Thursday, August 21, 2014

Don't get too carried away with your bacteria

Microbiology: Microbiome science needs a healthy dose of scepticism : Nature News & Comment

I forgot to mention that Catalyst last week was the start of a 2 part story on microbiome science, and was very good.

But perhaps my "time travelling doctors who change history with fecal transplants" series needs to wait.... 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Black market continues

Black market boom lays bare a social divide in Colorado’s marijuana market | World news | Guardian Weekly

Yeah, yeah, it's early days yet, but this article about the black market reaction to legalisation of marijuana is interesting.   (One odd thing I have noticed in other articles too - the amount of medical marijuana sold in that state seems astronomical.) 

I would add one other observation - the issues with what happens to a black market for this particular drug is probably very, very different to the experience with alcohol and prohibition for the simple reason that making your own, good tasting and consistent quality alcoholic beverage is not as simple a matter as growing a dozen plants in your backyard.  The ease with which the black market can produce a "quality" product probably helps ensure it does not go away when the legalised, highly taxed, version becomes available. 

About the metadata freakout...

I find it a bit hard to understand the metadata privacy freakout, given that surely everyone should assume that any old bored 21 year old working late at an ISP could be looking up the browsing or message history of any customer he's interested in.   As for what the metamind of Google knows about what you were up to last night - well, what they don't know is probably easier to answer.

A key point I was interested in was "how long do ISPs currently hold metadata anyway?"  and according to the ABC, the answer seems to be this:

What Telcos/ISPs are doing?

There has been a proliferation of ISPs in Australia in recent years – there are now more than 200.
There are variations between each company on what data they store and for how long. Industry retention patterns vary from "months" to "years".
There has been a trend towards telcos/ISPs holding metadata for shorter periods of time.
Some telcos already hold data for seven to nine years, government officials say. Those companies would not be affected if the Government proposes a mandatory two-year retention of metadata.
and this:

What would be different for telcos/ISP with mandatory retention of metadata?

Nothing, if they are already holding it for more than two years.
Some telcos/ISPs who hold for shorter periods would be affected if the Government seeks to "standardise" a two-year retention period.
So, privacy freaks, is this another case of you  blithely living with something that hasn't had an effect on your life for like, 10 years or so, but now that the government wants to regulate it a tiny bit more it's full blown panic mode?

And as for Topher, a professional Tosser in my books, it is rather ridiculous to be suggesting that it is the ISPs themselves who want the change.

Update:   to be sure, if the argument was about who within the government metadata was being released to, and whether it was with or without warrant, and the purposes for which it was being sought - that's fine if there are outrageous cases, but I can't say I've seen such examples within Australia being publicised.

But the mere fact that the government is seeking to set a minimum standard for how long it is kept, when an unspecified number of ISPs are already keeping it for that long or longer,  well that's a minor issue when the main one is "how is it accessed".

Fan news

RET worries

I see that IPA aligned economists are getting all aroused at the prospect that, having lost out on the fake and hysterical free speech crisis they tried to whip up because Andrew Bolt wouldn't apologise for mistakes made in a column, they may have an Abbott government "win" on the Renewable Energy Target.   (The rumour being that key figures in the government are wanting to have it killed off entirely.)  Julie Novak, for example:

From what I can make out, the economics of electricity production in this large country are rather complicated, and in an ideal world, all countries would price carbon with consistency and at realistic levels to wean the planet off burning carbon, and all electricity production, retail and transmission would work the same across our own country, and you genuinely could have a situation where you let energy companies work it out for themselves without the need for the additional spur of a government mandated RET.

However, given the world (and Australia) is not so simple, the RET is one element of a multi-pronged approach to energy, and letting it stay does not represent an economic problem of any significance.   Removing it now that it has been in place for so long is actually a lot more trouble than it is even theoretically worth. 

And one thing is clear - given that the free marketeer economists aligned with the IPA have no problem at all with it actively promoting pubic and political disbelief that there is even a problem to address regarding climate change, their opinion on the merit of the RET is not worth a pinch of poop. 

Julie Novak is, of course, completely and ludicrously wrong in this morning's tweet, in response to a rare column in The Australian supporting the RET:

Get real, Julie.  

A good Gittins column

Abbott and Hockey: Why poor people don't matter

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

A bit of Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein,Tolstoy and the Folly of Logical Positivism | Issue 103 | Philosophy Now

Given all the World War 1 talk going on at the moment, it's apt to remember one philosopher's participation in it.  The above piece here from Philosophy Now reminded me about Wittgenstein's war, and how his one famous book was written during it.

It made sense...

Stop Making Sense 30th anniversary: David Byrne and Jonathan Demme talk about how the movie got made (VIDEO).

Yay.  Slate has a short story up about the 30th anniversary of Stop Making Sense, with a couple of videos.

I'll post this one:

because it illustrates how David Byrne now comes across as a very witty, relaxed and normal person, in contrast to the image of of an eccentric young geek that you got from his interviews at the peak of Talking Heads (as well as in the movie.)   I don't think Aspergers was a condition anyone talked about back then, but if he acted in interviews now as he did as a young man, I'm pretty sure some people would wonder about it.

