Saturday, February 13, 2016

Friday, February 12, 2016

A pretty good explanation

Gravitational waves: A triumph for big science - BBC News

I thought this explanation of how the gravity wave detection was achieved is clear and understandable.

I'm not all that excited about it, though:  I mean, if every single other test of general relativity had been proved, there wasn't any reason to suspect gravity waves wouldn't be detected, eventually, was there?

Yes it's a brilliant technical achievement, but of itself, I can't see it leading anywhere new in particular.

A studio's deceptive advertising?

Unlike some people, I tend to read some reviews of movies before I see them.  Hence I know that I won't be going to see Marvel's Deadpool, because it's said to be hyper-violent, sweary and have relatively strong sex scenes, even if it is of genre (funny superhero) that I sometimes like.  It has an R rating in the US and  MA15+ here, which means under 15 year olds must be accompanied by an adult.

But - the TV advertisements that have been running in Australia give absolutely no idea that it is a very adult audience film.   It is in fact so blatantly bland - giving the impression that it's just a somewhat comedic superhero who suits up like Spiderman - that I reckon it's virtually deceptive advertising.  The fact that it is from Marvel compounds the problem.  (The film is not from Disney, but how many people think it might be?)

I would say it is a near certainty that there are going to be some parents (Dads, probably) who are going to take their 10 to 14 year old sons to see this, having no idea that the content is not age appropriate.  Same thing with DVD hire (or streaming viewing) in future.

Hasn't anyone else noticed this?

Update:  I suppose the same claim could have been made to similar films like Kick-Ass, except I don't really remember any television advertisements in prime time for that film at all, and I guess the very title indicated a teen to adult audience.

Also - The Guardian writes at length about how the Deadpool character is meant to be "pansexual", yet spends the movie only having sex with his girlfriend.   I guess kids get more than their fair share of pansexuality if they watch Doctor Who, but it still might be a confusing factor for a 10 or 12 year old viewer.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Touch the mango

China's curious cult of the mango - BBC News

Gee, the BBC website has a knack for bringing us obscure and odd bits of history from 20th century communism.   Last week, it was the secret Soviet analysis of Mao's poop;  this week it is the very strange period in which mangoes (re) gifted by Mao gained a semi-sacred status.

New CO2 removal ideas

Emissions reduction: Scrutinize CO2 removal methods : Nature News & Comment

Not a bad article here, looking at some old (and new) ideas for removing CO2.  I had missed this odd one, for example:

More recently, other, potentially more controllable, ocean-based CO2-removal techniques have been suggested, such as the cultivation of seaweed to cover up to 9% of the global ocean12
I suppose as long as it was edible varieties, it could help feed the planet too.

But all of these ideas have to work on such a massive scale, they all appear implausible, for now.

Doubts arise

I hadn't read anything about the CSIRO Chief Executive Larry Marshal until his decision to cut hard into his organisation's climate change arm.

But this morning, he well and truly put himself in the "intellectually suspect" list when he complained that the reaction against his decision "almost sounds more like religion than science to me."   What a foolish thing to do: use a favourite climate change denial line when he says he is upset that people are claiming he's a closet climate change skeptic!

Actually, I did notice a headline from last year about him at The Australian's website recently, but I didn't follow up on it.  The story is, however,  that he has some serious sounding troubles lingering from his time in venture capital and high tech start ups.  Have a read here and here.

And even the Australian Skeptics have their doubts about him, over statements he has made that he thinks there just might be something to water divining!   (I'm sympathetic to, and interested in, many paranormal and weird science claims, but water divining is one of the easiest things to test, and am pretty sure that no one has ever shown convincing evidence it worked.)

The Abbott legacy

State governments are about to hike up taxes

A good, clear column from Peter Martin about how the Commonwealth is leaving it up to the States to raise taxes for essential health and education funding.  Although I blame Abbott, mostly, I have to admit that the Labor "no GST increase" position at the Federal level is compounding the problem.

Self explanatory..

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Worrying signs

Maybe this was understood by others before now, but until this morning I didn't understand why some seemed concerned about on going low oil prices for the global economy.

Someone on Radio National, who sounded as if he knew what he was talking about, said that it may be a short term good, but the problem is that banks have lent a huge amount of money to companies with  projects (mining, gas) which are not viable if oil prices stay so low.  Big defaults are possible, seemed to be the message.

I see now that Paul Krugman is sounding nervous about the bond market, too.  Not that I understand the bond market, but Krugman is generally sensible, and if he's thinks its a bad sign, I'll take his word for it.

Not that there is anything that I can do about it.

Libertarian identity crisis

Poor old Lionel Shriver, the American (female) author who is usually pretty well reviewed, has written an op-ed piece in the New York Times entitled "I Am Not a Kook" about her annoyance that people consider her self proclaimed status as a libertarian as a sign of kookiness:
When I announced to my mother in the 1980s that I considered myself libertarian, she recoiled. How did people like me come to seem like kooks?
She seems a smart woman, but perhaps she needs a few pointers, such as these:

*  Ayn Rand is associated with American libertarianism, and she was an eccentric trashy writer who fetishised powerful men getting their own way, economically and sexually, and suggested that people who didn't get on board (a train pun for you there) with her views probably deserved to die because of their own laziness and stupidity.  

