting the spread of infections.

Foxman says that the data suggest that these temperature-dependent immune reactions help to explain rhinoviruses' success at lower temperatures, and explain why winter is the season for colds. As temperatures drop outside, humans breathe in colder air that chills their upper airways just enough to allow rhinoviruses to flourish, she says.
This also shows why you shouldn't lose contact with old acquaintances: it removes the fun of claiming vindication 30 years later.


State Liberals propose privatising ABC, SBS

I see that John Roskam of the Liberal Party and the Institute of Paid Advocacy (as someone referred to it recently)  is quoted here as if he is leading the charge to have the Coalition consider privatising the ABC.

The ALP will be delighted that the Liberal Party (Tea Party Subdivision) is now openly talking about it, not just mumbling to themselves on blogs and while listening to Rupert Murdoch talk up the wonder of free markets at the Victorian Art Gallery.

I would say the situation is like this:

1.   the ABC has always had a soft Left bias.   Given that journalists and the artistic community has always leaned left, this is a virtually unavoidable fact.

2.   Despite this, people watch the ABC current affairs shows because of the depth to which they cover issues, which you simply do not see on commercial current affairs.  People adjust to the bias in any individual report.  (I mean, for example, when it comes to gay marriage being dealt with on the ABC, everyone knows how that's going to lean.)

3.   The ABC has actually attempted to address the issue of bias in the last several years, and as a result has been the major outlet via which the IPA talking heads have managed to get their mysteriously funded message out.   Shows such as Insiders, the Drum and Q&A specifically seek Right wing commentary on their panels, and the IPA in particular has never had any where near the amount of  air time as they have had over the last few years at the ABC.   A major ABC journalist (Chris Uhlmann) some years ago expressed muted skepticism of climate change, muttering about it being believed like a religion.  Sure, he's married to a Labor politician, but I still think he is the softest handler of Coalition figures we have seen on ABC flagship current affairs for years.

4.   Despite this, because the (large) Tea Party rump of the Liberals has moved to the Right and absorbed the silly Fox News "culture wars" attitude, they are still complaining about bias and the lack of Right wing voices on the ABC.   Yet no one ever nominates who in journalism or the media generally is a Right wing figure who is being unfairly denied his or her own gig on the ABC.   Bolt went off and got his own show on commercial TV;  Gerard Henderson still goes on Insiders but no one in their right mind (ha! a pun) could imagine his dour delivery being listenable on its own for a whole hour;  same with Piers Ackerman.  And besides, have any of the current Righties in the media said they actually want a full time job at the ABC?   They may be perfectly happy with their hours and salary where they are for all we know.

The talent pool of Right wing broadcast media figures is very limited - that's just always going to be a fact of life.

And as for the IPA - if they are going to start campaigning for privatisation of the ABC, a major change to Australian media landscape - then now more than ever people ought to be telling any ABC host talking to someone from the IPA about the topic to ask if their salary is being part funded by someone who perceives a commercial interest in that happening. 

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A lower dollar could only help

Australian dollar could dive below 90 US cents in coming weeks - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

The big economic factor that does not attract as much attention as it should in the mind of the public is the  high Aussie dollar.

The Gillard government has been very unlucky to be caught in a period of a sustained high dollar, and a new Abbott government would be very lucky to have it sink to a permanent, more realistic level.

Monday, May 20, 2013

To Containers: hip hip...