What I'd like someone to ask him one day is whether he really was different back then, or whether there was a large element of performance in his interviews and public persona.  (I wouldn't really care if there was - he was so interesting to watch anyway - I'd just like to know.)

And this all reminds me, I haven't visited his website for some time.    I see that (like me) his elderly mother recently died, and he has an interesting and charming post talking about her life.  Lovely.

Monday, August 18, 2014

The week that was

Not sure that I am up to resuming my daily blogging routine just yet - I still have a large backlog of work that I started making progress on last week, and the number of books that I haven't started or finished reading  from the last couple of years of visits to the Lifeline bookfest (and gifts from my family) is just ridiculous.

Anyhow, the week that was deserves some comment:

The sad:   Robin Williams, of course.  I liked him most for his spontaneous work, whether that be from (early) Mork & Mindy, or virtually any chat show or television interview he did.  But as a movie star - well, I have to say I was never entirely swept away by any role or movie he did.  He could be competent as an actor, but he was one of those people who had such a distinctive persona in one field that I could never quite shake it out of my mind when watching him in another.  (For Australian readers - it's a bit like watching John Doyle trying to be himself after years of identifying his voice as Rampaging Roy Slaven.)  But apart from that, I just didn't care much for the type of material he generally went for in movies.

That said, I always had the impression that he was a very empathetic man, and generous.   It's rather incredible that a couple of right wing boneheads in the US could make politically tinged comments about his death, given his long support of American soldiers, which was something I had forgotten about until this week.  The Guardian listed some of this other notable charity work and advocacy.  The upset you could see in many show biz personalities talking about his death indicates he was genuinely liked and admired. 

And one other point:  my frequent visitor Homer - shame on you for taking up the "suicide is cowardice" line on your blog.  As many, many people have said this week, it's not as if the depressed are thinking straight when they only see a tunnel of blackness ahead of them; in fact, they can think they are doing not just themselves, but their family, a favour by exiting now.

As for the other Hollywood death this week - well, if you had asked me, I would have guessed that Lauren Bacall had already died, but she was very entertaining in the role of Cranky Ageing Glamour Star Who Regrets the Passing of Old Hollywood.  From The Guardian:
In old age, Bacall raged against what she saw as the mediocrity of contemporary Hollywood, as represented by everything from the career of Tom Cruise to the Twilight movies that her granddaughter dragged her to see. “She said it was the greatest vampire film ever made,” Bacall recalled. “After the film was over, I wanted to smack her across the head with my shoe.” 
The Good:  The Brisbane Exhibition visit this year calls for my (almost annual) duck in a cage photo:

(He/she was already standing like that before I approached the cage, honest.)   And the type of carnival entertainment that I seek to highlight this year is the high dive team that climb up a ridiculously flimsy looking tower:

and sometimes descend from it while in flames:

Don't ask me why - there must be easier ways of making a living - but entertainment can take many forms.

As usual, I continue to be impressed when I see immigrants at the Show - this year I noticed some Muslim families, and given the extremely bad PR their religion is currently, deservedly, suffering, I am encouraged that attendance at this rather old fashioned, very Western, form of entertainment is at least some indication of assimilation.

As for Guardians of the Galaxy:  yes, I agree with the critics' consensus - it's a terrifically entertaining film.  I liked pretty much everything most reviews liked - an unoriginal type of story (just how often since Lord of the Rings have we seen the dangerous, quasi mystical object with incredible destructive power?)  but which is nonetheless very well scripted and funny; characters that have charm and wit; a somewhat retro  but gloriously colourful and vivid visual look; and enough plot leads at the end to pique interest in a second instalment.   

As usual with many films of its genre now, some of the effects laden scenes (especially of space battle) are too busy for their own good, but it's a small reservation on a film that has its heart in the right place.

The bad:    radical Islam continues to disturb everyone, but I did notice the increased effort Saudis are making to fight it (well, not that they are willing to put their actual soldiers in harm's way - in fact, when did we last hear of that country actually putting its own lives at risk instead of paying other countries to do it for them?)   From the New York Times:
Increasingly worried about the spread of Islamist militant extremism reaching its own doorstep, Saudi Arabia donated $100 million to a fledgling United Nations counterterrorism agency on Wednesday and expressed hope that such an infusion — 10 times what the Saudis gave to help create the agency three years ago — would strengthen its abilities and set an example for other donor countries.

The money was the second big contribution by Saudi Arabia to the United Nations in the past few months, largely in response to crises caused by the ascent of radical Sunni Islamist militancy in the Middle East. On July 1, Saudi Arabia provided $500 million to United Nations humanitarian relief efforts in Iraq, where hundreds of thousands of people have been uprooted by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, a marauding force that many counterterrorism experts now regard as a leading threat.

With its vast trove of petroleum wealth, Saudi Arabia’s Sunni monarchy has also provided grants and loans worth more than $1 billion to help strengthen Lebanon’s armed forces, which have recently battled ISIS fighters on the Syria-Lebanon border. The Saudis are also huge financial underwriters of Egypt’s new anti-Islamist government and have been somewhat silent about Israel’s war against Islamist militants in Gaza. 

