Monday, March 31, 2014

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Yong speaks

Ed Yong, whose blog "Not Exactly Rocket Science" was recently added to my blogroll, has a TED talk on line now.  His voice is very different from what I expected, and his talk on mind controlling parasites is good:

A spectacularly bad week for Right wing figures past their "use by" date

Let's list the losers from this week, in no particular order:

1.  Bronwyn Bishop.  It doesn't matter that she was always destined to win the vote (has a government ever voted against its own speaker, rather than simply asking him or her to resign?), the grim look on her face during the detailed and fairly put argument by Tony Burke was enough to hurt her, and Tony Abbott.  Michelle Grattan, who I think is generally pretty fair in her commentary on personal performances, has labelled Bishop as not even giving the impression of trying to be fair.  Bishop ought to protect whatever frail legacy she thinks she has ("a mile wide but an inch deep" rings true to this day) by resigning in light of Labor's declaration of no confidence in her.   I am guessing she won't.

And how ludicrous was it of Christopher Pyne to say that the fact the challenge was prepared meant it was a "stunt"?  If you take on a major and serious task like this, of course it has to be backed up with evidence.

By the way, in all the commentary about it, why has no journalist followed up on Burke's claim that Bishop lied about what was on a tape?   Isn't that a very serious allegation?

2.  Tony Abbott   Knights and Dames.   Did he seriously think there would not be near uniform ridicule from politicians and the public about this?   Was he trying to distract from something else, like his poor judgement with giving Sinodinos a job when he must have know damage was coming up?  He looked genuinely upset with Bill Shorten's ridicule in the House, helping ensure his self inflicted damage from this ridiculous exercise.

And how about his claiming that Bishop had handled the challenge to her with "grace and good humour"?  There was no evidence of humour on her part whatsoever.  

3.  Arthur Sinodinos.  Well, it's more than a week since his damage was done, but since then, despite the Commission saying that it was not really going after him, it still looks very likely he is not coming back.  I didn't think he was past his use by date until this came to light, but he is.

4.  Cardinal George Pell.   By all accounts, of course including the very detailed ones by Marr, a pretty terrible performance in that he agreed that the Church had acted appallingly in a crucial child abuse court case, but to quite a large degree sought to deflect blame for that to a string of other people, and tried to make up for it by saying the Church's door was now open to making large compensation payments.   All rather too late for those who have died, George.  The physical stoop he has developed in recent years has been like a living reminder of the diminishment of his judgement and character in the eyes of most Australian Catholics, let alone amongst people who don't care for the Church.

5.  George Brandis.   What a brilliant idea, when defending laws softening steps that can be taken by individuals the victims of racism, to point out in Parliament that people have a right to be a bigot!    He was arguing with Penny Wong, and also thought it a good idea to also call her "bigoted".  She apparently went livid, but managed to control herself.

I had heard years ago that Brandis has been an unpopular, abrasive figure with a large slab of the Queensland Liberals.   He's obviously not always great at thinker on his feet, either.

Reports during the week said that his proposed amendments were softened under Cabinet influence.  God knows what they must have been like before that.

Brandis' bigot comment is going to haunt him for a long time.  No one would be disappointed to see the back of him.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Warm water problem

A couple of weeks ago, there was a guy on Landline from (I think) the Bureau of Meteorology talking about a subsurface body of very warm water being tracked West East across the Pacific.  It was thought that if it surfaced, it would be the start of a clear El Nino.  He said it was about 4-5 degrees hotter than average.  I had no idea that large warm, subsurface (about 150 m down) bodies of water were tracked like this in real time.

The subject gets a detailed explanation at this blog post.   I don't know who the author is, but he seems well versed on the subject.  He says it has the potential to be a bigger El Nino than the record setting one at the end of the 1990's.

Let's see what happens....

Winding, windy moors must be good for your health

Kate Bush tour: Extra London dates confirmed - News - Music - The Independent

PS:  she's 55.

Make up your minds

Richard III expert: The skeleton in the car park may not be the missing monarch after all - Archaeology - Science - The Independent

Not all wet after all

That's a surprise.  It seems everyone was expecting a disaster (ha! another pun) but the reviews for Noah are quite strong.

Bickmore watches Steyn dance

It's been up for a week or two, but Barry Bickmore's "Flashdance" comparison to how Mark Steyn thinks he can conduct himself in a defamation action is really hilarious.

Aly on the RDA

I quite like Waleed Aly's column on the RDA controversy.  He argues that making the standard that of "the ordinary reasonable Australian" effectively makes it a white standard:
This matters because – if I may speak freely – plenty of white people (even ordinary reasonable ones) are good at telling coloured people what they should and shouldn’t find racist, without even the slightest awareness that they might not be in prime position to make that call.

This is particularly problematic with the proposed offence of racial “intimidation”. To “intimidate” is “to cause fear of physical harm” according to the draft Act. Now our ordinary reasonable white person is being asked to tell, say, black people whether or not they are “reasonably likely” to be fearful of physical harm. Black people – reasonable ones – might actually be fearful, but ultimately a hypothetical white person will decide that for them.
Heh.  Let's not forget the most belligerent white blogging promoter of full repeal of s18C, Sinclair Davidson, claimed this in relation to an aboriginal man
Actually, no. Calling a man an 'ape' is not racist and not demeaning. Rude, yes. Unnecessary, yes. poor behaviour, yes.
He copped a lot of criticism about this, even from white right wing sympathisers; and given that he's from South Africa, it was all the more extraordinary. 

[Deletion, pending further research.]

And only yesterday, he wrote this about those annoying "community groups" who don't want the Act amended:
The elected government of the Commonwealth of Australia is the leadership of the largest community group in the country – also the only community group that actually enjoys widespread legitimacy. 
Shorter version:   "Suck it up, Jewish community groups.  You've lost."

He had already denied there could be friendship with those who support s.18C:
 This is a fork in the road. Those who choose to walk down the path of 18C must do so alone, without the comfort and friendship of those of us who choose freedom over slavery.
Which I reckon would strike most people as an extremely immature attitude.  But then again, this is a man who gets a big thrill from Judge Dredd.   Let's face it - libertarianism is a philosophy that attracts the immature, and those with limited empathy.  (On the empathy question, how else can you interpret a fondness for labelling a large section of society "moochers".)

Now, I am not arguing that he is a racist - and I haven't noticed anyone allege that against him.   What I am saying though is that his philosophy gives him a particularly acute tin ear when it comes to questions of what other people should find as racism or offensive on the grounds of race.   This is also tied up with his ironic way of seeking to deflect attacks by revelling in them (he frequently celebrates having been called an evil bald fascist gnome, for example.)   The fact that he readily bans his critics at his own blog shows that he's not as immune to attacks as he likes to pretend he is.   But his theory seems to be that everyone should take on criticism the way he does - put on a show of laughing it off (even though it does hurt or annoy you); don't think of yourself as a victim - that's a sign of weakness.   Yet, of course, he has been one of the biggest public (and private, I assume) hand holders of the most vocal "I'm a victim" claimant of all in this matter - Andrew Bolt.

Anyway, back to Aly, who ends his column this way:
I have no doubt the Abbott government doesn’t intend this. It doesn’t need to. That’s the problem. This is just the level of privilege we're dealing with. This is what happens when protection from racism becomes a gift from the majority rather than a central part of the social pact. It’s what happens when racial minorities are required to be supplicants, whose claims to social equality are subordinate to those of powerful media outlets outraged they might occasionally have to publish an apology.

And it’s what happens when lawmakers and the culturally empowered proceed as though ours is a society without a racial power hierarchy simply because they sit at the top of it.
Well said.

Update:  the Catallaxy warrior and self proclaimed former friend of Jews seems to think that by talking about a white majority often not having the best idea of what racial minorities may find insulting, Aly is acting in breach of s18C.

Pity he ignores 18D.  Or rather - typical. 

Also the irony.   As I have argued, Davidson himself gives credence to Aly's argument that white folk sometimes don't have a clue.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Krugman, Piketty, etc

What a good post from Krugman, talking about the much discussed new book by Piketty on the intensifying inequality in the US and globally, in which he notes that the history of taxation in the US is entirely different from what Tea Party drips (ha, a pun) think it is. (And incidentally, the Piketty argument as explained at that last link sounds extremely convincing.  It looks like it is being received as a death knell for the Right wing economic orthodoxy and philosophy of the last few decades.)