*  A libertarian philosophy of minimal government leads to policies that Shriver admits she doesn't like.   She thinks gun control is a good idea;  she had a positive experience with the UK "single payer" health system;  she acknowledges that markets alone are not likely to deal adequately with climate change, which she believes in.   Shriver tries to defend her positions by arguing that no one is politically pure, and all of us can be a tad inconsistent with what policy positions we favour despite our claimed political philosophy.

But seriously, Ms Shriver - look at what the political and economic leaders who adopt libertarianism as their mantle actually believe in, both here and in Australia. 

They believe in the loosest gun control laws possible, and (as with David Leyonhjelm) celebrate instances of citizens shooting (and killing) robbers as if the wild West is something to be emulated.   There answer to every mass gun shooting is that there should be more guns.  

They not only really, seriously, believe in doing nothing about climate change;  they (see Koch brothers, of course) actively fund climate change denial to make political action on it as difficult as possible.   They are treating the single greatest environmental issue the planet has ever seen, with the possible consequence (amongst other things) of flooding scores of the worlds great cities within a century or two, because of short-sighted selfishness and an imagined socialist conspiracy against capitalism.

In the American case, they ridicule "socialised medicine" against all the evidence that the American system is incredibly expensive with (in many cases) worse outcomes overall.   But this counts little for rich libertarians with the money to get the best treatment.

It's pretty obvious, isn't it:  libertarianism downplays "the common good" in theory and, for most self proclaimed libertarians who have achieved leadership positions in the US and Australia, in practice. 

The real problem here is that I reckon Shriver should not even claim the title of libertarian, given her preferred policies are sufficient in number, and so wildly different from what other libertarians think on the same issues, that she step away from the official title due to it indeed justifying policies that are just too kooky.  

And, of course, I would say the same to Jason Soon, who I assume could write a very similar column to Shriver's.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Another bit of American Right nonsense

Everyone knows that the Republicans make stupid statements about "socialised health care", and Ted Cruz repeated the old memes only last week, to much criticism.

And here is a chart I found from 2014, which is interesting:

Why are the Republicans (and those in Australia who admire them) so full of nonsense?

Liberal Democrat eccentrics

I see that the Senator Blofeld Party recently had its national conference, with speakers including former Laborite (now conservative friendly) fellow baldy Michael Costa saying this, apparently:

'People want EVERYONE ELSE to use public transport so they can use their CAR"

I don't know when exactly it happened, but along with their climate change denialism, much of the Right wing has gone a bit nuttily against public transport, against the evidence (such as good usage figures for the Gold Coast light rail, and  Sydney's light rail having high demand.)   One would also have thought that travel to cities with great public transport systems would help convince them too.  But no.  Apparently, Houston is gold standard for cities, because land is cheap and you can spend your day commuting on a really, really wide freeway. Beautiful.

Their other speaker of note was Jennifer Marohasy - IPA aligned "independent scientist" who thinks the weather bureau is conspiring to fake our climate record, and that no understands the Murray-Darling like she does.

Way to go with the eccentrics and cranks, Leyonhjelm.  I guess you fit right in, though...

Perhaps a bigger development than what's happened in the West

In China, gays say life has changed much for the better -

If there is significant cultural change in China on the matter of acceptance of homosexual relationships, about the only major country really holding out against it aggressively would be (by my reckoning) Russia.   (Well, if you don't count the Muslim dominated countries, I suppose.  Not sure how they are ever going to cope with the idea.  Oh, and then there is a large conservative contingent in India, too.   In both cases, though, it seems that single men having opportunistic sex with males is increased by the strong conservative attitude keeping  heterosexual sex strictly within marriage.  All sort of ironic, in its way...) 

Late flood attribution

Remember in 2013 I posted about the floods in northern India?    OK, well I did.  Go have a look.

Anyway, receiving no attention whatsoever is a new paper looking at climate change attribution in relation to that flood.

Here's the abstract:
During 13–17 June 2013, heavy rainfall occurred in the northern Indian state of Uttarakhand and led to one of the worst floods in history and massive landslides, resulting in more than 5000 casualties and a huge loss of property. In this study, meteorological and climatic conditions leading up to this rainfall event in 2013 and similar cases were analyzed for the period of 1979–2012. Attribution analysis was performed to identify the natural and anthropogenic influences on the climate anomalies using the historical single-forcing experiments in the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5. In addition, regional modeling experiments were carried out to quantify the role of the long-term climate trends in affecting the rainfall magnitude of the June 2013 event. It was found that (a) northern India has experienced increasingly large rainfall in June since the late 1980s, (b) the increase in rainfall appears to be associated with a tendency in the upper troposphere towards amplified short waves, and (c) the phasing of such amplified short waves is tied to increased loading of green-house gases and aerosols. In addition, a regional modeling diagnosis attributed 60–90 % of rainfall amounts in the June 2013 event to post-1980 climate trends.
It's an unfortunate thing that such attribution studies take some time to complete, and come out long after the event has faded from the public's memory.