Puts fears of a "clash of civilisations" somewhat back into perspective, doesn't it?   But nonetheless, I am happy to see our government giving our own Islamic ratbags a hard time.

Politics, politics:    The government continues to have no idea how to convince the public that a Budget that pleases no one actually deserves to be passed.    There is some interest in years to come as to who to blame for its concept - haven't I read before that it was genuinely the work of Abbott? - yet I'd be willing to bet there will be a memoir and ABC interview fuelled circle of finger pointing in the future.

By the way, Insiders was especially entertaining yesterday.  

The mad:   I see Catallaxy is actually accelerating its descent into unfathomable, eccentric, unpleasant and ideologically driven nonsense of all kinds, with recent contributions including Sinclair Davidson ("What?  'Ape' can be a racist insult? - well I never") saying that the Abbott proposed constitutional recognition of aborigines is racist and akin to apartheid*; and Steve Kates, who I think any prospective economics student with sense would recognise as an advertisement against studying at RMIT, telling us this morning that he keeps an open mind on the question of whether water really is made up of hydrogen and oxygen.  That's the scientific thing to do, apparently.

*  I'd be particularly pleased with a constitutional amendment if it meant there could  be a reduction in the number of meaningless acknowledgements of original owners and custodians of land at the start of meetings.

Also on aboriginal issues - it appears beyond doubt that Noel Pearson, in private, carries on as an offensive, swearing attack dog against anyone - politician or journalist - he perceives as standing in the way of his ideas for aboriginal betterment.  Another great choice by Abbott for a special adviser, hey?   Does he not believe in climate change too, as that seems to be the qualification for Abbott's other advisers?.   (Actually, I see that last year he was supporting Abbott's Direct Action plan, so he's half way to being a non believer, it would seem...)

Monday, August 11, 2014

Too busy

This should be a big week - off to the Brisbane "ekka"; should be able to see Guardians of the Galaxy next weekend; four work days in which many people are waiting for me to finish stuff.

So, I expect no posts til next weekend - unless tomorrow's Newspoll is even worse, in which case I will drop in to celebrate.

In the meantime, a couple of recommendations for harmless diversion:

*  I can strongly recommend "the lion" on this page as a good paper airplane.   I was flying one successfully yesterday (with my daughter) until a passing car ran over it.

*  Wacom has released the Bamboo Paper app for android, and it has a pleasing set of pens for doodling on a tablet.

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Antarctic blogs, Hurrah!

The news that a British Antarctic station lost its power this week leads to yet another cool photo or two of futuristic architecture, which I always like to see:

Happily, it has also led me to a few blogs being run by people down there at the moment.  (I have previously tried to find blogs that have a reasonable post rate from down that way, but it seems a combination of their relatively poor internet accessibility and busy-ness means they don't spend much time blogging.)  But Anthony Lister's blog has links to some other Antarctic blogs, and that makes me happy.

Lister (I wonder if he gets sick of people telling him he reminds them of Red Dwarf?) writes rather charmingly of the power down:
I don’t really want to add any detail about what has happened down here (it’s nowt exciting honest!) but would just like to reiterate that we are all healthy, in good spirits and are busy setting about getting, and keeping the station in as good an order as possible. No-one here on station is responsible for the technical issues we are having and we are all working extremely hard.

Tea making facilities are still going strong.

On a happier note, despite the difficulties I really am still loving the place. Having made mention of how Antarctica can take things to another level just when you think you have seen something truly beautiful, well, I’ll have to say it once again. To prove that every cloud has a silver lining Halley, during the time without any power, was the clearest I have ever seen. This, coinciding with the loss of the small amount of light pollution we have, made the night-sky of the power-down the most beautiful I have ever seen – or probably ever will. the whole galaxy in its majesty, brighter than ever – going outside was almost a religious experience!
 He has good photos at his blog too:


I think my blog roll needs to add him...

Friday, August 08, 2014

Um, can we have a double dissolution first?

Medical payments to go private

This sounds like a very dubious proposition to me:
In an advertisement in today’s The Australian Financial Review, the Department of Health calls for com­panies to express interest inproviding claims and payment services for the Medicare Benefits Schedule (MBS) and Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (PBS), the second-biggestresponsibility of the Department of Human Services after welfare payments.

It follows the allocation of $500,000 in this year’s budget, largely unnoticed, for market testing.

“We’re determined to put into place a 21st-century payment system that will be more efficient for patients and doctors,” Health Minister Peter Dutton said. “It will reduce red tape for doctors and streamline their administrative processes and, we believe, deliver a ­saving to the
The contract is likely to be highly complicated. The new providerwould have to be capable of processing a ­collective $29 billion of claims from 600 million transactions a year conducted for the Department of Health, and nearly $2.5 billion in claims from 33 million transactions for the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

The size of the job and requirement for a physical shopfront presence means few existing Australian companies would be capable of carrying out the task. But it could provide an extremely lucrative and stable revenue stream for successful candidates.
The suggestion seems to be that the Post Office might take it over (!).  So all of those franchised post offices will need to find new, larger premises and scores of extra staff, taught about health and veteran's benefits processing?