Free exchange: The humble hero | The Economist

I would have always assumed that the use of shipping containers had been a major innovation for trade, but I had no idea it had been as significant as shown in the above article.  For example:
  It was the brainchild of Malcom McLean, an American trucking magnate. He reckoned that big savings could be had by packing goods in uniform containers that could easily be moved between lorry and ship. When he tallied the costs from the inaugural journey of his first prototype container ship in 1956, he found that they came in at just $0.16 per tonne to load—compared with $5.83 per tonne for loose cargo on a standard ship. Containerisation quickly conquered the world: between 1966 and 1983 the share of countries with container ports rose from about 1% to nearly 90%, coinciding with a take-off in global trade (see chart)....
In 1965 dock labour could move only 1.7 tonnes per hour onto a cargo ship; five years later a container crew could load 30 tonnes per hour (see table). This allowed freight lines to use bigger ships and still slash the time spent in port. The journey time from door to door fell by half and became more consistent. The container also upended a rigid labour force. Falling labour demand reduced dockworkers’ bargaining power and cut the number of strikes. And because containers could be packed and sealed at the factory, losses to theft (and insurance rates) plummeted. Over time all this reshaped global trade. Ports became bigger and their number smaller. More types of goods could be traded economically. Speed and reliability of shipping enabled just-in-time production, which in turn allowed firms to grow leaner and more responsive to markets as even distant suppliers could now provide wares quickly and on schedule. International supply chains also grew more intricate and inclusive.
 And a study claims this:
In a set of 22 industrialised countries containerisation explains a 320% rise in bilateral trade over the first five years after adoption and 790% over 20 years. By comparison, a bilateral free-trade agreement raises trade by 45% over 20 years and GATT membership adds 285%.
I have been impressed by containerisation ever since I saw the automated container straddle carriers at the Port of  Brisbane in 2007.   My post about that trip is here.

Lust and that disease in history

Syphilis, sex and fear | How the French disease conquered the world | Books | The Guardian

I think I find reading about the history of syphilis so interesting because I just find it hard imagining societies coping for so long with an illness that was so devastating to the individual and their family, and so closely tied  to personal behaviour.    It's like the first decade of AIDS, but going on for four or five centuries.

Here are some bits of information about syphilis which I don't think I had heard before:
The theories surrounding the disease were are as dramatic as the symptoms: an astrological conjunction of the planets, the boils of Job, a punishment of a wrathful God disgusted by fornication or, as some suggested even then, an entirely new plague brought from the new world by the soldiers of Columbus and fermented in the loins of Neapolitan prostitutes.  
The boils of Job seems a pretty apt guess, I suppose.

There seems to be a hint of exaggeration here:
 Whatever the cause, the horror and the agony were indisputable. "So cruel, so distressing, so appalling that until now nothing more terrible or disgusting has ever been known on this earth," says the German humanist Joseph Grunpeck, who, when he fell victim, bemoaned how "the wound on my priapic gland became so swollen, that both hands could scarcely encircle it."
 I don't think I knew wet nurses could pass it on to babies:
 Erring husbands gave it to wives who sometimes passed it on to children, though they might also get it from suckling infected wet-nurses.
 This seems a novel suggestion:
 In a manifestly corrupt church, the give-away "purple flowers" (as the repeated attacks were euphemistically known) that decorated the faces of priests, cardinals, even a pope, were indisputable evidence that celibacy was unenforceable. When Luther, a monk, married a nun, forcing the hand of the Catholic church to resist similar reform in itself, syphilis became one of the reasons the Catholic church is still in such trouble today.
 I hadn't heard this suggestion before either:
Those who could buy care also bought silence – the confidentiality of the modern doctor/patient relationship has it roots in the treatment of syphilis.
What about this horrible plan for husbands who wanted to secretly treat their spouse:
The old adage "a night with Venus; a lifetime with Mercury" reveals all manner of horrors, from men suffocating in overheated steam baths to quacks who peddled chocolate drinks laced with mercury so that infected husbands could treat their wives and families without them knowing. Even court fashion is part of the story, with pancake makeup and beauty spots as much a response to recurrent attacks of syphilis as survivors of smallpox.
And what about that last sentence - as you can tell, there is a lot here that is new to me.