But basically:  yes, it seems there is already good reason for seeing climate change as causing (or significantly worsening?) some disastrous and deadly floods.

In praise of this season's stone fruit

Has anyone else noticed how cheap and delicious this summer's stone fruit seem to be?  My wife bought an enormous cheap tray of yellow nectarines last week (the shop said they were cheap because they really were for cooking because they were a bit dry).  But in fact, after being left out at room temperature for a couple of days, they turned delicious.  Not dry at all.   Sweet, not too soft, not too firm.   Fantastic.  (And cheap!)

Monday, February 08, 2016

Some odd Ergas lines

Henry Ergas gets decidedly carried away in his column in The Australian contemplating a GST increase today.  First, there's this:
Little wonder then that increasing the GST is as about as appealing to the electorate as a dose of cyanide-laced Kool-Aid.
As I noted yesterday, I would have thought that a Newspoll showing a 37% approval of a GST increase to 15%, before the government has even attempted to sell it as a policy, is actually pretty damned good.   Dear Henry seems not to think so.

The writing gets even more flowery, and rather oddball, further down:
But imposing such a change would require “a strong hand and an outstretched arm” worthy of the divine intervention that ­allowed the biblical escape from Egypt; and even a moment’s reflec­tion on the politics forces us to come tumbling down from the thunderbolts of Sinai to the ­insensate debauchery of the Cities of the Plain.

Nor is there much doubt what form that debauchery would take: as the battle over the proposed tax change heated up, giveaways to low income earners would proliferate at higher income earners’ expense. As a result, far from being compressed, effective rates would, in the immortal phrase of British comedians Max and Ivan, end up as stretched as a dwarf in an orgy, aggravating the damage our tax system causes.
I had not even heard of said comedians, or their dwarf joke, until now.  Obviously, I am not as hip a dude as Henry, but the net effect of the line is not exactly amusing, or enlightening.  Just - peculiar.

You're not exactly full of solutions, though, Nick

To help real refugees, be firm with economic migrants | Nick Cohen | Opinion | The Guardian

I get the feeling that this column is (as often in immigration matters) fine in theory, yet useless about how the theory is to be applied in practice.   Especially as far as Europe is concerned.

If countries with land bridges to economic basket cases had a simple way to stop unwanted entry, or returning those who have arrived, they would have worked it out long ago.  Take the United States and Mexico, for example.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

More about taxes

On Insiders this morning, PM Turnbull seemed to be following the line taken by John Quiggin that a GST increase, once you take into account the compensation to low income earners that would be needed for political palatability, probably doesn't raise money enough to make it worthwhile.  Chris Uhlmann reckons that an increased GST is already "dead, buried and yet to be cremated."

I suppose it does all depend on the amount of compensation.  But a few things:

a. that's why you go for the modest increase of 2.5%, not 5%.  You can get away more readily with inadequate compensation that way;

b. everyone's forgotten, but should be reminded, that pensioner compensation for the carbon tax was actually designed as over-compensation.  Tony Abbott (illogically, given the budget repair emergency he was also arguing) sold it as a "positive" that he was removing the carbon tax, but keeping the compensation.   In light of this history, a responsible government could argue for more modest compensation for pensioners for a GST increase;

c. if you keep the GST off fresh food, a government can also argue that, more than ever, there's an incentive for welfare recipients to move off processed food to more fresh food in their diet.  Hey - add a sugar tax on soft drinks, and you have an even better set of nudges towards welfare dependent families changing their diet! 

But, yes, it does appear that no politician is following my opinion, after all, despite the polling indicating that a GST increase to 15% has a 37% approval rating, and (obviously) that's before our charming PM has even tried to sell it.

Those figures indicate that a well argued case would easily see the Coalition being returned at the next election as the "responsible" side in repairing a the budget, with Labor as stuck in the past.

But no, let's avoid a relatively simple and obvious way to raise more revenue for another 3 years or so.

Friday, February 05, 2016

Taxes, etc

Paul Keating's endorsement of spending cuts may have given small government lovers a thrill, but how seriously one should take someone who was for a consumption tax before he was against it, and who had a budget cutting job in very different social and economic circumstances from the present, I don't know.  (See Peter Brent making the same point, in better detail.)

And even he thinks a modest GST increase tied to health funding is arguable.