As the report notes further:
In its recommendation, the audit commission run by businessman Tony Shepherd warned that outsourcing national payments would be a “substantial and potentially high-risk undertaking” requiring careful consideration.
 I imagine this will be a rather unpopular move, if it proceeds.

In many respects, this Abbott government resembles the Rudd Mk 1 government - they both cruised into office because of "the vibe", but with next to nothing in the way of specific, useful policies to pursue.   Rudd tried to "solve" this by calling together a bunch of people to bask in his greatness and  workshop motherhood statements on butcher's paper, with predictably little result.  He then hurriedly pulled dubious ideas out of his own backside (a laptop for every student! - yay!) and the resulting programs naturally had major problems.

Abbott couldn't do the Rudd "love in" thing - he knows most educated people* (and certainly arts industry people) actively dislike him.  Instead he had to rely on getting a few ex pollies and business mates with the right attitude ("climate change - ha! As if") to do rushed and dubious reports full of all sorts of small government daydreams.  But their ideas are at least as equally poorly thought out as Rudd's, and seem rarely to be based on solid examples of success in other countries.   They have the added quality of being potentially much more destructive of existing competent delivery of services than Rudd's ideas.

Can we just get the double dissolution over with now?   Everyone has already decided Abbott is a failure.

*  save for a handful of greedy Vice Chancellors.

Losers giving money to losers noted

Good, too, to see that so much effort was put into the design of the ad, which featured about 90% empty space, fellas.

Still, blowing some money on an ad that will clearly have no effect on politicians, but satiate your anger that your think tank's attempt at bullying them into changing a law which the public were actually happy to keep  failed gives you some sense of satisfaction, I presume.   Not the type of satisfaction that people get from donating to a charity that actually helps the sick or the poor, or just anyone other than rich, male, white, bloviating media figures; but a kind of satisfaction nonetheless.

For an actual decent take on why the s.18C amendment went no where, see Gay Alcorn's column in The Guardian about it.  I liked the last bit in particular:
Bolt himself seemed to grasp at least in part that to have him at the centre of a battle for “freedom” was always fatal.

“To associate it with me meant so many people of the left thought that any law that could be used against me must be pretty good, and I think that’s poisoned the debate,” he told radio station 2GB.

Yes Andrew, it did poison the debate. But the “left” didn’t make it all about you. You did, and so did the government.

Hey, look everybody...'s Drawn Fraser.

Update:  this post seems underappreciated.  I'll have to continue work on "Pony Abbott", but photoshopping a face onto the appropriate end of a horse is trickier than I expected.

Update 2:   Oh's "Pony" Abbott:  

 (Forgive me, it was a rushed job.)

Thursday, August 07, 2014

An interesting take on marijuana use

Marijuana decriminalisation: High times in Amsterdam and Boulder | The Economist

See, I don't just post negative stories about marijuana experiences.  Sometimes I link to stories by people who are happy casual users - and then point out why they are wrong.

Really, the interesting thing about the story in the Economist was the oft repeated point that Holland has less cannabis use than America, despite its long term legal availability in certain venues.  (And how the main users of the pot cafes are tourists, and how some people find these cafes are pretty unpleasant places to smoke.)  But, as I have noted over the years, the Dutch are an odd mix of relative conservatism with their liberalism - the best example other than drugs being the explicit and detailed sex education their kids get from a very young age at school, yet the teenagers wait longer before having sex and have way fewer pregnancies than their American or English counterparts.

People say this good outcome is because of the sex education; but really, how do you separate out its effect from the social milieu generally?  As I noted in a post a long time ago, it is said that government policy is not to be overly generous with welfare benefits to young single mothers, and people just accept that accidentally falling pregnant is a silly and embarrassing thing to do; so they do (largely) successfully avoid it.  And take marriage and family life pretty seriously.

The same with drugs legalisation - its hard to draw uniform lessons from one society to another, and the Dutch experience may well not translate well elsewhere.  If you legalised marijuana overnight in Japan, for example, I have my doubts that its use would soar immediately.  They are very, very happy with their drinking culture (too happy, probably), and public interest in other ways to get uninhibited (or off one's face) is (I think) very very low.

The thing is, I suspect (but could be wrong) that American culture is not one that is going to find legalisation results in less use, or that the population is primed to just settle into a natural rate of use similar to what has been in place for some decades.  If anything, the entrepreneurial streak that runs through the country will see that legalisation means increased usage, quite potentially to levels where it is clearly seen as a societal problem affecting the economy.

But we shall see...

Discouraging pollution news...

Pollution triples mercury levels in ocean surface waters, study finds | Environment |

Particularly discouraging because it affects some of the tastier fish species.

Update:  The report in Nature reads even worse than the Guardian's:

But study co-author Carl Lamborg, a marine geochemist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, says that the deep water's ability to sequester mercury may soon be exhausted. Humans are on track to emit as much mercury in the next 50 years as they did in the last 150 years, he notes.