And here's a second Krugman post, arguing that dissing the Koch Brothers is entirely legitimate.

Amusingly, I see that Catallaxy is running one of its "Gee, aren't rich people great?" posts about the Koch Brothers at the same time.

It's a feature of the Ayn Rand shadow on libertarianism that they rarely make any differentiation  between the rich who earn it in an admirable and positive way - innovation, hard work, meeting a market for a product that genuinely benefits everyone with limited harm to society or the environment - and those who earn or use their gains in a positively harmful way, or did not actually earn it at all but simply were born into the right family.    In fact, they argue strongly against any attempt to bring morality to the issue of how money is made - Sinclair Davidson thinks campaigns against Apartheid South Africa didn't work, couldn't care less that tobacco companies sell a carcinogen when considering whether they should have unfettered marketing via trade mark, and has taken to complaining regularly about new divestment campaigns against fossil fuel mining companies.   He dismisses as essentially unworthy any attempt to remove the scandalous use of tax havens by the likes of Apple and other multinationals.   He'll soon be making a teary video "Leave Capital alone! You are lucky it even performed for you.  Leave it alone!"

But going back to Piketty:  I see that John Cassidy in the New Yorker has a series of charts that illustrate the argument.  I'll copy just this one, showing that Australia really has been better in the inequality stakes:

A new dwarf planet. Cool.

Dwarf planet stretches Solar System's edge
This Nature report doesn't say it, but another one in The Guardian ends with the possibility that a very large dark planet is way out there too:
The latest work has already thrown up an intriguing possibility. The angle of the body's orbit and that of Sedna's are strikingly similar, an effect most likely caused by the gravitational tug of another, unseen body. One possibility is a "Super Earth" that traces so large an orbit around the sun that it has never been seen.

"If you took a SuperEarth and put it a few hundred astronomical units out, the gravity could shepherd Sedna and this new object into the orbits they have," said Sheppard. An astronomical unit (AU) is around 150m kilometres, or the mean distance from Earth to the sun.

Earlier this month, Nasa'sWide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (Wise) reported the results from its search for "Planet X", a hypothesised planet far out in the solar system. It found no evidence for a new planet larger than Saturn within 10,000 AU of the sun. But Saturn is 95 times more massive than Earth, so a smaller Super Earth could go undetected in that region.
Great news for hard science fiction writers, I am sure.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

About the Racial Discrimination Act amendment...

Michelle Grattan has a column at The Conversation about the amendments to the Racial Discrimination Act, and I agree with it completely.

I like this analogy:
There is a respectable case to be made that the present act is too wide. If drafters were starting from scratch, with no law on the books, they would probably be better to leave out “offend” and “insult”.

But there is not a clean slate, and changing the status quo has disproportionate dangers. It’s rather like punching a hole in an asbestos shed – a stable if not ideal structure suddenly turns into a hazard, its particles scattered with unpredictable risk. It would be easier and better to leave well alone.
I think that's a brilliant summary of the attitude of Warren Mundine, and (probably) of all the ethnic bodies that have urged the government not to intervene.

She goes on to note that until the current law resulted in a friend of the PM losing a purely symbolic battle (one caused by his own poor research and failure to simply apologise and correct errors in lieu of defending a court action)  this was not an active issue for the Coalition at all.    She writes:
And, apart from keeping faith with an outraged columnist, what is this about? There have not been other troublesome cases; the law has mostly functioned well.

Brandis claims that (unnamed) journalists tell him there is this “chill” of censorship. But who precisely wants to say what that they are not saying now?

One can’t imagine that Abbott himself would want a heightened debate on race. On indigenous affairs in particular, he’d be appalled – not least because it would endanger his push for indigenous recognition in the constitution.

Yet the government’s rhetoric over 18C and related sections of the RDA suggests that free speech is being suppressed.
That highlighted line is pure right wing bulldust, talked about by the likes of the teeth grindingly annoying fake culture war commentator Nick Cater (the UK's gain, and our loss, when he migrated here.)   As is typical of the Tea Party inspired Right in Australia now, they are setting up a straw man to attack by insisting that matters that the centre Right won about 20 years ago are still alive and crushing the nation.  Look at aboriginal issues - Labor was embarrassed by being gullible on Hindmarsh Island, and Bob Hawke weeping over claimed aboriginal sites; by the end of the Howard government, they were supporting the intervention in the Northern Territory and had a tougher approach to limiting alcohol than the current Liberal government.  (In truth, both parties have moved somewhat to the centre.  The Coalition's panic about native title is now seen as greatly exaggerated, and most in the party were fairly gracious about the Rudd apology.)

Given Andrew Bolt's behaviour, I find the line taken by Tim Wilson, as repeated by Brandis and all the FOB's* actually pretty nauseating - that the way to a better society is for there to be no limit on offensive expressions and for "good" people to vigorously attack objectionable views.  As Michelle writes:
Those worrying the most about the alleged chains on free speech can be sensitive when the exchanges become too robust. Bolt was outraged when outspoken indigenous figure Marcia Langton threw around allegations about him on television. “I was so bruised … that I didn’t go into work on Tuesday. I couldn’t stand any sympathy — which you get only when you’re meant to feel hurt,” he wrote.

He pointed to inaccuracies; after Langton apologised to him he demanded the ABC apologise too (she had made the comments on Q&A).

The Langton-Bolt exchanges contributed little to the public debate, but if you are going to complain there is not enough opportunity for unfettered free speech, it seems more than a little inconsistent to be upset by someone saying offensive things about you. Isn’t the aim supposed to be a world of unrestrained biffo all round?

And, of course, "classic liberals" like Wilson, Berg, and Sinclair Davidson in particular (who seems to be trying to make up for not having lived out a boyhood dream of being a righteous Rambo, or  comic book superhero, by being really nuttily belligerent on free speech) argue for "unrestrained biffo" from a position of white, male, social success. 

If they had an actual case where they could show some important issue has not been adequately canvassed in Australian society because of the RDA, they might have a case. The fact is, they don't.  I also strongly suspect that they have run so hard on this because of media donations to their think tank, which (I would guess) may have been inspired more by the Gillard government's clumsy attempt to revise media self regulation than the Bolt case.

I know it won't be an instant social disaster if the Act is amended, but it is the matter of why and by whom this is being argued now that paints a picture of a government with completely inappropriate  priorities interested in protecting mates who least need it. 

And, as such, it is yet another example of poor judgement by Tony Abbott.

* Friends of Bolt, of course.

And further:   I see from an article that Jason Soon links to, that at least some of those who support the free speech case in principle still feel uncomfortable with the way it is being argued.  I also agree with the take on Chris Kenny:
Hypocrisy is compounded, however, even by the principled. Chris Kenny suing the ABC for defamation for showing a manipulated image of him having sex with a dog is case in point.* People look at the kind of cases that have been brought forward under 18C and have (rightly, in my opinion) determined that some of these are a case of ‘hurt feelings’, to the extent that the judgements significantly impinge upon free expression. This line of argument has since been expanded to suggest either implicitly or explicitly that all the cases of racism and racial insensitivity are simple matters of ‘hurt feelings’ - everything, from a taxi driver being racially abused to a demented columnist with an axe to grind is ‘hurt feelings’.

On the other hand, the way most people have treated the Kenny case suggests that such belittling is reserved for 18C. There are those who would defend the concept of defamation law as it protects one’s property (reputation), which is not a terrible idea in itself. The issue is that there seems to be no recognition that there are gradations. The idea that a manipulated image from a group long known for satire would actually damage Kenny’s reputation is simple nonsense. But there seems to be this desire to see cases of alleged defamation as uniformly are valid and legitimate - in other words, a valid restriction of speech - whereas all cases under 18C are equally illegitimate. One kind of complainant deserves the benefit of the doubt and another kind does not.

What is happening is that there’s a peculiar blindness about how wide a net defamation law really casts, whereas there seems to be perfect 20-20 vision on 18C.

A 1985 bargain

Gee.  Someone under 35 probably has no idea.

Have a look at this ad I just scanned from a 1985 Omni magazine which I have been hoarding all these years.

Read all about the wonders of a 10mb plug in hard drive for$695:

A co-incidence?