As to the famous who may had suffered from it, there are a few names on this list I hadn't heard mentioned before:
Detective work by writers such as Deborah Hayden (The Pox: Genius, Madness, and the Mysteries of Syphilis) count Schubert, Schumann, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Flaubert, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Wilde and Joyce with contentious evidence around Beethoven and Hitler.
The mystery of how "hysteria" became the fad of the day that Freud and his ilk were so interested in may also be connected: 
Late 19th-century French culture was a particularly rich stew of sexual desire and fear. Upmarket Paris restaurants had private rooms where the clientele could enjoy more than food, and in opera foyers patrons could view and "reserve" young girls for later. At the same time, the authorities were rounding up, testing and treating prostitutes, often too late for themselves or the wives. As the fear grew, so did the interest in disturbed women. Charcot's clinic exhibited examples of hysteria, prompting the question now as to how far that diagnosis might have been covering up the workings of syphilis. Freud noted the impact of the disease inside the family when analysing his early female patients.
All very fascinating.  I should read an entire book on the subject, perhaps.

Spend less, get the tick of approval

Budget polling: Newspoll 56-44, Nielsen and Galaxy 54-46 | The Poll Bludger

The most surprising outcome from the post budget polls is the strength of the popularity of decision to reduce the "Baby Bonus":
 Abolition of the baby bonus has received strikingly strong support: 68% from Nielsen and 64% from Galaxy, with opposition at 27% and 22%.

Who'd have thought:  the public can identify overly generous middle class welfare when they see it.

Doesn't this suggest that Labor's move towards tighter means testing of benefits is a winner, too?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

It's not just me - Part 3

I'm encouraged to read, via this spectacularly wrong headed assessment that Dr Who is still a fantastic show, that there are indeed a large number of former fans pretty much abandoning it due to the woeful trajectory it has been on with Steven Moffat in control.     

Have a look at this blog post, for example, found via from the previous link.  It correctly identifies the obvious current problem:  Moffat sets up big story arcs that end with a pathetic, uninteresting and un-engaging  deus ex machina fizzle.  (And, I would argue, even the "stand alone" stories now frequently have pathetic resolutions.)  From the last link:
Notably, both season five and season six end with a wacky aborted universe and a wedding. If there’s not a wedding and a wacky alternate universe at the end of season seven, I’ll be worried Stefan Moffat forgot to rip himself off. Now, I’m not saying Doctor Who should be a champion of stories that make sense all the time, but it should at least be consistent with its own mythology. The excellent Tennant/Davies era episode “The Waters of Mars” showed us the huge consequences (mostly emotional) when you screw with fixed points in time. These days that doesn’t mean jack shit, because the Doctor seems down with rewriting time whenever it suits the needs of the script.
Rest the show.  For 5 years.

Friday, May 17, 2013

But can he make them have babies?

Japan: Abe’s master plan | The Economist

"Abenomics"  is getting some good reviews for its sudden improvement to the Japanese economy.  It also seems to be a massive experiment which, if successful, would be seen as a strong win by Krugman for his take on economics.

Yet, in this Economist article, there is little to suggest what he can do about the major long term demographic problem for his country.   In short, if the Japanese are never going to accept high levels of immigration, how are they ever going to be persuaded to have more babies?

Thursday, May 16, 2013

It's not just me - Part 2

Hoppy beer is awful—or at least, its bitterness is ruining craft beer’s reputation. - Slate Magazine

The boutique beer business is big in the US as well as Australia, and I am happy to hear that I am not the only person who is finding too many of these beers just too overpoweringly hoppy.

While different hops are supposed to have different taste characteristics (other than simple "bitter"), it's good to read that there really is no point in making it too bitter:
From a consumer’s standpoint, though, beers overloaded with hops are a pointless gimmick. That’s because we can’t even taste hops’ nuances above a certain point. Hoppiness is measured in IBUs (International Bitterness Units), which indicate the concentration of isomerized alpha acid—the compound that makes hops taste bitter. Most beer judges agree that even with an experienced palate, most human beings can’t detect any differences above 60 IBUs. Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, one of the hoppiest beers of its time, clocks in at 37 IBUs. Some of today's India pale ales, like Lagunitas’ Hop Stoopid, measure around 100 IBUs. Russian River’s Pliny the Younger, one of the most sought-after beers in the world, has three times as many hops as the brewery’s standard IPA; the hops are added on eight separate occasions during the brewing process.