You're starting to overwhelm the ability of deep water formation to hide some of that mercury from us, with the net result that more and more of our emissions will be found in progressively shallower water,” Lamborg adds. That increases the odds that mercury levels in key food species will rise, increasing humans' exposure.

An important message from the IPA

The story here. [Once again,  witness the enthusiastic mooching from the biggest anti-mooching think tank in the land.]

Sun and health

Link between vitamin D and dementia risk confirmed

I see at the end of the article there's a link to a report about low vitamin D and schizophrenia too.  The correlation of it to mental health is rather interesting, and perhaps a bad sign for the future health of oldies in 70 years time, given the somewhat over the top concern about sun exposure and kids we seem to now have.

I wonder if anyone has ever surveyed dementia risk amongst life long nudists?  Googling the topic doesn't immediately come up with useful results, partly because there seems to be some program called NUDIST which is used in dementia research.

Great comet photo

I guess I expected a smoother, icier looking surface for a comet, but it looks very cool nonetheless.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Is this the beginning of the end for the Credlin/Loughnane role in the Abbott "ascendancy"?

Just noticed in the Sydney Morning Herald:
ICAC hears that Liberal party boss Brian Loughnane knew of developer donations going through federal channels
But, given that it seems Credlin is pretty unpopular within the parliamentary party, her departure may well help Abbott.  So she should stay.

The careless, poisoned Hockey

Sorry, Treasurer, but your tax figures are a long way wide of the mark

You'd think a politician of his experience would know to be more careful.  Joe was saying that higher income earning families pay half their income in tax, which means he's ignoring how they get the benefit of the tax free threshold and lower tax rate on the first part of their income.

More substantially, Peter Whiteford has a really good article that looks at the way the "small government/small tax" wing of the Right tries to use what are in fact successful elements of our welfare system to exaggerate welfare as a problem.  More importantly, he notes that:
"what constitutes a “fair” distribution of national income ultimately comes
down to social value judgements."
The essay is in effect a really valuable look at the poisonous "lifters and leaners/moochers and looters" philosophy that the Coalition - including Hockey - has been infected with from too much contact with the American small government/libertarian wing of the Republicans (and their Australian counterparts in the IPA.)

Today's reading recommendation for Sinclair Davidson, Judith Sloan and the IPA

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Reaction noted

I wonder how Sinclair Davidson is taking the Abbott announcement that the government is walking away from repealing or amending s.18C Racial Discrimination Act.

Oh.  Pretty much how I expected, then.

Guardians will be viewed

As I know everyone is keen to know what movies I will and will not see (ha!), I confirm that, despite my oft-repeated omplaint that far too many comic book superhero movies are being made, I will go and see Guardians of the Galaxy based on its good reviews, and the fact that it is basically a comedy.

I have always liked science fiction comedy, and hope to like this one.

The way ahead for Tasmania (seriously?)

Noted towards the bottom of a Phil Coorey piece about the talking going on between Hockey and the Senators to try and salvage some part of the budget:
In Tasmania, Palmer United Party Senator Jacqui Lambie hit the Treasurer for more funds for Tasmania, funds for mushroom growers and bumble bee farmers, while refusing to reverse opposition to budget cuts. Instead, she said the government should cut deeper into foreign aid.
Actually, I was a bit disturbed on the weekend to see on Insiders that Hockey and her had a two hour meeting (after which he came out gushing about her "big heart" - it was nauseating).   I certainly hope there was someone else in the room, so that the topic of the Treasurer's "package" was kept on track.

Why I haven't blogged about the reactionless drive

Don't Get Too Excited About NASA's New Miracle Engine

I had a hunch that the write ups of the NASA apparent confirmation of a reactionless drive were being a bit too enthusiastic.  This article indicates my skepticism may be well founded.

And one other point:  the thrust the test measured was absolutely tiny.  Even if a totally new effect is at play, I wouldn't get too excited unless it was clearly scale-able to something useful.   Weird (but tiny) force effects of the quantum world already exist - see the Casimir effect - but as far as I know there is no proposal to ever make use of that for colonising the universe.

About time the doctors started talking

Australia's detention regime sets out to make asylum seekers suffer, says chief immigration psychiatrist | World | The Guardian

Good, detailed report by David Marr [and some other journalist who hasn't been on Insiders so I don't know him] on the harm indefinite detention in offshore camps is causing.

The situation is clearly much worse in a humanitarian sense than it was under Howard - where a considerable number of the detained at least had a fair hope of ending up in Australia (or New Zealand, if I recall correctly) if they waited long enough.

The current people there can see no resolution on the horizon at all.

I still believe that the public is simply "living with" this because the government has kept details of conditions under such tight wraps.  There needs to be more exposure and humanising of the detainees.

Monday, August 04, 2014

A mile wide but an inch deep

Noted from The Australian today:
ACCORDING to Gina Rinehart, most journalists have room to improve. Australia’s richest person has nominated Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones as two of the finest journalists in the country.
In an interview with The Australian’s editor Clive Mathieson on the state of the mining industry and her own plans in the sector, Rinehart was less forthcoming about her investments in the media industry, where she is the biggest individual shareholders of Ten and Fairfax Media.
She did say she has an issue with the quality of journalism in Australia, telling Mathieson: “I would like to see journalism restore itself to take more pride in ­accuracy and fairness.”
The exception to the miserable media standards are Bolt and Jones. “I’m a great admirer of both Andrew and Alan,” she said. “They are courageous individuals and great patriots, genuinely concerned for Australia’s future.”
What a laugh.