Well, I was previously dismissive of the dangerously unhinged pilot theory, especially when it was based on his support for Anwar Ibrahim.  But now I am not so sure.

The other thing is that the climb to higher than safe altitude always seemed very hard to explain.  As part of a plan by someone to disable the passengers, it does make some sense.  It would be a very twisted and self absorbed pilot who would do it as part of a final joy flight, though.  But if it was a hijacker, it's a bit of co-incidence that it was on a flight piloted by someone with (allegedly) a fair bit of trouble in his personal life.

Maybe the glowing digital cockpit screen in these aircraft need to flash a question to the crew before they take off  "You aren't feeling too depressed or unhappy today to fly?  Think of your passengers."   Who knows, that may be enough for some potentially suicidal pilots to reconsider.

As recorded at the Cabinet meeting where Tony Abbott decided to reintroduce dames and knights

Update:  turns out he didn't discuss it in Cabinet or the party room.   Just asked a few colleagues.  Wow.  At least he knows enough to realise when not to ask permission for a really stupid idea, but not enough to not go ahead with a really stupid idea.

Update 2: I've just realised - that stage group doesn't fairly represent the Abbott cabinet at all:  there are far too many women involved.

Queen Victoria revisited

Well, that's odd.  Julia Baird, the Australian journalist who turns up regularly hosting The Drum (she seems pretty smart, but somehow she just manages to be dull in that role) has an opinion piece in the NYT about Queen Victoria.  Julia's writing a book about her, apparently.

A couple of interesting extracts:
In the 1800s, a woman could be proud if her child reached primary school age. Out of every 1,000 born, around 150 died. Largely because of the prevalence of measles, whooping cough, scarlet fever and cholera, three out of 10 children did not live to age 5. In some towns in England, the death rate was almost twice as high; some blamed the rather dubious practice of drugging babies with opium to calm them while their parents worked. (A piece published in 1850 in “Household Words,” the journal edited by Charles Dickens, blamed the “ignorant hireling nurse” who managed eight or nine babies at a time by keeping them drugged and “quiet, almost, as death.”) By the century’s end, about 80 percent of parents took out insurance against their babies. That practice was eventually frowned upon for encouraging infanticide.
Ah yes, the under regulated life of Victorian England was a fantastic place.

But as to Queen Victoria herself, Julia notes that a new book argues that our historical image of her as a lousy mother was permanently and unfairly twisted by a couple of gay men:
Ms. Ward, who wrote a dissertation on the same subject, began comparing the three official volumes of Victoria’s letters to the more than 460 volumes of correspondence in the Royal Archives in the Windsor Tower, while researching the queen as a wife and mother. She grew curious about the men who edited the letters and why they chose to obscure Victoria’s private life and motherhood.

It turned out that their mission was to protect Victoria as well as her eldest son, Edward VII, from the hint of any scandal at all; they cut out suggestions, for instance, that she was infatuated with her first prime minister, Lord Melbourne.

The man given the task was Viscount Esher, an adviser to King Edward VII; he hired the Eton housemaster Arthur Benson to edit it. Both were gay. Both found the editing experience overwhelming and onerous.

Both also, crucially, viewed Victoria as ancillary to the men around her. They wrote in their introduction: “Confident, in a sense, as she was, she had the feminine instinct strongly developed of dependence upon some manly adviser.”

Only 40 percent of the letters in the volumes of her letters are actually hers: Most of the others are written to her by prominent men, and the correspondence with female relatives and friends is scant.
“The small number of women’s letters in the published volumes,” writes Ms. Ward, “cannot be attributed to the editor’s ignorance of their existence.”

In truth, Benson was bored by correspondence between women; it was “very tiresome.” Yet the letters Victoria exchanged with the young queen of Portugal, Donna Maria, which were almost entirely excluded, reveal a great preoccupation with their young, the joys of children and the pains of giving birth.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Stupid Pyne

Lenore Taylor rips into Christopher Pyne for his over the top reaction to the South Australian election:
Here we go again.

Christopher Pyne – clearly deeply unhappy with independent Geoff Brock’s decision to back Labor to form a government in his home state – has declared that South Australian premier Jay Weatherill “leads an illegitimate government” and added, threateningly, “he will be treated that way”....
Weatherill – despite winning the election based on the law of the land – was in fact “illegitimate” or, according to the dictionary, "not authorised by law” or “improper”.

It is a legal interpretation the Coalition seems to apply selectively.

In 1998, for example, John Howard won 48.9% of the two-party preferred vote but won a majority of seats and formed government. There’s no record of Pyne calling him illegitimate.

And, of course, neither Tony Abbott nor South Australian Liberal leader Steven Marshall were shy in trying to form government by winning the support of independents for themselves.

Read the rest if you want.   He's an annoying disgrace.

Rupert's wonderous spin machine

Much amusement to be had today from the way The Australia attempts to spin a Newspoll that sees Bill Shorten's approval rating rise, leaving him with a net negative approval rating better than Tony Abbott's, and two party preferred vote rising to 52/48 in Labor's favour.

So, of course, the headline message is "Tony Abbott support still strong despite Arthur Sinodinos stumble: Newspoll".

So shameless it's funny.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Andrew Bolt says "Did you really have to put it that way, George?"

Headline on the ABC (and elsewhere I expect):
George Brandis defends 'right to be a bigot' amid Government plan to amend Racial Discrimination Act
Given that this bit of legislative repeal is being driven purely by the Andrew Bolt case, I'm sure Andrew would have preferred that it be explained another way.  Makes me laugh, though.

Try this technique: cooking the meat

Some observations about My Kitchen Rules:

* some of the recent shows where they have had teams cooking outdoors for groups of people (school kids, constructions workers) have featured the teams doing lengthy food preparation in the full sun.  Doesn't this seems a sort of risky undertaking when you're dealing with seafood in particular?    I mean, maybe it's not quite as bad in southern cities, but take 30 minutes to get a bucket of green prawns peeled under the Brisbane sun, and you might be making My Kitchen Risks Food Poisoning.   Or am I just being misled by editing? 

*  Further along these lines, the show does feature to an almost disturbing degree the amount of food touching that goes on in the kitchen.   Hands on pre cooked food is ok, but when they start doing things like touching the (barely) cooked meat to tell how warm is it after it is plated - well, it seems too much to me.  (Of course I realise that we are probably just all better off not knowing what goes on in restaurant kitchens, but still...)

*  A recurring theme of the show seems to be "cooking show contestants fear overcooking - but have less fear of salmonella."  I'm starting to lose count of the number of times that it's not just me saying "but that meat's barely cooked!", but the judges on the show are noting it too.  The mother and daughter team's home restaurant lamb was a big offender:  sure lamb is often served pink, but lamb rare is an unpleasant thought for many people I am sure.   (Rare beef is more acceptable.)   Last night their lamb was being returned as being too cold on the plate.  "Try cooking it more!" I exclaimed at the TV.

OK, glad I've got that off my chest.

I'll be very upset if the science-y couple lose out this week.   Even though they did undercook chicken.  (Erk).

Update:  I forgot to mention, last night, my daughter (aged 11) did not take the ad for New Idea with the story "Carly and Tresne are married" at all well.   The shock of this is, I suspect, going to be a hot topic amongst many girls in the schoolyard today.   

Update 2:  can someone please buy perpetually unhappy Irish cook "Colin" a good bottle of shampoo and conditioner?   I must admit, though, given that Pete and Manu probably give children considering a cooking career the false impression that all chefs are sophisticated and friendly, Colin rectifies this by showing a bossy, cranky chef who you really don't want to be around all day.

And speaking of hair, that style of haircut that Manu wears is trendy now - but how much work does it take to keep it in place?

The heroin resurgence

There's a very interesting article up at the Christian Science Monitor about the resurgence of heroin use in the US. 

It notes:
The rise is being driven by a large supply of cheap heroin in purer concentrations that can be inhaled or smoked, which often removes the stigma associated with injecting it with a needle. But much of the increase among suburban teens, as well as a growing number of adults, has also coincided with a sharp rise in the use of prescription painkiller pills, which medical experts say are essentially identical to heroin. These painkillers, or opioids, are prescribed for things such as sports injuries, dental procedures, or chronic back pain. Yet in a disturbing number of cases, experts say, they are leading to overdependence and often to addiction to the pills themselves, which can then lead to heroin use.
The report spends a fair bit of time on the 'gateway' pathway which it says is pretty common - alcohol, marijuana, prescription painkillers (often obtained on the street) and heroin.  (Although I guess some might suspect that this paper might be one particularly inclined to note the 'pathway' aspect of marijuana use, I don't know there is any strong reason to doubt it.  Certainly, the current experiment in legalisation in the US will be one to watch for future use of other drugs.)