Craft brewers’ obsession with hops has overshadowed so many other wonderful aspects of beer. So here’s my plea to my fellow craft beer enthusiasts: Give it a rest.
 Hear here.

It's not just me - Part 1

“Star Trek Into Darkness”: Who made J.J. Abrams the sci-fi god? -

Readers will know I don't care for the directorial work of JJ Abrams, so it's good to read a review by a critic who seems pretty lukewarm on him too.   (He's enjoyed him more than me, though. I think.)

I'm also lukewarm on the new version of Star Trek, and was bored with Abram's first effort. 

This new movie has good reviews, but after reading Andrew O'Hehir's, I don't think I'll bother seeing it.

O'Hehir's review is pretty witty, if you ask me.  It ends on this note, for example:
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with “Star Trek Into Darkness” – once you understand it as a generic comic-book-style summer flick faintly inspired by some half-forgotten boomer culture thing. (Here’s something to appreciate about Abrams: This is a classic PG-13 picture, with little or no sex or swearing, but one that never condescends.) That’s the way almost everyone will experience it, and fair enough. Still, if you feel like bitching about it, come on over. We’ll crack a couple of watery brews and complain (in Klingon) about Uhura’s ill-fitting romance with Spock, or Chris Pine’s frat-boy weightlifter Kirk, who completely lacks the air of provincial, semi-educated suavity that made William Shatner the greatest bad actor in TV history. Or the fact that those in charge of the “Star Trek” universe could have entrusted its rebirth to someone who actually liked it.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tank love

Sensory deprivation, flotation tanks: I floated naked in a pitch black tank, and you should too. - Slate Magazine

Well, I didn't know that floatation tanks were making a bit of a come back.

This article explains their history, and re-arrival, and tries to describe what the experience is like.

I wouldn't mind trying it myself, actually.

Coolest holiday home, ever?

Found in Dezeen, a remarkable looking holiday home in upstate New York:

From another angle:

It reminds me a bit of the sky apartment in Oblivion; especially in the oh-so-white interior:

Yes, sure, it looks fantastic.  But you would have to like stairs.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Unwise tax cuts, unwise spending cuts

BUDGET 2013: Who framed the budget bloopers? | Business Spectator

Here's a good summary of the Australia Institute work which pins current budget deficits on tax cuts which Costello invented and Labor implemented:
In a pre-budget briefing paper, Australia Institute senior economist Matt Grudnoff said: “The impact of the Howard/Costello income tax cuts on the federal budget has been huge. They were delivered at a time of strong economic growth, ignoring what would happen when that growth slowed.

“Costello chose to take the windfall generated by the mining boom to fund large and permanent cuts to income tax. What he didn’t say at the time was that he was funding a structural change to the budget with a cyclical boom. This was simply unsustainable.”

This is not a new story. However, Grudnoff has used the same economic modelling tool used by many government forecasters, NATSEM, to work out how many more billions would have flowed into government coffers had Swan and Rudd just said ‘No’ to the Costello cutting program.

Grudnoff found that not only would the budget likely be into the black by now, but that the cuts disproportionately benefited higher socio-economic groups. He found that “income tax cuts between 2005-06 and 2011-12 have taken a massive $169 billion out of the federal budget, meaning the deficit announced by Prime Minister Gillard might not have eventuated”.

He adds: “Had the tax cuts not taken place, the 2011-12 budget would have been $38 billion better off. Instead, the top 10 per cent of income earners gained $16 billion. This was more than the total benefit to the bottom 80 per cent of income earners.”

You might have expected, therefore, that a Labor government would have done its sums, worked out that the cuts didn’t further the cause of ‘fairness’, and stopped the madness of rolling tax cuts that were funded by an unexpected mining-revenue windfall at the start, and during the GFC, funded by issuing billions of dollars worth of government bonds.
But they didn’t.
Sounds pretty convincing, but the political problem for Labor is that it is hard for them to admit that they made a bad call by promising to deliver the Costello tax cuts.  

What I can do, on the other hand, is ridicule those who argue that lower taxes always works for the good. 