Evil comet cat detected

We've all become rather blasé about photos of moons and planets and stuff, I think, reflecting little on the remarkably successful extent of the unmanned exploration of the solar system.

Even so, the Rosetta mission, designed to orbit and plant a probe on a comet is one of the more remarkable missions of recent years.   I know there have been photos taken of comet cores before, but I don't think anything as interesting as this:

And here's another to give the scale:

And by the way, did you notice the clear-ish alien grinning cat artifact in the first picture?   I'll highlight it here:

Actually, it might be Yoda, but he didn't smile that much.  But now that it's been pointed out to you, you will find it hard to un-see.

[This post strikes me as good geeky Reddit fodder, but while I read it sometimes, I don't post anything there.  Then again, it wouldn't be surprising if something similar has not already appeared.  Anyway, anyone who posts there, feel free to link here...]

A First World War human interest story

Inside the brothels that served the Western Front: How one First World War soldier found love in the arms of a French sweetheart - The Independent

I see that officers tended to visit their own, somewhat higher class, brothels when in France during the First World War.  I thought two things were of particular note in this article:

1.  Mirrored ceilings in bedrooms expecting a lot of "action" have been around for longer than I imagined. I would have guessed they were only thought of in the 1970's, but no.  In fact, this room sounds altogether over-mirrored:
Of the brothels themselves, another British officer recalled: "The
Madame took me to an eight-sided room, the walls and ceilings of which
were entirely covered with mirrors. The only furniture in it was a low
divan on which a pretty little blonde was displaying her charms. She
welcomed me most pleasantly and later we breakfasted off an omelette,
melon and champagne."
2.   Some avoided returning to England on leave because of the jarring attitude to the war:
Captain Harry Siepmann, writing in the 1950s, offered another reason why
he and his fellow officers had chosen to visit the brothels of Paris
rather than spend a few days of precious leave in Blighty: by the end of
the war, he said, the "out-of-touch atmosphere" of jingoism and
unthinking patriotism in Britain "jarred badly with the grim realities
of France".
 It's a good article worth reading in full.

A blood test with big implications

A blood test for suicide?

A fascinating article here on the apparent success of a study looking into a blood test for detecting those who have been feeling suicidal, although if I understand it right, only amongst those people who have a "common" genetic mutation in the first place:
In another part of the study, the researchers tested three different sets of blood samples, the largest one involving 325 participants in the Johns Hopkins Center for Prevention Research Study found similar methylation increases at SKA2 in individuals with suicidal thoughts or
attempts. They then designed a model analysis that predicted which of the participants were experiencing suicidal thoughts or had attempted suicide with 80 percent certainty. Those with more severe risk of suicide were predicted with 90 percent accuracy. In the youngest data
set, they were able to identify with 96 percent accuracy whether or not a participant had attempted suicide, based on blood test results. 
The implications sound a little bit like science fiction:
Kaminsky says a test based on these findings might best be used to predict future suicide attempts in those who are ill, to restrict lethal means or methods among those a risk, or to make decisions regarding the intensity of intervention approaches.

He says that it might make sense for use in the military to test whether members have the that makes them more vulnerable. Those at risk could be more closely monitored when they returned home after deployment. A test could also be useful in a psychiatric emergency room, he says, as part of a assessment when doctors try to assess level of suicide risk.

The test could be used in all sorts of safety assessment decisions like the need for hospitalization and closeness of monitoring. Kaminsky says another possible use that needs more study could be to inform treatment decisions, such as whether or not to give certain medications that have been linked with suicidal thoughts.

Saturday, August 02, 2014

The meth puzzle

Of all the dangerous drugs that people try, I've always had the greatest difficulty in understanding why they would use crystal meth.  Surely there has been enough media exposure about the psychosis and vile bodily effects an addiction to it can have.

In the Saturday Paper, there's one guy's story of how he started using it, starting getting psychotic, but managed to get out of the scene.  The details are very common to what we've seen on current affairs programs over the years, and this was an apparently smart enough guy who thought he could try it safely.

I would assume there is research on the topic, and perhaps I should go looking for it.  But my guess would be that two factors are probably important:  first, he "gateway effect" of using other drugs such as marijuana and (I would guess) ecstasy, for which there is much less risk of addiction but pleasant enough experiences which lead people to believe they can upgrade to the next experience and also deal with it safely.  (I find articles such as this one which dismiss a gateway effect as illusory to be unconvincing and too pedantic.  To say a drug is a "gateway" is not necessarily an argument that is directly causative of further drug experimentation, but rather that its use sets the scene for experimentation with reputedly dangerous drugs by encouraging the rationalisation of their potential for safe use  I guess that the illegal status of the softer drug may help that rationalisation - by developing skepticism that illegality is motivated by the dangerous effect of drugs.)