I find all this debate back and forth a bit tedious, because I decided what is politically safe enough and reasonable back in September, and I'm just waiting for the politicians to catch on:
1.  a modest increase in the GST rate to 12.5%.   This is low enough to not really be noticed, but I'm pretty sure it still raises quite a lot.  As for its expansion - I would be inclined to leave it off fresh food, but wonder whether a reduced rate could be added to education services - say 5%?  OK, that would be a hard sell to Liberal constituents, but it might be something Labor could live with;

2.  superannuation tax concessions at the high end wound back harder;

3.  a staged reduction in negative gearing.  Not too staged.  And didn't I suggest once that it be time limited, to like for the first 5 years?   Increased turnaround in investment property sales would be good for stamp duty revenue too, as well as placing properties back on the market for potential owner/occupiers.   Someone needs to point out to me the downside, as there almost certainly would be one.  
 As for spending cuts:   it's a continual irony that Liberals and Republicans always claim there is a government spending emergency, while at the same time ramping up defence spending and using defence in some of the most expensive ways possible.

In the Australian context:   how tied are we really to the  F 35 purchase?  Why does it take a (Left) liberal (see Canada) to point out that you can get by with other, cheaper, fighters?   Is there scope to at least cut back the number we intend buying?

I would still build submarines here, though.   Forget about economic purism - supporting manufacturing abilities is a good thing, and shipbuilding seems a decent enough way to do that.

What about the cost of the paramilitary (and creepy fascistic Abbott idea) Border Force?   It would do a lot for the country's self image to dismantle it as soon as possible, especially if doing so has increased costs.

As for welfare spending:  I'm not sure if it is really worth it or not, and it would be mainly Sydney and Melbourne affected, but pensioners sitting in an expensive enough home - let's say $1,000,000 plus? - should face some formula for putting at least part of the value of their home into the assets test.

But as for taxes overall, let's not forget this point:

Update:   I've sort of grown tired of pointing out Senator Blofeld's "look at me" speeches to an empty Senate.   He isn't even proposing running again, so the publicity he craves is for just for his ego and his minuscule fan club.   Anyway, apparently progressive taxation is "immoral", despite what Popes and bishops  have maintained.

All in the mind

It's not about sex, it's about identity: why furries are unique among fan cultures | Fashion | The Guardian

Where else but the Guardian would you expect to find a sympathetic article about "furries" - people who really like to dress as animals - either realistic version animals, or cartoon version, apparently.

The article does say that it's not a sexual fetish for most (as was portrayed on a CSI episode which I happened to see), but it's still weird:
“People don’t realize it, but the whole anthropomorphism is very mainstream,” says Gerbasi, who spearheaded the multidisciplinary Anthropomorphic Research Project, which has studied about 7,000 furry fans from all continents, except Antarctica (which actually had a small furry gathering, too). While there are certain demographic trends – almost 80% are male, many work in science or tech, with a disproportionate share not identifying as heterosexual – the data, by and large, shows no indication that furries would be psychologically unhealthy.

“Cartoon animals have a universal appeal,” says Conway, who fursuits as ‘Uncle Kage’: a samurai cockroach. “A love of animals and a fascination with the idea of them acting as we do transcends most national, geographic and religious boundaries.”

While the fursuits are the most visible, they only make up only about 20% convention-goers, Conway adds: the rest are performers, writers, puppeteers, dancers, artists and “just plain old fans”.

For a minority, however, it is more than that: 46% of furry fans surveyed by Gerbasi reported identifying as less than 100% human – with 41% admitting that if they could be not human at all, they would. Twenty-nine percent of them reported experiencing being a “non-human species trapped in a human body”.

The parallels with gender identity disorder, upon which the hypothesis was modeled, were striking: much like some transgender individuals report being born the wrong sex, some furries feel a disconnect with their bodies, as if they were stuck in the wrong species. The condition, which Gerbasi et al labeled “species identity disorder”, had a physiological component too, with many reportingexperiencing phantom body parts, like tails or wings.

Gerbasi still has no answers to why these individuals feel they’re not human, but stresses the importance for health providers to take them seriously, and without the ridicule that sometimes afflicts even her own research.
What a world.  Sometimes it seems to me that no one is told these days that their self understanding is nutty and/or quite possibly transient and/or best not indulged.   Or at least not indulged in the way they want it indulged.

For those who like Richard Ayoade

I do wonder sometimes how much of Richard Ayoade's Moss-like comic persona as a socially uncomfortable uber-nerd, which he seems to carry into everything he does, is a bit of an act.   But I don't really care - I find him very funny regardless.   (I mean, who cared whether Jack Benny was really a tightwad, or not.)

I'm also not sure if his Travel Man series has been shown on SBS before.  But in any event, I've found that some kind English person seems to have recorded them and put the full length episodes on Youtube.  (I suspect they won't be allowed to stay there for long, however.)

I'm working my way through them, but so far, I think the one with fellow IT Crowd actor Chris O'Dowd is the best.  They really seem to enjoy each other's company, which is nice to see:

Thursday, February 04, 2016

What? Why?