And back to the matter of the effect of further cutting as promised by a future Abbott government:
But Swan bashing aside, there is a more sinister aspect to the chart above, given that it’s likely to be Treasurer Hockey giving next year’s budget speech.

Think for a minute what would have happened to the economy, and tax receipts, if Rudd and Swan had tried to balance the budget not by ending the Costello tax-cut program, but by cutting spending.
Had they been cutting spending to the bone from 2008 to the present, the mistakes of the European austerity programs would have been repeated here, albeit in milder form. That is, by cutting into a downturn, many more businesses would have collapsed, GDP growth would have slowed or gone backwards, and tax receipts would have plunged lower still.

But that is exactly what Tony Abbott and Joe Hockey have planned for next year. Their hope is that business, buoyed by the scrapping of the carbon and mining taxes, red tape reductions and less regulation, will create a new surge of economic activity that will start to refill the coffers.

It’s not impossible, and we’re certainly not in Europe’s dire predicament. But it does seem like a gamble as big as some of the punts Swan and Rudd took during the GFC and which, thankfully, mostly worked out.

The federal budget may be $19.4 billion in the red for 2012/13, but the economy is still growing, unemployment, inflation and interest rates are low. That may be a scenario we look back on with some nostalgia if the Abbott/Hockey punt doesn’t work out.

About that reduced revenue

From the 22 minute mark, I think there is a very decent discussion about Treasury's way optimistic (and wrong) budget forecast for revenue for this year.  (Down $17 million or so, which is very close to the year's budget deficit of $19 million.)

Andrew Leigh does the talking for Labor.  He always impresses as a smart and decent politician economist.   What's peculiar is that, even though the way Sinclair Davidson spins Labor's economic management must drive Leigh berserk, Davidson does always speak up for Leigh as being a "good guy".   Odd.

Tony Abbott: a weak leader with poor judgement

So, Tony Abbott is now vacillating on support for the "recognition of local government" referendum to be held at the next election:
On Monday, Mr Abbott said that while he supported the idea of allowing the federal government to directly fund local councils, he thought the government was rushing the referendum at the last minute. Mr Abbott added that the government should not be ''muddying the waters'' of the election with another vote.

''(The election) ought to be a referendum on Julia Gillard and the carbon tax rather than a referendum on local government,'' he said.

Why doesn't he just say "I'm more interesting in playing politics than seeing something useful gets done"?

His wavering comes after strong complaint from the old guard that he shouldn't support it:
This week former Liberal heavyweights Nick Minchin and Peter Reith spoke out against the idea. It is up to the Federal Government to propose the referendum but in-principle support from the Coalition makes it more likely that will happen.
and the "new guard" of dimwits as led by Andrew Bolt,  and his best friends forever in the IPA, and shared by such shining luminaries as Cory Bernardi. 

Sure, this issue has been raised before by Labor and failed, but this time there is solid, practical, court decision based reasons as to why the constitutional amendment is warranted.

Some in the Coalition (Barnaby Joyce, of all people!) recognize this, but more are interested in re-hashing the idea of it being about ideology and Labor power grabs. 

The IPA and their friends in the large, stupid, ideologically driven climate change skeptic faction of the Coalition (which, apart from Joyce, seem to compromise the bulk of the opposition to the referendum) should explain to me - in the current budgetary and economic conditions, what Labor Federal government is going to be interested in directly funding a huge amount of local government responsibilities just so they say "ha ha, we're in control"?

But back to Tony:  his new, barbed wire fence straddling attitude on this is just like his "it depends who I'm talking to"  approach to climate change.   His vacillation on an ETS, and final decision to take an opportunistic stand against it at the beck and call of Right wing talk back radio and Andrew Bolt is how he got the leadership.

The only policy which he has ever owned totally is one which virtually no one, except a hand full of feminist commentators, thinks makes economic sense (his overly generous parental leave plan.)

In short, the policies on which he chooses to dig his heals in are weak and ill founded; on those things which are practical and worthy he's still sniffing the wind as to what he should do.    (Another vacillation - the NBN lite plan.)