Anyhow, the story puts a lot of the blame on the rise of OxyContin and its relatively liberal use by American doctors: 
The global production of oxycodone, marketed as OxyContin in the United States, increased from two tons in 1990 to 135 tons in 2009. More than two-thirds of that supply was manufactured in the US, which, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, increases the risk of its subsequent overprescription and diversion into illicit channels.

Experts trace the rise of painkiller misuse in the US to 1996. That's when the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a narcotic and derivative of opium. Andrew Kolodny, chief medical officer of Phoenix House, a national nonprofit treatment agency, describes OxyContin as essentially a "heroin pill." It was made of oxycodone, a narcotic used to treat pain at the end of life. But the new pill would allow the company to reach a much wider audience.
"[Purdue] wanted a product that would be prescribed for common, moderately painful chronic conditions," says Dr. Kolodny, who is also president of Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing, an advocacy group.

At first, the medical community balked. Using opioids for chronic problems seemed too risky given the nature of the pills' highly addictive properties. But Purdue Pharma launched an aggressive marketing campaign arguing that it was a compassionate way to treat patients and, because of its extended-release characteristics, would be less prone to abuse.

But before long, numerous cases of addiction to the painkillers began to surface. In 2007, Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty in federal court to misleading doctors and the public about OxyContin's risks and paid a $600 million penalty.
 And look at the number of deaths prescription painkillers cause:
•Nearly 3 out of 4 drug overdose deaths are now caused by prescription painkillers. In 2008, some 14,800 deaths were attributed to the pills – "more than cocaine and heroin combined."

•More than 475,000 emergency room visits were directly linked to prescription painkiller misuse or abuse in 2009, roughly double the number of five years earlier.
That's extraordinary.   And, I think, it is pretty strong evidence against the libertarian idea that legalising even the strongest drugs would lead to safer usage of them by those who have an addiction.  These deaths and emergency room visits are caused by "safe" (that is, not impure) drugs, and ones for which many of the users have been legitimately prescribed and so have proper information about dosage.   Doesn't help much, does it?

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Zach's life

Zach Braff writes about how he got into acting in this piece in the New York Times about his current role on Broadway.   He remains one of the most likeable of American actors, if you ask me.

Teenage problems

BBC News - What medieval Europe did with its teenagers

Continuing with my recent medieval theme, this is a good read.   In the opening paragraphs:

Around the year 1500, an assistant to the Venetian ambassador to England was struck by the strange attitude to parenting that he had encountered on his travels.

He wrote to his masters in Venice that the English kept their children at home "till the age of seven or nine at the utmost" but then"put them out, both males and females, to hard service in the houses of other people, binding them generally for another seven or nine years". The unfortunate children were sent away regardless of their class, "for everyone, however rich he may be, sends away his children into the houses of others, whilst he, in return, receives those of strangers into his own".

It was for the children's own good, he was told - but he suspected the English preferred having other people's children in the household because they could feed them less and work them harder.

His remarks shine a light on a system of child-rearing that operated across northern Europe in the medieval and early modern period. Many parents of all classes sent their children away from home to work as servants or apprentices - only a small minority went into the church or to university. They were not quite so young as the Venetian author suggests, though. According to Barbara Hanawalt at Ohio State University, the aristocracy did occasionally dispatch their offspring at the age of seven, but most parents waved goodbye to them at about 14.

Model letters and diaries in medieval schoolbooks indicate that leaving home was traumatic. "For all that was to me a pleasure when I was a child, from three years old to 10… while I was under my father and mother's keeping, be turned now to torments and pain," complains one boy in a letter given to pupils to translate into Latin. Illiterate
servants had no means of communicating with their parents, and the  difficulties of travel meant that even if children were only sent 20 miles (32 km) away they could feel completely isolated.
Poor kids.   There's lots more detail in the article, but I'll just extract a couple of more paragraphs:
Many adolescents were contractually obliged to behave. In 1396, a contract between a young apprentice named Thomas and a Northampton brazier called John Hyndlee was witnessed by the mayor. Hyndlee took on the formal role of guardian and promised to give Thomas food, teach him his craft and not punish him too severely for mistakes. For his part, Thomas promised not to leave without permission, steal, gamble, visit prostitutes or marry. If he broke the contract, the term of his apprenticeship would be doubled to 14 years.

A decade of celibacy was too much for many young men, and  apprentices got a reputation for frequenting taverns and indulging in licentious behaviour. Perkyn, the protagonist of Chaucer's Cook's Tale, is an apprentice who is cast out after stealing from his master - he moves in with his friend and a prostitute. In 1517, the Mercers' guild complained that many of their apprentices "have greatly mysordered theymself", spending their masters' money on "harlotes… dyce, cardes and other unthrifty games".

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Republican parody parodied

I see that the Republican Party has started an advertising campaign that attempts to broaden their base.

This is leading to much ridicule.  First, one of the GOP ads:

And then the parody, from the people making John Oliver's upcoming show:

Giant robot led recovery (and Giant Clive)


I like a country that has its own special brand of government priorities.  From the Japan Times:
With its mountains of public debt, a nuclear meltdown to mop up and the 2020 Olympics bill, you’d think the last thing the Japanese government would be spending taxpayer money on is a study on robots in science fiction.

But as the Terminator once said: “Wrong.”

From the halls of Kasumigaseki comes “Japanese Animation Guide: The History of Robot Anime,” a 90-page inquiry commissioned by the Agency for Cultural Affairs and its Manga, Animation, Games, and Media Art Information Bureau.

The bureau’s boffins seem intent on capitalizing on what remains of Japan’s gross national cool as perceived overseas. Cool Japan, a concept now more than a decade old, has been parlayed into national policy, and the agency commissioned the report as an initial framework for discussing the key pillar of anime with people overseas. The robot study could be the first of several examining different anime genres.
The report goes on to note the enduring popularity in Japan of giant robots, Gundam in particular.  Giant Gundam models get the public out, as you can see above.

I wonder if someone is working on making big Japanese robots that move.  Maybe a full size Gundam is out of the question, but even a half or third scale one might be impressive.  And maybe just wheels for the feet, instead of having to worry about the trickery of walking.  But giant robots gliding down the street on their power - yes, that would be something to see.  I think I can probably interest Clive Palmer in this as a new manufacturing enterprise for Australia.   The only thing is, the first giant robot he would make would probably be a version of himself.

And speaking of Clive, I wonder how his robot dinosaur resort is going.  Tripadviser comments make for some fun reading, although there seems to be a somewhat suspicious pushback to me.  Some of the comments which made me smile:
* Our overall experience with the staff was poor - they were either inexperienced, had a poor attitude or had too much to do to provide any real guest services.

For example, the front desk did not know which of the restaurants was licensed. When we rang Palmer Grill to find out what time it opened we were asked "Why?"...
Stay away from any room near the Palmersaurus - the constant pathetic bleating of the dinosaurs cuts through any attempt at tranquility or peace. ...
Mr Palmer has chosen to closely associate himself with the Resort - there are photos, cartoons, articles plastered on walls; the signs make it clear that the Resort, the dinosaurs, the Grill are all "Palmer"; the Clive Palmer political buses and signs sit in the carpark; there are TV channels dedicated solely to him and his business interests.
Another visitor didn't care for the Palmer TV either:
*   The three TV channels devoted to the 'resort' owner and the many photos and in-your-face signs bearing his name around the resort are straight out of a sitcom.
Other recurring themes:  hardly any staff; those remaining stressed out; eateries closed; musty smelling rooms; dinosaurs pathetic.

Hedley Thomas, while obviously reporting to do political harm to Palmer, nonetheless gave us some interesting background in February:
Executive and senior staff at the resort who have walked out in the past eight weeks include the resort's head, Bill Schoch, who made an unsuccessful tilt for the federal seat of Fisher as a PUP candidate; the general manager, John Eaton; and the directors of engineering, rooms, finance, spa, and restaurants, as well as the managers of housekeeping and engineering. 
Sounds doomed to me.  Just like Palmer's political career.   Never in the history of Australian politics has there been a personality based party more obviously destined for fractious disintegration. 