Microsoft testing underwater data centers ‹ Japan Today: Japan News and Discussion

OK, it still doesn't quite convince me that the underwater hacking sequence in Mission Impossible 5 made any sense, but I am surprised nonetheless that this idea is even being trialled:
Microsoft on Monday revealed that as the world turns to computing
power in the cloud it is working to put data centers under water.

Researchers working on “Project Natick” tested a prototype vessel on
the ocean floor about a kilometer off the U.S. Pacific Coast for about
four months last year....

With about half of the world’s population living near large bodies of
water and a shift to accessing software hosted in the Internet cloud,
having data centers submerged nearby could save money and speed up
access to information, Microsoft reasoned.

Currents or tides can be tapped to generate electricity to power data centers, and the cold depths provide natural cooling.

“Deepwater deployment offers ready access to cooling, renewable power sources, and a controlled environment,” Whitaker said.
 Very odd, if you ask me...

Well, that's OK then...

Riyadh spares Palestinian ‘apostate’ from beheading | Riyadh: A court in Saudi Arabia on Tuesday revised the punishment given to a stateless Palestinian poet convicted of apostasy, reducing it from death to eight years in prison, 800 lashes and public repentance, his lawyer said.

The poet, Ashraf Fayadh, had been sentenced to beheading because of the apostasy conviction announced in November, based partly on his published poetry.

Krugman on Rubio

Well, in my pre-Iowa notes I called the Republican primary right:
I know what will happen on the Republican side: someone horrifying will come in first, and someone horrifying will come in second.
Let me add that someone horrifying also came in third. Marco Rubio may seem less radical than Cruz or Trump, but his substantive policy positions are for incredibly hawkish foreign policy, wildly regressive tax policy, kicking tens of millions of people off health insurance, and destroying the environment. Other than that, he’s a moderate.

Seems it will be worth seeing

Critic Reviews for Hail, Caesar! - Metacritic

Now that I expect to live to 120, I should revise my superannuation

Researchers extend lifespan by as much as 35 percent in mice

Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Morally offensive

The questions the ABC did not ask

Seriously, I find the gung-ho Andrew Bolt attitude of "I blame everyone but the government for what happens when you lock hundreds of people, including children, together on a hot rock of an island for years with no hope of satisfactory resolution;  oh, and are those kids really being raped and self harming anyway - I have my doubts" expressed in this column to be pretty damn offensive for its moral triteness.   And pretty dumb, given the experience of allegations made against Save the Children workers.  

Update:  with a High Court "win" for the government, the moral question of the extent to which you can justify the continuing punishment of one set of people (particularly children) to act as a  deterrent to others from attempting to enter the country in a particular way is one which is now clearly "owned" by Malcolm Turnbull, and any politician with a sense of morality.   One suspects he would have been relieved by a High Court decision against the government on this, but no such luck.

Nasty way to go

Elephant in Thailand kills British tourist in front of his teenage daughter | Home News | News | The Independent

I wouldn't have thought there was much danger of this happening on a tourist elephant ride.  And statistically, I suppose there isn't.  But it would still make me reconsider getting on the back of one for fun.

Kind of funny

San Francisco's tech bros told: get out of the gayborhood | US news | The Guardian

From the link:
When Cleve Jones, a longtime gay activist who led the creation of the Aids Memorial Quilt, went to his local gay bar in the Castro district, he saw something that shocked him.

“The tech bros had taken over The Mix. They commanded the pool table and the patio. These big, loud, butch guys. It was scary,” he said. “I’m not heterophobic, but I don’t want to go to a gay bar and buy some guy a drink and have him smirk and tell me he’s straight. They can go
anywhere. We can’t.”

Residents of San Francisco’s historically gay Castro district are worried that it’s changing, as speculators come in to flip the few remaining ramshackle old Victorians and the old-timer gay bars shutter. In a recent small survey, 77% of people who have lived in the neighborhood for 10 or more years identified as gay, while only 55% of those who moved in the past year did.
One would have thought that gay activists would welcome this as a sign of the normalisation of homosexual relationships;  they no longer need their special enclaves.  But no, they can be very hard to please...

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

My Kitchen Rules and comedy writing

It's all artifice, I'm sure, but watching early episodes of My Kitchen Rules makes for particularly amusing viewing in terms of watching how the "baddies" are identified and play up to their allocated role for the season.

This year's team are a full on "11" on the annoyance factor scale - married, rich, young, gym fit lawyers.  (Well, apparently they are, because it is hard to believe that practising lawyers - he looks like a barrister? - would make themselves such easy targets for ridicule if they are working in the public eye each day.)   As Ben Pobjie - always the funniest Fairfax reviewer of this show - accurately writes, this is how Zana plays her role:
Zana reacts to the menu the way she reacts to everything: by sticking her lips out a metre in front of her face and looking like she's just been asked to bathe in urine. Zana thinks the menu is too simple. Zana thinks the human race is too simple. Zana is so sophisticated it's taking all her self-control to not spit on everyone at the table. Zana gets a look at the entrée and there is no vinegar on her rocket, which means "it's just lettuce", which means her mouth is now twisted into such a vicious sneer she's in danger of dislocating her jaw. Though why someone who doesn't know the difference between lettuce and rocket should act so superior I couldn't tell you....Zana is also no fan of the chips. She prefers her own chips. "Whose are better?" she asks Gianni, the threat of castration implied in her eyes. He agrees that his wife's chips are better than the strangers' chips, and Zana resumes sucking her invisible lemon with a look of triumph.
Funny stuff.