He is a crook leader who does not deserve to win government. 

Speaking of Parkinson's

Brain damage 'crisis' looms from illicit drug use - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Researchers in Adelaide are investigating links between stimulant use and an increased risk of people developing Parkinson's disease.

They said many drug users were developing a brain abnormality which also was seen in people afflicted with Parkinson's.

"People who have used illegal stimulants in the past have a change in a brain region that's right in the middle of their brain called the susbtantia nigra," explained Dr Gabrielle Todd, a senior researcher at the University of South Australia.

A recent German study found otherwise-healthy people with that abnormality were 17 times more likely than others to develop Parkinson's.

"When we looked at the brain stems of fairly young people, all less than 45 years old, they had the same changes that we saw in people with Parkinson's disease," Flinders Medical Centre neurologist Dr Rob Wilcox said.

It does look watchable

The Michael J. Fox Show trailer: watch the actor return to TV. (VIDEO)

I guess I was not the only person to doubt that it was wise of Mr Fox to head back to regular TV:  the person writing at Slate seems as surprised as me that the trailer for his new show looks so smart and witty.

People who don't find something appealling about Fox need therapy.  Sorry, that's the only sound thing to be found in the new DSM.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The free market of (rodent) death

Of mice and markets | Ars Technica

This study which was reported last week was not well reported in some places, but I think this explanation at the link does it pretty well.  The opening paragraphs:
How do ethics and the free market interact? As the authors of a new paper on the topic point out, the answer is often complicated. In the past, Western economies had vigorous markets for things we now consider entirely unethical, like slaves and Papal forgiveness for sins. Ending those practices took long and bloody struggles. But was this because the market simply reflects the ethics of the day, or does engaging in a market alter people's perception of what's ethical?

To find out, the authors of the paper set up a market for an item that is ethically controversial: the lives of lab animals. They found that, for most people, keeping a mouse alive, even at someone else's cost, is only worth a limited amount of money. But that amount goes down dramatically once market-based buying and selling is involved.
 The article then goes into detail as to how the experiment worked.  It's pretty fascinating.

Fortunately, while the study could be used by to attack markets and capitalism, the authors do recognize something important:
....they're well aware that other forms of resource distribution have fostered some fantastically unethical behavior. Or, as they put it in more academic terms, "Other organizational forms of allocation and price determination such as in totalitarian systems or command societies do not generically place higher value on moral outcomes."
Still, it probably does have something useful to think about in terms of markets and ethics.

Friday, May 10, 2013

George in Space

This teaser trailer for a movie featuring George Clooney and Sandra Bullock (?!) in what appears to be an attempt to do a very accurate kind of near future science fiction, looks very impressive:

How Google glasses work

Google Glass privacy: It’s actually the world’s worst surveillance device. - Slate Magazine

My second tech post in a day.

This one is a pretty interesting, and amusing, description of how Google Glass currently works, and why they are (at least not yet) the best device for secretly recording video or taking photos.

Still, if they become cheap and popular in future, I would not be surprised if we start seeing a lot more video of street crime than before.  After all, despite what the article says, their use will still be less conspicuous (and easier) than holding up your mobile phone to record video.

Adventures in rooting (a consumer warning)

It was about 9 months ago that I bought a Samsung Tablet, the Galaxy Tab 2 10.1, which is still commonly on sale and now down to just under $300.   It's pretty much at the bottom of the Samsung line, and the reviews even when it came out indicated not to expect top performance.  However, for your basic tablet user, I've been pretty happy with it, and Google Play services (with the recent opening of their music store in Australia) have improved a lot.

But a few days ago it started acting strangely.   Trying to type into any app (such as a browser) would immediately cause the app to stop working.  Also, I had created a half dozen folders on the home page in which to sort out my apps into categories, and I could not open any of those folders.  (The warning on that was "SecLauncher has stopped working.")

Googling around on my PC (because I could not search anything via the tablet) about the typing problem (but not the folder problem) quickly showed from Android forums that this was a known issue that sometimes occurred in this model tablet, and that it has been occurring for quite some time (more than 12 months, I think.)   Someone complained that they had contacted Samsung and a vague promise that they would fix it in future was made.