Friday, March 21, 2014

More important than bikies laws

 Doctors' contracts dispute: Queensland Premier Campbell Newman vows to fight union rabble rousing - ABC News (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

Yes, the Campbell Newman anti bikie laws were in some respects over the top, but gee I have trouble building up much personal concern over what was essentially anti criminal gang laws, especially if (as I suspect) they will be wound back after an initial hammering.

Personally, I am more concerned about a government blundering its way through negotiations with a highly skilled group of workers who have taken substantial pay cuts compared to what they could get in the private sector to work for the public health system.

Does anyone have any idea why the government has taken this group on?   How much lower than private sector remuneration does Campbell Newman think they should work for?

The Newman government has been very unimpressive generally.  I bet Campbell himself loses his seat, and I won't be sad.  

Poor Arthur

Every journalist seems to like Arthur Sinodinos at a personal level, and I always thought he seemed a sensible, straight talking and pragmatic type.   I have my doubts that he is comfortable with the climate change denialism arm of the Coalition, although I guess I could be wrong.  He and Malcolm Turnbull would seem to be a good match.

And this respect for him amongst journalists is what I think is making many of them shake their heads about his involvement with a corrupt company.

It seems to me that the Australian Financial Review is running hardest on the matter, and when even The Australian says an Abbott minister has to step down, you know it must be serious.

Tony Wright gives some surprising detail in the AFR as to how he first heard about the Sinodinos problem:
When The Australian Financial Review alerted readers in a “puff’’ in early 2013 it would publish a magazine item – “Arthur Sinodinos: Going public” – I received a call from a senior figure in the heavily factionalised branch of the NSW Liberal party.
He asked whether the magazine item, of which I was the author, made reference to Sinodinos’s term as chairman of Australian Water Holdings, including tax implications of his 5 per cent stake in the company then believed to be worth about $3.75 million.
This individual also repeated scuttlebutt abroad in the NSW branch that Sinodinos’s personal finances were stretched. Political journalists get these sorts of calls periodically, more often than not from within the same party or faction of the individual being targeted.
Politics is not conducted according to Marquess of Queensberry rules.
 Another AFR report today talks more about what came out of yesterday's hearing.  I note that the traditional politicians defence of "not recalling" has been deployed by Arthur already:
Senator Sinodinos, who stood down as Tony Abbott’s assistant treasurer on Wednesday, told the Senate in February 2013 that political donations by AWH “were handled by the ­management of the organisation at their discretion”.
“I do not recollect donations to political parties being discussed at the board level,” he said. ICAC documents show that between April 2009 and May 2011, AWH paid $183,342 to the Liberal Party-related slush fund known as EightByFive, operated by Tim Koelma, a staffer for former NSW state Energy Minister Chris Hartcher.
The payments by AWH were booked as public relations services from Mr Koelma.
As a rule of thumb, when a politician deals with questions about his knowledge of damaging matters at the time they happened by using the "I have no recollection" formula, it is usually a sign that they are on the way out.

I don't think Arthur will be back.

Update:  now Fairfax provides some of the details of Arthur's financial problem at the time he took the ill fated job.   I didn't realise how good a pun the title of this post would turn out to be.

Today's weigh in

My weekly minimum weight is always the morning following the second "fast" day.

This morning, after a couple of weeks of hanging around the low 85.0's:  84.4kg.  Yay.

My first fast day was 28 January. 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Another loopy murderer who references Dexter

I was half watching a TV show about teenage killers last night, when they went into a lot of detail about a fairly recent example from South Australia.  I hadn't heard of this case at all, but the teenager killed his girlfriend, and an unfortunate woman who just happened to be in the wrong place, with an axe.  His comment to the police was widely reported:  "I wouldn't make a very good Dexter."

OK, so he wasn't claiming inspiration from the show.   Still, I'm going to add this case to the list I produced in October 2012 as to the number of murderers who were keen on the show.  (And repeat my very reasonable argument that people should regret that it was made at all.)

An appalling creep, and freedom of speech

Suicide voyeur William Melchert-Dinkel, who posed as a female nurse and went by the name 'Falcon Girl', has case overturned
He was found guilty of aiding the suicide of Mark Dryborough, 32, who died
in Coventry, UK, in 2005, and of Nadia Kajouji, 18, who took her own
life in 2008.

In the original trial, the court was told that Mr Melchert-Dinkel, who is
married with two children, posed online as a compassionate female nurse
to prey on depressed individuals, but then gave them advice on how to

He allegedly told police that he acted for the ‘‘thrill of the chase’’ and
wanted to watch his targets die via a computer webcam.

But in a ruling eagerly awaited across the United States by both sides in
the assisted suicide debate, the state supreme court has ruled that a
state law prohibiting ‘‘advising’’ and ‘‘encouraging’’ suicide broke the
constitution by restricting freedom of speech.

However, it upheld the part of the statute that outlaws ‘‘assisting’’ suicide
and sent Mr Melchert-Dinkel’s case back to a lower court.

County prosecutors must now decide whether to appeal against the ruling in the
US Supreme Court or to bring fresh charges against Mr Melchert-Dinkel
for assisting suicid
It's another example of why I don't care for the American approach to rights.

Talk about your dubious studies destined for tabloid attention

I don't even want to put the headline here, but it's to do with men, sport and locker rooms.  You can guess the rest.

About Tim, revised

Has anyone noticed the website for blowhard hypocrital self-promoting socialite Human Rights Commissioner Tim Wilson lately?  Here's his discription:
Tim Wilson is Australia’s Human Rights Commissioner and a classical liberal public policy analyst. He is one of Australia’s most challenging opinion leaders drawing on strong philosophical principles, backed up with evidence while maintaining a real-world edge. Passionate. Controversial. Fearless. He’s not afraid to be outspoken in offering an optimistic solutions-focused perspective on local and international issues that gets people engaging and talking.
 Timbo, I think there is an important "an" missing from that first line, which should open like this:
Tim Wilson is an Australian Human Rights Commissioner.
Does he write this self congratulatory stuff personally?  Perhaps not.  At the bottom of the website:
 Mr Wilson is represented by Shaun Levin from Profile Talent Management, +61(0)3 8598 7808 or
On his $300,000 plus salary, paid by an organisation he wanted disbanded until a political pal offered him a job there, does he still need really need an agent?   I think I might be emailing him with a requested correction to the profile, together with this proposed replacement photo:

I always wanted a dungeon

One of the sites I found via using Zite is, which has always quite a few interesting articles.

I see they have a post about an English castle that's gone on sale for 3 million pounds, complete with moat and dungeon.  

It looks more window filled than I expect a castle to be.  But then again, I am not entirely sure what makes a castle a castle.  I see from Wikipedia:
Scholars debate the scope of the word castle, but usually consider it to be the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a palace, which is not fortified; from a fortress, which was not always a residence for nobility; and from a fortified settlement, which was a public defence – though there are many similarities among these types of construction. Usage of the term has varied over time and has been applied to structures as diverse as hill forts and country houses.
I guess just having a moat counts as a fortification, then.

I never thought that Castle Howard, as used in the TV version of Brideshead Revisited looked like a castle either, and Wikipedia informs me I was right to be skeptical:
Castle Howard is not a true castle, but this term is often used for English country houses constructed after the castle-building era (c.1500) and not intended for a military function.
Actually, I always thought it looked too grandiose compared to what was mentioned in the book.  Sure the family was supposed to be rich, but that rich?  

Anyway, glad we've sorted that out....

Oceans going down

I see that Oceanography has a special issue out about changes to ocean chemistry, which means in large part it's about ocean acidification.

I think all of the articles are available as .pdfs, so I won't bother linking to individual ones.

But having a look at a couple of them, the take away messages are:

*  the oceans at all parts of the world are showing declining pH dues to increase CO2 in line with predictions

*  coastal oxygen free "dead zones" are increasing and are likely to continue increasing with warming temperatures.  (This has been predicted for some time too.)