Secondly, the social encouragement of other experimenters that they have not been hurt by its casual use, and can control how often they use it, must surely be important.  But given the clear, dire effects that it does have on so many people, how do so many first timers manage to not know of people in the same circles who have been sent over the edge by it?  As the author of the Saturday Paper article writes:
I was plainly ignorant about the drug before I succumbed. I’d considered myself a drug-savvy streetwise person before the autumn of 2014. However, my quick and doe-eyed plunge into addiction suggested otherwise. I had a number of key misconceptions about the drug: that meth didn’t kill you, that there was a safe level of use, and that meth didn’t do permanent damage.
What I find hard to credit is that any half reasonably educated person doesn't know of its dangers.  (Or can still rationalise experimentation despite knowing of them, I guess.)

Update:  OK, there have been a series of articles at The Conversation about meth use, and one claims this:
However, the majority of people who use illicit drugs do not use regularly or in large quantities. A relatively small proportion (for methamphetamine, around 10-15%) of users go on to become dependent and need treatment.
On the other hand, another article by the same author links to this study, which notes:
The estimated number of regular methamphetamine users in Australia was 102,600, or 10.3 per 1000 persons aged 15 to 49 years. Of these regular methamphetamine users, it was estimated that there were 72,700 dependent methamphetamine users, or 7.3 per 1000 population aged 15-49 years. The bulk of regular and dependent methamphetamine users were located outside of Sydney (83% and 80% respectively).
So that indicates that about 70% of "regular" users are dependent?

That puts the addiction picture in a much stronger light than saying that "a relatively small proportion" of meth users go on to be dependent*, but I suppose it could also means that relatively large number of people could only try it once or twice and not get further into its use?

*  can you imagine the situation if the number of regular alcohol users said to be dependent on it was 70%?

An Asperger story

It was particularly interesting to read the "Two of Us" section in the SMH this morning, about Kathy Lette (Mrs Geoffrey Robertson) and their 23 year old son Julian, who has Asperger syndrome.  (Given that one half of it is written by him, you'll see what I mean...)

Friday, August 01, 2014

I only like my own apocalypse

Snowpiercer and These Final Hours continue apocalyptic film tradition - The Final Cut - ABC Radio National 

 I've noticed some ad or something for These Final Hours, which is an Australian "we've only got hours til the end of the world" film, but I knew nothing of its story.  In the article above, we get a description, and the mechanism for the end of the world sounds unscientific.  (The film sounds violent and unpleasant too.)

Why can't global disaster movies get the disaster scientifically plausible?   The only one which I think really did try fairly hard in that respect was Deep Impact (and I thought it a pretty good film generally.)

But so many are just utter rubbish with the science - that shlock German director's The Day After Tomorrow and 2012 (hey, we're still here),  the (awful other) "asteroid hits Earth" movie Armageddon; even World War Z, although I was surprised to enjoy its video game similarities, had a ridiculously brief viral zombification scenario.  [And, I might add, it annoyed me continually that the wife kept making satellite phone calls from the inside of the navy ship she was on.  Surely you'd have to be near or on the deck for that?]

In fact, generally speaking, I can't say I like apocalypse films as a genre much at all.  I'm not sure why I'm supposed to enjoy ones with bleak, hopeless endings, even if they do manage to get the science vaguely right.

Which is all a bit odd, perhaps, given that I was recently talking about my own apocalyptic thoughts whenever I'm driving out in the Lockyer Valley.  (And, incidentally, I wrote that post before hearing about These Final Hours.) The thing is, I like my own apocalypses, but rarely anyone else's.

Damn it - I missed the "stagflation" birthday

I see I just missed the 3 year anniversary of Sinclair Davidson appearing in The Drum (and on Andrew Bolt's show) warning that Australia  had a "looming" stagflation problem.  

It is (stagflation), after all, "the consequence of pursuing Keynesian economic policy."   And this was "an economy facing a stagflation problem."

Yet this utterly failed prediction (and despite his likely hedging that he used the word "could" once or twice, I'm calling this out as a predication based on his wrong headed, ideologically driven theory that low taxes and low government spending is always the cure for what ails an economy), he has the hide to claim US economists are wrong in their view that the Obama stimulus helped reduced joblessness.

The graph he uses to support the argument can, of course, simply be said to show that the effects of the GFC on unemployment in the country was worse than initially expected.   What matters on the question of whether the stimulus helped is the question of where the actual unemployment graph line would be running if the stimulus had not happened.   Merely showing that the initial predictions of where unemployment would go with and without stimulus doesn't answer that. 

Of course, in the fixed ideology of "low government spending at any cost", they will argue that any worsing in an economy is the result of higher government spending. 

Starting from a fixed ideological position is no way to argue economics with any credibility.

Jericho making sense, again

Business leaders should stop whingeing about Australia’s competitiveness | Business |

Greg Jericho is in fine form having a go at big business and its complaints, particularly the odious way Gina Rinehart pines for low wages for her mines and funds climate change disbelief.