Monday, February 01, 2016

X Files noted

A few quick comments on last night's short season opener for X Files in Australia:

*  I don't think Channel Ten could possibly have done more to attempt to ruin the atmosphere of the show, what with its advertising of Shane Warne and the execrable "I'm a Celebrity" show  running along the foot of the screen after every ad break.   Way to make people really hate you, Ten...

*  Look, I still like the actors and the re-visiting of old conspiracies, but the whole problem with the main conspiracy in the show being the alien/human hybrid stuff was that it never made sense as to why it was being done and to what end.  I'm not at all sure that re-visiting this aspect of the series is at all wise, but that seems to be where we are heading.

*  Scully's hairstyle was hardly flattering.  

*  Still, I'll be watching it again tonight, even while I grind my teeth about Channel Ten.

Monday quantum science

[1512.08275] The Too-Late-Choice Experiment: Bell's Proof within a Setting where the Nonlocal Effect's Target is an Earlier Event

This seems relevant to what Sabine was saying at Backreaction recently about free will and the quantum world, although (of course) I am not sure exactly sure what retrocausality means for free will.  The abstract:
In the EPR experiment, each measurement addresses the question "What spin
value has this particle along this orientation?" The outcome then proves that
the spin value has been affected by the distant experimenter's choice of spin
orientation. We propose a new setting where the question is reversed: "What is
the orientation along which this particle has this spin value?" It turns out
that the orientation is similarly subject to nonlocal effects. To enable the
reversal, each particle's interaction with a beam-splitter at t1 leaves its
spin orientation superposed. Then at t2, the experimenter selects an "up" or
"down" spin value for this yet-undefined orientation. Only after the two
particles undergo this procedure, the two measurements are completed, each
particle having its spin value along a definite orientation. By Bell's theorem,
it is now the "choice" of orientation that must be nonlocally transmitted
between the particles upon completing the measurement. This choice, however,
has preceded the experimenter's selection. This seems to lend support for the
time-symmetric interpretations of QM, where retrocausality plays a significant
role. We conclude with a brief comparison between these interpretations and
their traditional alternatives, Copenhagen, Bohmian mechanics and the Many
Worlds Interpretation. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

A review of an interesting sounding book

Paul Krugman Reviews ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’ by Robert J. Gordon - The New York Times

Here's what it's about:
Robert J. Gordon, a distinguished macro­economist and economic historian at Northwestern, has been arguing for a long time against the techno-optimism that saturates our culture, with its constant assertion that we’re in the midst of revolutionary change. Starting at the height of the dot-com frenzy, he has repeatedly called for perspective.  Developments in information and communication technology, he has
insisted, just don’t measure up to past achievements. Specifically, he has argued that the I.T. revolution is less important than any one of the five Great Inventions that powered economic growth from 1870 to 1970: electricity, urban sanitation, chemicals and pharmaceuticals, the internal combustion engine and modern communication.
In “The Rise and Fall of American Growth,” Gordon doubles down on that theme, declaring that the kind of rapid economic growth we still consider our due, and expect to continue forever, was in fact a one-time-only event. First came the Great Inventions, almost all dating from the late 19th century. Then came refinement and exploitation of
those inventions — a process that took time, and exerted its peak effect on economic growth between 1920 and 1970. Everything since has at best been a faint echo of that great wave, and Gordon doesn’t expect us ever to see anything similar.

Over him, at last

About time the public got over Tarantino, the most undeservedly praised director/writer of my lifetime, I reckon.  

Too hot for Interstellar?

OK, I still haven't seen Interstellar (I've read too much about it that puts me off, but I'll get around to it one day), but it seems that the whole physics set up (giant planet around a black hole "star") gets the details wrong, after all.  (Not sure what Kip Thorne, the physicist who came up with the movie scenario, thinks of this.)

From New Scientist:
Wondering if any more power might be available, the team turned to the film Interstellar, in which a world called Miller’s planet orbits very close to a massive, spinning black hole called Gargantua. General relativity means the black hole’s gravitational pull slows time on the planet so that 1 hour is equal to seven years off-world, a factor of around 60,000.
“We saw the movie, it was a very interesting idea, but then we started thinking about the problems,” says Opatrný.
The energy of light is proportional to its frequency. This means that when light from the CMB hits Miller’s planet, and its frequency is increased by this time dilation, its energy increases. With a time-dilation factor of around 60,000, Miller’s planet would be heated to nearly 900 ˚C.
In the film, the planet is swept by huge tidal waves of water, but Opatrný says his calculations mean molten aluminium would be more likely. Conditions would be cooler if the planet were slightly further out from the black hole, lessening the effects of time dilation and making it more hospitable to life. “It’s interesting that [the analysis] suggests the microwave background would be disastrous for observers on the planet, making the movie once again less realistic,” says Lawrence Krauss of Arizona State University.