I don't do many posts about ocean acidification lately, but looking through the Ocean Acidification blog, there is plenty of research still going on, much of it with worrying results.  It seems to be a frequent theme that both oysters and scallop growing areas in North America are already suffering due to coast water acidification.  Although there is a natural variation to pH in those areas anyway, the slow increase in surface acidification is obviously not helping.

Many studies look at developmental and behavioural changes displayed by various species under decreased pH, but it is obviously very difficult to work out how they will play out in the future oceans.   Some species indicate some adaptive ability, but the big picture is enormously hard to predict.

I still think the pteropods are like the canary in the coal mine on this issue.  A study in 2012, which was looking at pteropods taken in 2008, found that those in aragonite undersaturated waters were showing severe shell erosion already.    A future collapse in this extensive species which feeds many of the sort of fish we like to eat could be dire. 

So, for all of the talk of lower rates of temperature rise and when that will turn around, this is the issue that climate change deniers larger ignore or simply dismiss as another scientific disaster story told to ensure funding. 

They are ignorant and dangerous to the future of humanity.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

More Renaissance

Further to my recent post about the Renaissance, this BBC article about the codpiece fashion of the time is quite amusing.  (You have to watch the video to understand properly what they are talking about.) 

Can Andrew take a hint?

I see Andrew Bolt today notes everything about the Marcia Langton "racist" allegation except the story in The Australia where the one aboriginal activist who he doesn't have a problem with (at least since he started to criticize Labor and defected into the Abbott camp) tries to tell him to stop going on about colour and race:
“I know Andrew Bolt personally,” Mr Mundine said. “I don’t believe he is a racist. Having said that, I find it strange that he continues to talk about colour, and talks about race. I find that bizarre.
“To me he does not have an understanding of the complexity and structures of indigenous kinship and I think he needs a little more education in that area.”
I also note that in defending Mundine last year, Bolt didn't just label one Left wing person as "racist", but the entire political category:
  The Left tends to see racists everywhere. That’s the thing with mirrors.
It makes his drama queen act over Langton all the more ludicrous. 

Low flying dreams

The Flight 370 story, with the parts about it flying low during certain sections, either deliberately or accidentally, reminds me about the recurring "low flying" dreams that I have had in recent years.

Although it seems a while since I had one, I have over the past years had dreams in which I am on a passenger jet, looking out the window and realizing we are flying really low for no apparent reason.   Sort of so low we are going up and down to get over hills.  No one else on the plane seems to have noticed.  I find it scary.

I have not been able to identify why this should be a recurring theme in my dreams.  I was interested to see in New Zealand a few years ago a smallish passenger jet flying through a valley on the approach to Queenstown airport.  I thought I wouldn't like the look of that if I were in the plane.  But was that enough to bring on a recurring dream?  I also think I might have had my first "low flying dream" before then.  They have turned up now and again for quite a long time.

That is all.

Against the Bolt and the Abbott

Hypocrisy adds insult to injuries

It's taken a while for someone to make this observation about the Kenny defamation case, but here it is in Richard Acklands enjoyable article ripping into Andrew Bolt and his demands for apologies:
Maybe Aunty's lawyers wanted to avoid another round of bullying from the government and News Corp.

Already it has the prime minister's dinner guest and Murdoch
pen-man Chris Kenny on its schedule of defamation cases, with Tony
Abbott saying the ABC should not be ''defending the indefensible''.

''Next time the ABC comes to the government looking for more
money, this is the kind of thing we would want to ask them questions
about,'' he said.

If ever there was a blatant contempt of court, this is it -
threatening a litigant with a monetary penalty if it defends itself in
civil litigation. George Brandis must have forgotten the Wran case in
which the former premier was found guilty of contempt for encouraging
the second jury in the Lionel Murphy case to find the High Court judge
not guilty.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Things we're learning from Flight 370

The mystery of this missing flight has certainly led to a lot of interesting explanations about aviation and other topics: even, of all things, anthropology.

1. Take a look at this article from Slate: How the Malaysian Airlines Plane Could Have Landed in the Stone Age. Who knew there was an island in the Indian Ocean with an African looking naked tribe which apparently aggressively fights off anyone who wants to visit them?:
From 1967 through the mid-1990s, Indian anthropologists embarked on periodic "contact expeditions" to North Sentinel Island. Approaching by boat, they attempted to coax out members of the tribe by depositing coconuts, machetes, candy, and, once, a tethered pig onto the beach. The Sentinelese almost always responded to these "gifts" by shooting arrows, throwing stones, and shouting at the unwelcome visitors. India discontinued its attempts at peaceful contact in 1997 and ruled that the islanders be left alone, but visits still occur — in 2006, a fishing boat drifted too close to the shore, and Sentinelese archers killed the two men on board. An Indian helicopter sent to retrieve their bodies was also fired upon and could not land.
That is a very strange story.  It's like discovering that King Kong Island still exists in the 21st century.

2. Slate also explains the limitations of being able to use mobile phones in an emergency in an aircraft. I had wondered about how they had been used in 9/11. Now I know.

3.   The BBC gives a pretty easily followed explanation of how aircraft are tracked.  

Tougher than expected

Frozen moss buried in Antarctica for more than 1,500 years starting to grow again in laboratory - Science - News - The Independent

Nietzsche considered

New Statesman | The ghost at the atheist feast: was Nietzsche right about religion?

Jason, have you already read this review?  It's interesting.

I can never quite work out why Nietzsche is popular.  I see that John Gray in this review says Nietzsche was not, ultimately, taking a tragic view of life.  I don't know enough about him to work out if this makes sense or not, but here's the key argument:
...neither the Christian religion nor Nietzsche’s philosophy can be said to express a tragic sense of life. If Yeshua (the Jewish prophet later known as Jesus) had died on the cross and stayed dead, that would have been a tragedy. In the Christian story, however, he was resurrected and came back into the world. Possibly this is why Dante’s great poem wasn’t called The Divine Tragedy. In the sense in which it was understood by the ancients, tragedy implies necessity and unalterable finality. According to Christianity, on the other hand, there is nothing that cannot be redeemed by divine grace and even death can be annulled.

Nor was Nietzsche, at bottom, a tragic thinker. His early work contained a profound interrogation of liberal rationalism, a modern view of things that contains no tragedies, only unfortunate mistakes and inspirational learning experiences. Against this banal creed, Nietzsche wanted to revive the tragic world-view of the ancient Greeks. But that world-view makes sense only if much that is important in life is fated. As understood in Greek religion and drama, tragedy requires a conflict of values that cannot be revoked by any act of will; in the mythology that Nietzsche concocted in his later writings, however, the godlike Superman, creating and destroying values as he pleases, can dissolve and nullify any tragic conflict.

As Eagleton puts it, “The autonomous, self-determining Superman is yet another piece of counterfeit theology.” Aiming to save the sense of tragedy, Nietzsche ended up producing another anti-tragic faith: a hyperbolic version of humanism.

Oh yes, wouldn't the Right love this

Here's an interesting short article on why Finland seems to have such a successful education system.

It paints a picture of educational philosophy that is, for the most part,  the complete opposite of what our current Right wing commentariate thinks about education:  an intense commitment to equality to access to education up to and including tertiary education; teachers who are very highly paid and very highly educated (masters degrees!) in how to teach, a national curriculum, small class sizes, and my favourite part for making the Judith Sloans of the world shake their heads in disgust:
School should be where we teach the meaning of life; where kids learn they are needed; where they can learn community skills. We like to think that school is also important for developing a good self-image, a strong sensitivity to other people’s feelings … and understanding it matters to take care of others. We definitely want to incorporate all those things in education.
Gee, I wonder what they teach about global warming and environmentalism?   All of the readers of Catallaxy would rather home school than put them through the Finnish system, I expect. (Several of them like the idea of home schooling in Australia because our education systems dares teach accurately on environmental topics, and tolerance of gays.)  I wonder if home schooling is illegal in Finland?