Speaking of miners, what's with the ridiculous excuse for a newspaper The Australian and its thorough tongue bathing of Andrew Forrest and his welfare ideas this week?   Sure, Forrest has a  reputation for being genuinely concerned about poverty (unlike Rinehart, who gives the impression she's been envious since childhood of Uncle Scrooge being able to actually swim in his money,) but even so, why has the paper been so busy promoting his welfare report?   And then, it seems today that Shanahan's job has become to explain to the public why the Abbott government won't adopt it.

It would be intriguing indeed to see the emails (or listen in to telephone calls) that go into and out of the head office of The Australian at the moment.  

Update:   I see that Andrew Bolt tries to be helpful [/sarc] today, by criticising Forrest for saying aborigines are "economically jailed" (an oversimplification, I would agree), but then goes on to say it's not the fault of white people - it's the entire dysfunctional aboriginal culture that's at fault.  (!)

Well, that'll earn him points in the aboriginal reconciliation stakes.   It's entirely their fault they're stuck in poverty and a cycle of drug dependence, hey?

And here I thought my take on the matter (that in large part it is to do with aboriginal communities being often stuck in areas with extremely limited opportunities to do anything of economic value, and a reluctance to have policies encouraging them to move to areas where their children may have a future job) was an oversimplication.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Stimulus and austerity

I've been reading a few things on the matter of great economic debate of stimulus versus austerity.

First, Justin Wolfers says that survey results show that top flying American economists are nutty outliers (my wording, not Wolfer's) if they hold the position that the Obama stimulus of 2009 didn't help the economy.  They are more divided on whether it was worth the cost, but even then it runs more than two to one in favour of "yes, it was worth it."

Secondly, I stumbled across this article by Florian Schui which I thought gives a nice succinct summary of the intersection of politics and economics on this issue:
This is an evolutionary argument familiar from radical liberal thinkers such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Friedrich Hayek. Crucially, their perspective does not give great prominence to questions of economic efficiency. Indeed, free societies a likely to experience periods of economic waste: periods of low growth may leave labour, capital and other resources underused. But free societies do better in the long run because they are better at evolving and adapting. The political aim must therefore be to contain the size of the state in order to leave space for the creative forces of society. That remains true even if cutting back the state hurts growth and economic efficiency in the short term. If you accept this view, it makes no sense to adapt the size of the state to the cyclical fluctuations of the economy. Rather, what is needed is a permanently smaller state to unleash the creative powers of society.

This argument has its merits but from an economic perspective there are some substantial problems associated with the Olympian perspective adopted by thinkers like Humboldt and Hayek. Mainly, they do not say how long the long run is. Other approaches to economic policy allow the public to verify concrete results after a few quarters or after a couple of years at the latest and decide whether to continue with a specific set of policies or not. But it is not clear when we can undertake a similar evaluation of the results of this kind of radical laissez faire. Every crisis no matter how long or deep may be interpreted as an unpleasant but necessary stretch on a superior evolutionary path. In practice, this means that economic results become irrelevant as a yardstick against which to judge economic policy. This is exactly what is happening in the case of austerity. There simply is no economic outcome that can convince proponents of austerity that they are on the wrong track. Their cause is not about economic efficiency but about a political goal: the preservation of liberty.

There are also social problems associated with the Olympian perspective of the likes of Humboldt and Hayek. Prussian aristocrats and tenured professors are in a position to look at economic crises, even if they lasts a decade or longer, as a mere transitory phase of hardship that is part of a superior evolutionary trajectory. More ordinary citizens may not be able to afford this kind of detached perspective on the economy. A longer crisis can ruin the life plans of individuals and lead to the collapse of social and political systems. That is why Keynes warned that the ‘long run is a misleading guide to current affairs’.

One may object that there is nothing wrong with giving priority to political values over the pursuit of economic maximisation and social welfare. Why should the defence of freedom not trump economic and social considerations? After all maximising growth and maximising human happiness can be two rather different things and most people would agree that the latter is more important. The preservation of liberty may very well warrant austerity policies that cut the state to size, even if they hurt economically.

While this is a valid argument it is questionable whether the trade-off between the size of the state and individual liberty really exists. The historical experience of Humboldt and Hayek certainly gave them reason to think of states as the enemies of individual freedom. In Humboldt’s time, towards the end of the 18th century, absolutist states such as his native Prussia and republican states such as France were extremely ambitious in expanding their sphere of action, often at the expense of individual liberty. The same is true of the authoritarian states in Europe that Hayek witnessed in the 1920s and 30s.

However, a more complete vision of history also reveals the shortcomings of the simple equation of a larger state with greater oppression. Hayek predicted in the 1940s that planned economies would set mankind on a road to serfdom. In actual fact, the vast expansion of states across the western world in the post war decades coincided with an equally substantial increase of liberty for many contemporaries. Women and black people acquired more freedom than ever before and despite evident lapses western countries did rather well at protecting the individual rights of their citizens.
I think this sounds quite convincing, and goes along with my increasing feeling over the last few years that it is the small government ideologues who are truly ignoring history.   

And finally, this article in The Economist, which I've possibly linked to before, seems to give a very fair and balanced take on the matter.