Friday, January 29, 2016

For those who like reading about Scruton

A Very British Hatchet Job - The Los Angeles Review of Books

Here's another review of Roger Scruton's recent book, which I have noted previously.  

Toilet espionage

Stalin 'used secret laboratory to analyse Mao's excrement' - BBC News

Remarkable (if true):
Mr Atamanenko claims that in December 1949, Soviet spies used this system to evaluate the Chinese leader Mao Zedong who was on a visit to Moscow. They had allegedly installed special toilets for Mao, which were connected not to sewers, but to secret boxes.

For 10 days Mao was plied with food and drink and his waste products whisked off for
analysis. Once Mao's stools had been scrutinised and studied, Stalin reportedly poo poo-ed the idea of signing an agreement with him.

Bad HIV news

HIV becoming resistant to key drug, study finds - BBC News
Splitting the sample size roughly into two groups the study found that in Africa 60% of patients were resistant to Tenofovir, whereas in Europe the figure was only 20%.

The paper, which has been published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases journal,
said poor administration of the drug, in terms of regularly taking the right levels of Tenofovir could be explanation for the discrepancy.

"If the right levels of the drug are not taken, as in they are too low or not regularly maintained, the virus can overcome the drug and become resistant," Dr Gupta told the BBC News website.

"Tenofovir is a critical part of our armamentarium against HIV, so it is extremely concerning to see such a high level of resistance to this drug," he added.

The paper also suggested that Tenofovir-resistant strains of HIV could be passed on from person to person.

"We certainly cannot dismiss the possibility that resistant strains can spread between people and should not be complacent. We are now conducting further studies to get a more detailed picture of how Tenofovir-resistant viruses develop and spread," Dr Gupta said.

So that's what a physics professor's whiteboard looks like?

Bringing time and space together for universal symmetry

Go on:  have a read of the article, but also look at the whiteboard.  

The lonely professor

Was it mere co-incidence that the day after there were several news reports about the record low rate of smoking amongst Australian youth (something that the stories noted might be at least partially attributed to plain packaging - but the claims was cautiously made) that Sinclair Davidson posted a long critique of another paper that looked at whether plain packaging was making adults more likely to quit.

For those who could even bother following the highly technical argument, the bottom line is that the evidence from the study isn't that overwhelming.   M'eh.

Seems a bit beside the point, when before its introduction, I believe the main hoped for effect of plain packaging was to be to discourage young people taking up the habit, and the study wasn't even looking at that.  The survey evidence which did get publicity does indicate that it may be having that effect.  

So the Professor's attempts to deride plain packaging as possibly being effective are being seen, even by some who comment at his blog, as rather obsessive (and, I would add, desperate).  As someone in comments said:
Sinc: wish you would drop this embarrassing obsession
Every time I see Simon Chapman on the TV talking up dropping smoking rates, I imagine a blood pressure spike happening in a certain office at RMIT.  And then a scurry to look at some anti tobacco research or other to see what pointless nitpicking can be made of it.

Update:  if you want to read (or at least glance at) evidence for a truly obsessive personality disorder, you need only read the extremely lengthy comments that commenter "Some History" comes up with at every single post where the Prof whines about plain packaging not being proved to be effective.  

Update 2:  Oh!  A new post by SD  seems to be correct in saying that the paper discussed in the news (linked above) may have mis-spoke when saying that youth smoking was at "record lows".   Although, truth be told, how much weight one should put on the difference between 2.5 and 3.2% in voluntary responses on surveys by teenagers is debatable.

Still, as usual, the overall picture remains a matter of not seeing the wood for the trees.  Just like with climate change.

Mosquito borne diseases and climate change

While it seems that a feared expansion of malaria due to a warming climate hasn't happened (and the reasons why are a matter of much debate), there is renewed concern with the zika virus outbreak that other mosquito borne diseases are spreading faster because of the increased range (and life span?) of mosquitoes.  As explained in this Vox article, there are pretty good reasons to suspect a warming, wetter climate is already playing a role:
The spread of Zika is part of an unnerving trend: Several mosquito-borne tropical illnesses have lately been spreading into regions of the world that have never experienced them.

A viral disease called chikungunya — which had never appeared in the Western Hemisphere until 2013 — has lately affected Central and South America, even making an appearance in Florida last year. (Its name comes from the Makonde language of Tanzania, where it was discovered in 1952; it means "that which bends up," referring to the contorted physique of a person afflicted by the virus.)

Dengue fever, known as "breakbone fever," has also seen new outbreaks in Puerto Rico, Florida, Gulf Coast states, and Hawaii — all places that hadn't usually been affected. In 2015, Brazil reported nearly 1.6 million dengue cases, a big increase from 569,000 in 2014.