About the only thing the stoopid Right would like is a high emphasis on vocational training. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

Renaissance nudity

I happened to catch some of  Radio National's The Body Sphere today, and the section in which an Italian Renaissance art historian [Jill Burke] discussed attitudes to nudity at that time was particularly interesting, and amusing.   Here are some things of which I was not fully aware:
There's a kind of golden age of acceptance of the nude in art in Florence in the 1480s when Botticelli's painting his Venuses and these get very popular. Then there's a big swing, a big kind of religious turn in the 1490s, when some of these nude drawings, nude paintings are burned. The Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497, 1498 in the Piazza della Signoria just where the David was later to be displayed. And the David itself when it was first put up in Florence, he had a little kind of garland of leaves to cover his private parts. So even though you might think that it was all very acceptable, it was always a little bit problematic because of the potential of art to arouse erotic feelings in the viewer.
Burke then comments that as for public nudity, some males doing certain types of work might be seen nearly naked; but as for women, it was all very taboo, unless they needed to be punished:
They'd also have these kind of shaming rituals in some Italian cities where women who'd been caught for adultery would have to run round the city with no clothes on being pelted by vegetables, that kind of thing. But actually for what you might call respectable women, it would be shocking to see women naked.
Even bedroom activities were the subject of anti-nudity instruction:
They were told to have sex with their clothes on. There's a lot of religious texts and sermons that talk about women never allowing their husbands to see them naked. So, there's a Franciscan preacher called Bernardino Siena who in the early 15th century said to women in a sermon, 'It's better to die than let yourself be seen naked.' And that was by husbands, not in public. And there are other handbooks for married life. There's one by a man called Cherubino da Siena, again early 15th century, that tells both men and women that they shouldn't see each other naked, that's it's okay to touch areas but it's not okay to see them. So it's that kind of thing; on an official level no, they weren't meant to have sex naked, but what they actually did…I suspect that they really did have sex naked.
And as for the use to which what we might now consider "high brow" nude art was put; well, the erotic potential was not lost on its owners:
Jill Burke: From what we know, the evidence that we have from inventories is that these paintings would have been kept in the bed chamber. Often they were covered in some way, either with curtains…or there's another kind of nude that's very early, actually, that was on the underside of the lids of wedding chests…

Amanda Smith: The cassone…

Jill Burke: Cassoni, yes, that you'd keep clothes and things in. And you'd lift the lid and there's a reclining nude. Often they'd come in pairs and there'd be a naked man on one side and a naked woman on the other side. Again, whether this kind of almost taboo nature…you can imagine opening a chest or pulling aside a curtain might raise the erotic charge of these paintings.

Amanda Smith: But having that sort of naked image on the inside lid of a cassoni, for example, I mean was that to get the bride fired up as she, you know, pulled out her nightie?

Jill Burke: I think it probably was, yes, to get the couple kind of 'in the mood'. There's also a belief in the Renaissance that if you look at pictures of beautiful men that you're more likely to conceive a beautiful boy baby. So there's almost this kind of magic thing attached to it.
Burke's segment was too short.  But there is more at the transcript on the website.

A couple of Krugmans

Paul Krugman has two posts of interest up:

*  one about worries about private debt in China.

* the other is about increases in life expectancy in the US being not all that it seems.  I assume he won't object to my reproducing it in full:
I was pleased to see this article by Annie Lowrey documenting the growing disparity in life expectancy between the haves and the have-nots. It’s kind of frustrating, however, that this is apparently coming as news not just to many readers but to many policymakers and pundits. Many of us have been trying for years to get this point across — to point out that when people call for raising the Social Security and Medicare ages, they’re basically saying that janitors must keep working because corporate lawyers are living longer. Yet it never seems to sink in.

Maybe this article will change that. But my guess is that in a week or two we will once again hear a supposed wise man saying that we need to raise the retirement age to 67 because of higher life expectancy, unaware that (a) life expectancy hasn’t risen much for half of workers (b) we’ve already raised the retirement age to 67.
I wonder whether the Australian increase in life expectancy is more evenly spread across income levels.   Given our system of health care, you would certainly expect so.   (But of course there is a big disparity between aboriginal and non aboriginal life expectancies, even though I don't think that is something that is relevant to the Krugman argument.) 

Two odd thoughts on Flight 370

1.   Someone somewhere on the internet has probably already said it, but the situation as it has developed keeps striking me as something very like the opening of a James Bond film.   Sure, it's usually military or similar items being snatched or destroyed by an evil genius who does not make his plans public, but close enough. [Update:  Ah yes, I see today that James Fallows in The Atlantic perhaps made the James Bond connection a couple of days ago.]

2.   The discussion about the relative paucity of radar cover across the globe indicates that there may be more room for UFOs of the nuts and bolts variety to be cruising around the Earth than I would have thought.  Radar sightings of UFOs are pretty sparse; visual/radar sightings even more so.  There is the occasional muttering around that NORAD has had radar tracks of pretty inexplicable things (very fast objects doing very fast turns, for example) but I don't know at what height and perimeter it can be expected to see things.  It certainly appears that there is plenty of space over plenty of parts of the globe that something could sneak in if it did not want to be detected.

Needs better drawings

Death Is Wrong, the transhumanist kids’ book by Gennady Stolyarov.

Slate has a look at a book for kids promoting transhumanism. 

If the cover is anything to go by, the author could not afford a good illustrator. 

Sunday, March 16, 2014

To Canberra and Back, Part 7

We're on the last legs now.  From Jenolan Caves we headed up north to Taree, via Katoomba:

I don't know when I was last in Katoomba - perhaps I had been there briefly once as an adult, but I think I may have just driven through on the way to my adult visit to Jenolan Caves.  I wanted to show the family the famous view, but even at midday, this was all that you could see:

I was reduced to going into the souvenir shops and pointing to postcards and saying to slightly skeptical family that it really looked spectacular if it weren't for the cloud:

(Apologies to Australian readers who didn't really need the illustration.)

I felt sorry for the busloads of Chinese tourists who being delivered to stare into the fog for a few minutes, before being shuffled into what looked like a lacklustre cultural show featuring suburban people of aboriginal descent.  (I'll slip into slight condescension mode and mention again that an interest in Australian aboriginal culture, no matter how it is presented, is something which still eludes me, and I really have my doubts it interests the average Chinese tourist either.)

Anyway, on we drove, descending out of the Blue Mountains and skirting Sydney as we hit the road north.  Lunch was at a McDonalds. 

I've always liked the motorway north out of Sydney to Newcastle; the way it carves through some hills and the high bridges over which (unfortunately) the driver only gets a brief scenic glance.

And in fact the road right through to Taree was pretty good most of the way.  

Taree was chosen to overnight just because of its distance.  It seemed a pretty nondescript town; I prefer some of the more northern big river towns of New South Wales.  More about them later.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

A serious problem

Given that the last month in Australian media has been full of appalling stories of pedophilia (apart from the Morecombe case itself, there are the terrible allegations from several women about - alleged - comic actor Robert Hughes, and the extraordinary case of the Cairns based gay couple who acquired a baby with the explicit purpose in mind,)  I thought I would look around for recent commentary on the whole issue of pedophilia and recidivism.

This one from Harvard Medical School in 2010 is pretty good.  The problem is, as the title says, there is pretty widespread pessimism about how it can be treated with any sufficient degree of certainty that you can prevent recidivism.   This is a real nightmare for those in the justice system, and the community more generally. 

Look at Cowan himself.  After serving 4 years for a second rape of a boy, and being sent by his parole office in Darwin to Queensland so that could do a sexual offenders program, he apparently got into an evangelical Church and met his wife there, with whom he had two children (one before he killed Daniel, one after.)  He certainly looks clean cut and reformed in this street interview in Brisbane in which he proclaimed he was a new man.  For any psychologist dealing with him, this must have sounded like the best possible type of support group to help ensure he did not re-offend.  Yet the urge to sexually assault boy strangers was strong enough that he acted on it.

The thing is, what confidence should the public have in sexual offender programs delivered through the justice system?   The Harvard article above notes this about recidivism:
Estimates of recidivism vary because studies define this term in different ways. One review found recidivism rates of 10% to 50% among pedophiles previously convicted of sexual abuse, although this could include anything from an arrest for any offense to reconviction on a crime against a child. One long-term study of previously convicted pedophiles (with an average follow-up of 25 years) found that one-fourth of heterosexual pedophiles and one-half of homosexual or bisexual pedophiles went on to commit another sexual offense against children.
This would indicate the recidivism rate for someone like Cowan is extraordinarily high, and his case is far from atypical.

Are judges kept fully aware of the research on the topic?