However, I don't think there has ever been an update for my Tablet's Android version since I bought it.  (Even though it appears an update has started to be rolled out elsewhere around the globe in about December 2012.  Australia must be low on their priority.)

So - the problem I had was with the Samsung clipboard, and could only be fixed by either doing a factory reset (which would not guarantee that the problem would not return) or "root" the Tablet via some software and slightly tricky instructions which could, if it all went horribly wrong, "brick" the Tablet and make it good for nothing, and then delete the data/clipboard folder contents.

I went for the latter option, and followed a couple of sets of instructions (first here, but then to XDA forum) because it seems it is hard to find one perfectly clear set of instructions for something like this. 

Anyhow, I finally got there, after a few hours of research and fiddling and not understanding exactly what was going on.

Anyone reading who has struck problems doing this - I might be able to help with a few tips of what was not working for me.

So, next problem: having successfully "rooted" my tablet,  I couldn't find the data/clipboard at all.

I tried the "File manager" that came with Samsung, and an app manager I had downloaded which had an option to allow access to root files which had to be turned on, but I still could not find the relevant folder.

I knew there were other file manager apps to download, but here's the thing:  I still couldn't type into Google Play to find them.   I had to search through categories, but they seem to list the "top paid" or "top free", and if want you want isn't in the top, you can't get to it.  Furthermore, if it was a paid app that I wanted to download (and there was one or two possibilities) I could not type in my password to confirm payment!

Still, if you find one app that's kinda relevant, you can see links to other possible ones of interest, and that is how I stumbled across File Explorer (which is free) and a separate, now free, File Explorer (Root Add on) which allows root access via File Explorer.

Using these apps, I did find the data/clipboard folder, deleted its contents, and yes indeed, the Tablet started working normally again.

Presumably, if it happens again, I have all the tools to fix it.

But here's the thing:   I must never put File Explorer in a folder, because that may make it hard to get to if the problem re-develops.

Apparently, having a "rooted" Tablet means you can fiddle with it and do all sorts of things - perhaps such as uploading the new Jellybean Android instead of waiting for Samsung to deem Australia worthy enough to receive it.

I'm not sure what I'll do.  The warranty is gone anyway.

But the final lesson is:   this is pretty poor service by Samsung, not fixing a serious problem like this and just telling people they have to reset the Tablet to factory (and re-load all apps and data back to it.)

Shame, Samsung, shame.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

More on fizzy drinks

A soda a day keeps the doctor in pay: soft drinks and diabetes

A can a day of sugary oft drink is a bad idea:
This large study from Europe found drinking a 12 ounce (about 355 ml) can of soft drink, or soda, a day was associated with a 20% increase in the risk of developing diabetes. This same effect has previously been observed in populations from the United States, Finland and Singapore.

If this is a real effect, as increasingly looks to be the case, it has massive implications. Half of eight-year-olds in the United States already drink this amount of soda, and teenage males consume more than double that. In conjunction with soft drink consumption among American adults, this represents tens of millions at risk of diabetes in the United States alone. Hundreds of millions more people are affected in other developed and developing countries worldwide.

There’s an obvious reason why soft drink consumption causes diabetes – more sweetened drinks equal more calories, which equals weight gain. Excess weight is the single most important factor in the global diabetes epidemic. While soft drinks may have effects on diabetes independent of obesity, this latest study (again) implicates weight gain as a key factor.
I am a little relieved to read the next bit, though:
The study’s apparently anomalous finding of an association between diet sodas and diabetes likely reflects “reverse causation” – a phenomenon whereby people switch to diet soft drinks once they start to get the health problems caused by regular ones. So it’s the development of disease that’s causing people to drink diet soft drinks, not the diet soft drinks causing disease.
My Pepsi Max remains safe, perhaps.

More bugs bugging us

Antibiotics could cure 40% of chronic back pain patients | Society |

Yet another story of an unexpected bacterial connection to health.