Zika, dengue, and chikungunya are all spread by a species of mosquito called Aedes (in particular the Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes). For reasons researchers don't understand, these mosquitoes have been more effective at bringing diseases to new places lately, affecting fresh populations that don't yet have the antibodies to fight off the viruses.

Heidi Brown, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Arizona, explained there are at least three factors that help these illnesses spread: the number of mosquitoes out there, the number that are biting humans infected with the virus, and the number that are surviving long enough to infect other humans.

"The survival of the mosquito is driven a lot by temperature," she added. Mosquitoes thrive in warm and moist environments. "So people go to the idea of global warming — that climate change and changes in precipitation patterns and temperature are helping mosquitoes survive in different areas." In other words, warming is helping expand the range of places that are habitable to mosquitoes.

There are other factors that may be driving the trend, too: People are traveling more than ever, bringing diseases to new locales. More and more people live in crowded cities, where it's easy for viruses to jump from person to person and for mosquitoes to find large concentrations of humans to feast on.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Eye maintenance is more complicated that I thought

BBC - Future - Why do we get sleep in our eyes?

I didn't know this:
It all begins with tears – or more precisely the tear film that coats our eyes. Mammalian eyes of the terrestrial variety, whether they're found on the faces of humans, dogs, hedgehogs, or elephants, are coated in a three-layered tear film that allows the eyes to function properly.
(Tears work somewhat differently in marine mammals like dolphins and sea lions.)

Closest to the eye is the glycocalyx layer – a layer made mostly of mucus. It coats the cornea and attracts water, which allows for the even distribution of the second layer: the water-based tear solution. It might be just four micrometres thick – about as thick as a single strand of spider silk – but this layer is very important. It keeps our eyes lubricated and washes away potential infections. Finally, there is an outer layer composed of an oily substance called meibum, which is composed of lipids like fatty acids and cholesterol.

Meibum has evolved to be exquisitely tuned to the mammalian body. At normal human body temperature, it is a clear oily fluid. At just one degree cooler, though, it becomes a white, waxy solid – the familiar eye gunk.

Large flakes of this solid can form during sleep for a couple of reasons. First, the body cools down a bit at night in general, so some of the meibum becomes cool enough that it moves below the melting point and turns solid. Second, according to Australian ophthalmologist Robert G. Linton and colleagues, "sleep relaxes the [muscular] action on the [meibomian] gland
ducts…[which] is sufficient to cause far in excess of the normal to exude onto the lids and eyelash roots during sleep". In other words, our eyes are coated with more meibum than usual at night – and so when that meibum cools we can end up with appreciable amounts of eye gunk.

Media notes

*   ABC has been running the BBC quiz show Pointless before the 7pm news; hence I sometimes catch the last 5 or 10 minutes of it.

I assume there are people who will disagree, but I think it's the most stupendously stupid quiz show idea ever conceived, and it's as boring as hell too.   Could the host possibly be any duller?

Vox has a lengthy piece on the woeful prospect of Hollywood being stuck for the next 20 years in "expanded movie universes".  The worst news in the article: 
The Transformers films, for example, are no longer being treated as a single series but as a larger world to explore.

Last summer, Paramount hired a gaggle of writers to spend a few weeks brainstorming ideas to broaden the series, an effort that apparently produced at least nine different movie ideas — and producers have said that five of those ideas look viable.
*  To my surprise (as I didn't care much for the second one), Kung Fu Panda 3 is actually getting good reviews.   It may be maintaining its popularity better than Shrek.  

Depressed about physics

The problem that some physicists warned about - what if the Large Hadron Collider finds Higgs, but nothing else very interesting - seems in danger of becoming a reality; and given that there's a more widespread acknowledgement than ever that string theory is an untestable waste of time (well, this is my impression, anyway), it seems that the physics community has fallen into a bit of a depression recently.

Here are a few pieces to back this up:

a.  John Horgan wrote a great piece this month "How Physics Lost its Fizz", and his explanation of why he (used to) find physics so fascinating mirrors a lot of my own interests.    But whether it deserves this full amount of pessimism still seems a bit unclear to me - the problem being that you never know what is just around the corner in both theory and experiment, although it certainly seems true that the era of building ever larger particle colliders is over. 

b.  Starts with a Bang notes that early inflation of the universe sets a natural limit on how far back you can see, as explained in the post "Physicists Must Accept That Some Things are Unknowable".   Not a new idea, perhaps, but good to be reminded.   (And by the way - I really don't quite understand the way inflation is so widely accepted when, at the same time, as far as I know, there is no clear understanding of what caused it.  It has always seemed to me to have more than a touch of the Deus ex machina about it.)

c.  You can also watch a Downfall parody video with a difference:  Hitler doesn't get a postdoc in High Energy Theory.  Somewhat amusing, and realistic, apparently.