And what about the style of treatment and its efficacy that is attempted in the sexual offender programs in Australia?   I see there is a 2010 Queensland study on the sexual offender program, but it is only for about 409 released from 2005 to 2008 - a pretty small sample size over a very short period.  (The report acknowledges these shortcomings;  it also notes that for offences against children, there is often a substantial delay before the offence is reported.)

The report finds that the program seems to have a positive effect (in that those who did the program have a somewhat lower recidivism rate for sexual offences), but obviously the study is looking at a very short period.    The parts that discuss sexual offence recidivism rates generally are of interest. On the "down" side:
Despite a great deal of research effort devoted to the question, knowledge concerning the dynamic risk factors associated with sexual offender recidivism (otherwise referred to as criminogenic needs) remains limited. Some of the psychological characteristics commonly targeted for improvement in sexual offender programs (e.g. sexual preoccupations; impulsivity; intimacy problems) tend to be only weakly (even if significantly in a statistical sense) associated with sexual offender recidivism. Other common treatment targets (e.g. denial; victim empathy) have recently been shown, on average, to be unrelated to sexual offender recidivism (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005).
 On the (slightly) more positive side:
A meta-analytic review of sexual offender recidivism studies, involving more than 80 separate studies and almost 30,000 sexual offenders, found an average sexual recidivism rate of 13.7% over an average time at risk of five to six years (Hanson & Morton-Bourgon, 2005). In that meta-analysis, rates for nonsexual violent recidivism were 14.3%, and for ‘any’ recidivism 36.2%. For the present evaluation, the average time at risk of two years and five months was a little less than half the average observation period for the studies included in Hanson and Morton-Bourgon’s meta-analysis. Notwithstanding jurisdictional variations in crime reporting.  and recording, it would be reasonable to expect that over the next two or three years observed recidivism base-rates for the Queensland offenders would be more similar to international averages.
But what about for longer periods?   This passage seems to me to be written with unwarranted optimism, given the number quoted:
Notwithstanding the limitations of official recidivism data, it seems clear that a significant proportion (perhaps the majority) of convicted sexual offenders do not go on to commit further sexual offences, even without treatment. Studies that have followed sexual offenders for 20 years or more still tend to find sexual recidivism rates well below 50% (Hanson, 2000; Janus & Meehl, 1997). This raises further questions about the universal need for specialised sexual offender treatment.    
What's missing, of course, is more specific figures for the rate of pedophiliac recidivism.

From reading the Harvard commentary, and this Queensland report with its hesitation about how effective these programs really are, it would seem reasonable to conclude  that the rate of recidivism for pedophiles is significantly higher than for sexual offenders against adults, and is very likely to stay that way even if they undergo a sexual offender course.

More pessimism can be taken from the psychologist who actually treated Cowan.   While he considers sexual offender programs do help (and while ever they have some effectiveness, I wouldn't argue against them - except to the extent that they may give unwarranted confidence to judges when sentencing,) he freely admits you can never really know if someone will re-offend:
He says evidence suggests such programs are effective when they are "well designed and well implemented".

"But there are never any guarantees for individuals, and when you're dealing with high-risk offenders in the first place there's bound to be some recidivism among that group," he said.

"The difficulty is predicting who among that group is and isn't likely to go on to commit further offences."

He says sex offenders often display no observable behavioural features apart from the offences they commit.

"In fact for many sex offenders, the most unusual thing about them is that they have committed sex offences," he said.

"We know that in retrospect, but it's obviously very difficult to know in prospect."

It seems to me that if the long term recidivism rate for guys like Cowan is around 50%, and if sexual offender programs have only ever been shown to have modest effects (say, reducing re-offense by pedophiles to 40%?) this is a really significant matter which must be taken into account in terms of how both sentencing and the terms on which they should ever be released back into the community.

(If any psychologist thinks my guesstimate figures in that paragraph are  wrong - let them come out and be specific about what figures they know about.)

So how is the justice system supposed to deal with these offenders?    The judge in the Cowan case has been criticised for making the observation that an unintended consequence of tougher sentencing for sex offenders is that it can give them a greater incentive to kill their victim.   This makes some intuitive sense, but really, it has got to be balanced with the actual evidence about the rate of recidivism.   What I find particularly hard to credit is that second offence sentences for sexual assaults on children should take this effect into account. 

The Courier Mail is running hard on the previous judges being too lenient in sentencing.   I generally am wary of such media campaigns for various reasons, but it is interesting to note that there was an appeal by the Prosecution which failed against the 7 year (with non parole of 3 1/2 years) sentence for Cowan's second offence in Darwin.  The point is that, reading around on the topic, there do appear to be grounds to be concerned that judges may have an inadequate appreciation of the recidivism rates for this particular type of offender.  If the media can play a role in highlighting this, I don't have a problem with that.

But even then, longer sentences for early offences is not the only issue.   The community hates the idea of released repeat offenders of any age being anywhere near them, and who can blame them, really?  Chemical or physical castration if issued as a punishment by the State feels either too medieval, or "Clockwork Orange," to most liberals, I assume, but it is interesting to see it is still a live issue as a voluntary measure in the United States, and chemical castration is a recently introduced punishment in Korea.  

(One argument noted against physical castration is that men can seek to counteract its affects by testosterone patches - which are presumably not so hard to get your hands on these days.)

The article about the Korean situation notes the 50% recidivism rate for pedophiles:
Surgical castration reportedly produces definitive results, even in repeat pedophilic offenders, by reducing recidivism rates to 2% to 5% compared with expected rates of 50%. Chemical castration using LHRH agonists reduces circulating testosterone to very low levels, and also results in very low levels of recidivism despite the strong psychological factors that contribute to sexual offending (10). Chemical castration has some advantages over surgical castration. First, although chemical castration is potentially life-long for some offenders, it might allow sexual offenders to have normal sexual activity in context with psychotherapy. Second, some sexual offenders may voluntarily receive chemical castration. Third, chemical castration may be a more realistic restriction than electronic ankle bracelets or surgical castration. Fourth, unlike surgical castration, the effects of anti-libido medication are reversible after discontinuation. Finally, the general public may feel relieved knowing that sexual offenders are undergoing chemical castration.
 I'm not at all sure that the public thinks the reversibility of chemical castration is an advantage, but at least chemical castration (I assume) avoids the issue of physical castration being countered by testosterone.

I do not have a conclusive view on this, but I would not reject a serious discussion about the voluntary use of chemical castration as a precondition for release of offenders such as Cowan, regardless of their age.

Update:   I see that a New South Wales Parliamentary committee is said to be already considering chemical castration as a sentencing option.   This report notes that civil libertarians were unhappy with the suggestion, but interestingly, the opinion of one important group of professionals sounds quite sanguine and practical about it:
But the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists president-elect, Louise Newman, believes chemical castration, which works as long as the patient stays on the medication, should be considered for the more "hard core" sexual offenders.

"It's certainly not a cure or a way of reducing all risk, but it might be seen as a useful component of treatment or management for some of these very difficult cases, where we're unlikely to see response to other methods," Professor Newman told ABC News Online.

"They're not commonly used at all and they are not needed other than in the fairly difficult group of very severe offenders."

The drugs impact on liver function, so those undergoing the treatment usually have their health checked regularly.

Professor Newman says that although some sex offenders have a good chance of recovery, there will always be a small group of people who will continue to pose a risk to the community.

"There's always some risk of reoffending and obviously someone can offend in various ways," she said.

"Clearly there is a group of people for whom risk is significant and they might have ongoing and really severe difficulties in managing their impulses.

"Containment and monitoring of those sorts of people might actually be necessary to ensure community safety."
 I could not think of a more ideal candidate for having his release on parole subject to a lengthy mandated period of chemical castration than Cowan on his second sentence.  Of course, this would presumably have stopped a relatively young man from marrying and having kids as he did, but look at what it could have stopped.

I also see from Wikipedia that, surprisingly, in the United States, California was the first state to introduce it as a punishment for child molestation.  It is a mandatory if going on parole after a second offence.  The article notes about 7 other states have "experimented" with it; I am a little surprised that it has not been used more widely in some of the more conservative states. 

The Wikipedia story also lists quite a few European nations that have implemented it since about 2010.  There would seem to be a bit of an international movement towards accepting it as useful particularly for repeat offenders against children.

It seems to me that it is time for it to be discussed in more detail in this country, too.